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Tune-Yards' Merrill Garbus Pierces Her Own Privilege

Tune-Yards' <em>I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life</em> is out now.
Tune-Yards' I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life is out now.

Here's a fact few white American musicians feel comfortable facing: every kind of American music, from Top-40 pop to high mountain bluegrass, has some root in the work and creativity of people of color. Arguments about appropriation surface most commonly when artists are clearly borrowing from well-known sources; Justin Timberlake's decision to repackage his blue-eyed funk in Ralph Lauren-style quasi-neutrals is the latest example of white performers side-stepping the fact that they owe their very souls to black collaborators, acknowledged or not.

For Merrill Garbus, whose synth-driven mash-ups of global rhythms and art-punk dreams in the duo Tune-Yards have always more openly confronted the issue of appropriation than most, partial acknowledgment of her debts stopped working at a certain point. After the release of 2014's Nikki-Nack, she resolved to face not just her cultural debts, but the ways she'd tried to sweep them to the side, even within the multiculturally savvy sound Tune-Yards embraced. In their new music, she vowed, she and her musical/life partner Nate Brenner would no longer wrap up the issue of white entitlement in a psychic Pendleton blanket.

"For me, it reached a crisis point," Garbus said by phone from her and Brenner's Oakland home earlier this week. "I couldn't not speak about whiteness in my work."

Ever the student, the Smith-educated Garbus, who writes most of Tune-Yards' lyrics, designed an anti-racist curriculum for herself. She attended a six-month anti-racist workshop at the East Bay Meditation Center. She read the work of noted anti-racist educator Tim Wise and explored the activism of Standing Up for Racial Justice, a nationwide, progressive activism network dedicated to "moving white people to act as part of a multi-racial majority." Seeking new musical communities, she learned to DJ. Well aware that her sincerity would seem to some the epitome of white liberal sanctimoniousness, she sat with the discomfort that realization brought, along with many other vexed emotions. And she and Brenner made music, working with a small handful of collaborators to focus and complicate their excited, beat-driven arrangements, building glass houses of sound to better illuminate Garbus's confrontations with her own internalized secrets and lies.

I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life is the most sophisticated Tune-Yards album, recalling classic meldings of pop and social observation like her friend Laurie Anderson's 1983 classic Mr. Heartbreak or the early hits of Frankie Goes To Hollywood. The album makes its arguments musically as much as through Garbus' words: there's a tension in the way the synth lines rub up against each other, occasionally punctuated by precise live drumming, that enhances Garbus' revelations about the struggle to confront and undo racism at the most intimate level.

Garbus, who has always looked to the African diaspora for primary musical inspiration, trusted her co-producer Brenner to help her not reach for "a sunny chord" when the song called for more challenging juxtapositions. "There was a lot of conversation about how the music interacts with the words," she says. "And a lot of times, on the first pass, it was like, no, that's not what I'm saying."

This struggle led to an album that contains more clarity of vision – and of sound – than anything Tune-Yards has previously offered. For Garbus, it's a beginning. "I'm in the midst of this work," she said. "I don't feel like it's past tense. I'll be doing it for the rest of my life."

1. "Heart Attack"

This was one of the first drum beats that I made on the OP-1. It's like a mini keyboard, but it does everything — it has a four-track recorder, a sampler, a drum machine, and a sequencer. It's just like this really ingenious machine, and it costs a lot of money, and it's worth every penny. I was reading the book Last Night a DJ Saved My Life: The History of the Disc Jockey and listening to older house tracks and wondering, what are the parameters of a house song? What's the rhythm actually life? In my limited knowledge of house music, I assumed those songs were boring rhythmically. But going back to those older records, I was like, "No, no, no!" In fact, those guys (and, I presume, women) were referencing the records they were listening to in order to create these new, complex rhythms. Inspired by that, I wanted to have an effect that was rhythmically off – really syncopated and unexpected.

