“You Can’t Live Life with a Dead Soul:” An Interview with Adrian Younge

Patrick Johnson speaks to the multi-instrumentalist about his powerful new work 'The American Negro' and finding optimism in a nation that often lacks humanity.
By    April 15, 2021
Photo courtesy of Jazz Is Dead

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Patrick Johnson keeps his 990s dirty and his nose clean.

As a multi-instrumentalist, producer, film composer and co-founder of the ever-revered Los Angeles record label Jazz Is Dead, Adrian Younge has spent a career defined by his ambitions and a scholarly pursuit of more knowledge. Younge is quick to call his new multi-media project, The American Negro, his most important work to date. It’s also his most determined. The album is exhaustive, beyond thorough and not an easy listen. But it is a necessary one.

The release is centered around 26 songs produced entirely in his preferred analog spread over nearly an hour complete with a full 30-piece orchestra. It’s accompanied by his 13-episode Invisible Blackness podcast featuring conversations with Chuck D, Ladybug Mecca, Jai White and more and his T.A.N. film available now on Amazon Prime, each released to expand on his unapologetic critique of a racist American psychology that continues to inflict trauma and oppression on Black bodies since the country’s founding.

A former practicing law professor, Younge’s Zoom background was filled with volumes of the International Library of Afro-American Life and History. During law school, he found respite from his studies through his autodidactic mastering of a handful of instruments, an accomplishment he humbly shrugged off as, “anyone can do it” through a growing discipline.

Younge started recording at the beginning of 2020, before the killing of George Floyd sparked nationwide protests, demands to defund police departments and even a performative wokeness of black squares on Instagram accounts the world over. The polarizing summer found him digging deeper, providing listeners with a historic account of these injustices — those that continue on national television with the repeated images of violence through the replaying of Floyd’s death. The racist stigmatization of African Americans as the enemy in this country is a central focal point of Adrian Younge’s The American Negro.

He revealed that this is a message first album — he’d prefer listeners digest the history before the music, but it’s still performed with an outpouring of empathy. Not only was the musician working through the conflict ignited by George Floyd’s murder, he was balancing the weight of the past. Younge was also physically healing, in recovery from donating his kidney to his younger sister in August. “I’ve felt mortality — it’s some of the worst pain that I’ve been through in my life, but it made me think like, ‘you know what, you got to be happy,’” he realized post-operation. In a moment that would debilitate most, Younge found optimism. Completing The American Negro was therapeutic.

“We have been institutionalized under this concept of white imperialism for centuries,” he continued. “And this concept of white imperialism pushes the notion of manifest destiny, whereby whites males are destined to rule the world. And it’s a paternalistic perspective whereby they’ve been saying, ‘you listen to me, the white male, and just do as I say because I’m civil. I’m making you more civilized.’”

On “Sullen Countenance,” Younge’s voice rings out with an echo of a professor in a cavernous auditorium. “Sadly, this album will never be out of date,” he repeats on the final chapter before the fade to black. The album cover was based on lynching postcards from the late 1800s and early 1900s, when white people celebrated the execution of African Americans. Those postcards were sent to friends and family in neighboring towns and collected as memorabilia, a reminder of their white supremacy for generations to come. If you look closely enough, his face appears on the black and white silhouette hanging from a tree. The rear cover art shows the man’s back adorned with a sign stating the reason why he hangs: “This n*gger voted,” it reads, a relevant reminder of this era of Jim Crow 2.0, of the anti-Black voting laws passed throughout the country following the result of last November’s election.

“[The cover] symbolizes the fact that we were merely creatures, not even livestock, we’re merely creatures to everybody,” Younge revealed. “I wanted to put my face on there so that people could identify with this concept… It’s meant to make people ask, ‘is that Adrian?’ And then something that started to happen that I didn’t realize is that it really hurts people around me. It hurts them because they feel saddened by the fact that me, a Black dude that wears a suit every day, could die like any other Black dude.”

Despite the lessons of loss throughout the album, the music beams with life. “Margaret Garner” was named after the enslaved woman who mercy killed her own daughter so that she wouldn’t have to live a life haunted by the brutality of her assured slavery. But the song is transcendent, piano keys and full string sections serve as a joyful memorial. “George Stinney Jr.” pays tribute to the 14-year-old boy falsely accused of murdering two white girls in South Carolina and sentenced to death. His conviction was overturned 70 years after he was executed by electric chair. But the song’s mood is far from somber — a chorus narrates Stinney’s angelic transformation and journey to heaven.

