Mourning [A] BLKstar is a diverse collective of Cleveland-based artists with layered identities. Its members aim to blur the lines of gender and genre while expressing their individual realities through music.
The collective’s 2018 album, “The Garner Poems,” takes on a new relevancy, with the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery sparking protests and new conversations centered on police brutality and systemic racism around the world.
The group released its album “The Cycle” in May 2020. The release expands upon themes involving the experience of Black life in America, but with a heavy emphasis on the human condition—and how different it can be for each individual.
Having a voice in the movement
In 2020, much of the world woke up to the violent, ongoing reality of racism in America. The Black Lives Matter movement has seen a resurgence in 2020, due in part to the visibility of abuse of power, and even death, on social media.
James Longs, who provides vocals for Mourning [A] BLKstar (MAB), said people across the globe are recognizing America’s "hypocrisy" and the inherent promise that hasn’t been lived up to.
"I respect and I recognize it as a historic moment, but I look at it like, none of this is surprising to me," Longs said. "I appreciate everybody being involved and really, really taking responsibility and being part of a solution… it’s the Black American’s experience."
MAB’s songs outwardly confront issues of racism, oppression and police violence. The group defines itself as a punk band but with genre-bending jazz, lo-fi and operatic elements. MAB adheres to the punk tradition of connecting with audiences through songs about political and social injustices.
Vocalist Kyle Kidd has felt empowered and uplifted by this awareness and consequential movement, but also feels scared. Kidd said using MAB’s platform has helped continue necessary conversations.
"There's been this veil, and it's not a veil because this veil has just been drawn over people's faces," Kidd said. "A lot of people have held it there due to comfortability. Now, this veil is being ripped off because it's in your face, it's in your front yard, it's in your back yard and you have to deal with it."
Eulogizing lives lost in 'The Garner Poems'
MAB's 2018 album, "The Garner Poems," directly references Eric Garner, who died as a result of police brutality. Garner was placed in a chokehold and famously said the words, "I can’t breathe."
In 2018, Longs said those words are symbolic of the feeling many Black citizens continuously feel as a result of racial tensions and injustice.
"I go out, and if the lights start flashing behind me, there is a different experience," Longs said.
"You physically can't breathe," Kidd said.
In 2020, with the death of Floyd, the words have become a battle cry during protests in cities across the globe.
"It's the same situation, but it's starting to be recognized globally," Longs said. "'I can't breathe' is an actual, factual reality, but it's also a metaphor for being suffocated out of society."
Kidd said these struggles have been happening for centuries, and not much change has happened.
"But I think we're at a place where change is gonna have to happen," Kidd said.
"I can't breathe" is a lyric repeated throughout the album's track "Garner Poem."
"It's not like 'The Garner Poems' was prophetic, it was reflective. And the reflection continues," Longs said.
Sharing new perspectives in 'The Cycle'
A continuation of "The Garner Poems," MAB’s double album, "The Cycle," speaks more to the individualized experience of people of color with layered identities.
"Being a person of color with so many different identities it's an everyday process," Kidd said.
The album, Kidd said, is "still the same thing but with a different face speaking to a time."
"The Cycle," which contains 18 tracks, is one of MAB's most collaborative efforts to date.
"We're multiple generations, genders, we have all these different members in the band, all these societal perspectives. We're always talking about the human condition," Longs said.
"The Cycle" refers to breaking up the cycles that people experience and the pains and discomfort that come with birthing new cycles.
"Whether it be our political and social climate, whether it be a relationship you're in that no longer serves you well, you're entering into something that is untouched ground," Kidd said. "You're trying to really figure out 'where do I stand in this?'"
Kidd said society as a whole is feeling like it's living in a big, historic moment, but people of color have been living this every day.
“We’ve been dealing with this for a long time, but the feelings around it, the emotions, the actual tangible feelings that it’s here is very different than it was in 2018,” Kidd said.
The tracks were recorded in an empty Cleveland storefront, which also serves as the band’s practice space. They wanted to document this music in a comfortable spot during an uncomfortable moment in time.
