Black Solstice Salon

The Soundshop Returned with an In-Person Event

On June 21, The Soundshop returned with the Black Solstice Salon, its first in-person event in the age of COVID-19. The performance had a dual purpose: to mark the coming of summer and to engage with the Black Lives Matter movement by amplifying Black artists. Considering the vagaries of pandemic living, The Soundshop ensured that patrons could attend the event in one of two ways: by masking up and grabbing a seat at Pates et Traditions, a Black-owned Brooklyn creperie, or by tuning into a Facebook Live stream. Brett & Butter Media used a binaural microphone to make at-home listeners feel as close to the music as possible.

View from the back of people standing and sitting in front of an outdoor musical performance
The socially-distant in-person event at Pates et Traditions

Soundshop founder Akpanoluo commenced the festivities by explaining the impetus for the salon. He noted that after the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the political landscape had been completely revolutionized, and he had asked himself how The Soundshop could contribute to the movement in an authentic way. He decided to host a concert focusing on Black artists. Ultimately, the afternoon would be a celebration of the tightly knit, socially conscious Soundshop community — all of the people performing and protesting and coming together to make tangible change in this moment of national strife.

First up was Daniel Alexandre, known professionally as ALXNDR. Alexandre’s father, a traveling musician and pastor, inspired him to make music. When he lost his father, he began to question his sexuality and religion and went on a quest to find his identity. His first EP, Peace & Property, is named after the two gifts he wants to give his mother.

Alexandre began by sharing a phrase he remembered hearing as a child: “Intimacy is ‘into me, see.’ … You’re gonna see into me today.” Then he launched into “Evelyn St.,” a song about his youth in Boston. He chronicled his childhood upbringing and adolescent journey: how he and all his siblings learned about the Bible as children; how he went through a phase of self-righteousness; how he struggled to understand as an adult the same verses he had once taken for granted as a child. Instead of coming to a point of catharsis, the track ended on a note of uncertainty.

ALXNDR singing outside a brick building
ALXNDR’s performance

Next was “Idby” (“I don’t believe you”), a song about Alexandre’s loss of faith, which he said was hard to admit and to sing about, but his voice sounded as steadfast as ever. On the EP, the track moves along with a rollicking beat. Alexandre’s live rendition was slow and bluesy, true to the spirit of the lyrics.

After the final chorus, Alexandre joked, “The next song is my Social Security number — what else is there to know?” He actually performed an unreleased song that sampled Lauryn Hill’s “The Mystery of Iniquity.” Alexandre mentioned that Kanye West had used the same sample in his single “All Falls Down.” Then he began to rap over a loop of Hill’s chorus with original lyrics that addressed everything from racism to religion to COVID-19.

Album cover of “MTV Unplugged 2.0” by Lauryn Hill
Album cover of “MTV Unplugged 2.0,” which contains “The Mystery of Iniquity.” Source: YouTube

After singing so many songs about institutions he had lost faith in such as the Church and the American judicial system, Alexandre posed the rhetorical question “What do I still believe in?” He answered by performing “What We Say,” his poignant new single about “why we have to keep saying ‘Black Lives Matter.’” Beginning with a sample of a chanting crowd at a BLM protest and punctuated by poignant strings, it was a powerful testament to the importance of the civil rights movement at hand.

Alexandre continued the show with a wave of positivity. He performed “Ebony,” a slow, jazzy song of appreciation for Black women, written after talking to his four sisters about their experiences.

Then came “Peace & Property,” his EP’s title track. “This is what I believe my future will be like,” Alexandre declared. Then he shouted out to the crowd: “Everybody put your hands up now! Wanna see you put your hands up now!”

All across the patio at the creperie, hands rose to the sky as jubilant trumpet sounds blasted. The song was the inverse of “Evelyn St.” — instead of talking about the struggles of the past, it celebrated the victories of days to come.

Light It Up,” a laid-back track Alexandre wrote in a stream-of-consciousness style, was the perfect follow-up. He announced it as a song “about weed,” but at its core, it spoke about occasionally stepping back from the stressors of the world to maintain one’s inner peace.

Alexandre concluded his set with a cover of Kendrick Lamar’s “untitled 03 | 05.28.2013.” The song’s final words were a fitting mantra to end on: “We don’t die, we multiply.”

After a hearty round of applause, Akpanoluo stepped up to share a bit about The Soundshop. He explained that the phrase “salon” refers back to the “salons” of the French Enlightenment, which were opportunities for people to share ideas and educate each other. Then he introduced the Q&A session. One audience member asked who else Alexandre likes to cover; J. Cole, noname, Anderson .Paak, Mos Def, and Jill Scott were a few of the artists he named. A moment later, a virtual audience member chimed in to ask Alexandre what he liked about being in New York instead of Boston. Alexandre replied that he loves everyone’s focused attitude: a sense of “I know where I’m going and I need to get there.”

Akpanoluo stepped in with three questions of his own:

Who are three Black artists you think people should be more aware of?

noname
Black Thought
Bilal

Alexandre also added some artists whom he personally knows:

Via Perkins
Genghis Don
Lauren Henderson

What song has been on heavy rotation for you in this moment?

I haven’t been listening to a lot of music because it’s tough to. I don’t want to associate too many songs with this moment particularly. But one that has come out recently that I haven’t been able to stop playing is ‘The Lockdown’ by Anderson .Paak. If you haven’t heard that, check it out.… Incredible song. And “Evil” by Stevie Wonder.

