Trending Globally: Living Colour— Can Art Save Us?

[MUSIC PLAYING] Today’s episode is an interview
with the musicians Will Calhoun, Vernon Reid,
and Melvin Gibbs. Calhoun and Reid were both part
of the ’80s rock group Living Colour, a predominantly
African-American band known for their music with
strong political messages. Gibbs is a renowned
bassist, composer, and producer, who has appeared
on more than 200 albums. Together, the three of them
performed as the Zig Zag Power Trio in Providence
this past March. Trending Globally sent
producers to interview fans at the concert, and it was
clear that these musicians have a passionate following. Y’all are patient. I appreciate that. One, two, three. [MUSIC PLAYING] I’m a big fan of
Living Color, and I think Vernon Reid’s incredible,
and this is a really cool night to see him playing with a trio. I know I love Living Colour,
and so that’s why I’m here. Well, I just love
the eclectic sounds. There’s the funk, and
the pop, and the rock, and I think it’s pretty cool. They’re intellectuals. They’re extremely
thoughtful about what they’re doing in their music
and in life more generally. I heard that they’re
kind of living legends, so I have high expectations. So it’s a pleasure to
have all three of you here with us for
the podcast, and I wanted to talk with you about
the role of creative artists, musicians, during
politically polarized times, like the times that we are
currently living through in our country today. So to me, the last
real communicator is art, where poetry, and music,
and paintings, and books– where we can really be honest
and have an honest– even if we don’t agree on Basquiat’s
work or “The Rite of Spring,” you know or Miles Davis’s
electric band, or Wu-Tang. Whatever it is, maybe we don’t
agree on what’s happening, but it’s happening,
and that’s, to me, when you ask that question. It’s important that it comes up. It’s never going to
be really comfortable. It’s not going to be
enjoyment for everyone, but the process kind
of has to be real, and I think art is the last
real frontier for communication. I think there are a lot of
artists that are feeling things that are not expressing them. They’re not applying their
creativity to the things that they’re feeling. I don’t believe that
creative people don’t– people are not engaging
the way people have engaged in the recent past. I mean, certainly
people in hip hop are– Kendrick Lamar
springs immediately to mind as someone
that is taking on, in a real way, current
polarized circumstances, but I’m reminded of
four dead in Ohio. When the Kent State
shootings happened, they happened on a Thursday,
and by that Monday, the song four dead in
Ohio was on the radio. [MUSIC – CROSBY, STILLS,
NASH & YOUNG, “OHIO”] I hear the drumming,
four dead in Ohio. Got to get down to it. Soldiers are gunning us down. And that kind of dynamism is
something, especially now when you consider that
we have SoundCloud and all these other ways of
getting music out there– it’s a shame that this terrible
thing that went down in Florida has not been responded
to musically directly. We have a lot of talented people
in all these various genres, and I think that we have
a cultural confrontation in social media, and
shaming, and negativity that people are really avoiding
because the reaction will be swift and brutal. But we have to have courage. This is a time for courage. So how do they deal
with this thing that they actually
have to grapple with, as a teenager, when, for
the past year and a half, all the songs have been about
molly, Percocet, and xan, and now you can’t
even go to school? I mean, I don’t know. They’re going to have
to grapple with it. I mean, so it’s going
to be interesting to see what happens, because it
can’t get swept under the rug. I mean, at the moment,
I agree with Vernon. It’s kind of mind-boggling
[INAUDIBLE] anybody from down there make any
statement one way or the other. They’re just kind of going
on the way they’re going on, but it’s impossible now. I mean, you have this thing
that happened that it’s almost transcended this idea
of the meme culture, because the kids who were
actually involved in it are never going to forget it. It’s the kids who
have been picked up in the media, some of them,
their testimony as witnesses. But back to, well, to
Kendrick Lamar and “Ohio,” Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young– are there any other
exemplars that one can think of the kind of
constructive, timely role for creative artists that the
three of you or individually think of as positive examples,
and also negative examples? Well, I’ll jump on the South
African tip, because I remember when the Sun City
record came out, and I remember how
a bunch of artists got together and put
together this track with “Sun City,” and many Americans,
and many musicians included, and many people of color
were not aware, really, of what was going
APARTHEID, “SUN CITY”] (RAPPING) We’re rockers and
rappers, united and strong. We’re here to talk South Africa. We don’t like what’s going on. What the state of
emergency was– that cars were pulling up in
front of junior high schools and just shooting kids
just for the sport of it. And there was this
thing about Sun City was this resort where Africans
worked, but weren’t allowed to vacate. And there were artists, like
Tina Turner and [INAUDIBLE],, who did go there and play. And a lot of American
artists said, if we’re going to help stop
