I learned to write feature stories by listening to country music. The songs were filled with stories, characters and emotions that grabbed the listener's heart. I wanted my stories to have the same impact. I guess it's fitting that I'm using those lessons to write a song.
Songs have long provided commentary and opinion. One of my favorites is “Paradise” by John Prine. When I finally saw the effects of strip mining, these words haunted me.
“Daddy won't you take me back to Muhlenburg County,
Down by the Green River, where paradise lay,
Well I'm sorry my son, but you're too late in asking,
Mr. Peabody's coal train has hauled it away.”
I thought about Prine and other songwriters when I was commissioned to write a song for WBEZ's Race: Out Loud series. I reached out to several organizations to compile code words. I got help from the Asian American Journalists Association, which posted my query on its Facebook page. “Colorlines,” a website on racial justice issues published by the Applied Research Center, sent code words and phrases that had been compiled by Terry Keleher, who directs the organization's Midwest office.
Eventually, I interviewed Keleher and Michael Bennett, a sociology professor at DePaul University. They explained how code words develop; who uses them and why; when the words tend to appear; where they're likely to be heard. Two points stuck with me: code words and phrases are used deliberately, and they play on fear.
By the time I talked to Keleher and Bennett, I was already brainstorming the song. I thought long and hard about the genre: hip-hop, gospel or folk? I decided I wanted the tension of “Pumped Up Kicks,” which has strong lyrics set to a bouncy melody. In that roundabout journey, I ended up with a Latin-inspired piece.
When I sat down to my keyboard, I happily left journalism behind. I got the sound in my ear by listening to Mario Bauza, the architect of Afro-Cuban jazz, and Hilton Ruiz, the noted Latin jazz pianist. I spent about three weeks creating all the tracks on an old Korg Triton LE workstation.
When I headed to the studio, though, my drum track didn't work in the producer's software. He and I composed another one from his library of loops and samples. In the process, we slowed the tempo and made the song funkier. Laying down the vocals took roughly 45 minutes. Adding plug-ins and effects took another two hours. We'd started at 7 p.m. By midnight, we had a song.
If “Call Me Out My Name” makes you dance, I'll be happy. If it makes you think, I will have succeeded. If it makes you think while you're dancing, I'll be thrilled.
Coded Racism Terms - Terry Keleher, Racial Justice Leadership, 2010, Applied Research Center
What racial/ethnic group comes to mind when you hear the following terms?
culture of dependency
culture of poverty
old-fashioned American values
poor work ethic
small town American