Leyla McCalla's 'The Capitalist Blues' Is the Essential Album to Inspire Resistance

Photo: Sarrah Danzinger / Courtesy of Shore Fire

Leyla McCalla's The Capitalist Blues is an inspired album centralizing the importance of music as an outlet for castigating society's ills.

The Capitalist Blues
Leyla McCalla

Jazz Village

25 January 2019

Listeners should expect tenacious political and social commentary from an album titled The Capitalist Blues. Leyla McCalla, the renowned cellist and Americana/folk performer, unequivocally delivers. First receiving recognition as a member of the iconic old-time string group the Carolina Chocolate Drops, McCalla's solo career is equally rousing. Her latest release, The Capitalist Blues, is an inspired album centralizing the importance of music as an outlet for castigating society's ills. More so, each track reveals McCalla's fluency with varying musical genres ranging from R&B to traditional Haitian, rock 'n' roll to Calypso, and Cajun dancehall to zydeco. Despite the array of genres, The Capitalist Blues is a coherent and meaningful call for resistance.

The opening title track features a swanky New Orleans jazz rhythm accented by a prominent horns section and tinkling piano. A trumpet develops a melancholic interplay with McCalla on banjo echoing the track's discontent with upward mobility. "The Capitalist Blues" specifically addresses the ubiquitous narratives enforcing a singular understanding of achievement. She problematizes the notion of labor and capital especially when an individual is consistently told "to go a little higher / Try to take a different view / But you can see / I'm not inspired / I've got the capitalist blues." "The Capitalist Blues" addresses the turmoil derived from physical and emotional labor when the outcome is empty and measured in monetary yield only. As McCalla contends, labor as a method to accrue capital is a fruitless endeavor "if I give everything / I won't have much more to lose/ It's not fair, it's not right." Marxism meets jazz swing in The Capitalist Blues.

McCalla engenders the hardships she sings about. "Heavy As Lead" exhibits the ordeal experienced by her family when her daughter underwent treatments for lead poisoning. McCalla summons a soul music influence underscored by an organ to convey the song's powerful sense of worriment. McCalla's voice is steadfast as she laments the economic concerns weathered by families experiencing similar conditions. For many, the high costs associated with treatment are devastating and insurmountable. When her voice ascends to sing, "Don't tell me everything's gonna be all right," she renders a fortified call for empathy rather than charity. Her voice signals the distress synonymous with survival while critiquing the systematic conditions upholding environmental health issues.

McCalla continues her consideration of the oppression endured under capitalism in "Money Is King". Prodigiously reflective of the contemporary moment, the track portrays the privilege gained from wealth. Originally recorded during the Depression era by the Trinidadian calypsonian, Neville Marcano a.k.a. Growling Tiger, the song lambastes inequality and consumerism. Consider the prevailing cases of affluenza resulting in zero jail time or the sneering MAGA-hat wearing teen's ticket to a sit-down interview on the Today Show. As Growling Tiger lamented and McCalla reestablishes, "people do not care if he have cocobay [a skin disease] / He can commit murder and get off free / And live in the governor's company / But if you are poor, the people tell you 'Shoo!' / And a dog is better than you."

McCalla is not myopic in her criticism of capitalism. She clearly articulates the direct correlation between economics and consumerism to other forms of oppression. "Mize Pa Dous" raises consciousness about poverty. She sings in Haitian Creole and uses a lap steel guitar and a tanbou, Haiti's national instrument, to root her Haitian heritage. "Aleppo" evokes a more prominent rock 'n' roll sound as McCalla switches out her banjo for a riotous electric guitar. The track's distinct politicality is reinforced by piercing distortion creating an aural discomfort. This is McCalla's overt method of engaging her audience. The listener's discomfort is petty and trivial compared to those living in a calamitous war zone. Yet, McCalla does not succumb to the tendency to enshrine an issue without offering a solution. The track, "Penha," is a prayer for peace which McCalla translated from the Portuguese.

As such, The Capitalist Blues is not entirely a call for uprising and awareness. Rather, her inclusion of jaunty and uplifting tracks are justly compelling thereby enabling the album's sense of balance. "Lavi Vye Neg"'s use of percussion creates mirthful energy revisited in "Settle Down's" polyrhythmic force. "Me and My Baby" features Topsy Chapman and Solid Harmony to create a vocal bouncy juxtaposed to the full-band instrumentation. While "Oh My Love" summons the sounds of classic Cajun music as the track's use of accordion radiates. At times, the instrumentation is so vibrant and robust McCalla's vocals are lost. This is likely intentional to utilize her voice as simply another instrumental line.

