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Riding through Joburg with Lianne La Havas

“Is this Hillsong?” the driver asked.

We were 100 meters from my house. There was not enough time for a sermon.

In the front seat of the cab, I gathered myself before I answered.

“No, it’s not Hillsong at all. At all. It’s Lianne La Havas,” I said, in a measured tone, collecting the overwhelming urge to clap my hands as percussive punctuation to each astounded syllable. I quieted my inner urge to ask that black vernacular philosophical question: “How, Sway?”

Anyone who has heard either La Havas or the popular Christian music produced by Hillsongs will attest to them being sonically worlds apart, perhaps connected only by the fact that at its zenith, fandom has an evangelical quality to it. Its form and effects, the kind of praise and worship it elicits, and the connection between followers and to godlike focus of their affection, can in many ways be remarkably similar to religion. One person’s “hallelujah” is another’s extended “yaasssssssss.”

(But seriously though, “HOW, SWAY?”)

I keep Lianne’s album with me. It occupies an overpopulated habitat, in the corner of a bag bursting with 19 shades of lipstick and other make-up, my lunch for the day, snacks, notebooks, books, a phone charger, gum, headphones and other constantly changing paraphernalia that I might need to get through the day. I play it between the multiple stops on my commutes between Johannesburg’s sprawling suburbs. It makes the constant and often exhausting back-and-forth, using different modes of transport, that punctuates a life lived without a car sometimes feel like an extended, comfortable exhale of the day’s events and their aftershocks.

From blasting it out of friends’ car speakers and in endless Uber rides, to passing time on bus and taxi journeys, and letting it breathe through the spaces in between, it’s been the soundtrack to my life for the past month.

…fandom has an evangelical quality to it. Its form and effects, the kind of praise and worship it elicits, and the connection between followers and to godlike focus of their affection, can in many ways be remarkably similar to religion.

I love the feel of it in each different space, how each song hits your ears and body in its own way at a different moment, catching you unaware or off-guard, piercing emotion through your bones, or gently settling on your skin at the end of a long day. I adore how I sometimes need to hear the groove-ridden “Midnight” to take the edge off rising anger or implacable tiredness, or “Grow’s” climactic chorus to gain energy for an after-work networking session or meeting, or play “Good Goodbye” to sink into and indulge a growing, overwhelming sadness for a minute. Or allow myself to grieve a recent family death, for three minutes and forty-nine seconds in a busy day that shuts out the opportunity to feel the full breadth that extreme emotion. To feel the heavy weight of that leaden, unexpected death.

I delight in watching people’s faces as the bossa nova of “Never Get Enough” segways into a pounding, metal chorus. I revel in watching people hear Lianne for the first time, how they turn to me, their faces contorted in sheer disbelief and phrase that inevitable question: “Who IS she?” It.never.gets.old (there were muted claps punctuating that sentence).

I discovered Lianne in early 2012, in my first year of my Masters, which simultaneously saw me become skilled in race theory and critique and the subtle, unappreciated art of procrastination. As she crooned “Come upstairs and I’ll show you where all my / where my demons hide from you” from my computer speakers, I knew that voice had activated the part of brain that controls my irrepressible stan tendencies. I was instantly aware that she had joined a long list that across my 27-year lifespan has included/includes The Spice Girls, Joan Baez, Beyoncé (obviously), Serena Williams, Boom Shaka, Kanye West, Toni Morrison, Zadie Smith, Yagazie Emezi, and Nakhane Touré, among others.

Standom is a self-aware performance. It is often self-conscious and self-reflexive. Its grammar demands hype-ridden hyperbole, the likes of “Lawt, Beyoncé snatched my wig and my edges and now Imma have to bathe in Jamaican Black Castor Oil for a year.” Its receipts are no longer posters on walls and pictures neatly cut out of magazines. They have mutated into Tumblrs, lock screens, Vines, and digital shrines. Its vocabulary rests in breathless tweets and status updates, suffusing and saturating sentences with the righteous arrogance that accompanies repeatedly stating the achievements and receipts that prove that your fave is untouchable, and stands head and shoulders above the rest.

