Bartees: [00:00:00] I was making it for the one other black kid in the room, or for the three queer kids in the room, or the people who feel like they don't really get a shot or like are not seen or talked about or cared about at all. And, uh, I'm playing for a lot of times, mostly white people. And sometimes I'm like, is the mission still intact? Like, are these people hearing the music? I really want them to.
Helga: What does it mean to write music for the kids who are not seen, heard, or cared about? Even with his growing popularity in Indie and rock scenes, Bartees Strange strives to bring his music to unexpected audiences and to tease apart the racial boundaries between them.
I'm Helga Davis and welcome to my show of conversations with extraordinary people. Bartees Strange joins me today [00:01:00] to talk about growing up on a military base in England and working in the labor and climate movements in DC and how seeing an appearance by TV on the radio on the David Letterman show was the cheat code for writing his own music.
It's very nice to hear your voice.
Bartees: Yeah, very nice to hear you too. Thanks for having me.
Helga: Absolutely. Where are you?
Bartees: I'm in my closet in Washington DC. But no, it's the quietest place in my house. I'm living with my brother and sister right now and we have a couple dogs, so just in case they get loud, I'm far away.
Helga: How's that living with your brother and sister? Are they older or younger or are you in the middle? Where do you fall?
Bartees: It's such a trip cuz I'm the oldest. And I've not lived with them since I was 17 years old. I'm 33 now. It's very interesting.
Helga: And tell me what's interesting about that.
Bartees: Well, they don't need me anymore. They're grown. And it's funny cuz all the years I've spent worrying and being like, oh, I'm gonna do this so you don't have to do this and yata yata yata.
And then we move in with each other and they're just like fully grown, fully functional adults who have their own lives. So I spend a lot of time being like, oh, well if you don't need me, what do I do?
Helga: Ah, what do you do?
Bartees: What do you do? You, you look at, you work on yourself. You try to figure out why you feel like people need you when they don't.
That's something I talk to my therapist about. What do you do when the people you thought needed you don't really need you and like you, and you feel like you need to be needed? It's like a whole circle.
Helga: It is. But you also made some promises to them about what you were gonna do and how you were going to position them in [00:03:00] the world and in their lives and in your life, which is not only about being needed, correct?
Bartees: Right, right. You're right. I think, um, we grew up in a very rural area in a western Oklahoma and, you know, not a lot of black folks around. And when I left, you know, I was like, I'm gonna go out and I'm gonna like get established and then you guys can come too. And you won't have to do, you won't have to work as hard.
I'll do the hard work. Um, and they ended up doing completely other things, which, you know, which is funny, you know, you make a plan, God laughs kind of situation.
Helga: Oh yeah. Oh yeah, indeed. Laughs. So you are born in Ipswich, England?
Bartees: Yes, I was born in the UK.
Helga: Huh. And how long did you live there?
Bartees: Oh, not too long. Probably seven, eight years.
Helga: Oh that’s long enough my love.
Bartees: Yeah. My, um, my mom is an [00:04:00] opera singer and my dad was in the military and they were moving all over Europe and um, that's kind of where I was, where I was, you know, born.
Helga: And tell me. Being a young black man in Ipswich, England.
Bartees: Well, I grew up on a military base, uh, and my mom and dad, I think they were very conscious about the people they put me around. Cuz my parents are from the south. Two black people grew up in North Carolina, um, and South Carolina. And I think they wanted to make sure we were around black people as often as we could be cuz I think that was the first time in their life that they didn't live around black people either um, and they were traveling a lot. So, uh, my mom found a church on base that had some women there that she really trusted. And that was kind of raised by my mom and dad when they were around. And Georgia Lee Baker and a few other women.
Sister Lee, you know, people that my mom trusted with her life that, I mean, they're still [00:05:00] friends to this day. Um, probably cuz of the role they played in my life. But yeah, so I was kind of raised by committee, um, with all these people that some were from the South, but others were from Guyana, others were from India.
People that were just at the base for whatever reason that my mom. The people that were trustworthy,
Helga: do you think that had some influence on the music that you make now? And if so, what do you think it is? What were you listening to over there on the base?
Bartees: Well, honestly, my parents, they, they didn't really want us listening to secular music um, when we were kids. I think my mom was trying to be very straight and narrow, um, and kind of sheltered us as a way to kind of protect us, I think. Um, but—
Helga: Protecting you from what though? The world?
