Antibalas: Who is this America Dem Speak Of Today?

Afrobeat, immigration, and America: A conversation with Martin Perna.

It is early in the morning in Centre County, Pennsylvania, when my interview with Martin Perna, Founder of Afrobeat group Antibalas, begins. Perna is relaxed, a little tired from the early wake-up call, and he has a lot to say.

“The group has become something of a constant improvisation,” he tells me. He is referring to Antibalas- meaning bulletproof in English- an Afrobeat group of twelve people, founded by Perna in Brooklyn, New York in 1996.

In their more than twenty years of existence, the group has been the pioneer of Afrobeat in America and the world. Afrobeat is a West African musical style first born in Ghana in the 1920s and later popularized in Nigeria by Fela Kuti. It mixes different styles and needs a minimum of ten members, says Perna. “And when you need that many people to get there, and they have to be constantly fluent in this musical language and the repertoire, then you are talking about building a community”.

Improvisation is a major part of this musical style, where there is a constant interplay between consistency and improvisation. Afrobeat is like a pool, where different musical styles, geographies, cultures and people come in; its spirit remains consistent throughout all the changes. Like the Ayuahuasca snake, Afrobeat somehow awakes a spirit that captures its players, and in the mess and the movement, all the pieces fall into place, and it is mesmerizing.

“The group has become something of a constant improvisation,”

Antibalas’ history absolutely reflects this. The band has changed members throughout the years, each one bringing their experience, style and views. Their saxophonist, for example, is now touring with Arcade Fire, and their trumpeter has toured with Italian singer Jovanotti.

People go away and come back, “It’s not I’m doing Antibalas so that one day I can play with Jovanotti, its like I’m doing Jovanotti so I can go back and play with Antibalas”, Perna says. He continues telling me that despite the constant changes, there has been coherence in the group, something that has never changed: ideals and attitudes. “Its kind of a self-selecting group as far as attitudes,” says Perna.

Surviving NYC

Surviving in the New York City was also a major factor of unification for the band members, who all come from different cultural and social backgrounds. “I think the music provides a place for all these different people, and also created a way that we can stay connected and create these forms of social organizations,” Perna says when I ask him why this type of music has worked for the group.

He goes on talking how the style of music has also influenced the way they work; the structures and accountability, he says, are predetermined, and that is the side that gives them structure. At the same time, there is a huge feeling of friendship and community, and that’s where improvisation, political satire and laughter come in.

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“Over the twenty years, many of us have lived together, let each other stay with each other”, Perna tells WIB, adding that this sense of solidarity and community has expanded even beyond the group, as people came in and out.

The political sentiment of Afrobeat is also a fundamental factor, Antibalas’ music carries a strong message. Just like Fela chose a political approach that was relevant to 1970s Nigeria under a military dictatorship, Antibalas has made music that is relevant in the United States now.

Perna explains that their role has changed very much throughout the years, especially with the Internet. When they began, their music explored subjects that were less talked about and therefore their role was more one of a disseminator of information, as information was not available to all. One of their first songs, “Uprising”, was for example inspired by an anti-gentrification movement in New York.

“That has radically changed throughout the years because of the Internet….people are engaged in this stream of not only news, but opinion”. Their role, Perna says, is more of a guide now, on what people can do about a certain issue or topic, so that they still do not lose focus of certain struggles.

The Fake American

A song that has managed to stay relevant throughout its fifteen years of existence is Who is this America Them Speak Of Today, from their third studio album Who Is This America. The song, Perna tells us, was recorded 15 years ago during the Bush presidency, and “it was kind of inspired by, or in conversation with, the war on terror”.

The idea behind it, however, was born from a common conversation and attitude in the US about who “ a real American” is. What everybody knows, and no one wants to say, Perna says, “is that it is a White Anglo-Saxon American, with an English surname, lighter skin and lighter hair. That is the official American”.

Perna expands saying that there is a contrary myth that everybody is American and that it is an inclusive society with a flag that represents everyone, but that is not the case. “It is one of the many hypocritical issues, and one of the clearest ones in the United States, one that could potentially drive us to some kind of civil war”, if we are not aware, he concludes.

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“The song wanted to investigate that question,” says Perna, referring to the fact that, despite the narrative, America wants to portray, Black, Hispanic and indigenous people are treated as second-class citizens, even though they participate in the military and help to defend and build the country.

Who is this America Them Speak Of  is a conversation between an uncle and his nephew, calling from abroad and very curious to know who this America, so talked about abroad, is. “ Is it Ronald McDonald? Is it Mickey mouse?” and continues “Is it Indigenous America? One who first come live here? Is him original American?”. These questions are backed by a strong repetitive beat, typical of the style, that escalates as the confusion of this young man also increases. The word “immigrant” is repeated in what seems to be a tribal ritual, some sort of purifying act where the word gains relevance and weight.

