“Kersaia” by Matana Roberts: An Abstract Black Protest Song

Matana Roberts is an avant garde jazz musician and composer, a conceptual artist that focuses on creating narratives and stories that represent her experience and those of lived experiences of Black folks in the anthropocene. Her song, “Kersaia,” is the third song on the first installment of her Coin Coin series: Coin Coin Chapter 1: Gens de Couleur Libres. It’s a winding, shifting song with multiple movements, switching from spoken word, to freeform jazz, to painful screaming, and then to a harmonious Dixie-influenced southern jazz section.

This song fits well within the album, and is difficult to analyze on its own. The manner in which Roberts composed this album intertwines each of the songs, through narrative and sound, making “Kersaia” just one piece of a deeply complex puzzle. But still, it’s an especially striking song, one that has protest in its DNA — every aspect of the song is unpredictable and anti-violence.

Through dissecting the different sections of the song, I aim to display the continuity and interrelatedness, rather than interpret them as disparate elements. While the song takes on many different styles, they all work together to tell a certain story. This is a form of protest in and of itself, as Roberts refuses to align her music with the norms of the music industry that demand simple, palatable composition.

She begins the song with a solo on her alto saxophone, her signature instrument. As has been cited countless times, the saxophone is a crucial instrument in the Black music canon, and that meaning is not lost on this song. Her performance is lyrical and expressive, taking on a voice-like quality that gives feeling to her own experiences as well as those of her ancestors. Dipping in and out of dissonance, it’s an evocative section.

Phasing down the saxophone, Roberts’s voice comes in at the two-minute mark. Much of the earlier dissonance of the song continues, underpinning her words and giving them further meaning. 

Should I look back Or should I look away? / Do I have a choice or is it inevitable? / The laws of the land say that I must submit / Yet the laws of my body confuse me

Matana Roberts

Her voice is melodic and interesting, changing rhythms with every few words. While it’s categorized as spoken word, she speaks with a tempo and tone that could be compared to plenty of rap albums that came out in 2020 or 2021, most notably the two efforts released by R.A.P. Ferreira.

 I am age, a woman, bought and sold to bear the fruit of a seed that I do not wish to / Plant.

Matana Roberts

Below her voice sits a thread of French comes in and out of portraying a similar narrative as the words in English. Pitched down and quieter than the English, the French creates a space for languages outside of just English. In interviews, she’s spoken about her passion for inclusivity. While adding another romance language doesn’t necessarily add a whole lot of inclusivity, that’s just one aspect of the song; her alternative approach to production and willingness to bear her heart on her music are inspiring.

Once the spoken word / rap section ends, the instruments are turned all the way back up, picking up right where they left off. It’s a cacophony of sound, so much going on that you face the choice of picking one instrument and sticking with it, or appreciating each sound as it joins and leaves the spotlight. Once again, the saxophone is front and center.

Once all the instruments are spread out, stretched as far as they possibly can, straining really hard to a point of pure dissonance, the albums seem to tire themselves out. A clarinet joins the mix, signaling the beginning of the next section. Just when it seems the instrumental combination of the prior section can’t say anything else, the song takes on new life with an upbeat, momentous jazz movement with inspirational grounds in Dixie music.

Taking on a genre with such racist connotations to the average listener is a purposefully chosen risk, and it goes over strongly. It feels like another way of saying ‘fuck your racist version of Dixie, here’s something 10 times better.’ With plucking pianos and lively brass, this section of the song is an absolute surprise, a complete 180 from the song in its earlier sections. 

And yet, Roberts’s saxophone remains a mainstay in the song’s composition, as if she’s sticking her story right in the middle of the noisy Dixie section and redefining it on her own terms. Centering her Black femaleness in a stereotypically White space is part of her protest in this song, as she’s refusing to be put down by White supremacist delusion. 

Once the movement develops further, the instruments end up taking a similar route to the first section, transitioning into a dissonant, frenetic sound and then to a slow, grinding halt. Each instrument puffs and squeezes out every note it can, before it feels as though the people playing their instruments have passed out from such strained effort. It almost gives the feeling that Roberts is strangling the white supremacy out of the music, until there’s nothing left of it.

Much of this song speaks on the ills of white supremacist delusion and the impact it has on Black female identity. Her spoken words add a clear direction and angle, and her composition takes several surprise turns during the song’s seven minute runtime. 

While “Kersaia” is only one song in a very impressive discography, it pulls together many of Roberts’s strongest traits in a difficult, poignant package. It’s a protest song, one steeped in the lived experiences of Black women, pushing white supremacist delusion to the side and telling her story in an unflinching fashion. She confronts the evil so intimately that it’s hard not to understand what she’s talking and playing about. 

as a final note, creds to Anthony Fantano for the introduction, for his very informative interview with Matana Roberts:

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