By Jaelani Turner-Williams
As creatives face restlessness and scheduling adjustments during the COVID-19 pandemic, Los Angeles-based artist Pink Siifu kept the release date of his new album, Negro (styled in all caps), fixed to a time that’s dearest to him — his mother’s birthday. Its promotion goes hand-in-hand with the diaristic format of the album’s website, through which he introduces a melting pot of visuals, links to samples on Negro from intimate voice memos by family members, a clip from 1969 crime film A Spook Who Sat by the Door, and never-before-seen photos of his family. The collage-like nature of the album may also tie into Siifu’s upbringing. Born Livingston Matthews in Birmingham, Alabama — home of Black revolutionaries Sun Ra, Angela Davis, and Eddie Kendricks, who inspired many of the political themes behind his work — Siifu has lived in a multitude of environments, from Cincinnati to New York, but has called L.A. home for the greater part of the last decade.
At its core, Negro is a collision course of Black punk experimentation, intersecting between jazz and rap. It's a gripping listen: The album revolves around Black anguish, as Siifu raps about police corruption and community rage, with appearances by singer Nick Hakim, producer Ted Kamal, and rapper-actor-skater Na-Kel Smith, of Mid90s fame. Siifu recently told MTV News he even considered having a Negro exhibit curated by HBO’s Random Acts of Flyness creator Terence Nance.
“[Nance is] the OG big homie. [He has] one of the most beautiful minds,” he said. “I want to meet architects, because I want to build some shit [and] I’ll probably have two acts open up, but it’s gonna be jazz and experimental acts. I want Negro to be an experience in full-form.”
While Siifu’s catalog centers on traditionally Black sounds, his resort to punk music is more confrontational. He dabbled in the genre on his EP fuck(demo}, four tracks of which also appear on Negro, and credits a former girlfriend with introducing him to Black punk band Bad Brains. Siifu soon broadened his musical rotation to enhance his stage presence, listening to hardcore punk band Show Me the Body, former Standing on the Corner member Slauson Malone, and radical Black Arts Movement poet Amiri Baraka. “If you come to my shows, I’ll be screaming. There are certain songs that don’t sound like that on record, but that’s just my energy [when I’m] live sometimes,” Siifu said, noting his love for the polarizing, prophetic speech about the uplifting of Black liberation, “It’s Nation Time” by Baraka, who frequently collaborated with the Afrofuturist musician Sun Ra.
“I treated this album like I was tapping into some Arkestra shit. I know I can never get on Sun Ra’s level, but let me tap into what he was on. I didn’t drink, didn’t smoke, didn’t fuck, and just made this album. [Negro] needed to be conversational because Black frustration needs to be heard. It’s OK to be angry. There’s a lot of stuff going on. This album is controlled chaos.”
Siifu is still learning to pace himself. He’s created under various aliases — from his solo projects to B. Cool-Aid, a collaborative project with producer Ahwlee, and his own productions under the moniker Iiye. This time, Negro had to be a multimedia release. “I feel like people think Negro is about to be like [my 2018 album] Ensley, and [they’re] going to understand that I’m not that type of artist. I’m probably never going to make the same album twice,” Siifu said. “I’m making rap albums with my homies, but I don’t know when I’m ever going to make another solo rap album. I love gumbo. I like when shit is mixed.”
Siifu, who’s growing accustomed to performing live as an independent artist, hasn’t contemplated doing a full-fledged tour once stay-at-home measures are lifted. He’d rather perform for a window of time, something that he says is “gonna be on some gallery shit,” potentially previewed by the design of the Negro website. Siifu wouldn’t be alone in transforming Negro into performative art, taking a cue from Black artists like Solange, who collaborated with Nance for her accompanying When I Get Home art film. Negro fits within that framework; Siifu has his sights on collaborating with likeminded artists, regardless of distance. He’s staying connected with his “new Soulquarian” collective of other lo-fi rap acts, including Earl Sweatshirt, Mavi, Liv.e, and Mike." And Siifu admits to using the quarantine to reflect on his process.
“Everybody’s really taking this time to get right within themselves, but we all tap in like, ‘Are you good? Are you home? You got food? Alright, cool.’ We’re so spread out, [we’re all like] ‘Just stay in the house, we’ll see y'all when this shit over,’” he said. “I have a documentary to go with the album and I can’t finish it [yet] because of this shit. N----s adapt, [so we] just gotta create and push through the turmoil, regardless. I feel like Black people just push through, on God.”
While Siifu admires the mystery and social-media aloofness of Flying Lotus, he also appreciates how he opened up and hosted a mini Q&A on Twitter last year to promote Flamagra. Siifu, whose social pages are similarly remote, still prefers to have an occasional interview to get his meaning across, much like his track-by-track conversation on his 2018 album Ensley. Siifu’s creative process is entirely grassroots, and he extends appreciation for music platform Bandcamp, which recently waived its revenue shares for a day so artists could receive 100 percent of sales, which Siifu hopes will continue.
“If streaming [services] paid n----s like Bandcamp [does], we’d be outta here. Independent artists would be so good. Bandcamp keeps food in my fridge. [There were] times where I was broke, and all my money was coming from Bandcamp. It was like $20 a week, and I needed that.”
Siifu said he’s currently listening to Jay Electronica’s long-awaited debut A Written Testimony, and he relays a similar message on his love for Allah and Black culture on Negro, hoping that listeners embark on a revolution of their own. “There is a frustration [within] my people, but I want [them] to give thanks and praise whoever is your most high,” he said. “Anything in your life that you feel is evil, just try to balance that shit.”