“James Mincey Jr.” plays like the second coming of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. The song honors Mincey, the sixteenth Black man murdered by the LAPD over the stretch of seven years from being placed in a chokehold in 1982. Younge teamed up with Loren Oden, his frequent collaborator, longtime friend and Mincey’s real-life nephew. Church organs reverberate in the backdrop — the drum rolls are the perfect score for the millions who marched and mobilized this past summer. “Oh, it’s so sad to see that/ You don’t see yourself in me/ Please let me breathe/ I can’t breathe,” Oden’s falsetto chorus pleads.

“I wrote the song about my uncle who died as a result of police brutality in 1982,” Oden said. “This was a very cathartic experience that I am grateful to have had. It’s unfortunate that these things continue to happen today, but it is empowering to know that our voices can not be silenced.”

“This whole project is just about people realizing the lack of humanity in the nation that we live in, which is something that is derivative from classism and white imperialism. And we all need to just empower ourselves enough to look away from the vestige of the past in order to see clearly that we are all equal.”

Younge’s The American Negro dives deeply into the intergenerational struggles, trauma and racial inequity but it also is a reminder of the unbreakable endurance of the Black spirit. He still manages to inspire hope through truly beautiful music. If that’s not American, then what is?

I wanted to start just at the beginning. When did you start brainstorming The American Negro and how did you approach it? How long did it take to get to this point?

Adrian Younge: So I started putting this together in my head a couple of years ago. Before COVID I was just touring the last couple years and in my travels, I just realized how important it would be for me to make an album like this. I thought about how Marvin Gaye’s most important album that he made was What’s Going On. And the reason why is not because of the fact that the music sounds good, it’s because of the message behind the music.

I wanted to make something that is important. So that’s when those thoughts started. And then as soon as quarantine happened around March, I said, “well, I got nothing else to do. I should do this right now.” And I just started working every day. Then when I was about a third of the way into the album, what happens? George Floyd.

So I’m making this album and then that happens and I’m like, “oh my God, this is serendipitous — I was made to be doing this right now.” So I say this all to stay. My goal was really to create an album that provided an unapologetic critique into the malevolent psychology that is afflicting people of color in America and around the world and to show how this has affected our lives in so many ways.

Do you remember what the first song you recorded for the project was that then created that forward motion into a full multimedia project?

Adrian Younge: The first song that I actually recorded for the project, I was like intended for the project was “The American Negro” song. I wanted to do that because I wanted to show that there’s all these pejorative terms that we had to choose from. What is it? Is it Negro? Is it colored? Is it coon? Is it spick? Like what, like what is it, you know?

We had to make choices and we still are making choices — at one point we were cool with being called African-American and then at one point that we’re cool with being called Black. At one point that we’re cool with being called Negro, you know, because we are the only culture that has been brought to America without the right to maintain any sort of relationship to our heritage. We get to essentially start all over. We’re the only people in America that do not have a separate language.

I was listening to a podcast that you did recently and you mentioned the pejoratives — how you don’t refer to someone as a White American, you just call them an American. I think what it really spoke to you was the fact that in American culture, it’s seen as this individualist society, right?. But I feel like that individualist mentality only extends itself to white people.

Adrian Younge: There’s so many reasons why I knew that I had to make this album. I wanted to help further the conduit to our ancestors, to my Black ancestors. I wanted to add power to this Black consciousness. And then I also wanted to have an egalitarian view where the only reason I’m speaking on this Blackness is because I’m trying to show the race is a social construct. We’re all just human beings here.

So by empowering yourself as a Black person, what you’re really doing is saying that I’m equal to that white person over there even though I’ve been institutionalized to think differently. I am equal. I want this album to inspire people to be better and have a better sense of self-worth.

How long into the process did you decide that this latest work was going to extend past an album and be both a film and a podcast as well?

Adrian Younge: Early on, I knew I wanted to invest myself into this very… hardly. I wanted to have a cavernous relationship with this project because it means so much to me. I have children and I want this place to be better for them — I want them to be better for me. In putting this all together, I said, “there’s only so much I could talk about on the album. I need to be able to have another outlet to dig deeper.” Then let me do a podcast. You know what though? I want you to get deeper than the podcast, let me do a film.

Let me release this all around the same time and try to have the largest impact I could possibly have because this is my first album where music is secondary to the message. The message is number one here. If somebody said, “hey man, I listened to your album. I don’t really like the music, but I love the message.” That would mean more to me than somebody saying, “I’ve listened to your album and I loved the music, but I don’t like the message.” I’ve created multiple ways to disseminate the message.

