Stew & the Negro Problem

A full-band version of Stew & the Negro Problem playing “Gary’s Song”— and I wasn’t going to start here, but after listening to him talk and the band play, I thought, “You know… let’s have some fun.”

Hello friends! Katie here. I guess we’re all doing the same thing right now: we’re all choosing our favorite rock shirts, making sure we can find that seatbelt belt we just bought, getting ready to start standing in line in front of the Rockwood two or three days early like this is the ‘90s and Ticketmaster is the only place selling tickets, and they’re doing it through Kroger—


I’m starting to feel like maybe that’s just me. But I do know we have one shared experience. If you were with us in October 2018, when we started the Underwater Sunshine Fest, you were almost certainly part of the crowd at the floor of the Bowery Electric, where everyone in the room basically became one dancing, moving, thriving entity, because we were united under the spell of Stew & The Negro Problem.

I’ve been at the Bowery Electric at least ten times over the years, and have visited that stage to see countless acts, some who’ve blown up and become permanent touring bands, some who have become new bands, and some who literally came together just for that night. But there is something strange, permanent, eternal, whatever word you want to use— about what Stew & The Negro Problem did down there. Everyone moved together. (Except me. I’m the horrible dancer from the stairs. I’ll admit it.) The band had a horn section, the vocals were outrageous in both their performance and joy, and I don’t know a single person who was able to say much that night other than, “Wow.” One of my favorite moments of the whole thing was looking at my friends, co-producers Adam and Zoe, in the thick of it all, each with a blissed out smile on their face. And every time I think of Stew, I think of bliss.

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Please don’t mistake that for “feel good songs.” He’s far too thoughtful to write drivel. Even the songs people were moving to, there were moments when I thought, “Wait, I know what we’re talking about here….” And it was a little dissonant— but the right kind of dissonant. The kind where someone has made beautiful art that operates perfectly on two different levels. That’s as close to magic as anything ever is, but with Stew, it also seems effortless. He operates in two different worlds, seemingly at all times: that of the real, lived experience, and that of the observer, looking for a way to tell the story to an audience that might not have processed or made sense of the Real yet.

Take, for example, the song that I walked away most stricken by after the Garden Sessions. There was a smaller band, it was a smaller venue, there were fewer people— so Stew brought the sound down a little and the meaning, whether he screamed or whispered, would have been deafening.

“Western,” Stein & The Negro Problem, Garden Sessions, October 2018, shot by Ehud Lazin

Using all of the great sound tropes of a Western song: the slow-plucked notes, the hushed voice, the bass, the sound of the “wind whistling” and a rattle snake tail— I mean, it’s probably maracas, but that’s not how it feels when you hear the song. I watched a room of forty or fifty people collectively hold their breath from the second he started speaking. This song, on Notes of a Native Son, starts like this:

Uncle Thomas bows, Uncle Tom scrapes
To a lily-white God with Mississippi plates
A shotgun rack, hunting-blind drunk
A rope in the back and a hood in the trunk

“Are you following him?” “Yeah,”
“OK, we don’t need you to do that.”
“Are you following him?” “Yeah,”
“OK, we don’t need you to do that.

Anyone who has been present in America in the last ten years know exactly what the words in that chorus mean. It’s especially chilling because we’re presented with the past, and then with those words, with the rattlesnake sound, we are thrown into the present, reliving our experience with the Trayvon Martin case. I wish I could just type every word, because what’s happening here is the difference between the lived and the observed: Stew is telling us the story of what happened in our lives, right in front of us, in a way that feels fictionalized. I mean. You hear the rattlesnake tail, right? And Heidi Rodewald’s perfectly timed bass line, her backup vocals underlying the, “OK, we don’t need you to do that”? 

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Forgive me. You may still be holding your breath. I don’t know if the resolution to the song will make you feel any better, but I shouldn’t withhold—

Brown and black met one night
Black stayed black, brown turned white
Brown and black met one night
Black stayed black, brown turned white

There was only one way of knowing
Whether the argument had been won
One guy caressed his bleeding chest
While the other one stroked his gun

But you knew how the song ended, right? Here’s the thing: you know what happened in real life, so it makes sense that you would assume you knew the end of the song. Would you have thought to put it as succinctly as “Black stayed black, brown turned white”? Stew did. In fact, all of the record “Western” is on, with an obvious nod to James Baldwin in the title (and throughout the record: “Jimmy” is both uproarious fun and clever, but if you’re, say, a writing teacher and all you do is read writers like James Baldwin, you might have a little extra fun with this disc.

The last time I wrote about Stew & The Negro Problem, I did so as a means of introducing you to them, but I was introducing myself, too: I might have known the songs and information, but I had no idea how different they were live. If you’re someone who likes to know where the band you’re seeing comes from, you can’t get more interesting than Stew: last time I said, “Never one to be comfortable in one mode of creation, in 2004, he and Heidi Rodewald put together the book, lyrics, and music for a somewhat-autobiographical musical, Passing Strange, which was incredibly successful and even ended up at the Belasco Theatre on Broadway in 2008. The show was nominated for seven Tonys, Stew himself specifically named in four nominations, and he won the award for Best Book. The last shows were actually filmed and turned into a movie by Spike Lee, who screened it at Sundance in 2009. He and Heidi opened a new show, Making It, at St. Ann’s Warehouse in 2010. They worked together again on music and lyrics based on the graphic novel Stagger Lee.” They also released Notes on a Native Song and, because it sounds like he was sitting around being lazy, they also released, “Stew & The Negro Problem Present The Total Bent,” and we had the pleasure of hearing a song from that record, too.

“Brave (Suffering / Beautiful),” Stew & The Negro Problem, Garden Sessions October 2018, shot by Ehud Lazin

This song is completely different to me because, though the lyrics are incredible (a voyage through the dreams of things his voice could be), it’s nothing I can put on the page. I can’t, like I could with “Western,” tell you the story and in any way do the song justice. Because the actual beauty in this song doesn’t come from an academic tearing it apart the way I so often do any song, like a poem or a story, so I can point at its still-beating heart and say, “There, that’s where it bleeds from.” This song bleeds so deep inside itself, I could never dissect far enough. Because what is precious about “Brave (Suffering / Beautiful)” is the way that phrase is repeated, over and over, into an almost oblivion state, the repetition lulling you, the audience, into this higher plane for a moment. I have to imagine that hearing this song must be what being on drugs is like, except no come down. You can just hit repeat. Over and over.


We don’t have a choice on “suffering,” but the bookends: that’s where Stew & The Negro Problem live. I want to invite you to join us at the Rockwood Music Hall to watch Stew & The Negro Problem, yes, burn it down, but build it back up: they are nothing if not brave and beautiful.

PS. Adam wants me to add that this is simply his favorite band of all time.

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Lindsay Nie