Interview with Abdu Ali, Summer 2015
In this interview, Jana speaks with Baltimore musician, promoter, writer and activist Abdu Ali. This is a companion piece to Jana’s op-ed published today at Pitchfork, and is quoted extensively therein.
Abdu: Me and my music peers of colors have noticed for one it’s always that conversation of why a lot of Baltimore musicians can’t really pop off. When i mean pop off: establish a career in music, start touring around the world, sell music, play at festivals, the whole nine of becoming I guess a blossoming musician in a city where music-wise it’s culturally rich, have a lot of talented people, is a east coast city, to be so close to New York, DC, and Philly. We’re right in a good hot spot. It’s affordable to live here so people can have the time and money to put and invest in their music, everybody’s puzzled why people, why musicians here are not popping off like they could. And one thing I wanna say about that, interject that thought, is that for one, let’s be specific. Baltimore musicians of color don’t really make it here. When you look at all the little other pockets of music scenes from Dan Deacon to Future Islands, Wye Oak, Animal Collective, Beach House, Dope Body, I could go on and on and on - they make it. It seems like it’s a lot of people bustling out of this city that do those genres, but the black musicians don’t really seem like they can really either get it together or…what is stopping them from becoming popping?
Jana: Right and it’s not a question of motivation or talent.
Abdu: Right. So I don’t know, one thing is that, this actually should be a research kinda thing cause I’m really curious to figure out why. Me and my friends talk about this so much, like why? It don’t even make sense because like I said we a east coast city, we kinda connected to all these resources in the other cities that can make us, help us, get on as a musician but like we still struggling. One thing i said was for one, you look at the social, political climate of Baltimore, it’s hard. I think I read something like 7 out of every 10 black men in Baltimore between the ages of 18 and 27 or something is unemployed. The educational system here is corrupt as fuck. What else? I don’t know. And then even in just the architecture and the landscape of Baltimore, we got 16000 abandoned homes here, there’s a lot of ugly here. And that in itself has a deep psychological effect on people. Especially people who can relate to the land, people that grew up in Baltimore and that can make them not motivated, easily, you know? So but yeah a big question with a lot of my black music friends is why it doesn’t seem like nobody is either reaching out to us, trying to put us on, or like why is just so hard for those musicians to just come here and develop here in Baltimore. And it can be simple things from the fucked up policies and regulations and rules that people gotta go through to open up spaces - music, creative spaces in Baltimore - and what I realized is that the only people who really can open up these spaces are the people who can afford to go through all that bullshit - pay for a lawyer, pay for this and that - just to open up a space that can only hold 100 people, you know what I’m saying? And that’s why you don’t really see too many small spaces, or big spaces, creative spaces owned by people of color, cause for one we’re broke, we don’t really have the resources, and they don’t let us into things like, “Oh there’s a grant for this to help you develop a space for creative people of color,“ or “oh, they just got rid of this law now so now you can do this and that, a, b, c and d,” and it needs to stop being a separation. I mean, Baltimore is so segregated. It’s crazy, and why the segregation is so fascinating is Baltimore is so small (laughs). You would think that people be running into each other all the time and connecting and vibing with each other all the time but they don’t. A lot of people don’t know but Baltimore has deep-rooted segregation regulation laws that’s been in place since like the early 1900s and still affecting us today, you know what I’m saying? Like my friend is doing a study on rats in Baltimore. He’s following certain rats in certain neighborhoods in Baltimore because a long time ago they couldn’t place people in certain neighborhoods based upon that area’s rat population. So he’s doing a documentary and trying to like get this shit all together, draw the connections see, “Well, the rats are here, and there’s a lot of poverty here,” and like Baltimore is like the number one place for rat research or something. It’s weird! (laughs) He told me that and then he says rat poison was invented in Baltimore! But like you start to learn about little shit like that from a long time ago that’s been in place for years and years, you start to discover like, “Woah, ok this shit do have lasting effects.” Like it’s still affecting us today.
Baltimore for one definitely is definitely disjointed and not just race-wise, but i guess, cultural-wise, music-genre wise. You don’t see too many punk acts doing shows with Baltimore clubs these days or Baltimore clubs these days doing shows with a lot of boom-bap rappers. You don’t really see that, you know what I’m saying? And I do think that it’s weird cause I think like a lot of white Baltimore musicians or people with these resources could really help this city a lot but they just don’t. They either forget, and you know everybody has they own life, people gotta go through their own shit, but they either forget or just don’t think about it, you know what I’m saying? But a lot of times I feel like as far as race, a lot of white creatives are scared to approach black people, and it might be some subconscious racist trip but it almost might just be some racial insecurity stuff, they don’t wanna feel like they wanna step on people’s shit, which I completely understand.