this apartheid scenario, we’re going to help put
this thing into the eyes of the people, you need to be
educated about what’s really going on in South Africa. So that’s a track in a moment– and Miles was on the
track, and Springsteen is, a bunch of people who
did this “Sun City” track– and rappers. So I liked the fact that
it wasn’t just a blues record or a jazz record. There were people from
different musical communities that got together to
play on this track. The track wasn’t as important
as the movement, in my opinion. The track was very
necessary, but I know for a fact a lot of
musicians who were not aware of Sun City were not aware of
still black and white water fountains and not being able
to be places during the time when this track came out. It brought another
kind of awareness to the apartheid scenario to
people outside the country. Vernon, you and Will, as part
of the band Living Colour– you have a fairly recent
song, “Who Shot Ya?” Well, “Who Shot Ya?”– it’s interesting, because
it started out really as being as we’re
fans of Biggie Smalls, and the thing about
covering “Who Shot Ya?” is that we made
this record, Shade, which was a certain take on
how blues informs hard rock and metal, and we
wanted to examine that. And “Who Shot Ya?” is
not a blues song per se. It’s a hip hop song,
but “Who Shot Ya?”– the ballad of
Christopher Wallace, what happened to Tupac and
Biggie is a blues narrative. It’s a blues story, and
that’s part of the reason why we took it on. [MUSIC – LIVING
COLOUR, “WHO SHOT YA?”] (RAPPING/SINGING) Who shot ya? Separate the weak
from the obsolete. Hard to creep them
Brooklyn streets. It’s on, nigga. We went and did a video
directed by David Taylor. One of the things
we did was that we started to graphically
illustrate statistics, and started to just
name a bunch of– no country has had more
deaths by gun violence– I mean, including suicides
and accidental discharges, no country in the world
has had more celebrities or well-known musicians
killed by gunfire. I mean, I’m going from Dimebag
Darrell to Eddie Jefferson. And we decided to
illustrate that– what the actual human cost is
of ultimately the question– Christopher Wallace
asked that question, and then became
a victim himself. What’s your take on music
and the arts as a way to bridge across generations? That’s something I
personally have always thought was important
and something that I continue to do. Another band– I’m involved with
a band called Harriet Tubman, and we just did a project for–
we went to a jazz festival where we did an expanded
group with a group called the James Brandon Lewis
Trio, which is a bunch of guys in their 20s and early 30s. And we brought in a whole
set of younger musicians. I think that’s very important. I think the issue
is interesting, because I’m still kind
of halfway working through my next record, which is
going to have a lot of hip hop on it. I rap on it. And the thing becomes you have
to speak from your own life experience when you
make music, and I’m listening to these music
that’s out this year, and I don’t do molly. I don’t do Percocet. I’ve already made all
of those mistakes. So it becomes a question
of, what do you do? And it was very
interesting, because I where I landed with the record– when 4:44 came out, that’s
kind of really resonated with me, because it’s a question
of reaching out and giving– all you can do is kind
of just put information out there for somebody
younger, and they’ll take it or they won’t take it. But your question is, is the
information useful to them? And Jay-Z really framed his
life in a way that I thought was really interesting. One of the things
me and my brother would talk about a lot is
this whole idea of the kids are the problem. No, the kids aren’t. In my opinion, the kids
are not the problem at all. The adults are the problem. The kids know what they need. The adults are trying to tell
them that they don’t need it, or they’re not qualified
to speak on the subject. They’re more qualified. They were in the room. They’re 100% qualified
to speak on the subject. But it becomes a question of– and it goes back to the
original conversation– I mean, how are they
using their voice? So I think part of it for
us is to really kind of help them to use their voice. I think that one of the
things that Frank Ocean did on his record Orange– he has
a song on that record called “Super Rich Kids,” and it’s
a brilliant, brilliant song. [MUSIC – FRANK OCEAN, “SUPER
RICH KIDS”] (RAPPING) So many white
lies and white lines. Super rich kids with
nothing but loose ends. Super rich kids with
nothing but fake friends. Start my day up on the roof. Because he talks about a
certain kind of upper class black privilege. That’s a conversation
that nobody’s having. He’s talking about kids that
are the children of doctors and lawyers that are super
rich kids with nothing but lose ends, super rich kids
with nothing but fake friends. And one of the things that
I love about this song is that he says maids
come around too much. Parents ain’t around enough. And just the acknowledgment
for a young artist to acknowledge the importance
of parents is kind of– Huge. It’s huge. I mean, it’s so unexpected,
and it was so remarkable at the time. And he’s an artist that– along with talking about the
Kendrick Lamars and things, he’s an artist
that really has a– he’s carving his own path
in a very interesting way. And I remember hearing that. It’s weird because we never
