How can you not be angry now? A William, not Shakespeare, said something along the lines of music soothes the savage breast (somehow becoming misquoted as “beast” in a game of historical telephone over the centuries.) But, as the bards Strummer and Jones sang, “Let fury have the hour/Anger can be power.”
What do you look for in music?
I just intentionally quoted some old and 2/3 dead white men (RIP, Joe) in a review I, a white man, am about to write of this album, a collaboration of poet/rapper Moor Mother and DJ Haram. An almost always abrasive amalgam of club, hip hop, hard drum, it is challenging. And, I bet a lot of people will hate it. It will also make a bunch of yearly top ten lists. It might make mine.
The two women have put together not just an album, but a political document. Not the first one of those written by Philadelphians. It will not be filed under easy listening. You will need to grapple with it. And it is worth it, but I would not blame you if you only listen to it once. But, you should listen to it.
The title Nothing to Declare is a joke, of course. They have plenty to declare. The album is not weighed down by humorlessness. On ‘Easyjet,’ Moor Mother pokes fun at herself and critics, asking in a valley girl voice, “Why would anybody listen to this shit?” You may ask yourself that at times and appreciate the self-awareness.
Moor Mother raps, talks, sings, growls her way through the album. The sounds are usually distorted through a variety of hardware. DJ Haram’s bottom- heavy beats sound like someone loosened the skins on the floor tom. Dub music shredded through the coarse side of a box grater. It’s a wonderfully percussive album. Snare, rims, congas start off strong and then haunt the album’s later songs as it descends into chaos. In a later song, you can hear the sound of a tambourine fighting through the static.
The album pivots off of “Anthology,” as close as this album comes to a true dance song, but with weary vocals by Moor Mother as she plaintively expresses a desire to dance in a style of a country other than her own. And she speaks about Katherine Dunham performing in Brazil. Dunham was a legendary Black choreographer. In 1944, in Louisville, she said to the audience that she would never play again before a segregated audience. In Brazil, the bookers had not realized she was Black and tried to pull the invite. The people protested. She danced. Anger can be power.
“Capitol” should be played over the ongoing Congressional hearings on the attempted January 6, 2020 fascist insurrection fed and led by small minded white men whipped into a frenzy of unearned self-pity. “I wanna sip what dreams are made of/I wanna slice the throats of those who enslaved us/An eye for an eye.” This track is followed by ‘Sixteen,’ not quite three minutes of thumping distortion and Mother Moor spitting truth: ‘Can’t breathe without crying…Gun talk sets violence.”
The album ends with tracks that are more sound collages than songs, the soundtrack of a country falling apart.
Nothing to Declare was released on May 27, 2022. Three days before an 18 year- old gunman slaughtered nineteen children and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas. He could legally buy a military grade weapon and boxes of ammunition, no questions asked. He would have been carded if he had tried to buy a beer. Outside the school, the police milled around. Some went inside to rescue their own children. Other cops tased and handcuffed desperate parents trying to do the same. Most of the people inside were brown skinned.
On June 6, 2022, the U.S.A. put Nancy Reagan on a postage stamp. Nancy Reagan was a reactionary, propping up her racist dimwit husband. She is best known for being accomplished at oral sex in her otherwise unexemplary Hollywood day and bringing an astrologer into the White House as an advisor. She wrapped and re-gifted for Christmas a teddy bear that a grandchild had left behind, the forgetful toddler likely scurrying to the car to escape a lecture from Grandad Ronnie on the evil of the gays. Oh, and Just Say No. My country is celebrating this woman.
The Supreme Court will, this summer, be taking away a right, recognised for 50 years, of a woman having control over her own womb.
So, I’m mad. How do you think Moor Mother and DJ Haram feel?
I started this review with a couple of quotes. Here’s another one. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” A white man shot him. The arc of the moral universe bends for sure. But, any justice is fleeting and anecdotal, a scrap picked up along the way. I fear that arc bends to a final destination of oblivion and white noise. It’s always white noise. We need to listen to other sounds. Listening is just the start.
Words by Rick Larson