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The Beneficiaries: "We are resistance artists, techno is resistance music"

Marcus Barnes meets Jeff Mills, Eddie Fowlkes and Jessica Care Moore who have united to become Detroit supergroup The Beneficiaries

  • Marcus Barnes
  • 20 October 2020

Detroit 2020: Whatever techno’s pioneers envisioned when they thought of their city 30+ years into the future, they couldn’t have pictured this. A pandemic has shocked the world to a halt, creating dystopian images of deserted cities, mask-wearing citizens, billboards instructing people to ‘STAY HOME’, police patrolling the streets to maintain quarantine and stop the spread of a virus. Meanwhile, the death of a Black man at the hands of Minnesota policemen sparked nationwide protests and what felt like the genesis of a genuine shift in global consciousness. For the first time it seemed as though Black people were being heard. Before all of this happened The Beneficiaries had already formed, conceived a vision for their music and recorded their album ‘The Crystal City Is Alive’. With the pandemic and the recent focus on Black civil rights it couldn’t have arrived at a better time. Comprising two of Motor City’s original techno godfathers, Eddie Fowlkes and Jeff Mills, plus infamous poet Jessica Care Moore, it’s a project that demonstrates the power of collaboration and serves as a reminder that Blackness lies at the heart of techno.

At its core The Beneficiaries contains themes relating to ancestry, legacy, Blackness and afrofuturism. All three members share a similar lived experience as members of the Black community in Detroit, proud of their lineage and full of creative energy. The origins of the project’s theme lie with the subtleties of what it is to be a Black American and the instinctive connections they have with each other, and their ancestors. “There’s a special way of communicating that comes from our ancestry. There are certain [identifiable] traits you find in culture where you don’t need to be told it’s a Black American doing it, you just know it instinctively,” Jeff Mills explains. “We thought that was really interesting and that maybe it’s something that’s been handed down, and that we can also do the same... And there comes the title The Beneficiaries. We were bestowed something, and this project is part of this thing we have created collectively to hand down to those who are interested.”

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As project instigator Jeff Mills seeks to inspire similar collaborations in his hometown. Detroit is full of talent, with a highly fertile creative community that spans generations, but one of the city’s bizarre traits is that many of its artists operate in their own bubble. As a result it’s rare to find local collaborations of the kind that Jeff has spearheaded with The Beneficiaries. “Jeff was sad that there’s not a lot of collaboration happening in the city,” Jessica tells Mixmag. “It’s cool that each of us has our own audiences but when you come together your fanbase comes together, it encourages unity and gets rid of boundaries. That was the point of it, to show what’s possible in collaboration.”

Neither Jessica nor Jeff nor Eddie had ever worked together before. Jeff and Eddie of course have known each other since the very early days of Detroit techno, close to 40 years, and Jessica, being from The D, has been aware of the two men since she was very young. All three artists share similar backgrounds and ideals, so collectively they were able to connect on a deeper level almost immediately. This facilitated the conceptual aspect of the project. “We did a lot of talking beforehand. Lots of deep conversations. It was like, ‘How do we see us in the future then? How do we write us into the future?’ Which is really important, especially with Black communities,” Jessica reveals.

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“The conversations were lengthy, we’d go into this subject for 20 minutes, then go into that subject for 20 minutes. Before it was over you felt like you were talking to your brother or your sister,” Jeff adds. In-depth Discussion and the exchange of expansive ideas formed the foundation of the album, and it wasn’t long before they found common ground in their afrofuturist projections and desire to distill today’s world into words and sound for future generations.

“We’d get all deep and philosophical but we come from this really Black space, called Detroit,” Jessica tells us. “When we see things happening, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, these horrible acts inform us as artists from this space. We have to be resistance artists, techno is resistance music and it’s Black music that doesn’t get called Black music enough.”

The assertion of Blackness and its place in the collective’s vision of the future was intrinsic to their work. For Eddie it went beyond conscious ideas and manifested itself as a natural expression of his heritage. Being a Black American means living with the legacy of slavery, it means dealing with daily micro aggresions, daily oppression - a lived experience that informs his work instinctively. His musical expression is a reflection of this, though he finds it difficult to put into words. “What we do is not regimented, or planned, it’s just a natural progression. It’s just where you’re from. I’m telling you, it’s deep. It’s the way the music comes out of you. I can’t define my music, I just let it come out,” he says.

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As one of the founders of techno, Eddie was there at the inception, but this is perhaps the first time he has been afforded the freedom to really stretch himself creatively and it brought out a different side to him. “Sometimes oppression makes you create good music, because you’re so unhappy it’s got to come out some way. Other times you get in touch with your spirituality, or your ancestors, whoever they might be,” he says. “That’s the thing with this project man, with the percussionists, it got me on a whole different level and it felt so good. It was more of a free project, following Jessica’s vibe. It was a beautiful thing, man.”