Your project across the board does have this very academic quality, not in a pedantic way but in terms of informing your audience thoroughly on multiple levels about the generations of struggle both you and your ancestors have faced. How did your history teaching help guide you along the way?

Adrian Younge: I wanted my talking to be from a professorial perspective. I wanted it to be as if people were in a room with me and I’m teaching and I’m putting concepts together. And then I’m illuminating these concepts with sound. So it was a difficult proposition for me because I’ve never done that with music, but I said, “you know, if there’s ever one time that people are going to get mad at me for having twins talking in an album, I’d be very okay with it being this one.”

I wanted to have it where people are listening to the album as if they are sitting there with me and they’re being indoctrinated with ideology in history. And I just said, “fuck it, I’m going to go hard and just do it and see what happens.”

I think how you recorded your spoken word section and the interludes with your voice booming in these echoes, it had this auditorium quality to it. I did feel like I was in a college classroom, just learning all of these things that I have to go back and revisit. But in balancing the multimedia aspect of it, what challenges did you have going into the project? Did you know when you were going to pivot from the music to writing the words to the podcast?

Adrian Younge: I’ve always been obsessed with Black history. When I was teaching, I loved researching laws — like miscegenation laws against Blacks having interracial marriages, or Jim Crow laws against Black people being out after a certain time. I loved reading about these laws because I just can’t believe that they were actually real. And I loved reading about these laws, because it clearly shows the machinations that are in place that put us in the position that we are in now.

I was finding this causation, this lineage. And because I had all this knowledge, it dawned on me that average people don’t know a lot of this stuff, you know? It also dawned on me that educational sterilization really doesn’t tell the true story. I mean, in America, we’re taught that Abraham Lincoln saved Black people and, and he’s Honest Abe, but he lied when he was on his campaign about how he thought about Black people, you know? Up North, he would say that he wants to help Black people, but [campaigning in the South] he loved to talk about the fact that Blacks are not equal to whites.

When I grew up I never read about the fact that Abraham Lincoln was in serious discussions about how to send the Blacks back to Africa, because we were deemed a problem in America. I thought I had a duty to start sharing my knowledge. And I wanted to put all of my energy into one album to try to create the greatest and most important album of my catalog to date. Like I said, Marvin Gaye is important — he’s arguably my favorite artist of all time. His best album is What’s Going On because of the message, not just because of the music. I wanted to be creating things of lasting value — that’s just where I’m at right now.

You mention the sterilization of the American school, whether it’s private or public — I’m a product of the public school in America, albeit a pretty decent one. But I remember we had the syllabus where we’re talking about the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s and it was glazed over. We’re talking like one, two weeks tops.

And then from that, we move on to World War 1 and 2 — the classics, right? Where it’s supposed to show like the gold standard of American greatness and exceptionalism, but it’s just propaganda. What I was most grateful for on your album is when you were talking about topics that I had yet to be introduced to whether it was James Mincey Jr., Margaret Garner or George Stinney Jr. These three stories balanced being incredibly selfless through unimaginable terror and trauma. What made you pick these three people’s tragedies to represent your project?

Adrian Younge: First of all, when people say to me like, “yo man, I’m a fan of your music. I love your music…” That’s always cool. I appreciate it. When somebody says that you created music that inspired me or changed my life, that is why I create. Those moments fuel me to be better and work harder. So when I put those names as song titles, these are our forgotten ancestors. These are forgotten heroes.

There’s this crate digging mentality to listening to Black music, to find the inspirations whether it’s samples or references to artists past. You can maneuver through that as deeply as you want. Now listeners like me are doing the same with Black history — a new generation is mobilizing to find where these important stories come from to be better advocates and and allies.

Adrian Younge: Right. [These stories] epitomize how Blacks have not been viewed as equal human beings. And they happen throughout time — the same stuff that’s happening now, was happening on a whole nother level back then. My hope was that when I’m doing interviews or somebody asked me about the album, that these are one of the questions that they’re asking me, and now they didn’t die in vain. So I appreciate you even asking me about this stuff. This is exactly why I did it.

The fact that you recorded this strictly in analog gives the sound this nostalgic quality. In filmmaking there’s Auteur Theory — that the soul of a movie ultimately is representative of just the director’s point of view. And I think with this album, podcast, the upcoming film, Auteur Theory applies to you tenfold. Why was analog the perfect medium for the project?