Bartees: The world. Uh huh, uh huh. I don't think she wanted me to find out how cruel the world could be at times. And I think she was finding out how cruel the world could be in her own [00:06:00] way. Cause my mom, you know, she was singing and she had just left Eastman and she moved to Europe and she was trying to make it. And I know she faced like a lot of challenges. Um, so I think in a way she probably wished she could have been sheltered from that., from those experiences. Um, yeah. I did realize though, as we moved from base to base, a way to make friends quickly was to figure out what they were listening to and to kind of be like, oh yeah, I like that too. I like that too. I like that too. And that way I could kind of ingratiate myself or find like a little crew cuz I knew what they were hearing and that was something that I copied throughout my entire life for sure.
Helga: What were they listening to? And what did you copy?
Bartees: Well, I copied everything I saw, which was something that I had to deal with as I got older. But I remember boy bands. Like NSYNC, Backstreet Boys. And I remember I had a friend who had, um, Disney Channel and [00:07:00] Cleopatra, I don't know if you are familiar with that group, but they had a song called “Cleopatra Comin At Ya.”
And it was these three black girls. And the hook was like, “Cleopatra comin at ya, Cleopatra comin at ya.” And I remember people singing that song all the time. And I was like, I have to find this and I have to learn the words so the people know I know the words so I can fit in with these people at school.
Like that's what I'm doing. .And I learned all the words and I went to school, I knew the dances and I was like, okay, cool. Like I'm gonna, this is gonna get me by for like the next year for sure. And so, but you know, there was a downside to that too, cuz I felt like I spent so much time trying to like be everything I saw that I don't think until I was much older that I really asked myself, what do I like? What do I actually want to be? So upside and downside of moving around all the time.
Helga: I mean, it's still a fair question, no? To ask oneself what is it that you like and what has meaning for you.
Bartees: Definitely, definitely.
Helga: When did you start making [00:08:00] music?
Bartees: Oh yeah. I started making music when I was probably in my early teens, 14, 13, 14, 15, in there. Um, cuz I started making friends who had older siblings who could drive. And I started just kind of hearing what they were listening to. Like I heard—
Helga: In the car?
Bartees: Right, I heard like 50 Cent, “Get Rich Or Die Tryin.” And I was like, whoa, this is amazing. Like pre-choruses, like I've never heard this used this way and I, I—like Linkin Park. And I was like, oh, it's like rapping over the rock thing. Like I've never heard that before. You know? All these new things I'd never heard. So I was getting a little curious and my dad—my dad's not musical at all, but he's a huge, um, listener. Like he's, he doesn't make music, but he is a music nerd, like collects music and loves like high-fi equipment, like speakers and reel to reels and stuff like that. And when he would go to Japan, he [00:09:00] would always come back with like a new thing.
And, um, one day he brought me like this little cassette recorder and so I just kind of fell in love with recording myself. And just like talking into it and playing it back, playing it back slow, playing it back fast, that fascinated me. So I was kind of more in love with like sound and like, oh my gosh like you can manipulate sound. And then I was kind of finding music at the same time, and I think that's when I started kind of like recording things, but I didn't know how to play an instrument. I just knew how to sing and so I would just kind of play with little melodies and record 'em into my tape recorder and listen back at various speeds, and that's kind of what I did for a couple years. I didn't really have the vision of being a musician or a creator or an artist. I just was having fun.
Helga: That's a thing to have fun or to go toward this direction where you're doing something that makes you [00:10:00] feel good or that piques your curiosity.
Bartees: Yeah. And that's just how it started. And I don't think it was until I was really probably 15 or 16 that I was inspired to make something.
And I'll never forget watching television. Late Night Letterman comes on and this band comes on called TV On The Radio. And the front man is this black dude named Tunde Adebimpe. There's this other black guy playing guitar. There's a black guy playing bass. And all the black musicians I knew, all the musicians I knew were like high art, classically trained freak level musicians. And that kind of discouraged me cuz I'd see my mom and her friends and I'd just be like, yo, like I can sing, but I do not wanna go to the Hawk Schuler. Like, I do not wanna, like, you know, I didn't, I didn't feel like that was my journey , you know? And to this day my mom is still like, you know, things don't work out. Like you're still young. You could be a baritone. Like, I'm like mom [00:11:00] I don't think that's like what I wanna do, but when I saw him I was like, oh, you can just make music and it can be fun. And it's like not about how clean and perfect it is, it's like this emotional release. And that was like the cheat code. Like I was like, oh, I can do that. And I got a guitar like within the next week and just started writing songs.
Helga: So what did your parents think of your music and how did, how did they express themselves to you about what, what you were doing and the choices you were making about the kind of music you wanted to play and perform?
