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Blacker Face is a Challenging Project, and That’s the Point | Feature Interview

Blacker Face   (from left to right): Louis Clark (keys), Isaac Nicholas (guitar), Jolene Whatevr (vocals/songwriter), Noah Jones (drums), PT Bell (bass, backing vocals). Photo credit Egon Schiele.

Blacker Face (from left to right): Louis Clark (keys), Isaac Nicholas (guitar), Jolene Whatevr (vocals/songwriter), Noah Jones (drums), PT Bell (bass, backing vocals). Photo credit Egon Schiele.

by Glennon Curran

A contributing writer to a major music publication recently criticized Blacker Face’s choice of band name in a public forum, and admittedly did so without diving into their music or videos. The writer, a person of color, highlighted the fact that 3/5 of the band is white. He took aim at the perceived impropriety of the band name given the racial make-up of its members. Blacker Face reposted the comment online, and a dialogue began. To his credit, the original commenter ended up having a constructive telephone conversation with co-founding member PT Bell (bass, backing vocals). But not before other people, some of whom were artists of color themselves, also chimed in on the thread to criticize the band name. Co-Founding member Jolene Whatevr (vocalist, song-writer) expressed her disappointment with the whole ordeal:

“People just assumed there was no intentionality in the band name. I named the band. I chose to have white members.”

This reaction to the band name, while perhaps disappointing, is not unusual—nor does the band claim surprise. They admit that the band name was chosen to be evocative. Bell smirkingly recalls one of the band’s now abandoned tactics at shows: “for a while… we would just send in the white members to announce that they are Blacker Face…” “There’s a reason that there are three white people in Blacker Face,” Whatevr says. “I want white boys to feel weird seeing that happen. I want them to notice race, and the way to notice race is to have it in your face like that. If it was just a bunch of black people on stage, I don’t think that white people would engage with it in the same way.” 

The band’s name, live performances, and music are a disorienting ideological pipe bomb intended to expose the biases of people who find themselves uncomfortable with the message. Evocative work forces people to make presumptions about the project, and those presumptions have a tendency to expose the very biases that Blacker Face seeks to challenge. This dynamic is Blacker Face’s modus operandi, and it is enshrined like an artist statement into the lyrics of their song “Badu” (Mississippi Goddam, 2017):

They got the power
We are the bombs
They getta shaken
We make em afraid to leave their homes
This divisive language might lead to awkward conversations
making folks uncomfortable is how change is generated

“There is intentional boundary pushing,” says Whatevr. “It’s in the music, it’s in the banter, it’s in the band name… we want people to be uncomfortable… you need to be uncomfortable if we’re going to deal with any fucking thing…” But Blacker Face are not merely agents provocateurs. Whether online, at shows, or in your headphones, they are in a state of perpetual revolt against a historically unequal society and, significantly, are coming to prominence during a particularly ahistorical moment. 

The Blacker Face project is steeped in a palpable ontology. In no uncertain terms their message draws on the richness of radical Black and radical egalitarian traditions: Frantz Fannon, Bell Hooks, Angela Davis, MLK, Audre Lorde, Marx, Black Lives Matter...  and dozens of other names that Whatevr and Bell will rattle off the tops of their heads. They are a very well-read group, and a familiarity with these traditions goes a long way towards understanding what Blacker Face is trying to accomplish. With the motive force of these intellectual traditions at her back, Whatevr channels the personal as political into songs about her lived experience in a hostile world. To experience Blacker Face is not only to undergo a reckoning with the ideas of deeply-seeded radical traditions, but it is to do so by coming face-to-face with the exceptional talent that is Jolene Whatevr.  

A Blacker Face performance is an artistic confrontation; a kind of propaganda by the deed that opens the social seams of a performance space into something more democratic. A space where ideas can be illuminated and challenged. It is rare for music today to create a truly authentic political space, and it’s really something to behold when it happens. On a good night, a Blacker Face performance can take on characteristics of performance art and—on a really good night—characteristics of protest. The on-stage metamorphosis of Whatevr into a firebrand orator is both a cathartic expression of her humanity, and an intoxicating invocation of centuries of repressed rage. “That sort of existential authenticity is crucial in aiming to pull off what we want to pull off,” says Bell. 

