Interviewed for TIME about his exhilarating, joyous new album We Are, Stephen Colbert’s late-night band leader Jon Batiste says, “Stevie [Wonder], I remember him telling me once, ‘Don’t let anybody take your joy away.’ And that really resonated with me. And just in general, the whole aspect of your music being no more or no less than you are as a human being.”

Batiste has been a passionate participant in Black Lives Matter protests. Unreliable but popular news sources have consistently painted the protests as violent and reckless, emphasizing images of fires and vandalism, often out of context, and occasionally started by troublemakers who seek to make the protests look violent). Those willing to support (or at least live with) America’s traditions of neglect, abuse, and white supremacy have persuaded many Americans (typically, those who are eager to dismiss Black Lives Matter movement as a problem) that the protests are mob-mentality riots, effectively distracting us from evidence of systemic racism. But the truth is that these public appeals for justice have been, for the most part, peaceful and profound. They sound an alarm that the very “liberty and justice” dominating America’s propaganda is false advertising — the abuses of slavery have not been erased; they’ve been reinvented in ways white Americans can easily overlook.

This song highlights the protests as an affirmation of dignity and, even better, a transcendence of the idiocy of America’s white supremacist leadership.

He may have won an Oscar this year for bringing the music to the magic of Pixar’s Soul, but I’m more excited about this record.

For “WE ARE,” Batiste called up his St. Augustine High School Marching 100 marching band and a children’s gospel choir from New Orleans for backup. Regarding the marching band, he says, “From its inception in 1951, [St. Augustine High School] was intended for the education of young Black men during a time when there was not an elite institution of its kind for high school students. The marching band is historic and a first of its kind as well, rivalling [sic] college level bands. This school has been a cornerstone in the community for decades.”

At Relix, he says that the song

captures the three prongs that are the basis of the album: the times that we’re in today, the heritage that all the music comes from and my personal narrative. It captures them both narratively and sonically. It’s a real multi-generational narrative … based sort of casting with my grandfather on the track, giving a sermon. The marching band on the track is my high-school marching band, which is also a school that a lot of my family went to before I was there. It’s a historically Black high school in New Orleans that produces a lot of very active alumni. My nephews, who are 5 and 11, are on the track as well. It’s kind of a disco meets marching band music meets gospel track that speaks to the scope of what I wanted to achieve in the album, which is the synthesis of narratives and the synthesis of different styles of music.

Want to hear more about this amazing track? Here’s an episode of Song Exploder all about it.


The vocalist for the band Birds of Chicago, Allison Russell will be one of many first-rate acts performing at Over the Rhine’s Nowhere Farm festival in October (which Anne and I will be attending to celebrate our 25th anniversary).

Russell’s new album Outside Child is one of the very best I’ve heard so far in 2021. I’ve enjoyed Birds of Chicago, but now I cannot wait to hear her live.

This isn’t my favorite track on the record, but until that one becomes available via YouTube, I’ll share this one, which is a knockout on its own. Read about its inspiration in this NPR Music spotlight by Jewly Hight:

 

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