Bartees: I think they were really surprised, but my dad loved it from jump because my dad loves rock and roll. My dad loves Parliament. If you ask my dad like what the biggest moment in his life is, he'd be like, well, other than my kids being born, I saw the mothership land. Like that's what, [00:12:00] a hundred percent, that's what I've heard him say it. He loves Parliament, he loves like Sun Ra. He loves like this Afro futurist out of this world rock and roll vibe. Um, and he introduced me to that young, with like Brothers Johnson and like funk songs that he would play around the house when we would like work on cars and stuff. And so, from jump, like, you know, late high school, early college, he'd come to my shows and I think that was the first time I ever saw my dad cry, was like, at one of my shows. Um, and that was a really wild moment. And my mom, she was always just like, please don't hurt your voice, like up here screaming with all these white boys because she didn't understand like I was doing like hardcore music and like really heavy music and like punk stuff and like that was what I was into as a kid. But they were always very supportive. And even as I kind of pushed music to the side and started working full-time jobs in my twenties, my mom would always say, like, BJ, that's what she would call me, BJ, Bartees Junior. She'd be like, don't, don't give up on your music. Keep writing your [00:13:00] music. Oh, it's worth doing, even though you may not understand it, but you should keep making things. And I always did. And her encouragement was a really big part of that.
Helga: So you were listening to all this different kinds of music and then you are making music, and so what, were people asking you what genre this is, or was it just hardcore, or were you making other kinds of songs and sounds as well?
Bartees: Yeah, well, I—It's kind of funny because I remember being 18 and I remember I would fall in love with vibes. Like I would hear like Beach House, which is like a big synthy pop, luscious sound, kind of like Slowdive from the early nineties but synthesizers, and I'd never heard anything like it, so I was hooked on it.
So then I bought a synthesizer and I just made music that sounded like that for like a year and a half. And then [00:14:00] I heard Super Spirit by Junie Morrison and George Clinton, and I was in love with funk music and that's all I made for like a year and a half. It was like, I would find these vibes and just get hooked or like house music with Burial and Gorgon City and I would just write house beats for like ever.
And I would sell them and try to like get my friends to sing and rap on them and blues, you know, anything I could find that it would pique my interest, I would just fall in love with it so deeply. And after a while, I just started making those things, but blending them together in a way that just felt good to me.
And I wish I had a better story to explain it, but it was just like, I would just fall in love with these sounds and I would just be like, why can't they live together? And I had this feeling that they belong together and it was just happening very naturally. But none of my friends really understood it.
And no one in the studio that I worked with ever wanted to help me make those types of songs. So I had to teach myself how to do it. [00:15:00]
Helga: Do you consider yourself or does the world consider you to be an indie music musician? Are, do you, do you feel part of that community or some other community, and is that important to you?
Bartees: That's a, that's a question I ask myself a lot and I am right now. Yes. I think people would consider me like an indie musician, an alternative musician, but I know those musicians and I'm not like those musicians. And it's something I've, you know, asked myself a lot. This last year's kind of been my first time really touring for multiple months at a time, really going for it. And I've learned so much from these artists. Courtney Barnett, Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Dacus, Car Seat Headrest, The National.
Helga: Tell me one thing you've learned.
Bartees: Well, I've learned that these people I've looked up to forever who I thought I was like, I mean, we have some things in common, but [00:16:00] I'm my own thing.
I'm my own person. I'm gonna have a different journey. It's not gonna look like theirs for a lot of reasons. And, and one of those reasons is cuz I'm black. Uh, and these, I mean, their road is gonna be different than mine. And just kind of becoming comfortable with like, you can have a career in this, but you're gonna have to really trust yourself cuz it's not gonna look like the things you've seen.
Helga: It's such a big life lesson, that thing also. Where do you feel like you've met resistance, if any?
Bartees: Honestly, the biggest forms of resistance came for myself. Because I told myself I wasn't good enough to do it for so many years, um, and that it wasn't worth pursuing. When I moved to DC from Oklahoma after college, I sold all my equipment. I was like, I'm gonna become like Mahershala Ali from House of Cards. I'm gonna just like work in DC work on the hill. Yeah. That's what I did for 10 years. [00:17:00] You know, I worked in politics. I worked for the climate movement. I worked in the labor movement. And half of that time, I didn't touch any music at all.
I tried to get away from it so I could be this thing that I thought I was supposed to be, and then, uh, I became really unhappy and just started making things again. But it was like a journey and I felt kind of dealing with myself and eventually realizing how important creating things is to me was kind of how I was able to get over that. And then once I got over that—I mean, no one understood what I was trying to make. I mean, I tried to shop my first record around to a label and no one wanted it for two years. Like no one would accept it, no one thought it was good and they didn't understand what I was trying to do with it.
