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Tune-Yards Seeks Answers, Not Absolution

Singer Merrill Garbus speaks about the duo’s latest album, white artists drawing from black musical traditions, and the Buddhist seminar that informed her racial awakening

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“White people don’t know how to talk about race at all, and white people don’t know the harm that they cause,” Merrill Garbus put it, very plainly, for me.

In late January, the 38-year-old singer-songwriter and I were sitting in the greenroom of Hollywood’s Amoeba Music, where she and her band were preparing to perform a free show later that afternoon. Garbus—one half of Tune-Yards, the musical duo that has been putting out its eclectic, broadly referential brand of dance-pop since 2008—has done a lot of thinking about race, particularly her own, in the past year. In January 2017, she enrolled in White and Awakening in Sangha, a six-month seminar hosted by the East Bay Meditation Center that applies Buddhist teachings to help its participants “gain insight into the suffering that arises from our racial conditioning … as white people in this society.” For Garbus, the choice to take the class was the culmination of a years-long interior struggle. “I assumed that, in my life, as I made music, connected with other people, moved to Oakland, California … that something would resolve in me about being white and playing a lot of music that’s influenced by black music,” she explained. “It was kind of the opposite.”

In the place of resolution, Garbus encountered unsettling moments like having a man on the street approach her and say, “I was listening to some Haitian music and I was like, ‘Oh, that sounds like Tune-Yards,’” which is, as she put it, “exactly not right.”

For the singer, enrolling in the seminar was a way of acknowledging that encounters like that wouldn’t disappear just because she wanted them to. “I feel like my whole life I just tried to run from these things, but that wasn’t working anymore,” she said. When she finally stopped running, she was able to recognize that people like her—well intentioned, liberal, and white—didn’t always make the right choices, and further, that often they didn’t understand the full significance of their missteps. They didn’t always perceive the fallout from their actions. I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life—Tune-Yards’ fourth album, released last month on 4AD—is a living record of this discovery. In a world that is increasingly asking pop stars to be self-aware, politically conscious, and socially attuned, Private Life highlights Garbus’s blind spots. It’s an album that’s not afraid to admit, as she did to me, “I don’t know anything. I don’t know how to do this gracefully. All I know is I’m learning.”

Garbus and bassist/creative partner Nate Brenner have been in the vanguard of what she mockingly calls “NPR-approved indie rock” since the late aughts. They are often mentioned in the same breath as groups like Vampire Weekend, Dirty Projectors, and Arcade Fire—all acts who, like them, have been accused of pulling from traditions not native to their (often white, suburban) roots. Tune-Yards’ case, however, is an especially apparent one. That their sound is heavily influenced by music of, and descended from, the African continent is obvious, even to the untrained ear. Garbus’s looped, layered vocal melodies mimic the call-and-response technique common to many African traditions like Tanzanian and Kenyan folk. And those dense, hocketed polyrhythms and counterrhythms don’t just sound Haitian; they are. The group’s enthusiastic incorporation of foreign components into their work has been a longstanding source of criticism. Responding to their 2014 album Nikki Nack, critic Caitlin White posed the question, “Where does influence end and appropriation begin?”

Three years later, it was hovering questions like this that convinced Garbus to join a group of other soul-searching white people twice a month for six months in downtown Oakland to learn about herself and how she could try to “transform our white racial conditioning and white supremacist systems.” It was there that Garbus began to more seriously interrogate the presence of borrowed African elements in her music. She began to think about what it meant for her, a white woman who was raised in Connecticut, to pull from them so readily. What privileges might she be exercising? And at whose expense?

It was also an artistic prompt. As she grappled with these new thoughts and ideas, Garbus began working on I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life. It’s a project that finds her and Brenner up to their old glitchy harmonizing and loop-loving tricks. This time around, however, the two exhibit a greater sense of focus. I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life is a charged album filled with distinctly political songs, but not the sort Garbus has traditionally written. There are no broad indictments of exploitative socioeconomics (“Water Fountain”), no finger-wagging at America’s social inequality (“My Country”), and no dragging of white boys trying to be rastas (“Gangsta”). On Private Life, the target of her critique is far more specific, far more personal. Garbus is a liberal coming to terms with the fact that loving this country and striving to be just are pursuits even more perilous than she first thought. She’s a white person who swore she knew better, a musician trying to address and rectify past missteps. We’ve seen this cycle before.

In 2016, Macklemore and producer Ryan Lewis released This Unruly Mess I’ve Made. It was the heavily anticipated follow-up to the breakout success of 2012’s The Heist—a fun, if saccharine, pop-rap album whose single, “Thrift Shop,” introduced the Seattle rapper to a national audience. The album won the 2014 Grammy Award for Best Rap Album, upsetting consensus favorite Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City. Mayhem ensued.

