The Carmen 56 is a famous antique tube radio, also called the Nordmende Carmen stereo. Produced in 1956, this radio is famous for its brass and wood decals, but especially for its impeccable sound and limited static hiss. Deep, refined, and tasteful for an evening radio show, the Carmen 56 is a timeless radio. But the name is deeper than an antique object, it is the brainchild of the label founder Khalid Jones, “‘Carmen’ is the Latin word for ode or poem, and 56 happens to be the category number for the Grammy’s Spoken Word award,” producer Shevy Smith told LADYGUNN. While the name has multiple meanings, all relay the idea of a timeless ode to art.
Carmen 56 is a record label created to share the experiences of minority artists. The nine members of Carmen 56 envision a work of spoken word set behind beautiful brass, or funky drums, or jazz instrumentation. The collection ranges from talk about being the perfect Black girl to Newton’s theory of gravity. Each poem demands unwavering attention and sometimes knocks the listener off their feet. The themes are not always easy to hear but are necessary, and I found myself needing time to sit with what I was hearing. Everyone should sit with each of the 11 odes.
Each artist in the collective brings their own experience of the world. Sam Berlin from LADYGUNN talked with the members of Carmen 56 about their beautiful art and what they hope they can add into our lives through their words.
The production behind this entire work of art is exquisite. What inspired you to create spoken word in such a unique way?
Diane Luby Lane: The power of spoken word is extraordinary. It speaks to moments in history in a way that no other medium can. By combining these masterful poems with this rich musical score, we were able to further extrapolate their message’s power and magic and make them melodic and memorable in both the poetry and pop worlds.
In the political climate of 2020, what is the importance and necessity of projects like Carmen 56?
Jazmine Williams: We are living in what will be an incredibly punctuated time in history, and wherever there is punctuation in history there is art responding to it. Wherever there is resistance there is a renaissance, and that renaissance is critical because it keeps democracy honest. There are so many markers of systemic and cultural endings and beginnings in this year alone, but whether our local/national election results will reflect that is an entirely different story. I hope not, but we may very well face the greatest gaslighting in modern history come November.
The corruption is very real so it’s necessary for artists to tell the story on record, where data manipulation and voter suppression are already twisting the truth of this moment. It’s critical that in the same country that manufactured history books portraying African slaves smiling and “well-kept” on plantations, we’re doing our own documentation of systems we don’t consent to while at the same time guiding the imagination of the masses out of cynicism and disparity. In the words of Zora Neal Hurston, “if you are silent about your pain they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” The role of the artist is to tell the WHOLE ass truth and protect the imagination so that civilization can hold its head and move forward; A functioning government is ultimately going to be in service to both of those pillars (truth and imagination). That is why Carmen 56 and other projects like it are necessary AF in 2020.
What is the responsibility of an artist to educate their listeners/viewers on humanitarian issues?
Dharma Lemon: I believe if the artist has a platform it is an obligation to educate people on what is happening in the world. If you don’t use the platform your diverse fans gave you to bring awareness to the injustices that are happening in the world it is a disservice. I’ve heard some say recently that it’s not your job to educate people on issues, but if someone is clearly misinformed & you have done research its vital to clear up these misunderstandings. When I first started doing art I thought activism has no place in my poetry. I was worried I wasn’t educated enough to comment on these issues happening in the world. I thought my voice was too small to reach anyone or create real change. I’ve always been inherently cynical since I was younger. Eventually, there came a point of realization where I had to acknowledge what I am and who I am to continue writing.
The fact of the matter is I’m a Fat, Black, Disabled woman. I’ve experienced racism, bullying( physical & verbal) from first grade to 10th grade, & so much adversity. It began with me writing what I know and having other girls who felt undesirable for being fat approach me, or a girl who was bullied who said my poem impacted her. It took me a little to realize but I was spreading awareness on issues from a personal & emotional standpoint. It then became very easy, even as an artist without a huge platform, to speak on these issues because if I was targeted for being in a wheelchair for a year if I was punched by men who thought a fat girl could take it, and if I was handcuffed by cops who treated me like a criminal while a white man who had assaulted me walked free then there are people experiencing injustices every day of their life. It’s very easy now as an artist to educate people and talk about issues because a lot of my peers stayed silent while I was punched or witch-hunted for having a different religion. I no longer wish to stay quiet.
