Justine Olivia Tellier
“Our bodies like coal, brilliant and bold,” sings Black Cracker on ‘How (Do) You Do That There’, the atmospheric canticle from his vulnerable new album Come As U R. It’s a confounding tapestry of beats overlaid with simple choral melodies, and these lyrics speak for much of the album, demonstrating that a project so sonically dark can be simultaneously energising and tender.
We meet in a coffee shop in Mitte where the Alabama-born musician is dissuaded from putting sugar in his coffee by a grinning but unrelenting barista. He shrugs as he walks back to our table, his brightly patterned trousers and sandalled feet a sartorial ‘fuck you’ to the studied greys and beiges of the café. Black Cracker is as open and confessional as suggested by the bare-chested photo on his album sleeve. A tell-tale bounce of the left knee and a gentle, ambling eloquence stand in sharp relief against the mission-like vision and determination of his artistry, but like every good art school dropout will tell you: everything is intentional. Here he talks to us about identity, promoting love, and kicking the art scene in the nuts.
Tell us about the album. Is it fair to say it’s a step away from your previous work, Poster Boy and Tears of A Clown?
Yeah. I’m a sensitive person, so I always try to take too many issues into account, but I feel like in this album, I’m learning to be a bit more secure and stable.
I’ve always been an advocate of evolving the identity of male sexuality in music. I think in particular genres we don’t have the most representative range of sexual interest and desire. I think there’s a place for really provocative, almost fetishised r’n’b or hip hop, but then there’s also a place where we can build more positive, holistic relationships with music that could be considered popular. I think that was really my focus on this album. And also I just wanted to make something nice, something that I actually felt was listenable.
How much of the album covers your day-to-day experiences?
Every song on the album is 100% autobiographical and super personal. I’m not really a narrative person. I’m not a storyteller. I’m a bit more experiential. So I try to just capture different feelings, even in one line or one verse; going from introspective to extrospective, personal to political, identity to individuality.
The album artwork finds your chest exposed and mouth open. Would you say openness is a key theme of this album?
Yeah. Actually, when I was a younger artist this was my gift, and this whole album became an opportunity to go back into myself, to remember that each of us, as artists or contributors on the planet, has a lane, and that I need to just get back into my lane – to get comfortable and trust that the world is taking me somewhere by my just being who I am. If we can just remember to be who we are, hopefully we can do a great deal of healing, because the coming times are not so attractive.
I think the minute we put any label or subcategory on people we are basically fulfilling white supremacy.
You talked about how you don’t want this album to challenge the status quo in queer music. Is it a concern of yours to be acknowledged as a queer artist?
A lot of artists really make it their identity, and it’s their politics, it’s what they want to be. But for me it’s just a community that I care about and I love.
I think the minute we put any label or subcategory on people we are basically fulfilling white supremacy. Until we start labelling “white rapper”, “white male rapper”, “female white rapper”, we are just being very exploitative as a culture. With people like Trump, we really are going to have to be a lot more conscious of the identities that the media puts on people, because it actually has severe consequences for their lives.
Because labelling is reserved for the “Other”, and qualifiers like “female” or “black” or “queer” are applied to roles where straight white men have staked their claim. We don’t say “male doctor”.
Exactly. Because that’s just the fucking system. I feel like we have to – as writers or artists – constantly break the system, otherwise we’re not doing our jobs, you know? And the minute we let someone give us that label, unless the gain is really worth it, we’ve failed. One time, I was in New Zealand and someone referred to me as transgender. Usually, if a media outlet had called me a transgender anything, I would immediately write them and say, “this is not appropriate,” but in this context, I was like, “Maybe it’s going to bring this conversation,” so I left it alone. But in general I think we have to police ourselves and set our own goals higher.
In an interview with The One-Hit Parade you talked about how you used humour when talking about race relations in ‘Chasing Rainbows’. How do you feel about the relationship between wit and identity politics in music?
[Laughs] I’m not so witty actually, my medium is more sincerity. And, you know, being around my girlfriend so much – she is like queen of wit, like real wit. Just brilliant, provocative, political wit. My language is more trying to break down the wall. I am not a theatre performer, but that is my performance: to break down that wall so people forget that this is a person performing. I do things that don’t seem intentional, but are fully intentional, that make it feel casual and comfortable or even insecure. A lot of times, people don’t realise that it’s super intentional. I think that is similar to wit, because sometimes it doesn’t work.
We saw your performance on Boiler Room. It was so engaging, really open-armed. Is that typical for your live performances?Yeah, it’s interesting because honestly I’m really trying to grow with my live performances. I don’t have the strongest vocal, so I’m trying to learn how to use my voice. I want people to have a good time: I love people, but I’m also so up in the air lately with my thoughts that it’s like, ‘Do I even have the authority or skill level to achieve my interests as a musician?’ Because if I can’t sing perfectly or if it doesn’t hit perfectly, then I’m not close to the conversation I want to have.
