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Special Issue: America

Sounds from the South

Our First Ever Playlist

Sinkane performing. Photo credit: Alamy

BY Trevor Schoonmaker
deputy director of curatorial affairs and Patsy R and Raymond D Nasher curator of contemporary art, Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University

In Other Insights

Music has always been my guide. It has a unique capacity to both convey a sense of belonging and to transport us elsewhere. It can be intellectually provocative and emotionally stirring; politically inspiring and aesthetically alluring.

I can hear a soundtrack for an exhibition well before I can articulate the thesis in words. This is how shows begin for me—first through sounds, rhythm and feeling. Music is my first love, my primary point of reference. It is research as much as inspiration, part of the process and the final product.

Over the years I have collaborated with others to create music libraries and listening stations to act as sonic counterpoints to the visual works of art within exhibitions I have organized. When I was invited to curate the fourth edition of Prospect New Orleans—the triennial that was founded in 2008 in the wake of the destruction from Hurricane Katrina—I took a slightly different approach. For “Prospect 4: The Lotus in Spite of the Swamp”, I created an exhibition soundtrack; a collection of 77 songs by artists who have inspired me and helped me think about the triennial.

Working in the South, which is the cradle of American music, and specifically New Orleans—where music permeates everything, as much as water—curating the triennial in tune with a soundtrack in my head seemed to make perfect sense. The soundtrack does not follow a specific sequence, like a mixtape would, but can instead be played in any order desired. The songs are listed alphabetically, with only one song per artist, for ease of navigation—but feel free to approach it following your own rhythm.

The soundtrack is not meant to be a mirror to the triennial, but more a way to get a deeper reading of—and better feeling for—it. For each of the 77 songs, I have provided a short annotation, a reason why the song is included. Individually and collectively the songs in the soundtrack reinforce the scope, ethos and energy of the exhibition, teasing out transcultural connections and probing some of the critical issues and themes addressed by the visual artists within the triennial. From unifying themes, such as watery connectivity and cultural hybridity, to issues explored, which range from social justice to decolonization and environmentalism, the soundtrack covers the landscape of the South, as I felt and heard it for this edition of the triennial.


Listen to the Soundtrack

Click here to listen on Spotify

(In alphabetical order; one song per artist)

A Tribe Called Quest—We the People (2016)

Socially conscious hip-hop tackling America’s rising xenophobia and bigotry head on.

Alabama Shakes—Future People (2015)

Brittany Howard and her soulful Southern rockers get mystical and forward thinking: “You’ve got to give a little, get a little. And see it, like future people.”

Allen Toussaint—Southern Nights (1975)

“Southern Nights” is a psychedelic masterpiece with watery vocals that capture the magic of the thick, hot and humid Southern air. This New Orleans’ virtuoso songwriter passed away in November 2015.

Antibalas feat Mayra Vega—Che Che Colé (2003, original by Willie Colon)

New York’s politically active multicultural Afrobeat ensemble covers Willie Colon’s salsa hit Che Che Colé, which was a reinterpretation of a Ghanaian children’s song Kye Kye Kule.

Arcade Fire—No Cars Go (2007)

This symphonic arrangement by Canadian art rockers (two members of the band, Win Butler and Régine Chassagne, moved to New Orleans in 2014) lifts us towards a new utopia.

Bob Marley—Wake Up and Live (1979)

Rallying cry from one of the greatest protest singers, urging the masses to rise out of their complacency and band together in engaged activism.

Caetano Veloso—Tropicália (1968)

The title song of a new musical movement that reclaimed—and boldly positioned—Brazilian multiculturalism as a creative form of resistance to the brutal military dictatorship.

Chance the Rapper—First World Problems (debuted 2017 on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert before it was titled)

In today’s world, a rare statement of humility and the need to act for the greater good; for humanity, not oneself.

C K Mann & His Carousel 7—medley from album Funky Highlife (1975)

Swirling, uplifting Ghanaian highlife fitting for a house music dancefloor.

The Clash—London Calling (1979)

London’s eco-political, hellbent, apocalyptic punk anthem.

Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile—Over Everything (2017)

My daughters and I have been smitten with Barnett’s witty, wordy songwriting on her EP and first album. Teaming here with Kurt Vile, Over Everything is a drifting antidote to the maelstrom of malevolence in the world.