You have to realize listener/reader this is compliance. I still have privilege & I must acknowledge those things. I am Black but due to colorism treated better than me Black peers. I am disabled but I’m mostly affected in the ways people can’t see, & I’m a CIS woman who hasn’t experienced the pain/trauma that comes with the grotesque prejudice some have against trans people. So, I must use my art to bring awareness to the adversity for people who are struggling. Now, listener your job as someone who hears these powerful songs on the album is to educate people, too. Not everyone, but you can’t be too afraid to correct your family or loved ones. You can’t be silent when someone fails to recognize their privilege. It isn’t just the job of the artist to use their art as a medium to create unity or to bring understanding. It is everyone’s job to become more ethical than the generations before you.
Were each of these pieces written specifically for the album or were they created on an individual basis in a wide time frame?
Raul Herrera Jr.: Most of the poems featured in the album were created long before we even had the idea for an album. The pieces were written without the intention of being accompanied with any kind of instrumentation or music which is a testament to Shevy Smith’s ear. Every track sounds like the words were written to the instrumental, but music came after. Shevy heard each piece and then created a seamless backdrop for them to dance on. At least that’s how I picture it. For example, my poem “Culture” I wrote 9 years ago. After that many years, you get exhausted of the poem. Shevy brought my poem back to life. Made it an anthem. No, actually, she made my poem come back reincarnated as a totally different beast. There were, however, a few poems written specifically for the album. Cyrus and I wrote “Trophy” after hearing the album direction. “Black Phoenix” and “On Twenty” came about that same way. All the poems feel like they were created in the same room at the same time but really it’s just the musicality in each track that brings them together so beautifully.
What is your mission?
Monique Mitchell: My mission is expansion. A lot of people feel most free and expansive as a child, and as they grow older, external forces cause them to contract. For me, it was the opposite. I was born in a state of contraction. Poetry helped me expand. It helped me breathe in a world that wanted to steal my breath. It helped me speak in a world that wanted to silence me. The more poetry breathes through me, the more my community has the audacity to breathe. The more poetry speaks through me, the more my community is heard. We lift our heads, open our hearts, and straighten our backs until our expansion leads us into liberation. My mission is liberation.
What would you say to the little Black youth listening to your words?
Christina Miles: I’d tell her that she doesn’t have to fit into one expectation of what a “Black girl should be.” Growing up, I was nothing like the stereotypes of Black girls I saw on television – I was geeky, queer, and biracial. The beauty of being a Black girl is that you exist as multitudes of things in one body, and that you have already exceeded any expectations your ancestors could ever have of you. You can be Black and love computer science or math; you can be Black and love making music, or reading comics, or anything that you want to be. You have no ‘duty’ to act a certain way – be as bold, loud, geeky, silly, quiet, shy or unique as you’d like. Your ancestors fought for you to exist as how you are and want to be, now it’s up to you to figure out who that is one mistake at a time.
Tyris Winter: First, I would say thank you to be honest. I am ever grateful that I could develop to the point where my words could be received by those of my likeness. I honestly only write for myself, which I don’t think is selfish but more so claiming my own narrative. In writing so personal, I was really surprised when I started being approached by people relating to my art.
However, as Olivia Gatwood says ” we find each other in the details”. So in writing a piece about my frustration with the economy, people touching my hair, or having to hide parts of myself for protection. I am writing for Tyris the young black queer kid who grew up in the middle of nowhere with nowhere to feel safe but the page. I am writing for young black queers everywhere who still have to hide. I am writing for the black queers across the gender spectrum, across the age spectrum who need to hear that the parts they were told to hide are worth sharing, are beautiful, are worthy, don’t need to conform, or perform for nobody. That they can say NO. They can claim or take up space. That they deserve to live, exist, be happy, be upset, know their emotions are valid and be respected for it. Full stop. End scene. Period.
I get goosebumps with each and every track. I just want to say you should be proud of yourselves. Do you feel proud of the end product?
Cyrus Roberts: I believe personally, pride is not something I too often associate with my own artwork. Ironically, it is easy – incredibly easy – to feel pride for my fellow poets in their creations. To see them express poems that they have had deep inside them for years and still be able to conjure that fierceness and intensity that they had when writing these pieces. For myself, and I know I am not at all unique in this regard, the mistakes are more prominent than the positive attributes. However, I am not self-deprecating to the point where I never allow myself to feel a little bit of connection or a little bit of satisfaction when I am able to externalize the idea/concept that I had inside my head. I know when I did something that other people will enjoy/feel because I could feel it in the air. I could feel it land on them. I could feel it pierce them and sink deep. Sometimes I wish I could feel the same but then I am not sure what force would keep me always trying to push the barrier.
Marquesha Babers: Yes, I feel very proud of the end product. I never imagined hearing my poem in that way. I’ve struggled with putting music to my poetry for a while, so to hear it done with such perfection was amazing. I’m really happy with all of the songs on the album. All of my peers and friends did a wonderful job. The end product is amazing- better than I could have thought!