The Yoruba have a word – “tutu“– for cool. Robert Farris Thompson describes it in his book Flash of the Spirit thus: “As we become noble, fully realizing the spark of creative goodness God endowed us with, we find the confidence to cope with all kinds of situations. This is Ashe. This is character. This is mystic coolness. All one. Paradise is regained, for Yoruba art returns the idea of heaven to mankind wherever the ancient ideal attitudes are genuinely manifested.” The American singer Cody ChesnuTT’s latest album, “Landing on A Hundred,” displays Yoruba cool. The resonation of the album simultaneously evokes legends of soul music and, thankfully, newness.
I know you’ve been compared extensively to Marvin Gaye. But, I haven’t read anything about your high use of Michael Jackson in this album. Why have you been so touched by his work and why did you choose this album for his presence to be felt so profoundly?
Michael Jackson was the first one to really turn the light on for me in terms of the doorway to the dream. It was “Off the Wall.” It was the smile. It was the energy. Michael Jackson always represented a burst of light, a beam. That stuck with me. When you internalize things as a kid, you don’t know how they’re going to manifest later in life. So, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke, all these people, I developed a certain feeling about what music should do and how it should move you. How I responded to it. For all I know, all of these things have been trying to come out of me since I was a child. I may have just gotten to the point as an adult where I could really allow myself to build that emotional spirit that drove them to develop their music to touch so many people around the world. They had to be in tune with their heart and spirit in a very pure way. Maybe that’s what’s coming through with this music. That purity that they imparted, that they gave me. I’m returning that now with the music that I’ve been given. It was a feeling. I knew how it made me feel. All those influences seemed to have found their place in “Landing on One Hundred” in a very genuine way.
Meaning making through being?
Yes absolutely. That’s really what it was about. Being there and allowing the music to come and not chasing anything. Just really being a vessel for what needed to come through. Meaning making through being.
You can hear Africa within every aspect of the album. The instrumentation, the arrangements, your voice. How was this African aesthetic weaved into the sound-scape?
How do you explain something like that? Because, you’re really talking about a spirit. I think when people try to quantify what Africa is or how can you be in one country or continent and still embody the spirit and project the spirit? It’s something that you can’t really put into words. When you think about it, you never do. Africa is within you. It’s a part of your make-up. It’s hard to explain, why do you respond to the drums? How can you explain that? It’s a part of the DNA as far as I’m concerned. To make it simple, it’s just the spirit that’s within you that comes through the music, the rhythm, the tones, the melody. It’s whatever you’re hearing. It’s all in a spirit that’s continuous. Each vessel, if it is open, that eternal spirit, shines through.
There’re several members of your family who work with music. Have you had these conversations with them about Africa and cultural continuity, or the spiritual continuity?
The spiritual continuity. The spiritual aspect has come up several times. The African-American experience is rooted in spirituality. Be it the church or any other faith. Judaism, Islam. The spiritual theme is a definite part of the conversations I’ve had. One of my uncles, he had always been known as street savvy, a “boss guy.” He has since been in transition in his own life. When he heard the song, “Til I Met Thee,” it just opened him up to the point where he started to give his own testimony and almost giving his own revelation so to speak about what the song was and how it affected him and what he thought the meaning was.
It’s touched everybody at their core, which was what I really wanted this body of work to do. I really wanted it to find people where they really live. The real issues that really matter to them. Every single day outside of the superficial façade that they have to carry. The things that they are really concerned about. We’ve had many conversations about the spiritual base of the record. A few friends have commented on the African energy and perspective of it. It’s coming through. I was just talking to a friend today about “Don’t Want To Go The Other Way,” and she was saying how it feels like Africa and also like Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground”. The energy of it reminds her of that. It’s a difficult thing to try to explain.
So, your spirit is what translates as what we hear as African. Has there ever been a moment where you’ve encountered someone claiming that you’re romanticizing your African heritage, or where you yourself have feared a sense of un-belonging?
It was never an intent, but if I ever romanticize it, I can’t romanticize it enough. That is the aim, to bridge the gap. That bridge has been under construction for centuries. So, I’m just making a contribution to the process. Each generation has made an attempt to reconnect in some way, be it politically, ideologically, spiritually, musically. And it is happening. We are reconnecting. Hip-hop has been a huge instrument in the two sides connecting again. You go anywhere on the continent — and I haven’t been there yet, but I’ve seen enough images and talked to enough people to know that it is definitely happening. It’s just a matter of what the conversation is once we do connect. What the ideas are. But I don’t think you can romanticize that enough. I don’t think that you can shed light on those connections enough. So I’ll do whatever I can to reconnect, to get a better understanding of my cultural heritage, my identity, all those things. I think it’s a healthy thing. I don’t think it can ever be viewed as something unhealthy or something that negative. I can’t imagine that.
