Designing the Future Funk: Kawsaki's music looks to the past to explore an imagined aftertime

MUSIC INTERVIEW

Kawsaki

Time is a flat circle.

Kwame Sakyi Jr. is a man out of time. 

Or rather, his musical alter ego, Kawsaki, is a composer out of time.

Or maybe Kwame Sakyi and Kawsaki are right on time.

That's the thing about modern music that draws deeply from the past: what at first sounds retro gets reclaimed as futuristic.

Or an imagined future.

Or an alternate contemporary reality.

Retrowave evaporates into vaporwave and shapeshifts into future funk.

All of this to same Kwame "Kawsaki" Sakyi Jr. makes contemporary retrowave that looks forward to future funk misted with vaporwave to create a sound that encompasses the past 45 years of synthesizer music.

And he's a master at doing it.

But for Sakyi, an Ann Arbor native in his late 30s who now calls Detroit home, a different genre of music first turned him onto retro styles.

The Triumphant Resurrection of Nickie P

MUSIC INTERVIEW

Nickie P

When Nickie P is on the mic, she commands a room.

The hip-hop artist also known as Nicole Price Smith stalks the stage with supreme confidence, projecting joy as she rips through speedy rhymes with the confidence of a Formula 1 car hugging the pavement.

But when she was younger, the 36-year-old Smith wanted to belt out tunes, not rap them.

"When I first started performing, I wanted to be a pop singer," she said in an email interview. "I took vocal lessons as a kid and studied genres like Italian opera and Broadway, which is what they had me perform at local music events. But at the time, I really wanted to be a big pop singer like Britney Spears or Christina Aguilera, who were very popular at the time."

It was her brother and Seven Chakraz bandmate Kevin, aka Esque, who shifted Smith's attention to hip-hop.

"He would pull me in his room and play me tracks by Wu-Tang Clan, KRS-One, Mobb Deep, early Eminem, and the like," Smith said. "From there I started listening to artists such as Bahamadia, Lil Kim, Jean Gray, and Lauren Hill ... [whose] vocal stylings paired with her colossal rhyme style is unforgettable and it has driven me for many years. More recently, I have really been influenced by artists like Atmosphere, Sa-Roc, and Brother Ali on the Rhymesayers record label."

Like Hill, Smith blends her rapping and singing talents into a compelling whole on a new EP, The Collective ThoughtThe record was a long-time coming, too: It's been five years since Smith's last single, "Soma," which was more of a soulful singer-songwriter tune, and eight years since her album, the rap-based The Triumphant Rise & Tragic Existence of Sick Nick.

The answer to why there's been big a gap between releases is layered and complicated.

"Common" People: Ken Meisel examines and celebrates Detroit in his new poetry collection

WRITTEN WORD PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Ken Meisel's book Our Common Souls

Detroit is many things to many people. Ken Meisel’s poetry collection Our Common Souls: New & Selected Poems of Detroit outlines these many views through substantial narrative poems that tell stories about the city. The wide-ranging poems examine specific places in the city, people such as its famous musicians, and historical events, including riots, the World Series, and Devil’s Night.

The collection opens with a poem called “Detroit River, January, 1996” that sets the scene for both the book and its perspectives of the city: “River on this coal-blasted shore, / River whose name now starts with a fist, / ends its knees in St. Lawrence.” The poem concludes with an emphasis on the river’s persistence, “River of sunken beer bottles, churn on,” just as the place will carry on through time and everything that has happened there. 

The poet peers at the various scenes and underbelly of the city, not overlooking the rough edges, as the poem, “The Gift of the ‘Gratia Creata,’” with a note setting its location in “Hamtramck, MI” declares:

Streets of Your Town: Jeff Vande Zande’s new short story collection focuses on "The Neighborhood Division"

WRITTEN WORD PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Jeff Vande Zande's book The Neighborhood Division

In the neighborhoods, streets, homes, rooms, and basements of author Jeff Vande Zande’s new short story collection, The Neighborhood Division, people live out their lives, their relationships, and their struggles. 

