Portland musician Aaron Nigel Smith calls the genre he works in “family music.” He writes songs for kids and their families to enjoy together. For Juneteenth this year he’s releasing a special collaboration album with songs from 23 other artists. The album is called All One Tribe, and it’s a celebration of Black musicians, children, and families. Aaron Nigel Smith joins us, along with the musician Shine, to talk about the album.
This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. A new album is being released on Saturday as part of this year’s Juneteenth celebrations. All One Tribe has 25 tracks in a broad array of musical styles: soul, reggae, gospel, hip-hop, disco, acoustic guitar. More. It’s being called the first black collaborative family music album. I’m joined now by two of the artists and producers who created it. They both specialize in music for kids and their families. Aaron Nigel Smith is a Portland musician. Shawana Kemp, otherwise known as Shine of Shine and the Moonbeams makes music and teaches in New York City. It’s great to have both of you on the show.
Shawana & Aaron: Thanks so much for having us.
Dave Miller: Let’s start with some music and then we can talk about this album. We’re going to hear the beginning of ‘Clap Your Hands’ by The Magic Jones, two sisters from New Orleans.
Music: Way back in the day. We can take it back, Kick your feet up, keep your head up, come and get up. Which family? Yeah, mm. Doing nothing. We’re just laughing and we playing a while. We could Yeah, wait.
Dave Miller: Aaron Nigel Smith, what was the hole that you wanted to fill when you set out to work on this album?
Aaron Nigel Smith: Thanks for asking, Dave. We really wanted to celebrate the rich diversity that black artists and brown artists have to offer this community of a family music. You know, I’ve been in the space for more than 15 years as an educator, as a performer and a producer of content for families and children. And noticed that oftentimes black and brown people are kind of left on the corner or on the back seat, and not really highlighted in a way that we feel is deserved. So we just wanted to bring people together and open up the space for more black people that are doing music for families to be heard, in significant and meaningful ways.
Dave Miller: How do you explain that? I mean, because it’s literally impossible to talk about American music or basically popular music in this entire world without acknowledging that the vast majority of it comes from the African American experience and black Americans. And yet you’re noting that, when it comes to music for kids and families, there has been a real lack of it. How do you explain that?
Aaron Nigel Smith: Well, I mean, in all honesty, it’s evidence of systemic racism that exists in our nation, unfortunately. It reflects in all areas of life. If there is oppression in one area, there is that trickle down, not trickle down economics, but trickle down racism that occurs. So for instance, like I said, I’ve been doing this music for more than 15 years and in a normal year, what would be considered family music is someone with a guitar, typically a white male with a guitar singing folk style of music. That’s been accepted and those people have been elevated in the genre as the mantle-bearers for the style. So it’s just a reflection of our nation, and with that we still stand firm and stand committed to to shine a light on the rich diversity that we offer and the fact that, yeah, we are creators of a lot of these genres.
Dave Miller: Shine, why did you want to take part in this project, a real collaboration with 25 different artists?
Shine: Well, basically to echo what he said, but in a very creative way, I find that also in addition to this white space that proposes or puts itself as the only kind of music for the children, people have sort of a position in this space where we are at this point...
Dave Miller: Shine, we’re going to work on getting you a better connection. So while we do, Aaron Smith, let me let me go back to you. I want to hear the song that’s called ‘March Together’ that you recorded for this collection. Before we hear it, what do you want us to know about you? Obviously, you had major contributions putting this whole album together, but what should we know about this track that you contributed?
Aaron Nigel Smith: ‘March Together’ came to me in the light or the shadow of the killing of George Floyd and Brianna Taylor and seeing the reaction of the people in the street and really primarily the youth in the street. I was really inspired and compelled to speak to them and to thank/show gratitude, for the leadership that I saw in the youth, taking on this system of oppression, and taking it on in meaningful and powerful ways, and relentlessly, especially here in Portland so it was just just a tribute to the protest and to our youth.
Dave Miller: Let’s have a listen.