Whatevr confronts the audience, heckling “white boys,” taking aim at “privilege,” and making jokes that identify power imbalances with brutal honesty—including the actually existing power imbalances of that very room. People react very differently to this stimulus. An understanding audience member will recognize that there is historical and social meaning in Whatevr’s frustration; and beauty in its artistic expression. But not everyone is open to soaking up the visceral presentation of this uncomfortable truth as enlightenment. Sometimes, the performance can become a political litmus test for the audience; one where the insinuation of complicity in Whatevr’s subjugation makes people uncomfortable enough to push back.  

“I have been called racist by so many fucking white dudes,” Whatevr explains. “One time a guy… started pushing up against me yelling ‘peace and love!’ in my face, all up on me. We’ve had some weird shit happen... People get fucking aggressive. I’ve had more than a few white boys go off. ‘Why you calling me a white boy?’ Because you are a white-boy; you call me a black-girl all the time.” Drummer Noah Jones recalls “a time in Cleveland Jo[lene] made a comment about how people disrespect… others out of demonizing crackheads… The venue had a sign that said don’t feed the crack heads… Jo[lene] brought up how it is a racially loaded term and also how it’s not good to not feed people… and a guy got really mad about that and got into it with Jo[lene] after the show.” Bell thoughtfully notes that “Politics is just people being in proximity to one another.”  

Photo credit Hillary Turner

Photo credit Hillary Turner

Blacker Face’s high-minded musical arrangements are equally hell-bent on pushing boundaries. “It’s hard to say where it starts exactly,” says guitarist Isaac Nicholas about the group’s writing process. The 5-piece creates meticulously orchestrated chaos drawing on punk, jazz, gospel, R&B, and noise. The end result is some kind of carnivalesque punk rock R&B, or a mangled gospel operatic rock thing. Each member is a remarkable musician in their own right, contributing to the spectacular hyper-cube arrangement that envelops Whatevr’s serpentine melodies. Every good band has a great drummer, and the fluidity and rhythmic synthesis provided by Noah Jones is essential to keeping it all together, and having this complex thing make sense. Without it, the abrasive style of Bell’s bass-playing and the science-like mathiness of Nicholas’ guitar could go flying off the rails. On the keys, Louis Clark’s instinct for melodic macro-structure links with the drums, solidifying a musical foundation to contain the frantic movement of the strings. The dynamics are just as unique, utilizing the sonic contrast between jarring sparseness and overwhelming density. And then, out of the blue, they’ll knock you upside the head with a hook. Whatevr shines brightly in these moments, when the melody emerges omnipotently above the darkness as if to dissolve it with light. This display of grace often comes in spurts, only to be torn down moments later in some calculated exhibition of power and hostility. 

Blacker Face is reminiscent of other bands that made their name by defying genre and experimenting with sound. Progressive projects like Mr. Bungle, Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, and Tune Yards come to mind. Like those projects, Whatevr uses her voice more like an instrument than typical vocalists. She has serious gospel chops from years as a church and choir singer. But as often as she’ll hit the highs or belt a hook, she’ll coil and squeeze her voice into squeals, bellows, and groans. The aforementioned projects are good points of comparison in terms of form, but they lack the concentrated political intentionality that Blacker Face injects into its music. 

Perhaps the most appropriate comparison considering all variables are Chicago Noise-Art legends, ONO. Given the radical, political, and racial nature of ONO’s message—and their progressive trail blazing in the Windy City— it should come as no surprise that they are a direct influence on Blacker Face. Whatevr recalls that “seeing black punk bands when I was younger is the reason I am on stage now. Seeing ONO when I was fucking like 15 is definitely the reason that I play music now, and I think that ONO, because of that, did create Blacker Face.” “ONO is a great touchstone,” adds Bell, “their work is really novel, and alien, and transgressive, and it’s some of the closest shit to new work that I can think of. But the thing that strikes me about their work most immediately, or that’s most present with me always, is that they are so historically responsible. They have such a vast wealth of knowledge about the culture in which their ideas inhere, and about where they as human people come from; what their own genealogies are, and how those are seated in the history of this nation, and the history of capital, and race relations, and slavery, and so on and so forth.” 

