"Entertainment with a Thesis"
Musical Essays: DJ Mixes
Bjork Rare Gems and Future Classics, a mix by DJ Lynnee Denise (Part I of the Berlin Sessions).
This mix is for Black women who love Björk Guðmundsdóttir. For some of us Björk is one of the guiding forces in the most secret parts of our emotional lives. And there is something to be said about the fact that my deepest, most intimate romantic relationships have been with Black women who speak Björk. She is one of the most brilliant artists of our time, with relevance far beyond the boringly sensational Academy Award swan dress debacle, which on the low, I believe was a challenge to American popular cultural values. Like on some fashion resistance shit. “I thought I could organize freedom, how Scandinavian of me?”
During my New York years, I had the opportunity to witness Björk live at the Apollo with three other Black women. Björk at The Apollo? What a combination and what an honorable way to honor the Black folks that get down with her like that. Aside from the sheer weight of the decision to perform in Harlem, we, like thousands of her students, made sure to have loot in hand ready to buy tickets the moment they went on sale. We managed to get tickets, but please understand, in less than five minutes the show was sold out. And to be honest, it wasn’t Harlem or Brooklyn who showed up to see her, which I understand; Björk is ‘strange fiction.’ It was the usual crew at the Apollo concert; former club kids, angsty white women and entitled hipsters. And of course some of us were in the house. My crew and I represented for all the Black women inspired by her audaciousness, by her work ethic, and by her willingness to make whatever screw face necessary to offer ‘love scholarship’ through song. We cheered from the balcony squinting to experience what looked like an Icelandic ball of glitter performing unapologetically to self-composed electro folk music. I will never forget her relationship with the microphone, dancing around it, stepping away from it, looking into it and making it sing her songs. She’s a beast of a live performer.
After the concert I kept thinking about how to build on the energy felt from the experience. So I reached out to Greg Tate, one of the only Black men in my life who loves Bjork as much as I do, to discuss the possibility of the Black Rock Coalition’s involvement in a tribute to Björk, at the Apollo Theater no less. The vision was to have my favorite artists, including Tamar Kali, Joi and Taylor McFerrin, to not so much perform, but interpret her music. I believe that only an original interpretation is possible. A night of Björk covers would never do. Later I decided to hold off on the tribute in fear of not having the resources to do the event justice. One cannot half step when the name Björk is attached to a project and slowly but surely my budget fronted on my vision.
While a major tribute event was not possible, I kept thinking of ways to express the impact this creature of an artist has had on my artistic and personal development. I’ve turned to Björk’s music so many times for heart education and the inevitable ‘feeling of feelings’ that happen when you find yourself brave enough to face the dark beauty of a song like ‘Unravel’ from the Homogenic album. For years I’ve waited for whatever it is I am supposed to do with this special place that I hold for her work in my heart. It turned out to be this mix, which was partially inspired by the release of her latest and ninth studio album, Vulnicura. My Black girl Bjork tribe was surprised, maybe even betrayed to learn that I don’t love it. It’s brilliant by default, but part of why I love her so much is because she speaks to lovers wherever they are on their journey, excavating lessons buried deep in the nuanced exchanges between intimate partners in any given space and time. A breakup album felt too obvious for me.
Before listening to Vulnicura I had to ask myself if I even had the emotional capacity to hold Björk’s heartbreak this winter? Björk’s triple Scorpio heartbreak? Triple Scorpio? What the hell does it mean to be in partnership with a Björk? She’s always been so perfectly naked or ‘Violently Happy?’ But I listened, hoping that I hadn’t become one of those fans who run away when artists are inspired to drive their work in a different direction? I mean I get it. Sometimes you need something epic, a release, to get the hurt out. Marvin did it brilliantly with “Here My Dear,” Nas even did it with his Post Kelis “Life Is Good” album, and I’m sure there are hundreds of other artists who produced entire projects around mourning, or celebrating the ending of a relationship. And there are jewels all up in and through “Vulnicura,” don’t get it twisted, I know who she is. But did I miss her impersonal cryptic lyrical finesse?” Yes. And do I understand how honest, brave, vulnerable and musically sound it is? Absolutely. So far there is only one song that I can return to, “Atom Dance” and it too is represented on this mix.
