Moonshine Roots Music and Fela Kuti


Valerie June admires Fela Kuti, Ali Farka Toure, Miriam Makeba and a Nigerian blues singer she once heard in her car, but can't remember their name.

From the album cover art for "Pushin' against the stone."

Valerie June is the stuff of magical, star lit Tennessee nights. She is a dreaded, animated woman with a lilting Deep South accent doing music that flows out alternately between blues, soul, and country. It’s fitting then that her self-named genre is “organic moonshine roots music.” The aching pangs of love, and the ancient roots of the routes of her melodies echo even after a playlist has ceased. The Memphis area and Mississippi Delta have produced some of the finest musicians in American history, most of whom spent a massive amount of time cultivating their art and their relationship to it. June’s first label album, ‘Pushin’ Against A Stone’ came out this year, a new phase for an incredibly talented solo musician who began a little over a decade ago in a small, but nurturing, Memphis coffee shop. We spoke with her via Skype last week while she was in Rouen, France.

Can you introduce yourself and ‘Pushin’ Against a Stone’ briefly?

My name is Valerie June and I’m from Memphis, Tennessee but I live in New York now. I’ve been on the road all year. So I can’t wait to get home and eat Thanksgiving food. It’s going to be great, and pumpkin pie is going to be on the list. And then sweet potatoes, and then sweet potato pie.

No collard greens?

I just bought a juicer and when I was home at the beginning of this month, my mom — the first thing when I came through the door — she had hot water cornbread and collard greens and BBQ there. I said, ok! I am at home! I just dived right in and started eating it up. Because we don’t have it the same in New York. It’s very difficult to get them cooked that way when you’re on the road too.

How did you develop your music? How did you get to organic moonshine roots music?

It started a long time ago. About a decade ago. When I was playing shows, people would come up and be like, that’s blues. And other people would be like, “that’s hillbilly music.” Everyone had their own name for what it was that I was doing and I said, well … I think it’s just playful music or emotional music or whatever. It’s really just roots. So me and my friend – she’s a poet – we were just messing around and we said: we should give it a magical name! And we thought organic moonshine roots music sounds really magical and people would have to wonder: “what is that? What kind of music is it?” So it gives a curiosity to people because even if you don’t like the name, it does make you think about what does it mean? It’s really a mixture of all the music that I was exposed to. I look at the music that I love as the root of many different genres of music. So, calling it roots music is the best way to put it. Or American music.

As a roots musician, how do you trace your music through past artists? Who are some of the people who had a dramatic influence on your style and did any of them actually become hands on mentors for you?

I am not fortunate enough to have met any of my really, really admired mentors like Jessie Mae Hemphill and Elizabeth Cotten. They have since passed — which is sad but I’m so glad that they made music and that I can find them through song.

Another mentor I have is Mr. Robert Belfour. Mr. Belfour has never been like, “yes, let’s play some songs together!” When I actually wanted to play music with him, he told me no. Just no. “I don’t play music with other people; I just do what I do. And sometimes,” he told me, “I have my drummer come in. Sometimes it’s just me.” But he said “yeah, I don’t do it with other people. I do my music.”

That was a really big lesson for me because I sat with him several times, followed all of his shows in Memphis, Mississippi and really just absorbed everything about him. It’s really important for people to realize what artists do and to hold it as a sacred thing. Mr. Belfour is not interested in doing what anyone else wants him to do. Period. If you went to him and said, “hey Mr. Belfour, sing over this track or sing with this rap song or whatever,” he’d be like, “No, I do this straight up hill country blues, that’s what I do and if you want anything else, then go talk to somebody else.”

I needed to learn that. A lot of people would often ask whether I ever see myself doing music that’s more modern or anything, and I might do something that you might think is more modern, but most of all, the most important thing for me to do, is what I do. And to be true to myself. I just did a cover of a Christmas song. It doesn’t sound like what a Christmas song normally sounds like — it’s a traditional standard song — but it just sounds like me doing a version of a song. So, I think it’s a big lesson to me to be myself. “Hey, just be yourself in this world. Don’t be trying to change or trying to learn my little tricks.” Doing my little thing.

Mr. Belfour said, “I’ve been to your shows and I love your music. But it ain’t blues. There’s a hint of blues in every single song. But it’s not blues like my blues.” And I said, “You’re right. I want to play the blues like you do.” And he was like, “Well you just keep watching my fingers.”

It’s kind of wonderful to be around the older musicians like that, even those in their seventies. I’m soaking up everything every time I can be around somebody like that. Just soak it up and listen to what they say because there’s all kinds of lessons in it.

One of our readers suggested that I ask you what your feelings in general towards Africa is? And if you had a favorite African female vocalist?

African female vocalist? No, I don’t have a favorite. But as far as my feelings for Africa, it is one of the first foreign places I visited — well, Nigeria is. You’re saying Africa is a country, is that what you’re saying?

