By Bliss Bowen
“They argue that we should look at the stats
To better understand our circumstances
But statistics are records
And you can’t really listen to records that are cracked
Because the music skips”
— Adrian Younge, “Jim Crow’s Dance”
Jazz is Dead and Linear Labs co-founder Adrian Younge releases his album, “The American Negro,” on Feb. 26 on JID. It’s the heart of an ambitious multimedia project that also includes the short film “T.A.N.” and a podcast, “Invisible Blackness.”
For the latter, Younge is joined by Digable Planets’ Ladybug Mecca and Public Enemy’s Chuck D for meaty conversations about the ideas behind their music, Black history, hip-hop culture and institutionalized racism.
“The American Negro” feels like the landmark Younge’s been building toward throughout his varied career. The Fontana-raised, self-taught musician and producer plays most of the instruments — clarinet, drums, flute, keyboards, saxophone — and wrote the charts for orchestrated tracks such as the lush “A Symphony for Sahara.”
More essentially, he speaks to this moment in humankind’s evolution, and to the whitewashed record handed down to us. Black history, so often segregated from Euro-centric narratives of this country, is integral in every aspect of its founding and development and confronts the American myth like a truth-telling mirror. It’s no accident that the former professor (Younge briefly taught entertainment law at his alma mater, American College of Law) opens with the ironic “Revisionist History:” “If my Blackness is a costume, fabricated by stereotypes/ What symbolizes my true identity?”
History is a fluid weave of conversations, relationships and stories across generations, but its “names, dates and places” stereotype turns off many of the same people who become entranced when it’s told in the form of a novel, or a film, or a painting or song. So Younge acknowledges storytelling traditions connecting African griots to contemporary rappers and troubadours as more efficient vehicles for illuminating the human dimensions of long-range historic patterns.
The spoken “Revisionist History” tumbles into the cinematic title track, with its undercurrents of funk and Marvin Gaye-esque harmonies, and is shortly followed by the Gil Scott-Heron-evoking “Revolutionize.” Message-heavy spoken tracks such as “Intransigence of the Blind” (“We are descendants of the motherland/ As every human shares the same African mother”) and the Manifest Destiny-slamming “Race is a Fallacy” are similarly cushioned between more emotional jazz, R&B and soul compositions.
For those tracks, Younge shifts lyrical perspectives to encompass a full worldview. “Light on the Horizon,” a yearning ballad that could speak for many a civil rights activist, searches falsetto skies for hope (“All I can do is try”). The soul plea “James Mincey Jr.” and mostly instrumental “George Stinney Jr.” honor Black victims of institutionalized racism.
Mincey was killed by an LAPD chokehold in 1983; the diminutive Stinney, accused of murdering two white girls in South Carolina in 1944, at 14 became the youngest person to be executed in the electric chair. His conviction was vacated in 2014.
Paradoxically upbeat R&B track “Margaret Garner” is sung in the voice of a Kentucky house slave known as Peggy (“My black baby/ Love yourself for me/ … Will you forgive me/ Let me set you free”). Captured in Ohio, where she had escaped with her family, Garner killed her 2-year-old daughter rather than see her enslaved; her infamous case inspired Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1987 novel “Beloved.” It is the literal centerpiece of “The American Negro,” and emblemizes its mission to speak unsparing truth.