Music: Yeah. Oh yeah, but there’s no winner in this fight. It’s time for us all to unite. So we can finally find our way. If you look around then you can see we’re living in two realities were kind of balance today and when we want to get Yeah, wait, wait So much!
Dave Miller: That is ‘March Together’ by Aaron Nigel Smith, one of the co-producers of this new album called ‘All One Tribe’ that’s being released on Saturday, Juneteenth. Shine is with us as well, a musician teacher based in New York, co-producer of this album. And hopefully, Shine, your connection is better right now. Let’s listen to the track that you contributed to this project. It’s called ‘I Believe’. And before we hear your song, what do you want us to know about this?
Shine: Well, I wanted to basically, musically illustrate the faith that black people have had to have here and all of the prayers and faith and tenacity that we’ve had to call upon to continue fighting, marching, struggling and moving and moving on. And so that was where this song came from, all the things that I believe in that have kept us here, still marching on.
Dave Miller: This is called ‘I Believe’. It’s by Shine.
Music: Working justice fall and stay involved. I believe inspect reflection, culture, education and witty. I believe in heart tenacity, leaps of faith and even me. I can’t get magic and I get to my joy. And then what’s the you send bomb and shine?
Dave Miller: Shine, what does it mean to call this song a family music song as opposed to just a song for anybody? I mean, is there a difference?
Shine: Well, and that’s what we’re trying to also be clear about - that family music is for everybody. It’s not kid’s music. And that’s why we stopped calling it children’s music. We wanted to create music systematically rich for children, but also the music that invites the people who are going to bring these children to these spaces. And so it has to be for everybody, there has to be an entry point for everybody. And that was the goal in and that’s always been the goal for me, and it’s been the goal to also open it up and show that there are a wide variety of sounds in this space with black people. There’s country music, there are people who are doing funk, soul and like you said earlier, those are musical traditions that we began in this country. They belong to us. But the point is to also teach and to inspire. So that’s what makes it family music, specifically family music in that we’re trying to inspire goodness, hopefulness, joy for our children.
Dave Miller: Aaron Nigel Smith, is it fair to say that when you’re working on a song yourself or thinking about songs to include in a collection, you want to have songs that adults would also like to hear that, as opposed to being subjected to the Gummy Bear song forever and ever,
or Baby Shark Ad Infinitum. These are two examples that come to mind as a parent of smallish kids that you want parents to not just put up with music, but truly enjoy it.
Aaron Nigel Smith: Absolutely. To echo what Shine said, every song I’ve written over the years and I think there’s about 100 of them out there now, I’ve aimed to write songs that would appeal to myself, to my friends, to my family as well as to the youth, really music that’s funky, music that’s reggae music that teaches, music that makes you really, truly listen melodically. I think it’s important and I think our youth can handle it. So it’s been my intention to never quote unquote, ‘dumb it down’. I’ve just tried to meet the youth where they are, and also meet people where they are. So, the vibes that we create are authentic and meant to resonate for all. It’s definitely intentional.
Dave Miller: Another very intentional thing here and this relates to what you were saying earlier about the track you contributed ‘March Together’. But another thing is that this album does not sugarcoat issues, even if it is aimed as part of the audience at young people. There’s a track specifically about black people who have been killed by police officers. It’s called ‘Say Their Names’ by Ms. Janice. Let’s listen to the beginning of this track.
Music: Sorry, it was an accident. I didn’t mean to take your life. I stood my ground. You stood your ground. But was it a crime? I said my piece. Don’t let me be, let me live my life. I stood my ground. You stood your ground. But I stand life. Is that Justice Warrior? Just if you
Dave Miller: That’s ‘Say Their Names’ by Ms. Janice. Aaron Nigel Smith, how much guidance did you give to the musicians that you reached out to? There’s about two dozen people who all put in their own versions of family music for this album. What did you tell them the brief was?
