This article is also published on www.britewinter.com.
RA Washington is a black star: a body made up of matter, he exudes a strong gravitational pull wherever he goes. The room waits their turn to get a word in after the show or at the bar. Admirers and friends are content to slowly revolve around him nearby. Whether you know Washington as the founder of Cleveland Tapes, a boutique label and incubator for experimental music, or a professor of poetry, former Creative Workforce Fellow, as the owner of Guide to Kulchur Press: once you’ve crossed paths in the universe, it’s hard to ignore his trajectory.
However, the black star referenced in the name of Washington’s newest musical endeavor, Mourning [A] BLKstar, does not refer to metaphorical science or the principle beat maker of the band. “We’ve lost so many of our great artists lately,” laments LaToya Kent, vocalist. “Within the year we lost Bowie, Fife, Prince, Sharon Jones; all of these artists who were so influential to us.”
Kent began singing just after high school, where she met Washington, then moved to LA where she became involved in the punk rock scene. In 2010, upon her return to Cleveland she recorded Sweet Oil with Washington (recording as LeRoi da Moor), released on Cleveland Tapes. After the passing of David Bowie (who also utilized the term Blackstar for his final studio album), Washington asked Kent and longtime friend James Longs to sing for a mix tape he made with the late legend in mind just days after his death.
“It didn’t solidify until James came over the next day. We listened to the roughs and we had a couple of names we batted around. Then that morning “a black star” came up and he and his daughter drew the logo. I went and got it tattooed on my hand that next day,” says Washington. Three dark boxes followed by a star, with the letters M A B hanging in reverse, make up the minimalist, almost tribal, monogram.
“We mourn these black stars as a continuous process along with the political aspect of what is happening with Black Lives Matter and losing these young black lives as well. Mourning [A] BLKstar could be somebody’s cousin or grandmother, a big star or somebody you personally know. That name will continue to be, because we’ll continue to experience life and death,” Kent explains.
The rough cuts were picked up by Glue Moon Records, who will release their first record Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand sometime this year. Third vocalist Kyle Kidd was added to the line-up not long after, with Peter Saudek recently rounding their sound with live percussion. A trumpeter will occasionally perform alongside the group, who grace the stage like a line of gospel singers in a church controlled by mystic priestesses. Washington has more than 15 songs sitting in the wings and a recent recording session with Brian Straw in hand to start shopping their next album.
“For me personally, doing the things that I was doing in the genre that I was singing [classical and jazz], I always had the fear in the back of my head that I was only going to go so far because I’m a black gay male,” sighs Kidd. “For this group of people to embrace me the way that they have has helped me as an individual to prevail and reach another level of confidence within myself and my talent.”
Longs, while being a trained visual artist, had never investigated this side of his creative personality until the project. “It’s one of the few art forms I find that requires complete honesty,” he says of singing. “You can’t fake it, you have to emit it. It’s something about yourself while you’re in the middle of it. That whole journey is something I enjoy.”
Their honesty and the undefined spirituality behind Mourning [A] BLKstar’s performances have reeled in diverse audiences. They’ve played Heaven is in You the monthly electro-dance party, indie rock bills with fellow Panza Foundation honorees at Happy Dog, and hip hop shows supporting national acts Busdriver and Deantoni Parks. Their songs are built upon samples chosen by Washington that range from straight-up electronica to crackling 808 beats layered with R&B and gospel vocal melodies, often delivered with the intensity of a rock song or the reverence of a hymn.
“It is sort of surprising,” Longs admits, “when you can tell that the crowd is completely there for the other band and has never really seen us, but they’re music fans. They like ‘their’ band, but they stay for everybody. And the way they respond to us is surprising. I know our type of music is not in their disc collection, but they really like it.”
“You’re happy that they feel moved enough to talk to you about it,” reaffirms Washington. “A lot of people will just leave. Do a polite one-two. I’ve been in those bands. People do a couple of mouse claps and it’s a wrap. Nobody, not even your Momma like it,” he snickers. “It’s kind of funny because I’ve been writing songs of this ilk for a long time, but I never had the people to deliver them. They came off sort of like the Swedish Chef when I would sing them.”
Now, bookers clamor to put them on bills because they know they can keep the audience’s attention to the end of a long evening. I’ve seen it first hand; the sorcery of their voices soaring as one, conjuring people up out of thin air at Ingenuity Fest to watch their set, or a high-energy performance that had everyone either twerking or emotional after an especially rowdy night at Now That’s Class. They are the “renaissance” band, capturing the sound of a new era in Cleveland.
“Our crowd is very mixed,” Kidd states. “It’s a lot of different people and each of us represents something different—all five of us represent something totally different. To have that in one band is a movement that cannot be touched. It’s to be reckoned with and only time is really going to show.”