clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Survival Psalms of Soul Glo

The Philadelphia hardcore punk band just released an early contender for album of the year. But they’ve got bigger things on their minds.

Ringer illustration

It’s mid-March and Soul Glo is a little under two weeks away from releasing its album Diaspora Problems on the famed punk label Epitaph Records. But in Soul Glo’s North Philadelphia rehearsal space—a room of chipped instruments, bags of bud, and heating that just can’t hold off the winter air—the mood is less of fist-pumping triumph and more of an exasperated woo, like they’d finished a sprint with a bruised hip.

The two months since the album’s announcement have been trying in ways short in specifics and punctuated in pained laughs. An opening gig for Philly indie rock heroes Circa Survive fell apart because of what Soul Glo’s drummer TJ Stevenson calls a “victim of poor circumstances. And COVID. A wicked confluence of bullshit.” (Circa Survive said there were “multiple factors at play,” including one member’s mental health.) Acerbic frontman Pierce Jordan alludes to fractured relationships and partnerships, which includes the departure of longtime guitarist Ruben Polo after playing on the album. He declines to say what led to the split.

“Shit has been ass and beautiful at once,” the more introverted Gianmarco “GG” Guerra, who’s been on guitar duties, says with a long exhale. Jordan, also his roommate, finishes the thought: “It’s been a beautiful ass.”

Hard-fought wins are already part of the band’s lore. Back in 2018, Soul Glo raised $15,000 for GG’s bail when he was taken into custody after being pulled over by state troopers in Missouri on the way to a show. Soul Glo celebrated 2021’s DisNigga, Vol. 2 EP, their last project, and signing with Epitaph with a reflection on Twitter: “constant van issues, mental issues, shit w the law… shit is truly held together by dried tears and blood.”

Then there are the moments when the trio unclench their fists and, as Jordan puts it, “give it up to God.” He was forced to do so in those nights hanging out with GG during the throes of the pandemic’s first year. They didn’t have any gigs or much use for the booking agent they’d just hired. But they had liquor and the Afro Latino aural delicacy known as dembow, reggaeton’s faster-paced sibling. They now share grins over genre stars Bulin 47 and Kiko El Crazy, though the specific song, “Prendia,” has a little more in common with merengue. TJ notes the intersection where the music video’s fiesta takes place is the same one in Bulin’s “third or fourth video.” It’s the type of trivial takeaway that can be picked up only from serious study.

“Prendia” became one of Diaspora Problems’ several influences. It inspires the beat on early-album thriller “Coming Correct Is Cheaper,” where it lives next to a reference to famed indie rap group Cannibal Ox, guitars that’d be at home on the Warped Tour, TJ’s manic interpretation of a go-go beat, the Lyn Collins sample best known from Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock’s “It Takes Two,” and howls against capitalism’s generational trauma (“My parents were contorted to build a future where their children get extorted”). Like much of Soul Glo’s work, Diaspora Problems is both brutal and kaleidoscopic, propelled by an intimacy with mortality that comes with being a person of color in America. (Jordan and GG are Black, and TJ is white.)

“It’s every problem that you have in your life. Every problem that we have in our lives,” Jordan explains in his definition of a diaspora problem. “A direct result of who we are and why we are, and all of that is tied back to our ancestors, and our families, and our family history.”

It’s tempting to see Soul Glo’s music as a melange that projects the utopian idea of people of color being welcomed into what were once predominantly white spaces, under the grand umbrella of inclusivity. But in conversation, they don’t really gesture to such a hope and mainly refer to their work in franker terms. For instance, Jordan shouts out Pop Smoke on “Jump!! (Or Get Jumped!!!) ((By The Future))” because he fucks with Pop Smoke. His mention alongside Juice WRLD, Philadelphia rapper Chynna, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery—all Black young adults linked by the needlessness of their deaths—amid the chaos feels pivotal only when you try to count how many hardcore songs explicitly engage with the fragility of Black life.

The band is blunt when they consider their own existence. What makes Soul Glo worth it? “That’s a great question,” TJ says chuckling. They don’t quite have an earnest response. When asked about what Soul Glo is about, they’re a little more definitive, but just as succinct.

“Survival,” Jordan says.

Before it came to that, Soul Glo started off as sort of a dare. Jordan—originally from Calvert County, Maryland, the less chocolatey suburbs of Chocolate City—spent his formative years playing gigs when his parents allowed it while soaking in his influences from some of his closest bonds: a healthy love Korn and System of a Down from his older sister, exposure to jazz fusion from his dad, and a passion for emo forged with his late close friend, who’s memorialized on Diaspora Problems’ cover. By the time he moved to Philadelphia in the early 2010s, his traumas and tastes congealed in a way that lead him to wonder what if there was a hardcore band who could say “nigga” in front of a hardcore audience. His dark humor made some shows double as social experiments.

“Because my audience is who they are and are people who don’t know me—it’s like, ‘He’s laughing and I don’t know if I should laugh. Because then, I see other people laughing and then when he looks at them, he stops laughing,’” Jordan says. “I wanna cause that in people’s minds also.”

The humor was always just a fraction of Soul Glo’s work. Even though the band’s first untitled project plays it mostly straight with the hardcore influences, it did reveal a scathingly lucid worldview in which intangible systemic issues carry a palpable brutality. A lot of it relies on Jordan’s delivery, a rapid-fire, inscrutable-at-first-listen scream that stretches and shreds his words to the beat of the neuroses of his mind. The extremes untangle the stakes for us, like when he shouts this passage against a wall of distortion on “Violence Against Black Women Goes Largely Unreported”:

My incensed rage is directed at myself for failing to recognize that this work deals with a crime against a woman and her property and that my dead Black male body represents a greater loss to this economy than that of a Black woman, the opposite picture of human life, ever could.

