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Mike Ladd: Cerebral Refugee, Part 2-2

By Published: April 20, 2005
AAJ: Tell me about In What Language?, your collaboration with [jazz composer/keyboard player] Vijay Iyer. I know it was a commissioned piece.

ML: Originally Iyer and I met in '97; he was playing with a band called Midnight Voices and I was promoting my first record. We just sort of hit it off. I guess he moved to New York shortly after that. He's just an incredibly accomplished musician. He had gotten the attention of a very large orientalist organization called the Asia Society. So they approached him, and he approached me. We were given a sum of money that gave us the ability to really explore whatever we wanted.

AAJ: That's a good commission.

ML: It was great! Really, really great. So this happened in the spring of 2001. We knew we wanted to do something about the importance of airports and the global realities of people of color. And Vijay came across an email by an Iranian filmmaker named Jafar Panahi [who was detained by INS officials, locked in a cell, and deported back to Hong Kong handcuffed], and we realized that that was a good starting point: some of the injustice that people are experiencing within airports and just—what does an airport mean? And of course September 11th came around that changed the context of everything. Well, it didn't really change the context, but—

AAJ: It upped the ante.

ML: Exactly. It turned up the volume.

AAJ: It at least doubled it.

ML: It went up to eleven. So then the piece started to write itself, in a way. I was able to travel to almost every major airport in the United States and Europe, just also because I was gigging with other bands and stuff, or with my own band—so I'd end up in those airports. So I'd show up at the airport six hours, seven hours early.

AAJ: Oh god, what a sacrifice for art.

ML: (laughter) Yeah, but then of course you end up like, "hey, I kind of like it here. You get addicted to the food court.

AAJ: Well, you can get used to anything.

ML: Exactly. That's what's terrifying.

AAJ: And it's a really neutral location.

ML: Well, that's—that's what we looked at.

AAJ: Actually, in your liner notes to the In What Language? CD you say "the airport is not a neutral place." I meant neutral meaning uniform; they look similar to each other.

ML: Yes, and that uniform quality is on purpose, I think. And what they become are these sort of demilitarized zones. What started out to be a literally neutral, world's-fair type atmosphere, and a place where western culture could show off their achievements—and also just promote optimism in every way—

AAJ: Possibility.

ML: Exactly. "This is flight, as close as we can get to the heavens. But now the reality of the airport is actually someplace under hypersurveillance; it's really militarized. It's the front line for this War on Terror, which is a war on feeling that has no beginning and no end. And no borders. You can look at us as cerebral refugees in this war, because the war on terror is directed just as much at us as it those that cast the bullets. [The airport]'s the place where we can be enveloped in the combat of that war. And because it was selected as the stage of conflict; that whole selection is fascinating. So the [In What Language?] project takes that as a backdrop, and really begins to look at what we were talking about earlier, in terms of these new, working-class global realities. Global cultural realities. And understanding the place of people of color in a global society. So I interviewed people of color in airports and then also where I was living in the Bronx, which was an incredibly diverse community. A large Jamaican population, a large Yemeni population, a large Korean population, a large Irish population and a large Dominican and Puerto Rican population—all living on one block. So I was also able to use that as source material and see how a block like that also functions as an extension of the [airport] terminal: it's still the same come-and-go. People like [novelist] Don DeLillo have already written about cities becoming terminals.

AAJ: These voices of these characters, then, on the individual songs: do they all represent someone, a real human being, you spoke to?

ML: It really depends. The majority of them are composites of different people; I changed everybody a little bit for two reasons. Primarily to—well, one person who influenced me greatly was [playwright/performance artist] Anna Deavere Smith. I had worked in proximity to her when I did a project for the Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue, which she started at Harvard. She was gracious enough to invite me to do a project there. So I got to see how she worked up close, and it wasn't what I wanted to do—but it was incredibly helpful as an approach. I wanted to make it clear that I was more of a filter and to acknowledge that filtering. What I was doing was different; she does a documentarian thing with folks where she's sort of quoting them verbatim, and I wanted these poems [in In What Language?] to be poems. More poems than characters.

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