“If he is not in the country, or has to go back to England or Nigeria, the group could be over, a lot of things could be over”

On the issue of immigration, Perna says that the song is even more relevant now under the Trump administration. After 40 years living in the US, their lead singer Duke Amayo, who is originally from Nigeria, has had to ask for the citizenship in a country he has lived in most of his life. With the recent deportations and family separations under the Trump administration, Amayo, who has a daughter, realised he had no other choice than to get a citizenship, although he already had a permanent green card. Being an immigrant in America, says Perna, has become such a delicate and precarious state, so there was not much choice.

“If he is not in the country, or has to go back to England or Nigeria, the group could be over, a lot of things could be over” he says, explaining that this is now a reality that needs to be faced. After twenty years of working with him, Perna says it has been very strange and sad to see his friend feel such a strong uncertainty in the place that was home and where he has built a family.

“This is a really bizarre political moment I think for everyone right now, and it feels like some satirical show of some bizarre world in which America has this crazy unhinged president and its reality. For us to be caught up in the absurdity of that now, in such a way, is representative of this moment”.

 

 

WHO IS THIS AMERICA DEM SPEAK OF TODAY

Music & Lyrics by Bosco Mann
Additional Lyrics by Amayo

RING, RING, RING
HELLO, HELLO
AH, HELLO UNCLE
WHO IS IT?
WHO IS THIS UNCLE?  IT’S ME, UNCLE. HOW IS AMERICA, UNCLE?
HOW IS THE STATES, NOW?                                 *

STATE OF CONFUSION
STATE OF COMMOTION
STATE OF INDIVIDUALISM

“AMERICA DO THIS”
“AMERICA DO THAT”
“AMERICA GO RIGHT”
“AMERICA GO WRONG”

THAT’S WHAT DEM SAY-O
IN THE STREETS OF NEW YORK
IN THE CAFÉS OF EUROPE
ON THE ROADS OF LAGOS

EVERYBODY THEY TALK
ME I QUESTION SOTE-O (ALWAYS)
I DEY CONFUSE-O

WHO IS THIS AMERICA DEM SPEAK OF TODAY?
WHO IS THIS AMERICA DEM SPEAK OF TODAY?
IS IT YOU?  OR ME?  OR THE NEXT BROTHER WEY I KNOW?
WHO IS THIS AMERICA DEM SPEAK OF TODAY?
DEM SPEAK OF HIM LIKE MY NEXTDOOR NEIGHBOOR
WHO IS THIS AMERICA?
WHO IS THIS AMERICA DEM SPEAK OF TODAY?
BUT HE CAN’T BE EVERY BROTHER
AND EVERY BROTHER CAN’T BE HIM
WHO IS THIS AMERICA DEM SPEAK OF TODAY?

IS IT RONALD McDONALD?
IN HIM MICKEY HOUSE?
OR JUST HIM WHO EAT HIM BURGER?
HIM WHO BUY HIM NIKE?
HIM WHO WATCH HIM TV?
I GROW CONFUSE-O
I MUST ASK AGAIN

WHO IS THIS AMERICA DEM SPEAK OF TODAY? TELL ME
WHO IS THIS AMERICA DEM SPEAK OF TODAY?

IS IT INDIGENOUS AMERICA?
ONE WHO FIRST COME LIVE HERE?
IS HIM ORIGINAL AMERICA?

HIM LIVE IN PEACE AND HARMONY-O
BEFORE IMMIGRATION STARTED
BEFORE IMMIGRATION STARTED

HERE COME THE SPANISH                     IMMIGRANT
HERE COME THE DUTCHMAN                    IMMIGRANT
HERE COME THE ENGLISH                    IMMIGRANT
HERE COME THE FRENCHMAN                    IMMIGRANT
IMMIGRANT, IMMIGRANT-O                    IMMIGRANT

HERE COME THE SPANISH                     IMMIGRANT
HERE COME THE DUTCHMAN                    IMMIGRANT
HERE COME THE ENGLISH                    IMMIGRANT
HERE COME THE FRENCHMAN                    IMMIGRANT

HERE COME THE PILGRIM – FILTHY LITTLE ALIEN        IMMIGRANT
WITH NO PAPER – WITH NO GREENCARD             IMMIGRANT

COME WITH SMALLPOX
COME WITH RIFLES
COME WITH LAND RIGHTS
DEM COME WITH PRISONS TOO

THEY BE FIRST TO SAY:
“THIS IS AMERICA
I GO AMERICA NOW”

