Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Anti-war Anthems: Ursula Rucker

A few weeks ago when jazz poet/prophet Gil Scott-Heron passed, I asked "who would tell the truth" in his absence. I realized shortly after that I had a prime candidate in mind in Ursula Rucker, a Philadelphia-based poet and singer. She's recorded three conventional albums, released two digital-only albums, and has worked as a featured guest with a host of important artists on the cutting edge of socially/spiritually/politically conscious music.

The video above is "Awakening," from the 2007 album Play with the Changes by the genius British duo 4hero. The chill-out groove is pure 4hero but the lyrical message is all Ursula Rucker: a sort of dialogue between mother and daughter about carrying the torch to the next generation.

"Sister girl wanna tell you about this thing
that's been weighing heavy on my heart
haunts both my dreams and my first breath,
hmmm where to start well
Revolution it seems has become an antique when
in my youth revolution was what we rose with the sun to seek
we were fierce

Now, our glory days are nothing but a page,
in an edge worn book
an afro a raised fist,
a black beret, black pride
set aside to mere history,
it saddens me,
hmm it saddens me,
but will these words fall on deaf ears cos my tears won't
fill up the riverbed of resistance and change,
it's gone dry
and gone and unkown are the names which gave that river its
tranquility, its beautiful force and godspeed
rise up out of the complacency induced sleep
we need, an Awakening.

Bring the noise daughter
now is the time for you and your generation to put this universal
chaos in order...

But Mama, the resistance seemed so futile,
when all the while, government and media massacre my dreams,
We, my brothers and sisters and me,
are at the mercy of Dotcoms,
Bombs that kill at least 30 daily
the constant downward spiral of music and humanity,
a general lack of concern, knowledge and history,
our potential leaders and spokespeople are chasing
materialistic ideals
seems our fates have been sealed with a Bling Bling kiss...

Mama, i still question the meanings of freedom and peace
but i will not retreat, i will instead meet
this challenge head on and heart strong.
Sing my protest songs..."

Rucker's poetry is often political like this, delivered in a beautifully eloquent shifting hybrid of poetry slam, singing, rap and confession: it's hip-hop at its most creative and conscious. I saw her perform once in New York City backed by only a guitarist with a sequencer: I was spellbound. She's angry sometimes, righteously indignant; she really knows how to preach. But if she can channel an angry Mother Earth as she does in 4hero's "Loveless" (another great video on youtube), she can also be vulnerable and even maternal.

"Release" from Rucker's 2003 album Silver or Lead, featuring music by NY Latin/groove DJ Little Louie Vega, is her 9/11 song:

"And blue that day
When, everything changed
What changed?
Who really changed?...

When towers be falling
And Babylon be calling your name, my name
How will we answer?
How will we answer?

With dread?
With faith?
With misplaced power or power of prayer?
With bigotry?
With humanity?
With love?
With love

Release your heart"

She reverently follows the footsteps of important, and too often forgotten, female voices like Sonia Sanchez and Jayne Cortez who married poetry, music, feminist consciousness, and political commitment. Importantly she brings a youthful accessibility and hipness like Dana Bryant and Jill Scott, though I find her focus sharper and her edge harder. Aside from 4hero and Louie Vega, she's worked with Jazzanova, the Roots, King Britt, and even slick UK acid jazz group Incognito. Her recitations marry well with the European techno-groove sensibility that harvests American jazz-funk of the 1970s for inspiration, which also means she's perfect for my own taste in music.

While not all of her work is political, when she makes a statement I can't think of anyone else who presents the politics of social justice and liberation in such a profoundly spiritual way. From her perspective these things are not separate: the way human beings treat each other is called to a higher level of respect and consciousness. While these songs are not single-issue anti-war tunes, her observation of the blights on our world and society is unsparing and far-reaching.

This song is less overtly political, but a live version of the highlight title track from her most recent album "She Said," this one borders rock and roll. It's impossible to forget that hers is a woman's perspective, where love and hope share space with hope, bitterness and frustration. She specializes in, well, the truth.

As she sings on her recent album: "Wake the fuck up, cause t'ings have run amock!"