It is encompassed by the necessarily overstated sentence: “When will your fave ever…?” (The only answer to that question is “never,” “your fave is unable,” and other synonyms that equate to a giant, unequivocal “nope.”)

I revel in watching people hear Lianne for the first time, how they turn to me, their faces contorted in sheer disbelief and phrase that inevitable question: “Who IS she?”

These intonations are often underscored by knowing winks and subtle chuckles at our overeager dance of demonstration over multiple online platforms of offline interactions. We see ourselves, we see each other and we note your responses from the stages of social media. The performer requires the audience, and is an audience unto itself too.

As part of the performativity of this standom, I counted down to Lianne La Havas’ Blood for days, on all social media platforms. Three years in the making, after her stellar debut Is Your Love Big Enough, it was a wait simultaneously soaked in excitement and the fear that comes with building self-constructed monuments of people. The weight of expectation that is of our own making. The dread that rests just under the surface of our elated anticipation, whispering “what if you don’t like it?” Our idols, we fear, just might be revealed to have clay feet.

I didn’t listen to Blood on the day it came out. Or the day after it. Or the day after that. I didn’t listen to it for weeks after the 31st of July had come and gone.

After that highly staged public countdown, it might seem strange. But when it comes to the albums of those I fangirl over, I consume them in a way that is the antithesis of the modern download-and-instantly-listen era.

I want to be enveloped in absolute quiet, in my own space, with enough time to listen through the entire album—without interruption—in the self-imposed solitude of a dimly-lit room (the drama of that setting does not escape me). I want to be able to hold the CD in my hands, to read the liner notes, and think about how it’s been packaged as an artistic artefact. Every aspect of the tangible, multi-sensory experience of holding it in my hands while listening seem likes coordinates to traversing the album’s landscape.

Perhaps it has to do with how I started discovering music, a six- or seven-year-old sitting next to my parents’ HiFi, wedged in the gap created between the music unit and dining room cupboards, my legs brought up to my chest so no-one could see me. So I could disappear, for a while, while I systematically made my way through a catalog that ranged from Marvin Gaye to Gladys Knight, Queen to the Temptations, and Joe Cocker to Joan Baez.

Still, snippets of Lianne’s album had already filtered through the porous, false wall I created between myself and Blood. The digital era will do that to you. In this age, Gloria Estefan’s words are almost prescient, “the rhythm” will indeed “get you.” On.every.single.platform. Gahdamn, gahdamn, gahdamn.

A friend sent me a link. Another sent me an email. More tagged me on Facebook. The digital fan club we had unthinkingly formed demanded I participate in the performance.

I had a tiny panic when I heard it.

Gone was the Lianne who had created a world formed from an architecture of elegant heartbreak that I wanted to live in, drown in, float in. This was…happy and differently articulated? I wanted the Lianne of “Gone.” The Lianne of “Lost & Found.” The Lianne of the kind of acutely stated pain that makes you draw connections between the poetically broken lyrics and your own personal life and relationships. Whether these are straight lines, curved associations, echoed memories, or imagined ideas of what could have been, is currently busy being, or might be, does not matter. What matters is that sinking. That drowning. That floating in an ocean of neatly manicured waves of sonic pain, even if its resonances might be (slightly) misaligned.

Gone was the Lianne who had created a world formed from an architecture of elegant heartbreak that I wanted to live in, drown in, float in. This was…happy and differently articulated?

I whispered a fearful confession to a friend over Skype: “I don’t think I like it. But maybe I’m wrong. I hope I’m wrong. Maybe I need to give it time.” But to the general public, I was in full stan mode—which I imagine as the kind of dancing that is appropriate when you hear Drake’s music: arms akimbo, shoulders repeatedly shrugging, eyes closed and legs engaged in a perpetual bounce. I was several bars into my carefully choreographed performance of adoration, lost in the momentum of the dance. I felt I could not stop.