Jana: I think it is part that, like they don’t wanna talk over people who they think have more right to speak about things, but I think also people are afraid to stick their neck out and speak on something and say the wrong thing and get in trouble so they’d rather just be quiet.
Abdu: Right, we got too many quiet motherfuckers in Baltimore in general.
Jana: Right but then they were very vocal when the protests were happening.
Abdu: Child, that shit made me angry. (laughs)
Jana: Right? Like, I felt bad being angry about it cause its like people should be talking about it right then but that just seems like…
Abdu: Hugely opportunist. And not just white people, black people, too. Everybody just wanna get their shine and five minutes. That was the sick part. But and Baltimore felt so good that week, too, ironically with all the chaos and shade going on. There was a lot of shit going on with people coming together, and like, that’s how Baltimore should be all the time. I said, “I know I’m a realistic bitch and I try not to be dark with having that perspective all the time, but, this shit is not gonna be forever, soon as the cameras leave watch the fuck it go right back to normal.” And it did! And it’s just crazy. And also its just like that old white Baltimore, creative musicians, people in the music world in Baltimore, they either really just don’t care to like integrate a lot of people, or incorporate a lot of people of color. Sometimes its not even just a race thing, it’s also an age thing, they don’t wanna deal with young people or they don’t wanna deal with people who make this kind of music. Like I’ve heard very shady and nasty things from my friends about people who book shows at certain venues. They don’t want certain rappers. Or you know, some rappers are too street, I heard people say that about musicians here. Even like some of these collective ran spaces, they be like, “Oh, no it’s for everybody.” But why is it such a fucking task to book at your damn venue and why are you being so selective about who you let in? I would get upset when spaces would ask me like, “Who are you trying to book? Like who you trying to book at this space?” Like for one I’m just asking you about a date. I don’t even got all that together. I wanna make sure I have a date. The venue was probably weird about it. But I was like, “Why does it matter? You know me, my name, show you all the shows I did. Why you asking me that? Why you asking me who I’m gonna book at this show?” Like they should recognize that that comes off wrong! And that’s why a lot of people of color who do music don’t approach these spaces ‘cause they don’t feel welcome or they don’t feel like going through all this bullshit language that you guys give them when they try to book shows, you know what I’m saying? And not everybody like has the like sass or the energy to be pushing and telling people what the fuck is up. Like, no, like you asking me, that is making me feel some kinda way. It don’t matter who I book. You know what I’m saying? Like why are you asking me that or…
Jana: Have you ever pushed them to say what they’re really asking you?
Abdu: No ‘cause, I mean, yeah, but nobody never really does. I mean people definitely got a lot better, but those kinda spaces are people I just don’t deal with after they… you know what I’m saying? A lot of the problem too is Baltimore don’t…and this is all around, but a lot of people just don’t have good business savvy and respect, like, “Why you not responding to my email?” I’m talking about venue spaces. “Why is it taking you forever to respond to my email?” But then it is strange because I feel like some people purposely don’t respond. Like you know I’ve contacted places like that to do a show. They don’t respond. They told my friend, and you can put this in your article 'cause I don’t care, they told one of my friends who was trying to book there that…he was asking for a show in like April and he was contacting them in like January but he was asking for a show in April or whatever, and they told him they don’t book that far in advance. It’s a huge venue! Y’all have big-ass concerts there. What do you mean you don’t book that far in advance? For one I’ve contacted them several times and they don’t respond to me. They don’t respond. Who else? I don’t know. It’s just like a lot of shade and then you see that they doing shows around the same date that you asked for. It’s like, well, you obviously like is booking shows. You just didn’t care to like message me back. At least be balls enough to say no. Something, you know? That’s why someone like Wind-up or the Crown that’s why they get a lot of business from a lot of people because they are at least reliable with communication. I mean the Crown do take a long time, you gotta be on it, but just based on all the different events at the Crown is that they do not discriminate. They just don’t, you know what I’m saying? We need more spaces like that, and it’s sad, you know what I’m saying? That we don’t have a lot of these spaces, 'cause we definitely have the people that wanna support creatives here, and we definitely have enough creative people. We just don’t have the spaces. Some people just don’t wanna open their doors to people or whatever, so thanks to the Crown, Wind-up, EMP Collective, for like holding it down for people because we definitely need spaces to do our thing. These other places, they not really gonna like open their doors to us, or, I don’t know, it’s just weird.
