I’d recently written about hopepunk in literature, so the appearance of Rupa and the April Fishes’ Growing Upward across my virtual desk was as timely and inevitable as the first day of spring.
Lead singer Rupa is one of the more inspiring and fascinating figures in music today. You may remember her name from the suit against Warner Brothers over “Happy Birthday” that returned $14 million to creators. Doctor and social thinker, she’s used her multiple viewpoints to create a fierce and beautiful mix of exhortation and critique in an album that draws from multiple musical influences, diverse and multifaceted. Written over the span of seven years, it is decidedly political, as Rupa admits when speaking of the experiences that went into its making; ““All those intense experiences are reflecting on the same crisis.” Rupa reflects, “Everything we face is interconnected: the international rise of fascism, the festering of American racism, the increase in police violence, the ongoing oppression of indigenous people, the imminent threat of catastrophic climate change.”
Her voice is what pulls this varied and complex album together, moving through different forms and moods with fluid grace, whether it’s the snappy bounce of “Eena Mena Deeka” or the slow swing of the lament, “Rain Come Home.” Growing Upward is the band’s sixth album, but their emphasis on the live experience means they have done hundreds of shows together and the resulting practiced ease makes this a smooth-moving, meticulous album.
Beyond Rupa on guitar and vocals, members of the band include Misha Khalikulov on cello, Matt Szemela on violin, Aaron Kierbel on drums, JHNO on electronics and duduk, Daniel Fabricant on bass, and Mario Alberto Silva on trumpet. Their music falls into what Gil Scott-Heron called “Liberation Music,” meeting his challenge to talk about the world today in a way that celebrates and amplifies the voices and efforts of the marginalized.
The album opens with “Growing Upward,” in which Rupa’s voice wells up like the waters that will become thematic throughout the album: “So I sing for the water, and I sing for you.” In a rap interlude after reciting tabla bol, she asks gently but insistently about the persistent injustices of today, and returning to the waters to heal their wounds. What are the waters? They are hope and life, determination and above all, love. They return in “Rain Come Home” and “Water Song.” The latter is one of the album’s most beautiful, beginning with a coyote-like howl, then women’s voices in chorus against the deep-throated boom of a gong played by guest artist Karen Stackpole before Rupa’s voice enters, speaking and singing at once while a violin’s music comes in at intervals like the startled movement of a fish under the surface of the music. “Went as far as I could// in this body made of wood,” she sings in a song that will linger with the listener well after the closing moment.
Each of the twelve tracks bears replaying, unfolding like origami blossoms into questions about modern existence. “Where You From” has a jazzy background reminding us of the roots of that particularly American music, while Rupa asks “Did they simplify your last name?” Similarly “Stolen Land” asks what it means to call America home, when “everywhere I stand I’m on stolen land” and musing on the preceding lives, particularly the women’s, asking whose footsteps, whose words, whose babies were born here.
“Frontline” is a rhythmic challenge to the forces maintaining the status quo, who “serve and protect the pipeline / serve and protect the bottom line // serve and protect the coal mine // serve and protect that oil tanker // serve and protect the banker, serving up people with eviction papers,” reminding them that the singer represents “the ones rising with the waters” while a brassy interjection sneers and underscores, almost scolding.
“Yelamu (We Are Still Here), the closing track, features the spoken voices of a multiplicity of indigenous activists from across the globe declaring “we are still here,” while Guillermo Gomez-Peña recites a Declaration of Human Rights,” declaring our right to be treated “with loving kindness and radical tenderness.” It’s a complicated, layered, beautiful piece that is hopeful and fierce all at once, exercising that loving kindness and radical tenderness on the listener and challenging them to follow suit.
The album is being released digitally as well as in a plastic-free version that contains twelve seed packets so listeners can reestablish or affirm their connection with the earth, growing hope. It’s this sort of attention to detail that gives the album a lot of its charm. I highly recommend it; I know I’ll be listening to it again.
(Electric Gumbo Music Radio, 2019)