Cymande—Bra (1972)

British-Caribbean funk band exclaims: “But it’s alright, we can still go on.”

D’Angelo and the Vanguard—Till It’s Done (Tutu) (2014)

The Richmond, Virginia native’s falsetto blues present a spiritual searching for the answers to our planet’s ills.

David Bowie—Sound and Vision (1977)

“I will sit right down, waiting for the gift of sound and vision.” A practising fine artist himself, Bowie profoundly understood the relationship between visual and sonic expression. He tragically departed on 10 January 2016.

Dixie Cups—Iko Iko (1964)

The all-female New Orleans trio popularized the confrontations between Mardi Gras Indian tribes.

Earth, Wind & Fire—Shining Star (1975)

The ultimate band of funky positivity. “You’re a shining star. No matter who you are.” Founding bandleader Maurice White passed away on 4 February 2016.

Elizabeth Cotten—Freight Train (c.1957)

Born in Chapel Hill, North Carolina in 1895, self-taught blues/folk musician Cotten amazingly wrote this classic sometime between the age of 11 and 17.

Erykah Badu feat. Rahzel—Southern Gul (1999)

Only released as a single, this is Badu’s quirky ode to being southern.

Fats Domino—Walking to New Orleans (1960)

A love song to his native city. Fats survived Hurricane Katrina, but passed away on 24 October 2017.

Fela Kuti—Water No Get Enemy (1975)

The original Black President, political gadfly, Nigerian superstar, Pan-African spiritualist, utopian visionary and inventor of Afrobeat. So many of Fela’s radical songs could have made sense, but for New Orleans, a city built on, dependent upon and tormented by water, this seemed to resonate the strongest.

Fishbone—Everyday Sunshine (1991)

A high-energy, hard-hitting, politically-charged fusion of rock, ska, funk, punk, soul and metal. “I wish everyday the sun would shine. Take me to another place in my mind.”

Follow for Now—White Hood (1991)

Atlanta-based Fishbone-and-Public-Enemy-inspired band calling out racism. “I’m supposed to pledge allegiance to the flag and let this bullshit grow?!”

Franco & OK Jazz—Merengue (1957)

Congolese rumba guitarist and bandleader influenced by Cuban son music, named his song Merengue after the music and dance of the Dominican Republic.

Fugees—Fu-Gee-La (1996)

The Fugees, with Lauryn Hill effortlessly moving between rapping and singing, brought something new to hip-hop, making music for the African diaspora, connecting black America with Haiti, Jamaica and beyond.

Funkadelic—One Nation Under a Groove (1978)

George Clinton promised the funk. “Here’s a chance to dance our way out of our constrictions.”

G Yamazawa—North Cack (2017)

Born in Durham, North Carolina to Japanese immigrant parents, G delivers a southern hip-hop banger as an anthem for our state.

Gang Starr feat Inspectah Deck—Above the Clouds (1998)

“Above the crowds, above the clouds where the sounds are original. Infinite skills create miracles. Warrior spiritual, above the clouds raining down. Holdin’ it down.”

Gil Scott-Heron—“B” Movie (1981)

The bluesologist, jazz poet and rap progenitor was so far ahead of his time. His 1981 indictment of American politics and society, if you just change the names, reads like it was written yesterday.

Gilberto Gil—Aquele Abraço (1969)

Written between Gil’s military imprisonment and exile to Europe, this Brazilian samba is a love letter to the people of Rio de Janiero.

Gnarls Barkley—Storm Coming (2006)

Apocalyptic dance music. “There’s truth in the thunder. Love in the lightning. The feeling is frightening.”

Hugh Masekela and Ojah—Afro Beat Blues (1975)

Masekela traces the cruelty of the transatlantic slave trade and the power of music. The father of South African jazz and political dissident, who lived in exile for 30 years, died on 23 January 2018.

Ibibio Sound Machine—Give Me a Reason (2017)

Led by singer Eno Williams, this British electro-dance afro-funk music turns the tragic story of the young Nigerian girls kidnapped by Boko Haram into a song of female empowerment.

Janelle Monae—Hell You Talmbout (2015)

Blistering protest song chanting the names of black Americans killed by racial violence and police brutality.

