Welcome to Astral Realm, where Clash staff writer Shahzaib Hussain navigates the cosmos of the newest and most essential releases. Each month’s roundup features a Focus Artist Q&A, a Next Wave artist recommendation, a breakdown of his favourite songs and projects and a retrospective highlight revisited through the lens of dewy-eyed nostalgia.
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Focus Artist – Shungudzo
Shungudzo has arrived at a time when we desperately require a new manifesto. The Zimbabwean- American’s an activist, aid worker and journalist, her holistic worldview informs the music she makes, ensuring every song she releases carries its own personal memorandum on how to navigate an undemocratic world.
‘White Parents’, the third instalment from her forthcoming debut album ‘I’m not a mother but I have children’, is also the most incendiary and thrilling yet. With scorched lines like, “You want to use me, until you’re finished, but you would never take me home to your White Parents,” Shungudzo renounces being anyone’s ornamental flower. Speaking from her own experience, she satirizes the experience of identity and orientation being maligned and minimized by previous (white) lovers, a microcosm also society at large.
Never devolving into preachy campaigning, Shungudzo gets political by conveying the poetic and personal. Enthused by the global struggle for equity, Shungudzo put pen to paper and the result is her very own radical rebellion.
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‘White Parents’ is this confronting, ballsy response to being fetishised and dismissed as a partner, based on race, identity, cultural markers etc. Was it derived from your own personal experiences in romantic relationships?
Years ago, as an insecure girl who just wanted to be liked – with all of the systemic implications attached to why I felt unlikable – I was conditioned to respond politely to fetishization. I was conditioned to say “thank you” when strangers approached me by announcing their attraction to Black women; to oblige when someone asked to touch my hair or just went ahead and did so without asking; to think that there was something wrong with me when someone took advantage of my body. When someone I was in a serious relationship with told me that his family would never approve of me because of the colour of my skin, I blamed myself thinking that I could have somehow been more impressive in order to bypass their racism.
That’s what ‘White Parents’ is about – it’s a message of empowerment to all of my keepers, and also a message to all of the lovers, friends and co-workers of non-white people who use the excuse of regular contact to justify why they don’t need to do the internal and external work to shift their immediate and extended communities in the directions of true equality. It’s a plea for people to examine how they and their loved ones’ view and interact with people who are different from them.
‘White Parents’ is a caustic and insurgent listen backed by gauzy guitars and reverb. Was that intentional? That you wanted the words to be heightened by this punk edge?
When I write and produce songs for myself, I think less (or not at all) about genre, and more about what sounds will best serve a message. I like to think of my genre as socio-political, which gives me the freedom to be sonically diverse while a common thread – the message – holds everything together. Some messages feel best dressed in blooming flowers and others doused in fiery frustration. And then there are songs like ‘White Parents’ – and the majority of the songs of my upcoming album, that are both insurgent and delicate; strong and hurt; broken and healing.
Thus far in my life, this contrast has been the definition of the human experience, and an important theme for me to express in my songs. You can hear a spectrum of emotion in ‘White Parents’, which moves from frustrated to vulnerable to hopeful. It ends on a hopeful note because I believe that, at the end of the day, even frustration is hopeful. We’re only ever frustrated at situations when we know we deserve better. And isn’t knowing you deserve better a recognition of self-worth, which is inherently optimistic?
Breakdown the graphic visualizer where you’re doused in white paint. I really love the deadpan “Can I meet your parents now?” bit at the end btw…
Making the ‘White parents’ visualizer alongside one of my wonderful managers, Mark Nesbitt (who shot and edited it), was one of the most freeing artistic experiences of my life. I’d really love to explain all of the ways I interpret the video in context with my own life, but I also wouldn’t want what it means to me to taint what it could mean to someone else. When watching it, feel free to get as direct or abstract as you like!
Your debut album ‘I’m not a mother but I have children’ is out this June. That’s a loaded, counterintuitive title. What does it mean in the context of the record?