Yes, the blog is called ‘Africa’s A Country.’ It’s a play on words.

Oh no! It’s a continent! [Laughing] It is funny though, because a lot of people do treat it like it’s a country versus a continent. There’s so many different kinds of people in Africa. But I think it’s a beautiful thing to say that and to get people to think and guess. But, I wanted to go to Lagos and I wanted to go see where Fela Kuti played music. And so I went but they wouldn’t let me go to the club because they said it was too dangerous for me. I didn’t really get to do what I wanted to do there. But I got to go to Africa and experience life in Nigeria, go to Abuja, and meet friends and eat great food and walk around and look at awesome trees with fruit on it. It was just great. I’m glad I got to go.

Do you have a couple of African female vocalists that you look up to? Or that you admire?

Not female vocalists. The biggest one that I love is Fela Kuti, and I love Ali Farka Toure as well. With the female vocalist from Africa, I know Miriam Makeba but I couldn’t say that she’s a favorite. So, I’m pretty in need of some kind of African female vocalist education. The reason I don’t know anybody is because when I go to a friend’s house and I hear something I like, I just download it to my computer. When driving in my car — the radio doesn’t work so I keep my laptop next to me — I put the music on random. So once, this beautiful, beautiful African female voice comes across and I was like “what is that?” And I had to pull over the car because it was so good, because I didn’t want to be driving and looking across at the screen. So I looked at what it was, but it didn’t have the name of the artist. It starts out with someone playing the lute, and then it goes and then the voice just starts chiming in. [EDIT: it’s the first track on this Africa & the Blues record, a Nigerian garaya plucked lute song.] And it is just beautiful. I don’t know who it is, but that’s one of my favorite records.

Have you noticed a difference in the level of support you receive overseas versus the United States?

I receive quite a bit of support in France. So yes, I see a difference (laughs). I was walking in the parking lot of a gas station yesterday and this guy pulls over, and I’m like, Oh hell no! I’m not about to go in that car with you! You’re not about to take me nowhere! And he was speaking French to me, and I did not know what he was saying. I was like, o no sir, English! And he then said, chanteuse? Are you a singer?, finally in English. And I said, yeah! And then I got what he was trying to do. He asked if he could take a photograph with me and I was so shocked! I was like: how do you know me?

My record came out about three months later in the States, so it’s building slowly over there too. But it’s really fun. It’s fun how people are touched by my music and when they say, hey! We like your music! That makes me feel good.

What’s it like being a person of color in all the genres you’re associated with? I think it’s pretty awesome that you’re doing what you’re doing, but you’re one of the few visible people of color doing it.

You’re the first person to ever ask me that question really and I’m surprised. Mostly what people do is project. So, that’s kind of neat. I mean, it’s something that I try not to spend so much time explaining because when I said that Africa is a continent, and people really see it as a country, I feel the same way about me. And the music that I make.

A lot of times, because of the way I look, people look at me and they stamp me with one thing. And that’s why I wanted to name my music something magical and something opening to the mind. Questioning. When you think about what organic moonshine roots music is you have to come ask me what? I don’t get it. You don’t instantly say: there’s a black girl with dreads and it’s going to be reggae before I even open my mouth. You kind of have to allow me to just be a human being first when you hear the title. I like to keep that door open right there.

The other thing is that it always shocks me — and this comes back to the Africa is a continent thing — it shocks me how the world sees black people in particular as loving only one thing. We are so vast. We love so many different types of things. There are so many different types of Africans in Africa. I mean, not all of them are black even. I have black folks playing in my band that play fiddle, and they like to sing punk rock music on the side. They do everything! It’s not just all soul or hip-hop. They do that too! But they do so much. We can do anything we want to do, and I think a lot of times we stop ourselves too from enjoying certain things because we don’t want to be seen as “what are you trying to do?” That’s not something we normally would get into. I just feel that people are vast.

I hope and pray that the world becomes what Martin Luther King wanted it to be when he said he imagined a world where everyone is not judged by the color of their skin and what that stereotype is for the color. And what world I live in, in my mind, we all judge each other by what we have done to enrich our character. Oh that’s cool! You’re into fairies and elves and you like the Gospel queen of the Bible Belt and you like dirty dancing at the hip-hop club! All of that! You know what I mean? Whatever it is, just do you! And don’t worry about the color.

Further Reading

Edson in Accra

It happened in 1969. But just how did he world’s greatest, richest and most sought-after footballer at the time, end up in Ghana?

The dreamer

As Africa’s first filmmakers made their unique steps in Africanizing cinema, few were as bold as Djibril Diop Mambéty who employed cinema to service his dreams.

Socialismo pink

A solidariedade socialista na Angola e Moçambique pós-coloniais tornou as pessoas queer invisíveis. Revisitar esse apagamento nos ajuda a reinventar a libertação de forma legítima.