Interview: Ilene Martinez (Bayou Blue Radio – Paris-Move)
Photos: © Frankie Pfeiffer
PARIS-MOVE, February 12th 2021
Ilene: I understand that you have written “The Virus” as a response to Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On…”. What was the catalyst for responding in this way…? A current event in particular? A general sense of “the more things change, the more they stay the same?” Something else…?
Mighty Mo Rodgers: Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” is a masterpiece. “The Virus” attempts to answer his cryptic question. The catalyst was the n-word and its incredible ubiquitousness. It names “us” (African Americans) as slaves inasmuch as this is what slave masters… called us. It’s a capital “N” now. The N word/ Slave are back to back on the same commodity symbolic coin…. that sold us as chattel slaves.
Property… a thing. Its use of this word today… to make one invisible to oneself and the world. And it’s a profound contradiction… as to what we really are… the Blues People. Blues was given to us to deny the lie of our nothingness as chattel slaves, as just things. Blues is the saving grave from the Almighty…an existential… that sets us free. From the least free people, has come the freest music ever. Blues and its twin… Jazz. This ain’t by accident.
To answer Marvin’s profound question I had to listen and learn from which he spoke. His record was recorded over 40 years ago and yes the more things change the more they stay the same. Not much has changed… but time. Politically, racially, sexually and spiritually we are still in a dead end cul de sac. Why? Because America (and to some extent the Western world) has not come to grips with its history… of exploitation… of the racial trope.
By this (you must understand) that the concept of race is relatively new. There has always been slavery. It’s mentioned in the Bible and the Koran. And in fact it was considered normal… and a way of life. But in the sixteenth and seventeenth century something new happened. Racism was developed it justify enslaving…the Africans. Racism is a falsehood, there is but one race…the human race. Out of this came the extremest form of racism: the de-Africanizing of the enslaved Africans in the South. How? By taking away the drum from the African. This never happened in central or South America. That’s why you had (and still have) all the polyrhythms in all the music from these places. I sung about all this on my first record “Blues Is My Wailin’ Wall” on the song “Took Away The Drum”. And in “The Virus”…. I continue to struggle… with the struggle… for sanity. This too… I gathered from “What’s Going On”.
Ilene: “The Virus” is like an African-American musical diaspora! There’s a little of everything, and yet it’s so coherent as a whole. It’s like a history lesson, making the listener connect the dots… Was that your original intention?
Mighty Mo Rodgers: The great French psychoanalyst Lacan, framed his positions in three orders…The Imaginary, The Symbolic and The Real. I agree with this, but I start with the Symbolic (The Virus), the Imaginary (a concept record that deconstructs reality) and the Real…or reality of historical/present/future tense… happenings. And my original concept was to create something from love. Love of my people, love of America and love of the world. That shows poetically that we are…one. Not didactically, pedagogically or preacherishly… but poetically as best I could.
When you encounter
More than you can describe
Only poetic words or symbols will do
To convey the inexpressible in you
….and this is what I’ve tried to do.
Yes “The Virus” is like an African-American musical diaspora… great observation. I tried to cover as much as I could, as poetically as I could, in the least amount of time. Yes that was my original intent. To take the listener on a journey through time…using music as my (symbolic) boat, train, trail… to existential truths. I did a lot of minimalism… where less is more…if you just let the story speak for itself. For me Blues… does all the work… I just pray, listen, cry and transcript… what it tells me. Blues is alive!
I started my Blues Odyssey… in 1999… twenty years ago!.. to say and record what I was not hearing. Blues, in truth, is in a sorry state. Occupying less than two percent of the musical market. With just a lot of redundancy and cliche licks and lyrics…with singers singing things they don’t believe or understand.
It’s been a long journey and here in America I get blow back from those who control the market at festivals because I don’t and won’t sing or write the same stupid songs that’s killing America’s gift to the world. BLUES IS THE SOUNDTRACK OF AMERICA…. and now the world. But I’m ok. The Blues Muse talks to me and says “long when all others are forgotten…they will be playing and discussing your music.” And I’m all right with that… it ain’t never been about the money to me… but Blues… truth.
