Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Album Review: Ian Kamau - One Day Soon

We believe in a gaze that is shorter than our goals/ as empty as our pockets and as stubborn as our souls/ holding stones, looking for a place for our hands to hide/ standing in a place where many took a stand and died/ feet inside the earth, eyes towards the skies/ the land that we live on is the same they occupied/ unsure if our story is a blessing in disguise/ we pray to see the light but we will not open our eyes…
-Ian Kamau, “Maybe” (track #9 - One Day Soon)

For anyone familiar with Toronto’s hip hop, spoken word, poetry, or music community in general, Ian Kamau is known by many as a staple artist and pillar of the communities that he represents. Having released several projects in the past (2 EPs, 3 Mixtapes, 5 Podcasts), Kamau’s latest release and first official full length album, One Day Soon, is a strong testament to his creativity, depth of content, and growth as an artist to those who have been following him, and a great introduction for first-time listeners. It would be quite difficult to fit Ian Kamau or One Day Soon into a specific genre; predominant spoken word and hip hop vibes echo throughout the album, however it might be better to simply characterize this LP as soul music. For those seeking an immersive listening experience, something not only to nod your head to but to absorb and reflect on, One Day Soon possesses a wealth of Kamau’s accumulated perspectives and personal wisdom.
One Day Soon is a heavy and lyrically-packed album at times, requiring listeners to attune their ears to rapid-fire flows and emotionally charged words and phrases (e.g. track # 12, “Black Bodies,” in which Kamau expresses his frustration at the violence and death that plague the black community). Kamau juxtaposes the faster-paced hip hop songs on the album with more mellow tracks on which he spends most of the time singing (e.g. track #8, “Sleeping Giant”), nonetheless still expressing powerful and inspired ideas. In fact, Kamau does a great deal of singing on this album, displaying his ability to embody different spaces as an artist both vocally and in terms of his role on each track. One Day Soon is a very ambient LP, due not only to his atmospheric production (yes, Kamau also self-produced the entire album), but largely due to the way Kamau’s smooth background vocals compliment his spoken words/raps, which at times can come across as a bit monotonous sounding on their own.
This LP is an album of bold statements and complex ideas. The first line on the album, “I am a new kind of human being” (track #2, “Heading Home”) is a great summary of the kind of thinker that this artist is. Kamau is a heavily reflective and philosophical thinker, as evident by the lyrical content of his work. There are times on the album when it seems that Kamau is a full-fledged idealist and dreamer: “we’ll speak our mind, seek and we’ll find/ the ties that will bind us, the trees to the vine/ our roots only help us in being divine/ and forcing the change we’ll be seeing in time/ and believing in signs that we will overcome” (track #3, “The Village). Even the title of the album (One Day Soon) expresses a yearning and hope for a better world and life. It’s clear, however, that Kamau is also a realist and is keenly aware (even at times painfully so) of the harsh realities of the world around him: “black stakes in the heart/ bullets, like bats, tend to fly after dark/ we make sure the children are home from the park/ a shame - every day, another name to discuss/ flood the streets with their guns and they blame it on us” (track #12, “Black Bodies”). Kamau’s messages throughout the album are thematically focused on confronting difficult issues in society and uplifting the communities around him.

Ian takes responsibility for being the voice of a disenfranchised black community, the voice of an alienated and uncertain generation facing tumultuous circumstances. He expresses with sharp words and astute insight the damaging effects that the history of slavery and cultural displacement have had on black people: “torn from our home/ born in a new world, we’re more than alone/ and the more that we change, more we stay the same/ sat and prayed at the place that the slave-ships came” (track #3, “The Village”). One Day Soon is not simply a recounting of past horrors and there is definitely not a tone of victimhood in Kamau’s lyrics; quite contrarily, the artist seems to look with fondness and admiration at his community, for all of its accomplishments despite their harsh conditions. Track #8, “Sleeping Giant,” while targeted towards the black community, is an inspirational tribute to oppressed communities everywhere: “louder than your empty promise, louder than your arms/ louder than your foolish comments, louder than your bombs/ bigger than your false division, keeping us apart/ louder than your false religion that warps the truth inside our hearts.” It is perhaps that Kamau has uncovered his own greatness through his art, despite facing the same obstacles as the people around him, that he is able to see the greatness in other human beings, despite the difficult conditions that they face and even internalize within themselves.
While he seems to be focused specifically on problems affecting Toronto’s black community and the history of people of African descent in general, Kamau’s reflections are universally applicable because the struggles he expresses are, fundamentally, human struggles. On track #13, “Traffic,” Kamau talks about the human tendency to go after short-sited goals, fulfill base desires, and run on autopilot whilst neglecting spiritual needs and broader societal issues. While the historical circumstances of his community are specific, the recounting of past relationships and stories from his own life make clear that people from all walks of life deal with similar human conditions. A pervasive theme in Kamau’s writing is a coming to terms with clichés and idealized values that are in contradiction with life experiences. On track #5, “Now That I’m Alone,” Ian confronts the heartaches of a past romantic relationship that still occupies space in his psyche. Expressing disillusionment with common notions of love, relationships, and romance, he repeatedly sings “I guess love aint enough” on the chorus, as he recounts the circumstances that led to the severing of ties with his former romantic partner in his verses. On “Maybe” (track #9), Kamau courageously displays his own vulnerability, fears, and pain, which are evident both in his lyrics, “so often I sit in places I’d rather not be/ my eyes embrace realities I’d rather not see/ my angels and my demons, they are constantly warring/ and the things I do at night often catch me in the morning,” and in the tone of his voice on the track, which seems quiet and meek in contrast to his resonant voice on other tracks. It’s clear after listening to the song a few times, however, that “Maybe” is perhaps one of the most emotionally touching and lyrically powerful songs on the album, largely due to the artist’s honesty and open sharing of his own self-awareness.
While being a singer, emcee, philosopher, spoken word artist, community activist and more, it’s clear that Ian Kamau is a poet at heart, as evidenced by the vividness of his writing and skilled use of language throughout his work. One Day Soon is not only a great work of art, but is incredibly relevant to issues facing modern society and the world as a whole. What makes Kamau’s work so credible and touching is that he is coming from a place of both acknowledging and accepting the inequities he sees around him without condoning them, while at the same time standing for a greater future for himself, the people he knows, and the world around him. For anyone who believes in building towards a brighter future for the human race in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, for anyone who is a lover of poetry and good music, and for anyone who loves art in and of itself, One Day Soon is a must own.
We’ll never have a renaissance, ‘cause we stand and point our finger, but we’re all confused/ you’ll never have a renaissance, if you say you’re for the people but it’s all for you/ we’ll never have a renaissance, ‘cause we say we’ll get together, but it isn’t true/ we’ll never have a renaissance, if we speak about a movement, but refuse to move.
                                 -Ian Kamau, “Renaissance” (track #16 – One Day Soon)

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