On Juneteenth, ‘In Search of the Land’ Collaborative Album Celebrates Black Identity and Opportunity in Cleveland
Cleveland nonprofit Twelve Literary Arts will release its debut album, “In Search of the Land,” June 19.
The release, which includes contributions from more than 40 Black artists in Cleveland, will intentionally fall on Juneteenth.
The final product will blend music and poetry, and it serves as a way to highlight Black voices and creative talent in Cleveland.
Twelve Literary Arts works to support and develop writers of all ages. Poetry will serve as the “spine” of the organization’s album, and original music by local artists will flesh out the release.
More than 60 Cleveland vocalists, instrumentalists, producers and artists worked on the project.
“In Search of the Land” was conceptualized by Twelve Literary Arts Founder and Executive Artistic Director Daniel Gray-Kontar.
Detroit producer Terrel Wallace, also known as Tall Black Guy, temporarily relocated to Cleveland to record and produce the album.
The final result is 12 tracks that blend musical genres and styles, interwoven with spoken word.
The album’s creators want the project to reflect the current social and political zeitgeist, but also evoke a sense of warmth.
Turning an idea into a reality
Gray-Kontar first came up with the idea behind the album to showcase the poets involved in Twelve Literary Arts.
He was familiar with Wallace’s work, particularly his album “8 Miles to Moenart,” which is a tribute to an important street in Detroit.
“Knowing he has historically paid homage to urban Detroit, I knew that he would be a perfect person to lead on this project as well,” Gray-Kontar said.
Wallace is respected in the production and hip-hop community and recognized for his work with Questlove and DJ Jazzy Jeff, among many others.
Wallace’s partner is from Cleveland. In 2018, they visited the city and met Gray-Kontar at a barbecue.
Gray-Kontar approached Wallace with his idea to create an album that would tell Cleveland’s story, similar to the Tall Black Guy album that focused on Detroit.
In 2019, Gray-Kontar wrote a proposal for the Joyce Foundation to receive funding for the project.
He got in contact with Wallace, and soon the two began developing what they would want the album to sound like.
Pulling from jazz influences
“When he asked me to initially do it, I kind of had an idea without me even knowing about Cleveland,” Wallace said. “And I would say the sound of it, I’ve always referenced it to, Cleveland is giving a big hug to the listener.”
Wallace and Gray-Kontar describe themselves as jazz enthusiasts. There are folk, soul and hip-hop elements on the album as well. The soul sounds reflect the Black experience, Wallace said.
“A lot of warm, summer-y sounds, a lot of jazz references,” Wallace said. “The influence of jazz is definitely a part of the process.”
The title of the album was inspired by jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan’s “Search for the New Land,” an album Wallace’s father had played for him.
“We started by kind of sharing a lot of the jazz musicians we really appreciate and have a lot of respect and admiration for,” Gray-Kontar said.
The original title for “In Search of the Land” was “The Land Claps Back.”
“That didn’t get after the kind of warmth we were looking for for the record. When we heard the Lee Morgan, together, we were like, ‘Yeah. We gotta change the title,’” Gray-Kontar said.
The two men started buying jazz records together and continued sharing music with each other to lock in the overall sound they wanted to create with their record.
“There’s a sound that really emerged that we both really appreciate,” Gray-Kontar said. “This music that’s made on the jazz CTI imprint.”
The warm, CTI Records sound is what they were trying to recreate on the album. The jazz label was founded in the late 1960s, and the overall aesthetic is what informed the sound of “In Search of the Land”.
“That and Blue Note,” Wallace said. “There's a certain pocket of music that we’re trying to do in 2021, but a lot of that stuff was made many, many years ago. We’re trying to take those influences and try to bring that into the sound of this record.”
Finding the featured artists
Wallace, a traveling artist, said that when he was given the green light to start working on the album, he was supposed to venture to Cleveland to begin scouting artists at local clubs and venues.
“The plan was before, pre-pandemic, I was supposed to just come in and out,” Wallace said. “I was supposed to come in and go to some of the venues to seek out the artists that I thought would be able to work well together.”
