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On 'Blanket The Homeless,' Bay Area Artists Join Together To Raise Money For Those In Need

Scott Mickelson, producer on Blanket The Homeless

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On 'Blanket The Homeless,' Bay Area Artists Join Together To Raise Money For Those In Need

The new album of original songs, produced by Scott Mickelson and featuring contributions from Fantastic Negrito, The Stone Foxes, Con Brio, Rainbow Girls and more, is out on Nov. 8

GRAMMYs/Nov 7, 2019 - 12:44 am

Beneath the Highway 101 overpass, the scene is bleak. Scattered rows of tents create multiple encampments that continue for several blocks from one neighborhood to the other. On some sidewalks, barricades have been placed against the walls to prevent tents from being laid up against them, but it doesn’t stop people from putting them up closer to the street instead. Some suffer from substance abuse issues or mental illness, though others don't. Regardless of backstory, they all just want somewhere to rest or simply have privacy from the world outside of the zipped-up nylon. 

In other parts of San Francisco, the scenes are similar: the city's homeless population counts over 8,000 people in 2019, a nearly 20% increase from two years ago. It’s a miserable sight, one that dehumanizes people who can't afford housing among the city's growing real estate prices.

Local politicians campaign on solutions for the growing homeless population in S.F., but the political will to find a long-term solution to the problem seems flimsy at best. It's in stark contrast to the amount of money flowing into the city's thriving tech companies. The rich are getting richer and the unfathomably poor are growing in numbers. And when political activity is lacking in dire times, it takes independent philanthropists and other local community activists to make a visible difference—anything to help rally a city. 

Enter artists: the ones who made San Francisco a haven for free-spirited creatives 50 years ago have also risen to the occasion over the years by any means necessary when faced with how to help the city’s homeless population. Comedian and S.F. resident Robin Williams led the charge over two decades through the Comic Relief series of events, raising over $50 million for homeless services in the process. After his death in 2014, comedian and S.F. native Margaret Cho coped with her grief by staging a series of busking performances throughout the city to raise money for the homeless population, coining the hashtag #BeRobin.

"It was a way for us to be charitable, but also bring a sense of comic relief and performance. Very Robin Williams," Cho tells the Recording Academy. "And calling attention to it, really ignites people’s humanity. It shows that we’re not going to ignore this problem."

A co-founder of the #BeRobin movement, Ken Newman is a San Francisco singer/songwriter and philanthropist, who has kept the efforts of Cho and others going. In 2016, Newman founded Blanket The Homeless, a local charity that has partnered with the St. Vincent DePaul Society Of San Francisco (SVDP-SF) by seeking to improve the day-to-day lives of people living on the streets. In short, they raise money and donate packages that include blankets, socks, toiletries and any other day-to-day supplies that the homeless population might need. 

To call further attention to the issue and continue to raise money, Newman's latest effort sees him partnering with producer Scott Mickelson to put out a compilation benefit album entitled Blanket The Homeless. Out Nov. 8, Blanket The Homeless features music from 15 Bay Area artists, each of whom contributed an original song to the album, including two-time GRAMMY winner Fantastic Negrito, Tim Bluhm of The Mother Hips, Con Brio, Rainbow Girls, The Brothers Comatose, The Stone Foxes, The Coffis Brothers, Seattle's Tobias The Owl (who lived on the streets as a teenager himself), Goodnight, Texas, King Dream, Whiskerman, John Craigie, The Old Soul Orchestra and tracks by Newman and Mickelson as well. The day before the album's release, many of the artists involved will be playing a benefit show for the project at San Francisco venue The Independent. All proceeds from the show and album sales will go directly to Blanket The Homeless. 

"Regardless of the title, I wanted this to be a strong musical statement that stood on it’s own," Mickelson says of the album. While most of the songs do touch on the album's titular theme, Mickelson (who also produced 2017’s After The Fire Vol. 1, a benefit album for victims of Northern California's devastating fires) let the artists know that the songs didn't necessarily need to be directly about being homeless. It just had to be a song they’d be excited to release. 

As San Francisco and Bay Area artists themselves continue to grapple with the ever-inflating cost of living, coming into Mickelson's Marin studio ready to record a song that speaks to the larger issue at hand came naturally. On "American Dream," a spiritual folk number by Rainbow Girls, the band reflects on the concept of self-worth when compassion might not be present. 

"When you listen to it deeply, it's for obvious reasons that this was our song,” singer Vanessa May says. "It's musing on this ideal that we're all seeking 'Americanness.' That we’re all just trying to find ourselves and exist as healthy selves and family. It talks about how easy it is for your carefully laid plans to be blown by the wind."

