INDY Week 12.16.20

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Raleigh | Durham | Chapel Hill December 16, 2020

SOUTHERN-FRIED FUNK Brother! showcases Boulevards’ evolving sound

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December 16, 2020

Raleigh W Durham W Chapel Hill VOL. 37 NO. 47

Durham McDonald's workers strike demanding $15/hr and COVID protections, p. 6 PHOTO BY JADE WILSON


Shootings and drugs haunt a south Durham neighorbood. BY THOMASI MCONALD

10 Matt Calabria has ideas to lead the Wake County board. BY LEIGH TAUSS


Alamance County's attack on the First Amendment must stop. BY ERIC GINSBURG


Boulevards' new EP puts a fresh spin on funk. BY DAVID FORD SMITH

16 Tracks Music Library localizes streamings. BY WILL ATKINSON


Three new local releases hit their mark. BY BRIAN HOWE AND WILL ATKINSON

19 Chadwick Boseman's last film hits Netflix this week. BY SHARON EBERSON

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December 16, 2020



Last week, Thomasi McDonald wrote about the Lumbee tribe’s quest for federal recognition, despite pushback from other tribes.

Lumbee tribe member EMILY LOCKLEAR, of Chicago, pointed out in an email that plenty of documentation exists to verify Lumbee ancestry. “Richard Sneed and the [Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians] pathologically deny the Lumbee, but it is not because our claims are illegitimate or unverifiable,” she wrote. “No, it is because the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina poses an economic threat to the EBCI. The EBCI gained total recognition under the exact same circumstances in which the Lumbee Tribe currently seek total recognition— that’s right, an act of Congress. So for Richard Sneed to be quoted in “North Carolina Tribes Clash on Recognizing Lumbees” as having said, “We didn’t invent these rules and this process, but we have played by the rules, we have respected the process. We expect other tribes to as well” is laughable, because the Lumbee Tribe is not only following the rules. We’re following the rules the EBCI followed, to the T. The EBCI believe that recognition through Congress is a viable option for them, and not the Lumbee. Even more interesting is when you consider the fact that they were silent when six tribes in Virginia were granted total recognition by acts of Congress as well. But since those nations’ boundaries are in Virginia and have NO gaming rights, they pose no financial threat, and at the end of the day, that’s all this boils down to. Just ask the Catawba. The Lumbee are not asking for anything that isn’t rightfully ours; as a matter of fact, it’s the only thing we’ve been asking for since 1888. No matter how hard Richard Sneed and the EBCI attempt to manipulate Lumbee history in their repeatedly unsuccessful bids to legitimize clear lies as truths, the Lumbee truth remains steadfast. It doesn’t matter that Sneed’s motivations are equal parts self-serving and questionable; the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina was acknowledged by the federal government in 1956 as inherently indigenous, and our seat at the table is long overdue—and ours, by right.”

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December 16, 2020

Chapel Hill

15 MINUTES Sam Nangali, 19 Singer and saxophonist for Terra Cotta BY ANNA MUDD

Who’s in Terra Cotta, and how did the band pick its name? Akul Narang plays the viola, Mya Ison sings, Ben Hogewood plays guitar, and I play saxophone and sing. Akul lived on a street named Terra Cotta Drive [in Raleigh] in high school, and that’s how we got the name.

How did the band come together? We’ve always been playing together. Ben and Akul would jam together in high school, and when Akul graduated, Ben reached out to me, and we started doing a couple gigs. We were part of this band called Extra Sauce with a few other Enloe High School people. After we graduated, Ben reached out to me with Akul that summer about recording an album, which became Terra Cotta. We just recorded it in someone’s basement that was set up to be a studio, which is pretty cool. We all got together, and we recorded some tracks we wrote in high school and a couple new original tracks, which was the EP Terra Cotta. Akul and Ben knew Mya from high school, and she ended up recording with us, and it all turned out great.

Do you write all your own lyrics? Usually whoever is singing will write the lyrics. So, for our song “Good For Now,” I had wanted to sing on it, so I just wrote the lyrics. Then, Mya wrote her part when we decided to put her on the song. Whoever is singing writes their own lyrics, because it ends up meaning more when you write your own lyrics.

What was the process of writing your single “Good For Now”—which has been streamed more than 100,000 times on Spotify? Ben sent me the track that was going to be “Good For Now,” and it was super stripped down—basically a couple of guitar chords. I remember I was on the way to a haircut, and I really liked it; I


started humming along to it. Second semester of my freshman year was winding up, and we met at Akul’s house, and we ended up using this really crappy mic he had and recorded it with just the chorus I had written. It just sat there for a while, half done, and we just kept adding instruments and no voice to it. There was an emptiness in the middle where Mya eventually went. We ended up meeting up again this past May and used a different mic, and ended up releasing it in June.

What’s the meaning behind the song? It’s about two people who are distant but want to get back, reminiscing on their times together. It was very musical and fun to write. It screams our own identity, and it isn’t one particular genre, which is what I really like about it.

What do you like about making solo music, and why do you go by Selwood for your solo work? The process is definitely more streamlined. I guess it’s also a more pure expression of who I am. When I make music by myself, it’s my inspiration and my influences that directly impact the music, which I think is really cool. Selwood is actually the name of my street, and I just thought the name was cool. W Find Terra Cotta and Selwood streaming on Spotify.

OP - E D

Future Bloc A young activist’s response to the 2020 election BY EDWARD ROGERS


oung people have endured a lot this year. At what is supposed to be the most exciting and promising time in our lives, so much turmoil has brought everything to a screeching halt. The pandemic has upended our high school, collegiate, and professional careers, and it has forced us to alter the life plans that we prepared. We have also witnessed the cruelest acts of racism across the nation and have stepped up to fight for racial equity on social media and at socially distanced protests. Fortunately, the recent 2020 election presented the opportunity for 18 to 29-year-olds to use their right to vote and decide the future of our country. It is such a valuable privilege, and never has the vote felt more consequential. Issues such as healthcare, the racial wealth gap, student debt, and career outlook have immense impacts on our futures, especially now. Many of us have fought for the change we wish to see, but we must address the massive elephant in the room: Young people just do not vote. The question is, why? I am currently a high school junior in Durham. While I was not old enough to vote this November, I worked for progressive political action locally and nationally by phone and text banking, holding voter registration drives, and organizing discussions with officials such as Durham Mayor Steve Schewel. Tufts University’s Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement reported that 53 to 56 percent of eligible voters ages 18 to 29 voted in this presidential election, which was around 10 percent higher than in 2016. This development is encouraging, but there is still a serious discrepancy

