Culture Is A Weapon. Join the Fight:

Algiers Sharpen the Edge of Culture

The band's second LP 'The Underside of Power' amplifies their aesthetic and political fight against the status-quo

/ June 20, 2017

Photo by Dustin Condron

Algiers’ political and musical concerns are nothing new, yet their upcoming record The Underside of Power creates some of the most urgent, original sounds and messages possible in 2017. Composed of Franklin James Fisher on vocals and guitar, Ryan Mahan on bass, Lee Tesche on guitar, and Matt Tong on drums, Algiers originally formed in Atlanta though have now also expanded to New York City and London. At the heart of the band is Franklin, a force of wisdom and vocal strength who is not asking for a seat at the table of America, but is signaling that it is time to build our own table with the broken pieces of colonialism’s past. As he puts it, “We want to be intimidating. We to try and actually integrate real helpful information and messages within.”

The Underside of Power, out on Matador Records this Friday, is a power analysis of people, pain, and chance. Franklin says the record’s theme is “difficult to draw because it is fragmented, it is difficult. We are calling upon historic spaces and markers as a way of helping people be inspired in their current and future spaces.” That is one of its strengths. Cohesion can often lead to false simplicity, and Algiers refuses to edit out any of the required emotion and chaos to complete their statement.

Talking with the band reminded me of an anecdote by Jamal Joseph, a former Black Panther. When he was 15 years old he went to a Panther meeting to be armed, anticipating receiving a gun. During the meeting he listened to how the panthers wanted to fight for freedom and power to determine the destiny of their community. When Joseph went up at the end to get his gun, an older panther instead pulled out a pile of books including the Autobiography of Malcolm X and Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth. I think that The Underside of Power could easily sit with that stack of texts. Songs like Walk Like a Panther, Hymn for an Average Man, and The Underside of Power, are spirit-drenched odes and rally cries to the struggle for self-determination and the reality of despair through America’s racist history.

I spoke with Franklin and Ryan about their new record, art, activism, and fighting for meaning and power. 

VICTORIA RUIZ: Your music is injected with historical imagery. Many of your music videos directly call upon imagery from historical movements for people power like the Black Panther Party and anti-fascist movements. What inspires this?

Franklin: There’s a disconnect between the artistic community and the activist community. You hear a lot on how to rally and reach more people, so it’s not just an echo chamber. You can use art as a way of conveying something to people that you don’t already have to be versed in or completely. If you have this synergy and symbiosis, it’s much more effective. If you have a community of socially aware people and artists, you can start enacting change in a real life basis. We just haven’t see that in our generation.  

How do you work against nostalgia in fighting for truth and power? Especially within music, a medium that relies heavily on visuals and very broad messaging.  

Franklin: When you think of nostalgia and ways to resurrect the past, there is a way to fight against the nostalgic watering down of messages, and we are working against that.

Ryan: That’s what visual element and what Algiers is all about. I was recently reading about the history of socialist revolution. In particular, how people will try to water down Marx and marxism in order to install whatever message they want.

Driven by fear of worker power taking over the means of production and resources? This is interesting how does this connect to the album?

Ryan: I think it relates to our record and video in that the records itself is also resurrecting the concept of revolution and revolutionaries. I recently read how often the oppressed are made to turn revolutionaries into sanitized icons in order to blunt their revolutionary edge. We are working against blunting that edge with music.  

Often, it seems that artists who are people of color or who are coming from being very affected by white supremacy have to deal with the inherent contradictions in everyday life. So, living under capitalism but fighting for liberation. Or, being an artist but having different stakes and standards because you confronting the power dynamics literally in your skin. Do you ever feel these contradictions? How do you work through them?

Franklin: In the art world, there is the commodification and exploitation of the past and history— of blackness, of gender, of political movements. Our presence is a move against that desire and an engagement with that discourse.

What drives the divide between art and protest at times? 

Franklin: That’s a good question. I think some of it comes from the state of late capitalism that we are in. The state of being an artist is to be continuously co-opted by bourgeois capitalists. If you are going to do that, you need to be successful in making that your identity or your career. To make it successfully, you have to be a fabric of narcissism and vacuous self absorption that art dictates. It won’t really be accepted as art unless you are singing about love or something so obtuse, and you must create this subjected interpretation of the universe.

In activism, the other side of the coin, it is very incestuous and has a huge reliance on jargon. Activists have been marginalized so far that they face a similar problem of it being difficult to be in broad community with people and really be part of the general population where their interest is shared. It can be impenetrable. You have to find a way or find a language of engaging these things. One of the few ways of doing it is to form a band. It is not one of the easiest ways. We will never be at the level of Drake or Nicki Minaj. If you’re ever really talking about something of substance, it will always be pushed to the side and marginalized as opposed to something that furthers capitalism principles and perpetuates self-fulfilling prophecies.

How do you figure out the tension between representation and diversity and the commodification of people of color? 

