Angel Bat Dawid
Angel Bat Dawid is a composer, clarinetist, singer & spiritual jazz soothsayer based in Chicago. After breaking through last year with The Oracle, her debut album on International Anthem, she toured Europe alongside her band Tha Brothahood. It was at the tour’s first stop, JazzFest Berlin, that she experienced racism firsthand, and this recording has been released as a new album titled LIVE. Joshua Minsoo Kim and Angel Bat Dawid talked on the phone on October 24th, 2020 to discuss her childhood, the act of music as prayer, the various racist events she’s experienced throughout the past year, her new albums, and more.
Joshua Minsoo Kim: Hello, hello! Is this Angel?
Angel Bat Dawid: Yes! Hey Joshua, how are you?
I’m good, how are you?
What have you been up to?
I’m busy, busy. I’m working on a whole bunch of stuff, trying to get everything set up here. I’m constantly working on a lot of stuff.
What are you working on right now?
I’ve been procrastinating. It’s not because I don’t want to do it, but because this project is so special that I really wanted to have a special time with it. BBC hit me up and they’re trying to do this remote thing where they put two different artists together to work on something. They linked me with this composer—he’s Egyptian—his name is Sam Shalabi. He’s an oud player and he sent me these beautiful oud tracks so all I have to do is record. I got some new equipment and I’ve been trying to set it up recording-wise.
I was supposed to get back to him a few days ago (laughter). It was just that something was always coming up and I hope he doesn’t think that I’m not… he sent me this beautiful solo oud stuff based off his Egyptian heritage and I’ve been really wanting to record over it. So that’s what I’m doing now.
I’m sure he’ll understand. People aren’t as in a rush nowadays.
With some people I understand, but with him, we had such a beautiful conversation and I want him to know that I’m not brushing him off. This is really important to me, so I didn’t want to just record it real quick. I sat down, read what he wrote—he said he played one part like what you’d hear in Upper Egypt, and another like Lower Egypt. Before I start recording, I always try to do a little research—I want to get the vibe. I light some candles and get the mood, and because I want to set up the mood (laughs), I haven’t had a chance to record; I don’t wanna half-ass it.
It makes sense! And Sam Shalabi is great.
It’s a big deal! And he’s so nice. He’s not like, “Oh, I’m a big deal.” The nicest person. I’m the one treating him like this person—it’s Sam Shalabi! (laughter). He’s so nice.
I’m glad to hear that. You said that you try to do research and get in a certain mood. This makes sense given the other stuff I’ve read about you. I know you’ve said that you pray over any composition you make.
Yes! Exactly. I do not make any moves without it being very intentional. That’s why I’m never nervous about any project that comes my way. I’m never like, “I’m worried if anyone’s gonna like it or not.” That never runs through my head because I’m always intentional. It’s not about whether people like it or not, or whether they receive it; I have a particular intention about this signal.
I was thinking about signals because I got this new mixer and I was on YouTube trying to figure it out (laughs), but when you think of a mixer console, you have the OG gain knob. You just want the nicest signal to come through as possible. If you start your recording process with a crappy signal—like if it’s too distorted—the whole mix is gonna be like that. And that’s the way I think about music and sound in general. If your signal is distorted and funky, even if it sounds good the whole vibe is gonna be off.
The stuff that I do—actually sitting down and composing and recording—that don’t take no time. That take like 20, 30 minutes. What takes time is all the preparation beforehand, you know? I could’ve sent Sam things—I could’ve! The day he sent things I could’ve been like, “Lemme record this real quick.” But it wasn’t right, and it wasn’t the right time! I didn’t have this new mixer when he first sent me the recordings, and now this is gonna be even more dope. There’s definitely like this patience game. Sometimes I’m thinking, “Am I slacking?” But no, I’m not. It’s just that sometimes you have to wait for the right moment—pieces of information have to come to you.
I pray, and a lot of people think it’s such a scary word. There’s a lot of spiritualities in the world—a lot of them, millions of them! And who’s to tell one person which one is right. What I do know is that if you take time to put really good intention on something, it will always be good. Always.
Yeah, I think that’s the thing. Even ignoring the spiritual aspect of prayer, it’s this mindset you’re in when you’re in prayer—you’re focused and getting yourself ready for a certain moment.
That’s pretty much all it is! I think it’s a lost artform. I think it’s a creative artform that’s very human. And one of the very best, greatest things about it—which is something we really need right now—is that you can connect with others. Whether it’s just in your head or not—and right now, we physically can’t be together—instead of worrying about somebody, or if someone makes you mad or upset, you can actually sit by yourself and imagine that person. There are all sorts of suggestions, like, “Why don’t you imagine that person’s higher self coming to you?” You’re not even gonna deal with their lower nature.