between the number of young people that can and do vote. Over the past several months, I’ve been trying to understand youth voter turnout. I want to share what I have learned so far. As a young person, one of the most frustrating misconceptions is that we do not care about politics. Adults too quickly dismiss our inaction for indifference. The truth is that we have an immense amount of passion, especially for social issues such as climate change, gun control, and racial equity that directly affect our lives and futures. However, many of us feel jaded and disenfranchised by a system that was created by the wealthy and powerful and continues to ignore struggling communities. With a judicial and legislative system stacked against progressive change, a single vote can feel insignificant. A frustrating number of candidates simply adhere to this unjust system as it is and do not seek to change it in any significant way. In addition, many young people feel that voting is so complicated that it isn’t worth their time. Voters have to know where they will be during voting, choose their form of voting, and know where to go to the polls or drop off their ballot. Simple enough, right? Not for young peo-

ple, who often balance jobs, school, family life, and other interests. Many states also abuse their power in determining voting regulations. Specifically, in Southern and rural areas, there is an immense amount of voter suppression, such as requiring specialized school IDs, proof of school enrollment, and proof of residency, not to mention long lines due to inadequate public infrastructure. All of these complications can make voting feel like too much effort. In many ways, the 2020 election was a showcase for why young people feel so jaded. Joe Biden’s victory seemed like the bare minimum for people concerned wit h progressive platforms. In North Carolina, it was disappointing to see our state go red for President Donald Trump once again, due to the constant lying and abuse we have endured for four years. These results were very difficult for me to digest, because I had been volunteering for Joe Biden’s campaign here for months, and all of my work felt inconsequential. It was also frustrating to see Trump’s ally, Senator Thom Tillis, win re-election, but not completely surprising after Cal Cunningham carelessly jeopardized his candidacy with an affair. It now seems likely that the U.S. Senate will remain

“Many of us feel jaded and disenfranchised by a system that was created by the wealthy and powerful.”

red, and the U.S. House will barely remain blue. These results indicate that it will be very difficult to pass meaningful legislation that will help people during this crisis. As progressive young people, we have reached a frustrating standstill. So where do we go from here? For me, this election was a wake-up call: There is so much more to do to ensure that young people can fairly take advantage of their right to vote for progressive representation. I had naively thought that the paradigm would undergo a major shift in this election, but that was not to be. Change takes time and persistence. At this point, we must work toward action. Two pivotal Senate races are going into runoffs in Georgia, and there are also many more races coming up in 2022 (including another U.S. Senate race in North Carolina!). These upcoming races are exciting opportunities to enact more change in our state and the country. While it is hard to feel empowered to vote when there is so much working against many of us, we must fight on. We need to use the injustices in our system as even more motivation to get involved. There is so much work to do on the local and federal levels to improve voting accessibility and equalize the system. We must also continue to inspire others in our close communities to visualize a more equitable, progressive future. If we can make it easier to vote and connect with people about why their vote can make a difference, we can change the paradigm. With nearly 40 percent of young people not using their right to vote, there is plenty of space for improvement.W Edward Rogers is a high-school junior at Durham Academy.

December 16, 2020



December 16, 2020


On Thursday, December 10, a worker-led car caravan encircled the McDonald’s on Roxboro Street in Durham with signs, chants, and honks. Last week, an employee at a Durham McDonald’s tested positive for COVID-19. Without informing staff, the company transferred employees from another location to work there. According to a statement from NC Raise Up: Fight for $15 and a Union, McDonald’s failed to tell workers about the risk and didn’t professionally clean the facility after the COVID-19 exposure. When workers found out, they went on strike. They are demanding that McDonald’s pay for testing for employees who may have been exposed, give workers paid leave if they need to quarantine, and professionally cleanse the store. Cooks and cashiers also called on Congress and the Biden administration to raise the federal wage to $15/hour in the administration’s first 100 days. W

December 16, 2020




Dead End Shootings and drugs haunt a Durham neighborhood, but poverty’s the real crime BY THOMASI MCDONALD


ays before he was fatally shot, Trayvion Amerson had moved into a mustard-colored duplex in a troubled neighborhood just south of downtown Durham. Police have been tight-lipped about the circumstances of the shooting after reporting that Amerson, 23, was mortally wounded on November 24 in the middle of the day inside of his newly rented home on Dawkins Street in the city’s Hayti District. Some people who were on Dawkins Street that day say they saw two ambulances arrive in the neighborhood and thought multiple people had been shot. The sight wasn’t out of the ordinary. In September, police charged a 17-year-old with shooting three people in the neighborhood. Neighbors later found out that at about the same time that Amerson was shot, someone had overdosed near the stand of bamboo trees behind the duplex. The dual incidents highlight an interconnected web of issues— including drugs and gun violence—plaguing the compact Dawkins Street area in particular, and parts of the Black and brown community in the city more broadly, due primarily to longstanding racial and economic inequity that city leaders say is being aggravated by fallout from the pandemic. Hasan Salih works across the street from Amerson’s duplex at a halfway house for formerly incarcerated men. He also works in maintenance and had readied the apartment where Amerson had lived for two days. “The next day he was dead,” Salih told the INDY. Salih, a 63-year-old lifelong Durham resident who works as a peer specialist at the halfway house, said the overdose victim found behind the duplex was the 12th case in the area in recent weeks, owing to a bad batch of drugs circulating in the neighborhood. “It’s like two or three every week,” he said of the overdoses. “I mean, it’s really gotten out of control.” Police last week reported that gun violence—long a problem in the Bull City—has also been spiraling out of control in recent weeks. Durham reached a dismal plateau this year, with well over 800 reported shootings. The police department’s crime analysis unit reports that by November 28, there were already 882 shoot8

December 16, 2020

Trayvion Amerson boxing at the Second Round program, 2012. PHOTO COURTEST OF THE NEWS & OBSERVER

ings this year, with 291 people struck by gunfire. Last year during the same period, there were reports of 615 shootings and 179 people shot. “The number of shootings to date is the highest since [the] Durham Police Department started compiling this information in 2016,” police spokeswoman Kammie Michael told the INDY last week. On November 12, Mayor Steve Schewel and Police Chief Cerelyn Davis hosted a late-morning press conference to address the rising tide of gun violence after a drive-by shooting killed a 15-year-old boy, Anthony Adams, on East Main Street, not far from the other side of the Durham Freeway and Dawkins Street. Schewel said Durham’s “very tough few months of gun violence” is part of a national trend exacerbated by COVID-19. The city was already challenged by a proliferation of illegal guns. But the pandemic, he said, is now fueling “out-of-control gun sales,” while further igniting the always volatile illegal drug trade and gang activity. “The virus has heightened the factors that lead to gun violence: unemployment, housing instability, hunger, mental health problems, and isolation,” Schewel said. The mayor listed four strategies to combat gun violence: smart, effective policing; reliance on community

