The Future: Chicago’s Blues Youngbloods / Part 1
“I have to be true to myself,” declares the multi-talented musician/actress/activist who spent the 2020 lockdown creating a powerful new album, She Black, along with dazzling videos for her original songs.
By David Whiteis
At least since the white blues “revival” of the 1950s and ‘60s, blues artists who’ve pushed against boundaries, or who’ve challenged conventional notions of “authenticity,” have faced resistance among some listeners. Not even some of the greatest names in the music’s history have been exempt – the early reaction of British critics to Muddy Waters’ amplified blues (“Screaming Guitar and Howling Piano!“) has been well documented, and it’s only one example. Since then, myriad singers and instrumentalists who’ve tried to keep their music contemporary have likewise found themselves having to fend off the brickbats of purists, many of whom learned most of what they knew about the blues from old records – and, of course, a record never changes, so if that’s what the music “is” to you, then the music can’t change, either. In recent years, artists who’ve incorporated elements of hip-hop and contemporary R&B into their work (Chris Thomas King, “southern soul” fusionists like Dee Dee Simon) have come in for criticism not unlike that which was leveled against Muddy and his band when they first hit England in 1958.
Chicago singer/guitarist Melody Angel, who professes her love for blues greats like B.B. King, Otis Rush, and Memphis Minnie but also grew up idolizing rock guitar heroes like Prince and Jimi Hendrix, says she has encountered resistance as well, but she remains unbowed in her determination to forge a personalized music that will empower her, as Willie Dixon might have put it, to “express the blues in her own way.”
“Hendrix and Prince – that was it in the beginning,” she remembers. “Then later on, I was in high school, trying to pick up stuff from other guitar players, and I got into some of the blues dudes [like] B.B. King and Otis Rush. I found them on YouTube videos.” (Ironically, Rush was a family relative – “a cousin on my mom’s side” – but apparently he didn’t conduct himself like a superstar on vacation when he was at home. “I just thought he played guitar,” Angel admits. “I didn’t know he was famous at first; I didn’t know anything about his music career. When I got my guitar, my mom told me all about him, and we were going to go see him but he was too sick [Rush suffered a stroke in 2003], and then he passed away before I could tell him I was playing guitar.”)
Recognizing the legacy this music represented to her – an artist who writes, sings, and plays songs that arise out of her everyday experiences as a young Black woman in America – Angel immediately claimed her place in that legacy, but with an important caveat: “My blues obviously isn’t traditional,” she asserts, “because I was influenced by other genres. My thing is just being true to myself, and understanding that the base of my skills as a guitar player is from the blues. I just hope to continue on doing the blues the way the guys back in the day did it, which is just being themselves, and putting their own spin on their own sounds, so all my music will always be influenced by the blues.”
Photo: by Jennifer Noble
As befitting a Chicago blues woman, Melody Angel is a true daughter of the city. Born on the South Side, she moved with her family to Calumet City at a young age (she shares some memories of those days in “1621 Downs Street” on her latest release, She Black). Her mother, Stephanie Crystal, whom she also honors on the new album (“First Unconditional Love”), was an early source of inspiration and support. “She is a singer,” Angel affirms. “She’s done gospel, and she does musical theater; she’s been overseas doing theater, she’s worked at [Chicago’s] Black Ensemble for years, and before that she was singing commercial jingles. When I was a baby, she even had me in a stroller while she was at CRC [Chicago Recording Company] downtown, cutting Coca-Cola jingles, and the Oprah Winfrey intro, and all of that stuff. She never pursued it like I’m pursuing it, like a solo career. She was taking care of me and my brother, so she would just do shows here and there, or something at a church. That’s what she kind of did on the side, when we were growing up.”
It’s hardly surprising, then, that young Melody became enamored of music early on. By her early teens, when she acquired her first guitar, she’d already begun investigating the opportunities that a career in music might offer. “I started doing session work as a vocalist for professional producers,” she remembers, “singing on demos that were submitted to record labels for known pop artists. If the producers would write songs and submit it to the labels, I would sing the song that was for whoever the young groups were at the time.”
Under the nurturing guidance of her mother, Angel also learned early on to take care of business. “A lot of times,” she affirms, “I would write lyrics to the beats, to the songs – they would say, just write a hook or something, and I would write a little hook, and this that and the other, and my mom would help me fill out the copyright forms. I’ve been writing out copyright forms and publishing things since I was fourteen years old.”