I find that it puts me on a balance with how I deal with people. A friend of mine is sick, and I’m worried and concerned. It actually helps me—I pray that this person will feel better. And when you do that, it actually does make them feel better. You know, John Coltrane said that if he takes out his horn, he should be able to play it over his friend who’s sick, and they’ll be healed. That’s a form of prayer. There’s this connection to humanity you can have all up in yo head. Nobody gotta know what you doing in yo head (laughter). No one has to know what’s going on up there.
I choose to live and exist in that type of paradigm. I’m the type of person who could be having all the blessings in the world and be on top of the world, but if one of my friend’s isn’t doing well, then I’m sad too. I can’t even enjoy myself. When you get blessed, it’s nothing if you don’t have a community with you to share in your blessings. That’s why a lot of my music is about uplifting Black people. It doesn’t matter how well I’m doing; when I see the injustices and racism that happen in the Black community, I automatically come back down to that. It doesn’t matter how much success I’ve had or how many doors have opened for me. Someone can be like, “What are you talking about Angel? You’re doing good!” I can’t be happy if my people aren’t good!
Black people are known to be people who pray. Literally I could go anywhere in the world and be like, “Brother or sister, will you pray with me?” And I guarantee you that someone will. I can’t say that for other races, but I know that in the Black community, I can meet a random person and be like, “Brother, I need some prayer,” and they will pray with me. Without a question. I’m glad you’re calling me too because I’m actually dropping a new album.
Oh, wow. Amazing.
On Halloween! This album is kind of controversial because we went on tour this time last year to Berlin. I had this expectation because everyone was like, “Europe is so open-minded to different races” and I did not experience that—I experienced a ton of racism. My music was exploited, the festival I was at [JazzFest Berlin] was treating us like crap. I’m not trying to say that everyone there is racist and hates Black people, but the thing is, when there’s a historical and systemic tradition of treating Black artists like shit, it changes the dynamic.
If that wasn’t there—if there wasn’t this historical craziness that has to do with how people treat Black people, I wouldn’t say nothing. But because of that, the first thing that Black people think when we’re treated wrong is, “Oh, y’all are doing this because I’m Black, whether you realize you’re doing it or not.” We’re very sensitive about that because it’s happened so much and it happens all the time.
So what happened was that one of my bandmates [Viktor Le Givens] got sick. He missed his flight. He passed out, woke up in the hospital, and lost all his stuff—he couldn’t find his passport. It was chaotic. We got an extra flight, but it meant that he might not be able to play our first hit, which was the Berlin JazzFest.
When we got to Berlin, my tour manager was like, “One of our members got sick. He may not be at this hit.” And their response was so cold. “We were expecting this many people!” There was no, “Is he okay?” There was none of that. They said they were gonna take this from our fee.
Oh my God.
It was really like that! I was like, “Okay Berlin.” This was maybe two hours before the show, and I was getting mad. It got to a point where my booking agent had to be like, “Yo, you guys booked Angel Bat Dawid and whatever configuration she chose, so you’re not gonna take this from her fee.” But they were still like, “Well, you guys should’ve told us.” Well, okay, I didn’t know my friend was gonna almost die.
That just started a thing with me where I’m like, “Black artists are coming here and you’re treating me like crap. I know you’re not trying to, but you’re doing it. You’re doing the traditional thing that they do to Black artists.” By the time the show happens, I’m on fire (laughter). I’m fiery and wanted to reveal the invisible, institutional, intellectual racism. That’s really what we’re dealing with. We’re not dealing with the Donald Trumps of the world. We know he’s a racist. We know that.
What we’re dealing with is the institutional racism that exists at these festivals because it’s not like these people are just evil. They’ve just been doing the same thing over and over again that they’ve never questioned it. So it’s these same establishments that 50, 60 years ago were like, “Black people gotta go ‘round the back.” (in a sarcastic tone) Now we can go through the front door. Thank you guys. Thank you for the privilege.
I’m being facetious when I say that because that’s not the issue. The issue isn’t that we wanted to come through the front door, the issue was that we wanted to be treated like human beings. I see it in my music because everyone can sing, “We are starzz.” Everyone loves that part. But they don’t wanna say, “The Black family is the strongest institution in the world.” Even on the album I was like, oh, you all are ready to sing all this other stuff, but when I want you to affirm Black people—which is what we really need, for people to say yeah, the Black family is strong—there’s a lot of resistance from white people. They don’t wanna say that. They resist it. You can hear it on the album—I’m literally screaming at them. You don’t wanna say it? You can’t even say it? Why? Why does it hurt you? I’m not challenging people so we can stay in this; I’m challenging so we can get out of this. We need to start talking about this.
