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GChatting with Vijay Iyer about 'Holding It Down'

Anthony Dean-Harris
Editor-in-Chief
anthony.deanharris@nextbop.com / @i_ADH

Last night while halfway watching the Democratic National Convention (because I'm a democrat but I'd much rather read Ezra Klein and co. break down policy than a week long pep rally), I hopped on Google Chat to talk with Vijay Iyer about his upcoming project with spoken word artist Mike Ladd, Holding It Down: The Veterans' Dreams Project. What follows is an edit of our talk about the development of this third major collaboration with Ladd, the idea behind this project, and a little about how it ties together with the First Lady putting US troops to the fore where they should be.

Anthony Dean-Harris: So I was hoping you could explain 'Holding It Down', what it's about, why this is the next thing you're doing with Mike Ladd, how this came together... All that

Vijay Iyer: ok--
As you know (?), Mike and I have worked together for a decade now. We did two major projects - In What Language? (2003-04) and Still Life with Commentator (2006-07). These works were commissioned, so luckily we had some resources behind us, but they also were these truly organic experiments in collaboration. I'd known Mike since the late 90s - we met in Cambridge, MA, in '97 when I was touring with this San Francisco-based hip-hop band called Midnight Voices1. We were on a bill together. He just struck me immediately as this deep innovator, with an activist orientation and a real distinctive taste in music. His own work was really mysterious and powerful. If you haven't heard his early albums, check out Easy Listening 4 Armageddon and Welcome to the Afterfuture, two turn-of-the-millenium classics.
ADH: I really only know other smaller things of his with you and I heard a track he did with Daedelus some time ago [Daedeuls - Exquisite Corpse (2005) - "Welcome Home"].
Iyer: He had been a part of the "spoken word" movement in the 90s, along with people like Yasiin Bey, Suheir Hammad, Beau Sia, and Saul Williams.
ADH: I appreciate the Morehouse shout out
Iyer: You know it.
So he has this connection with art and/as activism. That has actually been my orientation all along as well. That perspective has helped me understand my place in the world and it's helped me make empowered choices.
Sorry I'm moving slowly here
ADH: Halfway listening to Gov. Patrick?
Iyer: Just typing slowly. But yes, that too
You know that his dad played with Sun Ra and Monk?
me: Wow, I didn't... I thought you were still talking about Mike Ladd, okay, that's even more shocking
Iyer: haha yeah
So anyway, Mike and I stayed in touch and I started running into him more after I moved to NYC, at the end of 98. We'd talked about collaborating. Then an opportunity came my way, in the form of an invitation from the Asia Society. Rather than do what was perhaps expected of me, which was to celebrate my heritage through some India-centered project, I wanted to use the opportunity to start a larger dialogue about communities of color since the commonality of our experiences as people of color is central to my own perspective, my own rationale for making this music in the first place.

So anyway the project In What Language? grew out of that impulse. It is a series of micro-narratives by various people of color in transit or at work in and around an international airport. It grew organically over a year, as we figured out how to work together. And it all happened in the aftermath of 9/11, surveillance, fear, racial profiling, war, Bush, etc. We came to realize that airports are these contact zones where you have these intense, fleeting encounters and where the potential for dialogue is rarely realized. And yet all that near-contact and failed connection has its own potency and its own way of generating meaning.

