10–12 minute read, or the time it takes to check in with a neighbor.
What can we do about the future right now? For Damon Locks, the answer is anything, but it’ll be cooler to do it together. “Now is outside the timeline,” he proclaims in this interview with Nadine Nakanishi, graphic artist and United States Artists Designer, about his intuitive and collaborative approach to making. Their conversation is a welcome reminder that now isn’t necessarily so bleak; rather, it’s a chance to embrace impulse, surprise, and above all, each other while building something better.
Note: The following interview was conducted in February 2021 and has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Nadine Nakanishi: You’ve led a very immersive life in the arts. On the ground floor, in the background, as a maker, as a community organizer, as an activist, as a visionary. You’ve sculpted this world that you move in and through, have touched very different spaces, like the independent music scene, and also worked with people that don’t have much mobility that are incarcerated. And still, you constantly engage in a practice of visual representation. Like the City of Chicago’s Artist Billboard Project centering folks at the front lines of the pandemic and combating feelings of isolation, which moves me every time I see it in person—thank you for doing that for our city. There is a sense of bringing people together through your work, no matter what the media is. In the song “Stay Beautiful” with the Black Monument Ensemble, there is a line, I want to be left alone but I don’t want to be alone. And I just kind of wanted to ask you about this space and this sense, especially because we’re living in a moment where I think this is very pertinent to our lives.
Damon Locks: When that song was written, I was thinking about a message to Chicago. At the time that I was writing that song, it was pre-pandemic and we were getting so much attention nationally for the violence in Chicago. So I imagined a conversation or a kind of vignette about Chicago [being] in the hospital, leaving flowers for Chicago and saying “We see you, we love you, stay beautiful.” When I was writing [the song], I was thinking about someone in a hospital room. I was putting myself in the mind of someone that’s always under scrutiny. And, you want to be left alone, but you don’t want to be alone because that’s the time when you most need a community or support, you know? So that’s where that came from. Unfortunately, that song was cut from the album because of time constraints, you know, in terms of the [monetary] difference between putting out one single record or two records.
But when the pandemic struck, I got a phone call from Scottie McNiece from [our record label], International Anthem and he was like, “I think it’s time to release ‘Stay Beautiful.’” And Brian Ashby, who had taken the footage of the concert, suggested that I reach out to some of the other members and get more footage. I contacted everyone and said, “Hey, from your homes, can you film and send something that helps ground you?” And that became the addendum near the end of the video.
Anyway, I thought the song was a really beautiful song. I enjoyed the performance and making it happen, but then when we released it after the pandemic it took on this whole new meaning, and people really responded to it. So to see people at home jumping rope or planting plants or just singing to their children, and Keisha Jonae at the end when she goes out to the roof of her apartment and dances—it all just became something larger than I could have expected when I wrote the song. It’s a testament to working with intention because the intention came through in this way that was totally unexpected at a totally different time.
“Stay Beautiful” became a really beautiful message in the pandemic era, even though it was written in 2018.
NN: That’s so interesting! I’m going to go on a little tangent because you just released “NOW,” and I saw the Pitchfork review—congrats! It’s rad to witness the traction you and the Black Monument Ensemble members are getting. There’s a cool sense of collectivity and individualism in this ensemble that balances itself in a harmonic space. Speaking of relevance, the feeling of making something, and then getting it out, when was the new single “NOW (Forever Momentary Space)” made?
DL: “NOW (Forever Momentary Space)” was written at the beginning of the pandemic, post-”Stay Beautiful.” “Stay Beautiful” was a real inspiration for me to write something new, because the response to that song and the response to “Where Future Unfolds” was in the heat of the summer with the George Floyd and Breonna Taylor uprisings. People were pulling “Where Future Unfolds” close to their hearts. “Stay Beautiful” was received really well in terms of giving someone something, and I wanted to take up the challenge of creating a new statement for Black Monument Ensemble.
As I said, those ideas, those songs were written in around 2018. But, what would Black Monument Ensemble say today? “NOW (Forever Momentary Space)” was the first song that I wrote specifically thinking about that. Like, what would I do in this situation from this perspective, at this moment? And that’s what came out.
Now is outside the timeline. Now has never been done before, so it’s always available to us to do something that wasn’t possible before.
NN: That sentiment is so powerful and potent, I feel like you got to the pen of our times, which brings me up to this question: Is the songwriting process a singular or collective one, and how does that process work?
DL: For the process of Black Monument Ensemble, I’ve always kind of put the song together as much as I can so that the song exists regardless of if no one else plays on it. The song will be there, you know? But I also work to leave room for the musicians to be amazing. I’m never going to come up with what Arif, Dana, Angel, Ben, Philip, Tramaine, Eric, Erica, Monique, Rayna, and Richie (I can never skip anyone!) will come up with—I will never come up with the nuances that they bring so I want to leave enough room for that.