I’m coming out with another album in the spring called Requiem for Jazz. I composed a requiem for the Hyde Park Jazz Festival last year, recorded it, and confirmed some very surprise guests for it. It’s based on a film called The Cry of Jazz. It’s only a 30-minute film, and it’s from 1959. There’s an integrated cast, in 1959, in Chicago. They’re talking after a performance about whether white people can play jazz music. If Black people can play jazz music. In my mind it’s like, wow, how controversial for them to get into something like that back then. That would be very intense now.
It’s a really great film that is able to show that Black people and white people have always been at a place where we can dialogue. Just because we may have some intense conversations about it doesn’t mean that we’re not still friends. You see the film, but I guarantee the next week they were all together again, as friends. But the thing is that we have to talk about this stuff. We have to.
People don’t know that as Black artists, we have our shields up a lot of the time when you’re a Black artist and going into a white space, or going into a space that plays Black music, or going into a space and you see people playing Black music but there’s no acknowledgement that it is Black music. Jazz isn’t just music—it’s tied to a culture and people group. And with African Americans in particular, we were probably the most isolated out of all the diaspora. In South America they were able to keep some of their language and tradition. In America, music is basically the only place where we were able to preserve a lot of our heritage. If this is all we have left and then to have people snatch it away, it’s like dang, we can’t have nothing! It really feels like that.
So to go to this Berlin jazz festival and to have my little stickers everywhere saying “we are starzz,” and to come in and be treated like that… and to then sell the rights to my music so I have to buy it back—I had to lease it. You were exploiting me again. You weren’t trying to but you did. And that’s the problem. There’s no awareness of that, there’s no awareness that they’ve f’d up in the past with Black artists, and for a long time. We need to be a little more aware and sensitive of that—that’s all I’m asking.
So this recording coming out on Halloween is a recording of this festival?
I talked with International Anthem because I knew it was a controversial album. I was nervous that they’d be like, “Well, Angel, we don’t want to ruffle feathers,” but they were the exact opposite. They were like, this needs to happen. My band, Tha Brothahood, nobody really knows how impactful they are to me. These are my brothers. If you hear The Oracle, it’s just me by myself, but I had always envisioned those songs with my band. We hadn’t all seen each other or played together—this was our first hit—and they smashed it.
Here’s the thing about the whole album. Viktor, who got sick, actually ended up making it to the show! You actually hear it on the album. I call it “VIKTORious Return.” He literally got off the plane and headed straight to the show and was able to be on the album. You’ll be able to hear this all in real time! It was like, in your face you guys. Are you still gonna take my fee? Which isn’t even a lot, but I wanted to challenge that. You have these jazz festivals, but what’re y’all really celebrating?
I don’t wish COVID on anybody, but I think this is the perfect time—since we don’t have performances—to reexamine the practices that have been going on forever. We need to challenge that. Are y’all really celebrating Black music, or are y’all really celebrating that you got some name at your festival? They gave me a contract two weeks before the show and they were like, “Oh yeah, anything you perform here is not yours.” We already booked our tickets, so I didn’t even have an option to say no, really. It put me in a spot. We actually had to go to a radio station to lease my old performance. How is that right? We were like, “Can we at least buy back my stuff?” “Nope, can’t do that.” It’s like that. It’s messed up. I don’t care how big your organization is—that’s messed up.
It’s what you’ve been saying—you just want to be treated like a human. And these things you’re saying, they’re just treating you as a commodity, as someone they can prop up for themselves. Sorry you had to deal with that.
Yeah, and you know what? I have it easy. I get emotional because (through tears) I think about Nina Simone and all the Black artists before me who had it worse than I did. This ain’t nothing compared to what they’ve been through.
When we were in Berlin, we were staying at this hotel called the Duke Ellington hotel. It was in homage to Duke Ellington and every room had pictures of great Black artists and it was beautiful. I’m so grateful that I can play music because that show really helped me to process everything I was feeling. That morning I was like, “Okay, I’m gonna be good.” There’s a piano in the lobby and so I go down and sing and praise God. I wanted to leave on a good note. I started playing and singing and Deacon Otis Cooke, one of the vocalists in the band, is filming me and then out of nowhere this waiter comes all red-faced screaming, “Ma’am! Stop playing! You can’t do this right here!” I went ballistic. I felt like I couldn’t be my Black self in Europe without somebody reprimanding me or telling me I’m doing something wrong.