Adrian Younge: Well, I’ve never recorded digital. I’ve always recorded analog. And the reason why is because for the type of music I make, that’s the only way it works for me. I am somebody that is very captivated by organic, real sounds. There’s no plugins in my music, there’s no emulations, everything is real, you know? From the orchestra I wrote for… all that shit, man. It’s all real to the horns I’m playing, to the drums, all that. And it’s natural and people feel it. It’s something that can’t be duplicated. It’s something where if you hear my music, you can’t mistake me for somebody else. So for everything I do, this is just always the protocol.

Do you ever have a go-to instrument that you’re beginning the composition with, or does it vary by, by song?

Adrian Younge: It varies by song. I’m a multi-instrumentalist so on this album I played every instrument. Yep. Or every rhythm section and then brought an orchestra and on top of that. So there’s certain songs that I wrote on piano. There’s certain songs I wrote on drums. Like there’s a song called “Revolutionize” — I wrote that song on drums. I was sitting there playing and I was like, “oh, I like this groove, I like what this feeling is now let’s go this way.”

But then there’s a song like “The American Negro” where I wrote that on the piano. And in doing that, I said, I want to have a baseline that moves like a Curtis Mayfield type baseline… something like that. There’s other songs that I wrote on sax… I think it’s “Watch the Children” but yeah, man, I just get inspired by different instruments and different instruments provide different feelings and then I just run with it.

When I talked to multi-instrumentalists, it’s just like this part of your brain that doesn’t touch a lot of humanity to be able to do what you do.

Adrian Younge: You know what though dude? Honestly man, it’s just discipline. It’s like, yes, I did all this shit, but it’s not anything that you can’t do. Like if you said, “you know what, I’m gonna sit here and I’m gonna play piano three hours a day and you do that shit for a couple years, and you do the same thing with drums, do the same thing with bass…

I’ve been making music now for over 20 years, you know? So imagine yourself doing that with a bunch of instruments. I actually learned this from law school because in law school you got to study contract law. At the same time, you’re studying criminal law, you’re studying torts at the same time, you’re studying wills and trust and they’re all like separate instruments.

So I was like, “if I could do that, why can’t I do this over here?” You know? I started learning how to play instruments when I was in law school. People look at it like, “holy shit, I can’t believe…” The holy shit part is just that discipline. But the fact is they have the ability to do it, anyone could do it, man. Kids learn how to play trumpets. You can learn how to do this.

You mentioned Marvin Gaye, Gil Scott-Heron and Curtis Mayfield as inspirations for the album. I was wondering if there were any other forms of media that inspired you since this is this vast multimedia project.

Adrian Younge: As far as the inspiration, I read a lot of books, man. So for example, like right here is a Black encyclopedia, the International Library of Afro-American Life and History. I have a whole set of these from the ‘70s. It gives you a crazy perspective on these old newspaper clippings — it’s insane. But I have a ton of books like that, all that I’ve been studying and reading for years and just jotting down notes. So this album is a cumulative statement that is just derivative of my studies over the years, basically. And all my law books too. It’s just my real inspiration outside of music really comes from books. And life too.

I’ve been making music for a while and I compose for film and television, all that stuff. But in my journey, I see how my Black consciousness inhibits me. I’ll give you a perfect example. When it comes to scoring television and films, most executives are white and the job of the executive is to use their intuition in order to make things happen — in order to execute and in order to make sure projects win and are profitable.

But if your intuition doesn’t tell you that what this Mexican dude is bringing to you over here or what this Black dude is bringing to you over here works, it’s hard for you to know. So what happens is that you use your intuition to guide their projects and their visions. So I’m saying this to you because if I’m working on a project and I’m doing some super dope music, they’ll say, “you know, this doesn’t work well here.” And I’m like, “yo, this is a Black character. You have to make sure the music’s Black. You don’t understand.”

But it just makes me feel sad that they don’t get it. I could go on and on. We have been institutionalized under this concept of white imperialism for centuries. And this concept of white imperialism pushes the notion of manifest destiny, whereby whites males are destined to rule the world. And it’s a paternalistic perspective whereby they’ve been saying, “you listen to me, the white male, and just do as I say because I’m civil. I’m making you more civilized. You were living as a barbarian and now I’m making your life better and that justifies all that I’m doing. You were a creature and I’m giving you some kind of humanity.” We still live like this and one of the things I wanted to do with this album, with my film and my podcast is to show that these customs have been embedded into our way of thinking.

People still dismiss that point though with the “look at far we’ve come” sentiment when there’s so much more work to do. Look at the voting laws passed in Georgia, or there’s this one selfie photo I can’t forget from a year or so ago of the entire Republican senate, just white dudes with overly white teeth from the foreground to the back — not a person of color in sight.

