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Many Voices, One Score

PARIAH’s Diverse Music

PARIAH’s Musical Concept

“The vision was to have an all-female soundtrack,” writer/director Dee Rees told Filmmaker about her first feature, PARIAH. “So pretty much all the voices are female voices, and that was important.”

In PARIAH, Rees skillfully uses a dynamic collection of songs from, with an exception or two, up-and-coming musicians performing not only hip hop but also punk metal and acoustic soul to reflect on the diversity of personal identity in the film. “I wanted to use these different genres of music to heighten the character’s voices,” Rees continues. “So, again, just like these girls don’t talk the same way, they don’t listen to the same things. And these disparate influences ultimately help Alike break out of her community and kind of be who she is. She’s discovering herself through this different music as we discover the film through these different musical voices.”

Drawing from the Afro-Punk scene, the downtown New York and Brooklyn music communities, and West Coast hip hop, the PARIAH soundtrack (available on Lakeshore Records) is a testament to the diversity of strong music by independent women of color today. And while it kicks off with the notorious “My Neck, My Baby (Lick It)” by Khia, a song you’ve probably heard on car radios and in movies over the last decade, most of the tracks are fresh and sometimes genre-defying discoveries from both rising indie label artists and under-recognized local stars.

Tamar-kali: The Afro-Punk Voice

Ask singer and musician Tamar-kali about the term “Afro-Punk” and you’ll get a sophisticated answer about the diversity of today’s African-American rock scene. Many first discovered the Brooklyn-based artist when she was included in James Spooner’s seminal 2003 documentary, Afro-Punk, joining a stellar group of musicians — Bad Brains, Fishbone, 10 Grand — who are embracing various forms of rock and punk with an explicitly African-American identity. But she’s reticent to collapse her driving metal under the umbrella of a specific movement. As she told the Afro-Punk web site, “I've never been clear on the 'movement' thing. The film was certainly the impetus for the 'outing' of the conversation, and a platform has definitely emerged for folk who aren't buying in to the stereotypes. It's a much wider perspective than the topic of the film.” Or, as she related to RaweMag, “The music genre [of Afro-Punk] is based on the composition of music, the instrumentation, and the chord progressions, not riffs. So, in that regard, Afro-Punk would not be a genre because Afro-Punk reflects or describes people who are African American who don’t necessarily fit the stereotype in terms of the music they listen to or activities that they are involved in.”

After an EP, Geechee Goddess Hardcore Warrior, and songs on various compilations, Tamar-kali released her debut album, Black Bottom, in 2010. Fronting a four-piece band, Tamar-kali propels her deep voice through songs that touch upon metal, funk and hard rock. On the Ravealicious blog, critic Rob Fields wrote, “Like Tina Turner, you get the feeling from listening to Tamar-kali’s debut album Black Bottom that she never did anything nice and easy. But it’s that struggle she articulates to come into her own that has helped Tamar-kali create Black Bottom, and the result is an exhilarating, cathartic rock ‘n roll tour de force.”

Tamar-kali has performed at the Afro Punk festivals, supporting Fishbone and Outkast, but she is also a regular at Joe’s Pub, at the Public Theater, where she created in 2010 the Black Bottom Revue, a “rock and roll cabaret” fusing songs from her album with burlesque and musical performances from allied artists. As her Public Theater artist page states, “Her longevity proves that she has what it takes to appeal to hipsters, punks, hip-hop heads and soul/jazz aficionados without compromising her individuality to kowtow to anyone's expectations.”

