STEW and the negro problem
NOTHING SHORT OF LEGEND
(Excepted from Ted.com) "Singer/raconteur Stew combines elements of cabaret, soul and subversive pop to create a unique style he's dubbed "Afro-baroque." Frequently likened to Cole Porter and Burt Bacharach, Stew spins songs with hook-filled melodies and taut poetic narratives: 'Sophisticated songs that are not likely to be heard on the radio,' writes the New Yorker."
"Entertainment Weekly twice awarded him 'Album of the Year,' and he and his collaborator Heidi Rodewald have been artists-in-residence two years running at the Sundance Theater Lab, developing their musical, Passing Strange, commissioned by New York's Public Theater; the show had an award-winning preview at the Berkeley Repertory Theater in 2006 and played at the Public in 2007 before beginning its current Tony Award-winning Broadway run."
Katie here again, and honestly, I’m writing this essay from a place of absolute awe. Stew and the Negro Problem are playing the Underwater Sunshine Festival, and I’m still pinching myself. One of my favorite parts of being with other music lovers— which all the wonderful people on our team are— is that there is often an exchange of cherished lyrics or bands. When you’re with acquaintances or people jockeying for position, this is a way to show off: to make sure that everyone knows you go beyond the Top 40, that yes, you do know the difference between Sub Pop and Kill All Rock Stars, that you know which records Rick Rubin produced. But when you’re with people who cherish music just for the sake of it, they’re as likely to recommend a top ten record from 1983 as they are a friend’s demo that’ll never be on a label, and there’s no posturing on either. You can go from singing Biz Markie to singing a song only the people in the room know seamlessly.
It was in that exact same spirit that one night— or, almost certainly, one early morning before we’d retired for the night— a bunch of friends and musicians were sitting around in executive producer Adam’s living room, looking at his vast collection of books and music, records and ticket stubs. We were talking about, I believe, the Gigolo Aunts to begin with, but something inspired Adam and he looked at me and said, “Wait. You know Stew and the Negro Problem, right?”
I didn’t, and the brilliance of having friends like Adam is that you can un-self-consciously admit that and know he’ll teach you something amazing. I was a little taken aback by the question, though, as again, it was probably about 3 AM. I didn’t know if he was talking about a book, a movie, a band— but Adam went over to his shelf, started pulling CDs down and handing them to me. “You can’t continue,” he said, “not knowing Stew and the Negro Problem.” I think Andy and I actually had to pack CDs in coat pockets to get back on the airplane to go back to Indiana, where Adam was certainly correct we weren’t going to be able to find those records, or even someone to talk with about them. At the time, we didn’t even have a dedicated music store. And those CDs took up permanent residence in our cars, the songs we’d always carry with us, speaking about them in 3 AM rooms with friends, but generally, knowing that we’d been taught a secret handshake.
OK. I cut a lot of atmosphere and scene and dialogue so that I could get to this a little quicker. Remember when I said I didn’t know whether Stew and the Negro Problem was a band or a movie? Winds up, Stew is so much more than all of those things— and in fact, now that I will be in the same room with him, I want you to know the same secret handshake I know. Friends of Underwater Sunshine: You can’t continue not knowing Stew and the Negro Problem.
Stew releases solo records, all of which are expertly played and written. They have a singer/songwriter feel, especially on records like The Naked Dutch Painter… and other songs, which, while the music is lush and exciting on songs with movements like “The Drug Suite,” fun and theatrical on the title track, and bright, college rock on songs like “Love Is Coming Through The Door,” but there’s good conversation between tracks, despite my having to remind myself it’s not so much a “conversation” if he’s saying funny things and I’m laughing by myself in the car. His voice is engaging and draws you in, and the backing vocals keep you caught. But he’s so smart, and knows just how to turn a phrase, that it can’t possibly be a surprise to you that he’s not just one thing.
The band, The Negro Problem, have been heavy hitters since their 1997 release, Post Minstrel Syndrome. They’ve released a relatively recent record, Makin’ It, in 2015, which is remarkable given the other projects Stew is involved in— but they also came together to write a protest song, “Klown Wit da Nuclear Code.” It’s trudging and exhausted sounding, almost like the band learned how to mimic what “heavy news days” feel like sonically, and the lyrics are dead on:
A clown had a go at a reality show
Which 24/7 he made
He screamed a battle cry to the living dead
Who danced while the Muslims prayed
And when the news clan landed its leading man
And now we’re living in the film they made…
Sharp, commanding, and before the drums even kick in. The back up vocals are absolutely stunning, but they feel just as beleaguered as the other parts of the song, which is aching with other brilliant lines like, “Now come check out the scene, every day is Halloween/ Dead ideas waltzing from their grade/ Swap right for information/ Bring back that old Plantation/ Only this time we all can be slaves.”
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 from February 2008 — July 2008. The show was nominated for seven Tonys, Stew himself specific named in four nominations, and he won the award for Best Book. The last shows were actually filmed and turned into a documentary/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, and perhaps most excitingly and importantly to a writing and lit professor and geek like myself, he’s developing a live show and accompanying record called Notes from a Native Song, inspired by the writings of James Baldwin, and working with his co-collaborator Rodewald and members of the Negro Problem.
Simply put, Stew— and his band, the Negro Problem— are unstoppable artistic machines. They take on bigotry effortlessly in a way that lulls you in (and thank God isn’t coming from a 24 hour news network). In songs like “The Dutch Naked Painter,” an entire world of characters, settings, small hurts, and large jealousies are teased out leisurely, with pointed, funny lines, delivered with the joy that can only come from a whole lifetime shrunk into five minutes:
The naked Dutch painter in your bed does not want to sleep with you
She just feels like being naked
You don’t think you can take it, but they’re next to you
She says, “Gandhi used to sleep next to two naked women”
But you’re not the Mahatma and that’s a whole ‘nother religion…
He’s written more than one successful plays, been nominated for Tony’s, had a documentary about him shot by Spike Lee— and shown at Sundance. Please come join us watch Stew and the Negro Problem blow the roof off The Bowery Electric (not literally, guys: I don’t doubt you can do it, just… the insurance…). Be initiated into the Underwater Sunshine Festival secret-family-handshake— the kind that is born out of 3 AM friendships, absolute sincere admiration for art and craft, and really, really damned good writing and art.
Stew on the Faces Book
Listen on the Spotify