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The Capitalist Blues

 Leyla McCalla
D'Arcy Briggs

January 29, 2019

Review: Leyla McCalla - The Capitalist Blues

Political music was king in 2018. Childish Gambino’s “This is America,” was lauded by critics and the public as the top song and video of the year. Artists such as Kendrick Lamar and Janelle Monáe also took their work and followed in similar directions, expanding the medium while still producing incredible music. All of these means that, in 2019, we will see an explosion of powerfully important music released. Leyla McCalla’s The Capitalist Blues might be the best album of this kind released so far this year.

Leyla McCalla is a folk musician and cellist, known for her solo work as well as a member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Her latest album, The Capitalist Blues, centers around the Afro-Caribbean diaspora in the physical, cultural, and political sense. Her parents were both born in Haiti and she says that, since moving to New Orleans over a decade ago, has been more connected with her Haitian Creole heritage and current issues of oppression and resistance. The album plays lyrical homage to these themes, but also features musicians with musical roots in Haitian, Brazilian, Cajun, zydeco and calypso forms. The album is a journey in itself, making it difficult to highlight some tracks above others. There are so many styles and moods present, than the album presents itself as a complete experience from start to finish.

The album opens with the title track, a New Orleans jazz lament to capitalism. McCalla opens with “You keep telling me/ To climb this ladder / I've got to pay my dues / But as I rise / The stakes get higher / I've got the capitalist blues.” She later addresses the sense of alienation central to the system by singing “It's not fair, it's not right/ I don't know what I'm / gonna do with my life / It's not fair, it's not right / I wasn't born to just endure all this strife.” The next song “Money is King,” is a calypso song originally done by Growling Tiger in which income inequality is explored. One of the closing verses sums it up very well with “A dog can walk about and take up bone/ Fowl head, stale bread, fish tail and pone/If it’s a good breed and not too wild / People will take it and mind as a child / But when a hungry man goes out to beg / They set a bulldog behind his leg / Twenty policeman will arrest him too / You see where a dog is better than you.”

Another highlight from this fantastic album is “Heavy as Lead,” a song that both musically and lyrically conveys the powerful weight of income instability, and more specifically her personal experience with her daughter’s diagnosis of lead poisoning. The song serves as part cathartic exercise in soul music, part warning and howl for the system’s failure to protect those most vulnerable. “Lead intoxication is a systemic environmental health issue that affects children and families all over the United States. I wrote this song after discovering that my own child had high levels of lead in her blood,” McCalla stated in a promotional interview for the album. “I’m thankful that my husband and I had the resources to tackle and rectify this issue, but I sing these words thinking of all the families from New Orleans, LA to Flint, Michigan grappling with a system that takes no responsibility for solving this environmental health crisis.”

The Capitalist Blues opens the year off right with a well produced and musically varied adventure focused on the personalized anxieties and oppressions many are faced with through capitalism. It carries on a proud musical tradition of resistance and resilience that is as profound as ever in 2019. For those in search of a musically varied take on how capitalism can attack us on a personal level, look no further than McCalla’s latest.

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Leyla McCalla - Money Is King

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