expect for certain things to be acknowledged
or talked about, but they are very important. I wanted to take things in a
slightly different direction and talk about money– in particular,
funding for the arts, public funding for the arts. This is a time where there’s
a lot of political discussion about cutbacks to
things like the National Endowment for the Humanities,
the National Endowment for the Arts. Now, that’s at the
national level. If we scale it down
to the local level, there’s a trend,
which I’m not sure– well, a trend of
the disappearance of venues for live
music, especially in second and third tier cities. We certainly see it
here in Providence. Lots of hotels are
being built, but no one is going to have any place
to go to hear live music. It’s a lot cheaper
to just pay a DJ. So when you put all of
those things together, it seems to an outsider
to be a difficult time to be a musician economically. I wonder what your thoughts
are on the political economy, if you will, of
the creative arts. Well, the political
economy has changed. Most definitely we have
these incidences that have changed how technology
has made our industry– has cheapened our income. It’s made it difficult
for us to survive. I’m listening to that
question, and there’s two sides of it to me. I don’t think anything is going
to be created by us not looking at the reality of what
we’re trying to say and do. Our game has
changed quite a bit, and I think, if we’re
going to continue to be artists and
support each other, and continue to have people
like the music that we’re doing, or the art, or the painting,
and so on, the game is changing on us. So we have to maybe
have our own venues, or go back to playing
your gig in church, or in somebody’s basement,
or what have you. My daughter used to be in
this African ballet school by a woman who won first– excuse me, African
gymnastics school– the African-American who
won the first gold medal for gymnastics. And when I went to her recital,
I was sitting next to what I– [? Henry Hillard ?] is her name. And when I went to
her first recital, I happened to be sitting
next to her mother, the mother of the woman
who has this program. And I said, how did you
guys get the money together to put your daughter
into gymnastics? You lived in the Midwest. And she was just– she said,
we didn’t have the money. We just went through
the neighborhood, and the church gave us some. The guy who owned the
paint store gave us some, and everybody
in that community wanted to see her
go to the Olympics. The game is changing for us. Everyone who’s going to want to
see jazz or see Zig Zag Trio– whatever the case may be– are going to have to
realize that there are new stakes involved. It may not be available at
a venue or a club anymore. So either we sit
back and we say, damn, these things are closing,
and we have to take less pay or have the DJ, or we have
to create new environments for ourselves. If people love the art,
they’re going to support it, but it has to be
in the position. I’m going to talk– I would like to mention
that artistically speaking, and politically, I’ve gone
to Americans for the Arts foundations, been invited
by Robert Redford who funds a lot of those
kind of things, and I’ve heard the
speeches, and I’ve seen layouts of $650 million
available for the arts, and how is all of that money
available, but there’s no– what’s going on? How is that money getting
set up with folks, and then it’s not
being distributed? So at the end of
the day, politically and artistically there
has to be, I think, a more home grown
network of our survival and how things are
going to be invested, and that includes your previous
question about connecting with young people, and not
necessarily having the process of what we’re doing. I do it myself. I go to schools. I don’t have a program. I don’t have an agent. I contact the school. Can I come speak on
this, come speak on that? And just go to the
school, because some of the things that we
complain about our generation and young folks not
making connections to, although they have YouTube
and all of these things, is there is the actual
information processes– how to get the things to
them so it’s not just a visit on a website,
and they continue to go. I got inspired by that
by going into a library into a school in
the Bronx, and I saw Duke Ellington,
and Michael Jackson, and Sammy Davis on the wall. And I just started by
asking, who’s that? Who’s that? And the only one that
they knew on that wall was Michael Jackson,
and that’s sad. So that’s where it began, but
then I said to myself, well, who’s telling them about Duke
Ellington and Sammy Davis Jr? It’s not the librarian. The photographs are there, but
where is the actual contact. So we also have a role into
investing and putting the vibe into getting ourselves in a
position that we can play, and it’s not going
to be the way it was. It’s not going to all be booking
agents, and clubs, and lines around the block. Melvin, did you want
to say something? Will just touched
on something that is a whole other direction. I mean, the simplest level is
we’re dealing with capitalism. We’re dealing with this new
form of monopoly capitalism with the digital
platforms that is such a sort of hedonist turn
away from the sort of model that allowed what we did to
work in the 20th century. And it’s not even a question
of, should we go back? It’s a question of just
looking realistically at what this new