The first part of the album, you can actually hear it. I put it on the album. I came all the way over here and this is how y’all treat me. I don’t like being angry (laughs) but I went off. I was just screaming in the lobby. You can hear Deacon Otis being like, “Yo, [Dr. Adam Zanolini], get Angel. She’s going crazy in the lobby.” (laughter).
We went to Hamburg the next day and that was great. Überjazz festival was awesome. So, I’m not saying that all of Europe was like that, and I’m not trying to gang up on this one festival, but that was my first hit! There were other incidents that happened throughout this entire tour. People always say that they go to Europe and feel accepted as Black people but I didn’t feel that! So I was wondering what was wrong with me.
I realized that maybe it’s because everyone on this tour and everyone on this ensemble was Black. All my brothers and my tour manager is Black. We’re all riding around Europe ourselves. It was like Scooby-Doo (laughter). We had this van and were riding around. I had a great time because I was on tour with my best friends and our only mission was to get to the next hit. And every show we was killing it. We was killing it!
But with that, we got stopped. Police just randomly stopped us and breathalyzed my tour manager for no reason. This was in the Netherlands and we were heading to our Airbnb. A cop stopped us and looked inside and said, “What’s going on here? Are you guys a reggae band?” Like, for real? And my tour manager doesn’t even drink. And they’re still trying to detain him but after a while they’re like, “Okay, we’re just gonna go.” Every time I was trying to be optimistic, I was reminded that we still got a long way to go.
Some people say, “If you’re looking for racism, you’re always going to find it.” And I’d like to challenge people. No, if I look for racism, I should never find it. It shouldn’t exist! The other thing is, it be finding me. Every time I let my guard down, it be finding me. I wasn’t even looking for it. I was trying to be all cool and all “We Are the World” but we are not in that space. We are not there. Racism didn’t just disappear. People think because of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and everyone that “racism is back.” People are saying there’s a “return of racism.” It never left! “But we had a Black president!” It never left. (laughter).
I can only imagine what Barack Obama had to go through in the White House. Like, psychologically, it’s messed up. Can we change that? Because “white” has so many connotations. Can we change the fact that on our currency, all we see is old white men who had slaves. Can we change that? I’m so glad people tore down Albert Pike and all those statutes. Can we start with that? Can we get rid of the Constitution? That dang ol’ thing was written by people who didn’t think I was human, so how is that ever going to benefit me? This government was never set up to include people even though they said they were. They’ll let you through the front door but fuck your front door.
(in the sarcastically dignified tone of a politician) “We’re gonna let you into Congress now. You know what, we’ll let you be the first Black judge.” That’s what orchestras say. (in the sarcastically dignified tone of a conductor) “The Philharmonic Orchestra, in our 120 years of history, have our first principal Black violinist!” When I heard that, I was like, “You should be ashamed of yourselves.” You should be ashamed! You know how many violinists I personally know, Josh, who are exceptional musicians and are Black? There are so many Black violinists in the world and it’s only now that you have one? That’s nothing to be proud of. You should be like, “I’m so sorry to say this, but this is our first time having a Black person.”
And that’s what it’s always framed as. They want a pat on the back for doing the bare minimum. We’ve been waiting for you to do this—just because you’re late to the party doesn’t mean we should celebrate.
(laughs). Exactly. And I know a lot of Black people post about the first Black whatever, but that just shows you how racist these places have been.
With my own, composed music, I always draw on Black musicians first. Really, I do. No offense but a lot of white folk are gonna be alright—you’re gonna have opportunities. Just economically and even in the school systems. Predominantly Black neighborhoods face more economic challenges than predominantly white neighborhoods. There are Black people who live in predominantly white neighborhoods who have no economic challenges, but if you grow up in a predominantly Black neighborhood, there’s going to be economic challenges, and school systems are not gonna get the money they need.
When you have orchestras that are all white, when you have colleges where the jazz programs are all white students… why is that? Well, those kids—both white and Asian—had exceptional music programs. I went to a really good school with a really good education program and I am the product of that. If you see Black children, music isn’t an extracurricular activity for them. And culturally, that is an essential aspect of our education. Music is not an elective for Black people. To intentionally take out music education programs in our school is hugely detrimental. If schools are gonna close these programs, then I personally have to be a university.