2. "Coast To Coast"

I just love the ukulele effects that we got here, working with [engineer] Beau Sorensen. We put the ukulele through all these pedals and then he did, I think, a delay on his end, and I just love the bass that got created from that. Theme- wise, I started writing the song pre-election – as I did a lot of these songs – and then it got finished post-election, and it reflects a lot of questions I have for myself about sides and side-taking, and how for the most part, that's such bulls***. But when is the moment when I do stand up and say, "This is absolutely wrong?"

3. "ABC 123"

So many of these songs were confusing to create. They felt didactic. I knew there were all these annoying lyrics coming out of me, and was trying to figure out how to put it all together. We were working on the chorus with this quarter-note melody and I thought, well, f*** it. ABC, 123. And then from there, I thought, what if this represents a new language? A lot of this album is me trying to face things instead of running away from the reality of the world in this era. Thinking, if I could face the realities of climate change, of massive extinction, of white privilege and white fragility, then maybe I could guide listeners into also looking at things and not running away in all the ways that we do.

Have you heard about this podcast, How To Survive the End of the World? It's these two sisters, Autumn and Adrienne Marie Brown. Adrienne Marie Brown wrote this book called Emergent Strategy. She has a lot of background in activist organizing. The podcast and her book really break things down and encourage listeners to confront what's actually happening. That really inspires me. I'm a Pisces – I'd rather live in the dream sphere. I don't want to touch down. But it feels like this is a moment where we need to be here, not in that dream world.

4. "Now As Then"

What often happens when white people start to confront racism is this idea of a good white self arises. Like, "Other people are like this — not me!" In the post-Trump era, progressives and liberals are finding ourselves wanting to distance ourselves from other white people. But if we grew up white in this country, we're racist, and that's what this song explores.

The line that's the grossest for me is, "Man, I want to take you home." A lot of the lyrics on this album came from working on myself, writing down all the gross things that I don't want to admit are in me somewhere. I listen to some Somali dance tape from the '80s and I think, I want that in my music! There's a colonial vibe to that. "I'm an exception," and I want. Want, want, want.

With all the compassion in my heart, I just want to say to white people sampling others' music: what you're engaging in is colonialism. Name it for what it is. Especially given the power dynamic today, with greater restrictions on entering the U.S. There's so much less access for musicians of color to say, "Hey, glad you like it! Now I get to make money touring in your country."

5. "Honesty"

I used some language from meditation practice in this song. In the workshop that I did [a six-month course at the East Bay Meditation Center called "White and Awakening on Race"] we were asked to look at videotapes of police killings. We were read narratives of lynchings, describing what actually took place, in detail. And then we were asked to sit in meditation, and be honest with ourselves. I know there's a lot of criticism of all-white spaces and I don't necessarily ever want to be in an all-white space – it's triggering! But my experience of being in a group of white people who are there to be rigorously honest with ourselves and each other about what goes on, knowing that we weren't causing harm to people of color through our own exploitation of that stuff... that was where I had to ask myself the question: do you really want to know? A lot of the time, I didn't want to know. We deny our own racism, because it feels so ugly.

I like to think that I'm an honest person, but there are all these ways that I understand myself now as a consistently dishonest person. Whether that's my habit of making other people happy all the time and not really engaging myself in my own truth before I act for the benefit of others; or a lot of stuff that has to do with whiteness. I just want to hold so tightly to not being a bad white person that I will deny all these other truths. Meditation gives room for those things, to confront them, and then hopefully move on.

6. "Colonizer"

I cringed all the way through making that song. And at the risk exercising my white fragility, I'll tell you, I cried a lot, too. Something that I'm trying to learn is just speaking from my own experience. I don't know a whole lot about the history of whiteness. I don't know a lot about racial justice activism, about organizing or the "correct" word to use politically. That doesn't mean that I get to be absolved from the responsibility to speak my experience. This is something that happened. I'm white. I heard my voice speaking to a friend about this experience that I had in Kenya. A lot of people think that I'm making fun of another white woman in "Colonizer." No. This is me.

7. "Look At Your Hands"

That one started with a drumbeat. I started it when I started DJ-ing at a club across the street from us. I had I made that beat and I was kind of practicing with it, practicing mixing it in with other records. I was trying to figure out, will people dance to this?