business model means and what we, as a
country, actually want to do about it, because
the reality is, if you– I did a bunch of research
on this years ago, and the reality is the goal
of every digital business is to become a monopoly. That is the end
game for everybody. So at best, you’re going
to have three companies. The goal is you’ll have one. So what does that mean? And the example I give
when I speak on this is, if I’m making music in– I don’t know. Let me pick someplace– Madrid, that money’s
going to San Francisco, or it’s going to Stockholm. It’s not staying in Madrid. It’s not nurturing
the actual scene. It’s going to the people
who own the platforms, and this is kind of
the overriding problem, and it’s the same thing in
the live business, too, where you just have Live Nation
that’s sucking up everything right now. Going back to work
Will said, yes, people are going to have to
affirmatively decide that they’re going to do what
is necessary to make sure that things are nurtured
on a local level, or it’s going to disappear. Those are your only two options. Well, it seems to
me that we need a better class of rich people. Seriously, we do. The robber barons
of the past actually felt some semblance of
social responsibility. Andrew Carnegie– he’s a
bare knuckle business man, but he built Carnegie Hall,
but that’s not public policy. I mean, I think to myself,
what do these hedge fund people do with their money? I mean, we have a lot
of super rich people. And here’s the
thing about music. It doesn’t matter whether– music education– learning
to play a violin, or a cello, or a flute, or something
is vital to your brain development. It doesn’t matter if
you’re going to be first chair or second chair. Just the discipline
of doing it means you’re going to deal
with math differently. You’re going to deal with
literature differently. You’re going to deal with other
educational things differently, and everything is
really sideways. We know that it’s sideways. The priorities are totally off. It’s seen as something
that’s optional. In order to play music,
at one point Americans– many Americans learned
how to read music because that was the only way
music was going to be played. So this changed, of course,
with the advent of recording. And all of those things, all
of the technologies that even gave us the living
that we have– we benefited from a certain
technological revolution, but that technological
revolution did not stop, and that’s part of the problem. One of the problems is that
we have a glut of everything. We have too much of everything. We have too many virtuosos. We have too many
people who are clever. We have a lot of
clever people that are trying to do the
same sort of things. We have too many people that
want to be the next Moby or whatever it is. That’s part of, what are
we teaching these kids? We’re teaching kids
to do what exactly? You know what I mean? Because we have this kind of
glut of everything, and it’s a real issue. And as far as I can see,
it’s not going away. Now, there are new
medias, and there are new ways of getting your
particular brand of aesthetic out there– the podcast realm. There are new funding things,
but those funding things are– there are a few people
that win, and there are a lot of people that– Patreon, and GoFundMe, and those
sorts of things, but that’s not public policy. We made our record partially
with crowd funding, and this is also
moving forward we’re going to need a new kind of
connections between emerging content creators. Sounds like we’re living
in very scary times. A more positive way
to put it is there’s a lot of grist for
the creative mills. What advice, if any, or
comfort, or suggestions do you have for young creatives? I’m going to say– I mean, it’s kind of a
cliche to even bring it up, but I have to say this. The film Black Panther
is a tremendous event. It really is. It’s a tremendous event because,
simply in terms of capitalism and the measure by which all
things are supposed to be– we’ve been told that films
featuring African-American stars– they have limited appeal. Black Panther is going into
its third week as number one. It’s made north of $700 million. It’s going to make– the film is going to make
more than $1 billion. And one of the things– Melvin and I
attended a screening of Black Panther, which
there was a panel discussion, and one of the things that the
leader of the discussion said was that– Warrington Hudlin– one of the
things that he said was there is going to be a
rush for content. So people that are writing
and creating things need to be ready to
have their pitches. People need to be creative,
and it has to be high quality, because the thing about
it is, as someone that is a fan of the whole genre– let’s put aside that
it’s a film that is about a kind of African,
African-American subject matter. The movie, in the
context of those films, is a very important film. It’s an excellent
movie by any standards, and it literally raises the
bar for the Marvel universe kind of films, but there’s
going to be suddenly that reticence to take
on imaginative projects. That’s going to
go to the wayside, and my only question
is that, is the content going to be ready and
of the highest quality? I can’t add anything to that. I’m sorry. I think Black Panther is
the answer, in my opinion, to your question– the film– for young people,
for people of color, certainly for young ladies, too,