After we made that project, this thing called the blogosphere was born and this revolution in personalized media, and the mania of 24-hour news, and just in general our relationship to digital culture was undergoing a massive transformation - all in the context of wartime. So we were invited by UNC Chapel Hill and Brooklyn Academy of Music to create a new project and decided to focus on this new, surreal landscape.
So that's what Still Life with Commentator is. What I said above, about "contact zones," held up even more now in this virtual sphere, and that project is much more surreal and sort of anti-narrative, in that it's never quite straightforward about who is speaking. And it's also much more satirical. I'm very proud of "Cleaning Up the Mess," "Jon Stewart on Crossfire", "Mount Rather" from that project. To me they capture everything we were trying to say - that this (at the time) new relationship we have to technology and to the news media is personal, emotionally charged, surreal, a little sickening, and maybe sometimes redemptive, too.
Anyway, that's all prologue!
Your guy the mayor is on.
ADH: I never changed the channel... Oddly, there's nothing else on so it's good I'm feeling some local pride tonight.
Iyer: Hm, should i pause?
ADH: You can keep going, half of this is every profile you've read of him in the last few days anyway, and if you can tell the twins apart, you're definitely set.3 That's the level you've got to work on.
Iyer: ok...
So I guess in late 2008-early 2009, Mike and I were talking about "completing the trilogy".
[oops, just got hit up by Kassa, sorry]2
ADH: Ha!
Iyer: ...from Kassa:
"fasho say i said yo! in the interview haha / cyber interview crashers"
Iyer ok... "completing the trilogy" --
We felt that those two projects started to set out a perspective on things, to make an argument that couldn't really be made any other way. But the spectre of war was behind all of it, and we never really dealt with it directly.
ADH: It's funny that I never realized that
Iyer: In fact, one of the points of Still Life... [we call it SLWC] was that the distance was too great -- that "we" are at war but somehow most people don't have to experience it, and can view it from a convenient distance. In fact our experience of it was managed by the Bush admin-- down to him not avoiding soldiers' funerals, barely publicly acknowledging the human (let alone economic) costs of war, even trying to prevent photos of coffins from appearing in public. Then something like the photos from Abu Ghraib surface, or the techniques used in Guantanamo, or some other very inconvenient truth about the fucking brutality in our midst. The wars that we were paying for with taxes, that was sold by lies, all that insanity that we just came to treat as normal, even ignored after a while. But of course there are people in our midst, millions of them, who have lived these wars, carried them out, followed their orders, and continue to carry those experiences with them. You'd almost never hear from them, and most Americans are afraid to look or listen.
Why that fear? Partly, I suppose, because war is the ultimate dirty work, and partly because it's hard to face our own complicity in the whole debacle/quagmire/etc.
ADH: Or also because we've reached a point in the country where we actually have that option available to us.
Iyer: Well that's just it -- who is fighting these wars on our behalf?
ADH In a country of this size with a volunteer army, where class structure determines where we pay attention, there are enough folks who can just afford to not pay attention.
Iyer: It's an all-volunteer army, and we have such a strange -- ah you beat me to it. Yes, indeed.
ADH: That's the funny thing about listening to the mayor of San Antonio right now. Part of the reason why San Antonio weathered the recession so well is because it's a city with three military bases.
Iyer: Well this is something so interesting about military culture, as I've been learning through this project
ADH: It's something that has been almost impossible for me to ignore, but that goes sort of to the "we are what we see everyday" idea I've been exploring.
Iyer: All of us artsy liberals have these knee-jerk responses to war, but most don't really know who or what's involved.
[At this point, First Lady Michelle Obama just started her speech.]
Oh my, I'm being ambushed by Michelle watchers here. I think I need to pause--
ADH:: Yeah, that's what I was thinking
Iyer: Ok, soon. I didn't mean to ramble so much! Anyway, we're getting there.
[After the First Lady's speech]
ADH: Yeah, we can never turn to an Ann Romney.
Iyer: Wow. Well there you have it.
I have to say, the embrace of the human stories of the military is really an important contribution of the Obamas. He's actually done a lot to improve the VA structure and services, and that speech was a great example, in stark contrast to last week.
ADH: A lot of the DNC will cover the other side of things that republicans have glossed over. It goes back to what we've been talking about concerning those who have the luxury of overlooking these things. Though, when you have democrats being more carefully hawkish, it would be sort of foolish not to address that.
Iyer: True, but of course Obama is the commander-in-chief, and he has been good about connecting veterans' affairs to other issues of the day. It's an economic issue, it's a social and cultural issue, it's connected to unemployment and health care and everything else. Basically, this is all part of the aftermath of Bush, the enormous tangle of disasters that Obama has been tasked with working through and cleaning up. It's about taking responsibility for the millions of veterans from a decade of war which is what a compassionate commander-in-chief would do. With this project Holding it Down, we wanted to help start a conversation that we weren't hearing at the time, in 2008 and early 2009, of veterans and civilians truly connecting and beginning a healing process together. We face a massive, collective, nationwide recovery from all of that. We really wanted to focus on veterans of color, for a lot of reasons --
ADH: With the efforts, much of which brought about by the First Lady, to give attention to our veterans over the last few years, though, do you think Holding It Down is a little late in starting the conversation or more showing up at just the right time?
Iyer: It's just been growing at its own pace for years. We couldn't really hurry it, because we had to really make contact with people from that community and win their trust. It's important that this is really a collaboration with veterans, not just a project "about" veterans. (I mean it's important to us for the integrity of the project, not "THIS IS IMPORTANT".) Mike and I are civilians and we know that there are things we'll never understand. But what we wanted to do is involve veterans in the creation of this project. And we were really fortunate in that respect, because in Dec 2009 we met this dude Maurice Decaul, a former Marine sergeant who served in Iraq, who is now a poet. He's been at Columbia through their program for GI's, and he's a NY'er of Afro-Caribbean Descent. And he was connected to a group called "Warrior Writers", and to a number of other vets who are writers and poets. Mike had been conducting interviews with vets and he'd adapted some of them into poems, many of which are amazing. But still, we were really interested in the simple reality of vets onstage. It would tell a story like nothing else. At that point it stops being art, and reality erupts into the space. I'm really interested in that boundary. It really makes you think and feel everything anew, as if from scratch. I'm amazed but it's really happening, in a non-exploitative way. We've worked with Maurice for the last two years and he's written about 40% of the material for the project. Now we also have another vet named Lynn Hill who was a sergeant in the Air Force who was a drone pilot -- i.e., she dropped bombs on people in Iraq & Afghanistan from a video deck in Las Vegas. And she is writing and performing in the piece too. And her perspective is endlessly complicated, rich, terrifying, and inspiring.

