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Beyond Basslines and Banjos


Every year I've taken some enjoyment to Spotify sending me an end of year wrap-up list of the artists I listened to the most. Here is a rough picture:

  1. Aoife O'Donovan

  2. Mandolin Orange

  3. Kanye West

  4. Pusha T

  5. Amos Lee

  6. Sarah Jarosz

  7. John Moreland

  8. Kendrick Lamar

  9. Big K.R.I.T.

  10. Rick Ross

Five artists I would typically labeled in a folk genre and five as hip hop. The sharp genre contrast is the first part that interests me. But the other day I heard something that made these things feel closer together.

In an interview the artist Talib Kweli said, "At its root, hip-hop is folk music. It's speaking in the language that people are still speaking on the streets. By the time you get to most pop and rock and R&B music, the language becomes more romantic. It becomes more abstract."

To level set, folk music is defined as: traditional music of the people in a country or region.

On his podcast, Malcolm Gladwell explains the reason country music infamously sad is because its about something where as many pop songs in rock for example tend be more shallower in meaning. Gladwell at the end draws hip hop under the same umbrella as country music.

As I think about artists in both genres, I see similarities. One is people in impoverished communities feeling stuck and threatened by their environment. On the hip hop front one I've come to follow recently is CyHi The Prynce who opens a song saying,

I came not to call the righteous, but the sinners to repentance Luke 5:32, they say gangsters don't pray – I beg to differ We pray every night We pray every night to make it out of these struggles We pray all the time to make it out of this hell that we stuck in Real gangsters don't wanna be in the streets We was stuck out here cause we ain't got no choice Who gon' pray for us?

This is a song about feeling trapped in a lifestyle of hustling and selling drugs. It does not want for this lifestyle but it is what he has to work with.

Then I think about John Moreland, whose tales from Oklahoma are hauntingly beautiful. In his song "Cleveland County Blues", he talks about staring down tornadoes across the plains

My baby is a tornado In the endless Oklahoma sky Spinning devastation And singing me a lullaby And you're wrecking all the rooftops When April turns to May It wouldn't make a difference If I could or couldn't stay I fall back into love And look up and then you're gone But I still feel you storming in my bones

Or to strike a political note, a band who may be my favorite of the moment, Mandolin Orange, who in their song "Wildfire", makes me think about today's polarized north vs. south and democrat vs. republican factions

Civil War came, Civil War went

Brother fought the brother, the South was spent But its true demise was hatred passed down through the years It should have been different It could have been easy But pride has a way of holding too firm to history And it burns like wildfire

Or the hip hop artist Pusha T, who in his song "Sunshine", about police violence and double standards

I don’t got no march in me, I can’t turn the other cheek While they testing your patience, they just testing my reach Funeral flowers, every 28 hours Being laid over ours Sworn to protect and serve, but who really got the power? Looking over their allowances Building prisons where the mountains is Laptops is for the county kids Metal detectors is where ours is

Having both hip hop and Americana placed into a larger parent bucket of folk was great for me. They each have their own unique appeals but putting a label on a common thread was fun to discover. As humans we are storytellers. How often we are likely conveying the same stories from with different backgrounds, environments and cultures around us.

Go Forth Boldly


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