The album began as a series of song sketches, with the multi-generational, diverse collective members adding in their individual parts to tell their personal stories.
MAB took time off from writing and recording last year to tour, but now that they have a new studio where they can adhere to social distancing rules, they’re able to collaborate on new material together.
Struggling with limitations caused by COVID-19
Touring the new album this year has stalled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The emotional labor and the feeling exhausted just as a person of color with what’s going on, being on tour might’ve been just a little bit harder and might’ve done me over a little bit more,” Kidd said.
Longs said he misses the connection he is able to foster through song—especially during these unprecedented times.
“We represent ourselves through song, that’s what we do, that’s how we communicate our opinions, our viewpoints, our concerns,” Longs said. “It is frustrating that during this time when we want to contribute, wholeheartedly, to this movement or be a part of it. The best way we do that most effectively is not really possible right now.”
MAB is tying to get involved by donating to causes important to them and through social media, which is a continuation of what they’ve always done, Longs said.
However, they still want to have a connection with audiences to feel that they are having a conversation with others.
“Until we can get on stage, until that happens I still feel limited,” Longs said. “That’s when you really get the feeling when you start performing in larger venues, when you start getting the reactions from your fans, or the people that are following, or just newly introduced to the band… that’s when you really get the pulse of the effect you’re having.”
The importance of self-reflection
Kidd said self-care has been key to getting through the isolation and exhaustion so many have felt this year.
“We have this pandemic going on, and we were forced, just for our safety, to be alone and be isolated,” Kidd said. “And all the things with Black Lives Matter and George Floyd happening, it further confirmed for me… having this outward experience of finding new ways to care for yourself and tell the story of being a person of color during this time and this moment in history.”
Kidd said people across the country share the emotions of fear and uncertainty—but many are waking up to important realities in society.
“I feel like in these times, being a Black-bodied person or a melanated person, to be seen and to be heard speaks wonders, and it just reiterates that you are necessary in this time,” Kidd said.
Kidd said MAB was meeting milestones as a band and collective before the pandemic. Being isolated has, in some ways, been a “divine opportunity” for them to recalculate and reflect and figure out how they, individually, can create a bigger impact.
Whatever the other side looks like, Kidd said, they can show up as their best, authentic selves. Longs said people don’t realize what they don’t know until they know.
“Now that everybody can see after years and years of centuries of evidence that these things have been going on, problems with the police, systemic racism, these words have been used over and over and over again, that it’s actually true,” Longs said. “The entire earth said, we’ve had enough.”
Addressing themes on the new album
Lyrics on “The Cycle” focus on themes of self-reflection, recalculation and putting in the work to find one’s role to better society at large.
The collective is recognized for its colorful blend of musical styles, which is evident on the release, with songs incorporating elements of funk, soul, lo-fi hip-hop and wavy beats.
In 2018, Kidd wanted people to “sit with the pain” that’s expressed through MAB’s material as a way to inspire change and progress.
“The key word is ‘sitting’ because if you’re sitting with it, then that leads you to lay it all out and be able to look at everything and where you stand in it,” Kidd said. “That’s the biggest thing here, is being aware of what’s happening in the world, and where you stand, and how can you be involved.”
Kidd said people have to sit with the truth of what’s happening, accept the threads of history, then move forward.
“But you have to sit with it first before you can do any work,” Kidd said.
This is when the best art and music happens, Kidd added. Having time to sit and meditate on where people stand allows them to find their voice.
“A lot of times, we don’t create space for people to have individualized feelings amongst all that’s going on,” Kidd said.
Kidd said people are experiencing personalized stories in a different way, and artists are speaking their truth more.
“I think music, or art in general, is a universal language. It crosses separate lines and separate experiences and makes everybody kind of able to be empathetic in these situations,” Longs added. “I think art is doing what art is designed to do—it catalogs what we experience.”
Longs said a big theme on “The Cycle” is looking outside of one’s self and doing what’s better for the larger whole.
“There’s always things that we need to work on, but we need to work on them in terms of how it affects others,” Longs said.
Kidd said this movement isn’t something that is ending. People need to check in with others who have different perspectives and are experiencing this in their own way.