The Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s has taken on the aura of a Boho Negro Garden of Eden, a vanquished utopia for politically forward, artistically and socially progressive black folk. It was a time and place where artists, politicians and intellectuals not only mingled under the same roofs, but where those vocational callings freely merged within the individual. It was the cultural moment that led Zora Neale Hurston to coin the phrase “niggeratti,” which was both a tribute to and a playful dig at the movement’s star participants: Alain Locke, Nella Larsen, Langston Hughes, Dorothy West, Countee Cullen and numerous others. And it was a time when black artistry was filled with what is still some of this country‘s most radical thinking and speaking for, by and about black folk. It’s understandable, then, that this moment in time has become swathed in romantic longing, a symbol of black autonomy and “pure” artistry.
While the Harlem Renaissance remains a high-water mark for American culture, the truth is that even when the phenomenon was in full bloom, it had little impact on the lives of the vast majority of Americans, black or otherwise. The politics of the participants were complicated, and members of the multigenre collective were viewed suspiciously by many of their own race. Some had to wrestle with being true to their vision without simultaneously alienating the white folk who were their patrons (and the bulk of their audience). They had to grapple with the artist‘s eternal paradox: The truer you are to your talent, the more likely it is you’ll be ignored or lambasted.
“The one thing that kept them going was the art, the work,” says local singer-songwriter Shawn Amos, who titled his forthcoming album Harlem (Unbreakable) after being inspired by a museum exhibition dedicated to the Harlem Renaissance. “There were no great financial incentives, you know. It was overcrowded, and a lot of them lived in squalor. Yet this greatness came out of it. And it was all rooted in the need to create, in the belief in yourself and that you have something worth saying. And if it‘s useful for someone else, then that’s icing.”
In titling his latest album Harlem, Amos, 31, links himself not only to an artistic legacy but also to a pointed consciousness of race, politics and art and the ways they clasp together. Amos, the son of cookie mogul Famous Amos, and who used to perform around L.A. under the militant black-glam persona Whitey McFearsun, dubs his CD “hillbilly soul,” and — save Neil Young‘s “Southern Man” — wrote all the album’s songs, which tell the story of Miller (a Southern sharecropper) and his wife, Mattie (a housekeeper), who move north to make a better life for themselves. Racism and a host of internal demons make the trip with them, however, and the promised land doesn‘t ease the couple’s struggles; it simply presents them in a new, unfamiliar context. With influences as disparate as Langston Hughes, Elvis Costello, The Who and Marvin Gaye, Amos illuminates his words with mandolin, dobro, banjo and lap-steel guitar. Though he‘s been a professional musician for almost 10 years, he feels like this album (his third) is the closest he’s come to capturing the hybrid of sounds that most affected him as a young music fan.
“Growing up,” he says, “I loved white British rock & roll. I wanted to be like Pete Townshend. I loved the literate nature of his lyrics, how they were angry but also incredibly sensitive and vulnerable. At the same time, I really loved black singers like Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke and Aretha Franklin. So much of my life is about reconciling the whole black-white thing. As a child, I was often the only black kid in my class, the only black kid in my neighborhood. Music is definitely the thing that got me through my childhood. So all of that plays out in my art — the identification with the outsider, the marriage of different cultural influences.”
Daytimes, Amos is an A&R guy at Rhino Records, where he‘s putting the finishing touches on Rhapsodies in Black: Music and Words From the Harlem Renaissance, a box set he’s producing for August release. Artists such as Alfre Woodard, Lou Rawls, Chuck D., Angela Bassett, Branford Marsalis and others will either read excerpts from the era‘s poetry, novels and essays, or perform music from that time.
“It all comes together very nicely,” Amos says. “Mattie and Miller are moving up north to make a life for themselves, to have some control over their destiny that they didn’t before. So my Harlem solo album is a very black or Afro-centric record lyrically, even though it‘s the whitest-sounding record on Earth.” He laughs. “But coupled with [the box set], it really was a way for me to bump my love of pop music and Langston Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance all up against each other. And it all makes sense.”
Shawn Amos appears at Goldfingers Thursday, February 24.
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