Some American artists have gone to Africa with certain notions, perhaps about the continued existence of a primordial space, and they’ve said they left the continent with an even greater sense of un-belonging.
Yes, so in “Scroll Call,” I acknowledge those contemporary issues in Africa. I’m not romanticizing at all. I’m addressing the issues that are holding the continent back head on. I say:
We’re too hurried to act on the truth, forsaking the ministry to feast with foreign coupes, as in a coup. Now the call is on the first and the last, to come back! So, I’m addressing what has happened very briefly, a lot of what causes the instabilities or the corruption or how we’ve forsaken the real mission, the ministry for self-interest. You constantly hear how certain groups are really growing and evolving and you still have all these issues of illness and poverty. I don’t do it just to romanticize it, I am trying to push it forward, and shed light on the fact that there’s a lot of work to be done, but it has to start with an uplifting spirit and an uplifting outlook.
I don’t ever feel like I wouldn’t belong. That never enters my mind because I’m not looking for anyone to say, ah yes! You belong! You just have to know that you do! You claim it. You’re not looking for permission, you’re not looking for validation. You’re just saying, this is what it is. I was walking with a friend of mine in Brooklyn who’s been to the continent several times, and we saw this one cat walking down the street. My friend said, man, he could be walking down the street in Sierra Leone. I know someone there who looks just like him! And women, when you sisters walk, it’s the same walk! So at that point, do you say, well how did you get that walk? Are you romanticizing the body language of African women? No, it’s just what it is.
James Brown wound up giving Fela Kuti what he needed and Fela Kuti was going back on the soil. And God knows how many Afrobeat cats took their cue from James Brown. What was it that made them connect? It was something beyond “you’re in America and I’m in Africa.” When I hear them, I know exactly what that is, and when they hear me, they know exactly what that is.
We’re in a realm beyond any geographical location.
Personally, if I romanticize anything, I romanticize the south. For me, the south is the embodiment of Africa within the US. You told me before that you live in Tallahassee, Florida, where the slave quarters used to be.
Right, slave quarters, and they’re quite a few plantations not too far from me.
And you said that there’s one man, about 25 years your senior, who still doesn’t look at people…
Yeah, he still has an issue looking people in the eye when talking to them.
So what does it mean to have that heritage? How does that impact you? Watching that, and simultaneously being.
Simply, it reminds me of the robbery of strength and manhood. How we are still fighting on so many levels just to regain that back. Just the human being, the man. We’re still reaching out to reclaim that. Still building that up. When I see things like that, it reminds me of what’s been taken away but at the same time it inspires me to allow my work and my strength to shine even brighter. And to come forward even stronger, because I’m not just doing it for myself, I’m doing it for him and other people. It makes my head go up a little higher and strengthens my gaze when I’m speaking to anybody. I bring all of that to my process, getting the back strong again, getting the mind strong again, reclaiming the dignity and respect. Just simple fundamental things like that.
Once the creative process has been finalized and produced, how do you then bring that back to these same communities? They’re reflected in this music as well, but it seems much harder for people to connect with spirit.
During that period, the 10 years, part of the process for me was to try to find something that was very accessible. The music is still fighting for them. The song, “Everybody’s Brother” [Youtube video below], a lot of people can relate to those characters in the song. Just that simple phrase, no turning back, can be so meaningful for a community like this. Really anywhere. In France. Even those who don’t have issues of trying to make ends meet or where their next meal is coming from, still have personal struggles or issues they’re trying to move beyond or grow beyond. They can take hold of that too.
Here in the rural part of Tallahassee, as well as those parts in the city where the universities are, this is about the human portion that people can find a piece of their own life in. That is how I see it coming back to the people who inspired the music. It’s really interesting right now to see how to approach radio in this area. I don’t think anyone has played the album here yet. I’m thinking I’m just going to have to go to the radio station and try to find someone who has an inroad to the personalities and present them with the music and ask them one simple question. Is there anything on this album that you think the community can use? That’s all I want to ask. Because it’s mindblowing how no one is playing the album in this region. Especially since the musicians from Tallahassee seem like they would want to get behind it and support it. Maybe they don’t know it exists. Maybe it’s just all in time.
I want the music to touch people in a way where they say, I know this isn’t part of my radio program, but this is something I just had to play. That’s what I’m hoping will happen. I have to trust the spirit in the music and how it speaks to other people and how it will move them to whatever decisions they need to make in terms of how they share it with the community. How they use their resources to turn people on. That’s what “Landing on a Hundred” is for me. When I first submitted the album cover to Polydor France, some of the early feedback I got from it was, are people going to think he’s a reggae artist? They had to understand, these colors existed before reggae. Reggae adopted these colors because of what they represented. These colors represent the spirit of a people. There’s a story here. There’s an identity here. And I’m using all of that. Symbolism, the colors, the vibe, the music, the horns. Everything I can to say that this spirit is still alive and you don’t know how it’s going to come.