John Lennon—Instant Karma! (1970)

Melding upotian idealism and rocker angst with his idiosyncratic wit, Lennon calls out the selfish and pleads for people to take responsibility for their actions.

Jorge Ben Jor—Africa Brasil (Zumbi) (1976)

A nod to the influence of African music in Brazil and Jor’s synthesis with American funk and rock.

Kendrick Lamar—Alright (2015)

A song of resistance and black pride adopted by the Black Lives Matter movement. “We gon’ be alright!”

Lauryn Hill—Everything is Everything (1998)

Hill sings about racial injustice in American cities but with a spiritual, hopeful message to balance life’s harsh reality. “After winter must come spring. Change, it comes eventually.”

Lee Dorsey—Everything I Do Gonh be Funky (From Now On) (1969)

Dorsey’s classic version of Allen Toussaint’s song epitomizes the ethos of New Orleans.

Lijadu Sisters—Orere Elejigbo (1984)

The twin Yoruba sisters sing about the “trouble in the streets” caused by the Nigerian government and police force who should be protecting its people instead of attacking them. Sound familiar?

Mahalia Jackson—Amazing Grace (1976)

The New Orleans born Queen of Gospel made the famous hymn hers, originally written in 1779 by a repenting English slave trader turned clergyman.

MIA—Bamboo Banga (2007)

A melding of musical styles and cultural influences to make hybrid dance music for the global south by this British artist of Sri Lankan Tamil origin.

Mac McCaughan—Happy New Year (Prince Can’t Die Again) (2016)

North Carolina based Superchunk’s frontman looks back at the disaster that was 2016, searching for a bright spot in 2017.

Meters—Soul Island (1972)

The entire lyrics to this song by New Orleans funk masters consist of two words, “Soul Island”. Perfection.

Miriam Makeba—Pata Pata (1967)

Mama Africa and outspoken civil rights activist’s classic South African dance hit.

Mos Def—Umi Says (1999)

A heartfelt confessional of black liberation from Mighty Mos’ magnificent Black on Both Sides: “Put my heart and soul into this song. I hope you feel me, from where I am, to wherever you are. I mean that sincerely.”

Nas feat Lauryn Hill—If I Ruled the World (Imagine That) (1996)

Lifted by Hill’s hypnotic chorus, Nas tells us what heaven on earth would be if he were in charge, free of systemic racism, poverty and violence: “The way to be, paradise like relaxin’, black, Latino and Anglo-Saxon.”

Outkast—Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik (1994)

Universal cool in the P-Funk lineage delivered in a Southern drawl with specific Southern references. This was a hip-hop game-changer from the Atlanta duo. In Andre 3000’s infamous words: “The South got somethin’ to say!”

Pharoah Sanders—Love is Everywhere (1974)

A buoyant song with a simple, but powerful, message from the otherworldly jazz saxophonist.

Pixies—Monkey Gone to Heaven (1989)

A brilliantly acidic reflection of man’s place in the universe and our destruction of the natural environment from the alternative rock pioneers.

Prince—1999 (1982)

If Prince suggests joyously dancing and partying as the way to face the end of the world then who are we to argue. Prince Rogers Nelson shockingly left the earthly realm on 21 April 2016.

Professor Longhair—Go to the Mardi Gras (1959)

An irresistible song about black Mardi Gras by the beloved New Orleans pianist and singer.

Public Enemy—Bring the Noise (1987)

PE’s Bomb Squad delivered a wall of funky, industrial sound for Chuck D’s strident lyrics to bounce off. And the song namechecks Prospect.4 artist Yoko Ono.

Queen and David Bowie—Under Pressure (1982)

A masterful collaboration between Bowie and Freddie Mercury that has felt ever more poignant in recent years. Every line, every note is stirringly soulful. “Sat on a fence, but it don’t work. Keep coming up with love, but it’s so slashed and torn.”

Quintron and Miss Pussycat—Waterfall (2008)

Prospect.4 artists and New Orleans fixtures Quintron and Miss P tear up the dance floor with their sweaty, psychedelic, organ-and-puppet-driven swamp tech.

REM—Can’t Get There From Here (1985)

REM is America’s greatest Southern Rock band, though its music is never described as such. Can’t Get There From Here indicates the path forward is indirect and complicated. The problem unsolvable. These lyrics indecipherable. An apt metaphor for the times we live in.