‘I’m not a mother, but I have children’ isn’t about my potential, future kids. Or maybe it is and I don’t know it yet because they’re currently only potential! I wrote the title and the title track of this album thinking about the duty I feel to make the world a better place for future generations of all living things. It’s all of our duties to look beyond the selfish things we want for ourselves right now towards the elevation and preservation of life; to accept that many of the fights we’re presently fighting won’t be won in our lifetimes, but to also rejoice in the roles we’ll have played in paving the road to a better future.
What can you tell us or tease in terms of the motifs you’re exploring on the album? Is it a polemical work?
‘I’m not a mother, but I have children’ is a sonic journey through pretty much every emotion I’ve felt surrounding race, society and trying to build a better one. I wanted to express hope. I wanted to express sadness. I wanted to metaphorically punch a few people in the face. And overall, I wanted to share an unparalleled optimism that we can build a better world for future generations together. I hope that being open about the range of emotions I’ve felt over the Black experience, the female experience and the human experience encourages other people to be more open about what they’re going through, and more open to individual and collective healing.
Last year we saw this movement for racial justice and equity spread worldwide. We saw grassroots organisers come to the fore and mobilise communities, but also performative activism in the form of quick, digestible soundbites bubble to the surface. As an artist and activist whose work dissects these global injustices, what was your view of what transpired in the aftermath?
My mum just texted this to me and it’s so relevant here: “Realising something and acting on a realisation are two different things.”
I’ve thought a lot about performative activism lately. My first thought is that anyone lending their voice to a good cause is doing, at the very least, a somewhat good thing. Even if only for appearances, that’s one more voice added to our collective scream for justice, equity and equality. My second thought is that people who share the post but don’t do the internal and external work, are holding both themselves and the world back from real, lasting change. Change will happen tomorrow if most of us talk while some of us do, but it’ll happen today if most of us do while some of us talk.
Your formative years were spent in Zimbabwe but you now live and are based in America. How has this dual, transatlantic identity informed your work?
Spending significant amounts of time in both Zimbabwe and America has helped me realise that injustice, inequality and inequity exist everywhere, and that – also – so do hope and love.
For those that don’t know, you’re a prolific songwriter and have written for the likes of Little Mix, Chiiild and Jessie Ware. How would you describe the transition writing for other artists to now honing your own vision?
Some of the amazing artists I have worked with, and their journeys, have helped teach me the values of persistence, risk-taking and only doing what my gut says I should do. They have taught me that feeling is just as* potent and reliable as logic. (*Some might even say more.)
I always ask artists about their intentions with their work and how they change over time. What’s your intention with this record? What do you want your listeners to feel experiencing it?
A pulsing desire to do something good for the world – but not before checking in on your own well- being. You have to be your best to give your best to any cause.
It changes all the time, but in this exact moment in time, my favourite song on the album is, ‘The world can’t change for you, but you can change the world.” It closes with the words, “If you can imagine it, then it can happen” repeating over and over again. It’s a message I hope a lot of kids – or adults who need it – hear.
What energy are you invoking throughout the rest of 2021?
Make love to yourself and others.
Fuck the system.
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Next Wave Recommendation – Kidä
Something wicked this way comes…
Italian-Egyptian artist Kidä is my first Next Wave recommendation. You can find the Delphic majesty of ‘Kneel To You’ nestled in our accompanying Next Wave playlist.
A graduate of the Red Bully Academy and friend of fellow chameleon Yves Tumor, Kidä invokes ancient deities in her music. Her crate-digging approach to music has been shaped in part by her project Portal To Jump Through, as a sound designer for heritage fashion brands like Prada and Dior. It’s in her own original creations, where true alchemy happens, however. Impressionistic but never derivative, she mines from Portishead-esque chamber-psych, psychedelia, the metallic futurism of RnB and pop, filtering it through a low-res, multitracked realness.