When May sings, "Everyone is worth something and it's not their weight in gold," one can't help but think about how invisible San Francisco's homeless population has become to many, let alone to themselves. This speaks to the heart of Blanket The Homeless: displaying compassion for human beings who are suffering every day without a place to call home. 

"It takes greater creativity to get people to care again," May says. "It's a different age, where we live in an attention economy and most of our attention is very much occupied." 

Meanwhile, "Working Poor," Fantastic Negrito's impeccable Delta blues track (and the only non-original song on Blanket The Homeless, having appeared on his 2016 The Last Days Of Oakland album), tells the tale of people being pushed out of the city and into the heartland; their home has new tenants as they’re forced to the sidelines. Similarly, on "Odd Man Out," Mickelson, who wrote the song during the process of producing the album, sings of the feeling of becoming invisible, like you don't fit in anymore, a relatable perspective whether you have a roof or a rainfly over your head at night. 

"I find it difficult to understand that in a city where we lead the world to believe that we're so liberal, diverse and the most conscious of the environment and rights, that we literally and figuratively step over the homeless," Mickelson says. "They’ve become such a fabric of the city that they won't be acknowledged."

True to his word, Mickelson has put together an album of songs that can indeed stand alone. While the message is clear throughout the journey of Blanket The Homeless, the mighty talent on the album is just as evident. The stripped-down bluegrass vibe of "Angeline" by The Brothers Comatose and the sultry groove of "Body Language" by Con Brio are two love songs that shine especially bright. For Con Brio lead singer Ziek McCarter, who lives in San Francisco’s Fillmore district, being a part of Blanket The Homeless is in line with his and the band’s ethos. They recently put out a single, "Living In The City," that sent all proceeds to San Francisco's Coalition on Homelessness, and have worked with Bread & Roses, an organization that brings music to institutionalized people. 

"We love to give back to the community," McCarter says. "But the condition within the city itself is tough. It's treacherous to walk through the heart of downtown and the Tenderloin. So any way we can contribute and have a positive influence, we’re there. We’re not just in it for the music."

It can be frustrating to think about how a lack of a concrete solutions from city officials is not only not solving San Francisco's homeless problem, it's making it worse. It can be even more frustrating to think that artists, who are becoming increasingly pushed out of the city because of similar economic mechanisms, are the ones left staging effective ways to help. But their efforts are inspiring nonetheless: The money raised will go directly to help S.F.'s homeless population, effectively continuing the great philanthropic work Williams did when he was still alive.

"He was endlessly generous with his time and his comedy," Cho says of Williams. "You know...the original spirit that the city used to stand for something, a great spirit of independence and DIY...it doesn't have to go away."

And for some, like the 15 artists involved in Blanket The Homeless, it hasn't. 

"To be an artist and to make a living in San Francisco...it's a grind," McCarter says. "But it’s a great honor to say that we're part of the legacy and history of artists that have thrived in the Bay and stood up for just cause and stood up for the people." 

For more info on Blanket The Homeless, and to purchase the album, click here.

Purchase tickets to the November 7th Release show at The Independent here.

Historic Berkeley Folk Venue Freight & Salvage Welcomes A New Generation Of Music Fans

Rotimi On Performing At ESSENCE Fest, Growing Up African-American & More

Rotimi

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Rotimi On Performing At ESSENCE Fest, Growing Up African-American & More

The Nigerian-American singer and actor sat down with the Recording Academy to talk about what inspired his latest album, 'Walk With Me'

GRAMMYs/Jul 8, 2019 - 10:04 pm

In 2015, Rotimi stepped into the New Orleans Superdome for the first time to experience the magic of ESSENCE Fest. Four years later, in 2019, the "Love Riddim" singer returned to the celebration as a performer, something he said was spoken into existence.

"Last year me and my manager had a conversation and I said, 'Listen, I'm going to be on the [ESSENCE] mainstage this year. 365 days later, we did it," Rotimi told the Recording Academy at the 25th annual ESSENCE Fest.

Rotimi, also an actor on Starz' "Power," has evolved since his last album, 2017's Jeep Music, Vol.1. The singer said he really hit home with its follow-up, the recently released Walk With Me, a project he worked hard for, putting in hours in the studio after filming on set.

"Walk With Me is the first time I actually felt like I was giving myself as an artist, and personally I feel like with everything else I have going on I wanted to show people that this is really what I do," he said. "I wanted people to understand who Rotimi is, who Rotimi was before, who I want to be and just understand my growth and the journey and my passion for what I do."

