Chief Adjuah Is Stretching Beyond Genres To Form His Own Identity
Chief Xian aTunde Adjuah's music holds no limits. The New Orleans native (who was first introduced in music as Christian Scott) has not only shed his previous name to embrace his true self, but is also dismantling genre boundaries. Praised for his use of the trumpet, the six-time Grammy nominees has swapped the instrument for self-made ones on his latest album, Bark Out Thunder Roar Out Lightning.
Released in July via Ropeadope, the album celebrates the diaspora—which stretches from New Orleans to West Africa. Speaking of stretching, Chief Adjuah is now tapping into his own genre: "stretch music". Despite being long classified as a jazz musician, his work expands way beyond the genre's racist ties. Bark Out Thunder Roar Out Lightning is a kaledescopic look at all of his influences.
"The main thing for me is just having the opportunity to embrace the part of my own identity politics. That is one that the colonial energy would prefer that we did not hold on to or have. And to levy that to other people that come from our culture as a means of showing how beautiful their actual histories are," he explains to EDITION. "No matter how difficult or how heartbreaking or tragic some of those experiences have been, you always have your own ability to create your own value systems and your own value for yourself. Hopefully, when people listen to this record, they can hear their culture and the root of those cultural expressions and where it has the opportunity to grow are beautiful, because they are beautiful as Black people."
Read on for more of our conversation with the artist.
Reading some of your past interviews, it sounded like you've been wanting to stray away from being branded as a jazz artist. Now you're redefining your sound as “stretch music.” What initially sparked that decision to separate yourself from the jazz stereotypes?
I think it would be two threads. The first one is that that word as an identifier—for this particular cultural expression—is really problematic. And it's not one that I accept. I was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, in the neighborhood where this music was born. Born into the culture that maintains the skeleton keys of those expressions that eventually birth what we now refer to as the “J word” energy. Being from those realities, you're not divorced from the actual context of what those kinds of names and energies around naming actually do.
As a younger person, I saw the realities of what so many master-level practitioners and their families had to endure because of the label. Because of the inability to be able to escape a label that essentially constitutes a synonym for n—er music, for lack of a better way of putting it. That was a very problematic thing to experience and witness as a young person growing up in the neighborhood in New Orleans. Because you'd be looking at people that on every level possible had developed comprehensive mastery, and that were beautiful people trying to continue those traditions and impart them to the next generation of people essentially relegated to a very specific type of indentured servitude.
That descriptor was really problematic for me and wasn't something that I felt needed to continue in that way. We know where the word comes from, it is heavily documented where that word is actually rooted. That history is a pretty dark one. And it was a word that was being used to describe European-descent Americans trying to pantomime a contribution that, at that time, they actually could not. For a myriad of reasons, the word was initially problematic.
To be completely honest, in terms of the actual dialectic and vernacular-based aspects of the expression, the overwhelming majority of people who use that term as a descriptor for what it is that they're doing have zero relationship to the actual practice of the music. When they come into our corridors or conferences of creative practice, they don’t know anything that's going on but still assume that they understand and have mastery and dominion over that thing.
It is a strange thing to label yourself with something that is so specific and nuanced but does not have any expression or relationship to it. So I felt that it made more sense to try and contribute something that embraced all of the different kinds of languages and vernacular that we use in this 21st-century composite of music as a means of forecasting a new direction but also being clear about the fact that it is also okay to re-label things to try and get closer to something that's actually a more appropriate designation for the expression.
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That was beautifully said, wow. So how would you describe stretch music?
Well, I describe it in two ways. I think if we were specifically looking at my compositing version of it in the last 10 years, I would say that it is a genre-blind priority that looks to try and unify all creative improvisers under one larger language versus dividing them up based on definition and colonial boxes, that that serve more to self-segregate creative artists, versus putting them together. So it's a form that says that indie rock, trap music, Indian raga and traditional Korean music do have an opportunity to communicate with each other.