For “NOW,” we recorded at Experimental Sound Studio (ESS) in one session of two days in their back garden. Then a month later, [we did] another session with engineer Alex Inglizian and the cornet/trumpet player Ben LaMar Gay inside ESS. I had to demo the material as much as I could and then, before we recorded, the singers got together in a church and did a rehearsal.
But we never had performed the song together from start to finish until we got into that backyard. And so what you’re hearing is one of only a couple takes. That’s the case for any of the songs that we recorded for this record.
DL: It was really cathartic. I was nervous as the bandleader [because] I wanted everyone to stay healthy while trying to get this done. At the same time, I think everyone was excited about being able to commune and create art in that way. At the end of the song, you can hear everyone’s enthusiasm, you know? Even the cicadas were enthusiastic!
It was a very different experience and I’ll just say, naming that the second day of recording, it was the anniversary of the ‘63 March on Washington, as well as the anniversary of the death of Emmett Till, and so that was discussed while we were recording the song “Keep Your Mind Free.” [The song] was inspired by these prison decarceration actions that the organization Prison + Neighborhood Arts/Education Project (PNAP), which I work with, had been participating in.
I made this [artwork] that was called “Keep Your Mind Free,” and I’d been using that statement a lot, and was like, what if I create a song based around that? I explained all that to the singers, so that when we recorded it they’d have all this in their minds. Then when I got home I found out that Chadwick Boseman had died that day—The Black Panther. And I literally started crying. It was the end of the summer. It was 93 degrees the first day of recording. We were out there trying to record the song and then the biggest black superhero in the world died, and I was just like, this is a lot, you know?
What I think is interesting is that “Where Future Unfolds” was capturing this performance that was very of the moment—we had never played through some of those songs in order. We had never done the set all in order without stopping. We hadn’t rehearsed anything with the dancers and it was an overwhelmingly joyous event. The recording not only captures the sound of it, but also the energy of the day.
When thinking about recording the new Black Monument Ensemble [album NOW], I was somewhat intimidated because of [its] predecessor. I set myself to recording again because I wanted to see what would happen [and] if I could capture the energy of this moment. I wanted to document this time that we’re in and also hopefully imagine something that’s possible for the future. That’s essentially what “NOW (Forever Momentary Space)” is about. It’s about thinking about a space where anything’s possible. Thinking about the moment, the instant people take flight. Thinking about a space that’s beyond the timeline, where nobody dies. And thinking about the fact that it’s already available to us. It has a language. It has a rhythm. And it’s now. Now is that moment, you know? Now is outside the timeline. Now has never been done before, so it’s always available to us to do something that wasn’t possible before.
A lot of people are always surprised at how many people I stay in contact with and how many close connections I keep. But for me that’s the strength, that’s where the art comes from, you know? The art comes from relationships and communicating.
NN: Your work seems to offer a similar push for collectivity through lyricism, transposing us via the theater of the mind, heart, and soul, and it travels through a painful past and present, but the sparks you create feel generative and inclusive. As you build to ensure room for everyone, working from a present state into the past and future, how do you tap into that space again and again, especially in a collective but also as an individual? One way to make work is to never assume institutional knowledge from oneself or a group, but instead occupy an open-minded, creative space. How do you get there without losing sight of that space?
DL: That’s a really good question. I think it’s a combination of things. A combination of trying to maintain relationships. I’m a big maintainer of relationships. A lot of people are always surprised at how many people I stay in contact with and how many close connections I keep. But for me that’s the strength, that’s where the art comes from, you know? The art comes from relationships and communicating.
Fostering conversations and fostering relationships helps fuel the work that I do. If I can put myself into these different places, whether it’s friend groups, creative friends, inspiring friends, working in high schools with students, working at Stateville Correctional Center with people that are incarcerated and with the people that are doing that work so that I’m having conversations and engaging with people [regularly], it keeps me pushing forward. [It keeps me] thinking through ideas and asking myself questions. Questions that I may not have come up with had I not had those conversations or engagements. Also, I feel like I stay connected to recordings from the past, through records and documentaries. A lot of the things that could be considered research are just things that I do because I’m interested in being connected.
Not only do I listen to—I’m gesturing towards some of my records—but I also listen to Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee reciting Langston Hughes poems, I’m watching documentaries on early 1970s interactions between the police and black community documentaries on YouTube, and watching early interviews with break dancers in New York. [I’m connecting with] anything that’s going to give me information about these strange cultural tangents that are circling around in my head. I think those are the things that I go to for talking, for communication, for hearing people express their ideas in spoken words. And then, of course there’s music, you know, I spend a lot of time listening to music.
I’m trying to really utilize information that comes from my engagement, whether it’s my engagement with a pre-recorded sound, or whether it’s my engagement with dancers, musicians, or other vocalists.