resources; legislative action; and addressing the root causes of the issue. “If a person has a good job that pays good wages, with affordable health care, a good school for their kids, and an affordable, safe, warm home to lay their heads every night, they are not going to be committing gun violence, or dealing drugs, or joining gangs,” he said. “We’ve got to attack the root causes, or we won’t end gun violence in our city, or our society.” Davis, the police chief, said that one effective strategy has been the consolidation of the department’s violent crimes task force, instead of assigning its investigators to separately probe violent crimes for each district. “They’re working closer together to connect various crimes that are being committed in the city, and also connecting the individuals who are participating in the incidents,” the chief said. “That includes not just sharing within the department, but with our community, state, and federal partners.” So far, there have been 34 homicides this year, compared with 32 in 2019, police reported. The good news is the city probably will not exceed bloody 2016, when police investigated 42 homicides. The most recent murder was the December 9 shooting death of Cedric Deon Bowens, 42, on the 3000 block of Fayetteville Street in the Hillside Park neighborhood, near Chicken Hut. During the press conference, Chief Davis said it cannot go unnoticed that the majority of the city’s gun offenders are also juveniles, noting that the department had recently cleared 10 shooting cases. “Four of those cases were cleared by arrest,” she said, “and the incidents were committed by two juveniles.” Schewel said the pandemic has removed structures from young people’s lives that offer them constructive outlets. Teens who are normally in school are spending time at home because of the pandemic—“or they are out on the streets, or under the influence of the streets,” the mayor said. He also noted that the city’s parks and recreation department normally offers major, on-site programs that are impossible to operate during the pandemic.

The onset of the winter season—without school or constructive recreation outlets in the city—has been deadly. Amerson was one of five people fatally shot between November 1 and December 1, police reported. The victims included 15-year-old Adams, on November 8, and Keith Ashanti Kennedy, 46, in the 4000 block of Meriwether Drive on November 21. On November 25, one day after Amerson was shot and the day before Thanksgiving, local ABC affiliate WTVD reported chaos erupting at Liberty and Railroad streets at about 7:30 p.m., when more than 10 gunshots rang out from the occupants of two opposing cars. One of the drivers was fatally shot, and his car veered out of control and hit five pedestrians, including a child. There have been several fatal shooting deaths since, including the December 1 murder of Jelani Whittington, 37, not far from where 15-year-old Adams died. Salih and his work partner, Bernard Sibenge, cleaned the apartment where Amerson died. Photos that Sibenge took of the shooting scene show an oblong, salmon-shaped reservoir of dark blood that curdled on the dark, wooden floor near the front door of the duplex. “He must have answered the door and got shot,” Salih told the INDY. Investigators late last week had not announced an arrest in the case, nor have they disclosed a motive for the fatal shooting. The shooting of young Black men by their peers here in Durham and across the nation has become so commonplace, some have become numb to their deaths. Or even worse, to paraphrase the poet Ntozake Shange, they accept young Black men’s deaths as casually as morning coffee. Amerson was not without his share of personal troubles. State corrections records show that he had just been released from prison on October 5, 2019, after he was sentenced to a little over two years behind bars for common law robbery. Amerson’s family loved him—especially his mother, Felicia Amerson, a devout Christian woman. She could not be reached for comment, but the words she shared on social media echo the brokenness felt by parents who have lost their children to gun violence. “This pain will never go away in my heart,” she wrote last week. “I can’t come to [the] Reality that my bby is gone. I’ve [cried] so much, that my tears simply won’t come out.”

She said words failed to express the pain she’s feeling. “I will NEVER be the same,” she wrote. Dawkins Street, just off of Umstead Street and a short walk from Hillside Park, may be the city’s most troubled neighborhood. The short block is ridden with homelessness, gang activity, drugs, violence, sex work, and the callousness that sometimes grows over the repeatedly rejected ambitions of the most impoverished and marginalized. On cold nights, folks without a home gather around a 55-gallon drum in an open field next to the halfway house. They take wooden pallets from a nearby pile and burn them in the rusted drum to stay warm. The police regularly patrol the area, and there have been community-based efforts to help. As previously reported in the INDY, the nearby Harriet Tubman YWCA building was given new life a little over a year ago when the nonprofit Reinvestment Partners purchased the property. The organization wants to build affordable housing on the site, possibly with a daycare center. The neighborhood halfway house features a community garden. Volunteers with North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition regularly arrive to hand out packets of food and information. Last week, a trio of volunteers offered information about free COVID-19 testing and an alert about a new shelter that’s open during “White Flag Nights,” when temperatures drop below freezing. Before leaving, the volunteers walked through the neighborhood and picked up used, discarded syringes. Salih says some people addicted to heroin and crack cocaine will show up and stay on the streets for days, getting high. “I asked one woman, ‘How are you staying warm? It gets cold out here at night,’” he said. “She said, ‘Oh, I can do the cold.’ I saw her this week, and she sounds like she has walking pneumonia. Man, walking pneumonia can kill you. But that’s the insanity of addiction.” Sibenge calls Dawkins Street “the worst area in Durham for drugs.” “On a normal day, people will walk up, put the dope in your hand and ask you, “What do you want?’” he said. The impoverishment in the Dawkins Street area is arguably a root cause of its violence. “A lot of prominent people used to live on Umstead Street,” Salih said. “Now it’s a tale of two cities in our little town. There’s a lot of haves, and a whole lot of have-nots.” W

December 16, 2020


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Assuming until the to help affected

Changing Guard Six questions with new Wake County Board of Commissioners Chair Matt Calabria BY LEIGH TAUSS


ast week, Matt Calabria was sworn in as the new chair of the Wake County Board of Commissioners. The 37-year-old attorney has already served for two terms on the board, however—because the General Assembly voted to shorten term lengths from four to two years during his first term—this will actually be his seventh year there. So what does Calabria want to do differently now that he’s at the helm? We wanted to know. So we gave him a call. INDY Week: What is your top priority as chair heading into his new term? CALABRIA: The number-one thing I want to focus on in the coming year is this idea of equitable prosperity. I’ve already told each of my colleagues that is what I hope to be a theme for the year. When I say equitable prosperity, I am relating to terms like economic justice or prosperity for all. One of the things that we saw right before the pandemic, for example, was that Wake County was essentially at full employment, and yet we had more than 120,000 [residents] living in poverty. Well, how do we reconcile those things? I think the short of it is we have a lot of jobs—although we continue to need to focus on creating more jobs and traditional economic development. We need to make sure, first, that we have good-paying jobs, and second, that we have all the of the other social supports we need to give people the opportunity to succeed. I think the board has done a great job in recent years focusing on education, affordable housing, transit, and other issues. The lens that I think is going to be an important component this year is economic equity. That would potentially include worker training, seeing what we can do to help people have access to affordable childcare, making sure that we recognize businesses that are paying a living wage, and incentivizing good business behaviors. 10

December 16, 2020

Matt Calabria


We’ve done a little bit of that so far—I sponsored an effort a year or two ago to incentivize businesses for creating living-wage jobs in underprivileged areas. That has done well, and we’ve had some businesses take us up on that. That’s not exclusive of all the other things we have to work on, but I think it’s an area we have not paid as much attention to. There was a study a few years ago suggesting both the Charlotte area and the Raleigh area were among major cities in the country not doing well in terms of economic mobility, so I want to zero in on that issue and make sure we are doing all we can to improve. What do you think was the board’s biggest accomplishment last year?