It was a short leap from cutting demos to launching her own career as a performing artist. “I’ve been performing in clubs since I was 15,” she confirms. At least at the beginning, a lot of those opportunities were at open mics (“That was all acoustic – I’ve done, I don’t know how many shows with just my acoustic guitar”), but by the time she was in high school she’d formed her first band. Within a few years, she’d begun to make appearances in some of Chicago’s best known performance venues, including the Uncommon Ground Cafe, the Beat Kitchen, Subterranean, the Elbo Room, the Cubby Bear, and Reggies Rock Club. In 2012, Angel opened for Lupe Fiasco for a sold out show at the House of Blues; outside of Chicago, she has performed at the Apollo in Harlem, SOBs in NYC, and twice in Vienna for the Life Ball, where she had the opportunity to share her music with upwards of 40,000 people. She also appeared at the Bryonbay Bluesfest in Australia twice, in 2017 and again in 2019. (Footage from some of these performances, as well as further biographical and musical information, can be found in her video Black Girl Rock. View it on her website: www.melodyangelmusic.com
At least two blues clubs in Chicago, Rosa’s Lounge (where she began appearing regularly in 2014) and Buddy Guy’s Legends, have proven to be especially hospitable to her multi-genre/multi-generational mix of musical and lyric themes; she’s also played the Chicago Blues festival several times, most recently in 2019. Again, though, she emphasizes that it’s not the putative “theme” of the venue or the event that she thinks about when she’s getting ready to do a show: “I’m not going to pigeonhole myself,” she vows. “If there’s other opportunities to play at different clubs – rock clubs or hip-hop clubs, whatever the club is – I’m gonna go and play ‘em. I have to be true to myself.”
That eclecticism is one of her most distinguishing characteristics, and – contrary to what some “purists” might hold – it places her solidly in the legacy of many of the legendary blues men and women who came before her. At her best, in fact, Angel comes on like a one-woman Black Rock Coalition, updating ideas drawn from blues and old-school rock & roll with a hard-rock impetus that also incorporates elements of R&B, hip-hop, and Tracy Chapman-tinged balladry. And although it can be a challenge in today’s demographics-obsessed music marketplace, where it sometimes seems as if every genre and subgenre is relegated and marketed to its own pre-defined audience, Angel says that when she has the opportunity she can reach and inspire listeners of all ages. “I always have younger people come when I do more, like, rock venues or just regular venues that aren’t focused completely on the blues,” she attests. “It’s full of young people – and I still do blues songs, they’re always a part of my set – and they always love it, and they buy my CDs, and sometimes I’ve had them come out to Rosa’s, and it was the first time they ever came to a blues club.”
In recent years, Angel has widened her scope to include both theater and film. In 2018, she appeared in a Chicago production of Suzan-Lori Parks’s play Father Comes Home from the Wars at the Goodman Theatre, and she was also selected to play one of the leads in the Court Theatre's 2019 production of Ntozake Shange’s award-winning For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf. Also in 2018, she starred in the independently produced film Knockout, the story of a young African American woman who faces down her family’s disapproval of her passion for boxing. The film, directed by Erik Scanlon, concluded with a searing rendition of Melody’s blues-rock anthem “Always on Me.” It was named Best Picture at the 14th Annual 48 Hour Chicago Film Project, and Melody’s performance earned her Best Lead Actress recognition at the 2018 Filmapalooza competition in Orlando. In May of 2019, Knockout was screened at the world renowned Cannes Film Festival in France.
That same year, Angel was approached by a licensing company on behalf of Starbucks, who made a deal with her to include three songs from her Angels & Melodies album in the rotation of songs played in Starbucks restaurants in all 50 states and Canada. “That was my first licensing deal,” she affirms, “so I’m going to just try to get some more; that’s something else I’m looking into.” Last year, she also appeared in a Verizon commercial. Looking ahead, she says, it’s possible that her nascent acting career might pan out further, even before music picks up 100% again. “They’re just starting up auditions again, because a lot of crews got shut down because of COVID, so it’s not as much stuff going on as usual. But if something comes up, I’ll definitely go out for it and probably do it, since music is slowing down.”
In fact, like most artists, Angel has had to put her performing career virtually on hold. She’s hopeful that things might loosen up at least a little as 2021 progresses, but she knows it’s going to be difficult – all the more so for an emerging artist like herself, who was on the verge of expanding her territory significantly when the pandemic hit.
“It was a setback,” she concurs. “I was definitely going to be doing a lot of shows in 2020, a lot of good shows, a lot of good festivals I had booked, and I was going to be spending a lot more time overseas, so it was really disappointing to lose everything in one day. So it was tough. I try not to even think about most of it. But there was nothing to be done. It wasn’t safe, and nobody wanted people to be in an unsafe environment. You know, there’s nobody to blame. It’s just what it was, and we just had to accept it – just have to move on and try to focus on something else.
“That’s why I was so glad to have this album [She Black] to work on, because it really focused me, and it gave me something to do. I just made it the same way I made my last album. I play multiple instruments, so I’ve always been able to do my own bass lines, and the guitar stuff, of course, and then I can build drums and set ‘em up, just make the beats and put ‘em all together and cut ‘em and sample and all – I didn’t play them live, but they’ve live drum samples, so that’s why they sound like they do. Then I can do MIDI keyboard stuff to do my keyboards and strings. I’ve always been able to do multiple things, so if I have a keyboard and a drum pad and all of that, I can just make up everything from there. I’m focused on the music videos now; I’m just gonna make a lot of them. Usually you’d only make, like, one or two from your album, but at this point there’s nothing else to do, so like every few weeks I’m focused on that, and it’s giving me some really good positivity.”
