Local Current Blog

‘Dismembered & Unarmed’: All-star group of Minnesota musicians tackle body oppression and white supremacy on collaborative album

Cover art by Andres Guzman

Resmaa Menakem, a licensed independent social worker and therapist, released his book My Grandmother’s Hands this past September. The book sought to tackles issues of racism and white supremacy from an unexpected, yet plausible place: how it affects the bodies of the oppressed and oppressors.

My Grandmother’s Hands focuses specifically on how Black bodies and the bodies of others are affected by the generational pressures, conditions, and outcomes of white body supremacy. The book also focuses on how those bodies are not defective, but are continuously placed under extreme stress and distress, as well as how to heal and mend ourselves and our bodies from that trauma.

After the release of My Grandmother’s Hands, Menakem teamed up with I Self Devine to spearhead Dismembered & Unarmed, which serves as an audio component to My Grandmother’s Hands. Released today, Dismembered & Unarmed is a collaborative album featuring some of the Twin Cities’ best and brightest stars — such as Metasota, the Lioness, members of Astralblak (MMYYKK, Proper-T, Greg Grease), Brother Ali, Jayanthi Kyle, Lady Midnight, and Sarah White.

The artists behind this project told me about how it all came to be. My Grandmother’s Hands is available now. Physical copies of Dismembered & Unarmed can be purchased through Menakem’s website.

What led to Dismembered & Unarmed becoming a companion piece to My Grandmother’s Hands?

I Self Devine: Through continual intentional deep conversations on creatively positioning literary works with a unconventional 360-degree approach, encompassing all aspects of music and culture. Through 20-plus years of relationships between Resmaa and I. I pitched the idea to Resmaa a few years ago, and he was receptive to the movement.

Resmaa Menakem: Chaka [I Self Devine] and I were discussing the book itself for a long period of time. The way that Chaka’s brain works, is that he is always thinking in wholes. So he pushed me to think about how people could access some of the important pieces of the book through more than just the written word. My body immediately responded from a very resourced place when he said it, so we began to brainstorm and figure it out.

How does the music that is on Dismembered & Unarmed deal with the topics being discussed in My Grandmother’s Hands?

I Self Devine: The lyrics address or deal with the topics covered explicitly in Resmaa’s book, while the music sets the emotional tone creating the foundation which makes everything else possible. The music sequence was established prior to song construction based on listening to the soundtrack repetitively for a year and a half. If you listen first, the instruments will inform and instruct your next moves.

Resmaa Menakem: The music and the lyrical content takes you places. Places of terror and recoil, as well as places of resource and commune. Which is all about the journey of culture and energy. My Grandmother’s Hands is all about helping us realize that we aren’t defective, and the music provided on Dismembered & Unarmed does the same.

Given that this is a massive undertaking of gathering many of the Twin Cities’ most prominent singers, rappers, musicians, and thespians, talk about how it was orchestrated — how each person on the project were able to contribute to it in their own unique way, and still hit home with the overall concept and message.

I Self Devine: The method is discipline, chaos, and fluidity. The secret is harmony, trust, familiarity, and professionalism. I contacted most of the people I usually work with on projects, first meeting with Resmaa, and all of the producers. We sat for a few hours talking about the album and answering questions. After our conversation, we went downstairs to listen to music I curated for the producers to sample. We talked about emotions and colors as a guideline for themes. Other than providing the samples, the producers had full creativity to translate the material how they saw fit. Throughout the process, there was no such thing as a mistake, only what was meant to be.  After the music was created, we brought everyone together to do a deeper dive on the book concepts, and play the music for everyone. This whole process took two years. The actual recording took two weeks.

Medium Zach (producer and engineer on Dismembered & Unarmed): The bulk of it was recorded during two weeks last August at a studio I manage called Woodgrain. The project was like a movie, where we have someone come in to do their part, but they have no idea what the big picture will look like until it comes out. As producer/engineer, I worked hard with each artist to make sure we got what we needed, and they were happy with their performance. A lot of us involved have known or worked together in some capacity, so it was fortunate to have the trust that we were going to be able to pull all these performances together in a sonically cohesive way.

Resmaa Menakem: Chaka provided the visioning and structure, Zach helped with execution, and I helped with the feel and science of the project. We knew we had something special when we all were in the room together, and the visual artists and musicians alike were in there making profound connections that were powerfully personal, and communal. The thing that excites me about this endeavor, is that this is just the beginning. We have already been talking about expanding certain aspects of the music to create other art.

What’s distinctive about the message of this project, compared to the way racism is addressed in other recent works like Black Panther and Childish Gambino’s “This Is America”?

I Self Devine: This music was created through the somatic lense of the body. The issues of race has always been analyzed through a philosophical, historical, spiritual, spatial, political, and policy lens, yet rarely from the perspective of the body. Resmaa and I have had this conversation for years. Working on this project allowed me to grasp the magnitude of the cumulative effects of racism on the collective black body in the form of culture, behavioral, health, and epigenetics. Feelings and description was important. All artists were instructed to come from the body.

Resmaa Menakem: This work is firmly situated in the body. Not just as an artist rendering, but as a matter of the science. Other profound works, like the couple you’ve mentioned, come at this from a different angle than what we wanted to convey. I am humbled to even be mentioned in the same sentence as those works.

In the current discussion of white body supremacy, and the disservice it does to black bodies, can you expand upon how music plays a role in helping alleviate some of that trauma on black bodies — or how in some cases, reinforce that trauma on black bodies?  

I Self Devine: Through acknowledgement, frequency, tone, and timbre. Trauma is the language of no language, and we set out to create new language to acknowledge that we as a people are not defective and something happened to us.

Resmaa Menakem: So as a therapist and healer, I know that trauma, and trauma healing, is about the thwarting and/or ushering of energy. Nothing helps the body’s energies calibrate itself quite like music and art. This isn’t just about black bodies, it is also about how the body of oppressors also is damaged by white body supremacy.

In the grand scheme of current events today, what role does wellness and healing play in this process? There is a lot of discussion about how these issues are faced, and aside from needing a resolution to come to terms with the trauma and supremacy that is placed upon black bodies, what are forms of wellness and healing that can take place?

I Self Devine: Eating well, drinking lots of water, deep breaths, acupuncture, massages, stretching, exercise, therapy, study groups, taking vacations and breaks, giving yourself space for reprieve and processing, not scheduling things on top of each other, financial literacy, and being in proximity to community, loved ones, and support networks.  

Resmaa Menakem: Reach out, reclaim, and study self.