Looking back, I think we did a lot of consequential things; but to me, the stand-out is what we were able to accomplish on affordable housing. If you compare 2020 to 2017, we have generated nearly 10 times the units, and we did it at nearly half the cost per unit. We have been working really hard to execute strategies on affordable housing. We did it by also looking upstream and trying to find ways to prevent people from being housing insecure. So not only did we put a record number of units in play, but we also did things like eviction prevention, eviction mediation services, and also relocation assistance. We also worked to expand our supportive housing operations as well.

Some of determin from the received 19 relief, our publi things l affordab and set for peopl because shelter can’t use shelter m you have But w things l Wake Fo gram, wh low-inter small b and we ticular e small bu sole pro I was ve that effo If you asked a person on the street what the major issuescan conti of the day were, right now COVID-19 would top the list. Butassistanc affordable housing ranks high no matter who you are talkingthe state to. No one has been able to point me to a city in the coun- I just s try that has totally solved its affordable housing challenges,gressiona but I think we’ve made a tremendous amount of headway. nal deleg COVID-1 What do you expect will be the board’s biggest challengesand affor to how t in 2021? I think our biggest challenge will continue to be ourthe funds response to COVID-19. The pandemic has required us toon the gr maintain a very significant public health effort. vide addi The pandemic has done a couple of things internallysupport f to the county government. One: We’ve realigned a lot of The ot our operations to respond to the pandemic. We’ve evenhere is s retrained librarians and others to be deputized as contactlot of bu tracers and fill other roles, so it has really been an all-not be a full steam hands-on-deck scenario. In addition, the pandemic has rightly been a focus ofseen tha our financial resources, and that has obviously diminishedwhat can resources that we might have been able to use for otherso they areas. The pandemic has decreased our overall revenues,That’s w particularly when it comes to sales tax, so we’re sort ofand mak between a rock and a hard place in some sense, but I’mtraining a proud of the work that Wake County did. Compared to And th some other places, when you look at our infection ratesmaking su are very and our fatality rate, we’re doing much better.

We’re not out of the woods yet, and we can’t take our foot off the gas in terms of our public health effort, but I think we’ve done a good job, a well as trying to support folks economically. Assuming the pandemic is with us at least until the summer, what will the board do to help uplift businesses and workers affected by the public health crisis?

Some of our ability to respond will be determined by the kind of support we get from the state and federal government. We received nearly $200 million in COVID19 relief, and much of that went to fund our public health effort. But we also did things like expand affordable housing and set up hotels for people to stay in, because congregate shelter models—you can’t use congregate shelter models when you have a pandemic. But we also did things like fund a Wake Forward program, which provides low-interest loans to small businesses— and we had a particular emphasis on small businesses and sole proprietorships. I was very proud of that effort. I hope we can continue a program like that to provide assistance, but that will take support from the state and federal governments. I just signed a letter yesterday to Congressional leaders and our Congressional delegation encouraging them to pass COVID-19 relief that is timely, robust, and affords counties some discretion as to how to use the funds, so we can use the funds in a way that meets our needs on the ground. I hope to be able to provide additional small business loans and support for small businesses. The other thing I would emphasize here is supporting workers. We know a lot of businesses are struggling and may not be able to keep their workers going full steam as they did before, and we’ve seen that in the restaurant industry. But what can we do to support those workers so they don’t have to move elsewhere? That’s where robust housing comes in, and making sure we have strong worker training and support programs. And the last thing I’ll mention is just making sure that public health regulations are very clear, so businesses know what

they can do and what may be disallowed during the pandemic. Balancing education funding and the rest of the county’s needs is always a hurdle for the board. Do you think the board will be able to meet its needs without a tax increase next year? How do you plan to accomplish that?

I’m very hopeful. Ultimately, those decisions will be influenced largely by two variables. The first is what the school system identifies as its needs. They are still in the early stages of putting together their annual budget, and we will know in three, four months’ time what they see as their needs for the coming years. The second factor will be how well the economy rebounds as we come out of the pandemic. We’ve seen a hit to sales tax and other revenues, so we are going to be working to match our needs with our ability to pay. I think it’s very clear that all members of the board are very supportive of public education and want to meet the felt needs that they have. Unfortunately, I think the answer is that it’s too early to tell, but I do think that we will continue to do everything we can to free up funds to help the public education system. We have in the past, and obviously, they have some real challenges, especially during the pandemic.

“We’re not out of the woods yet, and we can’t take our foot off the gas in terms of our public health effort.”

What’s something most people don’t know about you or would be surprised to learn?

Over the past couple of years, I’ve actually gotten into woodworking. My dad was always very handy, and I come from a long line of carpenters and contractors. I inherited some of his tools and started tinkering around. I don’t get to do much woodworking in a given week, just because of other time demands, but I end up going out there late at night and find it’s a very meditative activity. I build boxes, or—I built the desk I am sitting at right now. I can go out and think about the day and work with my hands a bit. That’s something where I go and do it and turn everything else off. W

December 16, 2020



Alamance County

Alamance, Goddamn Judge Fred Wilkins is giving the finger to freedom of the press. BY ERIC GINSBURG


om Boney Jr. just wanted to do his job. But when Boney—the white-haired publisher of the conservative-leaning Alamance News—tried to cover a local court case, the judge demanded that he leave. Moments later, bailiffs cuffed the bespectacled publisher and forced him out of the building. They weren’t gentle about it, either. We’ve been watching heavy-handed and racist law enforcement practices unfolding publicly in Alamance County for years now. In 2020, it’s become the state’s epicenter of unbridled white supremacist rage, as well as the site of massive and persistent resistance to that status quo. Given this backdrop, it’s hard not to see Alamance Chief District Court Judge Fred Wilkins’ decision to bar Boney and reporters from Triad City Beat and The News & Observer from his courtroom as a reactionary act of state repression aimed at further squelching the First Amendment. It cannot, and must not, stand. INDY Week condemns Judge Wilkins’ totalitarian decree. We stand fully behind our fellow journalists’ objection to his decision, and we also fully support their petitioning to open court proceedings to the public and press. We insist on open courtrooms as a basic and fundamental tenant of democracy. We also denounce what appears to be an emerging pattern of stifling dissent—as well as attempts to report on it. Attacks on a free press— whether visited on a conservative outlet like The Alamance News or a progressive one like the INDY—are unacceptable threats to a free society. Here’s a little context on how the hell we got to this point. This year, the central North Carolina county—located between Durham and Greensboro—consistently grabbed national and international headlines for 12

December 16, 2020

its treatment of antiracist protestors. Law enforcement—both the notorious Alamance County Sheriff’s Department and the Graham police—have repeatedly come under fire for what appear to be brazen attempts to stifle demonstrations. Then the district attorney decided to get in on the action, pressing what looked like retaliatory felony charges against a reverend leading some of the protests. Now the court system has one-upped them all, with an Alamance judge banning several reporters from documenting proceedings in his courtroom. The most damning part of all is that these attacks on the First Amendment— both the constitutional rights to free speech and assembly as well as freedom of the press—are happening in broad daylight, and despite heightened media attention. When locals started gathering regularly at the base of a massive Confederate monument in the heart of downtown Graham earlier this year, Sheriff Terry Johnson’s department tried to stop granting people protest permits altogether—no matter the size, type, or time—“for the foreseeable future.” In October, standing alongside Graham police, his deputies pepper-sprayed March to the Polls participants on the last day of early voting. Following international outcry, Johnson’s office pursued felony charges against Reverend Greg Drumwright, the march’s organizer, seeming to intentionally distort his public statements to make it sound like the reverend wanted to incite a riot. Soon after, Drumwright led hundreds in a peaceful march in Alamance County.

