Exclusive: Kendrick Lamar Collaborator Kamasi Washington on the Music from the Whitney Biennial

 Dan Medhurst
Kamasi Washington

The jazz dynamo Kamasi Washington made his fine art debut as part of this year’s Whitney Biennial with the six-part suite of music called Harmony of Difference. The final component in the piece, “Truth,” in which all the prior pieces culminate into a glorious, uplifting finale, is released today as part of his new global deal with London label Young Turks (The xx, Sampha, FKA Twigs), which will release the full Harmony of Difference EP later this summer. It marks the Kendrick Lamar collaborator’s first release since his critically hailed 2015 album, The Epic.

In Harmony of Difference, Washington uses the musical technique known as counterpoint, which the saxophonist defines as “the art of balancing similarity and difference to create harmony between separate melodies,” to create a powerful metaphor for the beauty of our shared humankind experience. Below, Washington, 36, tells Billboard all about his new deal, the power of diversity, and how the collaborative spirit of jazz informs his inclusive worldview.  

The first thing I saw at the Biennial was Jordan Wolfson’s virtual reality piece “Real Violence,” which was powerful, disturbing, shocking. Your piece felt like a calming salve after viewing that, an antidote of sorts. A lot of works in the show focused on the divisive nature of the country at this point in time, outrage over Trump, and so forth. Your work, “Harmony of Difference,” was about inclusivity, about bringing people together—this is also a necessary political statement right now. Do you agree? 

Yeah, I think the idea of inclusivity and bringing people together is a very, very important idea that we need to have in this time, because the reality is that what people like Trump are trying to do is to make us feel like we don’t want to include other people, that we want to have seclusion, not inclusion, and that’s never been what this country’s been about. As a person who grew up in Los Angeles, that’s a very diverse place, I’ve always felt like that diversity is a blessing; it’s not a problem to be solved, it’s a gift to be thankful for. That’s why I made that piece. I felt like, you look in the media now, it’s only talked about in this negative way instead of it being a celebration. It’s actually what makes this country great, is the diversity, is the difference, all the different people in the world coming together in one place and being unified in one. So there is something I felt is being lost in the noise of someone like Trump and I wanted to bring that thought process back to people—not just to accept the fact that there are different people in this country, but to celebrate the fact that there are different people, and all of our differences and all of us coming together is what makes it beautiful. 

Where did the idea stem from? 

The idea of the beauty of diversity came from just growing up where I grew up. Los Angeles is a very big city—there’s Little Ethiopia, Little Armenia, Little Tokyo, Chinatown, there’s African-Americans, Latinos, Europeans. There are people from everywhere around the world, and as you explore Los Angeles, that’s what you’re really exploring; it’s like you’re exploring the world. That’s one of the coolest things about the city to me. In general, in my life one of the coolest things that I’ve been able to do is to go to different place and meet different people and see how they view the world and to learn what their music is and what their language is, and the food they eat and everything. That idea of the beauty of the vastness of the world has just been my life.

The music will make up your first EP, due out in June, for your new label partner, Young Turks. How great that people everywhere will have access to it. How did you decide to go with them?

Harmony of Difference is going to come out on Young Turks, part of XL and the Beggars Group. How that happened is I met Caius Pawson, Mattis With and Stephen Campbell, the founders of Young Turks while I was on the road touring The Epic. We ended up running into each other several times and I became a great admirer of the diversity of the music they were putting out and just how cool they were. We just became friends. While I was working on Harmony of Difference they were a great help in introducing me to [director] AG, and really just helping me finish the film component of the project. So it really just made sense when we decided to release Harmony of Difference, to release it with them. They’ve been super supportive, even before this project, they were really down for what we were doing. I’ve always wanted my music to be attached to people who believed in it, and they really believed in it, so it made sense to me.

What else can we expect down the line?

I’m working on another album that’s a good 70% done, and I’m pretty excited about that. And I’m always collaborating with other artists, so there are some other cool ideas floating out there, too. There’s some cool stuff coming down the pipeline, that’s all I can say

How did the work make its way into the Whitney Biennial in the first place?

I met Chris Lew and Mia Locks, the curators of the Biennial at our show in New York that we did for Winter Jazzfest. We just met very casually, they came to the show, and later that month they came to LA and we had a talk about me doing something for the Biennial. I was really humbled and honored to be a part of something like the Whitney Biennial. I just started thinking about what I wanted to do for it. It’s such a prestigious event and there’s always so much amazing art that’s always a part of it, and I wanted to make whatever I did feel like it fit. So I made “Harmony of Difference” for the Biennial. I didn’t make it and then put it in it. It was actually made for the Biennial.

As I watched, crowds began to gather in the viewing/listening room. It was in some ways like a mirror effect—the diversity of the audience watching and delighting in the music felt like the diversity of the people populating the video, many who are dancing, connecting in various forms. Literally, I saw two babies of different races and genders crawling across the floor to greet one another; they were from different families but both grooving to the music—it was such a beautiful metaphor for your piece. Have you had a chance to witness the public taking in your work?

