Hip-hop artist Mike Ladd has spent the past eleven years of his life calling Paris home. From James Baldwin to Langston Hughes, the lineage of African-American artists fleeing their American birthplace for Parisian equality is wide and illustrious—a notion that Ladd challenges on his 2005 album Negrophilia. Notably, he left New York for romantic purposes, not the expected artistic or political exile reasons of many African-American creatives. Ladd’s career has been a constant study in fusing his politics of race with music—either on his own releases, which include Easy Listening 4 Armageddon (1997), Welcome to the Afterfuture (2000), Nostalgialator (2004), and Father Divine (2005), or with the jazz pianist and MacArthur “genius” recipient Vijay Iyer. Their collaboration has spawned three recorded works, in addition to accompanying performances, since 2004: In What Language?, 2007’s Still Life with Commentator, and 2013’s Holding It Down. The unintentional trilogy has explored people of color in airports, twenty-four-hour news culture, and the dreams of military veterans, respectively. The latter release continued its life last month as a performance at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where Ladd joined Iyer (who is a current Metropolitan Museum artist-in-residence) in addition to other featured album performers. In a lively, hour-plus conversation, speaking from a Paris Target, Ladd discussed the history of his and Iyer’s collaboration, his creative process, and his mission to connect politics and music.
boice-Terrel Allen (Rail): How did you two meet?
Mike Ladd: Vijay reached out to me. Vijay and I had met because he was playing with a band called Midnight Voices. I was touring my first record, which was called Easy Listening 4 Armageddon. We just met on tour. He was playing with his band and my band was playing the same night in Boston actually and we just got along. And when we got back to New York, we were in the same circles or similar circles, overlapping circles. He reached out to me ’cause the Asia Society reached out to him about doing a project. Initially it was going to be about spatial theory—spatial theory was the backdrop, the theoretical background. It was going to be about people of color in airports and we started the research in the spring of 2001 and of course, the context of the airport and people of color in [it] completely changed after September 11th. And that’s what then sent us on the trajectory we’ve been on since.
Rail: What was the initial idea, that it would be people of color in airports? Even before 9/11?
Ladd: That initial idea came, more or less, from Vijay. He was into this idea of airports and I was into spatial theory and he was like, “You should check out this book or that book,” and we jumped in from there—and I was already touring a lot at that point. Then it was less restrictive so you could just hang out even without a ticket, so there were days I would just go to the airport and just hang out and any time I had a flight someplace I would just go to the airport four or five hours early and just start chatting people up. It’s interesting ’cause the conversation did change drastically after 9/11 but since I was interviewing people of color, the conversation was about security—about dealing with security, what people were looking for, had you been searched. These weren’t questions that were prompted, these were people coming to me. But I think that was the primary issue for everybody at that point. But before then, what was really interesting was that it was just about families connecting, about megalopolii [sic], actually, having the satellite cities: that because of the amount of people of color working in New York who had family in Lagos, but then also had family in London and then had family in Birmingham and then maybe had somebody—especially if you’re Nigerian—maybe somebody in Lebanon. Or even Texas. You had these multiple-city families and therefore multiple-city cultures. Or someone in Yemen who had a Lotto store in the Bronx but was trying to get friends from Yemen to come through. So it’s the idea of a multi-city megalopolis that became really fascinating to me. Then this idea of a global working class.
Rail: Did you have the idea for Holding It Down when you were working on the Language album?
Ladd: No, honestly we’ve been following this wave ever since 9/11 happened. We just ended up being in the subject at that time, in that event. Then we stayed relevant; we stayed connected to what was happening and I think because of those interviews of people of color in airports we were already, all of a sudden, engaged in how the international community and how the community of color in the U.S. was responding to this new series of conflicts. These new wars. So it was just a natural progression. So after In What Language we did Still Life with Commentator, which is sort of turning the lens towards us—as sort of a traditional ethnographic style. And looking at what our role was as participants in this greater drama and how all of us imbibe the media and imbibe in particular the atrocity fed to us by different media and how do we process atrocity. Because yet again, just as we were coming up with a new project, BAM wanted us to do something, and right when that commission came through Abu Ghraib happened. And so we had to work around that. The last project, Vijay came to me and he said that Harlem Stage wanted him to do something, that he wanted to do a third part, that he wanted to do something about veterans. I said, if we’re going to do it, then we have to get actual veterans to be a part of the project or else it’s pointless and I think he had the same idea, at the same time. He immediately agreed, as if he’d already thought about that.
Rail: With your intention to find out what they were dreaming about: was there anything particular? Were there themes?
Ladd: I wanted to use dreams in particular because I felt the dreamscape—if you can say that—was a neutral space between veteran and non-veteran. The mission of this project was to try and find a common ground between people who have experienced stuff that the rest of us will never be able to comprehend. So where would that meeting place be? I felt like the experience of dreams might be one place where those that experienced something like war and those who hadn’t could meet. Because it is virtual in one way and incredibly real and personal in another. It is a virtual reality constructed by your body, by your chemical mechanisms in your brain. So it balances those two.
On a theatrical level: at the end of the day, you’ve got to present this very difficult subject matter to an audience, to a public. I felt dreams would allow for enough different places to go performatively, or just in terms of presenting content that could be fascinating. So that the audience wasn’t just totally hit with hard stories; you could go in many different directions. You have humorous dreams, erotic dreams, surreal dreams, and also how all those different factors could work with music.
Rail: Was politics through the prism of music always the intention?
Ladd: Well, that’s the interesting thing about meeting Vijay or doing these projects [. . .] [On past projects] I was really on this mission of trying to use underground hip-hop to convey a certain message or spew my political ideas to a certain extent—among other things, that was certainly one thing. Then I was around certain people who I felt ended up doing what I wanted to do but better. And they were in certain positions where they could do it better. Who’s going to trust some motherfucker from Cambridge when you’ve got Dead Prez in front of you? I also had other intellectual muscles that I could flex different ways, whereas they started doing something [and] I’m like: “That’s the way to do it.” So just let them do that.
Because of certain fellow artists, either people I knew or people I was admiring, and because of the stuff with Vijay, I found that I could then focus on less of the dogmatic stuff—which I do feel has its place, but I didn’t have to do that. There were other people who did that better. I could get into sort of more complex issues and questions about specific events, especially stuff with Vijay. And I didn’t have to make this balance of trying to always have something [. . .] I had very specific political things I’d want to say and some of them weren’t easy to say. And how do you do that in a pop format?
I think it’s a deadly game, so then doing stuff with Vijay allowed an exercise of that political muscle, that analytical muscle, that allowed me with stuff that was much more pop-oriented to do whatever I wanted, subject-matter wise. I didn’t feel like I was selling out my own mission.
BOICE-TERREL ALLEN is the host/creator of the music interview podcast, Talk Music Talk (talkmusictalk.com).