Um, so. But I still put it out and it worked. But you know, I had to, there was a lot of conversations with myself for that few years, just being like, this is worth doing. [00:18:00] Like even, you know, whether it's five people or 5,000 people, it's like, you want to do this. And so I did
Helga: So was there something that finally helped you say yes to yourself and yes to yourself as a musician?
Bartees: Um, yes, a couple of things, but the biggest thing, I had a realization during that. I remember leaving Oklahoma for the job and thinking, oh, I'm about to make my parents so proud, like my parents, grandparents, everyone's gonna be so pumped when I'm like this fancy guy, you know? And then I became that fancy guy and my mom would just be like, you seem so unhappy.
And I was like, I am because I'm not doing this thing that I love doing. You know, it was just so one to one. Like I literally cut that music outta my life to become this other thing. Hated it. Everyone around me knew it. And I was like, okay, I guess I [00:19:00] gotta start doing the other thing again. Cuz I don't think my parents sacrificed all that stuff for me to be rich.
They did it so I could like, you know, enjoy my life. Have a happy, healthy life. Mm-hmm. and they want to come to the shows. So, everybody won.
My parents love the shows. It's amazing seeing them at shows.
Helga: Say a little bit more about that.
Bartees: Oh my gosh, there's nothing cooler in the world. My dad Googles me every day. He talks about me at work every day. My mom calls me and puts the phone up on speakerphone and I can hear my dad on work meetings talking to everyone at FEMA about his son that played on Kimmel and da, da da da da.
They love it. And when they come to the shows and they see all these people knowing my words, like just lose it. It gets so emotional and they grow closer together. Like I'm watching them have moments with each other. It's beautiful. So, [00:20:00] so beautiful. And my brother and sister are there and it's like how it's always been in a way, us singing at church, us singing at opera camp, and my parents being there looking at each other, looking at us.
It's, it's, it's beautiful.
Helga: And how about working in the nation's capital? You were born in England, but you're very much an American and you were there in Washington for 10 years. What, what did that mean for you?
Bartees: Yeah, well, I, I've had some breaks from DC. I worked in DC for like four years and I moved to New York for a few years and I moved back for three years.
DC working in DC is a trip, you know, I mean, I always, when I was in college, I really wanted to live here honestly because of like Fugazi and, and Beauty Pill and Chuck Brown. The music, you know, I was like, oh, like this is cool music. And, and I was like, and I can get a job doing like, comms up here and working [00:21:00] and making music in DC is weird because I feel you see this like disparity in the city that's just so violent between like people that have, and people that don't have anything and getting on the train every day as a black man and, and walking into the White House. Where everyone in that city or like I was working at the FCC, for example. I walk into the FCC and everyone's like mostly white and affluent you know, the people at my level and, and then there's me. And I just remember always feeling like these people didn't really see the sides of DC that I saw. And that, I mean, honestly, how much pain they're causing by being here. I feel like DC has this thing where it’s like everyone knows the history, but no one will admit the implications of what we're doing to [00:22:00] create this future that isn't very inclusive, and it's, it's just very hard to ignore when you work in the city and you live in the city and you're not white and you feel the pressure mount every day as Whole Foods get built, and the whole quadrants of DC like don't have grocery stores. And
Helga: And what do you do with that? How is it, how do you use your music to work through that? Or do you?
Bartees: I do. I mean, well, the thing about like I think me is, I'm so proud to make music in DC and say like, no, like I'm a, I'm a black dude that like I live in Northeast and like I make music from a place in DC that people try to overlook.
I work with a lot of producers in southeast DC and in Anacostia and it's, it's kind of wild how people see locals here is like, they're magical, but we don't want 'em in the room and. I'm really proud to, I mean, I'm not like born and [00:23:00] raised in DC but that's the world of people that I run with and know and care about, and I, I feel like in a way, like I'm representing this black part of DC and I'm making music that is alternative and indie. It may not always be associated with things that black people make. And I'm like, there are so many more layers to this community and to black people and to this city. Um, if you give it a chance.
Helga: Who comes to your shows, what, who's, who's in your audience?
Bartees: Oh, it's so interesting. Like I feel like it's everybody. When I have shows in DC it's like a show I wish I could go to. I feel like when I go to shows, I'm the only black person there a lot cuz I, you know, I love a lot of like Indie like rock music and stuff and a lot of times you're the only black person or something. But in DC I feel like the shows are pretty diverse.
I'm really excited. For this year because my first headlining tour is at the end of the year in November. And I'm really curious what my audience looks like in [00:24:00] Georgia or North Carolina or Texas. You know, these places that like, I know there's like black and brown pockets, but it's like mostly white. Um, cuz in New York it's like super diverse. DC, super diverse. Chicago, very diverse.