I held back from stating my sweaty-palmed concerns, because I’ve learned that my first impulse is often not a lasting impression. Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange taught me this lesson; an album I dismissed at first listen became my primary example of what a considered, well-knit collection of songs should look like. I could write a carefully footnoted 50,000 word dissertation on how well-curated, written, and performed that album is, with Harvard-style referenced receipts as proof of the genius that went into it. An entire thesis expounding on its excellence.

But I ended up listening to Lianne’s album, not in some kind of glorious, candle-lit sojourn, glass of wine in hand, while I soaked in a bubble bath. After weeks had passed, I couldn’t wait any longer. Instead, Lianne became the soundtrack to making chickpea curry on a Sunday night. Far less elegant. To quote her song “Gone”: “How sad. How undignified.”

The Paul Epworth-produced “Unstoppable,” it turns out, did grow on me (thank you, nappy-headed feminist black intersectional Jesus). From the layered harmonies that introduce it to the hypnotizing guitar and space-referencing lyricism that underscores it, it’s become the soundtrack for my personal pursuit of that ever elusive carefree black girlhood, which can often feel like chasing an ever-receding horizon. Singing about a love that could have no limits, Lianne intones “I was like a satellite drifting away / always lost forever and leaving no trace” and fearlessly states “our polarities shifting around / there was nothing else left holding us down / it’s just gravitational / we are unstoppable.”

In many ways, it was the video that did it, with Lianne effortlessly dancing through empty spaces clad in a killer blue jumpsuit, all eyeliner and glorious afro, embodying a swagger that seems to simply state her implicit excellence, with no disclaimers or addendums.

It is often difficult, even in 2015, not simply to accept and triumph black excellence—which is self-evident—but to truly and unapologetically live in it, to make your home in all its corners, curves, and be comfortably housed in its walls, without being aware of the environment that tries to stifle and discredit it, and creates the precondition for its constant repetition and double consciousness. I say it often, to almost try to perform it into unqualified existence.

The habitat we occupy, for many people of color the world over, too easily makes some of us feel like the air is constantly thinning and reminds us of an exhausting dehumanization at every turn, both subtly and overtly. To live in this hyper self-aware state can often make truths, like plainly evident “black excellence” feel like they operate as affirmations, as artist and illustrator Pola Maneli notes: “Because when you’re black, affirmations can be truths, but truths are also just affirmations.” But when I play “Unstoppable,” I feel its title as both an affirmation and a truth. I feel, in many ways, unstoppable. Like, just perhaps, there is nothing else left holding me down. At its extremes, I feel like I can taste unparalleled freedom, for a few minutes.

In many ways, it was the video that did it, with Lianne effortlessly dancing through empty spaces clad in a killer blue jumpsuit, all eyeliner and glorious afro, embodying a swagger that seems to simply state her implicit excellence, with no disclaimers or addendums.

It’s the same feeling that echoes through the Stephen “Di Genius” McGregor-produced “Midnight.” Lianne’s first album was punctuated by controlled vocals, hinting at incredible power but never fully going there. On the second verse of “Midnight,” however, she goes all the way in, belting “and you all can be my army / there’s no other way / so come now hurry hurry / don’t miss this train,” with such intensity that I paused my curry-making and replayed it, my skin prickling with goosebumps.

Then I heard this live version, and played it repeatedly, for a week, texting and emailing it to my friends, posting it on every social media site.

Listening to “Grow,” “Midnight,” “Unstoppable,” and “What You Don’t Do,” it’s evident that the melodies and grooves of the new album are insistent. Occasionally, the lyrics can feel a bit easy, but this is perhaps because they are looser and more playful, less insistently curated, and closely married with feeling and rhythm. This Lianne makes you want to stop making chickpea curry and dance to sounds that energizes and vibrates through your body. This Lianne feels…liberating. And I know I need that liberation, even the possibility of its existence, to be a reminder that threads itself through my day.

