“I ought to be critiqued, and the songs say so.”
This article appears in AdHoc 26. To subscribe to our quarterly zine—and receive other AdHoc-related goodies—become a member.
For Merrill Garbus, dismantling white supremacy isn’t about sticking to a script.
“My first gut thing was, ‘I’ve got to be in the streets; I’ve got to protest, “Garbus told AdHoc over the phone. “I have to learn the right things to say and never say a wrong thing. “It turns out that those are all very white approaches to being a part of racial justice, versus introspection.”
The Oakland-based musician, who’s been making offbeat, genre-agnostic pop music with partner Nate Brenner since 2008 as Tune-Yards, thinks about what it means to be white—and what white people should be doing to confront racism—a lot.
“It’s the thing I obsess over and think about everyday,” Garbus said.
Those thoughts percolate, accompanied by throbbing four-on-the-floor beats, on Tune-Yards’ fourth album, I Can Feel You Creep into My Private Life. Out earlier this year on 4AD, it features bracingly honest songs like “Colonizer,” where Garbus sings, “I use my white woman’s voice to tell stories of travels with African men.”
Like many lines on the album, it’s an uncomfortable thing to hear a person sing, though maybe that’s the point.
“I’m still wondering how much harm versus good I am doing with the music that I make,” Garbus said. “I’m constantly asking myself that question and letting it strike hard and letting it hurt to try to understand.”
Garbus spoke with AdHoc about Oakland’s impact on her artistic development, how the group’s work scoring Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You resulted in a collaboration with lead actor Lakeith Stanfield, and the importance of assuming an intersectional approach when discussing issues like race, women’s rights, and climate change. The below interview combines our phone conversation with her answers to a few follow-up questions I sent her, asking her to further unpack some of the paradoxes of creating an album about racial politics that centers her voice as a white person.
AdHoc: You’re originally from the East Coast, but you moved to the Bay Area about a decade ago. How do you think Oakland has influenced you as an artist?
Merrill Garbus: It’s confusing, you know? I lived in Montreal, and that’s where Tune-Yards got its start. And that felt really clear: It was the land of Arcade Fire and bands like Wolf Parade. There was a thing happening then with what was very much “indie rock” music. And I had a band called Sister Suvi, which felt so clearly part of [that] lineage.
I moved [to Oakland] in 2009. Even in the nine years I’ve been here, it feels a little more white, but it’s still the most racially diverse place I’ve ever lived. For that reason, I was hearing more hip-hop and generally having more of a context in black music, and also trying to rub up against, “What’s my role as a white musician?” So I think that’s where a lot of that racial consciousness started to bloom in Tune-Yards’ music. I think every day I have another conversation about what it is to be a white person in Oakland right now. And what I’m realizing is that’s [part of] a bigger question of what it’s like to be a person of European descent in a post-colonial world.
How is I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life distinct from previous Tune-Yards releases?
I was really reaching out to understand electronic dance music, as we call it now—reaching out to not just cut myself off and feel an opposition to the kind of EDM we were hearing at the festivals we end up playing. The presence of drum machines as not just a taste behind [the] acoustic elements, but drum machines as a driving force rhythmically, is the main difference to me.
The record sees you attempting to reckon with your role as a white artist who incorporates influences from many different cultures. How do you parse the difference between appropriation and appreciation when you make music?
Most people will say, “Wow, I’ve never heard anything like Tune-Yards. This is music that I have a hard time putting into a category.” That’s what I aim for. This is not a parody of any style of music; this is a lot of musical information filtered through me. So using whatever skills I have in order to dig deep into these issues of appropriation—that feels like the best I can do in terms of how to be an artist influenced by a lot of music.
What would “my own” music even be? Would it be Eastern European music? Would it be klezmer, because I’m Jewish? Would it be music from Appalachia, because that’s where my mom comes from? It gets into these really sticky conversations about authenticity and ownership, because I don’t feel any ownership over those styles of music, either, but they’re also a part of my understanding.
When I Can Feel You came out earlier this year, some people criticized Tune-Yards for making an album about dismantling white supremacy that nonetheless centers your experience as a white person. Do you ever feel conflicted about the approach you took?
Certainly. I probably ask myself every single day what the fuck I’m doing. More specifically: How do I de-center myself as a white musician, making room for artists of color and voices seldom heard in pop music, while also using the public voice I have to call my (mostly white) audiences into consciousness and action?
I ought to be critiqued, and the songs say so: “Don’t trust me, I might just take all the money and run.” White women, white liberals…we have a tendency to think we’re going to save the world ourselves; we have a tendency to try be a “good white person,” as a deflection and distraction. “I cry my white woman tears…to display what I meant.” I will tend to make it all about me. I am only also human, which means I am flawed, and learning, and trying to do good and healing work in a system which insists I market my goods, musical and otherwise.
