Progressive black music of the African diaspora pervades the culture, making connections among contemporary and classical sounds as well as a plethora of world rhythms. However, despite the ongoing buzz this fluid and complex musical movement garners, its practitioners remain stuck between a rock and a hard place.
To wit: ATLien-turned-Angeleno rocker David Ryan Harris. His recent show at the Neighborhood Theatre was woefully under-attended, despite the attention the great singer/songwriter/guitarist has gained from playing with Southeast music heartthrob John Mayer in recent seasons. This being the Black Rock Coalition's 20 anniversary year, it's worth mentioning that Harris' seminal all-black Hot'lanta rock band, Follow for Now, was one of the leading groups primed to come up in the wake of Living Colour. The acclaim has followed Harris since the early 90s, but not the glory due an artist of his caliber. This is even more baffling since Harris -- unlike Jimi Hendrix, Arthur Lee and other striving black rock gods before him -- has the perfect soulful voice and innate understanding of the Curtis Mayfield-Stevie Wonder-Donny Hathaway aesthetic trifecta that should long have enabled him to cross over to a mass black audience. Perhaps more than any of his run of self-released albums, the new Soulstice (www.davidryanharris.com; HHH 1/2) is rife with accessible love songs that could easily cater to the Love Jones crowd -- (typically) college educated, cosmopolitan black bohemian listeners with a taste for funk and eclecticism. Indeed, Harris' delicately groovy "Sweetest Berry" ought to be an anthem for this audience. Bouncy dance track "Good Thing" evokes prime early-80s Prince electro-funk without aping His Purple Majesty. The disc also includes one of Harris' soundtrack tunes, the heartfelt filial ballad "Don't Look Down" from the 2003 film Biker Boyz.
At least Harris has his musicianship, diehard Southeastern following and reputation as a hot live performer going for him. NYC-based newcomer Danielia Cotton, a black Latina rock chick raised in Springsteen country, is trying to break through the glut of new artists to listeners still stymied by notions of who has a right to rock. Cotton has a complicated bio: She plays guitar, she's a Bennington-educated drama major, her aunts sang background for the Boss, she converted to Judaism in adulthood, she's found a sympathetic producer from the git-go in Kevin Salem, and her jazz-singer mother raised her in isolation from cultural diversity in the titular New Jersey hamlet of Cotton's debut, Small White Town (HipShake; **). Sonically, Cotton's work has an air of sepia Alanis-isms and also doesn't differ hugely from heavy-voiced rock artist Mary Cutrufello, who went after the same arena-rock demographic in recent years (opening for the Allman Brothers Band and such). Cotton's backstory, connections and positioning may prove more compelling though. Interestingly, she has already gotten press in the black female bible Essence and Harlem-based Amsterdam News. As with most artists of this type since the 60s, Cotton's music wavers between hard rock ("Devil in Disguise") and the inability to entirely jettison her church training, as on the choral workout, "Take My Heart." Then again, "4 a Ride" is only one discovery away from being prime feature music for The O.C.
Seu Jorge, one of the most compelling and successful black Brazilian artists to emerge from Rio since Milton Nascimento, may well elude the conundrum of having to serve both black and white American aesthetic expectations, being a foreigner of whom little would be required except to be suitably exotic. Recorded in France and sung in Portuguese, Jorge's Cru (Wrasse; ****) is a marvel of fully-realized black art, relatively free of constraints that would be imposed on the disc had it been produced this side of the Pond. Jorge has become something of a minor global celebrity due to his co-starring role in Fernando Meirelles' magnificent favela drama City of God (he played trigger-happy gangsta "Knockout Ned") and a cameo in Wes Anderson's The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (he was the sailor singing Bowie classics in Portuguese). Cru fearlessly mixes Leiber-Stoller ("Don't") and re-arranged Franco-Jewish icon Serge Gainsbourg ("Chatterton") with fine self-penned tunes such as "Tive Razão (I Was Right)."
Seu Jorge is a son of Rio's favelas (slums) but still sports the young Romantic artist look as well as any art-school dropout. He definitely looks poised to be the next "Third World superstar" in the vein of Nascimento -- as known for inveterate eclecticism as the mysterious Afro-Brazilian cast on sound. I think Jorge deserves to fare better than reggae-inflected singer-songwriter Abdel Wright, the "hot" property whose self-titled debut (Interscope; ***) has Rolling Stone prematurely touting him as the "next Bob Marley." Wright's nasally vocals might repel some, yet his folksy songs of black struggle against the evils of Babylon are certainly sincere.