Aaron Nigel Smith: We asked that they present music that uplifts and amplifies black and brown people, children and families. You know when you listen to the radio oftentimes in urban settings or I spend a lot of time in Jamaica, actually, and I’ll hear music that is thematically inappropriate, I would think, for the smallest and youngest children and yet they’re singing and dancing and rocking out and they don’t even know what it means to be rocking out to these themes and songs. So we wanted it to resonate and create music that our families will be able to embrace. So that was it, really thematically uplifting black and brown people and families, teaching our children about their culture and about their rich, rich heritage, and hopefully making sure that it’s banging enough that everybody wants to really hear it.
Dave Miller: I can say that you may have noticed that in Jamaica, and I can say that in my white family, I see my three year old dancing happily to music that I’m just happy that he doesn’t yet know what the lyrics are to what he’s dancing to because in a couple of years it’ll feel a little bit more squeamish. So in some ways that seems like a universal, but there’s an undeniable hook that he loves to hear. So in some ways that seems like a universal experience right now. Shine, I’m curious why you think that so many people wanted to take part in this? I keep coming back to the 25 different musicians that all came together to make this. What do you think was in the air?
Shine: I mean, this room, this children’s space is a very small space. It’s a very small space, it’s a very hard space to get into. And again, it’s not, our music is not necessarily coveted or they’re not looking for us. So I think this was an opportunity, everybody wants to be invited in. And so this was an opportunity people were very excited about because often right now, in terms of the way records are made, it’s very weird, and people don’t even know where to begin. Yes, there is this wonderful thing called the internet, but there’s something about working collectively that is very inspiring and very productive because you get more done and everybody’s working at their highest skill sets. So this was just a wonderful moment that happened as a result of this pandemic and George Floyd. And I don’t know if it would have happened, had it not been this moment in time, but it was just a call to create something in response to the horror, horrific feeling that that was when all of this started happening. We were on lockdown and then George Floyd happening. And what do you say to your children? So I’m glad that there is that, “Let’s feel good, let’s be hopeful, let’s pray.” But also let’s say their names because these children that we’re talking about also went through this pandemic with us. They’re not, we can’t pretend that it didn’t happen or that things that are tragic don’t happen. And children are very, very susceptible to the truth. They know when you’re telling them the truth and they appreciate it. So I think that that’s why people were drawn to this project. They got an opportunity to speak their hearts, and that’s the other beauty of making music for children. There are no rules. You can talk about the moon, the sun, the stars, a tree, a bird. So it’s a really beautiful room to be in because it’s the universe. You know, pick a subject.
Dave Miller: This is not just music for young people and their families. Some of it is actually made by young people. We’re gonna listen to one of those songs now. This is ‘Shine Melon and Remix’ by Alphabet Rockers.
Music: Watch me, Watch Me pension, Let the Sunshine. Mhm. Send all for the love of my skin, That the Melon, the sunshine. Mhm. Set it all up for the love of my skin.
Dave Miller: Aaron Nigel Smith, what can you tell us about Alphabet Rockers?
Aaron Nigel Smith: Oh my goodness, I’m too busy dancing right now, man. That’s my track right there.
Dave Miller: So it’s a good baseline.
Aaron Nigel Smith: Oh my goodness, I love it. I love it. I love the vibe. So Alphabet Rockers are Grammy nominated hip hop artists that have engaged youth, that made you a significant part of their show, their production process, their writing process. The youth have become integral. It used to be a man and woman duo and now it’s become this whole ensemble of youth, just bringing really relevant topics to the community. Outstanding production as you can hear, and just amazing musicianship. They inspire me. I really love to see how well they’ve taken this market and made it their own and in a market where hip hop or reggae or funk might not be necessarily perceived as music for children and families, they’ve been able to kind of bust out a few doors with their, really because of the sound. Listen to that, it could be on any mainstream radio station in the world.
Dave Miller: Aaron Nigel Smith and Shine, thank you so much for joining us. Congratulations on this new album.
Aaron Nigel Smith: Thank you so much. I appreciate it.
Shine: Thank you for having us.
Dave Miller: Those are the musicians Aaron Nigel Smith who is based in Portland and Shine, who’s based in New York City.
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