When the pandemic hit, and live music was put on hold for the foreseeable future, they decided to put out a call for artists to submit their work for the project.
"We’re very much the underdog, and I wanted to be able to use the song to be able to expose Cleveland to the world because we’re so rich in talent and love and commitment here."
Before selecting the music, they had a Zoom meeting with some of the young poets Gray-Kontar worked with at Twelve Literary Arts.
Wallace listened to the tone and context of the poets in their virtual meeting, then he selected music acts he felt would add to the project based on the poetry he heard.
“From there, it just became a word-of-mouth thing after a while,” Wallace said. “It started from the poems, then it was submittable for the music, then it became a word-of-mouth situation.”
The goal was to have musicians write music in response to the poems from the Twelve Literary Arts poets.
A key component of the project was bringing Cleveland artists together who had never worked with one another before.
“We wanted to push them out of their comfort zones,” Gray-Kontar said. “We wanted to invite them to work with musicians who they wouldn’t ordinarily work with. What that does is creates a new sound and creates new possibilities.”
Gray-Kontar began reaching out to local artists he felt would complement others involved in the project.
One such artist was Emily Keener. Gray-Kontar had become familiar with the singer-songwriter’s music from a mutual friend and approached her midway through working on “In Search of the Land” about contributing her vocals to one of the songs.
Keener has an atmospheric, Americana-inspired quality to her original music and was featured on “The Voice” when she was just 16 years old.
Gray-Kontar introduced Keener to Wallace, who sent her the song “Why Not Give Our Best to Love” by fellow Cleveland artist Ngina Fayola.
Keener received the song on a Saturday and turned her vocal parts in the next day. She said the song was inspiring, and everything came together quickly.
“It was just so captivating to me,” Keener said. “I listened through it, and she just had this beautiful acoustic part, beautiful melodies, beautiful lyrics. Obviously, it was produced super, super well by Terrel. I was immediately on board.”
She said it was easy and natural to blend her vocals with Fayola’s. Keener wanted to lift up the song, rather than overwhelm it or oversing.
“I really wanted to fit in the spaces,” Keener said. “I think it just comes down to restraint as a principle and understanding that a big part of the beauty of music are the spaces in between and the sort of silence of music ... It gives your mind, your ear, your heart, a little space to breathe.”
Keener recorded her vocal parts remotely at home in a closet she had constructed into a makeshift vocal booth.
Keener said it was special to meet Fayola through music first, then meet as people.
“Even though we had never met in real life, and I had never met her personally, there was a sort of magic to it. It was really fun for me,” Keener said. “When I did finally get to meet her and chat with her about the song, we got to kind of geek out over it and share in that experience.”
Keener said she wants Fayola to shine on the album, which she calls “a celebration of Black life and Black voices.” She said it’s crucial for Cleveland artists to be heard in this way.
“The whole album is based around the poems of these young women,” Keener said. “That is the essence of Cleveland, and I hope that what I’ve offered does lift it up, and does sort of take people to that place of that real love in community. Because that’s what the song is about.”
Fayola said the first line in her song, “Im only human, as they say,” felt like something Cleveland needed.
Fayola, who was born in Guyana, South America and moved to Cleveland when she was 5 years old, gained a decent following as a poet for many years.
She taught herself guitar and transitioned from spoken word to singing.
“That feeling I get when I hear a beautiful melody ... it just does something to me. And once I started playing guitar and singing, I realized I wanted to give people that same feeling I get from hearing songs,” Fayola said.
She met Gray-Kontar years ago and hit the road with him, performing background vocals on his rap songs.
Gray-Kontar knew Fayola’s father through community activism in Cleveland. She said she knew they had to work on something together eventually.
When she found out about the “In Search of the Land” project, she sent Wallace some of her original acoustic songs.
Wallace was drawn to “Why Not Give Our Best to Love,” which Fayola said is a vulnerable song. She met with Wallace in person to breathe new life into her track, which she had originally written as an acoustic tune in 2012.