Angel’s overall thematic scope is wide; she’ll pledge fidelity to a romantic companion (“Hey, Love”); glory in the erotic power of a Black woman unafraid to claim her body, her heart, and her desires as her own (“One Little Hit”); croon a paean to her mother (“First Unconditional Love”), and bravely lay bare the wounded vulnerability of a heartbroken lover who’s been betrayed (“I Let You Lie,” which she has just released as her latest single). At the heart and soul of her art, though, is her dedication to social justice. Since she first started recording, Angel has made it her mission in music to fuse the “personal” and the “political” into a seamless whole – whether in celebration, in anger, in mourning, or even in fun, her message is that we can’t isolate our individual lives, loves, and losses from those of the people around us – or, indeed, from society and the world.
Although her music itself, rooted in the blues and powered by rock, pop, and R&B, can be inviting, even exhilarating, for audiences from diverse backgrounds and cultures, she writes – and delivers – her topical lyrics with a take-no-prisoners ferocity. “If I’m going to write a song,” she explains, “it’s got to be about me, about my life, what I know about. And what I know about is living as a Black woman in America. So I’m talking about Black women, period. It’s not about a single person. Sometimes a single person – Breonna Taylor, Sandra Bland, someone like that – is what ignites the conversation, but this isn’t about one person; it’s about all of us. And I wanted to make sure the album was about Black women as a whole, how we feel, how we have felt, what we have been through, what we’re still going through, and so that any Black woman listening, or any person listening, is getting that point of view, and not some song for ‘this’ person. That’s not what it’s about.”
“So many times Black women never get to tell their story,” she continues. “We never get to say what happens to us without people saying we’re complaining, or we’re overreacting, or we’re paranoid. And that is not healthy. Black women should be able to have a platform to speak their truth, and I’m lucky enough to be a musician, so I can speak my truth. And it was a healing process for me, like making this album made me feel better, so I know that it will make other Black women feel good, too. Because it’s something that we all can definitely relate to. But it also is something to open the eyes of people who aren’t Black women. This is to know that this is what we go through. This is how we feel when we’re little girls, this is how we feel when we’re teenagers, this is what we go through when we become women, and living in the world and trying to do something with our lives. My album is not about white people, it's about systemic racism and its effect on black women's lives. So it’s a teachable album, as well.”
Echoing Dr. King’s famous speech, she points out further that “the promises were made, and statements and Constitutional amendments, but they haven’t really given us what they said. It’s [still] an unjust system. So they need to live up to their statute, they need to live up to the Constitution. And we’re coming. We’re coming legislatively, we’re coming with our votes. We’re coming with our mentality and our intellects. We’re going to get the freedom that we are owed.”
In that spirit, on her latest album Angel continues to sing truth to power, with such urgent calls to action as “Freedom” (“Promised but never fulfilled – so here I come!”) and “Give the Power to the People” (which she set to an old-school urban funk beat in homage to the lineage of soul, R&B, and jazz-fusion artists who have raised their voices for the cause), along with her trademark anthems of resistance and survival drawn from the life stories and living histories of Black women (“Invisible Girl,” “They Don’t Know,” “She Black”).
She’s no less resolute when she addresses what she sees as crises arising from within her own community. “Get Over Yourself” warns young Black girls and boys that if they want to prevail in life they’ll have to be warriors, which means being tough and immunizing themselves against self-pity; the incendiary blues/rock/hip-hop fusion “You Let Yo Mama Down” is a scathing denunciation of “that small segment of Black men” whom she sees as having betrayed their community, either through their actions or their refusal to act when called upon.
Through it all, though, her message remains affirming – in the timeless spirit of the blues, she stares down life in all its iniquities and horrors, then summons the will and the fortitude to carry on, resolute and unbroken. Even at their bleakest, her lyric vignettes are set to melodies, arrangements, and propulsive rhythms that erupt with power, bespeaking a forward-thrusting determination to keep moving toward victory. “It’s about telling you the truth because I love you,” she concludes. “I love Black men, and I want them to succeed. And I want Black women to succeed. I just want us to live in the same America that white people live in. That’s all. But we’re going to tell the truth to each other. We’re not going to sugarcoat things or not say them at all because it could ruffle some feathers. We’re going to speak the truth to one another, because that’s the only way things will change for us, for real. We have to be on one accord. Divide us, [we] stay conquered, and as long as they can keep us divided, nothing’s gonna change for Black people in America. We gotta speak the truth to each other. That’s all these songs are about – I’m gonna tell you the truth.”
Buy or hear the music: www.melodyangelmusic.com
About the Author: David Whiteis is a Chicago writer and educator, who was awarded the Blues Foundation's Keeping the Blues Alive Award for Achievement in Journalism. He is the author of Chicago Blues: Portraits and Stories; Southern Soul-Blues; Blues Legacy: Tradition and Innovation in Chicago; and Always the Queen: The Denise LaSalle Story. His articles have appeared in numerous blues and jazz magazines, both in the U.S. and overseas.