Kamasi Washington and The Politics of Culture in Trump’s America

Check out Kamasi’s new tracks in the playlist above, which captures his best alongside the artists and songs that influenced his career. We’ll keep it updated as new joints drop. Subscribe to the playlist here.

In 2018, it’s difficult to figure out how we want pop culture — and music in particular — to deal with our larger, societal malaise. Really, it’s hard to get a handle on what’s going on with society at the moment. From data harvesting and the upward mobility of neo-Fascism, to environmental collapse, the #metoo movement and transhumanism, a larger narrative seems elusive. But one thing does seem clear: things are changing, and they’re changing very quickly. It could go one way or another, but, regardless, we will be radically different once we get out the other side.

In this atmosphere of deep uncertainty, it feels silly to expect musicians (of all people) to have answers, and, as with previous generations, the art that best captures these times has been ambiguous and slippery. Think of Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. We all know the nature of our condition — we’re living under a President that lies, steals, conjules, bullies and demeans every single fucking day — and Lamar acknowledges that, but offers up few solution. Instead, the album feels powerful because it relays something more primal and honest: anger, confusion, distrust, and uncertainty.

The two new tracks from modern jazz great Kamasi Washington engage with this dark, blurry zeitgeist. Appropriately, it’s difficult to think of any modern musician who contains as many multitudes as Kamasi Washington. He’s collaborated extensively with Kendrick Lamar, releases music through Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder imprint, and plays in front of tens of thousands at Coachella, but his music doesn’t owe that much to hip-hop, electronic or modern pop traditions. Instead, it mines a broad spectrum of classic jazz, from the big band compositions of Charles Mingus to the free jazz spiritual quests of mid-’60s Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders and on to the smoother, R&B-inflected of Roy Ayers.

Washington recently released two tracks in support of his upcoming album, Heaven and Earth, and, of the two new tracks, “Fists of Fury” is the most immediate and the most explicitly political. It’s ostensibly a cover of the theme song from the classic Bruce Lee movie, but it’s a fairly dramatic departure (the lyrics have changed, for one thing). It’s a beautiful, startling track — spacious and intricately composed, full of nuanced movements that swerve in and out of its in its nearly 10-minute runtime. Tinkling piano solos flow out of rumbling bongos, while the track’s string arrangement give a stately color to Washington’s warm tenor saxophone tones. Patrice Quinn and Dwight Trible provide aggrieved and aggravated vocals that telegraph the songs’s #woke themes of racial retribution and justice, “Our time as victims is over/ We will no longer ask for justice/ Instead we will take our retribution.”

It’s great, but it feels like an outlier in Washington’s catalog. It’s not only a cover, but it’s Washington’s first  explicitly political track, which is something that Washington has shied away from in the past. “Someone like Donald Trump can’t control the way I show love to my brother,” Washington recently told Rolling Stone. “He can’t control the way I feel about my neighbors. I’m trying to make the music bigger than the politics. If you get caught up in the day-to-day, you’ll get lost in that.”

Of course, this doesn’t mean that Washington’s previous music hasn’t been engaged with the larger socio-political conversation; they have, just not in obvious ways. His 2017 EP Harmony of Difference — and, in particular, its centerpiece, “Truth” — was a slow, simmering burn, full of melancholic phrasing and delicate passages that gripped at the hems of the sublime. It was the perfect salve — a perfect refuge — to the reigning socio-culture shitshow.

Washington’s other new track, “The Space Travelers Lullaby,” lives in a similar space. It’s wiry and ethereal, building off a wistful string arrangement and a spritely piano figure. It feels like a Sunday morning jog through the cosmos, or a brief sojourn to a beatific foreign world. It’s easy to put it in the lineage of afrofutustist forefather Sun Ra, but, with its cooing vocals and tickling cymbals, the song is more stately, measured, and baroque. It’s a soundtrack of itself, a cosmic journey through an endlessly dense, placid innerspace.

In this ways, “The Space Travelers Lullaby” feels more appropriate for these times than the more explicitly political “Fists of Fury.”  Maybe it’s because of the track’s sonic maximalism, but, “First of Fury” feels disjointed from our pop culture timeline, despite all the BLM sloganeering. It could easily exist in 1972, 2005, or 2018. “The Space Travelers Lullaby” feels both sad and celebratory in a way that is very 2018. It draws its light from the dense darkness outside, and it feels as if it’s offering an answer of sorts, or at least a pretty good suggestion, about how to proceed in a world where we, as individuals, have no control.