After tackling Mozart’s Così fan tutte at the Deutsche Oper, expat multihyphenate Black Cracker presents video album Come As U R at SomoS Art House on December 4.
After making a name as a spoken-word poet, producer and rapper in New York, Alabama-born Ellison Renee Glenn moved to Berlin in 2012 to start with a clean slate, keen on leaving behind a past of which the 2010 album title PreTty Boy (read “pre-boy”) prevails as a reminder. This year saw him on the stage as often as in the studio, with gigs at Ballhaus Naunynstraße, HAU, the Maxim Gorki and his recent staging of Mozart’s Così fan tutte with Peaches at the Deutsche Oper. All those performances informed the visual album for Come As U R, which officially drops December 9.
You’ve turned from rap towards melodious R’n’B on Come As U R.
I wanted to play with ideas of romance in the digital, near-apocalyptic period, with electronics and technology, but then mixed with soft and gentle lyrics and themes, compared to my previous, more political music. I was just trying to take a step back and look at what I’m doing as more like a conceptual project than an album.
You also created a video for each song.
When I travel, I’m always taking photographs and videos, but I never really found a way to incorporate it into my solo music. Particularly because I’ve been collaborating in more theatre and performance art spaces, it was the most honest thing I could’ve done to incorporate those images while the music was being created.
The videos are either set in an urban or rural context...
My interest is in being able to touch and feel intimate with people. This conversation between nature and the city is just this little meditation I’m having about how we love each other publicly, collectively or communally. I find a lot more comfort and calm in the quiet, rural places. In a way, it’s also about reflecting on the opportunities that I’ve had considering being born in Alabama, on how miraculous it is, the experiences that I have. It’s documenting my own journey.
Why present it in an art gallery instead of a concert venue?
I just don’t want to dance anymore. I’m not making club music, which is the normal expectation. I am not a musician, not a rapper. Just an artist. I want to take the pressure off of myself and give the work more of the space it needs. I can’t participate in these waves anymore, waves of shallowness and entertainment. I feel like I’ve always treated myself as an ambassador to so many things, and none are by my own design, but rather put in by what people see and think: race, gender, nationality, age, culture, class, art, genre, on and on to infinity. That took a big toll on me personally, even on my creativity. I’m somehow too sensitive. Now I’m in a place where I want to really not take any responsibility for anything and allow myself to be what is more natural to me. I’ve done my work, and now I can do something else. I don’t have to carry certain banners for people.
So, you feel artistically freer?
Not at all. This album has been a bit of a struggle. I’ve shaken off the struggle and the negativity but as an artist, I’ve been feeling pretty burnt out, even though I’ve been exploring other avenues like theatre and film. It’s such an accomplishment that I didn’t give up on this album and discard it, that I’ve worked through all these issues. The issues have become a big part of the work. I wouldn’t call it free, but it’s a testament to working through things and finishing something.
Do you make a clear cut between personal and artistic identity?
For sure. I was talking with my girlfriend the other day about wanting to go to the pool. If I have to go to the pool and it’s a political thing, I’m gonna go, I’m gonna march to the pool. But as a person, I’m quite private and kinda shy in a way.
After your album PosTer Boy, it seemed you got a boost of self-esteem.
I think that's also just being more comfortable living in Europe, not being new to Berlin anymore. But again, there’s a very big difference between the personal and the public. I used to be super insecure about allowing myself to write about romance or love or sexuality, because I always felt so politically responsible.
What’s your relation to love songs these days?
It’s about re-defining masculine sexuality from a perspective that’s not derogatory or objectifying women, because it’s not looking good out there. You have a lot of new artists who are killing it, but then they always have a track that just goes in the wrong direction. I don’t think people realise how damaged their eardrums are from the negativity that is in some music. Like how many love songs have “bitch” in them, or language that is not pro-sex or about gender equality? They’re still fundamentally positive, but there’s just so much negativity embedded in them. I really try to break those clichés.
So why take on Così fan tutte, which can be read as misogynist?
The first way I dealt with it was to entirely disassociate the characters in the story from specific genders to shut down that conversation, because all these experiences that Mozart was dealing with – trust, insecurity, fidelity, ego – are things we all experience no matter our gender or sexual orientation. I tried to delete the idea that the songs were based on specific characters and more just on specific ideas. I had never worked with anyone else’s material on that level before. And to work in the context of opera is also a whole other challenge, because I’m quite a non-linear person. My art has to have a little bit of space for disaster and failure for it to actually work. It doesn’t breed off of being written, played and sung perfectly. I had to give the singers enough of a plan that they felt secure, and they had to give me enough flexibility. Maybe for the first time, people from an opera context were actually engaged in this idea of improv, and that it would still be something magical. I tried to make a conversation that would work for what I felt was ‘my’ community, but then also give a legitimate conversation to people who know the work. I tried to bring the two communities together.