Graham police reportedly refused to provide an escort. Activists have repeatedly decried law enforcement’s apparent coziness with the far-right in Alamance County. Neo-Confederate groups and avowed white supremacists have repeatedly gathered at the Confederate monument, heckling antiracists, shouting “white power” from passing cars, and sometimes getting physical. To antiracist protestors—especially Black and Brown Alamance County residents—it feels like the state is aligned with these extremists. Photos of Sheriff Johnson’s fraternal interactions with neo-Confederate agitators don’t exactly dispel this notion. Repression in Alamance extends to the press. During that October 31 March to the Polls, police forcefully arrested a reporter with The Alamance News. Then, on December 8, as reporters attempted to cover a related court proceeding in Alamance County Court, Judge Wilkins barred them from attending. Alamance News Publisher Boney told Triad City Beat what happened when he entered the courtroom: “Be quiet!” Judge Wilkins reportedly said. “Get out of this courtroom. This courtroom is not closed to the public; it is closed to you.” Bailiffs cuffed Boney, and “they were really quite rough and claimed I was resisting when they were twisting my arm,” he told Triad City Beat. The three newspapers filed a formal objection with the court, requesting “access to all future proceedings.” That’s especially paramount as several protestors’ cases head to court soon.

“That’s the thing about state repression– it often boomerangs into more resistance.”

Unfortunately, these assaults on the First Amendment don’t shock us. They grow from a pattern of racist abuses in law enforcement—apparent in Johnson’s past comments about Mexicans and efforts to squash anti-Confederate protests in Alamance dating back at least several years. If this is how white reporters are treated, just imagine the kinds of “justice” Alamance County’s Black and Brown residents receive from the legal system when nobody’s looking. Change is coming to Alamance County. This year, a grassroots campaign buoyed Democrat Ricky Hurtado—the son of Salvadoran immigrants and an instructor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill—to victory for a state House seat over his conservative opponent. Antiracist protests led by Drumwright and others show no sign of abating. That towering Confederate monument, if not removed and relocated by authorities, will one day fall, crashing to the ground as its counterpart did in Durham. And journalists, no matter how many times they’re locked up or shut out, will continue to show up and report the news. That’s the thing about state repression—it often boomerangs into more resistance. Throw bogus charges against a protest leader, and you’ll likely draw dozens more to their cause. Enforce the law unequally, and the ACLU and others will sue you, and win. Shut reporters out of your courtroom, and ensure more journalists arrive next time. We don’t know the motivations of Sheriff Johnson, the Alamance County district attorney, the Graham police chief, or Judge Wilkins. Repressing the First Amendment might not be their aim. But regardless of intent, an opaque justice system can only serve to uphold the racial, economic, and political hierarchies in Alamance County. Like it or not, change is on the way. W

December 16, 2020




[New West Records; Dec. 18]


southern-fried funk Brother! showcases Boulevard's evolving sound

On his New EP, Brother!, Boulevards’ ever-evolving sound shines through BY DAVID FORD SMITH


December 16, 2020


By David Ford Smith, p. 14

n a sense, Boulevards’ new EP, Brother!, began with a light reset. It was late 2019, and Jamil Rashad was doing what musicians do: firing off a barrage of email demos out to labels and industry connections, working out his next career steps. A veteran of the rough-and-tumble 2010s American music underground, the Raleigh native had already achieved a degree of success as his longtime neofunk alter ego, Boulevards. Some in his position would rest on their former clout and allow their music career to fall off into history—or put out the occasional “back to basics” record every few years. But Rashad, a preternaturally ambitious guy and born performer, has always played the game harder than that. Up until that point, his music has charted a path through the slick, nocturnal ambiance and jittery

rhythms of classic electro-funk. Bold and brash and stridently pro-Black, his music was inextricably tied to the ostentatious fashion and car-rattling synthesized sounds of the ’70s, like Con Funk Shun, Rick James, Funkadelic, etc. His embodiment of that era was apparent to anyone who saw him light up a stage, and his aura screamed that he knew where the afterparty was—and was probably playing it. “My father and his crew of people put me on clothing,” Rashad says. “Though I love denim—and I mean I love denim, I could sleep in denim if I wanted to—it wasn’t even about all this fashion shit at the beginning. Learning from the old head dudes, it was more about having confidence as a Black man. Feeling your identity in that.” A number of collaborators in the wider indie-electro sphere have helped throw magic dust on his profile. On 2017’s Hurtown, USA, he collaborated with Alan Palomo from synth-funk revivalists Neon Indian on the track “Nu Burn Ave (Intercruise).” And just earlier this year, he dropped a burner called “Too Far” with “Bulletproof” synth-pop singer Elly Jackson, aka La Roux, whom he tells me he met through friends. It might seem like a bit of subterfuge, then, that Rashad’s new EP, Brother!, is dropping December 18 via the label Normaltown Records, an imprint of the Americana/alternative country label New West Records. As Rashad tells it, the idea wasn’t to toss all his synths out the window and knee-jerk rewire his sound in a cynical way, but instead to move, slowly and organically, towards an earthier flavor, something rawer. The move was pre-ordained, perhaps, as Boulevards toured extensively last year with Orville Peck, the Canadian noise rock drummer turned country music sensation. As Rashad sees it, it was a natural evolution for what he calls his “Southern-fried punk-funk.” “I’m really excited about [New West], because they provide what I want from a label: trust, growth, and evolution,” Rashad says. “I still rock with the synthesized funk stuff I was doing, but I just knew I had to come with music that showed progression. That I could tangle with the solo country acts right now, the crossover indie acts, and do it on my own terms. Some bands have these giant industry machines behind them that you never see, making their decisions, and the last few years, a lot of my career investments have come out of literally just me building with people, investing money from my own pocket—whether from records, touring income, whatever. It’s good to be working with industry people I trust.” Breezy and sun-kissed, “Luv n Pain,” the first single from Brother!, isn’t a total departure from the midnight cruise music of his earlier releases. The funk is still there, but the BPM’s are pared-back, landing some-

