'Our Politics Is Our Lives': Chino Amobi Makes Abstract Music from Concrete Ideals


Chino Amobi’s debut full-length Paradiso roars, whispers, and cackles with a simultaneity that is distinctly modern. As much a sonic collage as it is a traditional album, Amobi weaves found sounds (chicken clucks, alarms) and spoken word into a sound design that features often sinister takes on a variety of musical genres like hip-hop, rock, and industrial-leaning electronic fare. Overall, it’s virtually unclassifiable and, by Amobi’s own admission, “cinematic” in its structure. The album’s press release describes it as “a musical epic set in a distorted Americana populated by a cast of sirens, demons, angels, imps, priests, hierophants, monsters and peasants.” In a phone interview with Amobi last week, he described it this way to Jezebel:

[It’s] a designed fiction that augments reality. The designed fiction is to design what science fiction is to science. It proposes a speculative truth that I believe can become the reality and is the reality in a sense. The listener enters into that space and comes out on the other side with a new understanding of the reality.

It’s an ambitious, cerebral work and it just happens to be one of the most absorbing pieces of full-length music I’ve heard all year. I saw Amobi at Red Bull’s recent ambient showcase (he played alongside Johnny Utterback) and his performance was similarly cathartic and riveting.

During our discussion Amobi talked to me about how his own intersectionality as a black queer man who lives in the South affected his work, as well as how the conversation about ambient and electronic music has often excluded minorities. Amobi, who co-runs the record label NON, is making it his business to be heard. An edited and condensed transcription of our conversation is below.

JEZEBEL: I get a real narrative sense from this record. I almost feel like I’m cheating myself if I listen to some, but not all of it in one sitting. It feels more about the sum than individual tracks.

CHINO AMOBI: Yeah. Definitely. I wanted to be cinematic in that way, kinda like if you watch a movie and stop halfway through, you didn’t really experience it. I want to make it feel that way—you have to totally immerse yourself into it. You can’t halfway commit.

The press release calls this “a musical epic set in a distorted Americana.” What inspired that concept?

Current conditions that we’re living in, and also the history of America. Thinking about all that. The history of the world, and also personal history, living in the South, in Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy and how rebellion relates to the American tradition. I was thinking about a lot of those things. The Southern Gothic tradition of Edgar Allan Poe, and the Southern Gothic as it extends to South America and Africans and Middle Eastern History as well. Moving through history in non-linear ways was important to me, as well. Americana was the entry point, but then it extends to the rest of the world.

When you’re dealing with established themes in abstract work, how do you know when a track is right and done? Is it gut-based or analytical?

I would say it starts in intuition. But when it gets to a certain point and I’m trying to add stuff or I listen back, I’ll think, “This vocabulary does not work with the language of the [story].” It’s like cooking in a way. When you’re cooking and there’s certain combinations you unlock, but then you try to add another thing and it’s like, “Oh that didn’t work.” The dish did not demand for this additional ingredient. There’s a certain intuitive awareness of what the work is calling for, or the work tells you what it needs in a certain way, too. The more you flesh out the world, the world that you’re building starts to tell you what works and what does not work within those parameters.

You make challenging music that you know isn’t going to be played on the radio. How do you gauge success?

I gauge success through how I feel like I’m representing myself, and also how my really close friends respond to it, as well. I trust people that are close to me. I gauge success through people I interact with, communally. And how I’m developing and growing as a designer and musician. I don’t necessarily gauge success on a popular culture level, but I’m all about it reaching out as far as it can. It’s not really quantitative to me, it’s more about quality of production and integrity to that production. A lot of times, I think the meaning evolves over time. It’s not just a one-shot thing. Who knows what the read will be 15 years from now, or even five years from now? I love popular culture just as much as the next person, but I also love one-on-one culture—interacting with your friends and the people I collaborate with.

You mentioned your experience living in Virginia informed this album. What’s your day-to-day like? How fraught racially is the Virginia you know?

I grew up in Chesterfield, which is outside of Richmond. I would go to school with kids that had the Confederate flag on their backpack, but still want to hang out with me because they listened to hip-hop. But their parents were like, “Nah, we don’t want you to date black people.” It was this very fractured experience where I grew up going to these people’s houses and they’d be wearing jumper suits and go hunting and we’d be hanging out, listening to rap and watch cartoons.

[Now] I go to Virginia Commonwealth University and I’m a grad student in the school of design. Where I park, on Monument Avenue, there’s these statues of Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, these monuments of the Confederacy. It’s still very celebrated. It’s like the subtext of the history of the city. The legacy is still there, it’s just a little more nuanced. You can see it in the divide of neighborhoods, you can see it in the way that certain people are alienated. The legacy is at the margins in a certain way, but it’s out in the open, so there’s a weird paradox.