Lastly my ordinal intention was to sound an alarm! That’s why I start off… with a preacher on a street corner warning folks about something they don’t see, hear or have a cue about. Humans are storytellers and if you want to convey… truth you best rap it in a story. The Bible is…stories. If the Bible has been written as a legal brief….well…it would have died instantly.
Blues is the African American’s greatest poetry and truth teller. “The Virus” is rapped in that… though I use different genres… of Blues. Rap…is just No Bluez… though much of it is not good…because they have sold out to the god of…. just making money.
Ilene: You’ve been called a “blues prophet”… Working with the Starlights on this album really sets a sacred kind of mood. Just the fact that “The Virus” is your 7th album – in an of itself – feels significant. The lyrics of “Troubled Times” are like something out of the book of Revelation…
You say that you can “see the signs…” What are those signs, and where are the leading us?
Mighty Mo Rodgers: Yes I’ve been called a Blues Prophet but I really think of myself as a Blues Trickster In fact one of my future records is called Blues Trickster…like that African deity Anansi. A trickster has to use subterfuge and cunning and wisdom to speak…truth to power…which is what I attempt to do. It ain’t easy because you are surrounded by Lilliputians!
They always say “if u can’t beat ‘em join them”… I say “if u can’t beat ‘em fool them.”
Fool them until your dying day
And never sell your soul away
Yeah 7 is symbolic for my seventh record “Troubled Times” definitely is like something out of Revelation and these are indeed troubled times. The Starlights…an incredible gospel group… “The Virus” was a good record before we added the Starlights. They made it a great record. And on that note I must give thanks to my co-producer Michael Dennis Mr. D…he told me about them and we brought them into the project. Great singers and they brought great spirituality over the whole project. They’ve backed up the great Stevie Wonder.
Yes, I see signs. What I see is that America is at a crossroads. A penultimate point where one road can lead to peace, love and understanding and another to a self-made hell. It all depends if we listen to the good angels or the bad ones. At this point I think it will get worse, much worse before it gets any better. But in the end truth will prevail. And with my Blues I do my part.
Albert Camus said life is absurd. I don’t believe that. Rather I feel that music can give you sane moments. And if we live moment to moment we live in eternality. Music is the highest art form because it is the (most) ephemeral. It’s not even sound…rather it is carried (in and through) sound. And Blues, well that’s the vernacular text of music.
Ilene: Is there a cure for “The Virus?”
Mighty Mo Rodgers: First, we have to see this word for what it is: a virus. The only word that has spread over humanity’s body, metastasizing like a psychic disease. To see the n-word as a disease, we have to understand that words are not just mere sounds. Words have weight. Some are light and some are very heavy. Today with everyone “talkin’ just to be heard…” we don’t listen. We just hear but we don’t listen. And this word this n-word slipped right on into our subconscious. It now has become so ubiquitous…folks hear it yet don’t hear it.
What I am attempting to do is near impossible. But as Richard Pryor says at the end of my record, the n-word stands for our wretchedness. And I met Pryor and had dinner with him. He was a comic genius but he also let the n-word out of Pandora’s Box. Like the slave in “Slave To The Word” says…. we are haunted by the n-word. That was the most difficult song for me to do. I got physically sick. And couldn’t do it but once. By the way, I will be turning The Virus into a play. I will use videos behind me to educate and illustrate all the songs. I am now lecturing at colleges and debating people who totally don’t want to get it. Especially in the hip hop world where lots of money is made on “keeping it real…” as they say. And that will be my legacy…Blues is truth. The real cure is to know your history and admit sins of the fathers America has never come to grips with its history.
Native American history and the taking of their land and the systemic destruction of First Nations and bring over enslaved Africans to work the stolen land. There has never been what South Africa did with its Reconciliation trials and forgiveness. And until America accepts its past…not much will change.
Blues and its latest configuration…hip hop has subversively “infected” America…because it’s a billion dollar business and America loves money. The nouveau riche negroes have invaded Beverly Hills, Jay Z is the first hip hop billionaire. What does this mean? Hip hop, the uneducated music from the inner city poor has invaded the upper class with the n-word because they really don’t know their history…just the “bling bling.” They’ve sold street credibility to the young white bourgeois, who ride around rapping with the music and using the n-word like they….nig*ers! Imitating their black heroes. They even have a name for them. White’s acting black and ghetto are called “wniggers”.
Ilene: Thank you for writing “Slave to a Word.” Could you give us your thoughts on why this dehumanizing word just won’t go away?
Mighty Mo Rodgers: Why this dehumanized word (the n-word) won’t go away? Well, for one it has been turned into a commodity, just like the people (African Americans) once were. It’s kind of ironic…this word for slaves is now used like a badge of honor for too many people. Some who constantly use it say it don’t mean what it used to mean. Of course, they would *want* to believe that. In the end we often justify things, even bad things, to save our sanity. But make no mistake, to use this word is to conjure up… all the evils of slavery. It is a traumatizing word that makes anyone using it, white or black, duplicitous in an ongoing negative dialectic of dehumanization and is beastly. There is no (light or love) in this word.
And because it is now absolutely absolute…it has become a contagion and has morphed into….a virus. Words have weight and in truth they can kill and raise the dead…as Jesus did. Most people do not realize the power of words. The n-word is killing us as a people and destroying all that Dr King worked for and died for. It is the antithesis of love and rises out of indifference….which is the opposite of love. “Slave To A Word” was a difficult song for me to do. My engineer altered my voice once I completed it. The n-word is now what we were as slaves a commodity. Something you buy and sell…in our music.
It’s a strange word. To me the strangest word in the English language. You never hear rappers say derogatory words about other ethnic groups, Michael Jackson on his album “HIStory: Past, Present and Future” used an anti-Semitic word and was quickly shot down for using it. The record was pulled from the market and a clean version was released. And I understand this. But if you notice, rappers are allowed to denigrate their own people. Why? Marketing. These records sell and it is almost obligatory to have the n-word in your rap music. It’s crazy. Two of the biggest rappers in the business, Jay-Z and Kanye West made a rap sing called “Niggers In Paris”. They made a video of it too. Big production and all. The worse they sampled Otis Redding for this song. You hear his great voice and his musical track in the background as they rap some expletive simple lyrics to his soulfulness. Really made me want to cry. Such shame to his history, Paris and black people. But money talks today and justifies almost everything. Sadly, everything has a price today and in the words of The Godfather movie, “Make ‘em an offer they can’t refuse.” I know they paid the Otis Redding estate good money to include his song in their rap. My point is that music and especially rap has been reduced to the lowest
common denominator. LCD….Vulgarity has been elevated to…high art and if it sells that justifies everything. Rap was not always this way. Public Enemy challenged people with Fight The Power… Wu-Tang Clan too and others like Common. What happened?
In the 1950s and 60s during the Civil Rights Movement you didn’t hear the n-word. It was a shame to say it or use it in public. You would hear it only within family privately. It went public first with Richard Pryor, he even won a Grammy that had the n-word in the title. And later, hip hoppers went crazy with the use of it. And today in rap it’s almost expected that you must use it…for street credentials. The n-word which first went “public” with Richard Pryor went overboard when corporate America saw the money in it. Once corporate America bought into it, they took it over. Rap is now just another commodity that’s sold on Wall Street like slaves once were. Blues has to always reinvent itself to outrun the slave catchers
I will take my struggle to the movers and the shakers of the hip hop world… challenge them to do better. And put principles over profits. Can I be successful…? ’bout as successful as a snowball in hell, but it’s the “Beautiful Struggle”’. I can’t make it more plain…whosoever uses the n-word are slaves, plain and simple….slaves to their historical condition. And they are haunted by that history. I come to give them their manumission papers. For they are working under a handicap.
The users of the n-word could never be free or equal to white people because they use the cast off language the ‘slave-master’ called them…by.
When you use the n-word you (still) answer….to a slave masters call.
Ilene: I love the 70s throw-back groove on this album, on “All Money Aint Good Money…” You were, after all, a Motown writer… But there’s a world-music vibe even in that track. I must add, at this point, that we were fascinated by your project “Griot Blues,” with Baba Sissoko. What influence did working with him have on your evolution, as an artist?
Mighty Mo Rodgers: Working with Baba Sissoko was an eye-opener event. We worked magic making Griot Blues. Baba is a world class artist who has worked with many (other) world class artists. He speaks no English and I speak no French or Italian or Malien. Luckily, Luca Giordano speaks English and Italian and we spoke with him as he translated. We did the record in three days! in the small country of Lithuania. When I did Griot Blues, The Virus was eighty percent done. I put it on hold to do Griot Blues. But working with Baba, I got a world African view of music. We put a boogie on Griot Blues because the boogie as done by John Lee Hooker is really African.
Yes, I got some Motown beats on The Virus and Memphis and Reggae too. I used rap also. My point was to convey the universalness of America music, and tell my story, my journey a necessary journey. This record is urgent and timely…and timeless.
Someone called The Virus my masterpiece. I can’t say that…I only do what I hear in my heart and head…knowing I am only a facilitator…to the Blues Muse. I deliberately created a world music vibe. I wanted to appeal to all ages, not just over 55 Blues fans…though I love ‘em all. But it’s a hip hop, neo soul world and the n-word they use incessantly. Plus, I come out of soul as much as I come out of Blues. Sadly, Blues today has a small footprint musically mainly because it is quite redundant, with very little originality. I ain’t that. And for my canvas, I use all genres to say and play what is necessary to get my stuff across. It ain’t been easy over here with the “Blues police”: standing at the gate trying to tell you what is and what ain’t Blues.
I ain’t having it…they can kiss….u know what. I listen to my muse…the Blues Muse. It guides me and tells me what to do.
Ilene: “Two Wings and a Biscuit” might be my favorite track. I found myself smiling through my tears while listening to that one… It’s one of the most heartbreaking songs I’ve heard in a long time. Could you tell us about what inspired you to write this story?
Mighty Mo Rodgers: “Two Wings and A Biscuit” was born out of an article I read in the LA Times newspaper many years ago. I wrote the song 10 years ago. But was looking for the perfect concept to come along. I changed the ending, but the first part is exactly what I read. I too cried when I read the article. Somehow I will find that article and honor the civil rights fighter and put his name in the liner notes I am creating for The Virus. Sadly black male sons are cannon fodder…for inner city gang violence.
Ilene: Please tell us a little about this wonderful singer, Margarett Floyd, whose beautiful voice is featured on “A Mother’s Prayer,” among others.
Mighty Mo Rodgers: Margarett Floyd who sings “A Mother’s Prayer” did that song magnificently. She has a golden soul voice and sung on a couple of songs on my third record. I would like to tour with her doing The Virus. She also does a mother’s part on “Bullets With Names” at the end, and sings background on a couple other songs. Incredible voice.
I will in time do a video for all of the songs on The Virus.”
I did one on “Slave To The Word.”
Ilene: You are a gentleman and a scholar: I see that you have been preparing a Masters on the subject of the Blues; is there anything you’d like to tell us about your thesis?
Mighty Mo Rodgers: The name of my thesis is “Existential Blues” (A Study In Metaphysical Music). I originally did my thesis when I was working on my masters degree in Humanities. This was way back in 1996 before I released anything as Mighty Mo Rodgers. My intention, to show a philosophical basic in Blues. Most of my heroes in Blues did not read or write and (as you know) Blues comes from an oral tradition. Yet in the Western world, text is everything. My *proof* would be grounded in the Western tradition of the text. Necessary…if one is to empirically prove your thesis. And because I have a degree in philosophy, I would use that for my critical analysis.
Then I had an epiphany. I lived in Venice for a number of years, it was a hippy enclave back in the day. There was an old black man (Uncle Bill) who lived there and played blues. He lived in an apartment on the beach and he managed the parking facility lots. He’s dead now but left fond memories.
He was a cantankerous old man (met him in the 70’s), but he played some nice blues. In fact “No Dough”, on my first record “Wailin’ Wall” would not have happened if I hadn’t met a really great young white harp player, who was jamming with Uncle Bill. I asked him to play on No Dough…and it came out great.
Years later, working on college degrees, Uncle Bill asked me what I was doing. I told him I was working on some degree stuff. Uncle Bill never finished high school. But he had great street smarts. I told him I am writing something on Blues. He said “what is it called?” I told him if you want to get an advance degree in college you have to present a thesis. When I explained what a thesis was he asked me what was the name of it. I said “Existential Blues”. Now Uncle Bill never heard the word existential and what he said to me was “x soul stench show blue?” I said “existential blues.” He laughed and said “oh yeah, that ol’ x soul stench show blues… must be real funky!”… then he laughed some more. Anyway, I submitted my thesis, they loved it and I was ready to do the oral proof or presentation…and right then, my first record “Blues Is My Wailin’ Wall” came out and started to happen. I put the oral off and my studies and started touring America and Europe.
Six months later coming back to America to do my oral presentation I had cold feet. I thought to myself “how can I prove my thesis intellectually and not prove it to the people who created it”? Blues is and always will be an existential to me which means it is about life at it is lived. The original creators of Blues lived at the bottom of the bottom. Life and death issues confronted them daily. Even their own “petty bourgeoisie people” nouveau riche negroes looked down on these dirt poor people… Especially the church goin’ folks. And Blues, this magical metaphysical music…came as a saving grace to “define them” and deny the lie of their nothingness. Actually it defines all the “black folk” as the Blues People. It gave them “moral armor” against the…abyss.
So I never did my oral, but instead rewrote my thesis for a book and record I will release together called “X SOUL STENCH SHOW BLUES.” U can’t put Blues in a book anyway. It is beyond just words and (even sound) only carries it…and Blues is more than sound. My book and record release date is 2021. But I do lecture on this at colleges, but even there…the text is always secondary to the oral tradition. That’s one of the reasons why Baba Sissoko and me worked so well together. Blues, like African music, comes out of the oral text I call it the OVT oral vernacular text.
Ilene: Last but not least… when we will next see you in France?
Mighty Mo Rodgers: I won’t be in France until next year. (Editor’s note: March 14, 2020, at the Théâtre Pierre Fresnay in Ermont, Paris area)
I will work on videos for all the songs on The Virus. I am between agencies also. I definitely will do The Virus as a one man play. My fight to remove the n-word from the vocabulary of African Americans is an up high fight. Imagine some live off the cast off word for us… that the slave master used
to call us. So though this record serves my people as a wake up call, it is for all good people who love Blues.
White folks need the blues
Like black folks need their freedom
And black folks need the blues
Like their mama used to feed ‘em”
Blues makes you sane
And silently you can hear it call your name
And Blues is not devil music
It comes from the Almighty
Thus it is Love
So no one can own it.
At best, if you are humble
You will be given some some Light
Many are called but few are chosen.
Interview: Ilene Martinez (Bayou Blue Radio – Paris-Move)
Photos: © Frankie Pfeiffer
PARIS-MOVE, February 12th 2021
To order the album “The Virus” – Mighty Mo Rodgers: click HERE
Mighty Mo Rodgers ‘s interview is translated in French and is published on Paris-Move, HERE