And yeah, it’s not about money. It can’t be about money, because you go to some of these shows at some of these spaces, you go into their show — ain’t nobody there. It ain’t like they be popping all the time or they can’t afford to do a show that only bring out 50 people, ‘cause I been to plenty of shows at these spaces where there be nobody there. So you think that like for one a lot of people is just taking the opportunity to just boost themselves with the whole Freddie Gray unrest reactions?
Jana: Yeah. I mean I don’t think it’s that simple. I don’t think they’re always aware. I mean I’m sure there are some people who are aware that that’s what they’re doing but I think more often it’s like they know consciously or subconsciously that what they have is because of other people’s suffering, and they feel guilty about it, and this was an opportunity for them to talk about it where it made sense and where they wouldn’t have to be afraid of backlash from other white people or whatever, you know? But yeah I mean like they haven’t said anything in the other seven years that I’ve known them and they haven’t said anything since and I know that they’re people that care about things but they’re also afraid of being seen doing things that are like out of the ordinary, or something, you know what I mean?
Abdu: That’s crazy. In this day and age, you ain’t got shit to do. What needs to happen is that people need to realize we all in the same fucking boat. After we deal with racism, we gotta deal with capitalism, which is the big…that’s the monster right there! You know what i’m saying. I feel like capitalism developed racism. Divide and conquer, honey. Ok? So I think for one people need to realize they in the same boat. Make an effort to book shows for people you usually don’t book shows with. Try to include people that you usually don’t include. Like I saw this benefit for a farm that’s in Whitelock, a black neighborhood, mind you i don’t see black people going to the farm, and I saw a benefit. For one, it wasn’t in the community, it was somewhere else, and for two, the bill was only white people. I said, “This don’t make sense.” It don’t make sense to me! (laughs). How you - a community farm that’s about, you know in their mission statement it’s all about conquering food deserts, giving people who don’t have access to healthy, quality produce, giving them access to that. You know what I’m saying? All about this making progress in [unintelligible] black neighborhood, but when I look at your benefit party, it’s all white people — in Hampden. It would’ve been more beautiful if you had it on the farm in the community and made it like this big thing. That’s another thing that a lot of black people are annoyed by, too, is white people coming in their spaces and not introducing themselves or not interacting with the community. Like that’s just plain fucking…, but you know, they messaged me back and they checked themselves, like, “You’re right.” And see that’s the thing, we gotta be not afraid of, too, is just being criticized and criticizing.
Jana: Right and being able to listen to it and not just being immediately offended.
Abdu: We all learning, we all still got so much to learn. Don’t be afraid. I don’t know, people just need to definitely check their privileges. People just need to check the fact that they really in a bubble, they really in a box, they really just trapped in their own little worlds or whatever, and the sad thing that might happen if people don’t get it together, come together and try to create some musical, creative community that is really diverse and multi-cultural, everybody gonna be shit-fucked by gentrification and the shade of capitalism because once money starts coming through here, they won’t give a fuck about punk shows and shit like that. They be wanting bluegrass concerts, and like older people to come through or something, like older artists or whatever, or like cliché…
Jana: Blues rock
Abdu: You know what I’m saying? That’s what happened to Austin from what I heard from my friends that live there. Austin was a beautiful music city and then all this money came through and it just changed everything. Yeah so I don’t know, like what other observations you wanna talk about?
Jana: I wanted to ask you what you think about when people talk about the two Baltimores.
Abdu: Two Baltimores?
Jana: Yeah, do you know what I mean? Have you heard people say that?
Abdu: What do they mean?