where between vintage ’70s pomp and the genre-hybrid, placement-friendly soul of recent indie stars like Khruangbin or Unknown Mortal Orchestra. As he explains it, the song is a classic tale of self-sabotage in relationships. “In relationships, you can have that resentment, to the other person or even towards yourself, for giving them that power,” he says. “That person loves you— and can also drop you off the fucking wall.” He credits his morphing sound to the production chops of Chicago-based soul production maestro Blake Rhein. Rhein is best known as the creative force behind the popular soul outfit Durand Jones & The Indicators, though he also works doing research for the esteemed reissue label Numero Group. Smitten with the band, Rashad connected with him over social media. Right around the time when they started cooking up music together, travel became impossible. So the pair started cobbling together tracks for Brother! through internet channels, becoming music geek buddies in the process. “He’s the man,” Rashad says. “I love working with guys who are real nerds about their craft, who can put me on to crazy ’60s stoner motorcycle metal, Innovative Leisure reissues, all that. Blake is that person for me. He instantly got what I was trying to do.” Though a lot of the material came together even before the groundswell of this summer’s BLM protests, Rashad’s status as a politically minded Black artist working in the predominately white frame of indie rock means that a lot of the themes on the record speak to his experiences. The very usage of the word “Brother” as the EP title is an intentional exclamation point on this. The song “Shook,” he says, is specifically about being afraid of police officers, whether in “Raleigh, New York, [or] L.A.” “As a Black man, I have to calculate my every move when I leave the house,” Rashad says. “That’s something I needed to talk about and share.” He says he’s not looking to shout down people about his message though. “I didn’t want to do it in a preachy way,” he says.

“I wanted to do it like Sly or Curtis Mayfield did, in a way that people of all colors could listen to and relate to.” The partnership with New West certainly feels like a good fit for him—a situation less prone to the hype-driven business demands that had somewhat dictated his early career. Early in Boulevards’ rise, he had linked up with influential NYC indie emporium Captured Tracks, which was better known for scuzzy guitar acts like Mac Demarco and DIIV, for a 2015 self-titled EP and Groove!, a 2016 fulllength. The label was trying to branch out and snapped him up, but common label marketing and interpersonal issues conspired against their partnership. “The Captured Tracks thing didn’t work out, but it’s all love—those are my people,” Rashad says. “Some of it was writing issues, not agreeing on the way my projects were handled in that high- pressure environment. But shit, some of it was me! At the time, I was out partying a lot, wiling, because I was still so new in the indie music scene. I had to get my ego in check, and sometimes you need those humbling experiences.” With no touring on the horizon for now, Rashad tells me he misses it with a passion. But as evidenced by the appearance of this EP, he also makes it clear that he is not going to sit on unreleased music for years in the interest of a hypothetical tour marketing push, the unfortunate wait-and-see game that many indie artists seem to be playing at the moment. He’s staying busy and sane in Raleigh, studiously plugging away on a full-length album, potentially for release next year. “Making this music is exactly what’s keeping me happy,” he says. Once, during a 2015 RBMA lecture, George Clinton was asked point-blank what “funk” means. “Funk,” Clinton said, “is anything you need it to be to save your life at the time.” This sounds about right for Boulevards who, amid shifting life and label circumstances, continues to put out a diverse, ever-evolving spread of tunes. The funk always comes with them. W

“I still rock with the synthesized funk stuff I was doing, but I just knew I had to come with music that showed progression.”

December 16, 2020




Dec. 1


Homegrown Streaming Tracks Music Library is a new kind of local listening experience BY WILL ATKINSON


f you spent any time on social media on the first day of December, there’s a good chance you ran into a Spotify Wrapped, or perhaps several dozen. This aggregation of listening habits—tailored to the individual user and presented in sleek, Instagram-ready graphics—has become something of a yearly ritual in the age of streaming, as our music consumption is increasingly dominated by massive platforms like Spotify. There’s no doubt that it’s fun to analyze your own year in music and compare it with others. Yet the unveiling of Spotify Wrapped each December also serves as a reminder of streaming’s stranglehold on the music industry—an arrangement that makes it difficult (and some musicians say nearly impossible) for independent musicians to earn revenue from their recorded work. Tracks Music Library, launched in the spring, offers 16

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a locally focused alternative. Formed as a collaboration between the Chapel Hill Public Library and Chapel Hill Community Arts & Culture, the streaming platform exclusively features music by local artists, who are compensated for their submissions and given full ownership of their tracks. Upon visiting the website, you can search curated music from more than 70 musicians and bands; if you have a Chapel Hill library card, you can also download music. Early in December (first on its own platform, and a few days later on other streaming platforms), Tracks capped off its first year with the release of two compilations, Tracks Volume I: We Rise as Allies and Tracks Volume II: Isolation Illumination. With a roster of local artists that runs the gamut from hip-hop to jazz, and from indie to bluegrass, the projects offer artists a chance to respond

to the twin crises that have marked this moment in America: the country’s reckoning with systemic racism and the isolation of the pandemic. “Our main goal was to support local music,” says Melissa Bartoletta, marketing and communications coordinator for Chapel Hill Community Arts & Culture. “So we were like, ‘What way can we do this, but put money back into the pockets of these artists?’” Working with producers Kevin “Kaze” Thomas and Thom Canova, the library recruited artists to work on original songs and commissioned visual artists Chris Frisina and Cassidy Goff to design each album cover. We Rise as Allies, produced by Kaze with art by Frisina, directly references the summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, while Isolation Illumination, produced by Canova with art by Goff, is inspired by the experience of pandemic quarantine. “Can’t Say Nothing,” the first track on We Rise as Allies, opens with a challenge from Kaze to white observers of the movement for racial justice: “Are you really my ally? Do you really care, or do you just feel guilty for being indifferent?” Violet Bell’s Lizzy Ross follows that spoken introduction with a frank admission of her own privilege as a white woman, singing, “I never have to fear blue lights in the rearview mirror / He leans in the window and says, ‘Ma’am, you’re free to go.’” “I felt that it was important to have that moment at the beginning, to say, ‘Hey, this is a conversation we need to have,’” Thomas says of “Can’t Say Nothing.” “If you’re in this moment, and you don’t know what to say or know what side of it you’re on, it’s time to have this conversation. It’s uncomfortable. But let’s start having it.” From there, We Rise as Allies yields the floor to Black voices. On “Good Trouble,” Kaze, rappers Rowdy and Dasan Ahanu, and singer Nathan Harris trade verses inspired by the late John Lewis and past generations of activists and ancestors. The uplifting jazz anthem “Winner in You” follows, and it sounds as if pianist and singer Lydia Salett Dudley is responding directly to the verses that precede her: “Keep up your head, young man,” she sings. “Don’t you give up the fight.” The compilation also includes genre-bending songwriter Sonny Miles—who counts Barack Obama among his fans—and the atmospheric soul of XOXOK, who closes out the volume with the tender love ballad “All in.” For the second volume, Isolation Illumination, Thom Canova aimed to highlight the creative ingenuity that spending more time at home can foster. Without the ability to play live or record with others in a studio, he notes, home recording has become more important for artists than ever. “People get to spend extra time during this isolation working on their track,” Canova says. “And what this does for people who get to listen to it, is it illuminates

