Regina Carter mixes music and politics in ‘Swing States: Harmony in the Battleground’
Jazz violinist Regina Carter teamed up with Grammy Award-winning producer and writer Kabir Sehgal to release “Swing States: Harmony in the Battleground” in July. Sehgal, a godson of civil rights icon Andrew Young and author of “Jazzocracy: Jazz, Democracy, and the Creation of a New American Mythology,” among other books, told the Banner, “Jazz is an anthem for democracy and has always been about inclusion.” Asked why he chose to work with Carter on the new CD, Sehgal said, “Regina is a virtuoso of the highest level. We had been working on ‘Fandango at the Wall,’ which premiered on HBO in September, and as that project progressed, Regina and I talked about the idea of an album about voting rights. ‘Swing States’ is the result of those discussions.”
Carter, originally from Detroit, trained at the New England Conservatory in Boston, and now lives in New Jersey. The Banner caught up with her by phone from her home.
Your latest CD, “Swing States: Harmony in the Battleground,” is about the importance of voting and includes music associated with so-called swing states that can decide a Presidential election. Talk about timely! For those unfamiliar with the CD, what is it?
It’s a musical statement, hopefully to show us that we’re all one — united. And that to vote is to have our voices heard. Music is the thing that we love, we can’t live without music, so it’s through music that we can convey the importance of the vote. At first, Kabir [Sehgal] and I discussed music associated with the civil rights movement, and as time went by, we started thinking about states that can decide the Presidential election — swing states. The musician John Daversa did these amazing arrangements of the songs. Some of them are state songs. And by the time it was done? It was like having a box of assorted chocolates!
The CD came about initially through conversations with writer and producer Kabir Sehgal. Was it a collaboration with him?
It was. We were talking about the upcoming election, and our voting experiences growing up. Not voting was not an option in my household, growing up in Detroit. And I was so upset about those who didn’t vote in the last election in 2016, especially Black people. So Kabir and I started talking about a voting rights project, and we brought in John Daversa. John had two weeks to write the arrangements!
I know that you are too young to have experienced directly what your parents and grandparents did when voting, but what did they tell you? And where did it happen for them?
My mother was born in Detroit in 1926, and my father was born in a town in Alabama that doesn’t exist anymore. We knew what voting meant for them: It was their duty. My parents would discuss ahead of time the candidates and the proposals. We would go with them to vote. My mother was also a kindergarten teacher, and had the kids line up with paper ballots and pretend to vote! And when I first moved to New York, she would call me up before an election and ask: “Who are you going to vote for? Make sure you vote!”
Were there hidden elements in songs that you highlighted on the CD? I’m thinking of your versions of “Home on the Range” and “Rocky Mountain High.”
I wouldn’t say hidden meanings, but a lot of the time we hear songs — popular tunes — and we may not stop to think, “What does it really say?” Like John Daversa’s arrangement of “Dancing in the Street,” on the CD: I love it! I would never have thought to do it that way. It was just a Motown tune that he turned into a Civil Rights tune for Detroit.
We have all observed, alongside the post-election joy, increased anxiety among urban youth between ages 16–30, who have not yet developed the resilience of those of us who have experienced greater loss. How can music help them?
When you listen to music that you love, it helps you get things done. For me, when I’m doing housework, it’s listening to Aretha Franklin. Or if I need a good cry, I’ll listen to, “The Swan,” by Saint-Saëns. Music is a therapy, and an escape. It gives you permission to feel. To leave yourself. Music heals our spirit and bodies. It’s necessary.
You were so prescient with this new CD about swing states! What do you think lies ahead for you in 2021? Best-case, worst-case scenarios.
The worst-case scenario is that several venues will close; they won’t be able to hang on. The best case scenario: When we’re clear, people might be hesitant at first, but then they’ll be eager to see and hear live music and theater again. Because as musicians, it’s a shared experience with audiences. We need that experience. We all need it, especially young people.