Yet, something is always a little unsettled. A car that follows a character on his run, with threats emerging from the driver. The paranoia of being mugged haunts a female character. A man lives shackled in the basement, unbeknownst to the residents. A neighborhood, where no outsiders are supposed to come in, restricts its residents under the guise of making lives better for them.  

These stories peer into the disarray of lives behind the four walls that they call home and also question the character’s choices. In the story called “That Which We Are,” a widower reflects on his marriage. His wife used to save money during the year so that she could give it to people in need during the holidays. Yet, he coveted the money for household expenses and splurges, like a television. He reconsiders:

From the Fifth Estate to Ann Arbor: Harvey Ovshinsky's new memoir recalls his agitating and publishing days in Detroit

WRITTEN WORD INTERVIEW

Harvey Ovshinsky and his book Scratching the Surface

Ann Arbor’s Harvey Ovshinsky faced a problem when he settled in to write his memoir, Scratching the Surface: Adventures in Storytelling.

“I sat down with Kathryn [Wildfong] at Wayne State University Press, and she said, ‘Oh, my God, Harvey, there are three or four different books in here. You’ve got to pick one,’” Ovshinsky said. “I have all these dots and I really felt the need to connect them, and I knew I could. … What they all had in common was my need to scratch the surface. And that’s when [the book] came together.”

The book's focus was originally a puzzle to solve because Ovshinsky is a lifelong restless spirit. 

With drama and humor, U-M professor Peter Ho Davies’ new novel follows a family through marriage, pregnancy, and parenting

WRITTEN WORD INTERVIEW

Peter Ho Davies and his book A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself

Family life has come into greater focus this last year during the COVID-19 pandemic. School online. Work from home. Everyone in your immediate family in the same space. 

Well beyond our one-year plus some of staying at home during this health crisis, Peter Ho Davies' new novel, A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself, sounds the depths of marriage, parenthood, and family life over many years. Davies, a faculty member at the University of Michigan, does not shy away from the pains and discomforts brought about by such arrangements, but his book also does not bypass the humor and little joys. Told in third person with the characters identified only by their roles of father, mother, and boy, readers may feel like they are on the outside looking in at the characters’ lives. Yet it’s an inside view, like a fly on the wall rather than peering through a window. The narrator homes in on the father’s perspective especially. 

Early on, challenges with a first pregnancy force a crushing decision, one that the characters process and must live with for the rest of the book. The fallout and emotions thread throughout the parents’ lives and their reflections on raising their second child. While we learn that the mother is coping through therapy, the father takes another approach of volunteering at an abortion clinic. As the father considers his earlier experience, the narrator describes: 

Transformative Sounds: Ann Arbor's Emilie Lin was a PhD psychologist who left that career to pursue her love of piano

MUSIC INTERVIEW

Emilie Lin

Emilie Lin has been a pianist her whole life. She began as a youngster in Taiwan, continued studying when she moved to the U.S. as a teenager, and eventually achieved a master's degree in piano performance from the University of Michigan, which gave her a full scholarship. In fact, Lin was a postdoctoral fellow in psychology at U-M when she decided to leave that role in order to refocus on her life as a pianist.

But despite devoting her life to music, Lin had never released an album.

Then, in less than 365 days, the Ann Arbor artist released two: 2020's Transforming and 2021's Love Endures.

"I never thought of making an album in the past until my oldest son moved to a different state to start his business in January 2020," Lin said in an email interview. "With more freedom to pursue my own goals, I became curious about my ability to compose beyond educational piano music. I was thinking how it would be so cool if I could be like Yiruma, whose 'River Flows in You' captured my husband's heart to make him stop by my studio and asked me whose music it is when I was playing it years ago. That was the first time he ever liked a piece I played well enough to ask who the composer is. I've played classical music almost all the time, a genre of music that does little for him, so I thought it's probably time for me to compose and play more contemporary classical music."

