Joe Troop Of Che Apalache Talks New Video Series "Pickin' For Progress" & Being Queer In Bluegrass

Joe Troop of Che Apalache

Photo: Erika Goldring/Getty Images


Joe Troop Of Che Apalache Talks New Video Series "Pickin' For Progress" & Being Queer In Bluegrass

The co-founder of the GRAMMY-nominated Latingrass ensemble on his new show aimed to mobilize voters in his home state of North Carolina: "I actively try to cultivate empathy"

GRAMMYs/Jul 30, 2020 - 01:39 am

Joe Troop didn't plan on being in North Carolina right now.

For the past decade, the bluegrass artist has lived in Buenos Aires, Argentina, settling in the South American metropolis after years of traveling around the world and finding in his adopted home new audiences and other musicians eager to learn the ways of American traditional music. It's through Troop's work teaching bluegrass and old time music that his ensemble Che Apalache was born: the other three members of the group—banjo player Pau Barjau, guitarist Franco Martino and mandolin player Martin Bobrik—are all former students. With their help, Troop has expanded the bluegrass template to incorporate the rhythms and timbres of music from South America, Asia, and Africa. Their music has earned them famous fans like Béla Fleck, who produced Che Apalache's 2019 album Rearrange My Heart and earned them a GRAMMY nomination for Best Folk Album.

But while Troop and his band were touring the U.S. earlier this year, the country quickly shut down as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, leaving Che Apalache somewhat stranded. The rest of the group decamped for their home countries (Argentina and Mexico) and Troop decided to return to the state where he was born and raised—and that he got away from as soon as he was able. Growing up in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains was great for inspiring his love of bluegrass and old time music, but incredibly challenging for a young gay man.

Troop has long since come to terms with what he had to endure in North Carolina and, now that he's going to be there a while, putting his energies into getting voters registered and energized to help flip the state in the upcoming election. (The state has voted for Republican presidential candidates in nine out of the last 10 elections.) As he succinctly puts it: "Given North Carolina's sway in the national elections, our votes can literally save the world this year."

Key to those efforts is his video series Pickin' For Progress. In each one, Troop sits down to talk or play music with a guest that can speak to what they see as the flawed political structures in North Carolina and put a face and a story behind some of the biggest issues facing the country. In a recent video, Troop spoke with Juana Luz Tabor Ortega, an immigrant from Guatemala who was facing deportation before she was allowed to live in sanctuary in St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Greensboro. She's been separated from her family for three years and can't legally leave the grounds of the church. While Ortega is using her plight to spotlight the broken immigration policies of the current administration, the effects of this situation are clearly weighing heavy on her. When Troop plays a lovely ballad he wrote with her in mind, she listens with tears in her eyes. caught up with Troop recently to talk about his music, his globetrotting ways, and how he developed his progressive politics, and the origins of Pickin' For Progress.

You've traveled all around the world, but you wound up staying in Argentina. Why did you pick that as your final destination?

I don't even know, honestly. I kind of go where the wind takes me. I met this really cool group of artists and creators and really cosmopolitan people in Spain who were immigrants from Argentina. The economy in that country collapsed in 2001, and there was a mass exodus for people who could afford to get out. I felt like I was brought into manhood in a sense by this really accepting group from Buenos Aires. After globetrotting for a bit and coming back to the United States and being in the hetero-dominant white bluegrass culture, something was not working for me. I took another trip to Spain and my friend said, "You should just move to Buenos Aires. You're going to love it." And I just did. I packed my suitcase, grabbed my banjo and my fiddle, and bought a plane ticket. I stayed for 10 years.

Are you going to head back there whenever the pandemic settles down and traveling is a lot safer?

I don't know. Everything is day by day. I have no expectations of anything. I think the world takes care of me. I feel like a lot of people are taking care of me. Like I woke up this morning and a neighbor left a bunch of vegetables on the porch. I'm lucky, clearly.

Since you've been back in North Carolina, you've been working on this Pickin' For Progress project. What is at stake in the state this election year that made you want to do this big push for voter turnout?

What's at stake is the well-being of a lot of people. There's a level of pervasive ignorance in some parts of this culture that's no different than Alabama in the 1960s. What's happening here is telling of what's happening in rural America. The whole concept of this initiative is to raise awareness of local issues. Things like ICE's involvement in the torture of the immigrant population, the carceral system, the cash bail system. How poor people have been abused by the system. The nature of this work is to show people the extent to which we need reform.

Where did the idea of a video series come from?

I formulated the idea with my friend Matt [Hildreth], who is the executive director of Matt and his team helped me mature in my political philosophy. He approached me with the idea of coalition building in North Carolina. We launched an initiative called with four grassroots political organizations from North Carolina: Equality NC, Down Home NC, Poder NC Action, and Mijente. We built a coalition to get people to vote. And my videos play into that. The whole idea is to convince people that it is important that they vote. There's a lot of disengaged skeptics, especially young people, who really don't think that their vote matters—that don't consider what's on the line for African-Americans, for immigrants, for the regional health care system. There are so many people running for office that, if they knew about them, they'd sing a different song. These videos are trying to raise awareness for what's happening on the ground and for some of the people running for office.