Yes, I actually did get a chance to see and experience people’s reactions to the piece. I was there for the opening of the exhibit, and it was pretty much exactly how I envisioned it. I wanted it to be an experience where people would kind of come in and in the beginning of it, they’d have their own experience with the individual pieces and then when the sixth piece came in they’d have a shared experience as they watched the video. And that’s pretty much how it’s been. What you described is beautiful! I was only there the first night, and there weren’t any kids. But that’s so cool to hear that even different ages were coming. I wanted it to signify not just our cultural or racial difference, but our differences in general, it’s something that we miss out on, like babies and grandkids and grandparents hanging out together is such a cool thing.

I love that you use counterpoint as a metaphor and a means to create and explore this idea of harmony among difference. In what ways has your love of jazz shaped your worldview, and informed your work as an artist?

Jazz is an interesting music. It’s one of the few forms of music where everyone that’s performing the music has a creative stake in the music. In jazz, everyone’s improvising and everyone’s creating at the same time. Every time you have any jazz music, there’s the imprint, the idea that the motions and experiences of every person in the band is being expressed in the music on a creative level, and that’s kind of unique, because jazz in general is not set in stone. The baseline isn’t set in stone, the chord changes aren’t set in stone, the rhythms that the drummers going to play aren’t set in stone, so depending on how that musician feels and the mindset that he’s in that day, the music will change and sometimes it changes pretty drastically. I know in my band it changes really, really drastically from one night to the next. That idea and that kind of approach have definitely affected the way I live my life. I’ve always kind of tried to imply that in general, to work like that—like just try to bring people in, and let everything that happens be a commune, a community kind of experience. It helps when you travel around the world. When you go to a place, instead of being set in what you want to do, you just go with the flow. The idea of going with the flow definitely comes from jazz for me. I definitely try to do that, just move with the current of the vibe. That definitely came from jazz.

Tell me about the visuals accompanying the music. Your sister Amani Washington made the paintings. Were they commissioned for this piece?

I’ve always been a huge fan of the visual arts, people like Van Gogh, Monet, and my sister, really she’s one of my favorite painters. She just happens to be in my family. I’m always going to her and asking her to create things that I see in my head. She laughs about it sometimes, because she knows when I call her, I’m probably asking her to make something for me. So when I had the idea to create Harmony of Difference, I immediately thought of her. We talked about her creating a series of paintings with the same idea that she’d make five paintings that could then come together to create one painting. I played her the music on the piano first to let her see where I was going with it, and then after we recorded it, I gave her the recording, and she created that beautiful series of paintings. They work perfectly with the music. She used the music as inspiration to create the paintings. I was super happy with what she did.

The A.G Rojas film that accompanies the final piece is so poignant and affecting—and perfectly aligned with the intimacy and exuberance of the music. Showing all of the tender little gestures—girls dancing together on the street, a mother kissing her boy’s forehead, various tender embraces—and the big wide cosmos encompassing it all was such a fabulous way to encapsulate what’s going on in the music. What directive did you give the director? Tell me about your role in bringing your vision for this piece in the music to what appears on screen—was it collaborative? 

It was a difficult process for me to figure out what I wanted the film component to be. I wanted it to somehow bring to life the idea that the music and the paintings were depicting, but I didn’t know exactly how I wanted to do that. The guys over at Young Turks suggested AG and I watched some of his films, I got to see a lot of his work. I just felt like what he was doing in his approach, in his vision, it felt like he would get it—I didn’t know how, but just that he would. We met and it turned out we had a lot of mutual friends, and he was basically in the same circle of friends that I was in, and he totally got the idea of what I was trying to do. He had a great vision as to how we could bring that to life. He made a treatment of it, and we worked on it together and got it to where it mirrored and matched the music. And then we shot it. The places that he picked and the shots that he came up with and the visual aspect to it, it really brought it to life, it brought it to reality. And that’s what I wanted him to do. It was a great experience working with him.

What do you hope people walk away from this work with?

I hope that they leave it with a sense of appreciation for the people around them, and the joy in all of the different experiences that are happening in one place, and an appreciation of the beauty of it. I think that sometimes if you just open yourself up and let in all of the vibes, you’ll start to feel it’s the way it’s supposed to be. I think anyone that’s traveled will tell you that the most beautiful aspect of it is experiencing things that are done in a way that’s different from the way you do them. One of the beautiful things about the United States is that there’s so much of that diversity happening in such a close proximity, and that’s true a lot of places in the world as well, but it’s definitely true in this country and I think we sometimes forget about how much of a blessing that is. That is what makes this place unique, just that so many different cultures are all pushed in together. We don’t want to ever lose that. It’s an example for the world. People can see that and maybe open up their hearts to that same idea. As we do that more, it just enriches our experience and I hope that people just get that feeling when they walk away from “Harmony of Difference”—like ‘Oh, man, I’m so appreciative of my neighbors, I’m appreciative of the people around me.’ That’s pretty much all I hope they walk away with.

Will you be bringing this music to live audiences? 

I definitely have plans on performing “Harmony of Difference” live, and I will do it the way it is on the record with that instrumentation, but I’m also trying to figure out other instrumentations that allow me to tour it and take it to many places. There are a lot of people on the record. [laughs] I’m going to try to condense that in a way that I can travel with, and also do it in its full glory with the choir and everything else.