So rise up, advocate for change, create music for social progression but have a little fun in the meantime. Leyla McCalla's The Capitalist Blues is the essential album to inspire resistance.






Of Purges and Prescience: On David France's LGBTQ Documentary, 'Welcome to Chechnya'

The ongoing persecution of LGBTQ individuals in Chechnya, or anywhere in the world, should come as no surprise, or "amazement". It's a motif undergirding the history of civil society that certain people will always be identified for extermination.


Padma Lakshmi's 'Taste the Nation' Questions What, Exactly, Is American Food

Can food alone undo centuries of anti-immigrant policies that are ingrained in the fabric of the American nation? Padma Lakshmi's Taste the Nation certainly tries.


Performing Race in James Whale's 'Show Boat'

There's a song performed in James Whale's musical, Show Boat, wherein race is revealed as a set of variegated and contradictory performances, signals to others, a manner of being seen and a manner of remaining hidden, and it isn't "Old Man River".


The Greyboy Allstars Rise Up to Help America Come Together with 'Como De Allstars'

If America could come together as one nation under a groove, Karl Denson & the Greyboy Allstars would be leading candidates of musical unity with their funky new album, Como De Allstars.


The Beatles' 'Help!' Redefined How Personal Popular Music Could Be 55 Years Ago

Help! is the record on which the Beatles really started to investigate just how much they could get away with. The album was released 55 years ago this week, and it's the kick-off to our new "All Things Reconsidered" series.


Porridge Radio's Mercury Prize-Nominated 'Every Bad' Is a Wonderful Epistemological Nightmare

With Every Bad, Porridge Radio seduce us with the vulnerability and existential confusion of Dana Margolin's deathly beautiful lyricism interweaved with alluring pop melodies.


​​Beyoncé's 'Black Is King' Builds Identity From Afrofuturism

Beyoncé's Black Is King's reliance on Afrofuturism recuperates the film from Disney's clutches while reclaiming Black excellence.

Reading Pandemics

Colonial Pandemics and Indigenous Futurism in Louise Erdrich and Gerald Vizenor

From a non-Native perspective, COVID-19 may be experienced as an unexpected and unprecedented catastrophe. Yet from a Native perspective, this current catastrophe links to a longer history that is synonymous with European colonization.


John Fullbright Salutes Leon Russell with "If the Shoe Fits" (premiere + interview)

John Fullbright and other Tulsa musicians decamped to Leon Russell's defunct studio for a four-day session that's a tribute to Dwight Twilley, Hoyt Axton, the Gap Band and more. Hear Fullbright's take on Russell's "If The Shoe Fits".


Roots Rocker Webb Wilder Shares a "Night Without Love" (premiere + interview)

Veteran roots rocker Webb Wilder turns back the hands of time on an old favorite of his with "Night Without Love".


The 10 Best Films of Sir Alan Parker

Here are 10 reasons to mourn the passing of one of England's most interesting directors, Sir Alan Parker.


July Talk Transform on 'Pray for It'

On Pray for It, Canadian alt-poppers July Talk show they understand the complex dualities that make up our lives.


With 'Articulation' Rival Consoles Goes Back to the Drawing Board

London producer Rival Consoles uses unorthodox approaches on his latest record, Articulation, resulting in a stunning, beautiful collection.


Paranoia Goes Viral in 'She Dies Tomorrow'

Amy Seimetz's thriller, She Dies Tomorrow, is visually dazzling and pulsating with menace -- until the color fades.


MetalMatters: July 2020 - Back on Track

In a busy and exciting month for metal, Boris arrive in rejuvenated fashion, Imperial Triumphant continue to impress with their forward-thinking black metal, and death metal masters Defeated Sanity and Lantern return with a vengeance.


Isabel Wilkerson's 'Caste' Reveals the Other Kind of American Exceptionalism

By comparing the American race-based class system to that of India and Nazi Germany, Isabel Wilkerson makes us see a familiar evil in a different light with her latest work, Caste.


Anna Kerrigan Prioritizes Substance Over Style in 'Cowboys'

Anna Kerrigan talks with PopMatters about her latest film, Cowboys, which deviates from the common "issues style" approach to LGBTQ characters.


John Fusco and the X-Road Riders Get Funky with "It Takes a Man" (premiere + interview)

Screenwriter and musician John Fusco pens a soulful anti-street fighting man song, "It Takes a Man". "As a trained fighter, one of the greatest lessons I have ever learned is to walk away from a fight without letting ego get the best of you."

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.