Does it carry through to interpersonal relations?

Oh yeah. It has, over time. I try to be very sensitive to my friends and their needs in terms of certain spaces we enter, but that’s just being a minority in general in America. That’s just a part of who I am and my work as well. Who I am is what’s in my work. I don’t go in thinking, “I’m going to make this the most politically themed ever.” I think that stuff just comes out as a product of who I am in America and who my friends are in America, or wherever they live in this world. Our politics is our lives in a certain way.

“ Who I am is what’s in my work.”

When you look back at the commentary that’s embedded in the album, are there certain songs you’d point to to say, “This is about race relations,” or is it more a subtextual thing, just as the Confederate legacy plays out in Richmond?

It weaves itself in and out. For example, on the second track, you hear a call to a Muslim prayer. Imagine waking up in an American city and you hear that call to prayer. And then all the other sounds you hear. That’s where I want people to enter and process it that way. I don’t want to spell it out: “This is what I want you to think.” I’m way more interested in the dialectic, which allows people to enter with their experience and come to the conclusion from what they’ve experienced.

It’s interesting to go for that because what you do is so specific, almost pointed, in its assembly, and yet it creates an abstract effect that’s open to interpretation.

That’s essential. I think entering abstraction through specificity is not often allotted to minority voices—queer bodies or black/brown bodies. I think that’s really crucial in the time we’re in. People will try to pigeonhole you and try to classify your politics as this or this, or your identity as this or this, but it’s way more complex and nuanced than that. With the specificity of a voice, I think you can achieve that through abstraction.

I’m curious about the queer component of what you just said. I don’t know if you talk about your sexuality publicly, but I know that NON is associated with queerness and you released a record called Airport Music for Queer Black and Brown Folk. Do you identify as queer?

Yeah, I do identify as queer, and I also identify as black, I also identify as a follower of Christ, I also identify as a designer, I also identify as a curator. It’s multiple identities. It’s not just this fixed identity. It’s multiple levels of identity.

And no one is one thing at any given time.

Absolutely. I think it’s way more complex than people account for. That’s one thing I try to focus on with the work.

When people think about queer music, they probably most likely think about gay-male music, meaning disco and house, primarily. This record is completely not that, but there is something… detectably there. Maybe it’s the sensitivity. As a gay man myself, I just sort of felt it.

Absolutely. It’s definitely there. When people can feel it, that’s a measure going back to the success question. When people can feel what I was feeling when I was making the music, that to me is success.

Was Airport Music for Queer Black and Brown Folk a way to speak to the point about how ambient music is known for being so white and male?

For sure. It’s a conversation with that tradition and how those voices have not been championed. It’s really talking about the canon and how that relates to cultures at large: airports and a hierarchy of engagement with civilians. Conflating the two in a certain way. The airport as a point where this dialogue happens. It was kind of tongue-in-cheek with Brian Eno’s Music for Airports.

Women’s voices get excluded from these conversations heavily. They are not taken seriously in ways that continue the legacy of the male voice as the dominant voice of culture, which I really try to be sensitive to in my way. With my own male privilege I feel like I have to be super aware, and I try to be, but it’s not without its own failures. That’s part of being human. At the same time, I try to be as open as I can to just shutting up and listening sometimes and letting other people speak. That’s what I try to do on [Paradiso] as much as possible: Open the gates to that. Just being a vessel for other people to speak through. Women, trans women, black bodies, brown bodies, animals even. It’s all liminal and it’s open to evolving from there. It’s not an end statement. It’s a really a gateway.

Given this type of music has that reputation, and certainly you just don’t see a lot of black and brown people in it, what’s your experience been like playing in this electronic/ambient world? What do race relations look like there?

It has a lot to do with how shows are booked, excluding certain people. The way people are treated at venues. The way that minorities are paid less. Things of that nature. But I do see people trying to be sensitive to what has happened over time and trying to work to improve their structure and system of booking. It’s not some overnight [thing], but I do see small victories that I celebrate. It’s not all like, “Nothing’s happening,” but it’s a long road ahead, for sure. Multi-generational.

When I saw you play at the Red Bull show, you were really emotional, shaking your head and responding to the music. What specifically was moving you?

I definitely feel the music more live than I intellectualize it. Sometimes when I’m producing, I think more about concept, but when I’m performing, it’s more about the experience and the body, and just feeling it. And also when the music is really loud, the sound system was really dope in there, it becomes more about the music moving through me and responding to that live.

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