I actually have a new trio. We’re called Sistas of tha Nitty Gritty and we were given that name by Lonnie Holley. We had this thing and we met him and he was like, “Yo, sistas of tha nitty gritty!” and I was like, “Oh yeah, because sometimes we nitty, and sometimes we gritty, and sometimes we nitty gritty.” (laughter).
So it’s me and two young women. I have Tha Brothahood, which is all-male, but I knew I wanted an all-women group. I just needed these two to grow up. One is Brooklynn Skye Scott—she just turned 18—and she’s one of the baddest bass players ever. I don’t know where this young girl learned to play Bootsy [Collins] riffs and can then be Jaco [Pastorius] the next minute. And then Anaiet Sivad. She’s 20 and she’s like Alice Coltrane’s goddaughter. I had never heard a pianist like this. They both sing and produce their own music. This had to be my trio. These girls are gonna be huge. People are gonna be calling them. I don’t want them to go to Europe and experience what I did. I want them to have some protection. I want them to go into white spaces and know that I will be there to support them.
Yeah, I do!
Yeah, you gotta know Isaiah Collier! So we started the Chicago Black Artist Union for that very reason—we have a lot of younger musicians under us, and we want to make sure they’re taken care of. So we have lawyers on deck in case there are contracts they want to sign, and if there are gigs we can draw upon each other first. Sometimes, exclusivity is necessary. To get stronger as a people and as musicians, it is.
This means that I’ve had to have some hard conversations. Anyone can play with us—we’re not gonna tell people that just because they’re white they can’t play—but this one guy wanted to further his career. He asked if I could give him some composition lessons and I was very flattered. I was gonna avoid this conversation, but I ended up telling him that I wanted to be available for young Black artists, or artists of color, first. We ended up having such a great conversation. He completely understood parts of where I was coming from, but there were parts he didn’t. I didn’t want to avoid the truth, and it’s going well, and it’s still an ongoing dialogue.
I know that with my projects, I’m probably going to draw on Black artists first. Sun Ra did it. AACM did it. If we’re not thinking about it, nobody will.
I love everything you’re saying, especially with all these younger artists and helping them out. This sort of intergenerational community is super important.
I’m so glad you said that. Even my requiem was intergenerational. It was a big thing—it had strings and an entire orchestra—and I realized that I couldn’t play the clarinet because I had to direct it. So I got my clarinet student, and she’s only 12 years old. She did not have no music program at her school—she learned how to play at church!—and she could really play.
She was taking private lessons with me at this school called the Musical Arts Institute, and it exists for that very reason—a lot of Black schools do not have these education programs so they provide private lessons. So I was like, “Hey, you want a gig?” I paid her. We learned all her parts in the lesson, and now she’s on this album. So now, she has this marker in her head. As a Black woman composer, I didn’t have any examples—not a one—in my entire life until like six years ago. I didn’t know any! It wasn’t until I discovered AACM. They have many composers and multi-instrumentalists from Nicole Mitchell to Renée Baker. That was just this whole world. This is all bigger than myself because now my 12-year-old clarinet student has a marker on her head of a Black woman playing the clarinet.
Even when we did our tour last year, one of our last hits was in London. The UK love me over there (laughter). I get an Instagram message from this young man. It says, “My little sister is only 13 years old, she plays clarinet, and saw your article in the Guardian and we just want to say that it was very inspirational to her.” I was like, “Can y’all come to the show please?” She came backstage and I met her. This is the stuff I’m really trying to do. When I do a photoshoot, I always wanna have my horn because I want a young Black girl to keep in her head that there’s a Black woman who’s playing an instrument. That’s it! That it’s a possibility. That’s why I’ll do any interview.
Something you said way earlier about Coltrane and music being a prayer. People always joke about “thoughts and prayers” and how it’s useless, but I always think about how the mindset that comes with being in prayer is one that leads to some sort of action.
And you can play a concert but it’s never just a show, and it shouldn’t just end at the show either. When you play music and release albums, how do you ensure that the messages you put out there don’t just end at a concert or at the album?
If you go into a pond and throw a pebble, it causes a ripple. It’s like that. I don’t know what that ripple can do—it can just disappear, or it can cause something else. It can cause a whole tsunami or something (laughter). I don’t have any expectations for the message. You can do a show and only reach one person, but that’s all that matters—it’s not about reaching the masses.
