Music

Tanya Morgan: Moonlighting

Trio Tanya Morgan shines with a debut album that thumps with truly soulful hip-hop.


Tanya Morgan

Moonlighting

Label: Loud Minority Music
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The combination of two virulent emcees and a lavish beatmaker has become a traditional form in underground hip-hop -- witness albums successfully churned out by Scarub, Murs and Eligh with their moniker 3 Melancholy Gypsies and Phonte, Big Pooh and 9th Wonder as Little Brother by means of two solid albums. With a DJ distinct and productive enough to provide a consistent musical landscape, the emcees are free to play with form over the sonic discourse behind them.

In the case of Tanya Morgan, Brooklyn producer Von Pea and Cincinnati lyricists Ilwill (Donwill and Ilyas) coalesce to deliver the trio's debut album Moonlighting, an impressively smooth and rich creation. Pre-Moonlighting, Tanya provided a free download of their mixtape Sunrise to Sunset on their website, where the trio dropped exclusives and offered a tasty introduction to their sound. Pulling an electronic Postal Service for their debut, the trio created tracks mostly via the Information Superhighway, only meeting in person halfway through recording in order to finish the album in "Brooklinnati". But with Von Pea assuming both production and verbal roles, Tanya Morgan develops a downy identity that manages to deliver without clouding the trio's embedded chemistry.

Tanya's mission statement is to basically create feel good music with a message, which they certainly accomplish without slipping into preachy tirades. With a library of samples to make an amateur blush, Von Pea unites everything from gospel to jazz to big band to create a musical foundation that emotes freshness and individuality. Over these wistfully contemplated beats, Von Pea slips into emcee character to join Ilwill in order to create a niche for themselves in the hip-hop scene.

Bumping straight from the first track, Tanya launches into "The Warm Up", a woozy track based on the drunken slur of a jazz guitar pinned against the shrill of trumpets. The emcees trade off for the spotlight, equally distinguishing themselves from other hip-hop groups with lines like "Do it low budget cause we love it, run a track across country, yo, you got it? (Yea, we got it)." Hiding behind the veil of trio, though, causes the emcees to all wear a single mask that hinders the cultivation of three separate identities. On "The Warm Up", as well as most of the album, the trio falls into a grey zone where the emcees are faceless and interchangeable for the fact that their styles and inflections are all too similar. Tanya sounds as if the album is delivered from a single rapper, which makes the album enjoyable despite its multiple rappers definition.

The lead single, "Take the L (Get It)", is a glorious new-wave disco thump that rides the screech of faint violins, with rapid-fire rhymes that attack emcees for their abstinent abilities to rap with meaning. Donwill drops couplets that move forward while concurrently making the listener pause: "I’m movin' my bowels/ Shittin' on the wannabe contender/ Might not know the face/ But the voice y’all remember."

"Rough U Up," a track that seems out of place, for its down-South jangly beat, sardonically pokes fun at mainstream rap artists for their vices, a theme perpetually exalted on Moonlighting. The beat, accented by the bland bump of 808 hi-hats and the infamous Lil' Jon handclap, offer up a space for the emcees to joke, as displayed with the rhyme "Y'all in the club, you lookin' all poor/ I got 'em ready to get preggy want me up in 'em raw."

Though there may be a fair share of airing out on the album, there's an equal amount of self-aggrandizement that remains seemingly deserved. On "We Be", the emcees introduce themselves as the "almighty" Tanya Morgan over a chopped organ snip laced with the dusky interjection of a soul-filled vocal sample. Von Pea delivers a smoldering head-spin of a verse that perfectly exemplifies their capabilities: "From exploring the seven seas, to the shores of emcees' minds/ I climb beneath the sublime/ Trying to remind them of what it needs to be in times of turmoil/ So my blood boils till it surface on the earth's soil/ I'm a volcano!"

With lines to make you hit rewind, Tanya Morgan brings a refreshing and focused effort to the hip-hop game, despite their unfortunate individual facelessness throughout the album. Moonlighting shows that hip-hop is teeming with fresh blood, as shown on "Hahaha" that rips a Greek march and "We BAD!" which reigns as a big band epic. By the end of the album, Tanya Morgan fully infuses an enjoyable glory into a listener, who is ultimately left fiending for more.

7

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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