The folk singer-songwriter’s latest album continues a dark, deep, and intelligent sonic progression growing in popularity and critical acclaim
Providence, Rhode Island-based singer-songwriter Jake Blount spent COVID-19’s quarantine evolving into the unwitting face and hands of Afrofuturism’s banjo-strumming past, present, and future.
2020 saw him working as the Strathmore’s Institute for Artistic and Professional Development’s Artist in Residency, winning the Steve Martin Banjo Prize, releasing a critically-acclaimed debut album, and appearing on numerous “Best of 2020” lists.
“I’m much more than ‘the new banjo guy,'” jokes Blount about his success. “I want to make it very clear that I represent more than that.”
For the artist, his September 23-released album “The New Faith” finds him expanding the depth and scope of the meaning of “Afrofuturism” in the modern era.
In a 1994 essay entitled “Black To The Future,” researcher Mark Dery defined Afrofuturism as a “speculative fiction that treats African American themes and addresses African American concerns in the context of the twentieth-century technoculture — and, more generally, African American signification that appropriates images of technology and a prosthetically enhanced future.”
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Three decades later, Blount speaks to the concept as a “cool, expansive space” where artists as diverse as Janelle Monae, Parliament-Funkadelic, Allison Russell, and himself can offer unique perspectives. For Blount, “The New Faith” found him entrenching Afrofuturism deeper in the 18th and 19th-century roots of Black music and religion.
“Digging deeper into the full repertoire of the Black folk tradition and how Black people have always made music in dire circumstances was my inspiration,” Blount says. “Since I picked up the banjo a decade ago, I have slowly been welcomed into the folk tradition,” he adds.
“Moreover, as far as religion, being a gay Black man, I felt there was no room for me there because the Black church — even though we’re oftentimes leading the music — isn’t always super-welcoming to people like me.”
He considers it a “great honor” that because his album will be released via Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, it will share lineage with the work of the Black female supergroup Our Native Daughters, plus be included in Smithsonian Folkways’ African American Legacy Series.
In 2019, Russell paired with fellow Black female roots and folk musicians Rhiannon Giddens, Leyla McCalla, and Amythyst Kiah for the Smithsonian Folkways Records-released “Songs of Our Native Daughters” album.
Via the collection, the quartet reclaims the banjo’s roots as an instrument African-Americans immigrated to America by playing songs written after the group read slave narratives and the scripts of early minstrel shows. In a 2021 interview, Russell called the album “reparational art” that served not just to heal Black people but to “heal everyone by teaching, through music, a much less skewed — and decolonized — version of history.”
Blount’s work is similarly bittersweet yet still distinctive.
During the summer of 2020, Blount found himself reading author Octavia Butler’s 1993 science fiction novel “Parable of the Sower.” The post-apocalyptic science fiction novel concerns the story of Lauren Olamina, an empathetic young woman who, amidst a climate crisis and facing social inequality, becomes displaced from her home.
The “intense” reading experience caused Blount to push longer and deeper into his already Afrofuturistic artistic leanings.
“Throwing the traditions I worked with on this album into a dystopian future allowed me to envision a reshaping of communities where attitudes evolve and a broader spectrum of people feel welcomed,” Blount notes.
He then highlights his cover of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” on his 2017 “Reparations” EP as another significant moment that contextualizes his current stylings.
“Killing and dying are essential to how I view the musical traditions I uphold because so much of it has been co-opted and misrepresented as a childlike, naive, and upbeat minstrel show,” says Blount. He recalls his debut performance as a full-time musical artist in 2017 as a moment that always keeps him steadfast in this perspective.
He remembers speaking onstage during his performance about John Henry’s legacy, mass incarceration, and slavery still being legal in the United States. Then, in a tone-deaf post-show moment, a white concert-goer made a statement regarding “how good it was” to “hear a young Black person learning from the earlier generations because today’s Black people are so angry.”
He’s remained undeterred in his resolve ever since.
For Blount, “The New Faith” represents Black spirituality that intersects humanism, queer liberation, science fiction, and theology as themes presented for broader consideration.
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Blount’s been “heartened” by the response so far to tracks like “Didn’t It Rain” and “Once There Was No Sun.” The tracks highlight his continued growth as an acoustic musician, plus his developing love for showcasing electric guitar, looping, and digital processing in his work.
“If I was a flower in my bloom, what made death cut me down so soon” sings Blount on the album track “Death Have Mercy.” “I’m singing things like ‘what is this that I can’t see? Cold, icy hands all over me.’ The whole thing is a meditation on what I want to be perceived as the carnal, non-Christian union between humanity and death,” he bluntly states.
Also, diving into hip-hop as a cross-cultural translator was important for Blount, who partners with roots-rap artist Demeanor for “Death Have Mercy,” “The Downward Road, and “Give Up The World.” “I couldn’t imagine a future for Black folk that doesn’t involve rap,” says Blount, citing everything from attending rap ciphers while a high school student in Washington, DC to the sounds of rap pioneers Arrested Development and notable Black bluegrass act the Carolina Chocolate Drops.
When asked about what he hopes an album so dense and profound can inspire, he offers a thoughtful — and expectedly religious — response.
“People are so focused on what they think we’re here to do that they’re not realizing what we’re saying,” says Blount. “Making music that’s unambiguously darker and more challenging is allowing me — and others — to feel salvation. ‘The New Faith’ represents digging deeper into spaces where ideologies and sounds naturally intersect has created many avenues for everyone to discover freedom.”
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