The story of the new album from the Oakland pop experimentalists Tune-Yards is that their singer Merrill Garbus went to work to better the world—by, first, bettering herself. Her letter to journalists reviewing i can feel you creeping into my private life describes the learning process with a series of active verbs:
Trump was elected. I went to a meeting of SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice) and several other activist events specifically geared toward white people. I applied and was accepted into a six-month-long workshop on whiteness at East Bay Meditation Center. I read a lot: White Like Me by Tim Wise; What Does It Mean to Be White?: Developing White Racial Literacy by Robin DiAngelo; articles introducing me to the concept of “white fragility” and the characteristics of white supremacy culture. I read Sapiens, which made me think realistically about what to expect from humans. I read The Sixth Extinction. I sat and meditated every morning.
For fans of Garbus, little will be surprising about her continuing search for enlightenment. Tune-Yards’ Whokill, a modern classic that was voted critics’ favorite album of 2011, heralded a moment when the highbrow rock establishment began to more intensely reengage with matters of society rather than chase the beautifully cryptic. Toggling between a traffic-stopping wail and radio-jingle coo, Garbus touched on police violence, revolutionary violence, and uncomfortable questions of cultural theft. “What’s a girl to do if she’ll never be a Rasta?” she asked, neither the first nor last time she’d wonder if she was reckless to borrow from black-derived styles.
It’s now clear that Garbus’s M.O. is eternal doubt, self-interrogation, and active learning. Her 2014 album, Nikki Nack, came out of the DIY dabbler submitting to formal training in song craft and instrumentation. On the excellent opener “Find a New Way,” still, she wrestled with the question of whether she had any right to even make music. When asked about her creative insecurity, she explained,“You can only take so many lessons, you know?”