that can see the power in that, but Vernon’s point– I just want to say
one small piece to it. His last comment is the
need is going to be there, and it needs to be
high, but what’s the most important thing
about your question is the need is going to be there,
the first part of his sentence and the fact that that
film created a need is– that’s the impetus. That’s the seed. Now, getting to the
higher quality is another conversation, but the fact
that there is something there– when we were all young, we heard
music, or we heard a record, or we went to Central Park,
or we went to some club, something that made us want– I got to pick up my
instrument and practice. I got to write a song like this. I got to write a song
in six 6 or in 12, or I got to write
some chord changes. I have to write a blues. I got to learn how to swing. I got to learn chord melody,
whatever it is that you do, but something inspired that. In maybe our first three,
or four, or five attempts we came up with
laughable things, but then eventually
we got to something that became truth, that became
for sale, that became classic, that became Grammy award
winning, that became internationally known,
that became style, became game changers. And just I think that
his answer is the answer, but the need is the
most important part. The high quality part? We’ll get to that, but the
fact that the film created this– is creating
this need of content and this need of
creativity, for me, is enough to start–
for the race to begin. Me being me, I’m
going to be contrary because I’m that contrary guy. I would say, if you’re
a kid coming up– and a kid means that
you’re still in a position where you don’t have to
supply your own needs– you should really
take time to look at how this system
actually operates and what works
about this system, and think about what you
can do to hack this system. And you shouldn’t
think in terms of– what you do as a creative
person has a lot of value. Do not buy into, OK,
because I made this video, and now that it’s up on YouTube
it’s worth whatever it’s worth. It’s worth whatever you can
convince people it’s worth. They’ve convinced you
that it’s worth zero. You have to flip this around. You don’t have to believe
everything adults tell you. Think about how you,
as community groups, can create value that
you can use to exchange. I mean, that’s all that
Bitcoin is [INAUDIBLE].. Bitcoin is literally nothing. It’s a piece of code that is
now worth billions of dollars. Dig that. So think about how this
system actually works. I mean, I’m not naive enough to
think that the system is going to change, and I’ve
been doing this a while, so I’m kind invested
in the system, and I kind of have to figure
out how to make it work, but for the kids who
don’t have that issue, you should think about this
whole thing a different way. In addition to
listening to everything that Vernon and Bill had
to say about the fact that there’s going to be this– there’s a whole new
generation out here that’s going to be looking
at this thing differently, that’s going to need to have
their voice seen and heard. Once you express
that, don’t feel like you need to
plug what you’re doing into the system
the way it works now. Figure out your own
way of doing it. We’re fathers. We’re parents. There’s a role we have,
and that’s exposure. The things that we’re
talking about we need to expose the young folks. We can’t tell them to
build their own bridge, to build their own pyramids,
to come up with their own math, discover your own
language, and figure out your own bebop, and your own
hip hop, and your own blues. We have a job to do. We have to expose them. We already got the
scars, and the stars, and the stripes, and the
failures, and the victories. Now we have to go back
to them, and whether they want to listen to it or not– it could be a reference
point for them. It could be a
launching pad for them, but they can’t do it by osmosis. We also have a role in that
question about the future and the young people. As elders, we have a role to
lay some of the ground work out. That’s the important thing I
like about the Black Panther film with all of the time I
spent talking to my children about ancestors and my
journeys is, in the film, they visit their ancestors. They get to go back and
see and talk to them. It’s a very important
part of that film. For a young person
to be able to say, what would I say to
grandma or great grandma if I was able to see her? I heard about the
corn bread recipe. I heard about the
special Italian sauce. I heard about the knishes
grandma used to make, or whatever it is. What would you say? And that is a very important
part of that movie, that there was actual
contact, but the contact wasn’t let’s hold
hands and celebrate. The contact was
questions, and curiosity, and how can I take
that information and go back to where I have
to go to and have a victory? On that note, Vernon Reid,
Will Calhoun, Melvin Gibbs, thank you for joining us. Been a pleasure, really. Thank you. Same here. Great questions. Thank you. Thank you very much. Thank you for having us. Our pleasure, thank you. This has been
Trending Globally– Politics and Policy. If you enjoyed
today’s conversation, you can subscribe to the
podcast on iTunes, SoundCloud, or Stitcher, or download us on
your favorite podcasting app. If you like us, rate
us, and help others who might enjoy the show find us. For more information,
go to

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *