From Modern Love dance parties to slam poetry, we are no stranger to filling rhythms with our own voices and movements. But what happens when these rhythms are themselves a conversation with listeners? The product of DJ J. Period, best known for his work with Kanye West and Mary J. Blige and Somalia’s award-winning hip-hop artist K’NAAN, “The Messengers” sets out to push the boundaries of notation and noise-making, scripture and instrumentation.
Designed as a trilogy, the album features three artists of old: Fela Kuti, revered musician and human rights activist of Nigeria, reggae legend Bob Marley and America’s own troubadour Bob Dylan. Through mash-ups of each musician’s work, threaded with media broadcasts and vocals of their own, “The Messengers” treads the ever-bending line between sound and saying. As a young boy encountering America’s up-and-coming rap scene, K’NAAN was instantly taken with the immediacy of hip-hop, which he saw as an art form with a conversation. Its poetry was no longer a matter of meter and love-making, but that of man’s very “struggle for existence” in rhythm and composition.
Compelled by the ability of music to move our modes of thought, K’NAAN and J. Period push against listeners’ experience of place. Rather than being compiled, the works of Kuti, Marley and Dylan are neatly separated, demonstrating K’NAAN’s own consecutive encounters with Kuti’s psychedelic Afrobeat, the Caribbean calypso-meets-American jazz and blues of reggae and finally the American rap-scene itself. Every movement, however, works to turn attention back to Africa, for “in hip-hop it represents the beginning,/ and it also represents the future.” From teeming sirens and thundering handguns, to the winding, throaty heat of Bob Marley’s “Stir it Up,” “The Messengers” presents Africa as a melody of both dirt and delicacy, birth and burden. Here, where you know people best by the songs they’re singing, word and music are the nation’s weaponry.
Though the three featured artists are juxtaposed, the work’s main concern is the fragmentation of language to be found throughout each episode. The pieces are intermittent with biographical radio broadcasts, personal statements from the musicians and self-declarations of the album as a store of verse and self-knowledge. Between the voices of its features bloom statements such as “I have a dream/ This is all a dream” and a continual reminder that “This is ‘The Messengers.’ ” As a closing, K’NAAN turns to Dylan, who sheds the name of prophet for that of reverential writer and song-singer. K’NAAN announces “the difference between messengers and prophets”: Prophets are messengers through their scripture, but the language of today breathes through music.
Aptly named, “The Messengers” is a piece which embodies this interplay between language and melody, following its pulse from the steady restrain and release of reggae to those certain, twanging strains of Bob Dylan.