Art Works Blog

Art Talk with Ahamefule J. Oluo

When we asked Ahamefule J. Oluothe Seattle-based musician and storyteller/comedianwhy the arts matter, his initial response was, "What else is there?" For Oluo, who told us that he couldn't remember not wanting to be an artist, the arts are life. Take his masterwork, Now I'm Fine, for example, which the Seattle Times called "standup-big band-autobiography." Written over the course of a decade, making Now I'm Fine was Oluo's way of responding to and healing from a devastating illness. Oluowho fronts the award-winning group Industrial Revelation as well as the trio The Honorable Chiefalso believes in the arts as a visceral form of communication, a potent form of collaboration between artist and audience, and a fruitful way to bring about change in the world. We spoke with Oluo by phone as he was starting his day in Seattle about how his thinking on stand-up comedy informs his thinking on making music, what he sees as the artist's role in the community, and why he hates to put labels on his work.

NEA: Can you tell us about your journey to becoming an artist? Which came first—comedy or music?

OLUO:  I don't have any memory of not wanting to be an artist. Before I played an instrument, I desperately wanted to play an instrument. I grew up very poor, and we couldn't really afford instruments. I think that there's something about not having access to it that, in a way, really made me want it. I got an instrument when I was in sixth grade, a trumpet, and I just really ran with it. So [music] came first, but I was always into listening to stand-up comedy records. As soon as Comedy Central was a thing that we had, I just watched everything that there was.

NEA: Can you talk about how your work as a musician informs your comedy and vice-versa?  

OLUO: At this point, where I'm combining the two, I really don't think of them as working differently. I think the beautiful thing, for me, about stand-up comedy, the thing that is also so brutal about it, is that it's not a passive art form. It doesn't work if you just do it, and people are just sitting there, and there's no interaction. If you don't get a laugh in your set, you didn't do stand-up comedy. It's not even that you did a bad job of stand-up comedy; you didn't even do that thing. There’s a very specific requirement that you must forcefully engage the audience in an emotional way, that emotion being humor, and it's absolutely imperative to what you're doing. And if you don't do that, it's one of the most horrible, embarrassing experiences that you can go through—to stand up there on a comedy stage and just completely fail. Anyone who's done stand-up for any amount of time has experienced that.
I feel like when I'm performing music, I'm always looking for an audience reaction. I'm always looking for that kind of interactive aspect that is a requirement of stand-up. You're not forced to do that in music so I think a lot of people think they can get away with not having that. For me, it's just become a thing that now, through my experience with stand-up, I must have an emotional interaction, and if I'm not getting that, then I need to bring it more, and I need to up my game. 

I think that stand-up can have a tendency—because it's so hung on those immediate reactions—it can have a tendency to just be little bits strung together, because what you're trying to do is just get from laugh to laugh to laugh to laugh. It doesn't force you to have as much of an arc; it doesn't force you to have as much of a larger, structural shape. You have to think bigger in music. You have to think of a song; you have to think about where that whole song is going, and where it peaks, and where it comes down. When you start thinking of a comedy set in that same way, it pushes you to try harder. I think doing multiple forms of art can awaken things in you that make you improve what you do in other art forms.

NEA: Can you talk about the kind of music you play? You’ve described it alternately as hard jazz and jazz punk.

OLUO: I hate putting a label on things, but you absolutely have to in order to get people to at least slightly wrap their brain around what it is that you are offering and whether or not they do or don't want that. It's just a really unfortunate truth. If you look at press releases for [my band] Industrial Revelation through the years, you'll find a different description on everything. It’s not necessarily arbitrary, but our sound changes from album to album and over time. [I’m] just trying to get people to press play. I feel like once they press play, if they like it, they like it. If they don't, I'm not going to try and sell them after that. I just have to get it to that point. Jazz, for some just reasons and some unjust reasons, really lacks the ability to sell itself…. It’s sad that the same words that people use to describe Charles Mingus now will evoke this thing in people's minds of like, "Oh, I'm just going to sit down, and relax, and let this thing fade into the background. I'll have this music that I don't enjoy, but it makes me look smart." When you just call something jazz, that's what a lot of people think, and then they don't listen to the thing that you've made.
NEA: How did you create the performance work Now, I’m Fine?

