Search The Line of Best Fit
Search The Line of Best Fit
Jake Blount 4 Photo by Tadin Brego

Jake Blount and the Apocalyptic Afrofuturism of The New Faith

22 September 2022, 09:00
Words by Alan Pedder
Original Photography by Tadin Brego

On The New Faith, the climate crisis meets Afrofuturist folk in Jake Blount’s richly imagined lost recording from a devastated world. He talks to Alan Pedder about taking on the wounds of both past and future.

Afrofuturism began as an aesthetic through which the African diaspora in America could imagine for themselves a brighter, better future. But what if the climate crisis has ravaged that future?

This is one of many questions that Jake Blount explores on The New Faith, an ambitious new concept album set in a deeply bleak future, hundreds of years from now. With the world hurtling towards 1.5°C warming since pre-industrial times, potentially within the next 5 years, the most likely future for humans looks a lot more like the past than the cosmic fever dreams of classic Afrofuturist albums of the ‘70s. In the world that Blount has created, there are no gleaming spaceships, no sleek silver outfits or extravagant alien hybrids. There’s only a people desperate to survive and the songs that hold them together.

One of the things that makes The New Faith so remarkable is that the songs aren’t exactly new. Blount has crafted their tale using traditional spirituals originating from Black church music, re-arranged and in some cases subtly rewritten, and it’s incredible how well it all holds together. Blount says it was both surprising and very unsurprising that these old traditionals would lend themselves to framing the climate crisis.

“It made perfect sense in a lot of ways,” he tells me over Zoom from his home in Providence, Rhode Island. “Despite its shortcomings, and they do exist, Black church has often been pretty justice oriented in the past. Church has been the major organising site for Black people for the majority of our history since emancipation, so in some ways it make sense that the music that goes along with that tradition would lend itself to discussing an issue of justice and equality, like climate change.”

At 27, Blount is young enough to potentially see some extremely damaging effects of the climate crisis and it’s something he says he thinks about often, what it will look like when it happens. “There are certainly going to be things that we can’t avoid,” he says. “If large sections of the country become impossible to grow food in because of drought, people are going to have to leave. But when it comes to sea level rise and storms, it’s a question of infrastructure. Manhattan is not going to sink. Wall Street is not going to go underwater. It simply won’t happen. Someone’s going to figure out a solution because they have more money than God.”

Jake Blount 7 Photo by Tadin Brego

Though Blount’s imagined future world makes some allowances for human ingenuity, it is unsparing in its condemnation of our worst impulses. Greed, corruption, murder, a total disregard for the planet; The New Faith has it all. The premise of the album is that it’s a field recording of a religious ceremony among a group of survivors of climate breakdown, a small colony formed from a group of Black and indigenous migrants who travelled hundreds of miles north along the decimated eastern seaboard to reach the island in Maine where the record is set. Starting with a baptism and a sermon, Blount builds his damaged world with a storyteller’s skill, teasing out more and more detail as the album progresses.

“I’ve always had a quiet ambition to be a speculative fiction author,” he says. “For the style of oratory and delivery of the sermons, I wanted there to be some parallels with contemporary Black church preaching. I also took inspiration from opening monologues in movies and other narrations, and I wanted to pay homage to Afrofuturist albums of the past. A lot of those records use voiceovers but the sounds are processed very differently because they’re supposed to sound like they’re on a spaceship, and mine is set in a very different situation so I had to adapt it.”

Musically, The New Faith casts its net wide, referencing a diverse range of roots music originating from the African diaspora throughout Northern and Central America and the Caribbean. What sets it apart from 99.9% of other folk records is Blount’s inclusion of rap, which he considers to be just another form of folk music. “When I think about the folk music that I grew up hearing in the community around me, it was all rap,” he says. “People didn’t play banjo, they freestyled. With all that rap has done over the past half century, there was no way to envision Black music going forward where rap does not feature prominently. To not make that a really important part of the arrangements and of the album concept just didn’t make sense to me.”

Of course, it helps that he recruited a rapper who can also play banjo. Demeanor, who is the nephew of Grammy-winning roots musician Rhiannon Giddens, turned out to be the perfect foil for Blount’s parables. Take the song “Death Have Mercy”, for example. While Blount keeps the lyrics just as Vera Hall sang them on the original Alan Lomax recording from 1959, Demeanor’s rap enabled him to bring out hidden meanings in the song. “It’s interesting because when you talk about the spiritual tradition it’s widely understood to be Christian in theology,” says Blount. “But this song, in my opinion, is not Christian at all. Certainly, it was sung by people who were Christian, but when you think hard about the lyrics it’s a prayer to a death god. There’s a very carnal union with death happening. Like, someone’s having sex with death, and that’s not a Christian take at all.”

Blount says he fully expects some people to react against their latest project, though not as fully as he expects to ignore them. The success of their 2020 debut Spider Tales inevitably prompted criticism from some members of the predominantly white old-time music community who felt they had the right to police what he was doing. He tells the story of one guy in a Facebook group for old-time music who implied that Blount’s versions were lacking the morality of the original performances, whatever that means. “I was like, you’re a white man from Manhattan. Why would you even think you’re an authority to make that argument? You’re not inside the tradition. You have nothing in common with it. My family comes from it, it’s our thing.”

