Tune-Yards Is Addressing What It Is to Be a “Colonizer”

I can feel you creep into my private life grapples with the inherent racism of whiteness.

Driving across the country in the passenger seat with my earbuds in, I press play on I can feel you creep into my private life, the new Tune-Yards album. Staring out the window at the trees getting shorter, the dirt getting lighter, and the sun growing warmer, I hear Merrill Garbus growing. I hear the pain and ecstatic joy of being vulnerable to the people who barely know you, but somehow figure prominently in your survival: your audience.

The “Heart Attack” melody immediately sticks into me like a pricker. The quintessential Tune-Yards vocal accomplishment hugging musical possibility. The epic layers of house diva meets punk icon meets soulful blues songstress. Tina Weymouth–like basslines with intentionally cut house piano chords. Clicks in homemade samples. I can tell it’s her hands pushing—awareness of the pressure, but gentle from the heart. Cut it, break it, paste it back. The bass walks around into corners I forgot existed. It open up caverns with spiderwebs crossing back and forth. All of a sudden, there’s enough space for me to move my arms above my head. The beats frenzied, but freeing. Fists flailing. What a relief.

I am no stranger to political heartbeats in music. This record uses lyrics, and patchworks past and present genres, to convey how the personal is still political, and how both are necessary. Thoughts of my own band, Le Tigre, come to me: what it was like to scream over a sea of frenetic sound. I remember Johanna’s beats as though I never left them. Jungle meets punk. Hi hats flipping over my head, panned in every direction at once. I remember revolutions to the bones in this music. How it was all we had: space to be safe and smart at the same time. Tracy and the Plastics, Les Georges Leningrad, Numbers, Erase Errata. Creep heralds a new age of that kind of punk electronic. Finally, it makes sense again.

Merrill is a musician quite sure of her conflict—in this case, racism observed from a white woman’s perspective—and forces that upon the listener as a story. She is vulnerable, accountable, and responsible. This is a record white punks, in particular, need to hear, as artists who “colonize” through making music that was first made by black people and continues to have a history of blackness. The truth of this is not only expressed through lyrics—as on “Colonizer,” when Merrill sings, “I use my white woman’s voice…” but through interwoven musical styles and conceptual editing. I wish this album would never end—it’s the kind of record I have been afraid to make because I have been worried to get it wrong. Here, Merrill is braver.

Creep isn’t a call-out or a sermon to the converted. It’s an honest record about communities edging towards the hope that we can come together without shame. This is a sister breaking down from the outsides and inside too. Screaming it to us. And I’m screaming back, because I remember I can scream too. I keep thinking of Tracy Chapman’s self-titled record. The texture is new, but creep is telling a truth I remember from that moment. The pain I have heard from a political, dynamic vocal, coming from the body of one woman.

This record switches from personal to political to dance to folk to operatic nursery-rhyme. There are rhythms you barely hear, clacks and clicks in one ear that begin to sound like regular breath. Single sentences, screamed over and over, begin to tell a different tale than they did the first time they’re sung. Particularly in the title track, “Private Life,” the journey is almost like when you look at a word for a while, and it starts looking weird; the letters create a new family that you hadn’t seen before. And I keep making new discoveries about this record, the more that I dig.

In the closing of “Who Are You,” we hear a voice note (like the kind you might record on your phone). It’s the beginning of something—but placed strategically at the end. I giggle, because I know this game: thinking, Here is something. Let me record it for me. The moment of the seed. It brought me to the methodology of the record, the conceptual dance. I am awoken by the layers. I laugh out loud. I’m happy to be fresh for the last two songs.

I put my hands over my ear buds and close my eyes. “Free” is the last track on the record, and the most raw. Merrill chants “FREE” over distorted guitars. I am thinking of love, being bound by culture. By our system. “Freedom,” as something which is loved. “Freedom,” by which we are burned by what we know. “Freedom,” which we are jailed by. The repetition builds new definitions of freedom. What we desire, but what we are bound to. A word we all know, and a concept which is put on a pedestal for us.

Garbus closes the record with a beat recorded live for its first track. We hear her communication with the engineer as she returns to the beginning… Yes, I want to listen again. This is a cycle. A circle. We fear, fall, break, and grow. At the end, we start all over again. I open my eyes to mountains in the distance and know I will be back in this town sometime.

JD Samson is a musician/producer/artist living in Brooklyn. She is one third of feminist punk band Le Tigre and lead singer of the band MEN. She currently teaches at the Clive Davis School of Recorded music at NYU. You can follow her on Twitter here.