What’s something specific that’s been on your mind in the current moment?

The conversation that I feel like I’ve been having a lot in the last few days is the relationship between the Black man and the Black woman. And I saw a video of a woman being tossed in the trash can, hit with a skateboard.… Black women are already struggling, so it’s really important that they don’t feel that they should expect that treatment from us. I’ve been having that conversation with as many males as I can and inviting women to share, because I think now is a time for men to listen more than ever.

The second performer to grace the stage was Tan Brown, a singer-songwriter who cites Aaliyah and Sade as two of her inspirations. Her first song was an R&B cover of Britney Spears’s “…Baby One More Time.” Brown revealed that the song had originally been pitched to TLC and that her cover would give the audience an idea of what such a recording could have sounded like. While there were traces of the girl group’s style in her performance, it was also all her own. Her emotive voice turned every lyric into a confession as a smooth synth backdrop set the tone.

View from the back of people standing and sitting watching Tan Brown sing
Tan Brown’s performance

Next up was a Tan Brown tradition: she asked the audience to shout out three words with the promise that she would improvise a song based on them, right before our eyes. “Pressure!” someone called out. Another person shouted, “Resilient!”; Akpanoluo suggested “Synesthesia!” Brown wove the concepts together so gracefully that an audience member would later inquire as to whether Brown had synthesia herself.

Elephants,” Brown’s debut single, followed. Brown explained that the song was inspired by an overheard argument between a couple but could just as easily apply to the current moment. “We have to address the elephants in the room in order for us to grow,” Brown said before launching into the hazy ballad. Singing over her own backup vocals, Brown presented us with a chorus of longing.

Last but not least, Brown performed new track “Again? Again.” for the first time ever. The single talks about falling in love and believing that your new partner is perfect, “which is a lie! But it’s a nice feeling, so I decided to capture it in a song,” Brown commented. An interpolation of the hit Beyoncé/Jay-Z track “Crazy in Love” made it especially memorable. Once more, Brown harmonized with herself, flooding the patio with her outpouring of emotion.

Beyoncé performing “Crazy in Love” on-stage with four backup dancers
Beyoncé performing “Crazy in Love.” Source: Wikipedia

When the final synth notes had faded out, it was time for another Q&A. The first question: how does Brown come up with songs on the spot? She answered by saying that she’s been practicing for a long time. A while back, she realized that she would often fall into the same patterns when songwriting and started asking people for words to incorporate into her lyrics to challenge herself.

Another audience member asked Brown how she writes songs in general. Brown explained that her typical setup is just her, her keyboard, and music software Ableton. She recently learned guitar, which will be incorporated into her process (and performances) soon.

The vibe that Brown shoots for is “sad girl smoker music,” so she typically sticks with easygoing tempos. Her hope is that, even if listeners don’t understand her lyrics, they can sense the vibe she’s trying to communicate.

“You guys are making me be insightful about my own process,” Brown noted appreciatively. Akpanoluo chimed in to say that’s what The Soundshop is all about — creating experiences that bring insight to both the musician and the audience.

It was then time for Akpanoluo’s questions:

Who are three Black artists you think people should be more aware of?

Taj Sapp
J. Hoard
Rum.Gold

Two of those artists are queer, as well. Shout-out to my fellow queers… Especially in the Black community, we need to make sure that we’re being represented.

What song has been on heavy rotation for you in this moment?

Whitney Houston’s rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner (“It will change your life. I’m not kidding!”)

Moment” by Victoria Monet (“It makes me feel hopeful and inspired.”)

What’s something specific that’s been on your mind in this moment?

What’s on everyone’s mind: Black lives. And also… what I’ve learned in the past three months is that uncertainty is the baseline. I’m gonna get a little preachy here, but a lot of our lives, they’ve taught us to do things, and to create things, and to make decisions on the basis of stability and certainty.

You do things so that you can have a stable job, a certain partner. They tell you marriage is going to give you stability, certainty. But there are no locks on any of these things.

Even closing your door at night… you can lock it, but if somebody really wants to get in there, they’re gonna get in there. You know what I mean? I think it’s important to lean into the normalization that uncertainty is the default. Instability is the default.

Your life changes when you lean into that because now there’s not so much pressure between the interactions you have with others, the decisions you make for yourself. You realize that you’ve been handed a blank script, and you get to write it, and it could change at any moment, but that’s ok! I think it also releases you from the expectations you put on the people in your life. So that’s been on my mind a lot, even with what’s been going on politically and socially.

I just realize that this is the very nature of humanity. We’re constantly moving. We’re never standing still. We’re constantly looking forward and progressing and evolving, and I think if we lean into that, we can release the beliefs that we’ve identified ourselves with, and it can free us up to see one another a bit more clearly.

In his final remarks, Akpanoluo encouraged the audience to see the current moment as a call to “embrace community in a more significant way than we have in the past.” This is a time to get to know neighbors, he reminded everyone, a time to make structural changes on the local level. A time to hold onto each other and hold onto hope. And thus the Black Solstice Salon concluded, on a note of optimism and fortitude.

Soundshop Founder Akpanoluo (Center) with featured artists ALXNDR and Tan Brown. Source: Jessie Wayburn

— Brittany Menjivar

Brittany Menjivar is a music journalist for The Young Folks. She is currently studying English and Film at Yale University.

This is the blog of The Soundshop music salon and community of New York City. This blog aims to analyze music in a way that enhances general music knowledge.