“Havana”! I’m stoked, Julianne, that you brought up my favorite late-breaking 2017 pop hit, by an artist who, I agree, could be one of the biggest breakthrough stars of next year. May Camila capture the mass audience she deserves. And then may she go on tour with a Cuban supergroup also featuring the young goddess Daymé Arocena, the graceful rhymes of Danay Suarez, and the dazzling rhythms of drummer Yissy García—all Cuban artists who recently released outstanding new albums.
Of course, getting that tour together might be impossible in the current political climate. Last year, that most important spot on the African diaspora’s map was more accessible than it had been in half a century, as the Rolling Stones’ massive, free concert at Ciudad Deportiva made clear. Now, with border politics playing a central role in America’s bitter ideological wars, and a bizarre controversy over alleged (but, it now seems, misnamed) “sonic attacks” on American diplomats that has virtually shut down our Havana embassy, the flow of music from Cuba to the U.S. and back has been stanched. Twenty years after Ry Cooder’s Buena Vista Social Club project transported a whole new American generation into this rich, shared musical territory, American promoters are having to be more ingenious than ever to even get this music to our shores.
My colleague Anastasia Tsioulcas is doing a mighty job covering the artists’ visas beat, and this year it really kept her running. From the (overblown, as she reported) controversy over clauses in the contracts offered international artists by Austin, Texas, megafestival South by Southwest, to the Italian band that got deported in Seattle on their way to that festival, to the showcase SXSW then staged to highlight Muslim artists threatened by Trump’s Muslim ban, to the directors of New York’s major showcase Globalfest insisting that their event would continue to “build bridges, not walls,” the sense of peril around international musicians coming to the U.S. is stronger than it’s been since 9/11. I find this deeply incongruous at a moment when social platforms, for all of their flattening effects, have also opened the world to American listeners in unprecedented ways. K-pop is more tweetable than Trump—literally, since the boy-band conglomerate BTS (whose main rapper RM just dropped a verse in English on a Fall Out Boy song) was the most tweeted-about celebrity globally this year, as well as the undefeated champ of Billboard’s Social 50 chart, which tracks artists across social media. British pop star Dua Lipa, who spent her adolescence in her parents’ native Kosovo, was the year’s most-streamed female artist. Colombian heartthrob Maluma had one of YouTube’s top hits of the year with “Corazón,” a collaboration in Spanish and Portuguese with Brazilian former favela kid Nego do Borel. Maps are being redrawn, culturally, every day online, even as Americans fight and fret about building walls. (Speaking of which, Carl, just like you, I spent much of this year rocking out to Downtown Boys’ ferocious punk polemic about that controversial proposed border structure.)
I learned the rhythms of the world by dancing to Afrobeat and soukous bands in sweaty East Bay clubs in my 20s, singing kirtan at yoga retreats in my 30s in New York, and finding mariachi bands everywhere in East L.A. in my 40s. It breaks my heart to think that the circulation of live music, the most immediate means of connecting across lines of language and national loyalties, might be further curtailed by governmental policies as the decade drags on. Yet I also believe that once the channels are open, there’s no turning back—music is feeding a cultural (and yes, consumerist) internationalism that shows no signs of abating.
In the meantime, millennial artists are paying witness to the curtailment of people’s movements across borders in real time. The London-born pianist-auteur Benjamin Clementine’s striking second album I Tell a Fly confronts the effects of Brexit through a fantastical allegory of two flies fleeing extinction. Naomi and Lisa-Kaindé Diaz, the Paris-based, Cuban sisters (and daughters of the late Buena Vista Social Club percussionist Angá Diaz) who record as Ibeyi, released a second album whose centerpiece, “Deathless,” recalls and rages against Lisa-Kaindé’s wrongful detainment by French police at 16. Finding strength in each building chorus and thrumming electronic beat, and in Kamasi Washington’s fierce saxophone, the sisters turn a memory of personal terror into a liberation anthem.
Alynda Segarra of Hurray for the Riff Raff does something similar throughout her remarkable concept album The Navigator. As one of the key players bringing Americana into the multicultural 21st century, Segarra is determined to fully grasp her own diasporic inheritance. She penned a song cycle that transforms her into a Nuyorican version of Philip Pullman’s parallel universe-hopping heroine Lyra Belacqua, traveling from the Puerto Rico of her parents’ youth to the Bronx high-rises where displaced families settled to the wastelands where gentrification may force them in the future. The multipart ballad “Pa’lante” is the album’s climax and spiritual centerpiece, and a song everyone who’s loved a homeland and hoped for the right to both leave and return to it should hear. “I just wanna prove my worth on the planet Earth, and be something!” Segarra wails, listing all the ways that the powerful seek to diminish that worth in everyone but the 1 percent. She despairs, then, lifted by a gospel piano and her own unbowed voice, she rises. “To all who came before, we say, Pa’lante!” she wails, paying tribute to her mother and father, to the Young Lords and the old abuelas, to poets and activists, the lost and the unerasable. Pa’lante: It means onward, forward. Segarra finds that word embedded in the flesh of the borderless human spirit, which has always wandered and returned to its source.
Julianne, I didn’t answer your question about what music shocked me this year, but these are some of my favorite success stories. I know our next round features my Nashville neighbor Jewly Hight—Jewly, I’m wondering about artists who grounded their work in different notions of home and country as those terms continued to be torn apart and reconstituted in 2018. What’s up in America these days, as you see it?
I’m an alien passing by,