Reema Major: Voicing Young Hip Hop

The header on Reema Major’s Twitter page (twitter.com/reemamajor) proclaims, “I'm 16 years old and don't care much for a humans irrelevant opinion I'm ME.” Indeed, Major has marshaled youth and strong individuality to make herself a rising star in the hip hop scene. Born in Sudan (reportedly, in a jail cell) to Sudanese and U.A.E. parents, Majors lived in Kenya and Uganda before her family moved to Canada and she was introduced to hip hop at age five, when, according to her website, she watched her cousins engage in “cyphers” — a kind of group freestyle rap sung a capella or with ambient beats — on the stoop of her apartment building. Inspired early on by Lauryn Hill and Queen Latifah, Majors mixes Arabic influences with electronic beats and Southern-styled hip hop. She scored a record deal at 15, when she signed to Canada’s G7 Records, and a major label deal the following year, when she signed also to Universal Music Canada and Interscope. Early singles “Gucci Bag” and “Youngest in Charge” debuted online, with her recent mixtape, I Am Legend — and an appearance by Rick Ross on the accompanying video — poised to push her into the mainstream.

Major’s confident, speedy raps and eye-popping, colorful fashions might remind you of current hip-hop superstar Nicki Minaj, but the life experience she draws from ensures that her words will have a perspective like no one else. In an interview with Toronto’s Now Magazine (http://www.nowtoronto.com/daily/music/story.cfm?content=179971), she talked of how that experience — like watching a woman commit suicide by jumping off a building — has informed her lyrics. “Moving around a lot I was exposed to a lot of things the average child doesn’t see – multiculturalism and having to adapt to different environments,” says Majors. “At that time it was normal to me. When kids said they stayed still, I was like you don’t move around? It was all I ever did for the longest time. It definitely impacts you because I feel my music is my story and my story is who I am.”

Kandi Cole: Emotion and Politics

L.A.-based writer, producer and emcee Kandi Cole grew up with her parents playing James Brown, Parliament and Charlie Parker on the stereo. As a teenager, she processed those influences but then soaked up the sounds of A Tribe Called Quest, Big Daddy Kane, Da Brat and Busta Rhymes. And now, with two songs on the PARIAH soundtrack — and after a decade in the underground West Coast scene — Cole is due for a larger audience. In songs like “Do You” and “Gimme Room,” her emotionally perceptive lyrics echo PARIAH protagonist Alike’s churning feelings. In her review of the soundtrack at Film School Rejects, Allison Loring says that Cole’s “lyrical stylings … help reflect Alike’s poetic nature and how the words within a song or a poem can sometimes be more powerful and mean more than if they are simply said.”

Cole’s first album, Happy Birthday, Kandi Cole, came out in 2008, and in 2011 Cole teamed with San Diego rapper Miki Vale as 50/50, with their debut single, the politically charged “Black,” released that same year. For Cole, identity, politics and music intertwine as she fights against categorization in hip hop. In an interview with SheMovement, Cole talks about her involvement with (SIS)TEM, a collective of female emcees that now has members stretching from Los Angeles to London. “Well with women in Hip Hop, the representation sucks...the end. I think that's because as women, we leave it up to someone else to portray us. It's up to us to say what we want to be a part of and what we don't. We can’t really blame Hip Hop for doing it; we have to take responsibility and look at ourselves. So with my crew, the (SIS)TEM, we basically came together to form a strength-in-numbers approach to building up women as a whole in Hip Hop because we are all very talented sisters and we came together to show that we as black women can support each other whereas in the mainstream media, they show us wanting to cut each others heads off.”

Sparlha Swa: The Soulful Voice

Jamaican-born, New York-residing Sparlha Swa brings two distinct emotional textures to Dee Rees’ PARIAH. Reminiscent slightly of Sade, the track “Doin My Thing” is a spirited piece of soul, with Swa asserting over a relaxed beat — and amidst some extraordinary high notes — “I’ve got to keep doing my thing.” “Song of the Morning” is completely different, a delicate folk song with Swa’s wordless vocals capturing a state of emotional yearning and perhaps indecision. The dramatic quality of Swa’s voice connects her music directly to character, which is not unexpected as the singer is a veteran of the New York stage — most notably Bill T. Jones’ production of Fela! — as well as its music performance venues, which include the Blue Note Jazz Café, Joe’s Pub and BAM Café.

