Many musicians and music fans have felt the need to respond to specific events or situations in America’s 2020 sociopolitical climate by doing more than creating, sharing and listening to music. Ethan Sultry (Margolis)
’s “Say Their Names” opens one opportunity: The protest track is available for free download on sirsultrymusic.com
, connected through a web button to MyGood.org
, the 501(c)3 non-profit founded by Macy Gray
to support family members of victims of police violence.
Written in the aftermath of the June 2020 social unrest in Los Angeles, the visceral impact of “Say Their Names” drops the listener into the turbulent sounds of a street protest or march. “I wrote this after marching in a protest myself. I was watching on TV and I thought, 'What am I accomplishing by watching this on TV?',” Ethan Sultry recalls. “After the march, I began to think: 'You have a music studio. You believe in this material. Therefore, you sort of have an obligation to use it.' As soon as my thoughts got there, then the song started to come.”
“One thing these situations did is that everyone is aware that change needs to happen. Everybody wants to do something about it,” suggests Macy Gray. “When you're an artist, you get to do that on a bigger scale because you have this kind of ingrown audience already; anybody who listens to music, you have access to those people. You just don't hear artists just come out and say it in a song anymore. We don't really have a John Lennon or Bob Marley
these days. When somebody like Ethan just takes a chance, it's inspiring. It makes you want to do better."
Sultry grew up in the USA but moved to Andalusia, Spain, in 2000. His 2016 release Sonikete Blues
merged in different and creative ways American (especially blues) and Spanish (especially flamenco) musical streams. But “Say Their Names” sounds completely different: Its quicksilver cinematic sound drops you off in an urban street protest and sweeps across dramatic movements of chanting voices and marching drums, singing and scatting male and female voices, harmonizing horns and vocals, free-form saxophone, Afro-jazz percussion and rhythms, punctuated by the sound of one person breathing – to remember those who no longer breathe—all in the compact space of a three-minute single.
“Say Their Names” is not an easy or even welcoming sound. But once you work your way in, its construction is fascinating and its spirit is deep. “At first it was rhythmic. I designed three different patróns (patterns), and it combines them all,” explains Sultry. “We hear the rhythms of New Orleans. We hear Caribbean clave and hear the clave lead into calls for battle or rebellion. We hear a funeral march. An Afro-Cuban influence makes the piece sound sort of like Afro-Jazz; three or four patterns working together is certainly an African-based form of composition. The rebellious battle cry is dominant along with the voices chanting the protest. This is kind of what it felt like inside a protest march here.
“As for the stopping and going: It’s how to respond to these issues. Think about it. Take action. Then stop and decide your next step. Take action again. Stop. Think and then take action again. This is exactly what protest marchers are doing: They're marching. Then they're taking a knee. Then they're marching. Then they're taking a knee. So, the song is marching, taking a knee, marching, taking a knee.
“I understand why people say this piece is complex. But this is really complex stuff. What are we supposed to do, just put a little beat underneath a voice saying something simple and we're done?”
“Say Their Names” also packs complementary female and male vocal sections, featuring Maiya Sykes
and Cedric Myton (of reggae legends The Congos), into its three-minute jam. “The importance of a female voice in the song was fundamental to me, and I asked Macy to sing on it. Macy's from Ohio and I grew up in Ohio and I knew about her from a long time ago,” Sultry explains. “But after a few weeks of trying to arrange it, she told me she was having a hard time figuring out where or how to get her voice into it. COVID made it even harder to coordinate. So I brought in Maiya to be the female voice.”
Sykes was an inspired choice: A contestant on the 2014 season of The Voice, Sykes not only sang on Sultry’s Sonikete Blues
but also appears on three Macy Gray titles, contributing vocals and vocal arrangements to The Sellout
(2010) and vocals to The Way
(2014) and Ruby
(2018). Myton’s voice seems to pull the sound of righteous angels down from heaven, intersected by Sykes’ counterpoint which cuts more sharp and quick. “I had met Cedric Myton a little more than a year ago and remembered that his would be the perfect voice for this because it is so true, and he is so in line with this fight. He has this incredibly wild falsetto voice and though we kept the original lyrics, he added, ‘When is Babylon gonna set us free?’,” Sultry recalls.
After putting all the “Say Their Name” instrumental and vocal pieces in place, Sultry began to consider where and how it might be put to the best use. “I tried to figure out the best way to make the song work for the cause as opposed to the cause working for the song. That's vital,” he explains.
“I started looking for an organization I could point it to, and it all came together at the same time: There were protests here (in LA) in early June, and I wrote the piece within two days after I marched. In July, I saw Macy Gray’s Instagram post that she had created the charitable organization MyGood.org. It was the perfect time. When I saw Macy’s organization, I knew that was it – not just because it was Macy's organization but because I liked the clear and direct connection that My Good was establishing with the families and their needs.”
Gray stresses, “It's very important to add this disclaimer that we are not anti-police. Regardless of who is at fault or whose side you take, you still have a mom or a dad who has lost a son. You have kids who lost their father. When you say that you're here for the loved ones of those who died of police violence, many people automatically assume that you hate police. We do not hate police. We’re here for the families.”
In its first few months, where has MyGood.org focused most of its early work?
“Right now, most of the money goes to mental health services. That's what the moms need the most. And medical bills,” Gray explains. “We have one mother whose son was killed about four years ago and she couldn't afford a headstone and so we helped her get a headstone. Things like that. It can be hard to talk to the families. We have to ask them a lot of questions, to see what we can help them with, and it's hard to talk to someone who has to go through that. It never goes away. That's real heartache. People think they get their heart broken – that's real heartbreak.”
To realize the sound of his “Say Their Names,” Sultry recruited musicians from all around the world, including some of Los Angeles’ best. “The woodwind player is Katisse Buckingham
, who has been playing with me for ten years. He's on all my records, for the most part. He's also a staple in Billy Childs
' band, here in LA at least,” Sultry explains. “On upright bass, Ben Shepherd
is playing a rhythmic pattern that is felt but not heard in the song, which makes it a really wild part – no one else is hitting those accents.”
Buckingham’s credits include Nightfall
by Jimmy Haslip
, who played bass on Sultry’s Sonikete Blues
; Shepherd relocated from his native New Zealand to session work in LA, playing with Kendrick Lamar and Chance the Rapper and jazz fusion mainstays Lee Ritenour
and Peter Erskine
, who was with Stanley Clarke
for quite a while and now is with Josh Groban, plays piano,” Sultry continues. “Diego Alvarez Munoz
, a really good friend who also lived in Spain but is from Venezuela, is the percussionist. He is the son of the famed Venezuelan mezzo-soprano Morella Muñoz. Diego is an important part of realizing whatever writing I do. I wrote every hit of every drum in this piece, literally tracked each hit per drum before he came over. Only certain people are going to be able to realize your vision when you write that specifically.”
“A lot of this stuff is just out of the reach of a lot of people to play it, so it's very important it's understood how good these guys are and that that ability they possess allows the piece to get where it needs to get.”
“Say Their Names” is available for free download on sirsultrymusic.com, connected through a web button to www.MyGood.org, and will be released across all digital music platforms on December 11, 2020. “If people like or are interested in ‘Say Their Names,’ we really want them to donate to MyGood.org in exchange for the download,” Sultry concludes. “Macy's foundation is doing great work but it’s a new organization so not a lot of people know about it. We mean to raise awareness of the organization, the cause, and where people can put their money for donations.
“It's wonderful that musicians write about what they're thinking and feeling but at a certain point we have to make a bigger stand. You don't just sort of dip your toe into the water here. You're either in or you're out.”