Matana Roberts is a talented musician and composer of several musical works, including Coin Coin, an ongoing exploration of history, heritage, and remembrance. This woman is eye catching with her sensationally long dreads and fascinating jewelry. We needed to know more about the roots of her amazing style.
How would you describe your art/music?
“Avant negressian creative angst”, kidding. I get pushed under the jazz umbrella a lot because my roots come from there. It’s how I learned how to play but the art environment I came through in Chicago was more about considering experimentation first and presentation second. It is almost a nod to a certain kind of political freedom that art can give you when society won’t. So at this point I consider myself an Americana traditional hybrid, because I explore so many different things in my music work that can’t be relegated to just “jazz” and often now refer to myself as an experimentalist. Some people don’t like to hear that either so I’m kind of at a loss for words these days.
How did you begin playing the Sax and Clarinet?
Free music lessons in public school. I was about 7 years old when I started. I grew up in a house where I was exposed to a lot of history and experimental art and music. My parents were community activists, scholars, and former black panthers.
Who are your musical influences?
Some of everybody. I mean a few of my musical mentors were the late great Chicago saxophone players, Fred Anderson and Von Freeman. But I also grew up in one of the best hip hop eras and also was heavily affected by late punk, new wave and riot girl. My influences are all over the map. Prince and Madonna were eye openers I remember as were groups like Wu Tang, TLC, Queen, Me’shell Ndegeocello, Grace Jones, Bad Brains, early new jack swing, Tupac and Biggie, Joan Armatrading, early Lil’ Kim, The Roots, and pretty much anything that came out of Philly between 1995 and 2003,and then a lot of experimental musicians like Sun Ra, Art Ensemble, Albert Ayler, Velvet Underground, classic jazz, and lots of roots Americana music. I am now getting back into the blues, the blues used to not speak to me, but they do now! Grown woman’s music!
How does being a black woman help or hinder your opportunities and experiences in Jazz?
Well, I stay out of the jazz center because I just find the gender thing strange there, but it also has helped me. I have been brothered, fathered, uncled, through music and have met some amazing men that have made the questionable experiences softer. Also being a woman helps me to stand out sometimes in good ways. Music needs the feminine and masculine to really thrive and no matter your gender, we all have both sides.
Does the word Tomboy mean anything to you? What?
Absolutely. Because I was a tomboy, and still am sometimes, and my mother was a tomboy, it phils me with a little love to hear the word. “Tomboy” to me just means a certain kind of strength, swagger, and belief in one’s self that is powerful and life affirming.
Do you describe yourself as a feminist? If so, how does that influence your fashion style? Music? If not,Why?
Yes and no. I think there are different versions of feminism and I have a mix. Partly because of growing up African American and female, and partly learning a very male appointed kind of music, my feminist leanings gives me the permission to do as I please in my work and confidence to know that I do not have to ask permission. But I also think certain strains of feminism can push women away from what’s spe- cial about the differences between men and women and so I try to find a balance that fits for me. Like I love Gloria Steinem, but I also love Mike Tyson, you know?
How would you describe your style? What inspires how you dress?
I like to call it “ hobo chic.” I can’t afford fancy clothing but I have developed a decent eye for possibility and attention to details. It’s a little sloppy sometimes, but I feel like art life gives me a lot of leeway with that.
I used to make some of my own performance wear by hand, and I still make little things every now and then by changing small details. I’ve learned it’s always about the details.
Does your upbringing have anything to do with your style? At what age did you start to create your fashion identity?
My grandparents would put on their Sun- day’s best just to go to the grocery store, but that was very important to them because of the racist environs they grew up in. My grandmother and her sisters were Memphis raised south side Chicago Francophiles (Chanel, Chanel, Chanel), and my father shopped in the men’s and women’s sections (for unisex type items), my mother loved African styles, my aunts and uncles and cousins were also very stylish…my parents were very young when they had me so they had a certain hip fashion sense that I see in photos of myself as a little person.
Later I fell in with punk and anarchist stuff, but there’s a certain style and placement of things to that stuff too. So now I’m at point where I have a clear understanding that style isn’t about labels or trends, it’s really an attitude. And I can run around in a $2 skirt and still feel like a diamond. It’s about how you choose to place things and what you exude from the inside.
Do you have a fashion motto that you live by?
How you feel on the inside, makes the outside shine, no matter the clothing.
We love your style! Do you think there is a mirroring of your visual style and your style of music?
Thank you! I’ve been following your blog for a while. Love the things I see there! Regarding mirroring: Probably. My art style is about combining a lot of different elements for the fun of contrast in sound and I think I approach fashion that way too without really thinking about it. I used to make some of my performance wear and jewelry.
Do you have any style icons that you look to?
Grace Jones, Stevie Nicks (circa Bella Donna years, she is probably why I like to wear layered skirts), Bette (rock star) Davis, Alexander McQueen, James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, some of the old Hollywood glamour queens, more so for the attention to detail than anything else. Early Courtney Love before the plastic surgery. Basquiat, Patti Smith, Parisian gypsies and street musicians…the list is long.
Do you have any power pieces or staple pieces. Things that make you feel invin- cible and magical or can’t live without?
I go through phases. I’ve liked tiny neck scarves a lot the last few years and a few accessories. I wear a watch and locket around my neck. And glasses; I don’t have to wear them all the time but have had fun messing around with different styles.
If you could travel back in time and tell your 13 year–old self something, what would it be?
It gets better…waaaaaay better and boys are generally dummies. Don’t worry. :)