ONO are contemporaries of Blacker Face in the Chicago music community, and they hold Blacker Face in similarly high regards. When asked about Blacker Face, ONO’s P. Michael stated that their “sound is not easy to trace to anything else going on in this place or this time... but there are historical touchstones that are wrapped up in a brand-new bag... When you hear their sound, and Jolene’s voice, you know to whom you are listening. There is no voice like that out there anywhere. It’s opera funk blues super-lungs.” And as if to address any naysayers (like the writer discussed earlier), P. Michael asserts that Blacker Face is “very political and well versed in the black experience, bold and unafraid to push and draw outside the lines.” Further, he links Blacker Face to the seriousness of his own project by assuring that “there will be no cartoon buffoonery, coonery, chicanery, or shenanigans for either band, ever.” ONO vocalist Travis agrees, stating that Blacker Face is ultimately a marriage of “politics” and “Blackness.” In typical poetic fashion, Travis also stated that they are a “band of Black-bated White dates and Blacker solidarity,” and that “They Black and Sassy. Even the White ones devil black; Blacker Face. Where at?  Half-an-hour entertainment in fire. Night of flaming power.”

Blacker Face’s 2018 LP Think Piece is currently the best introduction to their myriad complexities and points of interest, and is a milestone of recent Chicago DIY albums. “Think Piece is a response to the anxieties that happened between 2016 [i.e., when Trump was elected] and when we recorded it,” says Whatevr. “Straight up fear. My anxiety getting way fucking worse and also having to live in a world where a bunch of my friends were more in danger.” Bell adds that the album explores “future solipsistic trends” and the “a-history of the current political climate.” “Sometimes it’s sex” quips Clark, “there are definitely a few songs about sex.” 

When all of the layers of Blacker Face are taken together, there are flashes of a bigger picture; roots of a more comprehensive and possibly conceptual trajectory. All of the pieces—the ideological gravitas, Whatevr’s insightful outpouring, the performance art, and the experimentalism —combine into a budding, as-of-yet fully articulated mythology of sorts. “Afrofuturism” is a word that the band is careful not to adopt outright out of respect to the weight of its meaning and the work of other more accomplished artists in the genre. They are, however, keenly aware that they gravitate in that direction, and cannot help but betray an excitement at such a pathway when it is brought up. They point out that the last track on Think Piece (“Wadly”) has Afrofuturist leanings with its symbolism of AI, dystopia, and post-racial conflicts. Myth-making is a concept they talk about freely in relation to the references, iconography, and sigilcraft of their existing semantic and visual presentations. For example, the liner notes of Think Piece are full of bizarre references to technology and a smattering of data, facts, and information—not all of which are true. The foundations for an Afrofuturist turn are within Blacker Face. The dystopian mass-propaganda. The unwitting consumption of AI generated techno-babble served up by a vanguard class of race warriors emerging from the ashes of a crumbling capitalist society. “I guess it depends on what we do with it from here on out, and how well we shore up the clarity-of-presentation,” says Bell. “I don't know if we're consistently responsible yet. We're still figuring out how to balance jobs, music, activism, and self-care.” 

Regardless of any criticisms about their provocative presentation, it is clear that Blacker Face are thoughtful, intentional, and historically knowledgeable artists. Responsibility is important to them. If they are making people think, and making them uncomfortable, and making them grapple with issues like race, and speech, and the boundaries of expression—then they are achieving what they have set out to do. They are a challenging project, and that’s the point. Trying to articulate the dynamics of the project challenges even its own members, and that’s a very magnetic thing to be around. There are not a lot of bands that have that depth of meaning, or that promise of continued development.   

There is a lot to look forward to with this young group. They have already proven themselves as one of the most interesting projects in Chicago, and their unwavering political identity is a breath of fresh air given the political moment. Whatever the future holds, they are taking it very seriously, and they are purposefully setting the bar very high for themselves. Each member radiates with a sense of purpose when talking about the band and what comes next. Whatevr concludes with a parting thought: “I would like to say as the person in Blacker Face that has been arrested the most times, that I have no comment on what we did to Jeff Bezos or Amazon… that’s all I gotta say.” 

Blacker Face is currently mixing a new LP. Their next show is on April 25th at Sleeping Village in Chicago with Guerilla Toss and Good Willsmith.