Tune-Yards’ atonement

Merrill Garbus on her role in cultural appropriation

Music Tune Yards2 1 10 Web
Photo credit: Eliot Lee Hazel
THE UNBEARABLE WHITENESS OF BEING: Merrill Garbus and Nate Brenner grapple with their identities on Tune-Yards’ latest album.

Merrill Garbus has never been coy about her musical influences. As Tune-Yards’ vocalist and co-songwriter, alongside Nate Brenner, her ecstatic rhythms underscore a robust knowledge of African, Caribbean, and non-Western musical styles. With Tune-Yards’ latest album, I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life (4AD), Garbus interrogates the cultural implications of white people channeling the artistry of people of color, in a world where systemic racism permeates nearly every facet of society. “I feel conflicted because I think my approach was to the detriment of the record, as in "'Who wants to listen to a record that reminds them about injustice, and about how much work we have to do towards justice?’” Garbus says. “Then I say to myself, this is such a small price to pay for getting this out at all.”

Social commentary is commonplace for Tune-Yards. “Water Fountain,” from the group’s 2014 LP Nikki Nack, illustrates Garbus and Brenner’s penchant for creating rhythms and melodies so contagious that listeners could be forgiven for missing the bite delivered in lines such as “Nothing feels like dying like the drying of my skin and lawn/ Why do we just sit here while they watch us wither til we’re gone?” 

After years of self-reflection, including a six-month workshop on anti-racism at Oakland’s East Bay Meditation Center, Garbus crystallized her convictions on racial inequality into the introspective core of I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life.

“We get stuck in this cultural appropriation question, instead of being like ‘cultural appropriation happens,’” she says. “It means something when white artists appropriate black art because of the power structure in our society, and in the world. As white people, we need to listen a lot more instead of just talking.” 

One song on the record that engages this ethos is “Colonizer.” Garbus strips away clever metaphors and vilifies herself as she sings, “I use my white woman’s voice to tell stories of travels with African men… I smell the blood in my voice,” over a bass line that’s almost funky enough to obscure her words, and her feelings of self-disgust are palpable. 

Still, Garbus and Brenner carefully balance the record’s emotional weight. Standout single “ABC 123” bursts with disco bass lines that anchor chirping hi-hats and calypso-inspired snare hits. “Heart Attack” pushes the typical Tune-Yards aesthetic even further during a passage when the complex percussion drops out, and Garbus croons “I’m only human” over a choir of baroque strings.

Naturally, releasing a record laced with such naked and difficult confessions carries many risks, misinterpretation being the most pernicious. Linking cultural appropriation to legacies of white supremacy and colonization can require a complex conversation, one that’s often in danger of being minimized, Garbus says.

Many listeners who love Tune-Yards for the intricate polyrhythms, dancefloor grooves, and spastic energy may be put off by the confrontational weight of her lyrics. But Garbus’ engagement with the subject is as thorough as her knowledge of music outside the mainstream,  and she remains fully committed to the conversation on I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life.

“I feel like this is just the beginning for me in terms of connecting Tune-Yards and my social justice work,” she says. “Our souls are at stake when we don’t reconcile where we come from.”

With My Brightest Diamond. $26-$29. 8 p.m. (doors). Sat., May 19. Variety Playhouse, 1099 Euclid Ave. N.E. 404-524-7354. www.variety-playhouse.com.

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