Angela Johnson’s six solo albums may credit her roles as being that of a writer, producer, arranger, multi-instrumentalist & performer but first and foremost Angela’s biggest role in life is as a mum (or mom). And it’s from the point of view of being a mum, a black woman bringing up a black life in America today, that Angela has approached the making of her new album Naturally Me (On Purpose Music in the US, and Dome Records in the UK)- her most political and personal to date.
“With our black children we have to tell them of the reality, to show them the way things are in the world early on because there are many things in the black community, especially here in the United States, that are not fair to us (as a people).” Explains Angela; on the phone - just passed tea time - from her home in New Jersey. “So we have to prepare and nurture our children. Because of this, this album and a song like Black Boy Lullaby, was probably the most challenging to write yet. But in another way it was also easy, because all of the anger and frustration that I had inside of me … it just began to flow.”
Whilst Black Boy Lullaby is a cautionary tale, it’s also a song of strength, determination and hope, that despite serving a stark warning to an imagined son (Angela has a daughter) literally builds to a chorus of love, with the word repeated until the songs very end. It’s also, possibly, Johnson’s finest piece of music yet. An important message, delivered at a time when America’s racial tensions are lodged firmly at code red. In the aftermath of the Michael Brown & Eric Garner killings, the former in Ferguson, Missouri when an unarmed man was gunned down whilst holding his hands up, and the latter closer to Angela’s home on the east coast, which saw an innocent man die from being wrestled to the ground by an NY policeman’s chokehold. “I’ve seen my husband (Russell Johnson, the co-owner of Purpose) pulled over by police, my two brothers as well. It’s a very common thing in the black community,” States Angela, adding: “We are constantly harassed by police for no reason. We are stereotyped into this one view of how we are as a people but yet our culture is so diverse, and it’s not just black folks but also Hispanic brothers and sisters, and we are all viewed in a different way (to white people). It’s truly a gift to be on this earth, to be living and to be loving and to share that with other people but when someone can just take all of that away from you in an instant … I cannot fathom the amount of pain that people like Trayvon Martin’s parents have gone through.”
A moment of sequencing bliss has the next song, a cover of Teena Marie’s Déja Vu (I’ve Been Here Before) - with a beautiful string arrangement by Angela – follow like the sunshine after the rain. Before then being succeeded by the stomping soul single I Don’t Mind, with its Hi-Records style throb. The whole album flows in this fashion, Angela augmenting her own one-woman-band playing by bringing in folks like guitar players Wes Mingus & Raul Mídon (on the witty M.O.N.E.Y.)
“This is the record that I always wanted to make, which is why I incorporated so much live music, because it’s the kind of music that makes me happy - that vibe of the 60’s and 70’s, right through funk to the electronics of the early eighties. I really had to push, push and push until I finally got the live sound that I wanted, but now I’ve got it I want to make more records like it for many years. I feel that if I was to leave the world tomorrow this would be my masterpiece.” Big words Johnson ... big words. But actions speak louder than words as the album centre-suite, the transcendental Music Is My Religion proves, a rarity amongst Angela’s work as it’s entirely instrumental. “As a producer I thought it would be cool to combine two genres together: Gospel - which is the foot stomping, hand clapping traditional thing - and Afrobeat, because (aesthetically) they are so close in relationship to each other. Starting off with the handclaps, and the drums, before Wes (Mingus), who’s such a fabulous guitarist, comes in and brings some o’ that ol’ sowwwll and good feelin’ music, you know?” Angela laughs. “Then the percussion is doing its thing, and the horns, and it all comes together – all as one.” Angela draws breath for a moment. It was kinda like that moment in Philadelphia when Tom Hanks is breaking down opera.
“Sometimes it’s accidental,” confesses Angela, humbly. “It’s just me being a vessel and letting it flow through. We all have something within us and if were able to tap into that then, oh my gosh, the world is our oyster.”
Then the album was done, turned in, finito bonito. Which Angela admits is always difficult, because she never really feels totally finished with an album. Always wanting to re-write, always tinkering. “Yep, I had to accept it.” She says with a touch of reluctance, like (husband, manager and label boss) Russell attempted to take the master from her, whilst she was still gripping it tightly. “But you know, once you’ve done the five hour photo shoot and the finished album is in your hand, it’s just an overwhelming feeling, like it all came together. I know I put my blood, sweat and tears into this project, and I know I produced the best of me.”
Unveiling the music to the public for the first time, as Angela did at New York’s famed Blue Note music venue, is also a little nerve racking. “Taking more of a political stance than I have in the past, I was nervous … sure I admit it. Because I’m letting them inside more, letting the audience know more of what’s on my mind.”
She needn’t have worried; Black Boy Lullaby immediately touched a nerve.
“There were tears – you’re talking about an audience who may have experience of the issue, and known a young man that has died (*due to police brutality). Even a woman from Scandinavia came up to me after the show. She didn’t understand the words but felt the emotion, and explained how it made her think of her son in the forces, and the worry that there was nothing she could do about it – that shared feeling as a mother.” Angela continues:
“Music is universal, music is my religion and it can reach anyone. It doesn’t start any wars, it doesn’t separate us – but it can bring us all together. Black Boy Lullaby is something that everyone can relate to in one way or another.”