BUT I MUST ASK AGAIN – I GROW CONFUSE-O
WHO IS THIS AMERICA DEM SPEAK OF TODAY?
WHO IS THIS AMERICA DEM SPEAK OF TODAY?
HEAD SCATTER – WHO IS THIS AMERICA DEM SPEAK OF TODAY-O?
WHO IS THIS AMERICA DEM SPEAK OF TODAY?
LISTEN, LISTEN
IS IT THE BLACK MAN?
STOLEN FROM AFRICA-O
WHIPPED INTO SLAVERY
FIGHT AND FIGHT FOR FREEDOM
JUST TO RIDE IN THE BACK OF BUS

HIM BRING US CULTURE AMERICA
HIM BRING US MUSIC TOO AMERICA

HIM FIGHT AND HIM DIE
NOW HIM SIT WHERE HIM LIKE
BUT HIM STILL NO DRIVE THIS BUS-O

IS HIM AMERICA DEM SPEAK OF TODAY?

IS IT THE SLAVEMASTER?
PLANTATION OWNER?
KU KLUX KLANSMAN?
MAN WITH THE WHIP?
FACTORY OWNER?

HIM GO SAY LOUD AND PROUD-O
HIM GO SAY WHITE IS AMERICA
HIM GO SAY-O HIM NA AMERICA-O

I MUST ASK AGAIN AS I GROW MORE AND MORE CONFUSE-O
WHO IS THIS AMERICA DEM SPEAK OF TODAY-O?
WHO IS THIS AMERICA DEM SPEAK OF TODAY?

IS IT COMPANY WORKER?        WHO GO KNOW – WHO GO KNOW
OR CEO?                     WHO GO KNOW – WHO GO KNOW
IS IT SOLDIER CAPTAIN?             WHO GO KNOW – WHO GO KNOW
OR SOLDIER FAMILY?             WHO GO KNOW – WHO GO KNOW
IS IT LABOR ORGANIZER?         WHO GO KNOW – WHO GO KNOW
OR POLICE STRIKE-BREAKER?     WHO GO KNOW – WHO GO KNOW
IS IT DRUNKARD ON THE STREET?     WHO GO KNOW – WHO GO KNOW
OR IS IT DRUNKARD IN THE WHITEHOUSE-O?
WHO GO KNOW
OIL TYCOON-O?                WHO GO KNOW
GREEN PARTY VOTER?            WHO GO KNOW
UNDERCOVER POLICE?             WHO GO KNOW
PUBLIC SCHOOL TEACHER?         WHO GO KNOW
CIA                        WHO GO KNOW
IRS                        WHO GO KNOW
DEA                        WHO GO KNOW
NBC                        WHO GO KNOW …
CNN, FCC, NRA, FBI, INS (SPLIT TO THREE), ATT, ATF, EBA, FCC, NFL, NBC, NBA, WB, PBR, HMO, HUD, AAA, TSA, ERA, PTA *
WHO IS THIS AMERICA DEM SPEAK OF TODAY?
WHO IS THIS AMERICA DEM SPEAK OF TODAY-O?
WHO IS THIS AMERICA DEM SPEAK OF TODAY?
IS IT YOU?  IS IT ME?  OR THE NEXT BROTHER WEY I KNOW?
WHO IS THIS AMERICA DEM SPEAK OF TODAY?
DEM SPEAK OF HIM LIKE MY NEXTDOOR NEIGHBOOR-O                            WHO IS THIS AMERICA DEM SPEAK OF TODAY?
DEM STEAL DEM MONEY-O
ONE FLAG IS NOT BIG ENOUGH FOR THIS MANY PEOPLE
WHO IS THIS AMERICA DEM SPEAK OF TODAY?
THIS IS NO ONE COMMUNITY –  NO ONE FAMILY-O
WHO IS THIS AMERICA DEM SPEAK OF TODAY?
NO PEOPLE UNITED – WHAT IS UNITED IN A STATE OF CONFUSION?
WHO IS THIS AMERICA DEM SPEAK OF TODAY?
NO PLURIBUS UNUM, NO PLURIBUS UNUM
WHO IS THIS AMERICA DEM SPEAK OF TODAY?

WHO IS THIS AMERICA DEM SPEAK OF TODAY?…

 

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Sounds from the Bucket
Virginia Vigliar

Virginia is a freelance journalist and editor based in Barcelona, consults for Oxfam in Spain and the Netherlands, and she is the Chief Editor of WIB. She is a passionate advocate of human rights and freedom of speech. And a meme enthusiast. She has worked in the development sector in Malawi and Kenya and Somalia before returning to Europe, where she gained experience in the United Kingdom, Norway, and Spain. To see her work, look at her website here: http://virginiavigliar.com/
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