Feature ~ Regina Carter, Electoral Collage

FJR founder, Jordannah Elizabeth’s feature in The New York City Jazz Record‘s October 2020 Issue.

Music has been an encompassing presence in Regina Carter’s life since she was two years old. Her journey has been colored by the bowing of the violin, which she began playing at the age of four, and has allowed her to create a lifelong soundtrack to her unique journey. Carter is accomplished and has had a lengthy, successful recording career, which stands as a testament for her talent and love for people and collaboration. Throughout her career, she has been open to performing diverse genres as her musical talents have spanned across R&B, avant chamber music, funk and reimagined arrangements of traditional African music.

Her music has taken her all over the world but Carter, as of late, has taken on a duty and responsibility to use the platform she has earned from the fruits of her hard work and philanthropy to inspire people to engage with one another and their communities in America in a way that promotes unity. Her new album, Swing States: Harmony in the Battleground (Tiger Turn Productions-eOne) has a very specific purpose: to encourage as many people as possible to vote.

The Regina Carter Freedom Band consists of John Daversa (trumpet and flugelhorn), The Late Show with Stephen Colbert bandleader Jon Batiste (piano), Kabir Sehgal (bass and percussion), Alexis Cuadrado (bass) , Harvey Mason (drums) and guest tenor saxophonist Brian Gorrell. The aim for this album and all-star musical lineup may have initially been to make a clear and well-executed message of voting but, in the preparation for the release of the album, the world was afflicted with the COVID-19 pandemic and an international outcry of protests and demonstrations in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many other Black people slain at the hands of the police. Carter’s concerns emerged long before the protests as she discovered the large numbers of people who did not vote in the 2016 election. “Voting is a civic duty and an extremely important responsibility, even more so now as we are living in surreal times…we have become a divided country of Red vs. Blue, Us vs. Them or Not Our Kind and that pot is starting to boil over,” says Carter.

Another coincidence, if not a predetermined synchronicity in regards to the timing of the release of Swing States, Carter’s hometown of Detroit, Michigan is submerged in recent controversy as 72% of Detroit’s absentee voting precincts did not match the number of ballots that had been cast for the primary election. There were a record number to the fear of being in tightly packed voting locations amid the pandemic. The city is doing its best to be prepared for the upcoming presidential election but, because of these unprecedented times, the future, in so many ways, is unpredictable and therefore, practically unreliable. But this should not deter the American people from voting.

In a broader sense, “Many Americans are concerned about voting in November amid the coronavirus pandemic and worries over the U.S. Postal Service’s capacity to deliver ballots on time. Democrats, however, are more concerned than Republicans about the ease of voting and the broader integrity of the election. Public attitudes about several voting-related policy proposals—from automatically registering all eligible citizens to vote to expanding the availability of ‘no excuse’ early and absentee voting—also differ sharply by partisan affiliation,” writes John Gramlich for the Pew Research Center. The research shows people are in need of harmony and Carter is taking it upon herself to help lead our country into a new era of more positive partisan relationships, predicting the need to communicate togetherness with her listeners and musical community through this album as the proverbial battleground that exists within the realm of voting via racism, discrimination, prison industrialization and immigration.

In fact, the origin of the project began with a conversation and collaboration at the Mexican border. Carter worked with album’s executive producer Sehgal on Arturo O’Farrill’s collaborative project, Fandango at the Wall: A Soundtrack for the United States, Mexico and Beyond (which premiered on HBO on Sep. 25th).

“Kabir and I were talking and he asked what my next project was going to be. I had something completely different in mind that I was working on but [Kabir] and I were having a political discussion and he asked me if I voted. I said, “Of course.” I was expressing my dismay that so many African Americans didn’t vote. Being an African American woman, it took so much for us to get that right. Kabir asked me if I was interested in making an album on the topic of voting and I thought it was a great idea. That conversation lasted for about a year before we ended up in the studio,” said Carter.

The album is made up of songs she selected, offering official (and some unofficial) songs of the election “swing states”. She chose to represent her Michigan, a swing state with 16 pivotal electoral votes, by including Marvin Gaye-William Stevenson-Iby Jo Hunter’s “Dancing in the Streets.” Other songs that are included on the album are Eddie Khoury-Ronnie Bonner’s “Pennsylvania”, William T. Purdy-Charles D. Rosa-J.S. Hubbard’s “On Wisconsin”, Stephen Foster’s “Swanee River” (Florida), John Denver-Mike Taylor’s “Rocky Mountain High” (Colorado), Jimmie Davis-Charles Mitchell’s “You Are My Sunshine” (Louisiana) and Daniel E. Kelley-Brewster M. Higley’s “Home on the Range” (Kansas).

The opening monologue lends insight into Carter’s childhood memories of the discrimination African Americans faced within the democratic system of the U.S. She speaks candidly about growing up in a diverse neighborhood with children of many different backgrounds whose lineage was from countries like Greece, Poland and Mexico. She recalled living in peace with other families until it became an election season. This was the time when people’s differences became a hindrance to harmony and Carter wants for others to be able to vote but also respect one another’s differences even when voting preferences don’t align. She understands that her right to vote comes from the years of protests and demonstrations that her parents, grandparents and great grandmother participated in and the sacrifices that many were forced to endure to gain the right of suffrage.

Black women were legally granted the right to vote 100 years ago when the 19th Amendment prohibited the government from using sex as a criterion for voting rights. But, Black women were disenfranchised and mostly unable to vote for another 50 years due to the dual impact of “othering” and discrimination. “The 19th Amendment did not eliminate the state laws that operated to keep Black Americans from the polls via poll taxes and literacy tests—nor did the 19th Amendment address violence or lynching. Some African-American women will vote with the 19th Amendment… But many Black women faced the beginning of a new movement for voting rights in the summer of 1920 and it’s a struggle they will wage alone…,” said historian Martha S. Jones to TIME Magazine in 2020.

It is true that voting numbers of African Americans were quite low during the 2016 elections, but in contrast, it has been Black women who have been leaders in grassroots voting initiatives and record numbers of Black women are being voted into office, including Senator (now Vice Presidential nominee) Kamala Harris. No matter what the platform looks like or how prominent it is, Black women are creating spaces for not only the Black community, but anyone who has interest or passion on the subject of voting to be able to share their voice and do the work that needs to be done in order to work towards a fair and equitable future for all.

Of course, the conversation of voter discrimination and disenfranchisement should not be overshadowed but Carter wants to spread a message of encouragement to the American people. The swing states are key elements in the structure of elections and to pay homage to them shows that the Regina Carter Freedom Band wants to hone in on information voters should know and understand. Offering a level of education about the importance of swing states just by creating music that can cause listeners to learn more about the voting process makes Carter’s work a civic offering along with being a piece of creative art.

“Do I consider myself an activist? In a way, I guess I am, through my music and through volunteering and giving money to organizations. I’m not out protesting but there are several ways to be involved. So yeah, I do consider myself an activist.” For more information, visit reginacarter.com

Recommended Listening:

• String Trio of New York—Intermobility (Arabesque, 1992)

• Quartette Indigo—Afrika! Afrika! (Savant, 1997)

• Regina Carter—Rhythms of the Heart (Verve, 1998)

• Kenny Barron/Regina Carter—Freefall (Verve, 2000)

• Regina Carter—Reverse Thread (eOne, 2008)

• Regina Carter—Swing States: Harmony in the Battleground (Tiger Turn-eOne, 2019)

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