Vernon Reid is usually pushing the envelope. The British-born and Brooklyn-raised guitarist is the founder and primary songwriter of the hard rock band Living Colour. But Living Colour isn’t your typical hard rock band—its members are all African American, a rarity in the genre, and their music is heavily influenced by funk and jazz. The band hit it big with its debut album Vivid in 1988, and their Grammy-winning hit single, “Cult of Personality,” from that record. Reid’s versatile style of play and speedy chops propelled him to number 66 on Rolling Stone‘s 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.
Living Colour has never been afraid to tackle social issues when it came to songwriting, and Reid co-founded the Black Rock Coalition in 1985, an organization designed to encourage the creative freedom of African American artists. This Saturday evening, June 18, at 6:30, Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art presents “Artificial Afrika,” Reid’s current multimedia project that examines the modern mythology of African culture. Computer-generated graphics and images that dilute Africa into the simplest, stereotypical terms, such as famine victims and child soldiers will serve as counterpoint to more modern images of Africa on the video display while Reid provides a soundtrack of live guitar and electronic sounds. Nicole Shivers, the museum’s education specialist, is excited at the prospect of bringing in a work that she says tries to “dispel all the misperceptions of Africa, that it’s not this dark continent.”
I was able to speak with Vernon Reid about his inspiration for the project, his thoughts on the state of African American rock today, and the current status of Living Colour below:
It seems like there may have been a specific catalyst that started you down the road on this project—a visit to Africa, perhaps?
I think that there were several catalysts that inspired it. One thing was the images of Africa when I was coming up. Everything from cannibalism to “Yum Yum Eat ‘Em Up.” Then there are images that are representative objects of black people. Sort of “darky art.” That was another thing. And then there’s a certain way that I was supposed to feel about these things. They were supposed to be shut away. I was supposed to feel ashamed about them. And the sheer absurdity of the representations started to grab a hold of me. It was as if I went to the other side of what that is. I have been to Africa twice . . . . and I was struck by how there was supposed to be an epiphany, the sense of coming home, and that didn’t exactly happen. But what did happen was my fascination deepened . . . . And that’s where it all kind of congealed into the impulse to start making the work . . . . using my Macintosh and some public domain footage and eventually doing my own textures. It’s been described to me as paintings that move, as opposed to linear animation.
What do you think is the most surprising thing you learned about yourself during this project?
My goodness, that’s a great question! I’ve learned that there is no ultimate answer. That the culture is always going to change, that things that seemed very solid can shift completely . . . . I think for all of us there’s a way we’re supposed to feel about Africa. We’re supposed to be concerned, and it’s a serious situation. And one of the things I’ve had to stay with is that looking at Africa aesthetically is still worthwhile. Even with everything else that’s been happening, aesthetics and beauty, the collisions are still worthwhile to pursue for their own merit because they are still a part of the whole. I don’t think I actually used the footage, but there’s some footage I saw from the BBC about child soldiers. And there’s a bunch of child soldiers literally dancing with their AK-47s. Like they adopted a ritual dance in a march with their AK-47s. And the dance was beautiful. And that’s the thing that struck me. That this is something of aesthetic merit, but it’s also horrible. And the two things coexist. That’s something that I struggled with.
You’re known for pushing the envelope when it comes to guitar style—how do you stay ahead of the curve?
I just try to follow my own impulses toward things that interest me. I’ve been known to use a lot of effects and guitar processing. And my interest in that is kind of multi-faceted. And of course hearing Jimi Hendrix and the things he did with guitar just opened my head completely up to what’s possible. And at the same time, there’s something to be said for the sound of the instrument unadorned. And the kind of effects that can happen with that–extended techniques. It’s kind of a balance between those two things. There are amazing things going on. I always keep an eye towards not just what’s for the moment, but what’s really truly innovative.
You co-founded the Black Rock Coalition back in 1985 to encourage African American rock artists. How do you feel about the current state of African Americans in rock?
You know, I’m not totally satisfied, but I will say that TV on the Radio is a band that I dreamed about back then. Literally, TV on the Radio is the reason why the coalition started. This is what it’s all about. It’s fantastic to me. Could there be more? Should there be more? Yes, but I couldn’t be prouder of that . . . . I think it’s wonderful, and there needs to be much more. And I am very happy with the creativity.
Speaking of music, what’s Living Colour’s current status?
Yeah, we’re literally in a transition, a management transition. We had done a bunch of work with the Experience Hendrix project. We’re gearing up to work on our next record. We are still functioning–or dysfunctioning! (chuckling)
Artificial Afrika will take place in the McAvoy Auditorium of the National Portrait Gallery at 6:30, Saturday, June 25, 2011.