Noah Sow’s accomplishments are as numerous as they are wide-ranging: she is the founder of the first and only Black German media watch organization, Der Braune Mob, for many years she was an influential radio host on the German public stations HR, WDR, RBB, and SWF, she appeared as a judge on the German (American Idolesque) reality singing competition show, Popstars, and she wrote one of the most important books about everyday racism in Germany, Deutschland Schwarz Weiss (2008).
Sow’s greatest contribution to Black art in Germany and beyond has been the music she has produced under the guise of Noiseaux. With the release of her outstanding second album Spectrum, Noiseaux joins the ranks of recent performers such as J*Davey, Ebony Bones, Candy Coated Killahz, Noisettes, Blood Orange, Idle Warship, Gordon Voidwell, Santigold, Kele Okereke, The Black Kids, and Kenna, who have all reclaimed the attitudes and sounds of early 80s New Wave and Synthpop—in hindsight presumed to be lilywhite for those who don’t know better—for contemporary Black music. Though these genres are now not considered to be a part of Black music proper, they were always much more diverse than assumed in hindsight.
Besides the obvious stature of Grace Jones as one of the most important musicians in New Wave and Donna Summer’s role as the originator of electronic pop music as we know it today, we could also name Kid Creole and the Coconuts, Thompson Twins, Rip Rig + Panic, Nona Hendryx, Z-Factor, Fun Boy Three, Jo Boxers, Big Country, Bus Boys, Haircut 100, Belles Stars, Culture Club, Romeo Void, Bow Wow Wow, Savage Progress as non-lilywhite New Wave groups. The list doesn’t include those primarily Black musicians of the early 1980s categorized as R&B or synthesized funk (The System, Loose Ends, Zapp, etc.) due to the segregated radio landscape in the US. Moreover, British Synthpop was popularized in the US by Black radio before the advent of MTV. Many white British Synthpop groups (Scritti Politti, The Human League, for instance), their sound already an amalgam of mechanized instruments and singers that emulated Black musical idioms, hired American R&B producers after they had become successful. This includes Kraftwerk, who, Inspired by the success of ‘Trans-Europe Express’ on US Black radio and in clubs, employed Leanard ‘Colonel Disco’ Jackson, an African American mixing engineer that had worked with Rose Royce and Undisputed Truth, to mix their 1978 breakthrough album, Man-Machine. This is just to say that there are many more crossovers between New Wave/Synthpop and Black music than initially meets the ear, a fact that Spectrum highlights so stunningly.
With the exception of “What I Want,” which features a verse by transgender vocalist Msoke with whom Sow collaborated on the Afro-German women’s collective, Sisters’ album Gender Riots (2008), the tracks on Spectrum were largely performed and all produced by Noah Sow. Although mostly sung in English, the lyrics on the album also incorporate elements of French, Wolof, Jamaican Patois, and German, while the sonic tapestry, though rooted in electronic sounds and a pop structure of feeling, features elements of West African and Middle Eastern music, Chanson, Country, and Dancehall Reggae. Despite the broad array of influences, Spectrum sounds extremely coherent and forceful.
2009’s Out Now! (released in German and English simultaneously) hinted at what was to come by creating a cold fusion of more traditional guitar based punk rock sounds with angular New Wave rhythms and melodic songwriting, especially on the stand out track “Chaos” that appears in a different version on Spectrum. Rather than imagining Afropunk as a rigid set of musical rules (three chords, blah blah), Noiseaux sounds Afropunk as a liberationist attitude of personal and political decolonization. As can be heard on “Pinkgurl:” “Check me out! It is me, the Pinkgurl singing. I can sing whatever/wherever the fuck I want to,” and she does, like really, und wie!
The first track, “Bavaropeulhfrancohanseate,” a gentle a cappella declaration of war against those who would expect a straight forward declaration of identity, beautifully illustrates how all the songs use different vocal tracks to multiply Sow’s voice, adding supple harmonies and pointed ad-libs to the rich Noiseaux sound. The way Sow manipulates, refracts, and resounds her loaded voice on Spectrum is nothing short of luminous, especially on the melancholic R&B ballad “Day & Night.” And, even though the political valences of the songs are audible (on “No Democracy” for example), Sow’s lyrics are never preachy but highlight playfully, as does the best Black pop music, the complicated interplay of interpersonal relationships and societal structures of power. For instance, on my favorite song on Spectrum, “Insert Insult Here” (inspired by the Monkey Island video games), Sow’s restrained lead vocals, which alternate between speaking and singing, are accompanied by sweet harmonies, a steady drum beat, xylophone sounds, and synth squiggles and deliver the following lines:
I’d like to help you out. Which way did you come in?
Let me put this in a positive way: fuck off.
Go kiss a shark.
Go high Five a rotor blade
Take a long walk off a short pier
I hope you step on a Lego… made of plutonium
The words are made that much more devastating by the fact that the music does not sound aggressive in any stereotypical way. If all this were not enough, Spectrum also contains the first autistic spectrum pride anthem, the acoustic ballad: “I Am So Reaching Out Right Now (High Functioning Lovesong).” Listening to Spectrum note-by-note—on repeat—day & night, resonating in and beyond the dance, knowing that there can be home, it’s very difficult not to hear a future world that is more liberated and radically inclusive than the one we are inhabiting now.
Spectrum will be officially released in the US on March 15, but you can already download the album here: http://noiseaux.bandcamp.com/album/spectrum
Check out the excellent video for my favorite track from Spectrum here: