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Singer-flutist-beatmaker Melanie Charles’ major-label debut, Ya’ll Don’t (Really) Care About Black Women, dares the listener to accept and confront a universal truth, which is that traditionally, Black women, by the very nature of their race and gender, have been and continue to be overlooked, undervalued and overburdened. Approached by Verve with an offer to be a part of the label’s Remix series, which reimagines songs from the iconic imprint’s vast catalogue, Charles intuited that it was the right time to put the focus on the Black women titans of jazz, while a raging pandemic, lockdown, social distancing, America’s racial reckoning and the fight for social justice coalesced in a perfect storm that demanded reflection and accountability.
On Ya’ll Don’t (Really) Care, the 33-year-old Brooklynite reshapes songs sung by and/or written by groundbreaking jazz artists such as Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Abbey Lincoln, Betty Carter and Marlena Shaw, among others, within an expansive aesthetic defined only by a forward-looking approach that favors pluralism and probes the sonic terrains of rebirth and experimentation. Charles vibrantly reworks each of the 11 tracks by incorporating samples from the originals, as well as spirited synth grooves, playful percussion and her own fluttering flute threading the album together amid songs that celebrate the joys and acknowledge the struggles of Black women. During a phone conversation in December, Charles spoke about the evolution of her latest release, recording the album during pandemic isolation, the complexities of Black women as they navigate a world that attempts to diminish them, and what it means to “make jazz trill again.”
[caption id="attachment_43615" align="alignleft" width="1240"] Photo courtesy the artist[/caption]
Y’all Don’t (Really) Care About Black Women started with the simple premise of reimagining a collection of songs in the Verve catalogue that you vibed with. Can you speak to the evolution of how the album finally came together?
At first it started out where I was doing like a Jobim flip, and you know, just like songs that I love in general. But then, by the time I signed the deal to do this project, lockdown had just begun and we were awakened and reminded so rudely of how Black lives are really not valued, and even more so Black women. This is not something new — we all knew that — but I think that being home and watching things play out on TV and on social media was really a rude reminder. And that’s when I decided that if I’m gonna make an album in this climate, in this time, I have to reimagine songs sung and written by women of color. And so that sort of helped me narrow it down and then the album named itself. At first the label was a little apprehensive about that title, but finally, you know, they had to agree that it was true.
What was it like to have to select, arrange and reinterpret this collection of songs, most of which was recorded at home, because of the lockdown?
That was really hard, because I am a very old-school analog girl and usually when I record, even when I incorporate my samplers, I go to the studio. I was not well-versed in any type of recording software. I literally had to teach myself in real time as I was trying to arrange the music, and it was so scary for me. There were a lot of moments where I felt like throwing in the towel. However, finally when I got the technical aspect of it, I appreciated being able to wake up and record right away and like arrange and work through things, and spend time with the music that I wouldn’t normally have been able to afford to do.
There’s a dichotomy throughout the album: It’s expansive and layered, but there’s a palpable intimacy, as well. How much of that aesthetic is a reflection of isolation and figuring out new ways to make music?
Yeah, absolutely, I’m trying to create a feeling, you know? I’m really into nostalgia and like old things. I think our favorite songs, we like them because they make us remember things. And that was really important to me, that when people listen to the record that it isn’t just a whole bunch of random remixes, but that it’s telling a story. And I think that recording at home made it so I was able to approach it that way.
You mentioned how living through the current climate in lockdown, coupled with the outcry for social justice and racial equality, inspired you to make Black women singers the focus of the album. Specifically, in the wake of Breonna Taylor’s death and the media’s lack of coverage with regards to the violence suffered by Black and Brown women at the hands of police, how did that impact how you framed this album?
I always mention Breonna Taylor being a huge catalyst, but also, we cannot forget that Breonna Taylor is not the only Black woman that has suffered at the hands of police. I think that that’s a name that we all know, and so that’s an entry point, and I think that was like what was even harder. Breonna Taylor is just one, but imagine all the others. When we are killed, murdered, abused, violated, it’s always like, “Oh, but yeah, they’ll be fine. Black women are so strong, she’ll be fine.” I’m just so tired of that, and I think that collectively, a lot of Black women feel the same way. This whole strong Black woman stereotype, by the time Breonna Taylor was killed, I was just so annoyed with that type of dynamic, the not caring for us, and I think that it’s not only about other people not caring for us, it’s also us carving out time to care for ourselves. Like, you know, people talk about self-care, they think it’s just taking bubble baths and sipping wine. It’s so much more than that and it actually can be very radical, and that was another thing that really amplified the direction in which I went with the album.
Throughout the album, you present different facets of what it means to be a Black woman in America, yesterday, today and moving forward. You explore different themes, not just political — although there are some songs with strong messages, like your rendition of Marlena Shaw’s “Woman of the Ghetto” — but there are also love songs and you explore Black women’s sexuality and navigating love and relationships. What resonated the most for you about those songs?
