The mark a great lyricist leaves is deep. In the years since 2012’s The Sounds of Low Class Amerika I’ve often wondered “What is I Self Devine doing right now?” The depth of his thinking always chopped up into these thesis statements locking arms, I just knew he was doing something important. When his new album Rituals of Resilience hit on March 18th it was the rainbow that ate the sky. The rainbow that taught us what colors can really do. Being able to ask I Self Devine five questions is something I am very proud to have been able to do:
- It’s been a while since your last solo album. How long have you been working on Rituals of Resilience? How did the live music sound of it come about?
Since my last solo album I’ve created I Self Devine and Muja Messiah: The 9th House, and co curated the compilation Dismembered and Unarmed which accompanies the book ‘My Grandmothers Hands” By Resmaa Menakem which focuses specifically on how Black bodies and the bodies of others are affected by the generational pressures, conditions, and outcomes of white body supremacy which defines “white” as the standard of how all other humans are judged, measured, and quantified. Rituals of Resilience came about as a result of being presented the opportunity to cocurate an exhibit of art spanning the African Diaspora at the Minneapolis Institute Art. From start to finish I’d say 2 to three months. That includes research on the artists in the exhibit mining for album themes, selecting and co-creating beats, writing lyrics, bringing in vocalists, and musicians, mixing, and mastering. It was an impossible task that was able to be accomplished in a way that maintained sonic integrity based on relationships and history. I’ve known and worked with Medium Zach and Orko Eloheim individually for 20 years.
2. You have been warning about the dangers of racism, corruption, broken economic systems for over sixteen years. Now that those topics are front and center for discussion, turning your attention to the magnificence of the people overcoming feels like you being ahead of the world yet again. How do these vividly rendered stories of resilience help ground you in the struggle?
They’re lived experiences so its firsthand. I was raised in an environment where I was encouraged and supported to critically think while being made aware of the how and why of what was happening around me which I am thankful for. The personal, connective, and collective experience from an institutional and systematic perspective. Essentially the ground level and balcony view of things. I have the unique ability to have sight and cite. Mental, spiritual, perception, view, glimpse, and observation. As well as study in support of theory, which allows me to viscerally experience as well as analyze and assess the experience in and out of context from a historical, spiritual, spatial, political, and policy perspective. Talk about it, be about it type thing. With my earlier recording of the album “Obelisk Movements” with the group “The Micranots”, it was the 50,000 foot view of the broad social movement. Philosophical and conceptual. Viewing earth from space. With “Self-Destruction, “The Sounds Of Low Class Amerika”, “Dismembered and Unarmed”, and now “Rituals Of Resilience” it has been about capturing the stories, emotions, and experiences of the individuals that make up the many movements of resistance locally and globally.
3. Through your work with the community in Minneapolis (Hope Community Center) you’ve been able to actualize your desire to restore your environment. It is something people are searching for these days. People who are just grasping the depth of the problems and how they persist, do not always know how to make a direct difference. Any suggestions?
You have to have a calling for it. Something within your personal or generational narrative has to draw you into it. For example, I’m not drawn to the work of community organizing and social change because it’s the right thing to do. I am compelled, driven, and haunted by my lived experience, the historical and generational inequities that have affected me and my family and can’t sit on the sidelines watching and waiting for things to change. My purpose sustains me when what were fighting for seems impossible.
4. Did you Orko Eloheim and Medium Zach have a method for arranging these songs? Everything is so clean and giant sized. Can you think of a specific song that defined the character of the albums sound?
I would say “Cries”. The sequential formula. I explained the concept of the album to both Medium and Orko individually providing as much materials and details as possible. I followed up with Orko scouring his catalogue for sounds, tonalities reflective and broad as the people in the exhibit covering all forms of African music including Jazz, Dub step, Rock and Roll, Funk, Hip-Hop, Reggae, and Afro-beat. If what he has in his existing catalogue covers the spectrum of needs we keep it moving. If not we collectively create what’s sonically missing such as “ Let ‘Em Know”. Once the music was created I play around with the sequence of songs until I settled with where I’m trying to take people sonically and thematically first, vocally, and conceptually second. Next I sat with Zach listening to the songs figuring out where musicians, vocalist, beat drops and progressions should go. After we recorded all of the vocals and most of the singing we sent the songs to Orko for post-production to add extra flair, commentary, film snippets, and additional sounds. Then it was sent back to Medium Zach for him to sing play and orchestrate the vocalist and musicians, mix and master. All of this was happening simultaneously as well as like an assembly line with maximum input and communication. We all had collective say and are equally responsible for the sound established each of us playing our integral positions.
5. On Let ‘Em Know you say “Stereotypes we laugh, they exaggerated. Then send back to you, examine your hatred. Which is really terror, deep inside the mind, if we took a deeper look what we gon’ find?!” It is such a crucial point that hatred is terror we are not always aware of. How do you find and free your mind of that terror? How does someone adjacent to it help?
That line was inspired by many things. Robert Colescott, one of the many artists featured in the “Rituals of Resilience” exhibit whose work delt with appropriating stereotypes of black culture to absurd levels. James Baldwin who stated, “White people invented the nigger. And if it’s true your invention reveals you. Then who is the nigger?” Toni Morrison who poses the questions “What are you without white supremacy?, Are you any good?, Are you still strong? Are you still worthy?” Are you still smart? “Do you still love yourself?” And the nature of the hatred between Black and White which differentiates the two vantage points. The root of Black people’s hatred is rage. They don’t so much hate White people as simply want them out their way. The root of the White people’s hatred is terror. A bottomless enigmatic terror focusing on this dread figure, an entity that only lives in their minds. One of the reasons people cling to their hate and terror so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.
It takes a lot of time energy and courage to develop this analysis and framework. Some are not willing to delve this deep. For me this is the only way I can begin to free my mind within my weaponized body. It’s a personal, connective, and collective journey. Based on the nature of the work you can only offer help if invited and you can identify the levels of personal, interpersonal, institutional, and systematic.