Just because you’re alive don’t mean you’re living/ You don’t have to be locked up to be in prison/ Within the mind you can be doing hard time.”
Music and social change have been intertwined since humans first picked up instruments and began to gather in groups. The stories of who we are and how we see the world AND how we think that world should change frequently flow with more unhindered power and poetry when forged into song, the merger of melody and singing giving music a potentially greater reach than a speech or treatise. Our mind is most permeable when we are dancing and singing. Marvin Gaye and Funkadelic understood this, as did every blues and folk singer that lay in their evolution. The jazz phalanx of John Coltrane, Archie Shepp, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and Pharaoh Sanders understood this truth, and most assuredly Gil Scott-Heron knew it as he cried from the streets, scattering the pieces of a man to the wind to help spread word that the revolution – when and not IF it comes – will not be broadcast to the blind masses.
The mid-60s through the early 1980s saw a flourishing of savvy politically charged and musically robust albums emerge from the African-American artistic community and their allies. Like a lot of positive social change movements, the Reagan Era and what followed took the wind out this progressive musical arc. Hip-hop has picked up some of the slack, though the mainstreaming of the genre has, like most things related to an influx of money, vastly diluted the message and its impact in cloud of bogus money love, misogyny, and grotesque self-aggrandizing that gives little thought to the greater good beyond facile lip service sloganeering. But truly musical, socially conscious music in the vein of Gil Scott-Heron and his kindred spirits has been in short supply – and being blunt, mostly a pale shadow of what Gil and his primary architect Brian Jackson wrought.
All this is offered as preface to the extraordinary debut release from Kentyah Presents M1, Brian Jackson & The New Midnight Band, which neatly and confidently updates and makes excitingly relevant the issues and ideas touched upon in the original Midnight Band’s first offering, The First Minute of a New Day, as well as likeminded classics like The Last Poets’ This Is Madness, Marvin’s What’s Going On and Donny Hathaway’s Extension of a Man. Part of the resounding success of Evolutionary Minded (released on September 10 on Motema Music) is its deft incorporation of hip-hop and modern soul elements, weaving in threads from Eric B & Rakim, Pete Rock & CL Smooth, and Public Enemy (whose Chuck D blazes the mic with streetwise righteousness on two cuts), amongst other worthies. But rather than some overly thought out, corporate minded merger of yesterday and today, Evolutionary Minded finds the through-line between the struggles of brothers and sisters past and the ones fighting for a better, more just life today.
Having keyboard wizard and all-together together human Brian Jackson at the center of this project – he co-produced the record with mastermind and herder of cats Kentyah Fraser – is nothing but good. This vibes strongly with what he and Gil Scott-Heron forged back in the day but this is also resolutely contemporary, the creators smartly aware how poisonous and/or anesthetizing rank nostalgia can be. And given recent events – America’s ridiculously overgrown, racially slanted Prison Industrial Complex, the George Zimmerman shooting of Trayvon Martin, the GOP’s relentless attacks on the poor & sick, voter suppression efforts nationwide in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to de-tooth the Voting Rights Act, and more – it’s abundantly clear that despite significant wins in the 60s & 70s America has backslid something awful and needs to be slapped to wakeful action once again. Evolutionary Minded is that welcome smack to be reborn in a better mindset, to rise up with knowledge and purpose for several generations, both the ones who fought the initial battles and the one coming up today.
The first words one encounters in the gatefold booklet make it clear that the war for equality and fairness is still raging:
Question: How many revolutions does it take to screw in a light bulb?
Answer: As many as it takes before the light goes on.
The list of participants reads like a DJ wet dream: Dead Prez’s M1 & Stic.man, The Headhunters’ Mike Clark, Bill Summers and Paul Jackson, The Roots’ Martin Luther, The Last Poets’ Abiodun, P-Funk’s Blackbyrd McKnight, Galactic’s Stanton Moore, Wu-Tang Clan’s Killah Priest, and many more including some sharp-tongued, grimly funny interludes from The Black Panther Party’s Bobby Seale. This is a wondrous gathering of the tribes, many voices joining together to raise a glorious ruckus. What’s seriously impressive is how there’s no showboating, the individuals – many of them hyper-strong personalities in other contexts – easing into a collective flow that makes this an ALBUM and not just a series of disgruntled polemics set to a beat.
The cover of Evolutionary Minded carries the message right below the title, “Furthering The Legacy of Gil Scott-Heron.” With no disrespect intended to Scott-Heron, whose work particularly on his 2010 comback I’m New Here had grown more expressly personal and sadly clouded by the life he lived outside his music, this album and its smart, fiercely dedicated, ferociously talented and passionate originators pick up the torch the man himself laid down in the early 80s. The worries and work to be done expressed on From South Africa to South Carolina, Pieces of a Man and It’s Your World still require our attention. Thankfully, we have these sonic warriors to stir us to action in this pull-no-punches-but-try-to-embrace salvo for the times we live in and the ones we hope to see our children shine in tomorrow.