I’m not a politician, nor do I believe in any of the world governments. I’m like what Bob Marley said. They interviewed him once and they were like, “You’re smoking all this marijuana! It’s illegal!” And his response was, “All governments are illegal.” (laughter). Every government is illegal and practices evil, and they put evil as a practice because of greed. I’m not telling people to not go out and vote, but I don’t believe in the system. Whether you vote or do not vote, regardless of who is in office or not, they are never for Black people. Period. Just because you got a Black person in office… you go through our neighborhoods and it’s the same thing as fifty years ago.
We’re seeing that with [Lori] Lightfoot.
And that’s what I’m saying! They’re all under the same system. And we all have to be a part of it in some way—you know, I pay my bills—but I don’t believe in it at all. My head is somewhere else, and you can’t control what’s in my head (laughter). On the outside I’ll follow your laws but on the inside I’m on a whole ’nother government. I don’t ever care to be involved politically. The only weapon I do have is music. I know that music is more powerful than what people think. It’s almost like this sleeper weapon.
Let’s say I have Donald Trump and Barack Obama in the same room. If I take out my clarinet and start playing, both of their feets is gonna be tapping. They’re gonna be moving and they’re gonna be enjoying the music that they’re gonna forget why they don’t like each other. That’s always my hope. Music is universal—music is a universal language.
Anything you do in this world, there’s music. You go into a grocery store, there’s music. You go into your car, there’s music. Music is really important and people are sleeping on it. Actually, the wrong people are sleeping on it. The evil people know this! And that’s why every commercial’s got music. All popular music ain’t nothing but long commercials to sell something because they’re greedy. That whole industry is wicked from the top to the bottom. All of it. And I feel it.
I’m grateful to be on a label like International Anthem because they’re actively trying to change that. They’re very attentive. Even with the original contracts they had, they were like, “Hey we looked over this and we don’t think this is fair. We just did it because it was dadada.” They talk to us like this, like, “We know that we are white men who own a label with Black artists.” That’s the first thing they say!
I was very hesitant to be on a label because of all the stuff you hear. But we don’t have to do things that way, and that’s largely why there’s been so much success with the label. They’re very attentive to that. And it’s without me bringing it up! They bring it up!
I know growing up you lived in different places. Do you have any memories of when you were in Kenya between 7 and 11 years old?
I vividly remember everything—it changed my life! I remember it like a movie. I think because I grew up overseas and wasn’t really in the American bubble, it gave me a different perspective on life. It was an easy transition to live in Africa. What was hard was when I came back. I had serious culture shock. In Africa, it was like living in the country. We had chickens and a garden in the back and we could play outside all day and collect chameleons and climb trees. We could just be kids. It was the glories of childhood. I was homeschooled and it was like the world was our playground. We would just climb a mango tree and just eat mangoes with our friends. It was such a wonderful childhood.
And then I’m 12 years old and come back to America and, these 12-year-olds were like adults (laughter). I grew up in a very good, strong family. We couldn’t talk crazy in my house. There was no cursing or wildin’—no no no. They censored us and there was stuff we couldn’t watch. We had a really solid upbringing. And then to be thrust into this public school, even my friends in Africa weren’t like that. People were talking about all sorts of crazy stuff that I had no idea about. I didn’t really fit in. I was ostracized and bullied a lot. I was completely misunderstood as an adolescent.
I’m actually grateful for it. Back then I wasn’t but I’m grateful because it made me go into my music. Music saved me all through middle school and all through high school because I was different. I tried to be like everyone else but that was very unsuccessful (laughter). I remember I came to a point when I was like 13 or 14 and realized that I was just going to be myself. It was a conscious decision.
As a kid I was listening to R&B, hip hop, and all of that. I always loved classical music too. I would be listening to classical music on my Walkman and people would be like, “What are you listening to?” “I’m listening to MC Hammer.” (laughter). I was ashamed of it. I really wanted to expand my musical palette from when I was a young age. I’m blessed to have a father who had an extensive music collection. He had everything and he still loves music. I listened to all this music and got hooked. I used to sneak in and dub all his CDs and cassettes. I was listening to Sly and the Family Stone and Funkadelic. I also had a grunge phase—I was never into metal music, but when Nirvana came out, I was obsessed. I got into grunge and goth and ska. Music became my best friend. With hip hop, Fugees came out. I was listening to reggae.
I didn’t have any friends in high school, nobody liked me (laughs). The other thing was that I was always the new girl all the time. Everybody else had all this history so I was just by myself. Nobody liked me. The only people that liked me was music (laughs). And of course I was in band and drama—I was always involved in the arts—band was my life. I would be in school until like 10 o’clock. Playing the clarinet became my solace. I never stopped playing. I always had my clarinet, always had my keyboards, always messing around with something.
