Priya Ragu’s post-genre sound champions her Tamil heritage
“Your heart is the strongest muscle in your body,” says Jlin from her home in Gary, Indiana, “Your mind, your soul, and all those things, they all tie together.” It’s around 10am her time and this is our second Skype attempt the day after delays because Jlin was cooling down after a workout. So no surprises when I’m laughed off after assuming she’s just out of bed, the steel mill worker having been awake since 5.30am, just because she likes to get up early.
Jlin is the latest in a crop of artists associated with the Chicago footwork scene producing the kind of frenetic dissection of a sample’s entrails in a regional music culture, embedded in a style, and built around human movement. Except that Jlin’s music isn’t strictly footwork, she’s not from Illinois, she doesn’t use lifted samples (apart from the odd film excerpt or Holly Herndon vocal), and she’s never met any of footwork’s key producers in person.
“I’m not the flour of the cookie, I’m the cinnamon sprinkle,” she says, laughing, about debut album ‘Dark Energy’ and its connection to her footwork inspiration. This is a record that perhaps features a more heady, or introspective, take on the juke-birthed subculture that she’d until recently only experienced through its recordings. She heard it first when she was four, has listened ever since, and shared her own productions via social networks. That’s maybe why ‘Dark Energy’ presents a softer side to a sound that dives deep into the subconscious in search of feelings, emotions, ideas that have generally been ignored. In other words, the ‘black’ ones.
“Blackness and darkness is not a bad thing,” Jlin has been quoted as saying, in one way or another, across press covering the album, but what’s even more interesting about this game-changing idea is that, in an album that lists track titles like Black Diamond, Black Ballet, and Guantanamo, with all their negative connotations, is that it’s not only not bad, but it’s actually pretty beautiful. That’s why it’s really no surprise that a conversation with this fitness enthusiast with a resolve of stone, will at once talk about rolling her truck on a highway, while offering Zen-like affirmations and even relationship advice on request (“You have to love you, first”). Needless to say, ‘Dark Energy’ is is probably not your typical footwork record, but that is certainly beside the point.
You talk a little bit about the darkness and sadness from where you work, is that because you experience it a lot, or are you actively try to access it?
Jlin: “I like to access that part of myself, I really do, because it’s a very challenging thing to access that’s not something that people actively go and look for every day. That’s one thing, and, two, it’s very important that I say it, ‘darkness’ and ‘blackness’ is not a bad thing. It has such a negative connotation and it makes me upset a lot of the time because the most beautiful things comes from black and dark. Look at the stars in the sky, for instance.
“Yes, I have had bad experiences. That does not mean, though, that I have to go and make negative music. It just means that I know how to use that energy against itself. You could take a piece of black coal, you put pressure on it, and what happens? It becomes a diamond. That’s where I speak from.”
So many thoughts come to mind with that. Firstly, that because a dominant, western culture tends to ignore the existence of a kind of darkness, or sadness. But there are so many beautiful nuances to it and if you could access that, or be open to that, then maybe people would less prone to violence or something….
Jlin: “I totally understand what you’re saying, but you have to go all the way back to the dictionary and redefine ‘blackness’ and ‘darkness’. Because, right now, there are terrible connotations for it. It’s negative and it’s bad, and to me that’s horrible because I have experienced some of the most beautiful things from darkness and blackness. You’d have to almost go back to the beginning with that one.”
“I have experienced some of the most beautiful things from darkness and blackness.” – Jlin
Yeah, there’s a lot about inequality and social injustice being intrinsic to the English language, like, registers and words used to define what’s good and bad and, of course, the way that you think is shaped by language.
Jlin: “Right, and I had to practically unlearn everything that I was taught, and I’m still un-learning. You kind of grow up, they teach you, you go to school, get a good education, get a good job, make money. There’s nothing wrong with that method but to me it’s so bored and restrained. That is such a, kind of, like one of my songs, Abnormal Restriction, to me. That’s like you’re trying to box somebody in and I don’t like to feel boxed in [laughs].”
It’s like a form of control.
Jlin: “Precisely. Exactly, exactly. I mean, think about it, every colour that the human eye can see, every colour in the colour spectrum, originates from the colour black. So how could something like that be a bad thing?”
You’re also speaking in terms of race, right?
Jlin: “Race, colour all the way around. The entire colour spectrum.”
I’m thinking about African culture and how certain practices have been demonised…
Jlin: “Like voodoo. And all voodoo means is ‘spiritual act’ [laughs]. The things that I have learned in the last six or seven years… I have to laugh at some of the things I hear now and some of the things I used to think back then, or what I was taught I should say.”
Speaking of language, is that part of the reason you make art or music, like trying to transcend the restrictions of language?
Jlin: “Yeah. I love language. I love words. I love sounds. Words have such impact because, if I tell you something that is, say, negative, I could change the way you think for the rest of your life, you understand what I’m saying? That’s how powerful words are. Or if I tell you something positive, I could tell you something that changes the rest of your life.
“It works both ways. So it’s important for me to say the things that I think are positive and will put out good frequencies and vibrations into the atmosphere. They won’t always be peachy things, because, as I know you’ve heard, I don’t create from a happy place.”
I’m just thinking about the fact that you work out loads and that you have such a proactive attitude, are those things related? In the sense that maintaining fitness involves overcoming challenges…
Jlin: “It’s funny, I was telling a friend a story yesterday because she was kind of asking the same thing and I gave her this example: I flipped my truck over six times on the expressway. I hit black ice and the truck flipped six times. I drove that expressway the next day. Yeah [laughs], the exact same expressway.
“I drove the next day and I did that because I did not want to be played with being afraid of doing that again. So I made myself drive that exact same expressway, in the same conditions, if not worse, the next day.”
“Every colour that the human eye can see, every colour in the colour spectrum, originates from the colour black. So how could something like that be a bad thing?” – Jlin
I think I read that you make a distinction between mind and body, which is why you don’t dance yourself?
Jlin: “Yeah, there is a distinction for me because, like I said, I am the vessel that is used to pushing out the sound, but the movement itself, it’s like a silent communication between me and the dancer. But I don’t really talk about it often because it is a silent communication. I just let it be what it is.”
But when you mention the psychology of making yourself get back in the truck, it feels like the mind itself is like a muscle.
Jlin: “It is exactly that. Your heart is the strongest muscle in your body and your mind, your soul, and all those things, they all tie together. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want you to think, ‘Oh, she has it all together’, because I don’t. I have painful moments too. I have them all the time, where I need time to heal, or I get depressed about something, or I get down about something. But I never stay there. Luckily, I have my mom who has always been one of those people who has never allowed me to feel sorry for myself.”
You mention this ability to refuse restrictions, do you think that’s something innate or something learned?
Jlin: “No, I honestly think that we can channel whatever we want, whenever we want. I just think that we put a limitation on ourselves. I actually think that we can, how should I say this… It’s like we put this box around ourselves and we say, ‘We can only operate within a certain terrain.’ Well, who told you we can only operate within a certain terrain, did you tell yourself that, did somebody tell you that?
“We start off with putting limitations on ourselves and people think we have, humanity have gone with it: ‘Well, you can’t do this, or you can’t do that’, or ‘That’s not how that sounds’, but the thing of it is that, really, there’s nothing new under the sun.”
Planet Mu released ‘Dark Energy’ on March 23rd 2015 (buy).