Every A&R's worst nightmare is a sustainable media movement's dream come true.
"My job's to make the revolution irresistible so listen close."
-- Invincible, "State of Emergency"
I'm an English teacher. Truth be told, any emcee who quotes Toni Cade Bambara, James Baldwin, and Bertolt Brecht already has a gold star in my book.
But lucky for all of us, Ilana Invincible is not just any emcee. True to the vision of the Anomalies, the fierce female hip-hop crew that Invincible considers family, Invincible's Shapeshifters album is a key example of the hip-hop we need, both in content and in form.
"Shapeshifters", the title track, bounces and squeaks like it's made of vintage sneakers or even tires, grounding the album's core philosophy in the rebirth of the Motor City. Introduced by Detroit city elder and legend of American radicalism Grace Lee Boggs, who explains that this generation of activists is ready to transform themselves in order to create the society they want, instead of only reacting to their oppressors, this song recontextualizes the purpose and relevance hip-hop. Calling out hip-hop cultural participants from crate-diggers to rhyme-writers and plate-spinners, Invincible's refrain "we the shapeshifters" acts as a declaration of independence. If Toni Cade Bambara says "The role of the revolutionary artist is to make revolution irresistable," Invincible is asking hip-hop to play its part.
On the track "Ransom Note", featuring the Anomalies, she takes it to the next level by positioning hip-hop as a "daughter" that the industry can only get back if it truly acts as a partner in building a future worthy of all of our children. The heavy bass line of the track and the precussionist vocal dexterity of each of the emcees prove that these sistas mean business. They are taking custody of hip-hop, and you can only have it back if you act like you have some sense through accountability to the people.
Invincible shows us what she means on the rest of the album, with tracks like "Spacious Skies", a creative critique that describes the war on terror as an abusive romantic relationship between the United States and its own citizens and residents, and "In the Mourning", a soulful meditation on what it means to turn despair into transformation, appropriately set in Detroit, a city that Invincible refers to as "the auto industry's widow" and "another planet broken and abandoned" elsewhere on the album.
Detroit, one of the most stark demonstrations of the demise of industrial capital and a foreshadowing of the death of the American city, becomes a center for the rebirth of both music and political analysis on Shapeshifters. The bonus track "Locusts", produced by DJ House Shoes, documents the voices of Detroit residents displaced by eminent domain, the building of highways through black communities, and the increasing gentrification of the city. Characterizing so-called "urban renewal" as a plague that pushes working class people out of their cities, Invincible also makes the connection between gentrification in American cities and the occupation of Palestine on a track called "People Not Places", featuring Abeer, a Palestinian hip-hop artist, R&B singer, and feminist. "People Not Places" explains the violence of the displacement of Palestinian people by the state of Israel, explaining the dehumanizing effect of "blatant disrespect" when places are stripped of their Arabic names and replaced with Hebrew ones, and warning "you'll never have a peaceful state with legal displacement".
This controversial warning is just as relevant to the plight of the American city as it is to the conflict in the Middle East. But Invincible does not simply dream about a peace built of out accountability to the histories of diverse communities, she builds it on a daily basis.
In fact, it's likely that Invincible would never have been able to release an album with such depth and political content if she had not also created a model of interdependent production within a visionary media context in Detroit. Emergence Records -- a company that Invincible and fellow radical media maker Mike Medow founded in Detroit -- is grounded in a model of accountable media-making practiced by the LAMP Project at Detroit Summer, a youth collective where Invincible serves as a mentor and facilitator. Their CD Chronicles of a High School Drop Out: Rising Up from the Ashes, which documents Detroit voices across the spectrum of age, sexuality, gender, and class talking about the crisis in public education that youth in Detroit are facing, features many of the practices that Emergence Records uses on this first release -- from the audio documentary influence, to the collaborative feel, to the environmentally friendly packaging on the pre-release CDs.
At a recent workshop entitled from "Independence to Interdependence" at the Allied Media Conference in Detroit, Invincible explained that every collaboration on the album was an exchange between artists (not labels) built out of a true commitment to the shared work of creating an arts movement. The production of the CD itself was sponsored, not by an advance from a production company, but from the use of pre-sale vouchers which allowed a community of listeners to invest in the project and make it possible.
Mission Invincible Accomplished. With Shapeshifters, Ilana Invincible shows the hip-hop community not only how we can create and support the music we deserve, but also how to build the world we need.