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An interview with Folk and Blues performer Melody Angel

On Saturday, Sept. 15, I had the pleasure of interviewing Chicago-based blues and rock artist, Melody Angel, right before her fantastic Folk and Blues performance. Here’s what she had to say about life, music, politics, and the stickers that cover her purple Stratocaster.

NK: So you just had a concert in Belgium?
MA: Yeah, I just got back from Belgium. There was a blues festival out there.

NK: How was it?
MA: It was fun. There was a lot people out there and some of them knew who I was, and that was weird, like how do they know me out here?

NK: And you were in Australia too?
MA: Yeah, I think 2016 or 2017 we went out to Australia and that was great because we did four shows, the weather was perfect…

NK: Can you tell me about the stickers on your strat?
MA: Oh yeah, the stickers actually started because I used to skateboard a lot, and you know how you put stickers on the deck, so I’ve always loved stickers. So then I put my little heroes on, so I’ve got Jimi [Hendrix], Prince, Michael Jackson, [Carlos] Santana, Slash, Chuck Berry…and then I’ve got some more on the back– Angela Davis, Nina Simone, Bruce Lee, [Huey P.] Newton, Malcolm X, James Baldwin of course, my favorite writer.

NK: That was a really cool part of the documentary (Black Girl Rock, a 2017 film about Melody Angel’s story, available on YouTube), all the Baldwin voiceovers.
MA: I grew up reading him, so he’s always influenced my choices; when I need to make good decisions I always lean towards him. His activist stuff has always made things very clear for me, like what needs to be done within our community and outside of it, he just knew what should be happening, you know?

NK: There was that line from him you included in the documentary: “Only an artist can tell, and only artists have told, since we have heard of man, what it is like, for anyone who gets this planet, to survive it.” That seemed really relevant to your life, from a musical, political standpoint.
MA: Yeah, artists capture the moment, so fifty years from now if they listen to some of the music they’ll know not just what was going on but the feeling behind it. LIke when you listen to “A Change is Gonna Come” you feel that emotion that they had in the 60’s.

NK: Talking about the 60’s reminds me of that video you just made, “Knockout” (a short film about a female boxer in the 60’s/70’s whose family doesn’t want her to fight). What was it like getting into that mindset and persona?
MA: Yeah, that was fun. It was my first time doing anything like that, they told me it was gonna be like a 70’s thing so I thought “Oh, well, I can just come as I am” [gestures at her badass afro], “so that’s nice. Then I  got to knock somebody out, I was like “yesss, let’s do it.”

NK: So you’re acting too now. Can you tell me about that?
MA: Yeah, that started because I auditioned to be the guitar player for a play called Father Comes Home from the War, and that’s all I thought I was gonna be doing, Then I got there and they wanted me to sing, and they wanted me to do somethings acting-wise, and everybody kept saying that I was a natural, and by the end of the play an agency wanted to sign me, so I was like “Ok!” It’s entertainment. And I enjoy doing it, I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t like it.”

NK: So I read that you and your mom will occasionally perform together?
MA: Yeah, sometimes. She’s not performing tonight, but when I can convince her to help me out and sing with me; obviously our voices match well together. And it’s always fun– I have a song called “Mama said,” and it get to say “I’m about to do ‘Mama said,’ and there’s my Mama!” And we’re a musical family, so we’re just so used to singing together.

NK: So you have one album out and two EPs; do you like being in the studio more or playing live?
MA: Definitely live. I like the freedom of knowing that whatever can happen. In the studio it’s like “we need this take, and it needs to be just like this.” I just feel kind of closed in; it’s more work involved. You kind of have to think how you want something to be because this is it–forever. So it’s nerve-wracking, but up on stage it’s just fun.

NK: Can you talk a bit about your Black Lives Matter, political activist work?
MA: For me, of course I go to all of the protests in Chicago, and I perform at them if they want me to. But mostly I write music that’s about our situation, especially in Chicago, but that’s just me writing about my own life, about things that have happened to my friends or my family. It just seems to connect to the Black Lives Matter movement because that’s what it’s about. And the thing is, for the most part, any black person that you talk to in Chicago has somebody in their family that has been shot and killed. And that’s just insane. LIke you could literally just walk down the street, Michigan Avenue, stop a black person, and they’ll have somebody in their family that has been shot and killed. And that’s just unacceptable.
So there’s just so much that I want to say, so I use music to do that, to keep it…non-violent, because I’m mad, you know? So I can take it out on the world with my music, and it does hit people. And if you can hit one person with what you’re trying to say, like when I sing “In this America,” if I can get one person to think “Oh,” to have some empathy… Because if you can have some empathy, you might not know exactly what it means to black–how could you?–but, you can have empathy for the struggle of what it means to be black, and maybe when you see something that’s wrong, you say something, you try to help out. So that’s what I try do, to make sure that people know it’s not white vs. black, it’s let’s just try to be clear about right and wrong. That’s it.

NK: Just going over your lyrics, I think political music can be so hard to pull off, but you seem to strike an impressive artistic balance I think.
MA: Yeah, I mean it’s just gotta come from a real place, like it can’t be forced. You can’t just say “Oh, I’m gonna write a song about hate.” And I never put any pressure on myself to make songs like that; I let them come out and then when I do that I feel it.  

NK: This is going back to performing live, but was there a moment in your career that was sort of your “big break?”
MA: Um, I don’t know if there really is such a thing as a “big break,” but I’d say there are moments where you feel like you know for sure that you’re doing what you’re supposed to be ding in your life. And for me, that was going to Byron Bay, in Australia. Just the amount of people that from the first day, to the second day… so many more people came in my line to get autographs, and CD sales got bigger, and just the rush of all these people feeling your music on such a big stage?
And then I was backstage, and I met Santana! And then I was soo goofy; they were like, “Hey, this is Melody” and he said “Hey, how you doin?” and he shook my hand, and I said “I’ve got your sticker!” And then I was like “Why? Why did I say that?!” But he was really cool, and we talked, and he said “This thing that we do is just so amazing, that we just get to make art all day.” He was just the coolest, I’m just telling you, I have never. But yeah, just being there, and playing with all these big names…so that’s my big moment. I couldn’t believe it.”

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