“Mixing impeccable vocals and haunted modal chords, her songs speak to and about the human spirit; often sad and often wise, she shares beauty and battle scars from her own inner journey,” reads Swa’s bio, and it was these qualities that attracted Rees, who included Swa’s songs in the original short-film version of PARIAH. Swa’s records include the albums In the Distance and Live in NYC. She is currently at work on her second studio album, Moongazing.

Honeychild Coleman and Audio Dyslexia: Bringing Rock and So Much More

Defiantly eclectic, the music of Kentucky-born, New York-based Honeychild Coleman veers and skitters across genres, pulling from electro-pop, psychedelia, reggae, new wave, alternative rock and folk. As on her latest record, Bereket Window, uniting it all is Coleman’s beguiling voice, which confidently, and at times eerily, drifts across tracks that recall everything from ‘90s Beck to the punk reggae of the Slits (with whom she has toured). Indeed, as dizzying as Coleman’s stylistic pirouettes can be on record, it is her voice that provides an emotional anchor for the listener. As the record label Invisible Girl describes Bereket Window, “And just when you are almost overwhelmed by darkness, the album ends with the beautiful, warm accapella take on the traditional ‘Comin’ Through The Rye’. There are echoes here of other musics, but Honeychild’s idiosyncratic vision and keening, crooning, howling vocals make any comparison not only impossible, but undesirable. This is one woman’s unique voice, and is a recording that merges intelligent experimentation with emotional, searching pop music in a way only a few genuine talents can truly pull off.”

The 44-year-old Coleman has two songs on the PARIAH soundtrack. The first, under her own name, is “Echelon,” in which Coleman’s casually assertive, mezzo soprano voice glides to high notes over a trip hop track reminiscent of The xx. The second is the uplifting “Parallel,” by the band Audio Dyslexia, in which Coleman is joined by three other members of the New York music scene. If Coleman’s solo work favors genre-hopping and electronic rhythms, Audio Dyslexia is old school downtown rock — guitar, bass, drums and a singer. Her collaborators include members of the bands Barkmarket and Cop Shoot Cop, and “Parallel,” which plays the morning after PARIAH’s Alike sleeps with girlfriend Bina, has a simple and direct emotion enhanced by its straightforward instrumentation. Speaking to the Fort Greene Local, Coleman says she was personally affected by the film. “I found the story very moving and something that hasn’t been told before,” she said. “It’s extremely emotional and vulnerable and it shows a side of alternative and gay relationships that the media doesn’t really acknowledge. It really shows the human side of the situation.”

Khia: The Voice of Desire

The PARIAH soundtrack album kicks off with its most well-known track, 2002’s “My Neck, My Back (Lick It),” by the Philadelphia-born rapper Khia. The song appeared on her debut album, Thug Misses, and with its subject matter (as its title suggests, the song is about not only cunnilingus but analingus), became both controversial and something of a cultural touchstone. It featured on the soundtracks to both the Dark Angel TV show and the indie film The Door in the Floor; was referenced by Lil Wayne in his track “Comfortable,” and was the subject of an episode of Louis CK’s show Lucky Louie, in which the straitlaced, blue-collar comic is startled to find his four-year-old daughter dancing to the song.

In an interview with MTV, in which Khia admits she wrote “My Neck, My Back (Lick It)” in 15 minutes, the rapper reported to be surprised at the song’s popularity. (She also batted down rumors that she was killed by her boyfriend at the time, but that’s another story.) “I guess the world is just nasty and freaky like that," she said. "It's not even my favorite song, and I was kind of surprised that's the song that everybody jumped on. That song is just nothing compared to my other music. It's like, 'That's what the world is about today,' so hey, it works for me.” In another interview, with the St. Petersburg Times (http://www.sptimes.com/2002/07/14/Floridian/Big_hit_was_no_surpri.shtml, she said the opposite — that the success wasn’t a surprise — and she described the song’s female empowerment themes: “A lot of women don't take charge in relationships," she said. "All I'm talking about is encouraging women not to be afraid to tell men what they like, instead of sitting around worrying about what their man likes. I may say cuss words and talk nasty, but I'm only talking about things that I have seen and experienced."

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