Cleveland's 'big, black orchestra' turns grief into joyous musical outpouring

With Mourning [A] BLKstar, Cleveland musician, poet, author and bookstore owner RA Washington was searching for ways to channel his grief following the February 2016 death of close friend Dwayne Pigee, who performed under the name Francois Fissi Bissi Okrakongo.

“He was walking on West 81st Street in the middle of the day, less than 20 blocks away from where the bookstore was, and someone shot him and murdered him,” said Washington, reached at his West Side Cleveland bookstore, Guide to Kulchur. “He was my best friend and one of my closest collaborators, and you don't expect anyone you know to get murdered — especially not in your 40s. … Just for the sheer black-maleness of it, I thought we were past that age.”

Fittingly, a majority of BLKstar's songs find the 10-piece crew exploring deep trauma, with tracks confronting racial segregation, police violence and historical oppression, and then releasing it in oft-joyous outbursts steeped in soul, jazz and rock, among other forms. (Washington said the group's musical approach is rooted partially in his concept of creating a “big, black orchestra.”)

“For people of color, this place that we live in is rife with systemic oppression and internalized oppression and all the things that come with segregation and colonial nations. There are a lot of subjects you can get into, but we try to make sure it sounds natural and the concerns pop up the way the universe wants them to, as opposed to force feeding a message or a political intent,” said Washington, who joins his bandmates, including vocalists James Longs, LaToya Kent and Kyle Kidd, in concert at the Summit on Friday, July 27. “If it ain't funky, no one is going to listen to it. ... We want it to be where you almost forget what the lyrics are saying and then it hits you like, ‘Oh shit, I'm kind of lightweight jamming to this sad song.'”

Witness the stately, horn-stoked “Garner Poem,” which takes its “I can't breathe” refrain from the final words of Eric Garner, who died in 2014 after being choked by NYPD officers, and finds the musicians using the event as a launching pad to examine the issue of oppression on a larger historical scale.

“Garner Poem” also includes the line, “They kill children in the park/Murder youth unarmed,” a lightly veiled reference to 12-year-old Cleveland boy Tamir Rice, who was shot and killed by police in 2014 — an incident that resonated particularly strongly with Washington due both to Rice's young age and the fact that the shooting happened in his hometown. As with the death of Pigee, which Washington said he has yet to fully process, the Rice shooting left the musician with myriad questions he's still grappling to come to terms with years later, particularly when it comes to what he views as a muted response from his fellow citizens.

“There was a sense of, ‘What's wrong with this place? How come we didn't show up for Ms. Rice and her family and Tamir in the proper ways?'” Washington said. “I kind of feel like there's some unfinished work to happen.”

For Washington, Mourning [A] BLKstar exists as a way to advance some of these larger discussions.

“The ways in which we presented this material, and will present this material in its finished form, will allow for some conversations to be had that may be difficult,” he said.

When it comes to presenting the material, Washington and Co. have a plan nearly equal to the ambition the musicians display on record. In addition to The Garner Poems, coming out on Electric Cowbell in October, the group is already preparing a three-disc LP for Don Giovanni Records, which it hopes to release early in 2019. (The album was recorded live in Guide to Kulchur's performance space with Columbus musician and producer Elijah Vazquez.)

The sprawling three-disc recording finds the musicians treading similar thematic ground, examining the repeating cycles of oppression and inequity. Each disc opens with a montage of clipped speeches both recent and historic, the voices of everyone from Bernie Sanders to Martin Luther King, Jr. gradually blurring into one mass of white noise, as if to suggest these eras aren't separate but rather an ongoing part of the American experience for many.

“We're in a cycle. That's the best way to put it. We keep on making the same human errors in regards to how we relate and how we communicate with each other and how we divide resources equitably,” Washington said. “These kind of concerns have always existed, but I felt the best way to illuminate them would be with grace and humility, and by making heartfelt things. And the response has been positive to that decision in ways I didn't think was possible.”

Washington views his need to confront the oppressive forces that have maintained a grip on power for decades as part of a personal calling, but also as a sense of duty to others who continue to carry those torches even after paying a great personal price.

“I'm not going to say I'm going to give up when people like Samaria Rice (Tamir's mother) and Eric Garner's daughter … go out there and turn these tragedies into these marches toward a better future for all of us. How am I just going to bail out of that?” Washington said. “The movement needs hope songs. They need a marching band, and they need a way to celebrate and a way to mourn. Our role in that ecosystem is important.”