I wrote a lot of lyrics on my way to and from our studio, walking by Lake Merritt in Oakland. And there was something about looking at my own hands... slowing things down and simplifying. You know — these are my hands! Is my cell phone in my hand? Where did my cell phone come from?. What's told just in my hands, and also by my own consumption? What am I doing in the world? Wanting to ask questions – like in [the 2009 Tune-Yards song] "Little Tiger," with the lyric "all you own you owe to someone you don't know" — what invisible lines connect us to each other that we don't even acknowledge in our day to day?

"How does it injure me to be living in white supremacy?" Garbus asks herself. "There is value in a white person looking at it that way – I have more motivation to work against it when I personalize it."
Eliot Lee Hazel / Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist
"How does it injure me to be living in white supremacy?" Garbus asks herself. "There is value in a white person looking at it that way – I have more motivation to work against it when I personalize it."

8. "Home"

Where this song is on the album, it felt like the right time to slow things down. It still feels really slow! Hamir [Atwal, the jazz drummer who appears on Private Life and tours with Tune-Yards] always gets it right when we're playing it live, whereas I'm always like, oh yes.... It's really that slow.

The lyrics "She's a fool...." I had a friend say, it should be, "He's a fool – this is the time for he's a fool!" And that's easier to sing – my voice teacher pointed that out. "Ha" is easier than "sha." But it's definitely me [in the lyric]. If I own what I'm foolish about in the beginning of the song then maybe by the end I get to own the lyric, "You're not telling my story, man."

I was just listening to Adrienne Marie Brown talk about her fiction writing, and she said that fiction is where she gets to embody the conflicting things inside her. And that's totally true for me in music. It's where those ideas are allowed to live in me.

9. "Hammer"

This song could so be about Trump, but that's not why I wrote it; it could so be about gender politics, but that's not why I wrote it. Yet it is about all of those things. It's totally about patriarchy, yes, but it also extends to white supremacy, and to neo-colonialism. It's all the poisons.

"Hammer" barely made it onto the album. I was asking myself, is it too '80s? Is it cheesy? Is the keyboard sound dated? I have a tender spot for the '80s, and specifically for UB40's Labor Of Love, an album I grew up with. So I'm sure a lot of that is in there.

Lyrically – it's understanding my limited knowledge and experience as a white person in Oakland, and asking, what is my place in this community. We hear so many statistics these days – What percentage of black men live into their 40s? What percentage of species will be alive on the planet in 50 years? These number mean these huge and horrifying things. But how do we process that information?

10. "Who Are You"

Matt Nelson, a longtime collaborator of ours, completely nailed the sax solo. He recorded it with us at Tiny Telephone Oakland and we were projecting Planet Earth on the studio ceiling, and I was just crying as he tracked. This song gives me feelings, even though they're kind of murky and confusing...which I guess is what the song is about.

11. "Private Life"

This track quotes Ladysmith Black Mambazo ("Reveal yourself, reveal yourself,"' taken from "King of Kings"), which definitely is a reference both to how that group influenced me as a musician as well as to the complications of [Paul Simon's] Graceland project. How does a musician like myself reconcile the legacy of Graceland, investigate what happened there and why, and how do I learn from that, and do better?

12. "Free"

The lyric here is similar to the one in "Now As Then," where I say, "I don't want to be a woman if it means not being human." I've spent a lot of years working on owning being a woman. Of course I'm free – I've just spent this whole album talking about how privileged I am. But, "Don't tell me I'm free," that's what came out. And I try to respect what gets channeled, even if it feels wrong. And also, the white supremacy and racism that we live in, it doesn't just damage people of color. To be able to say that, and understand that; it's not that I've suffered more than others. Of course I haven't. But I'm saying, I am affected. I'm asking, how does it injure me to be living in white supremacy. There is value in a white person looking at it that way – I have more motivation to work against it when I personalize it. And then it was important to take a break and say, "I'm free." To belt that out.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ann Powers is NPR Music's critic and correspondent. She writes for NPR's music news blog, The Record, and she can be heard on NPR's newsmagazines and music programs.
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