Saturday, January 17, 2009
Farris Paved Way for Alternative Black Artists
By Jessica Bakeman
While Dionne Farris said today’s music doesn’t give anything to anyone, her contemporaries agree that she gave everything to aspiring and future black artists.
A working musician who has shrunk away from the public eye since her hot hits of the early ’90s, Farris is now performing out of the oppressive arms of music industry standards. Those who worked with her acknowledge her contribution to the music scene, namely her destruction of the expectations on which genres of music black artists should and could produce.
Her genre, she said, is simply music.
“I would let that (categorization) to be up to people who need it,” she said in an interview Oct. 26. “But it’s been put in pop, neo-soul, urban alterative.”
Guitarist Jermaine Rand, who played shows in Atlanta with Farris in the late ’90s, admired this mixing of genres as her successful effort to pave the way for those who followed.
“During the time period there was a very closed-minded perception of what a black artist could do on a record,” Rand said. “The first album she put out had everything from blues music to rock music to soul.”
Rand and former touring bassist for Farris, Sean Michael Ray, agree that artists such as Lauryn Hill and Erykah Badu got their shot because of Farris’ bold musical exploration.
“They would not have had careers if it wasn’t for Dionne Farris,” Rand said.
When Farris broke into popular music as a solo artist with the hit single “I Know” off of “Wild Seed Wild Flower,” Rand was intrigued. He said he had never heard anything like it.
“Back in the ’90s you had the whole grunge movement, but as far as what the black artists were doing, it was the typically R ‘n’ B and rap music,” he said.
Tomi Martin, a guitarist who toured with Farris and wrote her song, “Open,” said she is often misplaced in terms of genre based on the styles of those she influenced.
“She opened the door for a lot of African American artists to be different and do something besides R ’n’ B, but it’s unfortunate that she has been put into neo-soul,” he said. “She opened the door for Erykah Badu; she opened the door for India.Arie, but she’s not neo-soul.”
Ray described her music as, "very organic, never really that slick, L.A., polished kind of sound, always a really earthy kind of vibe. It's funky at times; it's rock at times; it's almost folk-y at times. It's a little bit of everything."
Speaking to her versatility, Martin originally wrote the song “Open” with Madonna in mind, and hadn’t anticipated it would work with Farris’ musical style. But, he was wrong.
“She had a certain talent of versatility where she can make things fit,” he said.
Durga McBroom, a black singer who toured with Pink Floyd, said Farris’ style creates a perfect combination.
“Her mix of soul and rock is exactly the kind of sound I aspire to create. Plus she can blow!” she said.
While her touring musicians and fans attribute popular artists’ success to her, Farris doesn’t see herself as any more important than others whose music touched listeners and inspired aspiring musicians.
“I think that we’re all links in the chain of this whole musical history,” she said. “Someone influenced me to become an influence.”
Her look, Martin said, also influenced other musicians to break from status quo. On the cover of her album “Wild Seed Wild Flower,” the caramel colored artist sports a brush cut, an oversized flannel shirt, leather buckled boots and a melancholy expression.
“A lot of people thought she was a boy, sitting on this rocking chair on the cover, but it was just Dionne stripping it down and having you pay attention to her music,” he said. “Her videos were quote unquote white videos, because they had different subject matter; they had different layouts. It wasn’t like it was pretentious, it was just who she was.”
Martin said her videos were revolutionary, as well, as most black artists were played exclusively on BET, with some limited play on MTV. But, Farris — she made VH1. Martin said only classic artists made this channel, and her video got substantial airtime.
Music journalist Christian John Wikane, who interviewed Farris this year for popmatters.com, said Farris is an artist who sets an example for what most artists aspire to be — “an independent musician who brings together a very strong cross section of music listeners.”
He added, “She writes the truth from her experience and isn’t limited by what anyone’s perceptions are of what she should be because she is a black female singer. You’re seeing someone who is living her life’s vocation as an artist.”
Farris said expressing truth is her main motivation as a musician.
“I personally think that music should give people truth in its purest form — not just my truth, your truth — just truth,” she said. “Music should be a source of healing … beauty, power, strength, joy, funkiness, get-down, having-a-good-time, makin’-you-dance.”
Farris has been working consistently as a musician since 1992, and said she was called to this occupation. Her latest record, “Signs of Life,” taps into her spirituality and sense of what music should give others.
“I have to have that mustard seed of faith, that little tiny inkling that the universe has got your back,” she said. “I just had a (relentless) faith about putting that record together.”
She released “Signs of Life” independently online in 2008 on her own label, Free and Clear Records. The tracks appear on her MySpace page. She has already started recording tracks for her next album, which will also be released on the label. Farris maintains her social networking pages to connect with fans.
She added “Savin’ Grace,” a minute-and-a-half demo Martin and Farris did on a whim, to her MySpace page to let her fans know she was working on something new. While the song consists of mainly Martin’s guitar stylings and mumbling on her part, the unfinished track has 10,600 hits.
Listeners flock to New York, where she performs monthly at Joe’s Pub.
"Her fan base (is) still there," said Ray, who played her show there the last two months. He said when she sings her new music, she can hold the mic out to her fans who know every word.
Her fellow musicians advocate strongly for listeners to find Farris again — those who have lost her, that is.
“I really would like some people to rediscover Dionne,” Martin said. “I think people kind of put her on the back burner.”
Photo: Courtesy of Dionne Farris