NN: So you’re really in touch with the past through media, through an immersive way of listening, which really resonates with being in touch with oral tradition through the body, through a subconscious way of absorbing that knowledge and wisdom. I wonder about your visual work since it is always super rich with a feeling of layering. If you don’t mind, I’d like to ask some questions about it because that’s also a big part of your practice.
DL: It totally is. But let me just say one more thing about the sound. When I’m listening, luckily, my sound practice involves sampling. When I’m watching a film or listening to recitations on albums, it’s like I’m sitting there with a highlighter because my brain is looking for phrases or things that can be repurposed in some other way, in some other context, like a collage. I’m sitting there listening and my brain is like, Ooh, that’s an interesting idea. Maybe that will work in juxtaposition to that. So it’s a different, interesting way of absorbing the information because you’re really kind of tracing through it, looking for things that pop up. I feel thankful that that’s my process because I absorb things in a different way and I go back to stuff, you know? I’ll be like, Oh, there was something in that! I should go back and check it out.
But you are correct that I like to think of my visual work in a similar way in terms of layers. Collage is something that [I’m interested in] across the board, whether it’s collaging sound or visuals, it’s all kind of how my brain works.
NN: It’s very interesting that your process is through a collage process, but the result is total synthesis and its own unit, you know? It does not feel like fragmentation at all. You bring it in together in a wholesome way. The impression is of one.
DL: Well, I appreciate that. I think that there’s a process that I do or I think about where I’m trying to really utilize information that comes from my engagement, whether it’s my engagement with a pre-recorded sound, or whether it’s my engagement with dancers, or whether it’s my gauge with other musicians or other vocalists. I’m really trying to engage with it fully so that the work itself can benefit from their knowledge and their investment in their process as well.
That comes through the most clearly in Black Monument Ensemble where you can hear that or you can see that with the dancers. I also feel like when I’m using a photograph of one of the dancers that I work with as a reference for drawing, then their beauty and their knowledge is imbued in the drawing that I’m doing if I can do it to my best ability. That’s my intention: if I’m using that as a source material then I want to capture that gesture and capture the work that they put into that, and that helps my piece. I am thankful for all of these resources because it just makes my work stronger.
[ID: A face looks out at the viewer, neither smiling or frowning. Much of the image is rendered in thick, black lines, but bright blues, oranges, yellows and other hues peek through. Around the head is an aura made of triangular zigzag shapes. The face appears to hover over a skyline and a row of parked vehicles. Their arms come around the city, one hand rests on the wrist of the other hand. Above the face is an orb that could be a planet or the moon.]
NN: This would be a good moment to transition into looking at the piece you made for this New Suns issue and just kind of describe what we’re seeing and experiencing. Active seeing is a great way to share and exchange without bringing projections into it, and also to make it accessible to different people to explore your work.
DL: Well, I’m always happy to hear people’s responses. This may be something similar for you, or maybe not, but I have a tendency of working off of intuition, so a lot of things happen and then you step back and it informs you. I think this piece was very much like that. I took the quote that you gave me of something that I said and I just started running with it. I didn’t exactly know where it was going to go or what was going to happen. I started with synthesizers and masks. I just wanted to see what would happen and this portrait emerged for me. I just needed to follow it until its end result and I feel like its end result now is telling me what it wanted to be. And then I go, Oh, I see. I see what you did.
If there’s a prompt, I want to work with the prompt because I find it to be an interesting challenge. I’m not trying to subvert the prompt, I’m not trying to ignore the prompt. You gave me a prompt, so let me do it, right? But when I say I want to do it, I also don’t want it to confine me, so what I do is I put the prompt on a cracker and then I eat it. Then I just let it be in me and then whatever comes out will inevitably have to be connected to the prompt because that’s what I’m thinking about.While I was working on this, I didn’t exactly know what the connections were. I grabbed something, I held onto it, I was like, okay, here’s my major connection, but then when it was done, I’ll tell you the honest truth, I had a revelation last night about what this piece was. And I was like, That makes perfect sense. Why didn’t I think about that when I was doing it?
[ID: Damon, a Black person in an intricately patterned shirt sits in front of a shelf of records at a table full of electronics with hands up in an almost martial arts-style gesture.]
He // Him // His
Damon Locks makes sounds, makes visuals, makes rice pudding. He buys lots of records. He is an artist in residence at a high school (going on 4 years through the S.P.A.C.E. Program heralded by the MCA). He teaches art in prison (6 years and running with Prison and Neighborhood Arts/Education Project). He likes to get dressed up even if there is no occasion. He loves to talk about movies. He admires Buffy St. Marie, Emory Douglas, and Elizabeth Catlett. He loves collaborating with people. Has been growing his hair out since the pandemic started.