If I asked someone to visualize a Western classical musician, they're going to see different people. And a lot of that is rooted in the fact that the genres have been hyper-racialized so that the larger system can codify and commodify those things. So part of what we're doing is decolonizing the energy around the music and building equity around the expressions.
I was also reading that you legally changed your name earlier this year. Did you feel like a shift in energy once you became chief?
Yeah, I would say that when I became chief, there was certainly a very palpable shift in the energy. I don't know that it was related to my name. However, the dance with naming as it relates to African descent-persons in these spaces has always been a complicated one since I was a very small boy. When I was little, I went to William France Elementary School, which is the first desegregated school in this country. I can hit it with a rock from my backyard. That's how close it was. So the environment that I was being raised in obviously had some pretty difficult histories to contend with.
I could feel as a very young boy that there was something odd about being called these names. So it eventually grew into an energy that wanted to understand and have a more profound and more global viewing of exactly what that meant. As I learned more and as my curriculums grew from my parents, grandparents and community members, it dawned on me that one of the last true points of actual emancipation is also to liberate the name. So if someone calls you “boy” and you answer to “boy”, that represents a pretty large issue. At least in New Orleans, when someone called me Christian and they weren't from my cultural background, I viewed that there was something else within the energy of what they were calling me that I did not accept.
I had physiological reactions to that as a very young person. So it was something that has been a journey my entire life. But as it relates to the maroon nations and chiefdom, I think it's also important for my specific culture that I come from out of these tribal systems, also to reevaluate the pejorative and belittling nomenclature that also exists around that expression. I speak a lot about the use of the term “Mardi Gras Indian”. I have never done an interview where I have not said that it's a term that I abhor. I don't think should be used to label this community or these groups of nations. But it is repeatedly doubled down on in media.
I was actually going to ask about that because I wasn't sure if I should say it like Black Indian.
The preference is maroon or African indigenous. Some will use the term black Indian. But for me, that descriptor Indian is really depending on who you're speaking to. Then Mardi Gras was obviously a cultural expression that Black people were banned from, for the overwhelming majority of its history. So to label them “Mardi Gras” is obviously incorrect because that wasn't what they were up to. They were not allowed to participate in that.
I feel like many people don't realize the power of words. There is a power in what you call yourself and how much you take pride in, who you are. Because that's so tied to your name, right?
Yeah, absolutely. If someone calls you “Jacob” every day and you feel like something about that particular name is not really for you and you answer to that every day, it's like your experiences energetically dodge bullets. To act like that is not also a remnant of a colonial tendency to disrupt the movement of your spirit or to think that is not a potential priority is actually a catalyst. Especially as it relates to our young ones when they're developing their spirits and their capacity to love and to try and effectively communicate their experiences to people of what they're being called, is essentially levying a marker of some sort. Probably a horrid family that claimed, owned, possessed, and visited probably some of the most barbarous things you could conjure up in your mind. You have to know that that actually affects your spirit. You're not even not fully conscious of it.
I'm curious to know how you became chief. Your uncle and grandfather were chiefs before, so is it more of a passing of the torch?
There a lot of different ways that one can graduate or have that particular commencement. It certainly doesn't hurt if you are coming directly in the line of other chiefs. My grandfather was a really formidable cat and changed a lot about our culture. So it seems that all of the male descendants of his life have reached the pinnacle of chiefdom in our culture. I have a cousin Brian, who was an elder of mine by a year and was actually the youngest chief in our tradition.
So it can happen through your efforts in terms of protecting and trying to nurture the community. It can happen purely based on bloodline. It can happen through challenges and face-offs. They can exist in terms of actual physical potential violence or face-offs in terms of musical prowess and singing. So the beautiful thing about this culture is that each nation has its own history and its own underpinning as it relates to how they anoint. That's one of the real beauties about it.
Did your new title as Chief play a part in the inspiration of making this album?
