Language, music and art: Santigold, Heems tackle urban experience


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If Manhattan’s reputedly crumbling subway system really did collapse into the ground underneath New York University this weekend, the world would face a frightening loss of future discourses on situationist spectacle in Nicki Minaj and treatises on the lost wax poetics of early recorded cylinder music.

The 11th annual Experience Music Project Pop Conference takes place this weekend in downtown Manhattan, drawing some 340 scholars, journalists, artists and activists to pontificate and more than 2,000 dedicated ears. It’s the event’s first time on the East Coast, and by far its biggest conference yet. Numbers for advance registrants were more than triple the previous high.


Three days of panels and punditry commenced a bit wanly Thursday night as an impressive quartet of musicians -- Angelique Kidjo, Esperanza Spalding, Santigold, and Heems from Das Racist --politely answered questions about their experiences as urban dwellers and listeners, posed by former Los Angeles Times pop critic Ann Powers. Pop Con’s theme this year is ‘Sounds of the City.’

“I speak eight different languages,” the Benin-born Kidjo said, sparking the discussion with her great laugh. “I learned them all through music.”

Kidjo, who now lives in New York, painted a comic picture of public transport in her hometown of Cotonou: a pregnant woman with a kid on her back and a chicken under her arm, riding a motorcycle taxi. “In Africa, you think about the impossible, you die.”

Santi White, a.k.a. Santigold, dissected the cultural capital implicit in hipster posing as represented in her song “L.E.S. Artistes.” The people who are always at the party are the ones who aren’t really doing anything,” she said about the Lower East Side art scene. “Everybody’s different in the same way. Everyone says I’m an artist; no one’s making any art.”

The talk didn’t really take on an urban edge until Powers played a track from Heems’ Nehru Jacket mix tape. Himanshu Suri, a.k.a. Heems, explained the genesis of the snarling, expletive-laden rap: “I listed murders of unarmed New Yorkers in the last 40 years by NYPD, and I made it rhyme.”

The conference continues through Sunday evening, with speakers including Alice Bag, ?uestlove, and GZA/The Genius, and panels on “Indie Rock and the Translocal” and “Metal Studies Rising.”


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-- Evelyn McDonnell