Traditions, Transformations: Leela James, A Change Is Gonna Come

Leela James: and her complex aims, one of the beautiful dames, besieged by seductive games, knowing predictability maims, talent names, success tames.… A Change Is Gonna Come has a rich, warm sound—vintage. Within its exploration of love, there’s another interlude, “Married,” in which the singer says, “I’d love to spend my life with you,” a commitment she may be too young to make, and in the song “When You Love Somebody” the much-used phrase “it is what it is” is regrettably spoken, and then in “Mistreating Me” James sings, “I have decided to love myself.” In its sad thoughtfulness, the song “Mistreating Me” reminds me of MeShell Ndegeocello (the album Bitter).

By Daniel Garrett

Leela James, A Change Is Gonna Come
A & R (Artist & Repertoire): Leela James and Commissioner Gordon
Various Producers
Executive Producer Tom Whalley
Warner Brothers, 2005

Macy Gray, On How Life Is
Producer Andrew Slater
Sony, 1999

Leela James, Leela James: a new name, a new path to fame. Leela James has an authoritative voice, and a vivid personality, with ideas too—and she is also calculating. Leela James’s A Change Is Gonna Come has a muscular, soulful sound; and it is a program of music informed by tradition and contemporary expectations—the singer critiques and embodies contemporary attitudes about gender and music. Some communities offer their members a limited range of options and roles, so that even an intelligent artist must navigate a treacherous path: a conflict of categories and classes, ideas and ideals, as if no identity or reality were possible without opposition, without war. Yet, Leela James is intent on demonstrating what she declares and A Change Is Gonna Come is an obviously impressive recording. Often, Leela James’s expression of emotion seems naked: the expression, instinctive and theatrical, comes out of individual feeling, musical tradition, and social sense: and seduction, tenderness, madness, and outrage go hand in hand, a promiscuous community of feeling, as if there’s no difference between private and public being. Will Leela James be a performer in which we will be allowed to see intelligence and passion, sensitivity and pride, independence and relevance? Will she be allowed to grow until her own nature and time itself find her limits?

“I come up hard,” sings Leela James, at the beginning of her album, A Change Is Gonna Come. “I come up hard” sings Leela James, words echoing Marvin Gaye (“Trouble Man”) and set to a chant-like rhythm and live audience murmuring that recall Aretha Franklin’s “Mary Don’t You Weep.” The introduction to the album was written by Leela James with Gordon Williams, as were many of the collection’s pieces, and the intro is an acknowledgement of art and struggle: James places herself within a matrix that is larger than simply one musical recording; and in the album’s second piece, “Music,” James speaks the names Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, Tina Turner, and Chaka Khan. One usually writes about life, the human condition, philosophy, and politics: and it only seems as if one is merely writing about an artist, a thinker, a work, or a particular finite subject. One is always trying to offer an interpretation that is transformative—one only seems to be adding a footnote to an already established discussion. When one accepts one’s self as a transgressor—as someone who is seen as an outsider and a renegade for one’s personality or habits, as someone who must be a renegade in order to survive and prosper despite one’s outsider status—one can begin to think in transgressive ways that are creative and destructive, useful and perverse. “We can’t go back to yesterday—can we just put the thongs away?” James asks. Can we focus on music rather than sexual image? “I can’t even turn on my radio, without someone hollering about a bitch or ‘ho,” she adds. James’s articulate comments, soulful wails, and musical shrieks, accompanied by a percussive rhythm create the stage for the work she is attempting to do.

That work—as all work must be—is balanced by pleasure: “Tonight is the night, we gonna have a good time…/Happy it’s the weekend…/We gonna have a good time, let’s just have a good time” she sings in “Good Time,” an acknowledgement of what many come to music—and social life—for. Of course, with social life comes the possibility of conflict, and in “Ghetto,” the narrator faces tension over a man—the cliché of two women wanting one man—and a male voice in the background says, “She gon’ get ghetto up in here” and the singer says that she is trying to be a lady but the other woman keeps pushing her. In the hip-hop influenced song “Ghetto”—the influences are in the song’s multiple voices and rhythms, and the acknowledgement of violent and vulgar exchange as a possibility of choice for self-definition and self-defense, and in the male shout-outs regarding the song’s production by Wyclef Jean, shout-outs that seem to have as much to do with insecurity as pride—the narrator says that she is the present, the other woman is the past, and it’s not the singer’s fault if what the other woman had with the desired man did not last. (It is troubling to think that polite manners are not seen for what they are: a sign of self-command and regard for others; a prevalent barbarity has made mindless rudeness a respectable force and a sign of sincerity.) “Ghetto” is followed by a guitar interlude with a clapping rhythm, a bluesy tone, and then “Soul Food,” in which the specifics of southern African-American cuisine and its appreciation are matched with the desire for a particular kind of love. Leela James’s voice sounds fragile as she asks for consideration, fairness, and love in “Rain,” written by Raphael Saadiq with James. One can understand only as much of a given message as one can understand the language—the terms, the references—in which the message is made. It’s hard not to wonder again about the differences in male and female desires. In conservative times, we think of the differences among human beings, between men and women, as innate, as nature, and in liberal times, we think of those differences as cultural, as environmental, as nurture. I find myself wondering if women are simply more human than men—not better, not more moral, not nicer, but simply more human: more cognizant of and responsive to being alive, to the possibilities of human existence.