To give myself a bit of a break, I think of the scads of white musicians who are seldom criticized around race because they don’t mention it, or because they make music in genres where the black roots have been obscured, like “Americana” and rock; since they don’t sing about white supremacy for the most part, they don’t tend to get critiqued.
What role do you believe white people should be playing to help dismantle systemic racism in this country?
After the digging that I’ve been doing for the past couple years, I feel like we should have courses or classes. Because we don’t, what I think white people can do is build our resilience around looking in the face of whiteness and white supremacy. The ultimate white privilege is not having to look at race at all if we don’t want to.
It’s not necessarily easy to turn away from the pain of whiteness, but it’s not often that white people allow themselves to feel the damage that white supremacy and whiteness does to white people. But if we don’t touch into that pain, however that pain takes shape—and it’s difficult to talk about, because it’s a different pain—[then] how do we measure pain? If we don’t tap into what we lose in this system as well, then we have no motivation to do work around it.
Could you elaborate on what you meant when you referred to “the pain of whiteness”?
Yes—that didn’t come out so articulately. I think it is easy to turn away from the pain of whiteness, because we’re never asked to investigate what might be painful about identifying as white. It’s uncomfortable to talk about the negative impact of racism on white people; we’re not the oppressed, so what right does an oppressor have to voice her pain? And I think I meant to say that it’s not the same pain as people of color feel.
Most discourse on race is focused on people of color; most white people see race as someone else’s issue. And that’s what white supremacy does: It makes the white experience “normal.” But what’s normal about thinking about fellow humans as “other”? What’s normal about whiteness at all? It’s constructed, actually, built to allow the most powerful “white” people to dominate non-“white” people (and those who get to be “white” have changed over the centuries based on what those powerful “white” folks have needed, politically).
White people lose in this system as well. We are separated from our neighbors, our human family. We are born into a power structure that makes no sense, that goes against all the things we are taught are good: compassion, friendship, generosity, spiritual/religious values, courage! […] I can say that in my life, whiteness has contributed directly to addictive behaviors, depression, self-loathing, and many other negative patterns that I’m sure I can’t see yet.
This summer saw the release of a number of successful films told from non-white perspectives, including BlacKKKlansman, Crazy Rich Asians, and Sorry to Bother You, which Tune-Yards scored. What was it like working with Boots Riley on that film?
I think it was three, almost four years ago now that we started meeting about it and that I read the script. “Boots Riley wants to work on something with me? Of course!” I honestly assumed that this movie would never come out. I went on that assumption, because movies take so long and there are so many pitfalls along the way. I knew that Boots was a force, so he would push it as far as it could possibly go. It felt like a movie I had wanted to see for a really long time, but it felt like it was never going to happen.
At a certain point, it was like, “Oh my god, we have no time and we have to compose so much music.” So it was just, like, chug, chug, chug—just really trying to create the content so Boots could have the space to say, “No, that doesn’t work.” We were trying to provide him with a lot of options.
But Boots is a musician, so he was really clear about a lot of things. He was really clear about the theme, and he knew that he wanted certain aspects to be like other soundtracks and scores. But he also wanted us to go our own way and do something that had never been done in a score before.
You also worked with the star of that film, Lakeith Stanfield, on the song “Mango.” What was it like collaborating with his rap duo Moors, and is there any more music on the way?
We’re working as much as our schedules will allow. But he’s just oozing creativity right now. I was so impressed with him in other movies that I’d seen him in. As far as I’m concerned, he’s the star of Get Out, even though he’s on-screen for such a short time.
I think [Nate and I] felt like we knew him, because we’d seen his character in Sorry to Bother You for so many hours. Then when we finally met Lakeith, I was like, “Oh, this isn’t Cassius Green. He was acting.” We don’t have much facetime, because he’s working on other things and we’ve been tour. But we’re working on another track right now, and I hope that we do more.
Beyond making political statements in your music, you’re active in your local community. Which issues are you particularly passionate about?
I think that climate change and the current total destruction of our planet is extremely depressing and hard. That feels like a hard one for me karmically to deal with, because we fly so much. I know our carbon footprint is so high, so when we tour, we take a dollar from every ticket that we sell at our club shows and put it in a fund, then donate it. This time around, we’re donating to the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, which has a long view about climate change. It’s not going to just be a hurricane here and an earthquake there. It’s going to be a series, and [the CDP] has a long-haul approach to disasters in the future.
And given what Tune-Yards’ music owes to black culture, it feels really important to listen to organizers of color. Specifically, that means really digging into white supremacy and the problem of thinking of race as a “black problem” and a problem of people of color. What I’ve come to understand [is] that [race] is very much a white problem.
I’m currently working on using the lyrics from the last album to create a resource for people to dig into some of the themes that we explore in the lyrics. At this point, it’s a super-hyperlink document, but it will allow people to draw connections. I don’t think climate change is one issue and women’s rights is another issue and racial justice is another issue. The work that lots of disparate groups are doing is actually connected.