We Are Better (Attitude in Urban Dance): Renegades by Mark de Clive-Lowe, with Omar, Sheila Escovedo, and Nia Andrews

By Daniel Garrett

Mark de Clive-Lowe, Renegades
Produced by Mark de Clive-Lowe
Tru Thoughts/EMI, 2011

“Let’s make believe we are better than we are,” sings Nia Andrews in “The Why,” the third song in musician-producer Mark de Clive-Lowe’s collection, Renegades, from Tru Thoughts: the song encourages fantasy as both escape and motivation, but its repetitive beat may make dancing easier while it dulls thought. Can a trance lead to significant vision, even if the dancers usually do not have significant thoughts? That is the kind of question one feels compelled to ask about modern dance songs, though one is not likely to think it appropriate when dealing with the folk dance or spiritual dance traditions of other and older cultures. Why is that? Is it because so much of social dance now is part of entertainment, of recreation, rather than any civic responsibility? Our dance scenes have more to do with seduction than courtship, and more to do with distraction than transcendence: they do not exist to transmit private or public virtues that are expected to last a lifetime. What are the values we recognize? Self-esteem, glamour, pleasure, conquest. Can such ideals renew the spirit?

Ours lives are organized differently than those of many people in old, small villages. We have places to go to for knowledge and moral instruction, schools and churches, and many of our interests are administered or informed by institutional agencies and departments; and we do not require that dance do that kind of formational work. Yet, when considering music written especially to encourage social dancing, music that is often dismissed as superficial, it is inevitable that one wonders about its worth. The eastern-sounding “Alabi” begins Mark de Clive-Lowe’s Renegades, followed by an invocation to dance, to communal pleasure, “Get Started,” which has chanting, and features soul singer Omar and a lot of Shelia E.’s percussion. Is the pleasure only in being together and dancing? Is there any other connection or purpose? What happens when couples leave the dance floor, or the club? Does their experience change their perceptions or actions? “Get Started” is succeeded by “The Why,” which has the line “Let’s make believe we are better than we are,” and ends with a cascade of swirls.

“Just Wanna” is all atmosphere, like the setting of a film scene; and, next, a controlling man inspires confusion in a woman in “Under Orders,” featuring Tawiah, and she wants to forget him, but, though the arrangement and production are good, the music is not complex enough. The lyrics in “We Renegades” mention a game, and try to gather and direct a crowd, lyrics delivered by a voice of soul and style, a feeling that suffuses, transforms, the body, that works up a sense of drama: “All emperors lay down your clothes,” Nia Andrews sings; an admonition that might be toward honesty or sex (or considering the origin story—the vain emperor deceived into wearing no clothes—it may be a confused thought).

The song “Hooligan,” also featuring Nia Andrews, comes after an interlude, and is about someone elevating image into art, someone involved in practices that are self-defeating (“you take the games way too far” and “karma will suffocate your laughter”). The song suggests a criticality that is not always associated with dance music, though arguably Chic and the Bee Gees and Donna Summer did suggest depths. More recently, musicians as diverse as Michael Jackson, Prince, Madonna, Beyonce, Rihanna, Pink, and the LCD Sound System have put messages in their movement music. In fact, “Push,” with Bembe Sengue and Nia Andrews, brings to mind Chic, in terms of its cool, its attempted intricacy, reconciling rhythm and thought, form and feeling; and the lyrics state, “As the milk turns sour, my cream rises to the top” and “If your mind says it’s true, why not follow it through?”

There is both melody and rhythm in “Emergency,” a piece about the impact of another person’s nearness: “I go comatose when you get too close.” It is nice not to have rhythm opposed to melody in contemporary music; there are not enough examples of that. “Everything is everything but just what does it mean?” asks the male singer (Ovasoul7 is credited) in “Everything,” in a voice that is sensitive but not overtly sentimental and soulful without indulgent wildness. The collection winds down with a variation of the piece that began it, “Alabi,” featuring a strong, stout voice, that of Sandra Nkake (and singing that reminds me of Aster Aweke).

Daniel Garrett, born in Louisiana and a longtime resident of New York, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, was an intern at Africa Report, poetry editor for the male feminist magazine Changing Men, founded and acted as principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, wrote about painter Henry Tanner for Art & Antiques, organized the first interdepartmental environmental justice meeting at Audubon, wrote about fiction and poetry for World Literature Today and international film for Offscreen, and has done music reviews that constitute a history of popular music for The Compulsive Reader. Daniel admires classic and modern literature and philosophy, and likes painting and sculpture, French film, Afghan and Indian food, jazz, rock, and world music; and his writing has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Black Film Review, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Wax Poetics.

Contact: dgarrett31@hotmail or D.Garrett.Writer@gmail.com