Damon Locks is a Chicago-based activist, poet, teacher and visual artist whose work might already be familiar to many as it has featured as the cover artwork of dozens of records including several International Anthem releases. A long-time deejay and singer with various post punk bands, Damon Locks was also recently heard as a vocalist with Rob Mazurek’s Exploding Star Orchestra. But it is probably his involvement as an art teacher with schools and state prisons since the mid-2010s that has sharpened his artistic vision.

Transposing his visual art collages to the stage, the 2018 Where Future Unfolds live performance with his Black Monument Ensemble showcased a formidable collaborative musical project steeped in the Civil Rights movement and black popular culture. Blending spoken word, gospel singing, beats and soul jazz, Now (International Anthem – April 2021) follows up on the 2018 ensemble project. A politically-charged rumination on a dysfunctional American presidency, Black Lives Matter protests and months of enforced lockdown due to the pandemic, Now “offers new sounds that acknowledge the past, address the present and prepare for the future”.

Damon Locks / Black Monument Ensemble - Now (2021)
Damon Locks / Black Monument Ensemble – Now (2021)

Always reflecting on the African American experience in contemporary society, Damon Locks’ artistic vision follows in the footsteps of several Chicago-based Black Arts Movement artist collectives dating back to the Chicago Black Renaissance literary movement during the 1930s through the 1950s. Another community founded in 1965 and still active today, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians for instance played a significant role in fostering an avant-garde vision for contemporary jazz music. Significant groups or soloists such as the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Anthony Braxton or Wadada Leo Smith have all emerged from the AACM. Founded in the late 1960s and based in Chicago, AfriCOBRA (the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists) explored a “language that is new” for visual arts alongside artists such as Barbara Jones-Hogu, mentioned in one of the song titles on the album. Bandleader, composer and cosmic philosopher Sun Ra has strong connections with Chicago too as the musician moved to the windy city after the Second World War. The Arkestra gradually emerged during these Chicago years until the musician moved on to New York City and Philadelphia from the early 1960s onwards.  

Both Where Future Unfolds – staged at the Garfield Park Botanical Conservatory in Chicago on 15 November 2018 last with a cast of 15 including six singers (aged between 9 and 52) and six members of Chicago youth dance company Move Me Soul – and Now (recorded over two studio sessions) channel the afro-futuristic energy of all these Chicago-based collectives. Both recordings are mining engaged voices from the past into ambitious sound collages and narratives re-contextualised for the present times.

Time is just the difference between knowing now and knowing nothing. Because if you know now fully, it’s past, present, and future.” Mattie Humphries, 1968

Interweaving vocal parts sampled from TV and radio news reports with a choir of six singers, drums (Dana Hall), percussion (Arif Smith), cornet (Ben LaMar Gay), electronics (Damon Locks) and the mesmerising clarinet of Angel Bat Dawid, Now is a multi-layered and time-travelling soul jazz sound collage anchored in the present, this “Forever Momentary Space”.

“Since the future has unfolded and taken a new and dangerous shape… what happens NOW?” interrogates Damon Locks, “We can spark something now. The new is possible. We will do what we can”. Now concludes with “The Body is Electric”, a 10mn-long Afrobeat-laden rhapsody with choir singing and beats as a cathartic and optimistic rally cry within a powerful manifesto for change.