It’s interesting; I think that as a female bandleader, it makes it really difficult for me to find, to nurture, healthy relationships with men. Whereas I notice my male peers always find a way to find a solid woman by their side, you know, who are their biggest fan and go to all their gigs and pack their suitcase for them before they go on the road. When you think about Nina Simone and Marlena Shaw, Abbey Lincoln, all these women, you don’t hear of them having solid men in their lives holding them down. We don’t have access to that same kind of love, and it’s complex. The “Go Away Little Boy” that Marlena Shaw sings, she has like six different recorded versions and she does this monologue before she sings the song, and basically she’s talking about — excuse my language — a fuck boy. I’m like “Dang, Marlena you got the same issues back then, too?” The Black love struggle has always been complex. It’s one of the biggest things that saddens me in my life as an adult woman, to be honest with you.
It seems like there always has to be a trade-off, like you can’t have everything. You have to sacrifice something if you want to pursue a passion, and many times that something is being in a healthy relationship.
It’s something that I think will always be complicated, and I think that women of color, especially as artists, we find ways to channel that void into the art that we do, and so it is kind of bittersweet. I think that singing these songs has been very medicinal for me, and I’ve gotten feedback from women of color of feeling seen by the album, of feeling like, “OK, this is music that really speaks to my experience” and we all need that in life.
Your voice encapsulates so many different elements, from Haitian folkloric undertones and Black American spirituals to contemporary elements. And then there’s your flute playing throughout, which infuses the album with whimsical moments. What were your influences growing up, artistic and otherwise?
I was lucky, my mom loves music, she loves jazz. I’m Haitian, but my mom never liked Kompas, Haitian music, which I always tease her about. I’m like, “Ma, you a fake Haitian” [laughs]. She was always a jazz girl, even in Haiti, listening to jazz radio, listening to Nat King Cole and Sarah Vaughan. And so that was always playing around. I grew up in the church and then also I come from a family that believes in study and excellence, and so I was very supported in the way that my mom paid for voice lessons and I was a choir member in the Brooklyn Youth Choir in Park Slope. I was always the music girl. That was always my thing. I didn’t have much of a very healthy childhood in terms of fun, I was always very focused on music. I studied at the Harlem School of the Arts, was part of the Classical Theater of Harlem. I also did a great deal of musical theater; I did off Broadway stuff, just always doing all kinds of different forms of expressing myself. There’s a piano in the basement of my home where I grew up, working on my songs, and my mom being like, “Try this note.” My mom doesn’t know theory, but her ear is strong. That was my life.
Eventually, you crossed over into the world of electronic music and beat making. What was your incursion like into that world, and at what point did you realize that blending it with jazz would be your calling?
First of all, I studied opera for a while. I thought I was going to be an opera singer and then things went another direction, but that was the core of my vocal training. Later I went to the New School for Jazz [and Contemporary Music]. My whole thing while I was at the New School was like, “But what happened to when jazz was for the people?” There was a time when jazz was pop. And then I was influenced by people like [trumpeter-composer] Roy Hargrove and RH Factor.
[caption id="attachment_43616" align="alignleft" width="1200"] Photo courtesy Bandcamp.com[/caption]
Once I graduated college, I decided I wanted to unlearn everything. I felt like after all that serious jazz training, I kind of started moving in a way that was in alignment with the major jazz institution concept, which I felt was really not at the core of what jazz is. So, I was like, ‘Let me get back to the basics,’ and I connected with a cassette-tape label called Dirty Tapes based in Brooklyn. They really opened up my eyes to the beat scene and people like the late, great Ross G, a pioneer of the SP [sampling percussion], which is what I used to make my  record The Girl With the Green Shoes and a big chunk of Ya’ll Don’t (Really) Care About Black Women. It’s a sampler that a lot of beat heads use, people like [J] Dilla. I noticed that a lot of the people that were making samples and chopping were chopping jazz, and I was like, Ahhhh, this is the gateway for me to bring the jazz back to the people by incorporating this technology, because that’s also at the core of jazz evolution. Like the stuff that Herbie Hancock has done is so iconic because, as the technology was being created, he brought that into the fold and that influenced the sound. And so that’s sort of what is turning out to happen for me in terms of sampling these old sounds and reworking them into this modern context. I started running my vocals through an effects pedal and delay pedal. I call it my “spaceship” now. I have my vocal looper sampler thing, I have my three SPs, I have a bell on there.
For me, music is a chance to create a soundscape, a world, textures, like thinking more expansively. The SP has allowed me to think expansively about music, and it’s not just like a song, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge anymore for me. Now it’s like a sonic fabric.
Can you talk about your Make Jazz Trill Again project, launched in 2016? Some of those elements that you just described seem to feed into that of idea of deinstitutionalizing jazz and making it more a music of the people. What does it mean to ‘make jazz trill again’?
For me, it means bringing it back to a space where we’re engaging with it outside of the traditional jazz venues. So that’s house parties, basements, the cookout. It’s also making it danceable again. I always say at my shows, “OK, I’m gonna sing ‘Jazz Ain’t Nothing But Soul,’ but I’m gonna need you guys to twerk.” You know, there’s trills in baroque music; I’m a flute player, so it’s kind of like a play on words. Trill also has a Southern lineage of like street culture, bringing it back to a place where it’s for us, where it’s liberating — and it once was. I think it’s very important to honor the past as we forge a new future. I want young people to get into this music because it’s rich and it’s for us.