“If a mountain has to erupt, it’s going to erupt,” so says musician Esperanza Spalding. These are not lyrics from her progressive 2016 single “Good Lava”; she is, however, speaking of unleashing the molten abandon of her inner self to give birth to her critically acclaimed 2016 album, Emily’s D+Evolution, as well as of America’s imminent social upheaval, with the dawn of a Trump administration mere days away.
The bassist, vocalist and composer has moved beyond being a music prodigy and jazz darling. Today, through her artistry and her astute cultural observation, she is using trepidation as a tool of self-discovery and unity. She will reinforce said method during a performance at the Peace Ball in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 19, alongside fellow provocateur attendees including Solange, Sonia Sanchez and Angela Davis.
“I don’t believe in setting aside fears,” Spalding told The Root. “You turn it into something that’s busy and moves you forward. You can’t say, ‘Hey, fear, get out of here!’ It’s not like that. It’s for us to use. You can inform and you can work it to your preference.”
Spalding, a Berklee College of Music grad and four-time Grammy winner, has amassed a pristine reputation through her soulful bass playing, open and soaring vocals, and dynamic approach to album-making. She followed the chart-topping success of 2012’s R&B-jazz hybrid Radio Music Society with an ambitious rock-funk campaign via Emily’s D+Evolution last March. Although its lengthy accompanying world tour—utilizing theatrical performances and staging techniques—finally ended, Spalding confessed that there was still much left undiscovered ... and that’s sort of the idea.
“There’s not a point on the horizon that you can point to say, ‘I’m done,’” Spalding explained. “That’s the method of evolving; it’s a constant breaking down and rebuilding, rebuilding and breaking down.” While some artists adopt an alter ego onstage or while recording as a way of exploring new territory (e.g., Beyoncé’s Sasha Fierce and David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust), for Spalding, using Emily (her middle name) as her avatar was far more personal and a less heavy lift. “For me, having Emily as a fresh character to explore with was a release; it wasn’t taxing. To me, she’s like the dormant experimenter inside of everybody. She was definitely dormant inside of me but very present and, in a way, active.”
With the cycle of her last project finished, Spalding is already looking ahead to finding new ways to use her music to bring people together and combat America’s (d)evolution via pandemic complacency, especially when it comes to civilian political participation.
“Let’s be real,” she expounds. “As long as we have Empire, organic apples, the shoes we want, some heat and some warm water in the morning, it’s kind of easy to just go along and yell when it’s time to post something on Facebook or sign a petition, and forget what it feels like to be engaged in the political process of being a member of a representative democracy.”
Bringing it back to the eruption metaphor, Spalding contends that we as Americans must be ready to acutely tune in and focus on the details of those representatives, since the problems that many anticipate are coming won’t be so easily recognizable. She says:
First of all, prepare yourself for a tepid eruption. That’s harder to combat than an obvious explosion. So, just prepare yourself. You have to watch all the little sides to see where there’s smoke and ooze, because they’re not dummies. Maybe Trump, he could be a dummy, but the guys he brought in, the House, the Senate, are very coy politicians, and it’s in their best interests not to blow everything up. If they do that, that would activate protest, pushback and mobilization. It’s really hard to focus on and mobilize around something that is not urgent and isn’t loud.
Her first steps will take place at the Peace Ball: Voices of Hope and Resistance, on the eve of the presidential inauguration, at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in D.C. The ball was created in 2009 as a celebration of President Barack Obama’s election, and returned in 2013 with his re-election. Although it is billed as an “alternative inauguration event” this year, Spalding doesn’t see it as “an anti-Trump event” but, rather, as more of an opportunity to celebrate in the midst of weariness.
“It’s about the co-existence of another equally present set of values than what perhaps Trump is embodying with his platform,” she expressed. “Part of the ball is acknowledging, yes, he’s our president, and yes, we’re still ‘We the People,’ and we tonight are celebrating cultural diversity and freedom to express yourself through your cultural identity or sexual orientation. All classes and creeds are welcome here.”
Beyond the Peace Ball, Spalding plans to resume her next music project, which will explore the idea of walls, how they’re used to separate people and how they ought to be used to bring people together. “I’ve been doing research, and I’ll continue to do so over the year and work with people in the field of biology and music therapy to understand the tools in front of us, what are the emotional tools we all have access to for free, and how can they be moved through art to get everybody access to the tools that allow us to connect with each other so we can feel less on the defensive, which is a really exhausting and depleting state to be in.”
Although Spalding’s continuing quest is for her art to provoke intellectual curiosity and to challenge listeners’ individual inhibitions, she has had a tendency to meld her powerful message through infectious rhythms and inspirational melodies. However, she’s unequivocally opposed to defining her music as a diversion from unrest. “What we’re stuck in right now is the aftermath of one of the greatest shell games in political history.,” she said. “That was a diversion; a diversion from ourselves, others, our own power and ability to affect what happens in the political playing field of our country.”
Just as Emily’s deft climax “Funk the Fear” stemmed from the use of fear as a weapon against itself in order to make boundless music, Spalding believes that all people must allow art to assist with lowering their defenses, making for bonding experiences crucial to human evolution.
“That’s too tall of an order for most people day to day, to ask them, ‘Hey, fuck acting! Let’s just engage with each other face-to-face, human to human,” Spalding exclaimed. “That’s too tall of an order for most people, because we’ve endured so much suffering, so much trauma—cultural trauma, historical trauma, the everyday trauma of just being a minority or an immigrant. There’s a lot that we have to defend ourselves against.” It seems that Spalding is up to the task of helping initiate America’s much-needed healing phase.