How did you choose the people that you have highlighted in your videos so far?

It's a work in progress. We'll get suggestions from different organizations across North Carolina. The first video is the only one that I did alone. I just want to get things rolling. I thought it was very important to talk about the fact that, honestly, we shouldn't even be here in North Carolina. The whole history of the state begins with the forced removal of Native peoples. My friend Nokosee Fields—his ancestors are Cherokee—so I wanted him to play a song with me and testify. For the second video… Juana Tobar has been in sanctuary for three years at her church. And my band has actually played for her and the church a couple of years ago.

And you have a new video out this week. What can you tell us about that?

We did an interview yesterday with Dreama Caldwell who is running for county commissioner for Alamance County. She has one of the most harrowing stores I've ever heard that I think the whole world should know about. The whole premise of this is to illuminate leaders who have stories that would challenge people. I go back to the whole idea of contextualization. It takes time to understand who people are. You can't just read a paragraph and understand who someone is.

You grew up in rural North Carolina but you came out of that with a heart for progressive politics and causes. How do you account for that?

I'm a progressive because progressive politics are empathetic politics. I actively try to cultivate empathy. Progressive politics are basically putting yourself in someone else's shoes. If you're able to do that, you quickly see that injustice runs rampant. The problem, in the case of North Carolina, is that progressive voices are squashed by fascism. We are scared by the bullies that run our society. Here's an opportunity to put them in check. And I am a homosexual bluegrass musician, so there is something there. Being queer is a blessing. It's the best thing that ever happened to me.

What has it been like being a queer musician playing bluegrass music? Has that been the source of any friction among older musicians?

Yeah, but I have more to say artistically and am just a better player than a lot of the people who would raise any objections. I put them in their place through art and they shut the fk up and sit their asses down. I can force them into cognitive dissonance and I watch their little heads explode.

One of the most interesting elements of your work with Che Apalache is how you've blended traditional bluegrass with elements of Latin music and Asian music and other sounds from around the world. Did that come naturally or did that take some work to get those worlds to play nicely together?

It comes naturally because I listen to music from all over the world, and I love it. And so do my bandmates. We all listen to crazy weird st from any corner of the world. I don't think that's uncommon. We are globalized millennials. The internet-wielding curious world music permeated young people of the new world. It feels natural.

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



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."

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Find Out Who's Nominated For Best Rap Album | 2020 GRAMMY Awards


Find Out Who's Nominated For Best Rap Album | 2020 GRAMMY Awards

Dreamville, Meek Mill, 21 Savage, Tyler, The Creator, and YBN Cordae all earn nominations in the category

GRAMMYs/Nov 20, 2019 - 06:28 pm

The 2020 GRAMMYs are just around the corner, and now the nominations are in for the coveted honor of Best Rap Album. While we'll have to wait until the 62nd GRAMMY Awards air on CBS on Jan. 26 to find out who will win, let's take a look at which albums have been nominated for Best Rap Album.

Revenge of the Dreamers III – Dreamville                                                                        

This star-studded compilation album from 11-time GRAMMY nominee J. Cole and his Dreamville Records imprint features appearances from some of the leading and fastest-rising artists in hip-hop today, including label artists EARTHGANG, J.I.D, and Ari Lennox, plus rappers T.I, DaBaby, and Young Nudy, among many others. Recorded in Atlanta across a 10-day recording session, Revenge of the Dreamers III is an ambitious project that saw more than 300 artists and producers contribute to the album, resulting in 142 recorded tracks. Of those recordings, 18 songs made the final album, which ultimately featured contributions from 34 artists and 27 producers.

Dreamers III, the third installment in the label’s Revenge of the Dreamers compilation series, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart and achieved gold status this past July. In addition to a Best Rap Album nod, Dreamers III is also nominated for Best Rap Performance next year for album track “Down Bad,” featuring J.I.D, Bas, J. Cole, EARTHGANG, and Young Nudy.

Championships – Meek Mill

In many ways, Championships represents a literal and metaphorical homecoming for Meek Mill. Released in November 2018, Championships is the Philadelphia rapper’s first artist album following a two-year prison sentence he served after violating his parole in 2017. Championships, naturally, sees Meek tackling social justice issues stemming from his prison experience, including criminal justice reform. The album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, his second chart-topper following 2015’s Dreams Worth More Than Money, and reached platinum status in June 2019. Meek Mill's 2020 Best Rap Album nod marks his first-ever GRAMMY nomination.

i am > i was – 21 Savage

Breakout rapper and four-time GRAMMY nominee 21 Savage dropped i am > i was, his second solo artist album, at the end of 2018. The guest-heavy album, which features contributions from Post Malone, Childish Gambino, J. Cole, and many others, has since charted around the world, topped the Billboard 200 – a first for the artist – in the beginning of 2019, and achieved gold status in the U.S. As well, nine songs out of the album’s 15 original tracks landed on the Hot 100 chart, including multi-platinum lead single “A Lot,” which is also nominated for Best Rap Song next year. 21 Savage’s 2020 Best Rap Album nomination, which follows Record of the Year and Best Rap/Sung Performance nods for his 2017 Post Malone collaboration, "Rockstar,” marks his first solo recognition in the top rap category.

