Thinking About Whiteness (and Dance)

Posted January 17, 2018 8:35 p.m. EST

Two years ago, Merrill Garbus decided to learn how to DJ. The indie-pop musician, who is based in Oakland, California, and known for her pan-global rhythmic loops and frank lyrics in Tune-Yards, had little experience behind turntables but she dived in headfirst, booking a Tuesday night residency at a bar near the studio where she records.

“I hadn’t been in charge of an evening like that before,” said Garbus, 38. “What does the audience want to dance to? How do you know what they want before they say so? It taught me a lot.”

You can hear the lessons of the dance floor in the music she and her bandmate, Nate Brenner, made for Tune-Yards’ fourth album, “I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life,” due Jan. 19. A sleek, radical evolution from the clattering collages that first earned Tune-Yards an audience (notably on the 2011 album “Whokill,” which won that year’s Village Voice critics’ poll), the new LP is full of insistent beats, catchy hooks and pointed questions about modern society.

“I ask myself, what should I do?/But all I know is white centrality,” Garbus sings on the bubbly single “ABC 123.” Amid preparations for a tour that begins in Sacramento on Feb. 15, she spoke with The New York Times from her home. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Q: You participated in a six-month workshop on race at the East Bay Meditation Center while you were working on this album. What was the most surprising thing you learned there?

A: The whole thing was surprising. We met twice a month, looking at Buddhist principles and our roles as white folks in the community, with readings and videos. A lot of it — learning about a concept like white fragility, for instance — was like, “Oh my God. There’s a word for this?” Instead of walking through the world with this huge amount of defensiveness, (thinking), “I will not be racist,” to say, “Merrill, you are racist, simply by being brought up white in this society. So how does that feel? And let’s move from there.”

Q: You’ve said that you felt “a wall of shame bubble up” when you recorded the line “I use my white woman’s voice to tell stories of travels with African men,” from your new song “Colonizer.” How has it felt to sing those words in concert?

A: The first time, my heart jumped out of my chest. A lot of my feeling about growing up white in this country is about not knowing how to talk about whiteness. I think that’s part of how white supremacy works: There isn’t language for it. I’m finding the same thing with singing. What expression do I use when I’m singing those lines? Am I looking straight ahead? Am I looking down? These very subtle performance choices contextualize completely differently.

Q: In a time when artists from Kendrick Lamar to Solange are making vital music about why black lives matter, what does a white musician have to add to the conversation about race?

A: That’s the question, isn’t it? I constantly question, “Do I deserve to be here?” Why am I talking to you, for instance? This is a privileged place to be. I wish I could say, “I’ve sat and meditated for so many hours on my whiteness that I have something to say.” But I have no idea! And I think it’s OK not to know that. That being said, there is plenty that white people can do. A lot of the answers that I got doing that workshop were answers I didn’t particularly want to hear. Like: “Talk to other white people.” My first response was, “No! Why would I want to talk to Trump supporters, or my family that I don’t agree with?” But I will. I don’t want to alienate my fans who voted for Trump, because I want to talk to them. I want to talk about it all.

Q: What if some people just want to dance? Is it OK with you if the political messages on the album fly over their heads?

A: There’s only so much you can ask as a musician. If people are listening at all, I’m grateful. If I read this interview, I’d be like, “Damn, that sounds way too heavy for me.” But if people listen to the music, I hope it’s pretty instantaneously danceable.

Q: Fans of club culture often talk about the utopian potential of dance music. Do you believe, on some level, that dance music can save the world?

A: What I appreciate about dance music is that it brings people together in something that surpasses our more cerebral moments. I think that’s something very ancient and very deep in our cells as human beings. Do I think it will save us? Only when paired with the right things. Q: Where else did you find musical inspiration for this album?

A: I have a radio show called CLAW, Collaborative Legions of Artful Womxn, that pairs female-identified producers with lyricists. So I was listening to a lot of Holly Herndon and Suzi Analogue and KEISHH. It’s endless, the amount of wild creativity that I found when I asked the question, “What are women producers doing out there in the world?”

Q: Are you a Billy Joel fan? The way you sing the words “heart attack-ack-ack” on this album sounds a lot like “Movin’ Out.”

A: I don’t know if I would call myself a fan, but it certainly was music that I grew up with, listening to that song on the radio all the time. It just came out like that, and I was like, “Oh God, that’s from a Billy Joel song, isn’t it?”

Q: What’s the best movie you saw last year?

A: “Get Out,” for sure. That struck the nerve that I needed. It was jaw-dropping for me. We really need to look, as white progressives, at how racist we are. There’s this assumption by most of the quote-unquote liberal people I know, many of whom I love, that we’re on the right side. I think to portray the violence and horror that is right under the surface was just brilliant.

Q: But wouldn’t the white liberal family from “Get Out” probably tell people that they loved “Get Out,” too?

A: (laughs) Exactly!