what artists are doing on their own during this crazy, crazy time. I think that hearing what artists have to say right now, while we’re all stuck at home, is a good way to do it, because we can’t go see them live and get the full effect.” Isolation Illumination spans alt-country, electronic indie, and punk, featuring contributions from Shelles, Pretend Chess, Ghost Guns, and BANGZZ, plus a stomping old-time instrumental from Durham’s Hard Drive. While less overtly political than We Rise as Allies, the compilation still makes room for the moment; BANGZZ’s scorching cut, “Love,” calls us to “make way for radical love,” navigating a divided political climate with compassion. Like the music library itself, the Tracks compilations seek to represent the full diversity of music in North Carolina. In the absence of the venues, studios, and clubs that normally form a scene, it can be difficult to see a clear path forward for that regional legacy. (One of the great paradoxes of the pandemic is that we are at once more confined to our physical communities, and more disconnected from them.) In a way, Tracks fills that vacuum, providing a virtual space for local music in the absence of a physical one. But even before the onset of the pandemic, the need for a local approach to streaming was there, notes Molly Luby, the Chapel Hill Public Library’s special projects coordinator, who helped secure the state grants that funded the first year of Tracks. “So much music these days is streaming,” Luby says. “And for a lot of local artists, it’s very difficult to get their material in the library, because they don’t produce CDs; they’re not necessarily part of the larger music ecosystem, where we can order their music in the traditional ways that we’ve done at the library.” Luby says, however, that Tracks isn’t simply an archive—it’s a living document. “It will grow and change along with the music of Chapel Hill,” Luby says. “It is something that is of the moment.” From Elizabeth Cotten to Merge Records, Chapel Hill has long been a cradle for the musical legacy of North Carolina. Kaze, reflecting on his own career in the local scene, says he doesn’t expect that to change. Tracks is one reason why. “I think that we are the most talented musical community in our country,” he says. “I do. Nashville is cool—don’t get me wrong. Atlanta is cool. New York’s cool. L.A. is cool. But the sauce comes from Carolina, baby, I don’t care where you go; that sauce is gonna come from Carolina. It’s gonna be in the mix, and the world loves it.” W

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December 16, 2020




A New Spin on Things Three local releases make their mark as fresh classics BY BRIAN HOWE AND WILL ATKINSON


HHH1/2 [Rosewater Recordings; Dec. 11]

This local supergroup features guitarist Nora Rogers (of Solar Halos), guitarist Jenny Waters (of Work Clothes), and drummer Harrison Haynes (of Hellbender and Les Savy Fav). On their debut, Piece Goods, the low-end evacuation makes their measured, majestic instrumental rock feel at once heavy and ethereal, as if chiseled on the faces of storm clouds. Much closer in spirit to the meteorological metal of Solar Halos than to the indie-pop moonbeams of Work Clothes or the post-punk tantrums of Les Savy Fav, Piece Goods is a hazy monolith of guitar fog and squall, neatly squared off at the corners by the meticulous Haynes. “Turning Point” is a huge, greased bolt of implacable rock energy, while “Fear-Based Excellence’’ gets some of the old Les Savy Fav disco jitters into the mix. The delay-pedal theatrics on the bright, growling “Street Scene’’ are the exception to the rule: This is not an effects-driven record; the band maintains a tight focus on the serpentine coil and churn of considered guitar grooves. Recorded by Kris Hilbert at the Fidelitorium, Piece Goods came out on December 11, in both digital and limited-edition vinyl formats. The tracks range between seven and 10 minutes apiece, sweeping vertiginous shadows over rugged landscapes with a hypnotic consistency that only occasionally flags into monotony. Creating tension without a bassist is a high-wire act without a highwire, and Object Hours spends most of this epic EP adeptly hovering in midair. —Brian Howe

2DWAVE: CORNERS, PATHS, NOISE HHH 1/2 [Maison Fauna; Dec. 11]

Last month, Maison Fauna released Field Guide Volume 1, a compilation that staked out the Durham electronic label’s musical terrain (house, techno, and UK garage), its mission to curate local producers alongside like-minded souls from around the world, and its vibe of stylish, humane hedonism. It also served as a roadmap of potential future releases, one of which became real on December 11 with the release of 2Dwave’s vivid new EP, Corners, Paths, Noise. 2Dwave is the project of Simon Briggs, the most cerebral of the Maison Fauna founders. His contribution to Field Guide, “Flood Cove,” was an entrancing minimal-house caress with a surprisingly hearty bass line. He develops that contrast between placid surface and subterranean mobility here. 18

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“Worlds We Create” encapsulates Maison Fauna’s house style of unorthodox UK garage, which Briggs draws up to the edge of ambient music. He wrangles spirochetes of melody, ticking cymbals, and knocking kicks into a ruffled 4/4 time, then fills it with dewy pads and ghostly sprays of kalimba, which all tightens into propulsive formation like a school of fish at the graceful drop. The thumb piano lingers through “Vanish,” tattooing billowing chords and deep-house vocal bends, while harp runs scintillate through “Wade.” And “Tobacco Trail” is the pure UGK peak, infested with insectile arpeggios and slathered with mooing bass. Briggs’s music is distinctly tactile, both aqueous and airy; but the dreamlike atmosphere courses with alert, intelligent gestures. Corners, Paths, Noise plunges his history in Chicago ambient circles into the welter of contemporary Durham, where the likes of Treee City and FootRocket and CALAPSE (all Field Guide contributors) mingle far-flung strains of electronic music without concern for the rules. A fine, deeply felt work in itself, it’s also a pitch-perfect expression of Maison Fauna’s steadily blooming boutique-with-heart brand. —Brian Howe


HHH 1/2 [Raund Haus; Oct. 23]

Just before MP3s and file-sharing became ubiquitous, the 1990s marked a heyday for a certain strain of vinyl-sampling turntablist. Armed with Akai MPC samplers and enviable record collections, artists like DJ Shadow and The Avalanches assembled entire albums from samples alone—bricolages of forgotten LPs, dusty drum breaks, and disembodied spoken-word. Twenty years later, it’s no surprise that The Avalanches—whose 2000 album, Since I Left You, is considered a high-water mark of sample-based music—has experienced something of a second life. As so much of our world goes digital, there’s a renewed craving for the analog experience these artists represent. Said Deep is the project of Durham’s Hank Stockard, an avid vinyl collector who grew up listening to those early icons of sampling. Duck in Idaho, his first release on the Raund Haus label, is his love letter to the form, produced almost exclusively with records Stockard acquired from thrift store bargain bins and record shops across the Southeast. But even if its aim is inherently nostalgic, Duck in Idaho doesn’t fall into rote imitation. What makes sampling so exciting as an art form, after all, is that the permutations are quite literally endless; as long as there are sounds, there will always be new and interesting ways to manipulate them. Of course, it takes a good DJ to actually do this well, and like its forebears, Duck in Idaho is at its best when it takes two or more seemingly disparate ideas and, against all odds, makes them work together. “Flay Your Flesh,” for example, pairs a prayer-like vocal mantra with horror-movie strings and a stabbing bass line to produce one of the most dancefloor-ready tracks on the album.“My Damn Self” builds its pulse around the ha-ha-has of Laurie Anderson’s experimental hit “O Superman.” And on the otherwise laid-back “She Was a Visitor,” a twittering flute sample is interjected with an insistent blare that sounds kind of like an air-raid siren. The album highlights these unexpected affinities, yet never rests on an idea for too long. A few tracks, like “Pushing Dope in L.A.,” could easily translate to the club; but there’s a late-night wooziness to the productions that, combined with the satisfying crackle of dust on vinyl, makes this record seem particularly fit for headphones. If Since I Left You was a raucous celebration of sampling’s potential, then Duck in Idaho is the sound of the after-party winding down, moving from room to room as snatches of conversation float in and out of earshot. It may be an ode to former classics, but Duck in Idaho carves out a niche of its own. —Will Atkinson W