Leela James: and her complex aims, one of the beautiful dames, besieged by seductive games, knowing predictability maims, talent names, success tames.… A Change Is Gonna Come has a rich, warm sound—vintage. Within its exploration of love, there’s another interlude, “Married,” in which the singer says, “I’d love to spend my life with you,” a commitment she may be too young to make, and in the song “When You Love Somebody” the much-used phrase “it is what it is” is regrettably spoken, and then in “Mistreating Me” James sings, “I have decided to love myself.” In its sad thoughtfulness, the song “Mistreating Me” reminds me of MeShell Ndegeocello (the album Bitter). In the collection of songs A Change Is Gonna Come, Leela James is attempting to cover a lot of ground. One can only speculate about what will become of her. Often the establishment—the musical establishment, the critical establishment, any establishment—does not know what to do with someone who isn’t a blank slate, easily manageable: someone who is not coming to be shaped by others, but has her own ambitions. What helps or hurts a career can be a matter of impressing the wrong people in the right way or the right people in the wrong way. Modern bureaucracies—companies, institutions—seem to say, “We’re not here to help you. We’re here to get from you what we require, to make you of use to us.” Sometimes the achievement of public identity is a triumph of image or rhetoric, not being. Of course, free and questing people are the most interesting kind. One wants a lifelong conversation with such people. I am one who seeks that kind of conversation: possibly, you are too.

Since the turn of the new century, several performers have made a strong impression, such as Alicia Keys and Jill Scott, but there is less originality in popular culture and its music than we want to acknowledge. One can hope but cannot predict fortunes and futures. One intriguing performer—I’m not sure if she is original or merely a novelty—is Macy Gray, whose first album On How Life Is appeared in 1999, and she offered a unique sound, with lyrics, that did not seem designed to cater to industry or public expectations. With a voice and vocal phrasing that could be rough and soft, girlish and experienced, instinctive and inventive, humorous and intense, Gray hardly brought to mind anyone else—if I tried hard, I might hear Howlin’ Wolf, Nina Simone, Grace Jones, and Crystal Waters in her voice, but it is an effort. Macy Gray’s On How Life Isopened with “Why Didn’t You Call Me,” featuring the most mundane question turned into a song, and a slowed-down style that forced one to hear the question anew, and “Do Something,” in which Gray asks, “How will you make it if you never even try?” and “Caligula,” a funny, uptempo chant about the victory of sex over love. Macy Gray, who wrote the lyrics and co-wrote the music of her songs, answered questions no one asked, and asked questions one wouldn’t ordinarily think of as unusual though they remain important. Gray’s popular song was the break-up song “I Try.” A thrilling find for many on that first collection was “Sex-o-matic Venus Freak,” and another surprise was “I Can’t Wait to Meetchu,” a song with a spiritual theme—and a calm acceptance of death and the divine. The attraction of an abusive relationship, featuring the pleasures of sex and drugs, is the focus of the ballad “Still.” Economic exploitation and violence between women (a man’s lover versus his female boss)—articulated in tones vulgar, street, surreal, funny—is the subject of “I’ve Committed Murder.” Self-reflection and spiritual peace are sought in “A Moment for Myself,” while “The Letter” says that “What I’m looking for is not here on earth.” It is a very strong first collection: and Gray followed it with The Id (2001) and The Trouble with Being Myself (2003). OnTrouble, Gray sings “When I see you, I’m gonna kiss you all over your face” and tells her lover that his other woman, whatever her appeal and skills, doesn’t write songs about him, and Gray expresses a wish to be Jesus for a day—and the recording reminds one that sometimes music embodies its time not in ideas but in sounds, in sensibility. Macy Gray did that for a moment, and may do it again. Will Leela James?

