Behind Christian Scott at the bar at Jimmy’s Corner in Times Square is a sign that reads “Let’s not discuss politics here.” But that doesn’t stop the 34-year-old New Orleans-raised trumpet player and composer from holding court on the link between the prison industrial complex and modern-day slavery. “This is an issue that I’ve been noticing more than ever, and it’s something I needed to speak on,” Scott says. It’s also one of the themes featured on his latest album, Ruler Rebel, an expansive record woven together from disparate sounds like trap-style drum-machine beats and orchestral synth lines. At times, it can even sound like Radiohead, with its tendency toward the ethereal.
Ruler Rebel is the first in an ambitious trilogy, in which Scott imagines the future of jazz. Where does the genre go from here? Scotts pictures a world in which jazz speaks for those who cannot—offering a stirring critique on issues like xenophobia, fascism, and race relations. It’s a hefty goal for anyone, but especially Scott, whose music is mostly instrumental. In Ruler Rebel, Scott finds a way to express his thoughts by mustering up key emotions through harmonies and fusing different musical styles together.
At Jimmy’s Corner, Scott speaks confidently as he explains the interplay between his music and his worldview, how he conveys struggle through sound, and what he learned growing up in New Orleans.
How would you sum up the message behind this trilogy of albums?
The idea was to commemorate the first 100 years of jazz music’s recorded history. But I wanted to plot potential trajectories for where the music could actually go. I wanted the listener to be able to hear 30 different examples of how we can stretch the music. That was important to me, and that’s why it’s three records.
Where does each album fit into this concept?
Ruler Rebel is the first record and it identifies who you’re listening to. The second record, Diaspora, is identifying who is being spoken to, and the third record, The Emancipation Procrastination, establishes what the ultimate message is. “That one pushes people to look for the similarities between them instead of the differences—whether that’s religious purview, sexual preference, gender identification, racial classification, any of these things. It’s my idea that the sooner we start looking for the sameness between those places, the better off we’ll be. I’m not really interested in gifting a future to my children that’s riddled with all of the shit that’s still here since I was born.
From a technical point of view, how do you convey social and political messages through instrumental music?
I think there’s multiple ways. Jazz music is an extraction; it’s abstract, especially when you’re talking about instrumental music. It’s not me saying, “Okay, this happened and this is the story and the middle and the conclusion.” Jazz is not set up in that way. So we give clues through song titles. When I perform, I also tell the stories of the compositions on stage but I’m not doing that on the record.
So I might call a song “The Emancipation Procrastination” and on one level, it’s about trying to navigate your way out of an environment in which we’re told that we have these freedoms but when you look closer, you realize you’re not really free. Now I can say that, or I can play [music] in a way that hints at the fact that there are moments, compositionally, where I’m struggling. I may not be struggling in the moment—I have the improvisational acumen to not struggle at any moment harmonically—but I’m playing in a way that points to that, and struggle is a style. That’s why Charles Mingus was so popular because he could create musical moments that had struggle in them. For me, I don’t think it’s ever been my point or intention to tell you exactly what you should think about a given subject. It’s my job to raise the subject and create a captivating enough musical space that makes you reevaluate what you feel about it.
How do you use various musical influences and genres to put listeners in that space?
I hold the notion that for people to heal from a lot of the systemic issues they face, they need to reevaluate things. You and I will agree that race as a social construct exists—but there’s only one race, like there’s no homo sapiens Africanus. But because we’re fragmented overall, we have to walk back to thinking that there’s just one. I can do this in a musical space. For example: When I ask you to visualize a western classical musician, you visualize a specific person, but if I ask you to visualize a trap lord, hip-hop guy, or salsa singer, you visualize someone different. So the way music is disseminated to us is hyper-racialized, but if I can show I can marry all three, then what am I saying about those three people?
That they’re all the same.
Right! So there are ways to speak to that without ever uttering a word as long as people are listening. When you hear a trap beat but the trumpet is kinda harking to the Delta blues, and texturally it sounds like Thom Yorke and Radiohead, people can hear that. You’re showing your intention without having to say it. Ultimately, me saying racism is bad is going to go in one ear and out the other for a lot of people, but if I can create a musical statement that brings that up and you feel it, you’ll conclude it for yourself and you’ll probably hold onto it.
Which song on Ruler Rebel did you find was the trickiest to convey your message?
I think it was “Encryption.” It’s about what is encrypted and decrypted and what needs to be broken apart and reevaluated. In America, you can’t talk about race in a few words and expect the beliefs that someone spends their whole life believing to just go away.
When I was small I worked in a nursery—my grandmother owned nurseries for 30 years and as good as raised the whole neighborhood—and when you work with small children you learn that they don’t come here with those views. That shit is learned. Children just want to play. But you’d be surprised at some of the stuff: You’d have white parents and their kids would be playing with a black doll and the parent grabs the doll and is like, “Don’t let my kid play with this doll.” And they’re saying this to a black person! But sometimes the conditioning is so deep that they don’t realize what they’re doing.
I can process that and make a statement saying, “Don’t teach your kids that shit,” but I can’t tell you what will work for your situation—but I can make an environment to bring it up. So a song like “Encryption” was difficult because texturally I wanted people to be able to feel the love in that space, but the environment in which it’s happening—like the American environment—is tumultuous and unexpected rhythmically. It’s dense and it’s almost like a nemesis is there the entire song in terms of what is happening harmonically and how the composition evolves rhythmically. You’re constantly trying to fight the environment but in a way that has beauty, brightness, and a sense of hope.
The trilogy also touches on the prison industrial complex. Can you explain your take on that issue?
Look, we’re living in the United States—so when we talk about the prison system, we’re essentially talking about slavery. People don’t want to talk about that. It’s something that gets brushed up under the rug and a lot of times you say something like that people act like you’re sensationalizing it but you’re not. The 13th Amendment says if you’ve been duly convicted of a crime, it’s perfectly legal for you to be a slave or an indentured servant. That’s not coded language—it’s very plain language! When you consider that against the fact that most of the prisons in this country are privatized, which means there’s a man who owns them, when you process all that, you realize we need reformation in this country.
I come from Louisiana, which is essentially ground zero for the new version of slavery in America that happened post-emancipation. There’s more people that are enslaved and in bondage now than there were in, let’s say a year like 1860, which is kinda mind-boggling. But it’s about clarifying terms and seeing what the actual reality is. So you have privatized prisons: That’s not an accident, let’s be honest about it. You still have people that own these prisons and own that labor who hold some views that hark to sort of confederate ideas. To me, I don’t see how people can draw a line with it being different to slavery—it’s just a different point of time and a different way of going about it.
Is this something you noticed while growing up in Louisiana?
Definitely. From the environment I grew up in, I never thought I’d be this old—I thought I’d be locked up for some menial shit when I was 13. You might have a 14-year-old kid that literally may walk into a store and accidentally steal a Snickers bar ‘cause they’re not paying attention and they’re messing around with their friends. But this is a kid that in Louisiana could go to jail for a long time; they’re throwing football numbers are people for shit like that. When you commit a crime you’re supposed to be punished and rehabilitated but the latter doesn’t really happen in America. Most times the punishment doesn’t fit the fuckin’ crime. You come to realize that you’re living in a place that’s essentially the same as the 1850s. Obviously I have some different freedoms and I can vote, but when you really get down to it, how different is it really?
Video by Santiago Garcia Muñoz and Elea Franco.