“I’ve always looked at a lot of hardcore as a bunch of whiny guys who’re upset about whiny guy shit,” says Evan Bernard, Soul Glo’s engineer and Philly DIY fixture, over the phone. “It’s a very white-dominated genre and a lot of these people came from the middle class or up. It’s where I grew up. It’s like, ‘What do you have to be so upset about?’ I just want people to hear what Soul Glo has to say.”

GG and TJ had crossed paths with Jordan at shows before the two joined the band in 2017 and 2018, respectively. Soul Glo is the first uptempo hardcore group TJ has played for, but their control and intensity blend the references with the mastery the band demands. GG is the producer-multi-instrumentalist whose backing vocals, a violent yelp, complements Jordan’s emo runs. Together, they configure their influences in a way that seamlessly reconnects them to Black culture.

The just-over-a-minute-long “29,” a 2020 ode to the anxieties of buying antidepressants, twists into call and response and manic piano stabs. It’s already been noted that these are Little Richard’s signatures. Jordan acknowledges he was listening to him, but also to the English rock bands the Chisel and Chubby and the Gang at the time. “Someone said Huey Lewis,” he says, “and I was like, ‘That’s fucking racist.’”

The seamlessness with which Soul Glo can sift through genres illustrates their belief in how much of Western music is connected to the diaspora. In other words, it’s making new art out of old traditions. It’s been proudly a hip-hop thing: emo rap, punk rap, and rap albums named Punk aren’t novel concepts at this point. Interpolating Black music into hardcore is more fraught partly because of the threat of erasure that comes with predominantly white spaces. The core irony is how Afro Latinx artists have been essential to the art that inspires those spaces. The decades-long reach of these artists also touches Soul Glo; Jordan throws syllables roughly as fast as H.R., lead singer of canonical genre-blending hardcore act Bad Brains.

“When Black people take rock influences and put it into hip-hop, they’re drawing from their own tradition,” Jordan says. “When white people do it—take hip-hop influences and put into hardcore … that’s people who have already colonized one genre of Black music and starting to do it again with another, adding it to their already colonized art form and calling it a new form of art.”

On Diaspora Problems, the genres vividly trace the wrinkles of Jordan’s anger and anxieties. “Fucked Up If True” is a dive-bomb into an earned distrust of democracy (“​​I’m sorry that my personal memories don’t predicate the greatness of the state”) and off-the-cuff truisms about race (“​​The degree to which you feel free is written in your genes through your family’s history”) that bottoms out in a distinctly metal growl. However, aggression isn’t the only thing that pulsates through Diaspora Problems. The brand name–dropping “Driponomics,” which features Philly rapper Mother Maryose, is one of Soul Glo’s most straightforward takes on a modern rap song and rides on a pop bounce and a healthy hatred of Reaganomics.

Diaspora Problem is a convincing exhibition of Soul Glo’s versatility, an ambition that could’ve worked against itself like mixing too many paint colors only to get mud. But the album rises to excellence because of how it blends their palette while letting each element maintain its own palpable texture. On “Thumbsucker,” the chords and percussion slows up from hurricanes to steady gusts on the bridge as Jordan scream-lists the process of mental illness treatment. It reifies the encompassing scope of anxiety with concision.

Even an album obsessed with the hard work of existing ends with a sliver of optimism, a concept that gets even more pained laughs when I bring it up in the rehearsal space. “Spiritual Level of Gang Shit”—which gets its name from a tweet Jordan read after the 2018 arrest—is a blues-funk-rap anthem that sounds like if Sly and the Family Stone got really into Rage Against the Machine. It rides out like a punk spiritual as Jordan shouts his refrain over soaring brass and TJ’s rollicking drums: “It’s a spiritual level of gang shit / And y’all don’t know the niggas I hang with.” It’s one of Diaspora Problems’ most immediately graspable lines. Jordan frames it as a more aspirational take on Soul Glo’s survivalism.

“I did have a conversation with my dad a few years ago where he was like, ‘Even though you’re focusing on all of these things that need to be talked about and you have a right to be angry about, I hope that you realize there’s more to life than anger.’

“Especially if this shit is supposed to be about my life and my Black ass, there’s just more to life than my anger. There has to be or I’ll fucking destroy myself.”

Despite the trio’s world-weariness, Soul Glo has more than a few things to look forward to. The gigs will come; they’ll play for the emo fans of North Carolina when they open for My Chemical Romance this summer. But for now, the crew is essentially steadying its legs, working in their blond mensch Rob Blackwell on substitute bass duties.

For about two hours, he’s keeping up as the group runs through tracks from Diaspora Problems and beyond. GG strums with a violence his chipped Telecaster that has been with him longer than Soul Glo’s existence. Jordan sways with nary a vein punching against his skin, even when his screams match his on-record intensity. The fast tempo has straight up left TJ’s purple shirt drenched with a necklace of sweat. The will is there even in the middle of uncharted territory for the band, hardcore, and themselves.

“I just made it a personal mission to see what would happen if I tried really hard to make music. And that’s happened,” TJ says. “So I don’t really know. It just kind of feels like being at the brink of some misty thing. It could be a cliff or a field.”

Brian Josephs is a television writer living in Brooklyn. He moonlights as a DJ.