IGOR – Tyler, The Creator

The eccentric Tyler, The Creator kicked off a massive 2019 with his mid-year album, IGOR. Released this past May, IGOR, Tyler’s fifth solo artist album, is his most commercially successful project to date. The album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, marking his first time topping the coveted chart, while its lead single, "Earfquake,” peaked at No. 13, his highest entry on the Hot 100. Produced in full by Tyler and featuring guest spots from fellow rap and R&B stars Kanye West, Lil Uzi Vert, Solange, and Playboi Carti, among many others, IGOR follows the rapper’s 2017 album, Flower Boy, which received the Best Rap Album nod that same year.

The Lost Boy – YBN Cordae

Emerging rapper YBN Cordae, a member of the breakout YBN rap collective, released his debut album, The Lost Boy, to widespread critical acclaim this past July. The 15-track release is stacked with major collaborations with hip-hop heavyweights, including Anderson .Paak, Pusha T, Meek Mill, and others, plus production work from J. Cole and vocals from Quincy Jones. After peaking at No. 13 on the Billboard 200, The Lost Boy now notches two 2020 GRAMMY nominations: Best Rap Album and Best Rap Song for album track “Bad Idea,” featuring Chance the Rapper.

Brittany Howard, Brandi Carlile, Leon Bridges, 2 Chainz & More Join Small Business Live Benefit Livestream

Brittany Howard

Photo: C Brandon/Redferns/Getty Images


Brittany Howard, Brandi Carlile, Leon Bridges, 2 Chainz & More Join Small Business Live Benefit Livestream

Proceeds from the event will be go toward loans to small businesses founded by people of color, with additional support to women-owned and immigrant-owned businesses, via Accion Opportunity Fund

GRAMMYs/Jun 16, 2020 - 04:13 am

This Saturday, June 20, artists including Brittany Howard, Brandi Carlile, Leon Bridges, 2 Chainz and more will come together for Small Business Live, a livestream fundraiser event for small businesses facing challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Proceeds from the livestream will go to Accion Opportunity Fund to support small businesses founded by people of color, with additional support to women-owned and immigrant-owned businesses.

“Entrepreneurs of color are denied credit more often and charged higher rates for money they borrow to fund their businesses. We need to accelerate support to underserved businesses in order to reach our full potential,” Accion Opportunity Fund CEO Luz Urrutia said. “We have to decide what we want our Main Streets to look like when this is over, and we must act decisively to keep small businesses alive and ready to rebuild. This is a fun way to do something really important. Everyone’s support will make a huge difference to small business owners, their families and employees who have been devastated by this pandemic, the recession, and centuries of racism, xenophobia and oppression.”

Tune in for Small Business Live Saturday, June 20 from 4:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. EDT on The site also provides a full schedule of programs and links to watch the livestream on all major digital platforms. To learn more about Accion Opportunity Fund, visit the organization's website.

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DJ Khaled, Nipsey Hussle And John Legend Win Best Rap/Sung Performance For "Higher" | 2020 GRAMMYs

DJ Khaled, Samantha Smith and John Legend

Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images


DJ Khaled, Nipsey Hussle And John Legend Win Best Rap/Sung Performance For "Higher" | 2020 GRAMMYs

DJ Khaled, Nipsey Hussle and John Legend take home Best Rap/Sung Performance at the 62nd GRAMMY Awards

GRAMMYs/Jan 27, 2020 - 09:05 am

DJ Khaled, featuring Nipsey Hussle and John Legend, has won Best Rap/Sung Performance for "Higher" at the 62nd GRAMMY Awards. The single was featured on DJ Khaled's 2019 album Father of Asahd and featured Hussle's vocals and Legend on the piano. DJ Khaled predicted the track would win a GRAMMY.

"I even told him, 'We're going to win a GRAMMY.' Because that's how I feel about my album," DJ Khaled told Billboard. "I really feel like not only is this my biggest, this is very special."

After the release of the song and music video -- which was filmed before Hussle's death in March -- DJ Khaled announced all proceeds from "Higher" will go to Hussle's children.

DJ Khaled and co. beat out fellow category nominees Lil Baby & Gunna ("Drip Too Hard"), Lil Nas X ("Panini"), Mustard featuring Roddy Ricch ("Ballin") and Young Thug featuring J. Cole & Travis Scott ("The London"). Hussle earned a second posthumous award at the 62nd GRAMMYs for Best Rap Performance for "Racks In The Middle." 

Along with Legend and DJ Khaled, Meek Mill, Kirk Franklin, Roddy Ricch and YG paid tribute to Hussle during the telecast, which concluded with "Higher."

Check out the complete 62nd GRAMMY Awards nominees and winners list here.