Part of why the album felt like such a representation of him is because it embodies beats of his African roots, something he said was very present growing up Nigerian-American. 

"I grew up with a lot of Fela Kuti and I grew up with Bob Marley," he said of his musical roots. "But I also grew up with Carl Thomas and Genuine and Usher, so there was a genuine mixture of who I am and what I've grown up to listen to. The actual Walk With Me project was a mixture of influences of Akon and Craig David."

Mumu Fresh On What She Learned From Working With The Roots, Rhyming & More

Quarantine Diaries: Joan As Police Woman Is Bike Riding, Book Reading & Strumming D'Angelo

Joan as Police Woman

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Quarantine Diaries: Joan As Police Woman Is Bike Riding, Book Reading & Strumming D'Angelo

As the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic continues to rock the music industry, the Recording Academy reached out to a few musicians to see how they were spending their days indoors

GRAMMYs/Apr 7, 2020 - 07:21 pm

As the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic continues to rock the music industry, the Recording Academy reached out to a few musicians to see how they were spending their days indoors. Today, singer/songwriter Joan Wasser of Joan as Police Woman, whose forthcoming covers album, COVER TWO, includes tracks by The Strokes, Prince, Talk Talk, and more, shares her Quarantine Diary.

Thursday, April 2

[10 a.m.-12 p.m.] Went to bed at 4 a.m. last night after getting drawn into working on a song. Put on the kettle to make hot coffee while enjoying an iced coffee I made the day before. Double coffee is my jam. Read the news, which does not do much for my mood. Catch up with a few friends, which does a lot of good for my mood. Glad it goes in this order.

[12 p.m.-2 p.m.] Make steel cut oats with blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, fresh ginger, fresh turmeric, a sprinkling of cinnamon and cardamom, and of course, coconut butter to melt on top. If you’re not into coconut butter (sometimes marketed as coconut "manna"), I’d suggest just going for it and getting it (or ordering it) and putting it on your sweet potatoes, your oats, anywhere you’d put butter. I’m not vegan but I do enjoy hearing the tiny scream uttered by a strawberry as I cut into it. 

Contemplate some yoga. Contamplate meditating. Do neither. Resume work on the song I want to finish and send today. I have a home studio and I spend a lot of my time working on music here. The song is a collboration sent to me from Rodrigo D’Erasmo in Milano that will benefit the folks who work behind the scenes in the music touring system in Italy. 

[2 p.m.-4 p.m.] I traded in a guitar for a baritone guitar right before all this craziness hit but hadn’t had the time to get it out until now. I put on some D’Angelo, plugged into my amp and played along as if I were in his band. Micahel Archer, If you’re reading this, I hope you are safe and sound and thank you immensely for all the music you've given us always. 

[4 p.m.-6 p.m.] Bike repair shops have been deemed "necessary," thank goodness, because biking is the primary way I get around and I need a small repair. I hit up my neighborhood shop and they get my bike in and out in 10 minutes, enough time to feel the sun for a moment. 

I ride fast and hard down to the water's edge and take in a view of the East River from Brooklyn. There are a few people out getting their de-stress walks but it is mostly deserted on the usually packed streets.

[6 p.m.-8 p.m.] Practice Bach piano invention no. 4 in Dm very, very, very slowly. I never studied piano but I’m trying to hone some skills. Realize I’m ravenous. Eat chicken stew with wild mushrooms I made in the slow cooker yesterday. It’s always better the second day.

[8 p.m.-10 p.m.] Get on a zoom chat with a bunch of women friends on both coasts. We basically shoot the sh*t and make each other laugh. 

Afterwards I still feel like I ate a school bus so I give into yoga. I feel great afterwards. This photo proves I have a foot. 

[10 p.m.-12 a.m.] Record a podcast for Stereo Embers in anticipation of my new release on May 1, a second record of covers, inventively named COVER TWO. Continue to work on music (it’s a theme).

[12 a.m.-2 p.m.] Tell myself I should think about bed. Ignore myself and confinue to work on music. 

[2 a.m.-4 a.m.] Force myself into bed where I have many books to choose from. This is what I’m reading presently, depending on my mood. Finally I listen to Nick Hakim’s new song, "Qadir," and am taken by its beauty and grace. Good night. 

If you wish to support our efforts to assist music professionals in need, learn more about the Recording Academy's and MusiCares COVID-19 Relief Fund.

