Brandi Thompson of Brandi and the Alexanders
Brooklyn quintet Brandi and the Alexanders, led by powerhouse vocalist Brandi Thompson, is looking ahead to a new EP, Reflection, slated for September. It's the group's first release since their 2018 indie debut album, How Do You Like It?, and also one that compelled Thompson and her bandmates to dig deeper, expanding on their funk and soul template, and spiraling to dance and experimental "hyperballads" (yes, they've even covered Björk in live sets).
More significantly, it has given Thompson — who is also an in-demand backing vocalist for folks like Aloe Blacc, Nick Waterhouse, and Daptone label artists — the space to face her own emotional wounds following George Floyd's 2020 murder. Lyrically, she found herself drawing on the struggles of her elders and her own experience of racism.
The first taste of the forthcoming EP, the galvanizing "Fire," is the result of that reflection; it's a forthright anthem of protest and pride. For Juneteenth, FUV asked Brandi what the holiday means to her, the influence of her forebears, and the evolution of that striking new song:
What does Juneteenth mean to you in 2022?
My family has acknowledged Juneteenth since I was a kid, but I didn't personally celebrate it until I had a family of my own. Now that I have children, celebrations of our Blackness have become more important to me because I want my kids to have a deep pride and appreciation for this part of their heritage.
When Juneteenth became recognized as a national holiday in 2020, it actually seemed quite silly to me that this holiday that several states and millions of Black Americans have been celebrating for literally over a century was a new holiday to such a large swath of the country. Just last week, I mentioned Juneteenth to one of my teenage voice students, who replied, "What's that?" So, there's clearly a need for more to be taught about the holiday to encourage everyone to celebrate it — and be more than just a day off work with suspended alternate side parking — but I am very glad it's finally getting some long-overdue recognition and appreciation from some outside of the Black community.
"Fire," the first single from the forthcoming Reflection EP, powerfully reflects the ascendance of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, a second Civil Rights wave. When did the song really come together for you lyrically — and what does it feel like to sing it to an audience now?
The lyrics came to me while watching the marches right after George Floyd's death. There was wall-to-wall coverage of protests for weeks after the videotape of his murder came out; it made me think about how this had literally been happening to Black Americans for centuries, but non-Black people are only now getting angry because it's being recorded on video and there's certifiable proof that these things happen.
Tragedies like that of George Floyd happened in the generations of my parents, grandparents, great grandparents and elder ancestors, but their indignities were out of sight and out of the minds of non-minorites and only talked about in angry voices by grown folks at Black family gatherings. And yet, despite that, my ancestors and elder relatives survived and persevered. My grandparents were the first to integrate their all white neighborhood on the south side of Chicago, despite violence and death threats and police escorts to and from their home, but they stayed and even wrote an award-winning book about the ordeal called Trumbull Park.
My parents received their own death threats and even had a fake gun put into our mailbox when I was a child to deter us — one of the first few Black families to move into the almost entirely white town of Naperville, Illinois — from continuing to live in that community, but we stayed. I got the incredible education for which my mom moved there. Even I, in the 21st century, have experienced various forms of racism, and I know I will have to explain to my half-Black, light-skinned twin daughters why one of them might be treated differently than the other because of her slightly darker skin and frizzier hair, but I know they both will still grow up to be proud, confident, and accomplished Black women.
Singing "Fire" evokes that pride - I feel it oozing out every time I sing it, so I know the audience senses it. It's a song that instills confidence and informs listeners of the bravery and perseverance of African-Americans past and present, and reminds listeners, despite what some might think, that Black people are better than they know. I know my daughters will be able to use the words of this song as they face their own kinds of discrimination in the future, and that makes me feel incredibly proud.
Reflecting on the musicians of that first Civil Rights wave — like Mavis Staples, Harry Belafonte, Mahalia Jackson, and Nina Simone — what do you see as your responsibility as a songwriter in a time of needed change, accountability and justice?
I think musicians are artists, and artists create art that reflects life, as well as the universal principles that connect us as humans. The artists of the '60s and '70s created music that reflected that time, but that music is timeless because their themes are still relevant today. I want to be the same kind of artist; one who creates music that isn't just meant for a time capsule. I want it to be accessible to people who are listening to it today as well as 50 years from now. With that in mind, I think creating music that reflects our morality and offers a megaphone for people who may not be always be heard is critical.
Songs like "Fire" are powerful because they touch a nerve, make people think, critique, and recognize that this country doesn't offer liberty and justice for everyone. There's nothing wrong with happy pop music, but I think the kind of songs that spur someone into action is music is critical, and that those music creators are incredibly valuable. I hope that a song like "Fire" can be used to strike a nerve and inspire people to take action when something's not right.
What are one or two other Civil Rights anthems that have inspired you and why?
My all-time favorite civil rights anthem is [James Weldon Johnson's] "Lift Every Voice and Sing." It's actually not so much a civil rights anthem as it was originally a Negro spiritual, but it became the "national anthem" for African Americans in this country around the time of the Civil Rights movement. (At least that's what I grew up believing!) Just last year, "Lift Every Voice and Sing" was performed at the Super Bowl, and my mother and I sang along with it while telling my daughters that this is America's "other national anthem." It was a pretty powerful moment.
Brandi and the Alexanders have had their own Covid struggles, sadly forced to cancel some recent gigs — but what saw you all through as a band during the pandemic as you came together to write the songs for Reflection? And what's your greatest hope for 2022?
I think our love of music is what kept us going. We definitely all kind of went into our hovels and hid from Covid for a while, but when we were able to record or get together, the love of creating and making music is what kept us coming back for more. I hope that 2022 — and beyond — continues to see a return to normalcy of some sort. It would be great to be able to perform without worrying about Covid, to be able to afford to live in the same city without concerns about inflation and rising prices, and just overall to be able to remain intact as a group despite the personal obstacles that will no doubt arise. Fingers crossed!