My yaaaasssssssss was incredibly delayed, two beats behind its scheduled arrival, but it eventually pulled into the station. I did not miss that train. Thankfully.

Old Lianne, it turns out, is still here, but filtered through a more complex lens. Perhaps, this is the sound of growing up, of mid-20s filled with thoughtful, complex, and raw considerations, but without the quarter-life crisis that often accompanies them. Just an acceptance of your numerous faults and flaws and inevitable mistakes.

“Wonderful” lays that realization bare, drenched in ultra-nostalgia and the kind of honeyed and two-shots-of-Jameson vocals that make you want to sink into a memory of love lost in poetic ecstasy, rather than tearful, lamenting remembrance, as Lianne croons “but, wasn’t it kinda wonderful?” The relentlessly pulsating beat that plays throughout it and the fingersnaps that introduce it underscore deceptively simple and poignantly honest lyrics.

It begins with plainly-phrased questions: “Did the world grow a little bit colder / no wiser just a little bit older / so slow we were bound to fall over, oh / Did the heart grow a little bit harder / Too much too late / Too far too gone” but then she spins it on its head, turning melancholic questioning into a beautiful way of thinking about the ends of things. It is dipped in nostalgia, but never dripping with sentiment. It’s a more familiar Lianne, but with a distinct lyrical and sonic maturity. “Wonderful” feels like the reverse side to “Lost & Found,” turned inside out to find something just as raw, yet beautiful on the flipside.

It echoes how, in my mid-20s, I find myself looking back on a younger self with greater insight and a little more kindness. I look at the places, people and events that I previously agonized over, and find more layers appear—some forcing an introspection that means taking more responsibility for the messiness, the decay, the disarray, and the simultaneous beauty.

Perhaps this is what Joan Didion meant when she said we should “keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not.” Perhaps, as we shed the skins of our past selves, we become ghosts unto ourselves—indelibly carrying our old selves with us, while trying to make sure they do not leaden our steps. Maybe it’s a way of personalizing what Lianne means when she sings, about a past relationship and partner, “on and on we go / always with the ghosts of us in tow / lost somewhere between a foe and friend / round and round we go” on “Ghosts.”

Perhaps, this is the sound of growing up, of mid-20s filled with thoughtful, complex, and raw considerations, but without the quarter-life crisis that often accompanies them. Just an acceptance of your numerous faults and flaws and inevitable mistakes.

The sonic landscape that Lianne and her producers (among them Matt Hales, who worked on her debut, Epworth, Jamie Liddell, and McGregor) have created with this album is intensely layered and dense, and every song is distinct, almost feeling like they create their own worlds, yet are simultaneously connected. The choral harmonies, complexly layered (and sometimes jarring) beats, signature melodic guitar, and found sounds will not be transmitted through your laptop or cellphone speakers. They demand being listened to through the kind of mediums that will let you pick up the subtleties, which are many and gloriously layered.

I felt that carefully calibrated sonic landscape most acutely listening to “Tokyo” through headphones. I became acutely aware of the sounds that replicate what feels like a night spent a high-rise hotel building, alone, listening to the sounds of the city below, where the echoes of people going back and forth, cars weaving through streets, and other audio that seems to belong only to the night announce the song’s arrival.

I remembered my own expansive loneliness, recording the beginnings of my own album in London, listening to “Tokyo.” I recalled how those two months, filled with incredible, mind-blowing moments, were simultaneously marked by a remarkable and baffling kind of loneliness that comes with being surrounded by people, but feeling tiny, inconsequential, and irrepressibly alone in an expansive city environment. It is the soundtrack to coming home to a gorgeous but empty flat. It pixelates an experience that looks great in pictures, but that belies its full form. It articulates always answering “fine, and you?” when all you really want to do is spill the well of emotion that has been building up in you over the course of weeks, threatening to escape your lips and betray polite, expected answers.