People seemed to really respond to that show, so maybe you found your mark.
Yeah. When we can break down all the interweb insecurity, we really come together as people. There’s nothing that says that on every night we can’t really make love collectively. It’s just a choice. We say we want to come and we want to feel open and equal, or we decide that we’re there to make ourselves feel better or worse; like our outfit is better, this girl is hotter. You know, all these divisive things. But at any point in time, we can collectively engage in a love affair.
I feel like we have to – as writers or artists – constantly break the system, otherwise we’re not doing our jobs, you know?
I think that night it was also a lot easier ‘cause people were aware that the cameras were on them. So it’s even like a third level of consciousness. They are coming together communally, but it’s also because the cameras are watching them. And they don’t want people to see them not being cool in the context of something that is deemed cool.
You found a community of sorts in that you’ve collaborated with three different acts on the album. How do those partnerships work?
[Smiles] Because they’re singers. They can sing. I can sing in my way. But they can, like, sing, you know? And this album was really about singing. It’s more r’n’b than a hip hop album.
Actually, I’m not a musical musician. I don’t like musicality. And I feel like they really help give the music a bit more musicality. I’m more interested in rhythm and layered rhythms, which I think for a lot of people makes the music a bit too busy, but the way I make the rhythms there are all these shifting sorts of tectonic plates of impulses.
I think that really comes through on the album – the sophisticated rhythms – and there’s almost a hymnal quality to some of the vocals and refrains. Was that conscious?
I think so. It’s always been my interest, but it’s also coming from insecurity. I’ve always been super insecure about my voice, but it’s 100% growing up in a Southern, Christian community. Like, not being allowed to listen to music as a kid – only Christian music. So subconsciously, lots of my references are super gospel.
I didn’t really grow up in the South but all my family is from there, and I think I feel a heavy weight and responsibility knowing that a lot of my cousins or my close family aren’t doing well; whether incarcerated or severely underemployed. So, like, it’s in my bones to carry this legacy of beauty, struggle and tragedy.
Are there any artists who you respect that are able to strike that balance between creating and promoting, but still being politically active?
Most of the artists that I love are friends or close enough to be friends. I guess from an abstract perspective, I’m super into Tino Sehgal. It’s pop, but it’s also deconstructed poetry and performance art. I really think that his work is important and effective.
I guess what I like to do is deconstruct art. And kind of like … kick art in the nuts. I think this would make space for the art world to call more stuff art, and not just have the same people at the table. And maybe it means that my art is not the best art, but hopefully I’m making room for other people.
Is it important then that what you’re doing is understood?
Not these days. These days I have a super “I don’t care” mentality. But I think this is also me finally taking a moment to acknowledge that I have had a very amazing set of experiences that have pulled me to this place. Recently I did something with Deutsche Oper, and to be from Alabama, all the way to Deutsche Oper … It’s like, ‘How did I get here?’
How far do you want the Black Cracker star to rise?
I’m just trying to, by the time I’m 60, have like an honorary doctorate at some university where I can be a professor on counter-culture and performance art. My albums are actually the least of what I do artistically. I look at everything that I do as one artistic movement and process. The jazz stuff, the theatre stuff, even throwing parties and building these cultural conversations. Contributing to Berlin, contributing to New York, contributing to Switzerland. I don’t care about ‘big’. It’s like playing poker: if you get really late in the game, you just want to be able to stay in the game. So long as I’m 60 and able to make an income through culture, then I’m winning. I come from the art world; I really look at it like I’m building a body of work.
I guess what I like to do is deconstruct art. And kind of like ... kick art in the nuts.
There are some artists who feel 100% the author, while some believe they’re communing with a muse, or energy, or God. Where does your art come from?
I have to think about this. I don’t know. It’s funny because it’s a question that a lot of people asked when I was doing more poetry: “Where do the words come from?” I honestly have no idea. I do think that when we listen to the experiences that we have and the experiences that we come from, we are being told to do different things. And for whatever reason, the universe gave me this possibility to write and communicate and travel.
I guess, it’s just being Alabama-born, military-raised, former-slave lineage, American, like everything that’s made me me, is where it comes from.
Plans for 2017?
I’m just honestly so excited to hit beats hard – just like a maniac, but also in the context of theatre and performance. I want to just take one year and make a big theatre work, maybe two hundred people see it and then that’s it. I think this is also why I have to reduce what I’m doing. Right now I have a lot of things going on.
I think we’re going to need voices like yours judging by how 2016 turned out.
Yeah. And really just make music from the heart. Just from the heart.
That’s when you’re privileged. When you’re the opening act for your girlfriend, you can kind of suck. Like you can take risks because you know she loves you. I’ve really just tried to perform from the heart. Like no ego, just ‘I love you, let’s have a nice night.’ [Laughs, arms open] Promote more love. We need it.
Black Cracker’s new album Come As U R is out now and available via iTunes and Spotify. Keep yourself informed of tour dates and happenings via blckcrckr.com.