On A Change Is Gonna Come, in “Don’t Speak,” Leela James gives an interpretation of a Gwen Stefani song, an interesting choice, a gesture toward the mainstream contemporary popular music world; and James’s interpretation is anguished, raging, and tender, with the oddest interpolations, and at one point James sounds like a grasping, babbling baby. There’s an interlude (“Bummy”) before the song “My Joy,” in which James tells someone that he’s not going to take away “my joy, my peace, my strength”—the words are repeated in a kind of mourning or exorcising chant—and an emotional atmosphere is created. (James Mtume is a co-producer of “My Joy.”) In “It’s Alright,” co-written by Kanye West, James, and other collaborators, Leela James’s voice seems low, mature, measured, as she reflects on the unfortunate turn in a relationship; and a chorus offers consolation. In the program of music on A Change Is Gonna Come, the songs have moved from hope for love to disappointment—but there is still an inclination toward self-affirmation and spiritual growth.

Is transformation possible? There are all sorts of ideas we want to believe, and there were many lies I wanted to believe when I was young—the absolute nature of individual difference, the radicality of community, the lasting loyalty of friendship, and the easy availability of love—and I can only imagine what lies James may be partial to and how much time she may waste and pain she may find in dedication to them. Of course, wisdom costs too much—but what else is there but ignorance and despair? Is transformation possible? In “Ghetto” and “Soul Food,” the evocation of ethnicity and cultural specificity raises the possibility of genuine social interrogation. What analysis and evaluation—criticism—can do is to delineate the conditions of life, and choices and their effects, so that both understanding and freedom are possible. Cultural habits are inspired by plenty and by poverty. It’s arguable that a general state of deprivation increases the importance of whatever one does have—whether that’s intelligence or love—and that lack of opportunity and encouragement make it hard to develop a healthy and whole sense of self—so that tribal identifications substitute for self-awareness and self-confidence. That may be why genuine affirmations of self, and the expression of independence, are sometimes, often times, read as tribal betrayal—and, bizarrely, self-hatred. These matters are not delved into deeply. Is transformation possible? It is not news that love is preferred to politics as a subject, that love is seen as more accessible, more common, though politics affects most of us. It is true that love seems to offer more transcendence than politics, though much of what we think and say about love is mythology and much of politics is tragedy and unsuspected farce. Is transformation possible?

In A Change Is Gonna Come’s “Didn’t I,” which was written by Kanye West with Leela James and which reminds me of Michael Jackson’s “Jam” and Sam Cooke’s “Chain Gang,” James asks, “Gave my best to you, didn’t I?” The song is a marvelous arrangement of rhythms and other sounds—beautifully demanding. James has found good collaborators. While people with power may be arrogant and indifferent (or well-intentioned and clueless), and those without power may be ignorant and indifferent (or knowing and overwhelmed), the presence of perceptive and persevering peers can make all the difference: and on A Change Is Gonna Come, James’s collaborators include not only West, Raphael Saadiq, Wyclef Jean, and Gordon Williams, but also Louis Buster Brown, Scott Parker, Kenton Nix, Puff Johnson, Jerry Duplessis, Aaron Harris, Ahmad Lewis, James Poyser, Vikter Duplaix, Carvin Haggins, Tend Lewis, Renee Neufville, and Chucky Thompson. Talent is bond.

One rarely examines one’s own limitations—one’s own blindness, delusions, impatience, laziness, pains, and rages, or one’s own varied strengths. Leela James has her own spiritual resources: and on A Change Is Gonna Come, James sings a “Prayer” she co-wrote; and there is an interlude “I Know I Been Changed,” with a recognition of the good and bad in life, and the beauty and use of soul music, of blues and gospel.

Leela James sings Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.” It is a simple, effective rendering.

Then, Leela James closes her album with a strutting funk-gospel shout of affirmation written by James and Gordon Williams, “Long Time Coming.” There is no one bringing music quite like this.

About the author: Daniel Garrett has written about music for, Hyphen,, Option, and; and his commentaries on Lizz Wright, Sinead O’Connor and Al Green have appeared on the web pages of The Compulsive Reader. Daniel Garrett has also written about art, books, business, film, and politics, and his work has appeared in The African, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Cinetext.Philo, Film International, Offscreen, Rain Taxi, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and World Literature Today.