Her new EP ‘Burn To Make It Glow’ is a surrealist melodrama; a disorienting score dramatized to elevate the listener beyond the malaise of their lives. ‘Garden’ reconnoitres the effects of a breakup and the strife and healing that follows, elsewhere pleasure and pain, spectacle and private revelation guide Kidä to be unfettered from the ghosts of her past self.
In an unrepentant reality marred by disaster and doom, Kidä guides you to the empyrean skies of another realm. Go with her.
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Rochelle Jordan – ‘Play With The Changes’
It’s the album that I can’t turn off and *probably* my favourite of the year thus far – journalistic neutrality be damned! A nonchalant, confident cool permeates an album six years in the making and the long wait is well worth it. ‘Play With The Changes’ is a 12-track continuous mix traversing deep house, 2-step garage, breakbeat, all unified through Jordan’s shapeshifting vocals.
Jordan bridges the “Toronto Soul” she popularised at the turn of the 2010s with the lustre of hi-NRG sonics. Her loyal fanbase may decry the pivot from her earlier sound, but this isn’t a gimmicky, temporary stopover but one she’s signalled in her collaborations with Detroit glitch-effect master Jimmy Edgar and Machinedrum, who form two thirds of the production trio along with long-time collaborator KLSH.
Honestly, not much else needs to be said of an album that will soundtrack the rest of 2021. Bookmark me.
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Nia Archives – ‘Headz Gone West’
Nia Archives is a 20-year-old DIY producer, singer-songwriter, visual artist and DJ distilling vintage D&B breaks into breezy confection hits pulsing with a youthful, anxious verve. ‘Headz Gone West’, the British-Jamaican’s debut EP, is the musical equivalent of a glazed, 360° dusk-till-dawn jaunt through the streets of London: disorienting and frenetically-paced, Nia gives into the whirlwind of her wayfaring persona.
On ‘(Over)Thinking’ and ‘Crossroads’, she pronounces the murkiness of her twenties but on the banger ‘Don’t Kid Urself’, Nia’s indecision is replaced by a curt side-eye and a strut past her too- eager paramour. Intentionally unmastered, the gritty, granular quality of ‘Headz Gone West’ throws back to late 90s, early 00s pirate radio nights and warehouse raves. Get into these sun-dappled ditties from a girl in the city.
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Social State – ‘Sacrosanct’
‘I told myself at 15 that I had to make an album one day that truly represents my musical influences. It’s taken me a minute but this is it…’
Manifesting his debut album into corporeal existence, producer Social State steps out from the shadows of friend and close collaborator Mr Mitch. Now head of his own label, Ordinary Love, he unveils a record that walks a fine line between sampled and synthesised jungle and space-age electronics.
Featuring co-production credits from a close-knit team of producers, including J.D. Reid and Chunky, ‘Sacrosanct’ is a subterranean feat; unfurling layer by synthetic layer. Songs like ‘False Dawn’ and the tribal ‘Moonbeam’ are ominous and raw, carrying evocations of the 15-year-old kid who had a deep affinity for metal; ‘Aerial’ – one of the best electronic tracks of the year – is by contrast buoyant in its panoramic exploration of bass and breaks. ‘Sacrosanct’ is an intriguing introduction into the world of a new underground enigma.
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Topaz Jones – ‘Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma’
One of the most riveting releases this year belongs to New Jersey’s Topaz Jones. On his third album, Jones’ deep dives into the untold and undocumented American black experience. Recalling the sci-fi funk of ‘Aquemini’ by OutKast (‘Baba 70s’) and the third-eye introspection of ‘Innervisions’ by Stevie Wonder (‘Blue’), Jones delivers his most capacious body of work to date.
Words are sermons for Jones on ‘Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma’; every verse, every rhyme of his molasses-smooth delivery lands and lingers. The racial animus of our times is realised by Jones’ stream of consciousness growing up black, hungry and under siege. A cautionary tale but also a life- affirming extended monologue, by looking back on his familial history, Jones paves the way forward for the next generation of black children realising their voices.