Six years ago I was like, “Okay Angel, you’re gonna have to do this all the time.” I left this job that I really hated. Even though it was a comfortable job, it was uncomfortable because I wasn’t doing what I really wanted to do. That’s when I made a leap of faith to be a musician full time—and it worked!
You sharing all this is really nice. You talked about being in high school and feeling different, you talked about being in Europe and not being able to be yourself… I’m just happy you have people and this label in your life where you can comfortably be yourself.
Right? What label would tell me they’d release an album I recorded on my cell phone (laughter). Who does that! I was like, “Are you sure? It wasn’t done in a professional studio.” And they were like, “We’re just gonna put it out.” They really took a big risk. None of us knew that it would blow up. It wasn’t like any of them were giving me extra treatment. It came out and then the next week I was getting calls and my Instagram was blowing up. I was like “Scotty [McNiece], what’s going on?!” And then a month later I was in the Netherlands, and nine months later we were touring in Europe. It all happened really fast.
My immediate family has always been supportive of me. I have a family where if I said I just wanted to work at McDonald’s for the rest of my life, they’d be like, “You go ahead and do that, just be a good person and be happy.” In fact, they’d probably prefer that (laughter). My folks never wanted us to be lawyers and doctors, they just wanted us to be good God-fearing people. And that’s still their desire for me.
Nobody else in my life, at school or in church, was gung ho about music saying things like, “Go support that little girl—she ready!” When I notice a child is very musical, I always let the parents know that they should get them in some classes, that they shouldn’t overlook it. I still have family members who are like, “Wait a minute Angel, you play the clarinet?” I’m like, “Didn’t y’all see me when I was 11 playing it?” And I have family members who are questioning my faith sometimes. And I’m just like… okay, it’s still ministry, it’s just unconventional. Missionaries ain’t the way they used to look.
All I’m here to do—I don’t care who you are, and I mean this in the best sense—I am here to show love. Maybe it’s because I went through it myself, of being ostracized. I know I can’t save the world but if you’re gonna spend time on me one-on-one, you’re gonna have 20 minutes where someone’s gonna fully accept you for who you are. All this stuff with race and stuff—I’m giving people the chance to be my friend. If you really want someone to be your friend, give them a chance to step up and be it. If someone hurts you, tell them that. If you’re a real friend, and they really love you, they’ll say thank you and try not to do that anymore. If you tell them that and they start yelling at you then maybe that’s somebody you don’t want in your life.
I had to learn how to be okay with situations being uncomfortable. I had a racist interaction when I went to Bahia. I had a conversation with this woman and when we were leaving, she said, “Okay, big momma!” And I was like, “Did you just call me big momma?” And I was mad. I don’t care if you’re Brazilian or whatever, you don’t call Black women “big momma.” That has a whole historical connotation. The fact she didn’t know that despite working with women… I was getting mad. I didn’t want to confront her but I knew I had to. I needed advice on how to do it because I did not wanna be the angry Black woman.
Damon Locks was on the trip. I look up to him, and he’s one of the wisest people I know. And he’s my elder—he don’t look it but he’s older than me (laughter). So I went to Damon and he told me to just tell her the facts and then bounce out. So I told her, “When you call Black women big mommas, that is racist. I’m telling you that so you won’t do it again.” And then I bounced out (laughter). This was not up for discussion. It was boom—you know what it is, and now you know. What happens when you confront people is that they make it about themselves. “Oh I didn’t mean to.” Of course you didn’t mean to, or else you wouldn’t have said it. And then they start crying. And a lot of people don’t know this but white women can use their tears as weapons.
For the rest of the trip, it was very uncomfortable. I had to tell the people in charge about the incident and I think they could’ve done a better job. That’s why I’m so grateful for International Anthem because I can bring up an instance and they validate my experience. I can’t say this organization did that. I brought it up and I think it made them so uncomfortable that they didn’t deal with it.
We got back months later and the organization was like, “Oh my goodness. Angel, I’m sorry that happened. Do you wanna dialogue with the girl?” And I was like, okay, I’ll give her another chance. She sets up this whole email that says, “When I said big mommaI meant you had big energy.” And I sad nuh-uh, bye boo, bye. I was like, “I don’t want to have more dialogue with you, you absolutely don’t get it.” And I told them that they could’ve dealt with it right then and there. People don’t have any training on this stuff.
