W. Kamau Bell Wants to Make “‘Sesame Street’ for Grownups”

W Kamau Bell

Photos by John Nowak

W. Kamau Bell is a powerhouse—an excellent standup who brings up potentially difficult subjects with grace, wit, and intelligence. He’s a TV host; audiences first became familiar with him on FX’s Totally Biased, and he now hosts the CNN show United Shades Of America, the second season of which is slated to air starting in April. He does radio as well: he hosts the talk show Kamau Right Now! on San Francisco’s KALW, and has a podcast with his pal Hari Kondabolu called Politically Re-Active. And he’s now an author, as well.

Given his busy schedule, it was a treat for us to speak with him as he tours colleges in the wake of Trump’s inauguration. He had a good deal to say on free speech, as well as how it feels to be labeled a ‘political comedian’ and the historical role of politics in comedy.

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A Near-Death Experience Influenced Jonwayne’s New Album


On May 25, 2014, Jonwayne woke up in the middle of the night with a burning sensation in his throat. He was drunk and couldn’t breathe. “I scrambled in the dark to reach the sink in my hotel room,” the rapper-producer wrote in a searing open letter he posted to Facebook. “I drank from the faucet and the burning subsided. I turned the lights on. My bed was covered in vomit. I sat in the nearest chair in silence, then I cried.”

Wayne has a crippling fear of flying, so much so that he couldn’t get on a plane unless he was sedated or had been drinking. He’d recently returned from a two-month stint in Europe and was slated to fly back to the continent soon after. Wayne felt like he was suffocating when he woke up that night. It could’ve been his last day alive. “What I gathered is that I was asphyxiating on my own vomit,” Wayne told journalist Max Bell in a new, self-released interview book. “And if I hadn’t woken up I would’ve died.”

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The Rock ‘n’ Soul of Olivier St. Louis 

Oliver St Louis

D.C.-born, Berlin-based singer/producer Olivier St. Louis (formerly Olivier Daysoul) has made a name for himself through his collaborations with renowned electronic music producers like Onra and Hudson Mohawke, as well as through his role as a member of Oddisee’s tight live band, Good Company. In that context his latest, Ever Since The Fall, represents something of a stylistic departure.. Packed with dark, electrifying tones, and St. Louis’s bold, sanctified vocals, Ever Since the Fall is a majestic collection of polished, elegant guitar rock that’s deeply informed by the blues. During rehearsals in preparation for his U.S. tour with Oddisee, we spoke with St. Louis about his newest project and the art of infusing new songs with the spirit of old traditions.

So, could you give a little insight into your background and how you got into music?

Sure. My mother’s Haitian and my father’s Cameroonian. I was born and raised in Washington D.C until the age of 10. Then, I spent the rest of my formative years—up to the age of 18—studying in England at a boarding school. Although I came from a family that prided itself on education first, there was a great appreciation for music. We have a few opera singers and some classically-trained pianists in the family. Although it was mostly classical, there [was sometimes] soul, jazz, and funk often playing in the background at home. My mother was a big fan of Anita Baker, Marvin Gaye, and The Brothers Johnson. So I was influenced by music very early on. I didn’t really consider music as a career, however until I was at university. A random meeting with someone on the bus, while en route to returning a mic to record some demos, introduced me to a whole music scene in D.C. that I wasn’t entirely aware of at the time. Everything branched off from there.

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Album of the Day: Chicago/London Underground, “A Night Walking Through Mirrors”

Cornetist Rob Mazurek and drummer Chad Taylor have been the sole constants in the revolving constellation of groups that have borne the name Chicago Underground going back nearly two decades, when the Chicago Underground Quartet dropped Playground for Delmark in 1998. Back then, the combo cleaved toward an inside-out strain of post-bop, but in the years since—in duo, trio, and quartet configurations–its music has embraced a fierce sense of freedom, even within hypnotic, circular forms. These days, Mazurek and Taylor work most often as a duo, where meticulously deployed electronics usually provide a muscular skeleton for the hornman’s powerful yet lyric improvisation.

In April of 2016, the Duo was performing at Café Oto in London—its first visit to the city in a decade—and for part of the stint the pair invited two powerful locals to join them. Bassist John Edwards has been a fixture on the UK improv scene for decades—he’s recently contributed some of his strongest playing to groups led by German saxophonist Peter Brötzmann—while pianist Alexander Hawkins is one of the country’s brightest young talents, already involved in strong partnerships with free improv sax legend Evan Parker and the legendary South African drummer Louis Moholo-Moholo. Their involvement on the four extended pieces featured on A Night Walking Through Mirrors pushed the Chicago Underground out of its recent modus operandi toward a raw sort of spiritual seeking, where Mazurek’s innate melodic gifts—still deeply informed by the tart playfulness of Don Cherry—regularly collide with the thrumming energy and spacious flow of his collaborators.

As usual, Taylor provides an imperturbable pulse, driving the music with unerring instincts that accommodate Edwards’ fiery arco lines and furious plucking—which on a piece like “Something Must Happen” veer toward a viscous, grinding low-end a la William Parker—and Hawkins’ hammering, skittering notes, without losing a sense of movement. He’s one of the subtlest drummers in jazz—a player possessed with faultless time who can operate in the most blustery setting without pushing his partners to the side. Mazurek is at is his best here, uncorking epic solos built from short, indelible phrases scattered across the vast landscapes of these spontaneous creations. On several pieces he adds wordless vocals, tapping into an early ‘70s spiritual jazz vibe, albeit with a much coarser, immediate energy. Only “Boss Redux” draws on some previously composed material—it features some reworked music from the Duo’s 2014 album Locus—but still, the foursome serves up roiling, in-the-moment energy. The album is a burner from start to finish, and a potent reminder that creative minds working together for the first time can generate something magical out of thin air if the chemistry is right.

—Peter Margasak

Awkward Energy’s Jack Lewis Is Struggling to Become an “Adult”

Awkward Energy

Photo by Tasha Bielaga

Portland musician Jack Lewis is the reluctant adult. He spent his first years out of college touring as a member of his brother Jeffrey Lewis’s band, but as time went on, he felt the need to push toward something else—even if he wasn’t sure what that “something else” was.

That struggle comes across loud and clear on his song “Please Don’t Step on My Flower Bed,” when he sings, “I should start acting my age.” “Flower Bed” is one of the five tracks that make up his newest EP American Lvov: EP #1 under the name Awkward Energy. Serving as chapter one of an upcoming LP—his first release in five years—Lvov is the first of three EPs of original songs and covers that Lewis plans to release every three months before sewing them together into a full-length album later in the year. The songs are lively and effervescent, with jangly guitar and lo-fi production that echoes the glory days of indie pop.

But for all the brightness in his music, Lewis still struggles with the realities of adulthood: How is an adult ‘supposed’ to act? What kinds of things is an adult ‘supposed’ to have accomplished? We spoke with Lewis about this push-and-pull, about achieving balance in life, and what impending adulthood looks like when you’re in your 30s.

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