When she heard Keener’s vocal additions to her track, she felt that Keener was a pivotal piece of the song, and her voice conveyed her energy as a human being.
“I’m so happy we met. The way our voices blended, I can’t say it enough, I don’t even have a word to really describe when I heard the way our voices blended,” Fayola said. “It was such a beautiful complement to each other. I felt her spirit through the song.”
She said being an artist in Cleveland has its ups and downs, and many musicians are used to just sharing their work locally with peers or loved ones.
Being an artist in Cleveland is a “character-building journey,” she said.
“We’re very much the underdog, and I wanted to be able to use the song to be able to expose Cleveland to the world because we’re so rich in talent and love and commitment here,” Fayola said.
"Terrel and I, being informed by hip-hop, we kind of intrinsically knew that. We had this massive global rupture. That’s just part of life as an artist, you have to deal with the rupture."
Fostering a spirit of musical collaboration
Another artist featured on “In Search of the Land” is Eriq Troi, an Akron-based R&B songwriter and performer.
Troi said Northeast Ohio’s music scene can feel siloed, and collaboration between artists can be lacking.
“In Search of the Land” aims to bridge this gap, and it could inspire local artists to reach out to one another in the future
“Here’s the one thing that is needed, and it’s a very simple thing: We need to listen to each other’s genius,” Troi said. “We don’t listen. But I think with this project, this is going to spark a change. We’ve been missing out on each other.”
Troi’s work on the album plays homage, in part, to one of the signature sounds of the Midwest: Motown.
“[It’s] slightly out of tune, that twangy-ness like some of them old Motown [Berry] Gordy records guitar players had,” Troi said. “I wanted to do it the exact same way.”
While collaboration is an important part of “In Search of the Land,” the pandemic made opportunities for in-person writing, workshopping and playing difficult.
Gray-Kontar and Wallace had to rethink how they were going to make the project work.
“We were both deeply informed by jazz music. We both cut our teeth as musicians on hip-hop,” Gray-Kontar said. “The three elements of hip-hop, according to sociologist Tricia Rose, is all hip-hop forms, whether it’s breakdancing, graffiti art, DJing, beat making, the core elements of all those artistic forms is flow, layer and rupture.”
He said hip-hop teaches you that you have to “go with the rupture.”
“Whenever there’s a sudden break or change, that’s a part of the form. You got to grow with it,” Gray-Kontar said. “Terrel and I, being informed by hip-hop, we kind of intrinsically knew that. We had this massive global rupture. That’s just part of life as an artist, you have to deal with the rupture. We just kind of pivoted.”
Five rooms on the third floor of Twelve Literary Arts space in Cleveland’s Glenville neighborhood were turned into recording rooms.
One room had keyboards, one had percussion, one had a computer and recording equipment and one was a green room.
In-person recording was done on a one-on-one basis with Wallace and each artist.
“I think this pandemic and the limitations that we had served us to kind of have this approach that it doesn’t necessarily matter what’s going on, we can still get it done,” Wallace said. “We just have to adjust a little bit.”
Putting Black Cleveland artists on the map
Wallace said he thinks the album will reach people outside the United States.
The aesthetic and sound will speak to people who appreciate a diverse range of artists and being different.
“I’m not a Clevelander, so I don’t have the affinity for the city, but that’s the kind of aesthetic that I felt, that I heard from some of [the artists],” Wallace said. “This is a place that kind of gets looked over and becomes the brunt of the jokes. And it’s almost like a search for ‘The Land’ of what makes this place great.”
Releasing the album on Juneteenth, an annual commemoration of the end of slavery in the United States, was a deliberate choice.
"This is a place that kind of gets looked over and becomes the brunt of the jokes. And it’s almost like a search for ‘The Land’ of what makes this place great."
“It’s about liberating ourselves from many of the structures that have really sort of impeded the process of Northeast Ohio becoming all that it can become, and to think about what it looks like, feels like, sounds like and can be to not stay in your box and to hear other stories,” Wallace said.
“In Search of the Land” will be available to download for free on Bandcamp, Soundcloud and twelvearts.org June 19.