July 31, 2012

An Interview with Nona Hendryx

Nona Hendryx has never been one to play it safe.

In fact, the avant-garde icon has spent nearly the past half-century pushing boundaries and other people's buttons; whether as a founding member of funk/soul pioneers LaBelle (“Lady Marmalade), a backing vocalist for a host of progressive artists (Talking Heads, Yoko Ono, Alice Cooper), or an innovative singer/songwriter in her own right.

On her first solo effort in 20 years and inaugural release on Righteous Babe Records, Mutatis Mutandis (Latin for “changing those things which need to be changed), Hendryx riffs on various sociopolitical ills and issues that have weighed on her mind particularly in the post-9/11 era. Boasting old-school yet urgent rhythms and brash, edgy guitars, the album's music is as fearless as its message.

You’ve always been known for being bold in your artistry and vocal in your advocacy, but were you at all reluctant about saying what you say on this album?

No, not at all. I didn’t even think about it. I was going to say, “I didn’t think twice,” but I didn’t even think once. What came out was what I was feeling and thinking and wanting to share with other people, [from] having conversations and things I’d been reading over time, and just reflecting on [matters] from the World Trade Center, 9/11 to the Iraq War, the Afghanistan War, the whole situation in the Middle East, Hurricane Katrina and how America responded to that, Barack Obama running for president, the rise of the Tea Party, the violence in America.

For all the goodwill Obama galvanized around the world and specifically in America before he was president, his election seemed to drum up the worst in some people.

He did nothing but run and campaign to be president, and that was his crime to some people, like, “How dare he have that assumption that an African American could be a leader of this country?” The racism and bigotry in America, it’s a small minority of people but they’re very vocal and very powerful. And part of their bigotry and racism is about holding onto power more so than actually hating or disliking people of color. The people who hate and dislike people of color are not the powerful. The powerful are bigots because they want to maintain control, and they use that power to stir those who have lesser power and lesser means to help support their beliefs and their bigotry.

How do you reconcile the idea that to those who share your views you’re basically speaking to the choir, but that those who don’t may not want to listen to what you have to say?

That’s part of it. That’s part of the conversation, which is why I put this out there. The conversation needs to continue; it needs to be had. I can’t change or help or try to influence change by going to the opposite corner and not coming out if there’s a disagreement. And whether they agree with me or disagree with me, the conversation needs to be had. Actions still need to be taken. We need to go back and forth and try to come to some understanding. Some of my understanding might be reshaped by engaging someone who’s coming from a different point of view. If someone is going to be so recalcitrant that they’re not going to want to hear what I have to say or what you have to say or the opposite side, then we know we have a clear problem that cannot be changed by conversation. And we’d have to find another way of doing it.

There's a song on the album called “The Ballad of Rush Limbaugh. To play devil’s advocate, one could say there’s an epidemic of people like him — you can scarcely find someone of left-leaning politics with a radio show these days — so, why did you write a song about Limbaugh in particular?

In particular, he pissed me off. What really brought that song out of me was his response to the relief effort in Haiti. I was angry and I needed to release that anger and I needed to be able to share the hypocrisy that he is with others. He is such a hypocrite, and he obviously is still addled by the drugs he’s taking that he cannot see the truth of who he is. He is so power-mad that he will do anything to maintain and even fuel his addiction for power over people who are willingly or unwillingly following him.

The thing he said about Haiti—

He equated Americans donating toward relief efforts to paying taxes, right?

Yes. It was in the wake of one of the most horrific earthquakes in a place that was already a disaster. I just thought, “How cruel and insane. He’s insane. If we lived in probably a different society he would be removed for his own protection and ours.

What was your reasoning for including “Strange Fruit” among the album’s other songs that you’d written yourself?

A couple years ago, after Barack Obama started running for president and actually won the nomination, there were these incidents of nooses being hung in different places in certain cities in America. It just brought back that painful memory of lynchings and hangings, and the students and Freedom Riders who were hung in the South. It just brought that back, and it was very painful.

There’s a synthesis of musical styles on the album, echoes of Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye and Sly and the Family Stone, but also of The Who and the Rolling Stones. Did you have any objective in making the album as far as how you wanted it to sound?

Not really so thought-out. It just really is how musically I am — where my ear goes, where my feeling goes, and how that is then interpreted. The rhythm is really important to me, also that it has strength. Guitars are really, really a big part of what I do in terms of how I am able to express myself. And then there’s warmer colors that come from the harmonies and piano. Those things are the elements that I wanted to mold together.

And whether it has the influences of some of the people who I just think are some of the greatest musicians and writers from the last 50-60 years, then it’s part of my growing up and ... because of my appreciation for what it is that they do and my love of their music. It all comes through.

All things considered, how much hope do you realistically have for the future?

I always have great hope for the future. I do believe in the world that there is more positive than negative, and that’s how the world survives. If it ever becomes overruled by negative, then it goes off into another course. Where that leads, I don’t know, other than you have more war and more death and more destruction. But I believe that there is more positive and that we, really, as human beings are evolving slowly, but evolving.