But I'm, as a person who's kind of from the middle of nowhere, I want to know who's coming to this show in Oklahoma City. Yeah, that's what I think about a lot.
Helga: Does it matter to you that there are black people there or not there?
Bartees: Yes. Oh my goodness. I had a show a couple weeks ago in London and something about it made me feel like I didn't, I wasn't, I looked out into this like sea of white faces, these people. Mostly like under 25 years old, I was opening for a bigger band and mostly white women under 25 years old, and I just felt so other in the room. I hadn't felt like that since like high school, and I was just like, ugh this is cool to play for this many [00:25:00] people, but you know, there was a time in my life when I was making this music in spite of people like this, making it for the one other black kid in the room or for the three queer kids in the room, or for the people who feel like they don't really get a shot or like are not seen or talked about or cared about at all.
And, uh, I'm playing for a lot of times mostly white people, and sometimes I'm like, is the mission still intact. Are these people hearing the music? I really want them to.
Helga: As opposed to what?
Bartees: Well, as opposed to no black people hearing it. I, I, I mean, I want my music to be the beginning of a more inclusive conversation in music, you know? Like who's allowed to make what, you know, who's allowed to be in what room? I feel like there's a lot of black, brown, and other indie and alternative artists who are really pushing the envelope, but they don't get opportunities. And I [00:26:00] kind of am trying to show that not only are we capable of making like incredible music, but we can show a new path forward, a new world of music that is inclusive to everybody. Not just young white kids or old white guys. There's like a bigger world and we all want this music. It's there.
Helga: But what do you think that dynamic is? Why is it that way?
Bartees: Hmm. I have a lot of thoughts about this. Why is the indie and alternative space this way? Like the way it is right now?
Helga: Yeah and where, where are, where are black people in your audience and why don't they come? And what is it, if you will, about what you're doing is so strange to them that they don't participate?
Bartees: Well, at my shows, I feel like they are coming. I mean, this, this last experience I had, I was, I was opening for Phoebe Bridgers. Like, and I think that her audience, they are what they are and it's cool to play for them. Um, but I feel [00:27:00] like my worry is with my music and hoping that it reaches black people is sometimes. I look at the indie space and there's artists like Moses Sumney and Serpent with Feet, and Tasha Wow and Taja Cheek from L’Rain.
Like these are black artists who are pushing the envelope in this, in our space. Um, but for some reason, sometimes I feel like. The music is just marketed in a way that isn't showing black people, that it's for them. Sometimes just coming out on labels and being put in places that are like extremely white and I, I never know like how we should change this and I, I deal with it with my own music where you have all this label support and all these people who are trying to help you, but like a lot of them are white and you're always trying to figure out like, okay, like how do I bring more black people into my team so they can play a bigger part in how this is being marketed and like put out in the world so that the right, the people I want to see can see it[00:28:00], which is like, I think, I feel like that's like always bouncing around in my head.
Helga: Well, why don't you just ask?
Bartees: Ask the label to make sure black people see it? You know, that's a good question. I, I've, that's funny.
Helga: You grew up in that church. What's that verse? You receive bot because you ask not? Why do you think you don't ask?
Bartees: Oh. Cause I'm scared they won't like me.
Helga: Yeah. It's such a hard thing. It's such a hard thing. Because you've got, you're in and you're trying to stay in and find ways on your own to bring [00:29:00] other people along on your journey. . And yet if you're in a room where you aren't represented, how do you make that important to those people without jeopardizing or what feels like jeopardizing your own position in that room?
Bartees: It's interesting. It reminds me of, uh, jobs I've had honestly working in the climate movement or in the labor movement and you're the only black person in the room and you know that the work should benefit black people more. You know, they need the benefits of the work more than others, but getting the room to believe you is like such a challenge and I feel like that's my challenge now. [00:30:00] I express this to my team or to the label, and they may think like, oh, we're nailing it. But in my mind I'm like, this isn't hitting where it needs to hit and I don't know how to get it there. And it's like this trial and error kind of thing, you know, where you're just like, that didn't work.
That didn't work, that didn't work. Am I getting closer? Am I getting farther away? And all this is so new to me. It's disorienting already. It's a trip.
Helga: What's new to you?
Bartees: Being in the music industry and touring and having a label. Having people I can ask for help at all. Making money on music. That's like a new concept entirely. So, um, I feel like this last year it's been just like a fire drill. And now I'm kind of getting used to it enough to be able to look around a little bit and, and question things that have happened in the last two or three [00:31:00] years, um, as I prepare for future releases and things that I wanna see happen later.
