The Changing Sound of Baltimore

Joy Postell was living in Los Angeles when the news broke of Freddie Gray’s death in her hometown, Baltimore, on April 19, 2015.

Posted Updated
The Changing Sound of Baltimore
Briona Butler
, New York Times

Joy Postell was living in Los Angeles when the news broke of Freddie Gray’s death in her hometown, Baltimore, on April 19, 2015.

“I was in a state of panic,” Postell said. The story had been unfolding in real time for days, since initial reports that Gray, 25, had been arrested, on April 12, and in the course of a 45-minute police van ride, suffered a spinal injury that left him in a coma.

On social media, Postell saw that her city had erupted in protests against police brutality. She wanted her pain and frustration to be heard, too, even if from a distance.

Postell, 26, channeled her emotions into an incisive lyrical illustration of the violence and discrimination that melanin-rich people have suffered. The track, “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot,” was written as an ode to a lineage of young black men bonded by their unjust deaths, including Emmett Till and Michael Brown. But history repeats itself.

Music, for Postell, often acts as a reflection of what is happening in the world and as a means of speaking truth to power. “You have to hold people accountable for what they’re saying,” she said. Though the themes — oppression, loss, psychic pain — are universal, her music often focuses acutely on Baltimore, where she moved with her mother at age 8, and returned to shortly after Gray’s death.

Among locals, Baltimore is known as a “by-the-block” city. You can take a ride down a street laden with abandoned buildings, an open-air drug market and other signs of poverty, then, around the corner, find gentrification in full bloom.

Over the years, the city has been the backdrop and incubator of some of the nation’s most heated racial tensions and class uprisings. These conflicts have borne artistic fruit: A generation of young musicians is writing Baltimore’s present, and future, into their oeuvre.

The city’s emerging musicians represent a collage of perspectives, aesthetics and reasons for being. Some of them are decidedly activists; others wear their political views more lightly, or express skepticism about art’s ability to effect change. Most of the artists acknowledge the influence of jazz and hip-hop in their music, even as it defies categorization. And each in their own way believes Baltimore informed their creativity.

Al Rogers Jr.'s heartfelt and playful energy honors the bounce and house music produced here in the 1980s. Affectionately called Baby Al, the 20-something musician recalled his early teenage forays into the city’s night life: going to the Patapsco River docks, “which were low-key dangerous,” he said, to dance.

“Coming up in the club solidified that people could coexist as long as the vibe is right,” Rogers said.

His music poses big socioeconomic and existential questions. On “Godina,” a track buoyed by a yearning hook and an easygoing rhythm, Rogers muses, “I ask, what if God was a Her (huh?) / Would I pray to? / Be on my knees every day for Her? / Worship, spend my money in that Sunday morning service? / Or spend it on that purse she ask for?”

All of his work adheres to a philosophy he’s termed “swooz”: the notion that love, togetherness and positive expression have transformative potential.

Not everyone shares his optimism about music’s power to bring strangers together. In fact, some dispute it. The rap collective Refugee formed in 2013, after a group of artists had commiserated over feelings of creative alienation in the city. Its members — Gunther, Faraji Jacobs, DDillon, Mikey $ and Buffa7o Jackson — spoke of “covert support” from their peers and the exclusion they sometimes feel in the city’s dedicated art spaces.

“Respect is not given publicly,” Jacobs said. “It’s like a backhanded slap then a kiss on the cheek. It’s confusing.”

Abdu Ali, an experimental rapper who uses nonbinary honorifics and pronouns, is familiar with the sense of outsiderness that Refugee’s members expressed. Ali is vocal about the financial and social challenges that independent artists — and especially those who identify as queer — face in Baltimore.

Ali grew up on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Pennsylvania Avenue with their mother and grandmother, and would pass Billie Holiday’s statue every day on the way to their “very black” school.

Holiday’s legacy loomed large in Ali’s childhood, but it was Sunday mornings spent with their grandfather at the Bethel AME Church on McCulloh Street — singing with the choir, channeling the spirit of ancestors — that ignited Ali’s musical awakening. Their work is inspired by Baltimore’s club music, and relies heavily on percussion and call-and-response.

“My music is literally not only a product but also an evolution of Baltimore musical history,” Ali said. “I take pride in owning the sound of my city and honoring those like Miss Tony, who opened sonic doors for me as a musician.”

In 2013, Ali created Kahlon, a platform for independent genre-nonconforming artists to meet and perform music through a continuing event series.

“I had to create a community to foster,” Ali said of Kahlon’s founding. “The gatekeepers weren’t radical enough to let people like me in.”

Ali’s style tends toward the flamboyant: They might wear floral-pattered bell bottoms with a long-sleeved black turtleneck and a cropped snakeskin jacket, and the stage is where they feel the greatest freedom.

Ali’s spiritual lyrics (“I am the universe’s mother, father, sister, brother, cousin, daughter, son / Am I the Holy Spirit? Who Am I?”) transform performances into sermons of sorts, which draw on a Methodist upbringing but allow audience members to meditate and feel as close to whatever one may define as God.

Butch Dawson, 25, as another example of the DIY imperative underpinning the city’s independents. By his estimation, it’s not the amount of equipment you have, or your degree, that makes you an innovator. “It’s you,” he said.

Dawson’s creativity was nurtured from a young age by the women in his family: his mother, grandmothers, aunt and sisters. “I always felt special in some weird way,” Dawson said. And, the area where he grew up was firmly enshrined in the city’s musical history.

“Pennsylvania Avenue in Baltimore was a historical strip for jazz musicians,” he said, “so being from there made me have a better appreciation for jazz and made me want to incorporate that in my music.”

Dawson found his way into Baltimore’s street wear scene, where he met like-minded painters, rappers and designers. Some of them founded a multimedia platform, Basement Rap, through which they were able to proliferate their unique brand of hipster aestheticism. His sonic landscape is as kaleidoscopic as his personal style — grungy, minimalist, funky and futuristic all at once — and his rhymes flow like cool waters.

Dawson considers himself part of a larger community of progressive artists “making it out of the city.” And while, for the most part, he perceives the culture as a unified one, he has seen animosity expressed through gun violence, and “that’s not what we need right now.”

In addition to their shared geography, Baltimore’s young artists share “sankofa,” a Ghanaian idea that loosely translates as “remembering our past to protect our future.” Each holds a deep understanding and respect for the rich musical legacy into which they have been born.

Dawson makes that clear in his latest single, “Liberation”: “I’m from Baltimore city / You can’t program me.”

1 / 9

Copyright 2023 New York Times News Service. All rights reserved.