The raw and innovative saxophonist gives a one-of-a-kind interview alongside bandleader Thomas Sayers Ellis. Speaking with Qwest, they reflect on the power and purpose of their celebrated collective, the nature of avant-garde expression and its place within modern American society.
The New York-based art collective was formed after the death of Amiri Baraka, the radical poet and activist who wrote about jazz, politics and the African-American experience during the Black Civil Rights Movement and after. Heroes Are Gang Leaders (HAGL) use spoken word, performance art and free jazz to reflect and reshape black art and culture as they see it, both past and present, in a way that is multifarious and idiosyncratic. They come alive on stage, delivering shows where tropes feel nameless and blended, where the audience is both beckoned and challenged. Co-founders James Brandon Lewis (saxophonist) and Thomas Sayers Ellis (poet, professor, photographer) provide a window into their project, but as is often the case with Heroes Are Gang Leaders, it is one that requires active, rather than passive, engagement.
When did you first become aware of the shared territory between poetry and jazz?
A line of poetry is a unit of sound. The troubadours were poet musicians, so something of that sense is, perhaps, ancestral kin. One must not confuse “territory” with selfish narrow-minded aesthetic practice. What if there are moments or regions within the territory that disagree? Might a gang emerge?
Collaborative poetry collections, like compilation albums, require careful thought to be put together. Do the artists in Heroes are Gang Leaders share their work and compile sets with strict themes?
The bandleader operates like the editor of an anthology from the human library. He is aware of the work of the poets in the band as well as the conversation happening within the work. We talk about the themes of, let’s say, a title then we weave a composition out of the many possibilities. There are so many lyrics on the songs that were improvised. HAGL is a blend of both traditions, oral and written. Eventually a song gets a chart or a direction of themes and sounds and within that trajectory, the exploration of freedom emerges.
Despite working with so many artists from so many disciplines, what shared strands do you find between your artistic processes?
I think we share the process of disagreement, which in itself births a human reality: of art being okay, of the human mistake being as equal as the inspired moment, that the collective agreement of shared or self is the whole process not segregation – many great recordings of mistakes or alternate takes, what happens to alternate takes on records, they show the artistic process and growth of togetherness.
How much do you think we are what we read?
I think it’s impossible to survive or return from the experience of language. One either surrenders or sinks. If it is true that “literature is language charged with meaning,” as Ezra Pound once suggested, then we must overlook the word “charged” which seems to suggest something electric and something made of the same energy as the human body. Derek Walcott says, “I died and did not become any book in the city of Angels.” I don’t think we have to read to read. Perhaps we are Readable Beings of the Pre Read Period. The books in us imitate us. The sounds that come out of us were already in us.
Your performances with Heroes are Gang Leaders feel very free, with each artist having the opportunity to express themselves individually as well as a group. How closely do you choreograph these shows? Are they as free and open as they seem?
They are/They are not
They are not if they are
They are if they are not
The o stays in
The middle of chore
The o stays at
the end of choreo
If the graph reaches an era,
The ear opens
Amiri Baraka was a political writer in many ways, seeking to affect change with his work, how do you think he would have responded to the age of Trump?
The same way he responded to the assassination of Malcolm X, the same way he responded to the murder of his daughter, the same way he responded to the Ages of Reagan, Bush 1, Clinton, Bush 2 … with his own creative vocabulary and aggressive mythologizing eloquence. He was not very easily fooled by the changing of the same packages of political deception. He was a student of the Tradition who became the Father Mouth of that Tradition. He earned the right to critique Black Culture and American Society, equally and fiercely, from the inside out. In his poem “Nightmare Bullshit Whirl,” he mentions being surrounded by the worst Negroes in the Nightmare. Can you name another living Black Writer who would dare say such a thing without the aid of fiction / the novel or the persona in a poem? Amiri would decode Trump daily then connect the results of the decode to the same controllers that have always run the wrong voodoo down.
What does the word ‘gang’ symbolize for you? In HAGL, do you engage in a reclamation of the word?
Well that depends on your tribal stance / allegiance in the world. It depends on How you Sound, how you act, where you live, what you believe and where you are willing to either War or un-War. The word doesn’t need rescue of reclamation. We know of its recent bastardization but the rhyme of history is longer than that. Explore the purest synonyms of “gang”: government / crew / cabal / foundation/ board of directors / disciples / ouch.
As an avant-garde group, what special power can you contribute to the discourse surrounding race issues?
The special power is non linear thinking and non linear behavior. Every mind and every body must commit it’s revolt against tunes. All tunes, itunes, my tunes, your tunes. The roll of the avant-garde anything is to reveal that creativity existed before Creation.
The “Halos and handcuffs” lyric is a great dichotomy – it must be interesting to express ideas like this with your saxophone …
I think that what we are is not separated into little categories , or expressing something as halos or handcuffs is descriptive as in or out free or not thought is not separated by the picking up of Saxophone and playing a note when the note itself is painted by what I have lived , the halo as folk song as spiritual, handcuff as not self but a safe historical box of playing handcuffed ears as sound speakers killed by nostalgia , note playing should be understood as a respect and freedom from the elder , them holding the door open for future arrivals but never closed shut on a past of lukewarm water but of the fire breathing now
When playing with HAGL, do you see your role as an accompaniment to the poetry in the lyrics or are you playing your own separate poem on the sax?
It’s both, it’s learning and interacting with the poem then divorcing the poem but sometimes it’s straight music or the sound of poetry influencing the music.
Is there a conscious attempt to achieve clarity in your art with HAGL or is it sometimes more about an expression of disorder?
The clarity of working with Heroes is another opportunity to express my whole compositional sense … I have achieved consciously and unconsciously a greater sense of artistic self and I continue to grow while dealing with the joy and disorders of living this life which always informs the music.
Do you all create fresh pieces together, or do you take previous work and merge it with the rest of the group?
We try to stay topical, fresh, and not just reactionary. We try to create realms and not just follow the atmosphere of the newsfeed and the prepared engineered conversation. Rising to the challenge of keeping one’s ears / life current and creative can’t be taught. The goal is to be the sum of the Age, not a mere branch. We try to make new work all the time. The next HAGL CD is called Artificial Happiness Button. It’s our best!
When poetry is set to music, it can change the tone of the piece. Do the spoken word artists in HAGL ever feel that their work has taken on new meaning through being combined with other sounds/ other art?
Poetry is music set to poetry.
Music is poetry set to poetry.
New meaning is welcomed
and the goal of collaboration.
The art that must arrive after this art
cannot be achieved without,
first, disappearing into an unknown form of art.
Sometimes your performances with HAGL feel very inclusive, sometimes they can feel slightly alienating – both are powerful ideas, but is alienation or discord something you try to achieve with your shows?
HAGL performances are always a dance between the band and the audience. They get some. We get some & vice versa. There’s a lil’ powerful nation in alienation.