Helga: I was, I was listening and then, uh, one of your lyrics kind of popped out at me. What does it mean for you to feel just like your father?
Bartees: Rushing around. My dad is a hustler. Extremely hard working and entrepreneurial spirit. Big dreams. Um, always had them and continues to have them, but sometimes I feel like my dad was always just kind of, not running in a circle, but kind of running himself ragged. And I just kind of wanted to be like, slow down. Everything's fine. We're good. I'm good. Mom's good. I know you wanna like do everything for us, but we're good. And sometimes I feel like that kind of, kind of in what we were just talking about. Some things take [00:32:00] time, like just, that's it. Some things, it just literally takes time. You can't, you can't do everything. You're not gonna reach everyone today.
Helga: And what about from a Boomer? You say, “you can't hurt me for, I've been buried alive by the devil.” I love that. That's my jam. I love that song.
Bartees: Thank you. Well, um, there's a few things happening in that song and in that section specifically it's like a, like a kind of like country like bluesy breakdown kind of thing and, um, kind of referencing like my family and that album Live Forever is kind of all about, you know, me wanting a shot and saying like, look like I'm good at this and I deserve to be here making music for you. You know, I deserve this and I really want to do it. And in that section, I'm kind of saying like, I've already been through the worst [00:33:00] you know, like I've seen the worst, I've experienced it. I've watched my parents go through it. I've watched my grandparents work through it, and I want something for all of that work and all of the things we've experienced.
And that line, you know, I'm just saying like, you can't hurt me. I've, I've seen way worse than what you could throw at me. So, what do you wanna do? You gonna let me in or not? That's kind of what it is. Yeah.
Helga: You're listening to Helga we will rejoin the conversation in just a moment. Thanks for being here.
Helga: And now let's rejoin my conversation with Bartees Strange. I was also thinking about your lyrics in, in this regard also, there are a few songs where you use the word nigger. And just to give you a little background, you know, I was on the subway the other day and two young African American men were speaking to each other and there wasn't even really a conversation there.
It was, yeah yo, my nigga. Yeah. What up nigga? Yeah. You know, you know how it is, nigga. And it just went [00:35:00] on and on and on and on and on. And I hear it, uh, when I hear young women talking about men they're having experiences with, and I wanna, I wanna ask you about the word I wanna ask you about its use in your music.
Bartees: Yeah. I use the word in my life, you know, I talk to my friends. It's like not everybody gets that word, but people I care about do. My buddy John Ketchum, Will, DJ. Those are my niggas, like forever. That's family in a way.
Helga: And what does that mean? That means family to you?
Bartees: Yeah, to me it's like, that's my, those are mine, my people. We care about each other. And when I use it in songs, I kind of use it as a signal, like for black people, yo like, what's up? Like, do you see me? Like I see you. [00:36:00] Um, that's, that's why I've always thrown it in my music and because I, I love the word, I love how it sounds and it's a word that means a lot to me.
I remember when I moved to Brooklyn, I, I, I never really lived in a place that was, um, like majority black in my life. I never had anyone to say the word to other than like my brother, you know, or like someone on the basketball team when I played in an AAU league. Um, and after living in DC in like a very white neighborhood at the time I moved to Brooklyn, I was living in Crown Heights and I kind of honestly had this new discovery period of like three, four years where I was just only with black creatives, period and it kind of woke me up in terms of like how I saw myself and how I moved through the world. Um, I felt like I was stepping into myself in a way, in a way that I [00:37:00] never was able to. The word is like a term of endearment that I've, I've used for my friends and that was used towards me and I kind of wore it like a badge.
The people on my block would say that to me and I would say it back to them. It was like, welcome home, get off the train, been around white people all day, and I'd take a right onto my block. And so I was like, my nigga was good. That became like, welcome home bro. You know, like that became this thing that made me feel really comfortable.
And that's how I've used it, you know, since then is like, this is something that I use with my friends as a term of endearment. And in my music it kind of holds that space too. I get the feeling you don't really love it.
Helga: You know what Bartees, I'm trying, I'm trying to understand and I'm so first things first, just thank you for being in this part of this conversation with me. I just find it [00:38:00] very painful that it is accepted among us as a term of endearment. And so when I see the old black ladies in their hats and carrying their purses and wearing their pearls, and they're in their nice dresses or their suits and as hot as hell outside, and they're still wearing panty hose under those suits and dresses, and they have on their special shoes.
I can't imagine ever in this life that I would wanna hear someone call them that, nor be the one to call them that and to respect or at least have in my consciousness what it might mean to them having been born in a [00:39:00] time when that was, that was the worst thing anybody could call you. How did, how did we get—and I'm not asking you to defend everyone. I'm asking you how you got to the place where it became a term of endearment with all the things you know about it.