OLUO: There was a series of horrible events that happened in my life in a very condensed period of time [in 2006], and I ended up being physically impaired due to a weird illness. I wasn't able to make any art of any kind for a period of months, and I couldn't play any instruments or perform. And, you know, the way that the world works, all these ideas and concepts and thoughts come flooding in as soon as you can't do anything with them. So I did my best to jot things down during that period of time.
Once I recovered from my illness and started working again, I started trying to piece together all these little notes that I had and all these little things that came out of this time. [I took] little stories that I had written down during that period of time and I converted them into jokes and started working them into a stand-up routine. They were a little too depressing <laughter> for that format, which is what I found out. I also had all these musical ideas. In 2007, I ran into Okanomodé SoulChilde—[who became] the vocalist and lyricist for the music in the show—outside of a Rufus Wainwright concert. I was just like, "Those songs—he should be on them." We started working on building the lyrics, and then I made arrangements for this large ensemble. It sounded really bad at first, and it took years to sound good. We’d perform it at little clubs in Seattle with the full, large band in tiny, rock clubs and all of a sudden, I'm seeing people respond to the music in the spirit in which it was written. As the music got better, and we got more true to the core of that, I was realizing that it was [what] I always want: When I make a thing, I want to transfer that feeling to another person in a very literal way, using sounds to give an emotional picture and have this calm, emotional experience with another person.
I started noticing that, more than any other thing that I had done musically, the music was starting to hit people in that way, and people were starting to talk to me about how they felt about it. I realized, "Oh, this is something really special." At the same time that we were building the music, I was moving from doing that [written] material in a stand-up format to more of a storytelling format at little variety shows and clubs in Seattle. I started realizing that the two things were related, that they came from the same period of time, that they had the same effect on people, and they really aimed towards the same goal.
At that point, I got an artist residency at a place called Town Hall in Seattle. They asked me, "What would you do if you got a residency here?" And I just said, "I want to take this music, and I want to take these stories, and I want to use my residency… to figure out how they go together, and make that work and use the space and the resources here to try and actually make these two things into one thing."
We didn't have very much time, and we had very, very little money, and we did the show as a work-in-progress. I think that was in December of 2012. Not only was it the first time that [I had created something in which] the music and the words had been connected in any way, it was the first time that I, personally, had connected the music side of what I did with the comedic writing/storytelling side of what I did. Before that point, they had been completely separate. So for me, it wasn't only like, "This show is a new thing." It was like, "This is a new way of operating for me."
NEA: Making that work was clearly a transformative process for you. Can you say more about what you discovered about yourself as an artist during that time?

OLUO: Based on my specific interests—stand-up comedy and music composition—I found myself in a unique position where I can really control a lot of the aspects of a show from a single perspective. In terms of telling a larger story, I can use words, and I can use music, and I can integrate them, and I can play them off of each other. I have intimate knowledge of each [component], and I can make them interact, and I can make them do a thing that is not better, but is different than a person who writes a story and someone else who writes the music to that story. You're always going to get the benefits of two perspectives that way, but you're also going to get the drawbacks of two perspectives in that there's always going to be these dark crevices of the mind that you can't figure out how to convey to that other person. There's always those little things about the way that you want the story to feel that you can't convey to the [other] person. But I don't have to have that conversation. Within my own brain, I can say, "These words mean this, and I need it to feel like that," and everything can come from one perspective. Again, this isn't a better thing, but it is a thing that allows you to tell a very specific story, and I think the benefit of a specific story is that it can allow you to dig really deep within yourself and hopefully find some really universal core of humanity…. It's a very difficult [way to work] that doesn't have a lot of financial advantages or anything like that. But for me, the advantage is I get to get so detailed and so specific that I think, artistically, I can touch places in people that other people can't touch, because I can get to very specific points from multiple angles at the same time. And that's just luck in the fact that the things that I'm interested in happen to intersect in that way.

NEA: What do you see as the role of the artist in the community?

OLUO: On a practical level, you have a platform. For some reason, people have decided that you are someone they will listen to, and that's sometimes great, sometimes terrible. But I think that you have an obligation with the fact that you're being listened to. I think that you have to be careful about what it is you say, and what it is you do, and the change you want to make in the world. Because once you have a voice, even if it's very, very small and very, very insignificant, everything you do from that point makes changes in the world. I think that you have a responsibility to pay attention to what those changes are, and make sure that they're having the kind of effect that you would like them to have, and that you are making the kind of impact that you would like to make, whatever that impact is.

NEA: For the final question, please finish the sentence: "The arts matter because..."

OLUO: The arts matter because we live and then we die and what happens in between is all we have.

Interested in more one-on-ones with contemporary artists? Select "Art Talk" in the category pull-down menu for interviews with Jason Segel, Josh Groban, Kara Walker, Shan Goshorn and more!


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