“Part of the impetus for creating The New Faith was to shake off parasites like him,” he adds. “There’s a tendency in folk music, as it exists right now, for people to want to gatekeep things, because they think they’re protecting something. In creating The New Faith, I was able to make something that was so blatantly not interested in being traditional. It’s authentic, but it’s authentic to a thing that doesn’t exist yet, so there’s no way for someone to get on my case about it. To me, that was kind of my trump card. People like that guy can’t say anything about this. I know they’re gonna hate it and I know they’re gonna talk trash about me for it, but they are not on any level present in the conversation of this music.”

Like The New Faith, Spider Tales found Blount using the vast library of traditional music written by Black and indigenous people to zero in on a particular set of themes. The album came out of feeling a need to represent a different side to the canon of old spirituals, to show that it isn’t all as uplifting and empowering as some other compilers have clumsily implied. Themes of rage and retribution aren’t often explicit in Black traditional music, since punishment and death surely awaited many who did dare to speak out against white supremacy. But the subtext has always been there.

“So many of those old songs were developed during the time of enslavement to implicitly criticise the people who were buying and selling and thought they were owning them,” says Blount. “Who are the sinners in these songs? Who are the people who need to learn to do better and act right? I feel certain – and a lot of the scholars I’ve read have felt certain – that the sinners who appear in the songs are actually the white slave owners. The songs are not messages to sinners in general, they are messages to oppressors.”

Jake Blount 2 Photo by Tadin Brego

Blount’s interest in this history is not just academic, it’s personal too. Their own ancestors were enslaved by the British and transported to Chesapeake Bay, a region of the United States where large populations of Black people were forced to work on plantations growing lucrative crops like sugar and tobacco. The Bay is also where the banjo first became prominent in American folk music, making it likely that Blount’s ancestors would have listened to a lot of banjo music and may even have played it.

“As a Black person in America, you don’t get that many things from history that you can feel some kind of possession over,” he says. “There are some recipes I have from my grandmother that probably would have been used around the same time, but there are no heirlooms. Nobody could write books about what life was like. It was only certain cultural things that got passed down. The songs are, in many ways, the strongest texts we have to give an indicator of what our ancestors were thinking and feeling at any given time.”

Blount didn’t grow up with much awareness of traditional music. Although their parents would sometimes play folk songs to them and their older sister as they were going to sleep, much of what they listened to at home was “funk and soul stuff” with a bit of country and blues on the side (“My dad was really into Bonnie Raitt, in particular”). “I didn’t know it at the time, but in retrospect I was definitely listening to a lot of Afrofuturist stuff, a lot of albums with black people in spaceships on the cover,” he says. “I was listening to things like Parliament-Funkadelic and Earth, Wind & Fire all the time, so it feels like I’ve circled back to some things with The New Faith. There’s a through line there.”

Blount’s interest in the banjo began when he was 16, with a chance encounter at an Ethiopian restaurant in DC with Megan Jean & The KFB, a wife-and-husband duo from Charleston, South Carolina, once a major port for the Transatlantic slave trade. From them he learned how the instrument had descended from similar instruments in Africa and how the slave routes brought it to America and the Caribbean, where it evolved into the modern banjo. “I had no idea,” he says. “That prompted me to start reading more about it, and the reading more about it is what prompted me to start playing.”

When he went to Hamilton College in upstate New York a couple of years later, his ambition was to become a psychology major and eventually a therapist. Instead, he came out with a BA in ethnomusicology and a debut EP, Reparations, recorded on campus. “I was mostly doing string band music at the time, and I think my ambition was mostly to get out the message that there were Black and indigenous people in the history and in the present of that music,” he explains. “I wanted to present that as a living and breathing tradition, and I think I managed to do that.”

Where Blount thinks he perhaps missed the mark with Reparations was in communicating the subtext of the songs, the pain and anger under the surface. “I don’t think I was conscientious enough about how I framed it,” he says. But there’s always a learning curve, and Spider Tales was the result. “People seem to have understood exactly what I was trying to say with that album, and I feel that The New Faith is a very logical next step.”

Lately, Blount has been looking at both Spider Tales and The New Faith through the lens of Afrofuturist author Octavia Butler, specifically her 1979 novel Kindred and 1993’s Parable of the Sower. As he explains, “Kindred is about this black woman in the 1970s being repeatedly transported back in time to pre-Civil War slave plantation in Maryland, where she is subjected to all the same horrors as her foremothers and then is transported back into the present carrying all of those wounds with her into the modern era. I think that was, in many ways, what I was doing on Spider Tales. Thinking back in time and getting as close to those experiences as possible, taking all of that anger and grief and trauma into myself and then channelling it into my own time period.”

"The folk music that I grew up hearing in the community around me was all rap. People didn't play banjo, they freestyled."


