Vibraphonist-composer Nikara Warren combines a broad lineage of music with the very personal and diverse artistry she grew up embracing in her native Brooklyn, creating new music that confronts injustice and celebrates humanity.
While her debut recording Black Wall Street awaits release, Warren invites the Black Wall Street band back to The Jazz Gallery stage for the final performance of her Political Gangster Trilogy, which offers original interpretations of music from Nina Simone and Me’Shell Ndegeocello. In her interview with Jazz Speaks, Warren discusses similarities and differences in political inquiries through music, the atmospheres she creates for listeners, and the universal need—and love—for the process.
The Jazz Gallery: You have a connection to the human voice—this performance in more of a literal way, many of the horn parts for Black Wall Street to have kind of a choral quality, and you sing through your instrument—listeners can hear you sing while you play, and you’ve been known to grab the mic yourself in different contexts. In what ways has the decision to become politically gangster with your artistry given you a stronger connection to the human voice?
Nikara Warren: Well politics, that’s what it’s all about—people speaking their truths—which is also what music is all about. I’m not really someone who enjoys talking about politics; if I’m hanging out, it’s not on the list of things I want to chat about. But, because of the state of the country and the world, I feel like I guess I have to be. And I don’t always know that my words can really do it. But [the state we’re in] has forced me to find ways to make statements, musically, that were directly related to my political stance, which I guess is kind of difficult – being able to say things with no words, because I don’t always have them.
TJG: I’d like to read you a quotation from the one-sheet for Me’Shell’s Ventriloquism.
TJG: “In times so extreme and overwhelming, when there is no known expression for the feeling, no satisfactory direction for art or action, then [artists] might take refuge in a process, a ritual, something familiar, the shape and sound of which recall another time altogether, so that they can weather the present long enough to call it the past.”
NW: Yeah that’s the blues. That’s the premise of the blues, where all this music started.
TJG: How does that sentiment resonate with your choices as an artist?
NW: The beauty of music is that it can move you. It can move you, and it can change the place that you’re in mentally. And I think a lot of the reason artists make art is to reflect the times emotionally, or what’s going on. So there are times for artists when things are difficult, you might want to cling on to, or submerge yourself in a process that maybe feels like home. For a lot of artists, that’s just creating—being creative. Because, if you do that, you can kind of weather the storm. You can get through it. Thank you for reading that.
TJG: When I read it, it sounded like what you might be doing with your work. But let’s jump back—you mentioned speaking without using words. You seem to create these atmospheres for your music to exist inside of. Can you talk about creating an atmosphere that surrounds the listener, and how that might be a way to communicate without using words?
NW: I think that probably has to do with the process in which I write. I went to music school, but I studied business in music school; so, what that afforded me was the opportunity to watch and see what was going on. And there is this—particularly in instrumental improvisational music—there is this desire for academic music, like, “Oh man, that’s so crazy—he’s playing in 7 and then he did this crazy thing.” And that was fun for me for a while, and it can be fun; there’s a place for that, too. But for me, I don’t write anything if I don’t already hear it. I don’t sit at the piano and fish for tunes—which can make gigs like this particularly difficult, when you gotta write music, but I don’t really fish for tunes. It has to come from some sound or some atmosphere or some place that is already in my head.
This is hard to explain, but a lot of times when I sit down and write a tune, it’s like I hear the whole thing already. I guess what I’m saying is, I’m the creator of the story. So, I know how to paint the picture. But I think that there are many people who don’t write like that, who think, “Yeah, this is cool—let me figure out what to put on this.” I don’t like to place things in places where they’re not necessary.
TJG: You’ve spent a lot of time with Nina’s music and MeShell’s. Artistically—and I guess by artistically I mean both musically and politically—how are the two of them similar maybe in ways that listeners wouldn’t expect?
NW: That’s a good question. I’m sort of thinking about that as the process goes along with the writing. I’m done, pretty much, but I think for me, this go ’round, I’ve noticed many, many differences but, politically, I think it’s a little bit difficult because Me’Shell’s takes are not as out there. I feel like I have to search a little bit more, you know, “If that’s your boyfriend, he wasn’t last night” and “Come smoke my herb.” That’s much different from Nina’s style, which is that these tunes that are clearly about civil rights and things like that. So I think it’s always going to be easier for me to point out differences, but I do think that there is a general vibe of, “I should be accepted.” That seems kind of like a bottom line. But, it can be a little abstract.