Bartees: This is a word I wouldn't use around my Nana or Aunt Sis or Uncle Amos. You know, this is something I would use strictly with people that I felt Understood me and understood where it was coming from,
Helga: But can you divorce it from the history from which it comes?
Bartees: No, but I think that there's layers to that. For example, I feel like, obviously nigger is a tricky, tricky ass word, right? I grew up hearing it a lot when I was a kid. I've fought a lot of white boys over that word. And [00:40:00] seeing my fair share of ugliness growing up where I grew up. But when I moved and when I was around black people, that word was used to me in a way that was new.
It didn't feel like it felt coming from a white person. I don't know how to explain that. Uh, I mean, I wanted to be a part of this community um, that was using it. And these were broke people, rich black people, people that worked at the MoMA, people that worked at the Whitney, people that played in cool bands.
The music I was listening to, that word is like a crucial aspect of the music. , you listen to hip hop, I mean, that's just a word, and in my mind I kind of—
Helga: But it isn't and that's what I'm, it isn't just a word. It isn't.
Bartees: I, I, I hear what you're saying, but what I kind of loved eventually was it kind of stripped this word. The word wasn't scary to me anymore. They had eroded it and it became this thing that people started using in a new way. And I thought that—
Helga: No Bartees, no no no. In a new way?
Bartees: Okay. I mean, I don't feel the same way. I wanna apologize. I feel like I'm offending you. I don’t want to offend you.
Helga: No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. Hang on, hang on one second. Hang on. So the first thing I said, even in bringing this up is that I wanted to be in a conversation with you. And so there's nothing to apologize for. We are in, we are in a conversation that I feel is very important. Maybe it's, it's important in a different way to you than it is to me, but it's important in, in the sense that I want, I wanna understand and I want very much to be on this, whatever this journey is with anyone for whom this is a term of endearment. I wanna understand how come [00:42:00] and how we got here, even if it's just a little bit, just to take one step. I, I don't want you to apologize for anything. That's not why we're here. We are here in conversation and I'm with you and I wanna stay with you, and I want you to stay with me. I don't want you to go anywhere, especially not for this.
Helga: But you know what else, too, Bartees, I think part of the reason that I asked you is because I feel safe enough to ask you, and that's what's true.
Bartees: Mmhmm. A point that I did wanna make was this word became a term of endearment to me because of how it was being used by black people towards me. And I saw this community that I thought was like beautiful that I'd never seen before when [00:43:00] I, I'd never seen anything like it before. I mean, there were black people everywhere. It was a new world to me. And when they welcomed me into it, and that word was just a part of it. I was like, cool, this is, I get it.
I really felt when I got off the train and I turned the corner to my street and they said, my nigga, what's good? Or like, what's up? And that big smile or like, and the joint is passed my way or, and they hug me, they dap me up and like I'm on the block. Here I am in this world that I always wanted to be a part of, you know?
Yeah. It's just like, oh, this is that, this, okay, I get it, you know that's kind of how I, I learned that through, through those experiences and with other black people that I've run with and this world I'm in now making music or making art or whatever among my age range, my group, we use it all the time with each other and it's almost like, Like a secret that we [00:44:00] share in a way.
It's almost like, ha ha. Like we can say this thing to each other and it, I mean, maybe it's gross, but it kind of bonds us, you know, being in Paris playing a music festival, you see another black band from America and y'all just start throwing it around. You know, you start saying nigger to each other just as a like, we're together, this is my friend from America.
And like, we've never talked until this day, but like, boom. And now everyone knows we're together. And that's a signal that is kind of valuable when you feel like you're the only one and it cuts through a lot of noise. So it's funny, like a term of endearment, but it's almost like a sign of understanding.
Yo, like, I know you, you know me. Like we don't know everything, but we do know this and that means something. I remember working in like professional settings, meeting black people from other parts of the country. We're the only two black people in the whole conference, and we'll be beside each other walking into the elevator and one of us will be like, [00:45:00] My nigger was good, and we just bust out laughing.
You know what I mean? Like, it's just like, ha, thank God you're here. You know what I mean? Like, it's like a joke, but it's, it can mean so many things and like, I, I shouldn't have used the word like demystifying or like eroding the word, because obviously the word holds a lot of weight because we choose to use it for reasons.
But it is something. Oh God. Like, yo, I'm grate—you know, it's weird. I'm grateful for the word. You know, I'm grateful for that experience and for the word, and not the history, all of it behind it, but I mean, that's obviously a part of it.