Franklin: I just keep trying to find the nuance, that’s my job. In addition to the band, I check coats at a nightclub that’s filled with bankers who are singing every A$ap Rocky song, and he’s doing it because he’s on a white owned label that’s encouraging that. And it’s perpetuated by platforms like Pitchfork that get to rate artist’s ability to sell blackness. I don’t really know how to combat it, other than doing what we do. That’s why I have so much stock in this band. I don’t know any way to keep myself from going insane other than how I’m already going insane.

Ryan: From my personal perspective as a white man from the South, I only have one option which is to join with Frankie and push and move forward something together that challenges these structures of identification. It’s important that Frankie is the singer and the lyric writer. It is important in the organizational structure sense. Slavoj Zizek has his problems, but he talks about the movie Titanic and the class of the two characters and the main character has this fantasy dabbling with the lower class guy. It is a rendering of how the dominant class leaches off of people for their own pleasure. They’re still happy for that to die or disappear. It also reminds me of Get Out and how halfway through that film you see the cannibalism of whiteness.

In many ways, it seems like genre can be a blessing or a curse. It is a way to categorize sound, contextualize music’s history, enter a community even. At the same time, there are standards or expectations for musicians of a specific genre. You all have described yourselves as “genre-less.” What does that mean for you?

Franklin: Putting the focus on people who would not otherwise really come to listen to us is the most important thing. The politics have to take front seat to the music. Two years ago, I wouldn’t have said that, but things are going to get so bad for a lot of us. I’m really scared and you need to have urgent action and urgent discourse with anyone who is open minded and willing to see what we are trying to see, and action with whom there is nothing left to discuss. I’m on some Malcolm X shit right now, but I think that is where we are going. I don’t think you can be on the dawn of a fascist regime and try to sit down with that fascist regime and have a heart to heart; what is needed is militancy, action, and urgency. And the markets be damned, I’m not concerned with us being on the Top of the Pops or getting Best New Music I think there are more crucial things at stake. We have the potential to enact real change as a community of thinkers. To me, our band has become a vehicle for that end as opposed to just trying to get people to listen to us.

Ryan: It’s already happened that our music gets co-opted and commodified, we are aware of that, but beyond that, it is vital to stand for something and to be counted for something. For me, punk rock taught me these lessons about solidarity but also these political lessons that politics is not a dinner party and the notion of violence itself is not from below; it is brought to our door everyday. The media, the government, so what is your response? Is violence going to be a discussion that we try and convince people of or a tactic that we consider? I am ready to confront the violence that has already brought me to where I am now. In the artistic sense, you confront that through the music, through the spaces, through discussion. It is really important for me to talk about our music and not hide behind artistic license, because it is born of interconnectedness of time and it is a social music. Music can exist in the same spacetime but in very different worlds. Every time you open up a world, that can be very scary for people. So, our music is signifying an inspiration for people to come together from so many of those spacetimes and have that connection of entering a world together.

I don’t think you can be on the dawn of a fascist regime and try to sit down with that fascist regime and have a heart to heart; what is needed is militancy, action, and urgency.

How do you deal with people who see your message as simply an extension of your music. As in, they see your message as something they get to critique as if it were “just” music, as if you weren’t speaking to power and your very personal and political experiences?

Franklin: You are always going to have assholes that simply want to use music and shows as entertainment, but that wouldn’t change our message nor our music. What we do on a superficial level is entertainment, but we are intervening and sneaking in a trojan horse, and entertainment is a false pretense. We have to realize, we don’t know everything and we need to engage all kinds of ways to understand. How can you care about anything when you hear and know about every damn thing? When it comes to what we are talking about on this new album, we are talking about how there is no way to hide or shield yourself from what is around us. You cannot remove yourself, you have to make a bigger choice than if I’m going to buy this or not, etc, this is about something bigger than any one person.

Ryan: We have to give up holding music or art to simply thinking about what it reminds us of or what it is reminiscent of. The past it not just the past, it’s not something to be commodified but to be channelled, it feels good to connect to a message.  

Do you feel like you have a specific fan base for the album?

Franklin: We don’t really have a very large fan base. In terms of exposure, I think I want people to learn who we are the first time that they see us. I think we are going to keep what we are doing, but we are going to get better at it. The focus will get sharper and more concentrated.

Algiers - The Underside OF Power album cover

You make the past so relevant. Your new album doesn’t just reference history, it stitches it into your lyrics. In the song, The Underside of Power, the lyrics “In division, what’s stripped away is made the same on the other side/ Because I’ve seen the underside of power/ It’s a game that can’t go on/ It could break down any hour/ I’ve seen their faces and I’ve known them all,” has a very real humility and wisdom to it. The idea that perhaps that this broken system is killing us but is not eternal in the way that freedom and liberation can be.

Franklin: The past isn’t dead, it’s not even past. Our relationship with the Panthers and the civil rights movement isn’t trying to romanticize and put something on a pedestal to make it previous. These movements were so close to revolutionizing our relationship with the state, the government had to systematically obliterate it through the war on drugs. When institutionalized violence is normalized, people go along with it. There is an inhuman core of humanity right now that does not let free lovely self that exists in each of us. We can and will pull that inhuman core out and leave it behind.