The Sundance-venerated visual film combines personal, archived footage from Jones’ youth, interviews with academics and hyperreal cinematic beats to glorious effect. ‘Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma’ is where intention meets execution, and still only 27, Topaz Jones joins the upper echelons of the alternative Rap Game.
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Songs Exum – ‘Bad Chick Bad Dude’
EXUM aka Antone Chavez Exum Jr has a fascinating backstory; a former NFL player, EXUM fashioned songs as a side hobby until it became his sole tenure and motivator. A self-confessed eccentric, Exum rips open the rule book, disavows labels and plays around with anomalous archetypes on ‘Bad Chick Bad Dude’. His lyric is deliberately illegible, conjuring the pent-up aggression, nihilistic strain and impulsive detours of Tyler the Creator and JPEGMAFIA.
Karen Nyame KG ft. Mista Silva – ‘Koko’
Is this the carnival anthem of the year? If all goes to plan and our prayers are answered we’ll be hearing ‘Koko’ blasting through the speakers in basements, rooftop bars and clubs alike. Karen – Nyame KG ushers in the sweltering heat of summer solstice with this carnal amapiano-highlife amalgam, enlisting fellow British-Ghanaian musician Mista Silva to complete her steamy lover’s parade.
KG has fought through a hardwired industry that still treats Black female DJs and producers as minor league players, evidence of her survivor’s mentality. Back stronger than ever, a musical stalwart she will remain.
Dizzy Fae – Body Move
Minneapolis’s Dizzy Fae is the camp gaiety we need in music. The queer multidisciplinary artist is a classically trained dancer and her appreciation of musicality, rhythm and tempo seeps into her crank creations. Fae matches the elastic raunch of her last single ‘360 Baby’ with the follow-up ‘Body Move’, a vivid fever dream realised in the bonkers, candy-coated visual. Fae knows when to amp up the frictional tension in her dancefloor fillers and her vocal darts from murmurs, to coos, to corny exhortations and it’s this capriciousness that keeps us coming back.
John FM – February
The Detroit-based singer and producer brings his “Hi-Tech Soul” into sharp focus on the first single from his EP, ‘American Spirit’. Opening with the pitter patter of rain and what sounds like a rhythmic incantation from a local elder commanding that “we burn the wicked with the real hot, hot fire,” ‘February’ crackles with woozy intensity. Collaborating with his mentor, Detroit DJ and producer Black Noi$e, keeping the song a homegrown affair, the track serves as both an honorific love letter to the ancestral seat of techno and a ruptured break-up song for a new age.
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Aaliyah – We Need A Resolution
2001. The zenith of TRL and BET’s 106 & Park, the fan service shows that launched the careers of our glossy pop, rap and rock obsessions. R&B’s cachet as the most inventive mainstream genre was solidified in the wake of the new millennia: The Neptunes, Babyface, Darkchild and Timbaland (to name a few) dabbled in aqueous, computer-driven production for artists in their prime, like Usher, Destiny’s Child and Brandy.
It was during this time Aaliyah cut her teeth as an editor mapping out her artistry, redefining template beats and making them her own, no more evident than on ‘We Need A Resolution’, which dropped twenty years ago. The lead single from Aaliyah’s eponymous album inaugurated a new era for the star, completing her metamorphosis from tinted ingénue to an adult contemporary vixen. Produced by Timbo and the late Static Major, the reworked Middle-Eastern sample, the clarinet trills, the twitchy, shuffling production were all background effects to Aaliyah’s sinuous vocal performance, which unlike her contemporaries, favoured restraint and stillness.
The song and the Paul Hunter-directed video pre-empted the ‘Aaliyah effect’, where muted vulnerability, atmosphere and seductive melancholy gradually influenced a wave of artists that came after her. Less, it seemed, was more. ‘We Need A Resolution’ remains an underrated gem in the pantheon of progressive R&B, it also remains one of the final jewels we have of our lost Queen. Something to savour.
Now, can we get it on Spotify please?
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Words: Shahzaib Hussain
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