Sam Cooke—A Change is Gonna Come (1964)

Cooke’s risky foray into political music was a brilliant stroke, which became the anthem of Civil Rights movement and is an enduring message of hope.

Santigold—Banshee (2016)

A blazing track of brash, off-kilter delight.

Shabazz Palaces—Shine a Light (2017)

Eccentric, esoteric and gorgeous. “Shine a light on the fake. This way my peeps can have it all.”

Sinkane—U’Huh (2016)

Sudanese-American sings “We’re all gonna be alright” in Arabic as well as English over upbeat notes of Afrobeat and Ethiopian jazz.

Soul II Soul—Keep on Moving (1989)

Soul II Soul made the US pay attention to Black British soul. I for one was enthralled. Their sound, their look—and even the title of this song—spoke to the African diaspora.

Soul Rebels—Drink a Little Poison (4 U Die) (2010)

This song by the funky New Orleans brass band embodies the way the city celebrates life in a way like no other.

Staple Singers—Slippery People (1984)

The Staple Singers bring R&B and Gospel inflection to their rousing cover of this Talking Heads song, with David Byrne on guitar. “God help us, help us loose our minds. These slippery people, help us understand.”

Stevie Wonder—Living for the City (1973)

Stevie takes on systemic racism and the harsh reality of being black in America in this narrative tale from Mississippi to New York.

Super Grupo Colombia—Cumbia de las Flores (1997)

This is a cumbia of flowers, their natural beauty a symbol of freedom. This song is directly connected to Prospect.4 artist Maria Berrio, particularly her work Wildflowers.

Talking Heads—Once in a Lifetime (1980)

Co-written with Brian Eno and deeply influenced by the polyrhythmic Afrobeat music of Fela Kuti. “Letting the days go by, let the water hold me down. Letting the days go by, water flowing underground.”

The Temptations—Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World is Today) (1970)

Same in 1970 as today. “Ball of confusion that’s what the world is today. Fear in the air, tension everywhere… and the band played on.”

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers—American Girl (1976)

“Well, she was an American girl, raised on promises. She couldn’t help thinkin’ that there was a little more to life somewhere else.” Nuff said. Tom Petty passed away 2 October 2017.

Toots & the Maytals—Pressure Drop (1970)

Toots Hibbert wrote this song after unjustly being imprisoned for a year in Jamaica. It’s an up-tempo reggae song about karma for bad deeds coming back to get you: “Pressure’s gonna drop on you.”

Toto la Momposina—Mohana (1989)

This song tells the Colombian legend of Mohana. Like the African Mami Wata, she is a supernatural being, half-fish and half-woman, a shapeshifting spirit of the water.

Tune-Yards—Water Fountain (2014)

While Merrill Garbus’s references are eclectic and indirect, it’s ultimately a song about the inequity of American socioeconomics and what would happen if people with means didn’t pay taxes to support the greater good. “No water in the water fountain. No side in the sidewalk.”

2Pac—Changes (1998)

Tupac Shakur’s social message on racism, poverty and injustice.

U-Roy—Natty Rebel (1976)

The Jamaican toasting pioneer’s interpretation of Bob Marley’s Soul Rebel. “I’m a rebel, soul rebel. I’m a capturer, soul adventurer.”

Valerie June—You Can’t be Told (2013)

Tennessee native, singer-songwriter June enchantingly blurs the lines between blues, folk and soul.

The Wild Tchoupitoulas—Indian Red (1976)

Traditional Mardi Gras Indian song from this uptown tribe, with help from the Meters and the young Neville Brothers, and produced by Allen Toussaint. It is a song of defiance and resistance. “We won’t kneel down, not on the ground. Oh, how I love to hear them call my Indian Red.”

William Onyeabor—Body and Soul (1980)

A message from the Nigerian synth-funk pioneer: “If you find yourself in trouble, you better come and dance your troubles away.” William Onyeabor passed away on 16 January, 2017.

Willie Williams—Armagideon Time (1978)

“A lotta people won’t get no justice tonight. So a lotta people going to have to stand up and fight.”

Yoko Ono—Have You Seen Horizon Lately (1973)

This Prospect.4 artist’s sublime song from Approximately Infinite Universe originated as a text work first created as a postcard performance project in 1967.

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