The song is a different take on that signature second album move. “Damn, I’m famous now. Never home, travelling between cities and always so lonely.” “Tokyo” elevates this to a poetry that will not wallow in its discontent, even when singing lines like “All I’ve ever known is how to be alone / It comes naturally.” The song muses on longing for a lover to hold you through the night, because you thought that neon lights and the trappings of your new celebrity-tinged life would be enough, but searching the trappings of urban city life for warmth, affection, and sufficient solace, find it wanting.

The vulnerability and melancholy is evident, but it is simultaneously resisted. From how she sings “grew a thicker thin / but now it’s wearing thin / you can see right into me” to almost yelling the chorus on its third repeat, changing “I’m out of sight / and out of mind / alone in Tokyo” to “I’m out of sight / going out my mind,” it’s a searingly honest, textured account of the kind of extraordinary loneliness that only densely-populated cities can bring. The steady beat of the mid-tempo song, with its hypnotic guitar on the pre-chorus, underscore these personal revelations that are unwilling to revel or wallow in minor chords, and in doing so achieves an interesting dissonance.

The album is looser. The lyrics are easier and freer, and seem untethered to a singular emotion for too long. Lianne has always had a knack for the poetic, but these words appear less labored-over and more confessional or simply stated. Some have called it her pop evolution, but it seems strange or even dishonest to view it this way. While a few of the songs, like “Grow” and “Midnight” might have greater Top 40 appeal, they never fully enter that terrain or play by its rules. They actively resist the terms and conditions of the current mainstream.

With many wanting to lock Lianne in that catch-all genre for all people with brown skin, regardless of the music they make—soul or neo-soul or R&B—it needs to be repeated: This is not soul music. This is a whole ‘nother, undefinable thing. There are elements of jazz, funk, soul, pop, bossa nova, metal, and other genres. Perhaps, as Lianne prefers, the best way to view the sound is “melodic,” as the songs are always driven by different, yet intersecting melodies that provide the only clear throughline to her albums.

There are elements of jazz, funk, soul, pop, bossa nova, metal, and other genres. Perhaps, as Lianne prefers, the best way to view the sound is “melodic,” as the songs are always driven by different, yet intersecting melodies that provide the only clear throughline to her albums.

I finished making the curry. I was intrigued, but still unsure about how I felt. I knew I loved “Is Your Love Big Enough,” but was still slightly unsure about Blood, and confessed my hesitance on social media. So I played it everywhere over the next few weeks. I used all the different spaces as different mediums and methods to absorb the sounds and try to make sense of this sonic landscape. I was dedicated and determined to unpack every texture, every sound, and every lyric. I lived in Blood for over a month.

When it hit me, it felt like salty waves repeatedly and relentlessly breaking on and over my skin, reminding me of the sheer joy, fear, excitement, and exuberance of a time when I used to dare to venture far into the ocean’s backline as a fearless child. I still feel each song anew, as they continue to hit me in waves—each with its own affect, magnitude, and ferocity.

A few weeks ago, on my way home, I found myself playing Blood in yet another cab. As we reached my gate, the driver asked that inevitable question: “who IS she?” Only now, he insisted that I write her name down so he could buy the album. “This is evangelical. I’m spreading the gospel,” I thought. “Perhaps there is some kind of intersection between Hillsongs and Lianne,” I mused. Then I rolled my eyes, repeatedly, ejected the CD, and got out of the car.

By Danielle Bowler

Danielle Bowler is a South African writer, assistant researcher at MISTRA, and a member of Feminist Stokvel, an intersectional collective of black women in South Africa. She likes to think critically about the world around her, which often includes making complex political arguments about pop culture and Beyoncé, and saying on fleek a lot.