eliza berkon is a journalist and musician based in washington d.c. 

Black Folks Don’t Swim? Has A Cheeky Name And An Experimental Funk Sound

Black Folks Don’t Swim? Has A Cheeky Name And An Experimental Funk Sound

It’s Super Bowl Sunday and about a dozen people are lounging in the swanky, weather-proof environs of the rooftop bar at Eaton D.C. On stage, a lithe vocalist with turquoise hair and a tambourine in hand asks the audience to recall when they’ve needed to cancel a subscription—to a relationship.

This is Black Folks Don’t Swim?, a relatively new D.C.-area band that bills itself as “gender-diverse purveyors of funkified” music. “Cancel My Subscription” is one of several well-crafted songs in their set, performed by 20-somethings Clarissa Corey-Bey (bass, backing vocals), Kailasa Aqeel (lead vocals), DeZ McNeil (keys, drums, backing vocals) and Nithin Ventrakaman (guitar). The group also includes Themba Sipho on drums.

The song itself—about the importance of extracting “toxic people” from your life—developed from lyrical and melodic ideas the group explored in the music practice rooms at the University of Maryland, where Corey-Bey is a senior studying English.

“We’re very young but we’re starting to really make our name and our footprint,” says Corey-Bey, the group’s bandleader, who uses they/them pronouns. “I guess [it’s] just a matter of really being on to something here as far the music that people want to hear and then the spaces that people want to be a part of.”

Black Folks Don’t Swim? is also preparing for a show Saturday at the MilkGirl International Women’s Day showcase, a new event at MilkBoy ArtHouse in College Park. It’s just one event in the band’s calendar of shows that Corey-Bey says seeks to create a more diverse performance landscape.

“We are answering a need in the music industry. You don’t see a lot of bands that have women or queer people or just people of marginalized identities being at the center,” Corey-Bey says.

In November 2017, Corey-Bey assembled the band simply to have fun and play music. But no sooner had they begun than they were taking their first gig with An Indivisible Art Collective. As the ensemble continued performing sans moniker over the next few months, they found themselves kicking around band-name ideas one afternoon on Facebook Messenger.

When McNeil typed “Black Folks Don’t Swim?” Corey-Bey says they quickly took to it, and adds that it’s intentionally provocative.

“The next question was, ‘Well, what does this mean? How are people going to respond to this? How do we respond to it?'” they say. “And all those different responses that we had to what that could mean for us and for other people, that sort of made us know that was the name for us.”

The band regularly performs a self-titled theme song in their shows, featuring a call-and-response chant: “We don’t swim / We just float / Free your mind to the blue note,” referencing the art of flatting a pitch that is commonly associated with blues, jazz, and early rock and roll.

“All these musical forms are influenced by people from the black diaspora all across the world,” Corey-Bey says. “So the blue note sort of speaks to that for us, and that’s why ‘Free your mind to the blue note’ is all those things. Floating is about—it’s connected [to] where this music comes from.”

At Eaton D.C., the band easily develops a rapport with the audience, setting the scene for each song and occasionally cracking a joke. Though a few moments in their set could use a bit more polish, the group members are visibly confident and clearly gifted musicians. Aqueel easily glides from basement-level notes up through her upper register on the laid-back “By Now,” and Ventrakaman deftly plays a down and dirty guitar solo on the funked-up “Midnight Theme,” which Corey-Bey penned as a tribute to the late-night U Street scene.

As the band gains popularity (in addition to playing roughly 20 shows since it started, it’s also the subject of a documentary short), and prepares to release its debut album in May, it’s not likely to change up its formula of fearless experimentation.

“That’s what our name encourages us to do, is not be afraid of floating and trying different things, and also not be bound to what people’s expectations are of us,” Corey-Bey says. “To know us, you’ve got to ask us about us.”

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