Jana: They mean the wealthy white Baltimore and the poor black Baltimore
Abdu: Oh, yeah yeah yeah, and also the poor white Baltimore, people forget about that, too. But yeah it’s kind of crazy that that exists. I mean, I think it’s more crazy because Baltimore is so small that you don’t really have…like in New York it’s so many different kinds of people, so many different class levels of people that you really don’t notice the shade all the way, but Baltimore be so bam bam bam bam. Like I said that on Facebook one time, you know, the rich white people in Baltimore, I feel like they should support, like they should go out of their way to really support creatives of color or open spaces that’s multi-cultural, or like, I don’t fucking know, use that money for good, basically! Use that money for good! But they just don’t and the funny thing that I’ll always keep in my head is a quote by John Waters that, “Rich people in Baltimore don’t know how to be rich.” And I think he meant like not only do they just do whatever with their money, you have a lot of business owners that are so unsavvy and so like stuck in their own world, they like drown their own business down just cause they don’t wanna check themselves, but I think he also was just talking like they don’t really put their money into anything that’s like beneficial to their city and their community. They just sit there and just don’t give nothing, you know what I’m saying? (laughs) It’s just a lot of shit here. It’s really just a lot to wrap your brain around. It’s just so much. You get into socio-political shade, and you get into money shade, into creative and musical shade. The visual artists of color really be going through it, from what I hear. The art world in Baltimore is flat-out racist, basically. There’s been cases where I had friends who was really qualified to run a gallery, to be a manager at a gallery, but they been sideswiped. Like the person who got the job that they was really qualified for, they’re very passionate about this: a white man who doesn’t know anything about anything. It’s crazy. I was reading this statistic. Hold on I’m about to bring it up cause I had to snap this shit. [pulling out his phone] it was like a white man with a criminal record is still 5 times more likely to get a job than a black man with no record. (laughs) Cray!
Jana: Is that anywhere or is that specifically in Baltimore?
Abdu: I think it was just the United States.
Jana: I wonder what the statistic is here.
Abdu: It’s probably real bad. And it’s so much fuckery cause we got the best medical institutions, we got the best colleges and universities, and my friend told me that Baltimore public school systems are number two in getting the most funding in the United States . That’s why The Wire was so controversial because in one season they focus on the Baltimore public school system and they was showing all the corruption and shade in it. And it just shows that obviously the people in the Baltimore public school system is pocketing that money, a lot of it. I didn’t know we was like number two in getting funded. That’s crazy. It really is a divide between rich, white Baltimore and everybody else, because they can stay in Mount Washington, they can stay in Roland Park and not interact with the people. Baltimore, you get into the geography of the city and you can tell it was designed to segregate. You can tell! Like when you in a neighborhood, you really in that neighborhood. For one, the bus system sucks and that’s not a coincidence. Ford or GM Motors, one of those companies, paid Baltimore City some money or something like that to not develop a efficient public transit system so people could buy a car. I was just watching a documentary called Punk about oil and how Rockefeller destroyed Ford because Ford was all about creating cars that needed electricity and could run off of corn oil, alcohol oil. He destroyed that and that’s one of the main reasons why…like they had this big thing in Baltimore where they just threw away all the trolleys, all the street cars.
Jana: Yeah I’ve heard too that there were cars that were designed to run on peanut oil. And I lived in Houston for like ten years and they started building the first mass transit which is crazy cause Houston is like millions and millions of people, and it’s huge. Like you can’t get around it without a car. So they were putting in this light rail, and I learned they’d already had two mass transit systems and they’d been destroyed by car companies.
Abdu: Basically, yeah, we had plenty of chances to have efficient public transit. At one point they said America was so efficient at public transit before like the time of cars that like you could get from the Northwest to New York City like it was nothing, you just hop street car to street car to street car. So yeah, it’s just, it’s just so much. I told my friend I don’t wanna learn anymore about nothing. I don’t feel like it. (laughs) It’s too much shade! It’s like, deal with that, then America shade from 1500s and on, gotta deal with the shade between Europe and Africa, gotta get into Egyptian and Roman, gotta get into the Vatican - it’s just too much. (laughs) It’s like, damn, human beings are just fucked up a lil bit.
Jana: They’re pretty fucked up, but they’re also beautiful.
Abdu: Yeah, so, I don’t know. But yeah, rich white Baltimore needs to start funding poor black Baltimore. We need to be progressive and like get some shit done. There’s so much against them. There’s so much that’s stopping people from doing that from just the design of the city to the police force…I don’t know there’s just so much, you know, that’s stopping people from coming together. But we gonna have to make a double, double hard extra effort to try to stop the regressive things that’s happening all over the city.
Lower Dens and Abdu Ali are touring together this fall. Dates at lowerdens.com.