Ann Arbor native David Blixt discovered a cache of long lost novels by journalist-adventurer Nellie Bly

WRITTEN WORD INTERVIEW

Writer David Blixt and covers for the lost Nellie Bly novels

In December 2019, while researching a novel series based on the life of journalist Nellie Bly, Ann Arbor native David Blixt—a Greenhills and EMU grad who’s now a Chicago-based theater artist and writer—made an astonishing discovery.

“At that point, my office was right next to the kitchen, and Jan [Blixt, David’s wife, and the producing artistic director of the Michigan Shakespeare Festival] was in the kitchen late in the afternoon that day,” said Blixt. “I was going, ‘Honey, this can’t be real. This can’t possibly be real. … Surely everybody knows about this, right?’”

Wrong. Blixt, following what seemed an unlikely-but-possible hunch, had stumbled upon 12 long-lost serialized novels that Bly wrote after her famous trip around the world concluded in 1890.

Born Elizabeth Cochrane in 1864 in Pittsburgh, Bly got her pseudonym from her first newspaper editor, who named her after a popular 1850 song by Stephen Foster. Scholars and biographers have long known that Bly wrote fiction for publisher Norman Munro’s New York Family Story Paper—she’d signed a lucrative, three year $40,000 contract—but few to no copies of that publication have survived, so Bly’s fiction has largely been lost to time for well over a century.

Until now.

Caroline Kim's characters in "The Prince of Mournful Thoughts and Other Stories" ask what is most important in life

WRITTEN WORD INTERVIEW

Caroline Kim and her book The Prince of Mournful Thoughts and Other Stories

A woman loses a child and yet she helps another, Suyon, pregnant with a baby rumored to not be by her husband, give birth. Then, with war breaking out in Korea, the woman meets an American, marries him, and moves to the United States. There, she finds herself engaging in animal husbandry and applies the same tactics she did with her acquaintance:

You get good at birthing horses and people send for you when they have difficult cases, mares too frightened and in pain to calm down, to do what is good for them.

You whisper the same nonsense you told Suyon: that they are beautiful and perfect and doing everything just right. Everyone, everything in the world loves them. 

This woman’s dedication and strength to carry on through these significant changes in the short story “Arirang" attest to the resilient characters in The Prince of Mournful Thoughts and Other Stories by Caroline Kim. It also shows how universal and necessary that encouragement and support can be, something we all need.

Kim’s stories in her new collection ask what is most important in life, with the options ranging from fortune or pride to family, truth, connection, and expressions of love. When a woman breaks down in “Magdalena,” a mother and daughter who attend the same church try to help, despite not wanting to be associated with her. They grapple with whether to address the woman’s dire situation or to judge the woman and try to distance themselves. As the mother tells her daughter about the woman: 

Smooth Transitions: From opening for Jay-Z and a residency at Ann Arbor’s Alley Bar to spinning online, DJ Graffiti is in the mix

MUSIC INTERVIEW

DJ Graffiti at Live Ann Arbor

DJ Graffiti spinning at Live Ann Arbor. Photo by Doug Coombe.

From opening for Beyonce at the Palace to dad, entrepreneur, and local DJ, and back again—this is the story of Martin Smith aka DJ Graffiti and how he made the dream of becoming an internationally renowned DJ work during a global pandemic.

Let’s start at the start—the rise of DJ Graffiti. A young man, attending underground hip-hop shows, meeting DJs, starts making his own music, performing, and carrying around a box of mixtapes wherever he goes. He starts getting recognized.

This leads to mainstream DJ gigs, which Graffiti slays, opening for a Jay-Z tour at the Palace, then a Beyonce tour at the Palace, on the bill with Big Sean, opening for Dave Chappelle at the Fillmore. He expands his territory—hitting Chicago, New York, Miami, L.A., and Detroit after every major mixtape release. Then DJ Graffiti goes international. Tours the Caribbean. Goes on a European tour with Phat Kat—part of the extended family of Slum Village and J Dilla.

And that’s when things change.