SC R E E N A still from Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Last Call Chadwick Boseman’s final film hits Netflix this week BY SHARON EBERSON


a Rainey’s Black Bottom comes out singing the blues and never stops— even when the music isn’t playing. The second Oscar-worthy adaptation of an August Wilson work in four years, the film bursts beyond the play’s theatrical constraints from its first moments. And unlike the play, it doesn’t make you wait for the grand entrance of its star players. The musical number at the outset establishes award-winning actress Viola Davis in the role of the real-life Gertrude “Ma” Rainey and the late Chadwick Boseman as Levee, the brash trumpet player with big dreams. We meet them in a tent in Georgia, circa1927, as Levee tries to upstage the star and flirts with her girlfriend. Needless to say, Ma is not amused. Before the action shifts from Georgia to Illinois, photos and clippings give evidence of the Black migration to northern cities like Chicago and Pittsburgh, a frequent Wilson theme. When the scene moves north to a Chicago recording studio, and the owner asks, “Where is she?” and “Where is the trumpet player?,” we already know which one is keeping everyone waiting and we know

to buckle up. It’s going to be a bumpy ride. Without a word, Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s screenplay has established the post-industrial diaspora of the era and the conflict between Ma and Levee. And perhaps most tellingly, the film gives the audience what many have come to see: Viola Davis decked out as the Mother of the Blues, and Black Panther star Chadwick Boseman in his final role, before his death in August, at age 43. Davis, who won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in 2017 for her role in Denzel Washington’s adaptation of Wilson’s Fences, leads a powerhouse team in conveying the 1920s installment of the playwright’s American Century Cycle. Of the cycle’s ten plays, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is the only one that isn’t set in Pittsburgh’s Hill District neighborhood. That didn’t stop the movie’s producers, among them Washington and Wilson’s widow, Constanza Romero, from bringing the production to the writer’s hometown. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is the work that established the Pittsburgh playwright as a theatrical force on Broadway in 1984, with the Pulitzer Prize-winning Fences to follow in 1987.

The title is taken from Ma Rainey’s signature song—music that spoke volumes to Wilson. The playwright, who died at age 60 in 2005, not only wrote in the mournful, rhythmic language of the blues; he declared, “I am the blues.” As he lets Ma tell it: “White folk don’t understand about the blues. They hear it come out, but they don’t know how it got there. They don’t understand that it’s life’s way of talking. You don’t sing to feel better. You sing because that’s understanding life. This’d be an empty world without the blues.” Ma says this in conversation with bandleader Cutler (Colman Domingo) as she waits for the cold Coke she was promised on a hot summer day. When none is waiting for her, she refuses to continue until the bottles are in hand. The songs in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom come stingily after the opening number, although music director Branford Marsalis did a deep dive into what Levee derisively calls the “jugband” sound; husky-voiced Ma Rainey was not swayed to change her style as the Jazz Age roared around her. Davis sings “Those Dogs of Mine”—“dogs” in this case being “feet,” as in, “Oh, how my corns did burn,” and, unlike Levee, “I can’t wear me no sharp-toed shoes.” Other songs are vocalized by soul singer Maxayn Lewis, a former Ikette with Ike & Tina Turner. Vocals aside, Davis imbues Ma with furious pride and glimpses of vulnerability; the seductive Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige) is an obvious weak spot. Armored in heavy padding, her eyes glaring beyond a sea of coalblack down to her cheeks, Ma demands not just respect, but subservience from any who would challenge her will. She’s the moneymaker at this party, and she makes sure no one forgets it. That includes the white men who are beholden to her at this session: her manager, Irvin (Jeremy Shamos), who spends most of his time cajoling or giving in to Ma, and Mel Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne), the owner and engineer of the studio. Mel barely conceals his distaste for Ma and her band members, who spend most of the movie sequestered in a basement rehearsal area. In these claustrophobic quarters, in the heat of day and with delays mounting, frustrations and resentments begin to roil. Elder statesman and pianist Toledo (Glynn Turman) is quick to impart wisdom


and criticism, while bassist Slow Drag (Michael Potts) moves to his own rhythms, and trombonist Cutler struggles to keep the players in harmony—at least, until the end of the session. Boseman, who was born in Anderson, South Carolina, has the flashiest role as Levee, and is elevated by matching wits with a band of distinguished scene partners. You’ll likely recognize plenty of other cast members, too. Veteran actor Turman, for example, plays a key role in the current season of FX’s Fargo, and Domingo can be seen opposite Zendaya in HBO’s Euphoria. Potts, seen in The Prom on Netflix, was among the stars of the Tony-winning revival of Wilson’s Jitney. The film is dedicated to the late actor’s “artistry and heart.” Both are on display in Levee, who enters with spiffy new wingtips, gloating about his own arrangements and songs. His bandmates aren’t having any of it. Turman’s Toledo is particularly put off by Levee’s bravado and lack of concern for the task at hand. In an exchange about “just having a good time,” Toledo lectures that more Black people “got killed having a good time than God’s got ways to count.” When the musicians tease Levee for showing deference to the white studio owner, he finally breaks down and explains why what they see isn’t necessarily the whole story. In a harrowing monologue about the violence and racism that has shaped the man Levee has become, the camera captures Boseman’s every expression of pain and outrage, and we witness what the buzz for a posthumous Oscar is all about. In another scene, when Mel takes hold of Levee’s music, Boseman’s expression of hope, mixed with doubt, needs no words to create a palpable foreboding. Tension permeates the screenplay by Santiago-Hudson, a Tony-winner for Wilson’s Seven Guitars and a Drama Desk-winner for The Piano Lesson off-Broadway. The film—which hits Netflix on December 18 after a stint in theaters—clocks in at a lean hour and 34 minutes. It’s an achievement that honors the original and delivers a tightly told tale with emotional punch and visual impact. W A version of this story was originally published by the Pittsburgh Current.

December 16, 2020



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