If you are a member of the music industry in need of assistance, visit the MusiCares website

Report: Music & Culture Infrastructure Can Create Better "Future Cities"

Hero The Band perform at the Recording Academy Atlanta Chapter Annual Membership Celebration
Photo: Marcus Ingram/WireImage

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Report: Music & Culture Infrastructure Can Create Better "Future Cities"

How sound planning for a creative future in our urban areas makes all the difference for artists and musicians

GRAMMYs/Oct 24, 2019 - 01:27 am

The future, as they say, is now. And for music makers around the world, building a future for themselves often starts at home, in their local creative community and in the city where they live. While technology has expanded communication and made the world smaller, cities continue to grow, making planning for the future a critical cultural mission of the present.

To that end, a new report by global organization Sound Diplomacy titled "This Must Be The Place" examines, "The role of music and cultural infrastructure in creating better future cities for all of us." The 37-page deep dive into community planning and development highlights the importance of creative culture in what it calls "Future Cities."

"The government defines ‘Future Cities’ as 'a term used to imagine what cities themselves will be like," the report states, "how they will operate, what systems will orchestrate them and how they will relate to their stakeholders (citizens, governments, businesses, investors, and others),'"

According to the report, only three global cities or states currently have cultural infrastructure plans: London, Amsterdam and New South Wales. This fact may be surprising considering how city planning and sustainability have become part of the discussion on development of urban areas, where the UN estimates 68 percent of people will live by 2050.

"Our future places must look at music and culture ecologically. Much like the way a building is an ecosystem, so is a community of creators, makers, consumers and disseminators," the report says. "The manner in which we understand how to maintain a building is not translated to protecting, preserving and promoting music and culture in communities."

The comparison and interaction between the intangibility of culture and the presence of physical space is an ongoing theme throughout the report. For instance, one section of the report outlines how buildings can and should be designed to fit the cultural needs of the neighborhoods they populate, as too often, use of a commercial space is considered during the leasing process, not the construction process, leading to costly renovations.

"All future cities are creative cities. All future cities are music cities."

On the residential side, as cities grow denser, the need increases for thoughtful acoustic design and sufficient sound isolation. Future cities can and should be places where people congregate

"If we don’t design and build our future cities to facilitate and welcome music and experience, we lose what makes them worth living in."

For musicians and artists of all mediums, the answer to making—and keeping—their cities worth living in boils down to considering their needs, impact and value more carefully and sooner in the planning process.

"The report argues that property is no longer an asset business, but one built on facilitating platforms for congregation, community and cohesion," it says. "By using music and culture at the beginning of the development process and incorporating it across the value chain from bid to design, meanwhile to construction, activation to commercialisation, this thinking and practice will result in better places."

The report offers examples of how planners and leaders are handling this from around the world. For instance, the Mayor Of London Night Czar, who helps ensure safety and nighttime infrastructure for venues toward the Mayor's Vision for London as a 24-hour city. Stateside, Pittsburgh, Penn., also has a Night Mayor in place to support and inform the growth of its creative class.

Diversity, inclusion, health and well-being also factor into the reports comprehensive look at how music and culture are every bit as important as conventional business, ergonomic and environmental considerations in Future Cites. Using the Queensland Chamber of Arts and Culture as a reference, it declared, "A Chamber of Culture is as important as a Chamber of Commerce."

In the end, the report serves as a beacon of light for governments, organizations, businesses and individuals involved in planning and developing future cities. Its core principals lay out guideposts for building friendly places to music and culture and are backed with case studies and recommendations. But perhaps the key to this progress is in changing how we approach the use of space itself, as the answer to supporting music may be found in how we look at the spaces we inhabit.

"To develop better cities, towns and places, we must alter the way we think about development, and place music and culture alongside design, viability, construction and customer experience," it says. "Buildings must be treated as platforms, not assets. We must explore mixed‑use within mixed‑use, so a floor of a building, or a lesser‑value ground floor unit can have multiple solutions for multiple communities."

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Nearly 30 Years After Their Debut, Body Count's 'Carnivore' Is The Thrash-Metal Band's Most Fully Realized Album

Ice-T In 1993

Photo by David Corio/Redferns

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Nearly 30 Years After Their Debut, Body Count's 'Carnivore' Is The Thrash-Metal Band's Most Fully Realized Album

Led by iconic rapper Ice-T, the L.A.-based seven-piece keep their socially conscious themes consistent and the music louder than ever on their seventh studio album

GRAMMYs/Mar 10, 2020 - 10:06 pm

In early 1992 Ernie Cunnigan visited the Burbank office of Howie Klein. The guitarist (who goes by Ernie C.) and the then-president of Reprise/Warner Bros. Records were listening to the upcoming self-titled debut from Cunnigan’s band, Body Count, fronted by his Crenshaw High School buddy Tracy Marrow, already famous as rapper Ice-T. Ice, with the savvy creative connectivity that guides his multi-hyphenate media career to this day, introduced his forthcoming metal band in 1991 via tracks on O.G. Original Gangster, his fourth album.

