Matana Roberts, avant-jazz alto saxophonist, has spent the past decade mapping out a 12-album series titled Coin Coin. Roberts lives in a houseboat docked in Brooklyn's Sheepshead Bay, but when she learned of ancestors from Mississippi, Tennessee and Louisiana, the musician visited those states to collect field recordings of life there now. For Coin Coin's recently released third chapter, River Run Thee, she cues those findings in between nods to old Americana and readings from a captain's log of late 19th-century slave ships. Her saxophone drones on for long enough to induce seasickness.
The point of Roberts' feverish work is to make America's past and present – this country's history and her own – seem inextricably connected, as if it were all colliding before us. Which is why, when I mention her study of African-American history, she's quick to correct me: "I'm dealing with American history, not just African-American history." Already, she was hesitant to speak with me, a writer who has dealt mostly with Atlanta's current (and not exactly socially conscious) hip-hop scene, because of what that could imply of Coin Coin.
"I think Rolling Stone asking you to speak to me in this manner shadows shades of classism and forced narratives that I'm fighting against, not only as an American artist but as a person," she says. "It's all over this work." From there, we talked of how, while creating Coin Coin, Roberts discovered how U.S. history and identity aren't as clear-cut as it would seem to most.
You've researched American history and your family histories for Coin Coin. Did it ever hurt to consider the past suffering?
I was interested in going beyond labels of otherness – black person, white person, whatever – and toward humanist, dealing with joy and pain. Not a single person I know doesn't have some story about someone in their life having persevered. There's a thing with New York artists where there's an angle they have to what they're doing. That can come across as dishonest. To avoid that, I made sure that the work was personal to me. But now there are regrets with that, my work having to do with identity.
I have to understand that some stories I’m telling may be translated differently from what I'm saying. There are other cultural filters that, when you take in a story and relate it to yourself, have you walk away with a different definition of what you're hearing. I'm reading a book by James Agee, who profiled three impoverished farming families for Fortune in the Thirties. The way he writes about them, it gives them no dignity. I feel a responsibility to that, which can slow you down. I have to think of [family] as subjects sometimes to get through some of the painful segments of history that I'm dealing with.
The final thing, as I've brought up, is being placed in a corner. I'm trying not to pay attention to how people write about my work, but if I notice even a hair of what comes across as a colonialist or patriarchal aesthetic, I'm all over them. I give thanks that I'm not in mainstream music. I wouldn't be able to handle the aping of my culture that I feel I'd have to do.
You have more control this way.
I'm lucky to have Constellation Records. I know I can say what I want to say. With this interview I was like, there are shades of racism – do you see what I see? My core is punk. Their core is punk. Many musicians on that label have influenced me. The only downside is my Americanness. They're French Canadian, with a different relationship to identity, not only with classism and racism but this nationalist aesthetic that runs very deep.
I have to remember that I'm not just African. I'm Irish, English, Scottish and French. I recently took all the DNA tests on the market – I'm bringing that into my work as well – and found out I'm three percent Polynesian.
That reminds me of American Tapestry, the book about Michelle Obama's mixed ancestry. What America tends to view as clear-cut, in terms of identity, often isn't.
That's a problem that I have with the music industry as a whole. A lot of artists don't see the forced narrative. There's this talk about the usage of language, where we're not even dealing with how the terminology is racist or sexist. "We're beyond that now." No, we're not. It's the little things that lead to bigger problems. I've traveled internationally since 2001. I've seen how some of these things are translated and do Americanness a disservice.
Do you experience culture shock anymore?
Not in the same way I did when I went to Mississippi. That's saying something, so much so that I'm going to make this same trip that I made for this record annually. Kids travel through certain towns with the doors locked and windows rolled up – and don't stop for gas. One town has a courthouse museum where none of the placards had been changed since 1948, where they talked about slavery. I visited one hotel that used to be a plantation: "Once upon a time in the land of cotton..." What?
I met Southerners who are still upset over the Civil War. That's because we're always been told that the Northerners were saviors. I found records of family members who fought in the Confederacy. I have family members who had things stolen by the Union but didn't get anything back; the government called them Confederate sympathizers. I'm making bridgework. I see links between how the United States was formed politically with the killings of thousands and the violence we keep seeing, not just with cops but the mass killings.
I do this because I love this country, but also because there's things that haven't been said yet.
River Run Thee samples someone named Gertrude.
Gertrude was this African-American homeless woman that I met in Jackson, Mississippi, who I bought breakfast for at a café. [The café] told me not to because everybody buys her food. This is one of the richest countries in the world, and still there are people living on the street. It's easy to compartmentalize what we want to see. She's a reminder of what I hope to deal with more in my work, as an artist doing what it is that I do.