Jessica’s connection to music goes way back. She listened to Jeff Mills on the radio, when he was known as The Wizard way back in the eighties, she’s a techno fan and she’s worked with numerous musicians over the years, even producing her own rock concert Black Women Rock!, which has been running since 2004. Her powerful poems and performances place her at the forefront of contemporary poetry and activism, and she’s been a relentless force in the Black struggle in the US and the rest of the world. A highly regarded exponent of Detroit’s creative community she was a great fit for The Beneficiaries. In a time when the electronic music world is being reminded that techno is Black music, Jessica’s involvement with the project helps to reinforce the message loud and clear. “We tried to do something different, with a futuristic mentality. Black, Congo, back to the Motherland with the techno spiritual” Eddie tells us, explaining that by being brought to America as slaves there’s an inherent need to connect to some type of culture. “Can you relate to yourself, to really find out who you are to give that to your ancestors?” he adds. “You have to try. Because all of our history has been corrupted and burned due to systemic racism in America. When you try to get to know your culture, America is threatened, like, ‘Hey, you can’t be Black and proud’. You can be white and proud but you can’t be Black and proud. I try to tap into wherever my ancestors take me, spiritually.”

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For Eddie tapping into his ancestry meant incorporating live percussion from local Detroit drummers Sundiata O.M. and Efe Bes, recording his sessions at Amp Fiddler’s studio (he also appears on Eddie’s music playing keys on ‘The X’). In turn, Jeff was inspired by Eddie’s percussive productions, kitting out his studio with congas and other types of drum so that his tracks would have a dialogue with Eddie’s. For Jessica it meant pushing herself to produce words that reflected the magnitude and depth of the conversations they’d had. After writing seven pages of what she thought was the ‘most amazing stuff ever’, Jessica sent them to Jeff. “I got an email saying, ‘Very interesting.’ So I was like, ‘Fuck that, ok ok ok I got something else!’ I rewrote it and he was like, ‘Ok now I can start making music’. I thought, ‘Ah this is the most incredible collaboration in the whole fucking world.”

Inspired by Jessica’s words, and their collective ideas, both Eddie and Jeff explored the realm of Black spirituality and its intersection with technology, creating an audio time capsule for listeners to discover 100 years from now. That collaborative spark igniting a symbiotic cycle of inspiration, and production. It’s an album that fully embraces the core ethos of techno music, while also pushing the genre into different territories, esoteric, poetic, ancestral and rooted in the legacy that comes through collaboration. “We’re trying to show, through example, what is possible,” Jessica says. “On a spiritual level, artists have to understand that, when we connect in this way, the electricity that’s created goes beyond the page, goes beyond a song, it’s evolution in a deeper way and I just hope people feel it.”

Historically, western society has always viewed the future through a white lens, whether that be sci-fi literature, films, TV shows or art. It’s what Jessica refers to as a colonisation of our minds, programmed to envision a future where whiteness is at the centre. People of colour were either completely absent or on the sidelines. How does this affect their sense of self worth? How can people of colour feel hopeful or optimistic when they’re erased from depictions of the future? “‘The Crystal City Is Alive’ will hopefully propel us into the tomorrow because we have to have things that speak of us away from this thing [systemic racism]. As artists what we create now is the living archive for the times,” Jessica says. “Jeff really challenged me because my work does speak to the now, but we have to be able to see ourselves in our Black imagination and be able to see ourselves outliving this shit, so that the world is made anew.”

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In 2020 the world is primed for this album and its themes. People have the time and space to absorb the music and its meaning and they’ve become more aware of, and open to, issues concerning the Black experience. “It’s so important that I can see myself in the future so that little brown and Black girls can see themselves in the future, too,” she adds. “Latino girls, indigenous women and white girls who are trying to figure it out, who don’t understand why their parents speak the way they do and they don’t feel like that in their heart. It’s important that we create media that shows Black and brown people in the future because without us there is no future. If we aren’t here, then who is here?”

The Beneficiaries are a kind of Detroit supergroup, a dream team of three well respected legends in their own field coming together to exchange ideas and energy, and seeing what comes out the other side. Also included in the collective is cover artist Sabrina Nelson, a Detroit native who has been creating and educating for over 35 years. Her work is inspired by the Yoruba religion as well as Eastern and African philosophy. Providing the visual representation of the project, Sabrina is the final piece of the puzzle creating a minimal yet compelling identity for ‘The Crystal City Is Alive’. It’s a benchmark for the city and Jeff hopes it will trigger similar projects, not just in his hometown, but around the world. “You don’t have to be Black to be able to approach something like this,” he says. “You could be Japanese, Chinese, whatever.. But find the people that are around you that have the same influences and create. The more we create, the more we can have a say in how society goes and how it’s directed.”

Adding, “I just hope this is not the last project coming from Detroit featuring artists from electronic music and other artforms. Hopefully this puts some pressure on people to do things.”

Its legacy will lie in the collaborative efforts it inspires, the response of Detroit artists and its effect on listeners worldwide. “I’m hoping that, further down the line, it becomes a classic,” says Eddie, citing Parliament and their interplanetary funk. “George and them motherfuckers was on some deep shit and when you get older you’re like, ‘Oh I can see where they’re coming from’. Maybe my grandkids will be able to tap into it, ‘Grandpa was on some other shit!’ and they get deep with it.” He’s hopeful it will become a Detroit classic, “You never know. Jessica is very prominent, Jeff and I are very prominent. It creates a time capsule, like, ‘Oh they were on some deep shit.’”

'The Crystal City Is Alive' is out now via Axis

Marcus Barnes is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to Mixmag, follow him on Twitter here

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