Helga: What about your bandmates? Where'd you find them?
Bartees: Yeah. Um huh. Well, From all over. So I feel like I'm from like a community of players, right? Most of which, most of whom are from New York. There's probably like 20 of us. Um, but we all kind of used to hang out in this basement 49 Shade where Taja Cheek lives. Um, she would have parties and we'd all go and meet each other.
Um, Dan Kleederman, my [00:46:00] guitar player I met there. Um, Graham Richmond, the other guitar player I met playing in a country band. He was the bass player. I was like, just the side man playing guitar. But we all kind of come from this little crew of like Brooklyn musicians that played in various bands with each other and have kind of clicked up over the years.
Our newest player though. Um, she's, you know, black woman from Richmond, Virginia. TK Johnson, she just graduated from Berkeley like in May and I hired her, but she's an incredible drummer and I wanted people to see her play. And she's outstanding, so brought her into the band too. And John Daise, when I moved back to DC this most recent time, I asked everyone, who's the best bass player in DC? And they all said, John and I went and saw him play and I was in love with how he played bass. And I hired him as fast as I could. And that's kind of the core of, of the crew.
Helga: And what's, what's your, like, what's your relationship? How, how does [00:47:00] it go when you're on the road? Um, are you a band of thieves or brothers and sisters?
Bartees: I would say we're like a band of brothers and sisters and we're all experiencing this for the first time. None of us have played in big bands or bands that got to tour or see the world. So every time we do something, I feel like we're all looking around at each other like, whoa, this is crazy. I can't believe we just played in front of this many people and we did our thing. The thing we do. And I know like with the black players in the band, we're just like yo we're showing people a new thing. This is so sick that we get to do this at this level, in this world, in these rooms. And the white kids that play the band, like, they're so supportive and down. And I always wanted a band that was diverse and majority black and was just forcing like a new conversation.
And, um, I feel like everyone's really bought in and we're [00:48:00] excited about the year and writing more music
Helga: What else do you do?
Bartees: This past year it's been just music, but most of the time I'm writing. , I like to get in my space. This past year has been so much tour. Every time I get home, the first thing I do is carve out a little spot where I can just record and go through all the journal entries I've written.
I mean, I do a lot of just writing in my spare time. Mostly because so many things have changed in the last couple years and I want to remember them and reflect on them and go back through it. That's been the else, and, uh, I feel like family has become more and more important. So seeing my mom, seeing my dad, trying to understand how to be a big brother to my siblings who don't need me anymore. It's nor very normal family stuff.
It's like that's what a lot of my time [00:49:00] is. It's going through the journal, trying to schedule lunch with my mom, call my grandmother, check in, try to be present because when you're on the road, it's like, I miss them so much.
Helga: What's a thing that you do everyday that every person can do?
So often I think that people think that creativity is for other people and they don't—they don't see creative spaces in themselves or how they can be present in their own lives. So it's kind of one of those questions I ask everyone, because I think that if it comes from every direction, maybe you'll hear a person that you relate to say the thing that you need to hear.
What's a thing you do every day?
Bartees: I, I try to record something every day. [00:50:00] I try to make things, the first thing I do, I wake up in the morning and go downstairs/ I journal. And then I have like a little rig set up where I will just kind of play little melodies and just leave it on record and just let it run.
And I know not everyone has a studio in their house. That's not the point. I think the point is just making something you can look at, making something you can hear back and see. You can sing a melody into a voice memo or pluck a guitar. I think it's just good to get yourself outta your head that way.
I know so many people kind of like how you're saying that don't feel like they can really make things or create, and I think everyone can. So whether it's like writing a few lines or painting something, or playing a couple notes, I think it's worth it to do every day.
Helga: So you journal every day?
Bartees: Yes. Every day. Sometimes multiple times a day.
Helga: What else do you do every day? I know you make something every day, but [00:51:00] really a kind of pedestrian thing that most people, or many people can relate to. Although journaling every day is a very big one.
Bartees: Every day I try to talk to someone who knows me, not like my managers or whatever, social media, but like, Just like, call my dad or like get on the phone with, just talk to my little sister. You know, just, just talk, just so someone can look at me that has looked at me for years. Sometimes that is enough to ground me cuz I have anxiety but, but also it's, it's a powerful thing as you like move through the day and there's all these people that have varying objectives and opinions of what you could do and what you should do, but then there are some people who have none of that. They just know you. And that's an [00:52:00] important vibe to be in every day if you can.
Helga: Thank you so much.
Bartees: Of course.
Helga: It's really a pleasure to meet you.
Bartees: It's been amazing meeting you too. Thanks for having me.