And also, just in the sense that they’re both black and both might present as female. You might look at them and maybe think that they’re going to have certain struggles anyway. So there is that, I almost wanna say darkness, with both of them. I think Nina’s voice carries a certain dark heaviness in the same way that I think maybe Me’Shell’s bass playing carries this heavy behind-the-beat darkness that I think could be a reflection of what they’ve been through.
TJG: You’ve taken this decidedly celebratory approach to your social commentary and inquiry. In what ways does celebration move you and inspire your artistic output as opposed to other avenues of social and political criticism?
NW: Yeah. I think celebration is so important to so many cultures, particularly in cultures that have had hardship. And I think, for me, it doesn’t really do much as far as moving forward, to focus only on these negative things that have happened and are happening. It’s not the beauty and the positivity of the lineage. People like to have fun. People like to be happy. I like to be happy; there’s so, so much beauty in the music that I grew up with and people that I surrounded myself with, and what I choose to reflect and put out to the world is that [beauty], while also hoping that people can learn from history.
TJG: Do you want to talk about the personnel for this project and maybe, in particular, your relationship with Brianna?
NW: What’s crazy is that I did not intend to use the Black Wall Street band for all these gigs. Actually, the intention was that I was going to get completely different groups for the first show and the last show that we’re about to do, and then have them play the Black Wall Street show. But I think, when I started to write the music, I started to realize that now, as I get older, the repertoire is growing, and I’m sitting down and looking at the evolution of my tunes, and this is probably one of the first times I’ve sort of realized I have a sound. I was beginning to hear that, and I’m obviously not done with that sound. So in the music I’m writing now, which is arrangements of people who have work that lends itself politically to where I’m at in my life, I’ve noticed that the sound is still there. So I just was like, “Why am I gonna call a new band for music that sounds like it’s them?” It’s them.
So now what’s happened, as a very beautiful byproduct of doing these shows, the Political Gangster Trilogy, is that not only do I have all my original Black Wall Street music, but now I’ve got another 15, 20 tunes that are covers of artists that have political backing that I can now perform in my Black Wall Street live shows. It’ll lend itself to exactly what I’m trying to do. It’s been a beautiful blessing.
And Brianna—Brianna’s my little sister. She’s my stepsister. She lives in St. Louis and is young, and once she graduates school, she will move here, and she’s just an incredible, incredible singer. It still floors me all the time and I think it’s so exciting because I know that nobody knows her yet. I’m just holding on to this secret. It’s going to be cool for people to hear her because she’s gonna be on the road soon, so people should just do it now while they can. Soon as she gets here, she’s going to be making moves.
TJG: This might seem like a cheesy question, but I’m deadly serious when I ask you: How can we all become a little more politically gangster?
NW: Mmm. Well, I guess in that phrase, when I say “gangster,” what it really means is just being unafraid. Many of us, at times even myself, have been in situations where something might not be right, and we maybe don’t speak on it. We maybe don’t do as much as we should. It’s like, are you going to say something to your racist grandma, or are you going to say, “Oh, she’s old and she doesn’t need to know,” and blah blah blah? But those things to make the difference and they do help to turn the dial a different way. So, I say, just be unafraid if you know something’s not right. Do something about it or make some art, if you gotta express it that way. But just do something. Do something.
Nikara Warren presents the third volume of her Political Gangster Trilogy, featuring the music of Me’shell Ndegeocello and Nina Simone, at The Jazz Gallery on Tuesday June 25, 2019. The band features Ms. Warren on vibraphone, Brianna Brown on vocals, Steven ‘Khemestry’ Fowler on trumpet, Craig Hill on saxophone, Corey Sanchez on guitar, Paul ‘BAEBRO’ Wilson on keys, and David Frazier, Jr on drums, plus special guests. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission (FREE for members), $20 reserved cabaret seating ($10 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.