It's not unusual for high school pals to form a band. What was unusual, though, was that Body Count was a hardcore thrash metal band comprised of all-black musicians, with point-blank lyrics that were both insightful and incite-ful concerning racial and social inequities and the climate of America. Listening to the 18-track debut, Klein praised it, while voicing concern about the lyrics of "Momma's Gotta Die Tonight," a song about the matricide and dismemberment of a racist parent. Turns out it was the last track, a ditty called "Cop Killer," that should have given the executive pause. 

While Klein was and remains stridently opposed to censorship and is a dedicated free speech advocate, Body Count, per the era, was released with a parental advisory sticker (as was Original Gangster). Less than two months after Body Count dropped, Los Angeles exploded in fiery violence in reaction to the acquittal of four policemen in the beating of Rodney King, as well as the shooting death of black teenager Latasha Harlins by a Korean grocer. (The grocer was given only probation.) It was the worst possible climate for "Cop Killer," with lyrics including "Fk the police, yeah!" and shout-outs to then L.A.P.D. chief Daryl Gates, Ice's "dead homies" and King. The blowback went all the way up to then-President George Bush, and though Time Warner supported Ice-T in his fight against the song's opponents, he eventually pulled the cut from new pressings of the album.

Currently, streaming services including Spotify and Apple Music offer the version sans the group's most (in)famous song, replacing "Cop Killer" with "Freedom Of Speech" from Ice's 1989 solo album, The Iceberg/Freedom of Speech...Just Watch What You Say, edited to add samples of Jimi Hendrix's "Foxy Lady" and the voice of political punker Jello Biafra. On YouTube, "Cop Killer" has more than 1.5 million views, with most of the comments thoughtful and positive, understanding the intentionally incendiary messages Body Count was delivering. Ultimately, if Body Count isn’t a classic record in the way that critics consider Nirvana’s Nevermind or Public Enemy's It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back to be, it’s an important and groundbreaking one. As Ice-T has said, Body Count is: "a protest record,” not the norm in the metal world, but still the way BC's songs operate today.

Indeed, 28 years later, things haven’t changed. Biafra is also on Body Count's powerful new album, Carnivore. Police actions like "stop and frisk" (the NYC law enforcement program that was proven to disproportionally target black and Latino men) wasn’t legally discredited until 2014. Body Count’s one-time bassist, Lloyd "Mooseman" Roberts III, was murdered in South Central Los Angeles in 2001 in an accidental drive-by; in the last 12 months, 126 black men were killed by guns in L.A. County, as opposed to 23 white men. And Ice-T and Body Count are still raging against the machine.

Ice-T enjoys pushing buttons lyrically, and if they’ve sometimes been heavy-handed or misguided ("KKK Bitch" or "Bitch In The Pit"), Ice-T is a politically eloquent, passionate and personal songwriter, which can be too easily overlooked given Body Count's volume-heavy metal chops and Ice's delivery, a speedy vocal style that’s been traditionally more aggro-rapping than melodic singing.  

That said, Carnivore is Body Count’s best album to date; it’s the most fully realized musically, and there’s a cohesion to the vocals and music that led Body Count bassist Vincent Price to lay out the band’s growth in a Metallica timeline: "Manslaughter [2014] was basically Kill ‘Em All; Bloodlust [2017] was our Ride The Lightningand Carnivore’s our Master Of Puppets."

He's not wrong, and though Ice-T’s more than 20-year stint as detective Odafin "Fin" Tutuola on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit has precluded lengthy Body Count tours, the buzz is loud for this seventh album.

Ice-T may be the original gangster, yet he’s patient, articulate and fervent in explaining songs and motivations to audiences and the press alike. "When I'm Gone," featuring Amy Lee of Evanescence, was inspired by the killing of Nipsey Hussle. It’s a reminder, as he says in the tune, to "tell the people that you love, that you love them now. … Don't wait; tomorrow may be too fking late."

His prolific musical social criticism and seemingly left-leaning views are thoughtful and targeted, despite the vitriol of so many Body Count songs. In the nearly 30 years since founding his revolutionary band, Ice-T observes, "I think you’ve got less racism; less people, but more avid racism. It’s unnerving to think that we’ve come so far but there’s still so far to go." As he advised in a 2017 interview, "Don’t just be angry. Know what you’re talking about so you don’t alienate someone who should be an ally."