So it's taken us awhile but we've been fortunate to have the project bear fruit in this way. We can stand behind it with pride, because the material and the performances can organically, authentically do 10x the work that we vaguely hoped or dreamed we could do.

ADH: It sounds much grander in scope than the rest of the trilogy because of all this collaboration.
Iyer: The scope is indeed expanded by their two perspectives, plus those of a number of vets who were interviewed as well. The show features video clips of interviews and also a good portion of Mike's pieces are from interviews.

And I didn't clarify, but the whole project is about dreams. What are veterans able to dream about, in civilian life? For many it's complicated and harrowing. Especially since something like over 90% of vets have some form of [Post Traumatic Stress Disorder] which can mean that dreams are the worst part of their lives, but then some can have happy, silly or surreal dream, too. And the "logic" of dreams is familiar to everyone. So we felt that this would give people a way in. It's that final place where you have to embrace someone's humanity. And ultimately the "dream" theme focuses the project. It becomes something tangible that holds it together and helps us make choices, too.
ADH: The dreams help us make choices or are you saying focusing on dreams helped you make choices about where to go in this project?
Iyer: I meant the latter.
ADH: Ah
Iyer: Here's an example-

The structure and sound of this, and the shape of it.
Or this

...
Iyer: I've talked a lot already but I just wanted to finish one point I started, which was about working with soldiers of color in particular, and with Harlem Stage. We felt going into this that we never really got to hear from veterans of color, but we knew that there were a lot of them. Somehow the American narrative of the patriotic soldier enlisting to defend his country was coded as white, in the national imagination.
ADH: Much like many other narratives in the national imagination
Iyer: Ha, indeed. But of course knowing the class structure of an all-volunteer army, that couldn't be true since people have so often enlisted for reasons of need, or perceived need and since we also knew that to wage these wars, military recruiters were using predatory tactics on young, poor minorities. But there's also a counter-trend that makes this different, which is that after 9/11, waves of people really did enlist out of patriotism, to defend this country from the enemy. And of course especially under Bush, this was a racialized war.

We wanted to therefore look at minorities fighting an American war that had race as a principal component. What is it like when the person on the other side of the rifle looks more like you than your [commanding officer] does? And, how is this further complicated when the American Commander-in-Chief is a brown man of African descent? Anyway there were no easy answers but you do hear those themes emerging or as a subtext in some of the lyrics.

All right, I'll stop talking now, blah blah. Sorry I hardly let you get a word in.
ADH: Nah, it's cool. I didn't know there was this much context but it was all necessary.
Iyer: Anyway, what's your second question? LOL
ADH: I was just thinking about you explaining what this was and then talking about something entirely left field, but the DNC turned out to be that second thing and it dovetailed really well.
I did want to ask, though... I imagine you're going to release this as an album, right?
Iyer: It's our intention, though there's no easy way to do that just yet. We might need to do Kickstarter or something. Anyway, we aim for it to be out in the first half of next year, one way or another.
ADH: After this, does it feel like the trilogy will be completed or do you think there's another idea you and Mike will be thinking about next? Even though spending four years on this one already seems like talking about the next thing could be putting the cart before the horse, which now makes my question feel just a tad silly now that I think about it.
Iyer: Well, there is another kind of companion piece that came together last year called "Sleep Song" -- which involves Mike, Maurice, and a poet from Iraq.
ADH: Is it like a single, long-form composition?
Iyer: No, it's a similar structure -- Mike really wanted to hear from the other side of war, the civilians who live with it, so that project is a kind of performative summit. It has a very different energy from Holding it Down, but to my ear it's this really intense encounter.
ADH: So it's like a very deep B-side.
Iyer: Yeah, basically; that's a good way to put it... if entire albums could have giant b-sides.

Holding it Down: the Veterans' Dreams Project will be performed at Harlem Stage in New York City from September 19-22. More details are available at the Harlem Stage website.


1. According to Wikipedia, the lead singer of Midnight Voices, Mohammed Bilal, was a houseguest on MTV's The Real World: San Francisco in 1994. This would mean that Iyer has a connection to The Real World, a fact that grows weirder and cooler the more you think about it.
2. The wonderful coincidence of Kassa Overall should be apparent. Overall is the drummer for this project along with other Iyer/Ladd collaborations. In addition to Overall handling percussion, the personnel for Holding it Down include the much aforementioned Iyer on piano, laptop, & compositions, Mike Ladd handling poetry, vocals, sampler, analog synthesizer, and much of the interviews with the veterans that crafted this project; veterans Maurice Decaul & Lynn Hill who lend their poetic skills here, Guillermo Brown with vocals & auxiliary electronics; Liberty Ellman on guitar; Okkyung Lee on cello; and Latasha N. Nevada Diggs on vocals and live electronic processing.
3. Rep. Joaquin Castro has chubbier cheeks than Mayor Julián Castro.

Anthony Dean-Harris hosts the modern jazz radio show, The Line-Up, Fridays at 9pm CST on 91.7 FM KRTU San Antonio. More of his writing can be found at his blog, In Retrospect and you can also follow him on Twitter.