You might not agree with my feeling that 68 year old Lonnie Holley’s third album MITH is the year’s best release, but I can guarantee you haven’t experienced anything like it before. And “experience” is the right word, because you don’t just hear Holley’s music but rather confront it. From the opening cut “I’m A Suspect” – “I’m a suspect in America/I’ve been going around/No matter if I’m up or if I’m down” – Lonnie sings the truth, honest and without pretense. The music sounds completely improvised (and largely is), the words echo those who came before such as The Last Poets, Gil Scott Heron and Marvin Gaye with the ferocious intensity of rappers such as Immortal Technique.
Lonnie Holley’s life story, from his birth in Birmingham, Alabama (one of 27 children) and his early upbringing after being traded for a bottle of whiskey may or may not be literal truth (see Amanda Petrusich’s New Yorker profile here), but the wizened Holley is a true artist, both musically as well as a being a world-renowned sculptor and visual artist who didn’t start making music until he was 62 years old. He’s been described as performing “outsider music”, which is what critics call folks such as Moondog or Daniel Johnston for lack of a better term. But Holley’s music is not odd for odd’s sake but rather a joyous burst of spirit that holds to no previous style. Holley sings (beautifully I might add) over piano and keyboards (he started making music on a Goodwill Casio keyboard) that swoops and stomps on such moments as “How Far Is Spaced Out” or the infectious “Sometimes I Wanna Dance”.
But at its heart MITH is vital, unapologetic protest music. The sprawling, 18 minute “I Snuck Off the Slave Ship” or “I Woke Up in a Fucked-Up America” shows what America is for a black man – “I’m A Suspect” indeed. It’s a world far removed from white America and its privilege. It’s the America that shoots 12 year old Tamir Rice in seconds because he was holding a toy gun, but gets Burger King so that Dylann Roof wasn’t hungry after killing nine people in a black church. Lonnie Holley doesn’t debate the fairness of such, he just relates his world. This is a riveting collection of songs that given a chance will affect you like no other work this year. Essential.