An Interview With tUnE-yArDs: 'Get People's Attention or Die'

An occasionally embarrassing chat with the one-woman feral folk sensation

That a cappella breakdown in "Hatari"—the "GRRRRRAH GRRRRRAH" part—it feels really poignant, really important to you. What is that song about? I will try not to say what it's about, because it can be about so many different things. I don't think my lyrics are about anything, necessarily. I will tell you that. Some of these songs are so far . . . understand that I wrote some of these at least two years ago, so it's interesting to access who I was at that particular moment.

"There is a natural sound that wild things make when they're bound": I spent time in Africa . . . I grew an obsession with African music, before I was in Africa and afterward. It's more my feeling of being an American and experiencing Africa as an American, so the entirety of that song is about me being in Kenya—me traveling around Kenya, me living there.

So the breakdown is this sense of freedom versus non-freedom, of a wild thing being caged. And that's both me and my perception of what was going to happen to me in Africa. I really thought that I was going to be dancing half-naked to Paul Simon's "I Know What I Know" on the savannah. So the song is grappling with what actually happened—which is not that—but also that same sense that I had of what I wanted, what I wanted as a 20-year-old. I wanted freedom from myself and all the things that had caged me in. I also, when I was there, wanted Africans to not be caged in by American policy and by the globalization of the world and how it works. So there's my personal connection, and a political connection that I'm always trying to grapple with.

Merrill Garbus, now proudly R-rated
Chrissy Piper
Merrill Garbus, now proudly R-rated

There's a lot of hand-wringing lately about Vampire Weekend, how they're mostly white kids accused of blithely stealing or appropriating African music. As someone with a lot of African influences in your own work, do you see any difference between being influenced by that stuff as opposed to being influenced by folk or hip-hop? Is it something you have to be more careful with? I don't know if "careful" is the word. I don't think anyone should be careful as an artist or in music—I think that they should, however, engage in the discussion. . . . Do they talk about it, Vampire Weekend?

Yeah, they do. The image that people have of Vampire Weekend is that they're very rich, Ivy League kids who are just sort of dabbling. They're sort of dilettantes in playing with music and cultures that they couldn't possibly understand. I don't know if that's fair, but that's the accusation. I'm just wondering if your own work, dealing with African influences, if it's something that you're careful with, respectful with, because people have stronger feelings about it. I don't care about people—I care about what I tell people. In other words, I don't care about offending people, but I want people to accuse me of stealing African music, and I want to then engage in a discussion with them about it. I think that's incredibly important.

For a long time, especially after coming back from Africa, that was part of my deep depression: I can't do anything. I love this music. I feel a great connection to Africa, and yet I have no right to speak Swahili, which, at that point, I did. I have no right to be myself, to let out any of the things that were inside of me. Through doing BiRd-BrAiNs—through doing music for the past few years—that has been a process for me to be like, "OK, that's in there, I hear this stuff, and I feel this stuff, so I owe it to myself to do it. Otherwise, my other option is to die."

Therefore, in order to work through this, the only way to be responsible about it is to then engage with Africans about it. If I'm at a privileged place where, God forbid, I start making money with music, that gives me a power, a great power, and part of that power is to use it to bring African musicians over here, to collaborate with African musicians. But mostly, it begins with a really important dialogue. He wasn't the first by any means, but maybe Paul Simon brought Africa to pop music with Graceland, however problematically. But, hey, we all know about so much more South African music than we did. We know about Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba—we know about all these people, and we have a lot of dialogue about it.

Anyway, I don't know Vampire Weekend. I sort of want to sit down with them and be like, "Hey, let's talk about this." Who else does it? There's so much borrowing all the time of African music, and then there's something like the Very Best, where there's an African collaborating, I believe, with a Western DJ. And that, to me, is so heartening, to have a real and actual African voice in pop music—it's incredible music. That's been my favorite album to listen to in the past few years. I think the whole point is that we borrow from Africa, but we also, as Americans, steal from Africa, and that's something I want to stop, and we need—economically and socially and politically, we need to deal with those aspects, because music is not isolated from all of those things.

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