Absolutely. I wanted to honor my grandfather and my uncle. I think if I hadn't become chief, my background and my pedigree are always going to be there. But I think that designation shift brought a bunch of different things up that I don't know would have been present if I not become chief. The record was also me figuring out a 21st-century corollary to Grio music, the kinds of forms that these tribes self-liberated and that survived the experience in New Orleans to make sure that our African identity was intact. So all of those things were priorities.
One song that really stood out to me was “On to New Orleans” because it's solely focused on percussion. “Jubilant” was the word that immediately came to mind. It has a contemporary flair to it, but as Black people, sometimes our ancestors are just in our spirit. When I listen to that song, it's like a calling.
So that one is actually an older composition. We refer to the largest insurrection in American history by enslaved persons as the German Coast Rebellion. This happened in New Orleans. Listen, I've lived in Louisiana my entire life. I've never heard this area referred to as the German coast. So the rebellion gets lost in time, even though it's the largest one. So the initial name for the composition was “Running In Sevenths”. What it dealt with was the different enslaved persons [who were] taken into New Orleans.
They would stop by plantation [after] plantation and eventually pick up more people that had been in bondage. So the song is directly pointing to a rhythm that we would have known based on our own histories, that would have been being played in that space, but the rhythm is adjusted. The rhythm is traditionally played and sometimes is called the “running rhythm”. It has an underpinning of a general baseline rhythm that most African-descent persons in the West play. But we put the rhythm in seventh as a means of illuminating the disruption that eventually ended up happening and some elements of the rebellion being put down. When they caught up with a lot of these folks, it wasn't just the European descent militias, but also the militias of Creole persons and Black persons who also served to help try and put this rebellion down. So that is a very specific moment in history that gets left out of a lot of the singular narratives that we have about this country, but it is an important pillar. It was said that when they were on their way to New Orleans, they were chanting. So that's why the song has that title.
I really liked your interpretation of the classic “Iko Iko” song. What drew you to that song?
Our twist to it is actually more close to the original. The song comes from our culture. So it's the versions that had been in the zeitgeist for decades. The version that you hear me do is more akin to what you would have heard by the originators. Our particular version really illuminates Orisha's energy as the lieutenant energy in in the song. But originally, it would have been done in that way, or it would have been done in a way where the chief is illuminating his tenets. The original is a song that the Maroons would sing in the morning when the chief wakes the neighborhood and to let them know to join their chiefdom. It was really less about trying to grab something that was familiar to people and really more about clarifying people's understanding of it rooted in the fact that this version is probably more akin to what the original felt like.
That's great. Another song that I wanted to talk about is “Golden Crown”, which I think reflects this new chapter in your life. Being the chief now, do you feel any pressure to uphold this legacy?
Yeah, I think there, there are pressures, but I enjoy pressures. So, yeah, I think maybe my reaction to those kinds of pressures is maybe a little bit different than a lot of people's. I'm a person who trusts my training and my pedigree and also the curriculum that I was given to prepare me for this. I didn't know that it was going to happen. But when it did happen, the reaction was not on any levels of a handshaking energy. From day one, I felt like I was firmly standing in it.
So the things that could be seen as pressures, I just look at opportunities and embrace possibility. It’s simultaneously about a certain type of “badassery”, but also to show people who love the city when you're out there on Mardi Gras and making them aware that they don't have a linear relationship to the tribal nations. They actually are living in the spaces that have tribes and kings and pedigrees that go back as early as the 1700s.
So it can be a really dynamic journey when people are singing “Golden Crown”, but I really liked this particular version of it. When my elders first heard the song, they could hear my commitment to wanting to communicate in ways that are tied into a lot of those “rock and roll” musicians and maybe blues musicians of this era don't really have a relationship to the same way that we talked about jazz. So the expression feels like Charley Patton, Big Bill Broonzy, Son House, Lightnin' Hopkins, and all of these prototypical blues expressionists that get left out of the conversation in this era, because the rock and roll of it no longer has the blue element. So it's also nice to see the elders enjoy something that relates to something much older.