The New Faith has more in common with Parable of the Sower, he says. “That was Octavia Butler’s attempt to envision what life would look like for individuals and communities once the climate crisis hits. It was set in the times that we are now living in, in a California that’s been devastated by wildfires and with a reactionary right-wing president called Donner. It’s like she knew everything that was going to happen, I don’t know how.”

Conceived in the early days of the pandemic, Blount worked on The New Faith alone for the most part. Although their co-producer Brian Slattery was a key part of the mechanics of putting the music together, he says that most of the conceptual work and the messaging of the album was happening inside their own head. “On this album, I was going into the past, taking on those wounds, taking them several hundred years into the future and taking on those wounds, and then bringing it all back here, all within me,” he says. “Because I was recording alone there was no one to share that weight with me and that was really hard. It was too much for me to carry.”

Blount was recovering from what he suspects was a bout of long Covid when he began to work on the record. Inspired by Parable of the Sower, in which the lead character – an African American teenager called Lauren – forms her own religion, Earthseed, he started to imagine his own version of what a new faith might look like in a United States decimated by extreme weather, corruption and conflict.

“I started with the very basics, plotting out what happened and where,” he says. “I chose Maine because I know that if there was a massive influx of Black and brown people to New England, which is so very white, that they would probably be confined to refugee camps. And I know, historically, that when Black and brown people have been confined to spaces in this country, they have gotten the least liveable spots. In my opinion, going forward, the storm damage is gonna get so intense along the east coast that the vacation homes that dominate the islands there will be gradually abandoned. In my mind, that’s exactly the kind of place where the government would want to stick people.”

From there, he says he let the repertoire direct some of the story. “The Downward Road”, based on a 1930s Alan Lomax recording of a group of Black convicts led by a man called Jim Williams, was an obvious and topical inclusion. As was “Didn’t It Rain”, which was adapted from versions by Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Mahalia Jackson. “It’s a wild thing to feel like these songs are with me in some way,” says Blount. “That I can just take those old songs and they’re immediately saying the thing I need them to say. That tells me that I am creating something that’s in line with the ideology and values of the tradition.”

Jake Blount 5 Photo by Tadin Brego

The longer he worked on the record, the clearer it became that there were three distinct groups of songs, which he marked with short spoken word segments between them. “Because this is supposed to be a field recording of the folk music of the future, it could be that we are witnessing a three-part ceremony,” he explains, acknowledging that he hasn’t tried to fill in all the gaps. “There’s a lot of grey area to work in, and maybe there are more songs inside of that, songs that aren’t included in this release of those field recordings. There are a lot of things I deliberately left question marks over, even to myself.”

One question that might linger after the closing harmonies of “Once There Was No Sun” is whether there is any hope for Blount’s people. He is not so sure. “Some people have had this sort of impulse to believe that that the characters are starting to rebuild after climate change,” he says. “I’m like, no, they’re not. They’re just trying to stay alive. Nobody’s building anything, they’re just trying to meet their baseline needs. Maybe there is hope, or maybe there’s just acceptance. Our ancestors made this bed and we are sleeping in it. That was more of a guiding thing for me than any sense of hope.”

To make their point, Blount refers to the song “City Called Heaven”, originally recorded by Fannie Lou Hamer in 1963 with the lyrics “I am a poor pilgrim of sorrow / cast out in this wild world alone / I have no hope for tomorrow / and I’m trying to make heaven my home.” “That’s one of the things you hear so often in the songs that I was drawing from,” he says. “There’s no hope or assertion that this world is going to get better. The general consensus among those songs is that this world is inevitably going to be terrible for us. The best thing we can hope for is that there’s an afterlife that’s better. These songs were coming from a place of so much desperation. There was no relief they could envision short of dying, and I do think the characters on this record would be in a similar space, mentally.”

“I think these are people who have learned how to self-flagellate. They feel guilty about the loss of civilisation and how hard things are, and perhaps they are so mired in that religious guilt that they haven’t actually figured out how to live in a more sustainable way. I think it’s key to not need to present this as a scenario in which everything has been solved. Like, they might not have learned how to do anything substantially better than us. They just don’t have the capacity to do as much damage, because so much has already been done.”

Blount does not personally think that humans are going to get their shit together enough to avert major environmental catastrophe, but he’s willing to consider the possibility. Perhaps even in a second volume to The New Faith. While he’s cautious not to make any promises, it’s clear that the apocalyptic Afrofuturist framework he’s created isn’t short of rabbit holes that he could disappear down. Having been able to play with gender expression in the artwork and videos for The New Faith, arguing that “there’s no clear reason why gender as it exists right now would exist in this society that I made up,” he’s feeling compelled to make a record that handles queerness more explicitly within the songs themselves. “I feel like that is coming,” he says. “It needs to happen.”

Will there be gleaming spaceships and sleek silver outfits? We’ll have to wait and see. For now, The New Faith, with its cover illustration of a drowning tree, sets the tone of a world spiralling into depths it may never be able to emerge from. The brighter, better future once promised looks more dismal by the day.

The New Faith is released on 23 September via Smithsonian Folkways

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