by Josh Ginsberg (@world0fdarkness)
Before the first note of her bass guitar sounds, Deja Carr takes the breath needed to sing the first words of Mal Devisa’s debut LP, Kiid. The amplified sound of her inhalation takes you out of the fantasy realm you’re accustomed to visiting while listening to music. You’re confronted with the fact that the words you are about to hear do not exist in a vacuum or on the plane of fiction. You are listening to a living, breathing person, who sang carefully selected words into a microphone, for you to hear. The abundance of sonic negative space that surrounds Carr’s sparse voice-and-bass arrangement prevents listeners from relegating her lyrics to the status of background noise. You are going to have to listen. She completes her brief intake of air, and as the first note is plucked on the bass guitar, she sings: “Fire in my brain/ will you make it okay/ can you make it okay?”
To someone listening to “Fire” at a different point in time, this lyric might seem maddeningly oblique. It is no stretch to imagine it on a freak-folk album recorded by an Other Music employee in 2004, with the words not meaning much at all. But in 2016, when sung by a Black woman, situated in the context of a proliferation of systemic violence against Black people, the vague symbolic referent to which Mal Devisa’s “fire in my brain” refers feels painfully clear. In July of 2016, a few months after Kiid’s initial Bandcamp release, the feeling of “worthlessness” that Mal Devisa taps into feels very far removed from the generic listlessness of other music.
On the chorus of “Fire,” Carr digs into the root notes, hard, and asks “Does it kill you to know that we’re dying?” Although most members of the musical subculture to which Mal Devisa belongs are surely sympathetic with Deja Carr’s politics, a disproportionate amount of that audience is immune to the things she is made to experience as a Black woman. The question of whether or not “it kills you to know that we’re dying” forces those whose racial identities do not subject them to police brutality to reckon with how genuinely they are affected by a social disease from which they are largely immune. How many of Mal Devisa’s sympathetic listeners are affected enough by this violence that they can honestly say “it kills [me]” without sounding hyperbolic and insincere?
In an interview with Black Weirdo, Deja Carr spoke of her desire to “sustain movements” and “effectively change places,” citing Black Lives Matter as a crucial inspiration. Mal Devisa’s deliberate use of vague figurative language may at first seem to work against these goals. Rhetorically, the decision is sound, as the ‘universal feel’ of descriptions of having one’s “back against the wall” or “running from the things I’m not” draw in a wide audience—regardless of whether or not their lived experiences are anything like Deja Carr’s. But Mal Devisa’s lyrics are at their most gripping when Carr speaks to experiences that are directly bound to her identity. When she deadpans, “I am a long shot,” atop the electric piano bedding of “Forget that I,” less than a breath goes by before she continues onto the next line. But with the declaration “I am a long shot,” she has illuminated one of the album’s harshest and most direct realities. How many listeners will internalize the full weight of this line and its implications? How many will check their privilege and contemplate what being “a long shot” really means?
On “Everybody Knows,” Carr sings “I will make a rope out of art.” When she invokes the knotty image of the rope, Mal Devisa clearly establishes the utilitarian desire to draw people in and hoist them up. Carr’s ambition to make social music suggests that Mal Devisa may have a shot at “[sustaining] movements” and “[changing] places,” in the ways she desires. Whether or not the people who hear Mal Devisa from the comfort of the Internet, or the DIY spaces of Brooklyn or Western Mass choose to grab onto that rope, pull themselves up, and engage with issues from which many of these scenes’ members are, categorically, at a remove, is up to them. Mal Devisa’s hand is outstretched.