This Unruly Mess I’ve Made was largely Macklemore’s attempt to address the Grammy injustice, and more broadly, to repent for his presence as a white man in hip-hop. He put the brakes on the party and took an unwanted detour into the unsavory artistic reservoir that is white guilt. The resulting album was packed with track after hand-wringing track, and culminated in the nearly nine-minute-long, flagellant opus, “White Privilege II.” The song drew more ire than praise as many felt it exposed Macklemore as being more concerned with showing us that “he gets it” than anything else.

It was this exact mistake that Garbus was wary of repeating. “There are a thousand ways that I could be put on the defensive,” she told me, reflecting on her thought process. “Macklemore is on the defensive. How do I not go there?” Still, in making Private Life, Garbus found herself puzzled by some of the same questions the rapper struggled with. How does one make a self-aware pop album? More specifically, how does one gracefully write about their position as a white artist borrowing from a largely black tradition? Is it even possible to grapple with your identity as a beneficiary of cultural appropriation without being, well, kind of annoying?

The first step, Garbus realized, was to not even pretend to know how to answer those questions at all. “Let me fess up to how inarticulate I feel,” Garbus told me. “Let me fess up to how I don’t have language for this, how I feel stuck because I’m not sure how to speak without being too much in focus.” This admission permeates Private Life. It’s what makes the album feel more like an act of self-exposure than self-persecution. There’s no sulking, no grieving. Instead, there are songs like “Now As Then,” a rousing four-minute drive in which Garbus seems to parrot some version of herself—past, present, unconscious. “I am exceptional / I am exception / I am the exception / That’s for me, that’s also for me,” she chants. “They might look like me but they don’t know,” the verse continues. And finally, “Oh, the relaxation I feel here / Oh, the relaxation I feel most everywhere / Except the places I don’t go.” These pronunciations reach us stiff and robotic, as if programmed by some sort of prefab white womanhood.

Garbus also realized that, while she couldn’t pretend to have all the answers, she could speak honestly about herself. “I’m just doing some personal digging and being like, ‘This is my experience,’” she explained. With Private Life, Garbus faced the unique challenge of identifying a piece in an already completed puzzle. “This is a context of white womanhood. How does my personal experience fit in with that?” On the entrancing and industrial “Colonizer,” the singer starts to spell it out for herself: “I use my white woman’s voice to tell stories of travels with African men / I comb my white woman’s hair with a comb made especially, generally for me.”

The song was inspired by her realization that “so much of mainstream culture—and not just mainstream pop culture, but culture—is geared toward white people.” Or, as Garbus explained, “[It was] a deepening of my understanding and maybe a recentering of how the world of this country is built in white supremacy.” In other words, it was the discovery that white supremacy isn’t simply a congregation of white hoods and burning crosses. Rather, it’s an insidious and pervasive force in the public sphere, which, if left unchecked, can creep into our private lives, too. It was there on Garbus’s semester abroad in Kenya and it’s there looming among the crowd of mostly white faces at a Tune-Yards show. “It was like, ‘Oh, there are all these ways that I’m doing harm that I’m not aware of, and in some cases, maybe I can’t control,’” she said.

On I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life, Garbus’s pursuit of uninflected truth-telling rather than self-vilification is aided by the fact that the music itself isn’t didactic. She doesn’t signpost how each song should make you feel. Often, where the lyrics are most emotionally taut, the rhythms and melodies are at their bounciest. On the song “Private Life,” Garbus delivers some of the album’s heaviest lines over an infectious groove—“You would never guess what was living inside / Of people like me and you / Oh, will you erase what you embrace? / Oh, what will the good girls do?” she asks as we bop our heads. Within this refrain we hear a phrasing of one of the album’s central questions: Can even the best of intentions absolve a tainted ancestry?

“The ground that we stand on as ‘world-music-influenced indie rock’ is rotten to the core,” Garbus said. She was referring to Graceland, Paul Simon’s landmark 1986 album. It’s an incredibly influential work for Garbus and a large crop of pop musicians who, like her, were raised on it. The record is most often remembered for introducing many Americans to the sounds of South African music, but is also considered by some to be a paragon of blind cultural appropriation. “It’s influenced Vampire Weekend and all these indie bands that I find myself around and compared with and in the same family of. It’s fucking fucked up.”

Garbus is certainly tough on herself on Private Life, but it’s not self-admonishing spectacle. She didn’t want to regret being the star of the show. “All that guilt and shame, it’s gotta be dealt with and pushed to the side enough so that we can actually do this work together,” she explained. I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life amounts to a sort of clearing out. Garbus is unraveling herself and finding things she didn’t even know were there.

We herald musicians willing to expose themselves—their interior thoughts, details of their personal lives, past traumas—no matter what the consequences of that truth-telling may be. For a long time, this in itself was an act of daring pop transgression. Those days have since passed. “Real” has become suspect. It’s been stretched and warped and commodified down to the very last Instagram caption. To be truly bold in today’s landscape takes something deeper, something more sturdy than “facts.” It takes real vulnerability, a willingness to self-interrogate, and perhaps even self-indict.