But actually, I’m not gonna give anybody no excuse—I know for a fact that if someone came up to me and told me that another person said something derogatory to them, I would’ve made it more of a big deal. That experience was also jarring because Bahia is supposed to be the Blackest part of Brazil. I wasn’t expecting to run into some racist bs there but I did. That’s why the single that I have out, Transition East, the B-side is “No Space Fo Us” because I needed music to process what I was going through. Here I am in the Blackest part of Brazil and once again, I feel like there’s a problem with me being Black.
Something that people don’t understand about the Black body is that the Black body looks like a lot of different things. The Black body looks like my body, the Black body looks like Beyoncé’s body, the Black body looks like a lot of different things. You can’t say “that’s a healthy Black body and that one’s not”—it don’t work like that. Especially with Black women, we have bodies that are different. We’re ostracized, they call us unhealthy, they call us big mommas, they oversexualize us and fetishize us at the same time.
I had an incident the other day—once again, I ain’t looking for no racism. I was out with a friend and this white man was very drunk. He was being nice and friendly—he was trying—so I let my guard down. He left and came back 10 minutes later and was like, “Can I ask you guys a question? There’s a Black girl out there and her top is really low and she’s got a tattoo—” and my wall had to go right back up. I was like, “Just because you want to have sex with her has nothing to do with her being Black. And you’re saying this in front of me in front of your wife.”
What made me more mad was that I went outside and I saw this group of young Black women. They’re young. These are young Black women. I was so mad at him and said, “How dare you go up to this young sister and make her feel uncomfortable”—he went up to her and asked her about it. “And now she’s over there feeling uncomfortable because of your white ass.” Once again, this is what constantly happens. You’re fetishizing this young girl. Black women’s bodies are different—we all have different body types. Whatever you be seeing on her—she ain’t trying to do that for you. That’s just her body! The Black woman has been exploited over and over again. This needs to stop.
No matter where I go, I always feel like I’m gonna run into, “Oh, your Blackness is a problem.” And that’s why I wrote “No Space Fo Us” because I feel like no matter where we go, there’s no space. What ends up happening is that we have to make our own space. That’s the beautiful thing about the track.
The place that I was staying was beautiful. I was with this really rich Brazilian doctor and he had a beautiful house. We were staying at people’s houses and it just so happened that my host had this dope, dope house looking over the ocean. He had a piano in there, and he was so kind. I wanted to compose something to process my feelings. I called over my Brazilian friends and we went into the studio and that’s what’s on there: “No Space Fo Us.”
Thank you so much for sharing all these stories.
I just love everything you shared and the energy you bring. I just love you being you—it’s really nourishing.
Aw, thanks Josh. I really appreciate you letting me talk. It’s good for me too. Especially with all this stuff happening in Europe, there were several times when I went in my room and was like, “Can I just wylin’ out?” “Angel, are you just making a big deal out of stuff?” That thought was constantly going through my head. But with everything going on now, I realize, “Oh no, you were appropriate last year Angel. You were reacting appropriately.”
If you need a sounding board, if you ever need someone to hear what you’re going through, I’ll be here.
Aw, thanks Josh. That’s so nice of you. That’s a beautiful thing to offer. And you know what? I may take you up on that offer. I will. You’re gonna get a call from me and I’ll be like, “Well Josh you said!!!” (laughter).
No, no! You know, I wanted to ask one question that I always ask artists: what’s one thing you love about yourself?
One thing I love about myself is myself is my resilience. It’s this psychological thing. No matter what obstacle, no matter what good or bad happens to me, I know that I’m going to shine. I developed it… maybe it was from my isolation and feeling ostracized at an early age. I realized that I didn’t need support to do what I needed to do. I would love the support—I absolutely crave it—but if no one gave it to me, I would still be doing music. If The Oracle never came, if I stayed at the job I hated, I would still be doing music. And that’s something you can develop in yourself. As long as I’m not harming anyone, I can do exactly what I want to do. And I’m gonna do it in the nicest way. At the end of the day, I’m gonna do what I wanna do (laughter).
I used to play by myself a lot. One of my best memories as a kid was that at our house in Kenya, we had a little shed out in front. I used to go in there with all my teddy bears, with all my dolls, all my books—I read a lot of books as a little girl—and I would put the sheet over there and I would just be in my little fort. I would love it because I would be on my own little island with everything that I love and I would be so content. As social as I am, I really enjoy being alone too. I talk to myself a lot—I like myself a lot, so we be talking (laughter). I talk to God and pray all day. It helps me be able to get ready for the world. If you’re not having this inner dialogue with yourself, you’re gonna go out into the world and be off.
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