Music has galvanized activists during some of modern history's most revolutionary moments, from gospel chants doubling as hidden messages for runaway slaves to Joan Baez's rendition of "We Shall Overcome" during the March on Washington. Today, these are the style of torch songs performed by Auntie Occident & the Free Radicals, a jazz vocal quintet out of Berkeley, California.
Employing sophisticated jazz arrangements and lush five-part harmonies on a broad range of material from across the musical spectrum, they aim to be more, however, than a feminist version of Manhattan Transfer. And there's no token chanteuse in a slit skirt providing eye candy for the boys, either.
"We want to do for jazz what the Chicago Women's Liberation Rock Band did for rock 'n' roll," say their liner notes. The CWLRB confronted the grim machismo of "pig rock," they point out, using satire and a diversity of styles to subvert it. "We're doing that with jazz. Our mission is to survey and comment on contemporary gender politics, its impact on marginalized groups, and advocate for an alternate reality where discrimination does not exist," they explain.
The title track, "Brothers, Let Us Prey," is a scathing feminist indictment of the patriarchalism of Judeo-Christian culture and its suppression of Earth Goddess worship over the past two thousand years. "He's not my father, and he sure ain't holy," the band chants, reciting a litany of complaint against the disempowerment of women and their exploitation by organized Western religion.
That is not the only jab directed at the Vatican and traditional Christianity, either. "I'm Gonna Shave That Man Right Outta My Hair," their take on the Rodgers & Hammerstein tune, is inspired by Sinead O'Connor's groundbreaking 1992 appearance on Saturday Night Live when she tore up a picture of Pope John Paul II to protest sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. "Sinead was so brave to do that," they write. "We wanted to let her, and everyone, know how courageous we think that was."
"I M Wimmin" is an updated cover of the Helen Reddy classic with a hip hop beat and thick walls of synth-sound, tackling the complexities of modern awareness while reveling in the feel of a mid-'70s disco party set somewhere in the future.
"(Look at That) Super Grrrl" is a tongue-in-cheek deconstruction of the Rolling Stones tune "Stupid Girl," which has long infuriated women who see it as a disparaging insult to their gender. "I guess you could say it's a joke with a serious point underneath," said Occident. "We want to show the prevailing misperception that feminists have no sense of humor simply isn't true."
"She Ain't Heavy (She's My Sister)" is a tribute to the late "Mama" Cass Elliot, as well as a tender paean to plus-size ladies everywhere, reminding us that true beauty is not in the eyes of the male gaze, but on the inside.
Unafraid of experimentation and emotional honesty, this revolutionary vocal ensemble shows that the personal is political, pushing the envelope and summoning up a utopian vision of a world without hierarchy and domination.
Personnel: Sierra "Auntie" Occident: vocals; Rainbow Skye: vocals; Julie DiMolition: vocals; Olive Chancellor: vocals; Joanna Archangel: vocals.