After releasing her rendition of "Strange Fruit" in 1965, Nina Simone explained that "an artist's duty is to reflect the times."
Solange — who is headlining this year's Soul'd Out Music Festival — has embraced that artistic obligation. Her polarizing and beautiful album "A Seat At The Table" is one of the most intimate and truthful looks inside the experience of being black (and more specifically a black woman) in America today.
She leads a lineup of Portland veterans, interdisciplinary concert bills and legends from all genres of soul music performing at this year's Soul'd Out festival. Featured during the week-long festival are The Ohio Players, Travis Scott, the European Godfather of Disco Giogio Moroder, Tortoise, a Jimmy Mak's tribute and more.
OPB sat down with Soul'd Out Music Festival co-founder Nicholas Harris for a conversation about the 2017 version of the festival, why soul music is desperately needed today and if he's expecting a riot when Dead Prez performs their classic hit "Hip-Hop."
Q&A with Nicholas Harris, Co-Founder Of Soul'd Out Music Festival
David Stuckey: Last year around this time I asked you about Kendrick Lamar losing the Album of the Year Grammy to Taylor Swift. This year the controversy was Beyonce losing to Adele. My question to you: Is it time for black artists to stop attending the Grammys?
Nicholas Harris: I think it's the same answer as last year. If you look to the Grammys — which is a commercial enterprise, representing the commercial side of the industry — if we look to these people for validations of our craft, of our culture, then we're looking in the wrong direction. So if you need validation by the industry for your music to have value, then you should should not boycott the Grammys. If you don't need the Grammys to validate your work, boycott away. Or better yet, create your own goddam awards. Build it yourself. In today's day and age, there's no excuse to be waiting for someone to hand you something.
DS: Great art derives from pain, from oppression — blues, jazz, hip-hop, soul. With all that's going on in the world, do we need soul music more than ever?
NH: Absolutely. I see soul music as a little further down the spectrum. Singing in the fields, blues music, church music — I think that was more songs of enslavement. And I think soul music was the first music that reflected liberation. It was the first sparks of mental liberation.
There were these old formats and then James Brown comes with a 30-piece horn section — that's a big band, that's Glen Miller — he (Brown) just liberated his mind and said, I'm going to get out of this box that everybody expects these people to be in. In order to express this thing I have to express, which is a liberated mindset. So he used a forum that was mainstream and through his own mental liberation came this whole new sound, this whole new experience. Do we need mental liberation? Do we need to celebrate whatever freedom we have? Cultural, musically, politically? Absolutely. Now more than ever.
DS: Solange is coming to Soul'd Out this year. "A Seat At The Table" was prophetic. She's discussing everything that's going on in the country (through the eyes of a black woman). What's the importance of booking Solange and will Portland get it?
NH: I think Portland gets it. I think, more importantly, Solange got it. If you've seen what she booked after Soul'd Out, and what she's doing now. So what was going through her mind when she chose this event that's relatively young — in a market that not traditionally favors her or her music? She got it. That speaks more to her and her team and their understanding of the situation. Obviously, she's actively pursuing alternative paths towards expression, outside of the mainstream.
As far as the album, it's an incredible album. She created a slow, thoughtful piece with live instrumentation when the general trend is rapid-fire beats, automated vocals, and no instrumentation. So whether that was a conscious decision to go in that direction or if that was purely just a creative expression, I don't know and it doesn't really matter.
Prosperity doesn't really care, and history will write that the album was right on time. She's using her power to push progressive ideas into this semi-commercial space. And it's amazing. It's a big one for us, a big one for Portland and a big one for the festival.
DS: Unlike other festivals, Soul'd Out takes place at different venues across the city, any new venues?
NH: We're doing this play called "Spiritrials" with hip-hop artists and a theater group. It's a really interesting piece on hip-hop culture. All ages. It's going to be at DISJECTA, a performance space in North Portland, so we're excited about that. And artists in the piece are going to perform at the Dead Prez show, so it should be cool.
DS: Speaking of Dead Prez, when "Hip-Hop" comes on, are you expecting a riot?
NH: Yeah (laughs). That's what it's there for right? We have a little history with Dead Prez if you look up "Dead Prez/Evergreen college." We've had them at the festival before. It's going to go off! We have five local emcees that are going to open up for them. Guys that have been doing it from Portland. It's going to be a great night of straight hip-hop.
DS: The legendary Ohio Players, what should people expect from this grown and sexy show?
NH: If there is one word for it: reunion. It's a Portland old school family reunion. The Ohio Players came from an era that is the Pleasure area in the Portland area. So it's our old-school show. Last year we had Parliament and this year it's the Ohio Players.
DS: And on the other side of the age range, there's Travis Scott. Who is Travis Scott?
NH: He's produced a lot of stuff. Good stuff. He's just obviously this strong force. Everything he touches, works. The people that I know that have seen Travis Scott say it's one of the best performances they've ever seen. And we have Flying Lotus on the bill. So that's what we are about, interesting co-bills. Travis Scott and Flying Lotus has never happened before and it's not going to happen, otherwise, that's what makes Soul'd Out special.
DS: Best dance show at the festival?
NH: This year's is easy. Giorgio Moroder. He is the godfather of European disco music. He's legendary. He's produced Donna Summer, some of the biggest hits ever. When Daft Punk did their big disco revival, he was the front man for that. It's going to be an epic show for anyone that wants to dance.
DS: And the best dressed show?
NH: I think Ohio Players. And Solange at the Schnitzer. Different eras. Different styles, but I think everyone will be dressed to the nines.
DS: Who is someone that's maybe not a household name but in five years they're going to be a star?
NH: I think we have a few this year. But the standout talent that's going to be a superstar is Cory Henry. He's incredible. There's video of him online, 3-years-old, playing organ in his church. Literally, he was born to do this.
DS: What kind of music?
NH: He had an organ trio, basically gospel and then he also did, the new album is Cory Henry and the Funk Apostles and it's more straight ahead funk. He played Pickathon last year. In the past year he's done work with Herbie Hancock, Quincy Jones, Frank Ocean, Badu, etc. He's already recognized as the preeminent keyboard organist of his generation. People need to see this show.