Black Grapefruit's 'All My Relations' feels like coming home
It happened entirely by accident. I was mindlessly listening to some Spotify playlist when I heard it for the first time…
“And how would I know that we’d get this far, that we’d fall so hard
And how would I know that I’d break your heart, that I’d leave you scars…”
— End, All My Relations
I immediately started the track over so I could properly pay attention this time. A vague calypso melody, echoed over a seductive beat. The soft but powerful vocals conjured up images of the famed Sirens — beautiful and delicate but a force that few could resist; the vocals being sung in my ear demanded to be heard. It was the sonic equivalent of sitting up straight. But unlike the Sirens, this enchanting music wasn’t leading me to a shipwreck. I somehow knew that what I was hearing, was taking me to a safe place. I was now on a journey inward, I was being called back to me.
Based out of New York by way of Portland, Black Grapefruit (formerly SOS) is comprised of Randa Smith and Brian Dekker. I played their album in its entirety as I scoured the internet for any information I could find on them. Their Bandcamp page tells the story of Smith laying on the floor of a Lakota sweat lodge in New York, with her 83-year-old mentor by her side, encouraging her to sing and saying,
“Everybody has a note […] Don’t think, just sing.”
‘Remember’ starts to play in my ear, a quick 38-second interlude, with only one lyric — “Do you remember?” — repeating itself, garbled and broken, over the sounds of water.
The entire album – a direct result of Smith’s sweat lodge experience - is a memory, a stream of consciousness, haunted by snippets of lost moments, and while we listen to Smith and Dekker retrace these memories, we are directly asked if we remember. All My Relations is not a passive listening experience — you are granted access to the intimate and vague stories within each song and soon enough, you will be forced to remember your own.
“Oh I know we carry scars…”
— Heart, All My Relations
In Ethiopian music there is a genre, perhaps the most popular, called tizita. Translated literally, it means memory. But Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia, is finely nuanced and its truer meaning would be more closely linked to nostalgia and memory of loss. Being Ethiopian, I grew up on this music. Any artist worth their salt had a tizita song, some had lyrics and others purely instrumental (my personal favourites) - but they all evoked a very specific melancholy within the listener. Not entirely sadness but more an acknowledgement, that whatever (or whoever) it is that we’re remembering while listening, is gone. When I listened to ‘All My Relations’ for the first time, I was instantly reminded of that same feeling of tizita. The songs were memories we all have, sadness we all carry, scars we all bear. In a conversation with Black Grapefruit, Smith discussed the universality felt across each song;
“In creating this music and approaching it from a space of personal spiritual interpretation, I’ve somehow invited others to join me in that sacred space. I’m channeling not only lost romantic love between two individuals, but the love lost between whole Peoples and the Earth, broken connections between cultures spanning across time. I basically let my mind go where it [wanted] and sang from whatever place I landed. For this project, that was ancestral memory, spiritual connection and coming home to something that’s always been there, hiding in my bones.”
Just as memories can seem to drift and shift and feel erratic in one instance, and gentle in another, ‘All My Relations’ has no true centre in its sound. It bucks all sonic conventions. It is lush and dense, at times abrupt and distorted, other times it lingers softly, barely audible. This is true of both the vocals too. In ‘Denim,’ Smith’s voice lifts and lifts until it booms in your ear, filling up every pocket of the beat. In other tracks, the vocals come through softer and raspy. Smith’s tone is buttery and thick in ‘Seat,’ filled with the pictures in her mind of a time lost with a past love. We’re reminded that it’s the small moments that end up staying with us; someone’s rolled up denim sleeve or being in the front seat of their car, smoking too many cigarettes, knowing that we’ll never be here again.
Many of the tracks sound almost gospel-like or are reminiscent of worship songs. Repeated lyrics shows up often, a nod to hymns and chants of ancient eras. Through this repetition, there is a message being delivered and Black Grapefruit made sure to give us the space and time to receive it. It becomes clear, then, that the listening experience of the album, is indeed also a spiritual one. Smith spoke on how spirituality informed the recording of each song was;
“I was raised very conservative Christian and over the last decade, have made serious efforts to essentially ‘deprogram’ myself and work out a new approach to spirituality that makes sense to me, is empowering and more fulfilling. That journey has led me all over the place, but most importantly for this album, it led me right back to my ancestral roots. Coming from southern Black churches and West Indian culture, I was able to pull from the different ways they view spirituality. My favourite representation of this (also with regard to my mentor's concept of “finding your soul’s vibration note”) is our song ‘Deela.’ The day I recorded [it], I was searching for my own vibration note but was also channeling my entire ancestral line. The voices that open the song are all mine but when I listen to them, I don’t hear myself at all — I hear an ancient ancestral choir that takes me across the ocean, across time.”
For me, it’s really quite simple why I fell in love with this album. The songwriting and soundscapes in it consistently break the rules and the result, is a body of work that offers up so much because it is not bound by convention. It is music that is dynamic and generous and cleanses a cluttered musical landscape. In its entirety, it is a true mirror of the human experience and how we reconcile memories that also, often break the rules. Memories can bring us pain, yes but ‘All My Relations’ reminds us that maybe that’s not such a bad thing.
“I think I’m haunted by you,
But I ain’t scared…”
— Demons, All My Relations
All My Relations feels like coming home. Coming home to a world that is altogether familiar and strange. It evokes nostalgia for a place, time or person that perhaps doesn't exist anymore. Each track is an encapsulated audio memory, bringing you back to a world or moment that only exists within you now. In listening, we remember all that has been lost and given to us. The memories of past loves and selves are all still here in in our galaxies – and ‘All My Relations’ helps pull us back into their orbit.
‘All Relations’ by Black Grapefruit is available to stream on Spotify.