I’ll be revisiting ‘Vulnicura’ at a later time, certainly a different season. Maybe my European winter was not the right time? But I trust her and my resistance could have everything to do with where I was when it was released, so leave space for me to retract my underwhelm please? I do, however, credit Vulnicura for sending me back to her catalog with the intention to create a Björk syllabus of sorts. I listened to all of her albums and carefully selected songs that have gotten me through and past IT, that have taken me over and under IT. And because she is such an incredible writer, thinker, feeler, this mix will function like a literature review of her discography, yes, music as text. Get into it.
Sending special love to Porter Ferbee, a bonafied scholar who can school you on the time and place of almost every song created under the hand of Björk and to Zetoille, for introducing my 1998 self to Bjork on one late night in San Francisco. And to Dream Hampton who while listening to ‘Vespertine’ is quick to point out the genius of her lyricism, calling attention to the lines that turn your ass in circles. I hope this special compilation honors us all.
Drum and Bass is Black Music…
On the 30th anniversary of the 1981 Brixton riots, a historic reaction to the hostility and xenophobic environment that informed the policing of African and Caribbean immigrants, I examined the ruthless desire to keep Britain White. I pulled from Sam Selvon’s 1956 novel “The Lonely Londoners,” which tells the story of the Caribbean community’s communal response to the English brand of white supremacy and their cultural preservation as a means for survival. Additionally, I sought the political, social, and musicological context of a sound that takes root in Sly and Robbie’s Reggae Music—Drum and Bass. Inspired by these histories, I’ve created a musical essay that epitomizes my long-term relationship with Black Britain and the parallel strategies of resistance that Black Americans have employed to attain basic human rights. Shout out to drum and bass pioneers Roni Size, Goldie, LTJ Bukem, Kemistry and Storm, Krust, and all the other sons and daughters of “The Lonely Londoners.”
I never intended to release this mix. I considered it to be unfinished, in need of a polishing. Today, I heard it and it allowed me the space to breathe, to remember, to let go, so in that sense, it is perfect and I’m offering it AS IS. AS US. For Trayvon.
Two years ago when Gil Scot Heron died I compiled and mixed music that spoke to the depth of joy and despair that filled his life, and ours as we witnessed his decline. Halfway through the mix I was confronted by the truth of Gil’s life—it represented the collective experience of the people who brave “Winter in America.” For centuries we’ve layered our bodies to survive, to endure this cold. And through activism, scholarship, art, meditation, movement, faith, we stand, sometimes shattered, but always fierce in our ability to release the pain through Gospel, Bluesy Soul, Slum Beautiful Funk. And to Marvin Gaye, Phyllis Hyman, Brenda Fassie, Whitney Houston, Don Cornelius, Vesta, Michael Jackson, Tammi Terrell, Billie Holiday, Donnie Hathaway and all the others who died on the front lines of black music, I call on you and the legacy of your voices and your fingertips, to offer us a way to move through it, beyond addiction, beyond depression. Thank you for speaking truth to power, and for providing the rhythm to accompany the resistance, the healing. This mix allows Shirley Ceasar, The Clark Sisters, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, Tramaine Hawkins, Esther Phillips, Gil Scott Heron, Nina Simone and even Richard Pryor to help us better understand what it means to channel the anguish through art.
Funk, Faith and Praise speaks to the historic tension between the secular and the spiritual realm in Black music, and the wear and tear on black bodies in a space that institutionalizes our dehumanization. And while sometimes our reactions are self-destructive, usually in an attempt to numb the pain, we stay singing and clapping, witnessing the lifeless bodies dance into the new world. Transcendence.
I watched your face Sybrina Fulton. Black mama. Fierce. Angry and Graceful. I thank you for your demonstration of dignity. And for you Tracy Martin, Black Father, I felt the knowing in your weeping eyes. Because of your family and this experience my belief is that we will love each other through this, more fiercely than ever, more clearly.