The supremacy and what you said, the paternalistic nature of it all, it’s still very real but often ignored. You mention double consciousness on the album too and that’s a really powerful concept. It establishes this running theme of image versus identity. Can you expand on that?

Adrian Younge: Well, when we’re dealing with double consciousness, we’re dealing with our image and who we identify with. As a Black man, I look in the mirror and I see myself because I know myself, but I also see myself through the purview of white America. I see myself as being the face of evil in America. I see myself as the person that could be the victim. I also see myself as having a victim kinship with other brothers and sisters, right? Whereby maybe that person is supposed to be my entity, but in the face of white imperialism, we have to stick together.

So there’s all these things I have to deal with when I look at a mirror. I had dreads for 14 years, way down my back, but I still worked in corporate America. Now if I was a white person with long hair down my back, a white male, that could work. There are a myriad of things you must consider as a person of color living in a capitalistic society that is dominated by customs established via white imperialism. And that is what this image versus identity thing really expounds upon.

You say, “sadly, this album will never be out of date” on “Sullen Countenance” but then you continue onward to call on future generations to embrace humanity still. On “Race Is A Fallacy” you’re also saying that without the participation of young people, we’re losing speed and that’s why we’re losing this race to combat racial inequality. So how do you deal with the undeniable truth of America’s racism but still find room to be optimistic?

Adrian Younge: Because you can’t live life with a dead soul. Yes, you have to be cognizant of what was happening, but you also have to realize how much better things are now than they were. And you have to be able to live your life and smile because there’s so many things to be happy about. In August I donated my kidney to my sister. She’s 10 years younger than me. I’m 42, she’s 32. And I realized what that did for her, you know? And I just realize how important it is to be happy. I’ve felt mortality — it’s some of the worst pain that I’ve been through in my life, but it made me think like, “you know what, dude, you got to be happy” and I’m just a happy dude.

It’s funny because I talk about all this racist shit, right? But I’m the kind of person that doesn’t really experience much direct racism. I do experience racism, racism systemically, but I wear a suit and tie every single day. So people call me “sir” every day. I don’t experience [racism] to the same degree because of how I carry myself.

This is gonna sound weird, but I ordered a hamburger from a place over here and I was coming from the gym and I went over to pick up the burger and the guy at the counter said, “hey, are you picking up for somebody” as if I was Postmates or something. So when I’m not wearing a suit — and he didn’t say anything racist, racist — like there’s nothing wrong with what he said, a Mexican dude said that to me. But it’s crazy that no matter who you are, you can still fall victim to the overdetermined stereotype of being the face of evil in America.

What advice would you give the younger generation — my generation in particular — about how to be a better ally to fight social injustices and combat America’s racism?

Adrian Younge: Educate yourself. Because when you educate yourself, you give yourself ammunition to put together or decipher the enigma. This multimedia project of mine, the real purpose is that I’m showcasing the evolution of racism in America because America pioneered a different kind of racism. I was never taught this. I had to read a bunch of things to put this together. I had to read to figure out like, “holy shit, before racism, it was just really about religion in class.” It wasn’t really a racist thing.

But then America pioneered this system of racism where we’re going to subjugate through this hereditary thing where they’re now just property and it’s going to go on forever. It wasn’t like this, other nations. Then I connect all that to what’s happening now. You can’t just read that in one book. You have to read a lot so that you can ask questions and then you can start putting things together. So my thing is, read and disseminate the information because we’re not taught this in school.

I have to ask about the album cover too, what made you pick this particular image?

Adrian Younge: So in America, lynching postcards were very popular in the late 1800s, early 1900s, and it was a celebratory form of media that people used to show the execution of Black people. And at these lynchings, a lot of times the crowds would pay money to see the lynching. They’d pay money to be able to mutilate them or shoot them, to take a picture in front of them to send to their cousins or their friends on the other side of town and say, “hey, you missed this, right?”

[The album cover] just shows you the lack of value and it symbolizes the fact that we were merely creatures, not even livestock, we’re merely creatures to everybody. I wanted to put my face on there so that people could identify with this concept because you see it, it looks like an old photo, but then it’s meant to make people ask, “is that Adrian?” And then something that started to happen that I didn’t realize is that it really hurts people around me. And when I say hurt, it hurts them because they feel saddened by the fact that me, a Black dude that wears a suit every day, could die like any other Black dude. From police injustice or vigilante justice.

This whole project is just about people realizing the humanity and the lack of humanity in the nation that we live in, which is something that is derivative from classism and white imperialism. And we all need to just empower ourselves enough to look away from the vestige of the past in order to see clearly that we are all equal.

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