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Interview: Gabrielle Barnes on Songwriting, Social Justice, and Black Lives Matter

by Hero Magnus

This week, Alchemical Records got the incredible chance to sit down with Gabrielle Barnes to discuss her debut single “2020.” The song explores a lot of intense themes, from cultural appropriation to police brutality, and their intersections. Barnes talked about processing intense emotions in the first section of “2020” and enjoying joy and resilience in the last section. (The explorations in the song move fast, but so does this wild year.) “2020” is bedroom-poppy and smooth, a bit like the powerhouse singer-songwriter Willow Smith. But this particular song also reminds me of the introductory track on the 1975’s new album Notes on a Conditional Form, where Greta Thunberg’s powerful words intertwine with the music. Barnes does not need comparisons to be understood, but there are so many different ones to be made. (She also recommends many other incredible artists and influences on her FUBU playlist; See Below). Barnes is a musician and a lover of music, a student and an activist, a creator and a listener. It is rare to find a debut that makes such a splash.

The song begins with snippets from a speech, which continues throughout. Where does the speech in the song come from?

The speech comes from a protest in Long Island that my friends and I went to. That day we went to two different protests and handed out some safety & maintenance supplies for protesters. We actually ended up leading the second march we went to and helped organize the people so that anyone could speak to the crowd. I was just really inspired and moved by all of the things people were sharing so I recorded some of them on voice memos. My friend who led the protest with me is the woman speaking in the beginning. I wanted to add these protest speeches because they truthfully show the pain yet hope many Black people are feeling right now.

How does your art fit in with your social justice and activist work? Is it ever difficult to balance?

Well, my social justice and activist work was really a new addition. I was involved in a lot of anti-racism advocacy throughout high school but I really only began to organize and lead these initiatives starting this summer. On the other hand, my art has always been an expression of whatever is going on in my life at the moment, so it makes sense that “2020” is really about my frustration, sadness, yet hope with the current state of our country. It definitely is hard to balance, but I try to mix the two together. For example, I organized a vigil in my town that was centered around performative art, and a Long Island-wide Juneteenth Car Parade where I set up an online radio station so that the participants could be listening to the same music as we drove around Long Island.

How has your music evolved since you began making it?

I started singing when I was 3 and playing guitar when I was 8 so there has been a significant change throughout, haha! Before, I was always looking to replicate artists that I enjoyed, so it was really hard for me to create my own sound. Now, I like to take different aspects of songs that I enjoy to make an entirely new song with all these different influences.

So young! And who are some of those artists who influence your music?

Ahh!! Love this question. I love Blood Orange, Solange, Lorde, Moses Sumney, Frank Ocean, and The Neighbourhood. Very alternative.

What was the process of making “2020”? How did it feel?

The songwriting process for this song was extremely difficult. I started writing this song the week after George Floyd was murdered and I was just sick of these injustices. Sick of the fact that George Floyd spoke the same words Eric Garner did, yet all of the officers present did not care. I was completely distressed when I wrote this song, and feeling a lot of grief and trauma for the collective Black community. I remember one night I was bawling with pain and literally wondering what the purpose of life was for George Floyd if it was already going to be taken away unjustly? That’s where the chorus comes from. I never sit down and bust down a song–it always takes time–but the lyrics of the song usually come when I am thinking about the event or feeling the feelings that inspired the song.

That is so intense. Thank you for sharing with us. Who are your collaborators on this project?

This song took a lot of collaboration, which I’m not really used to! I had so many ears throughout this process, including my family. My friend Dhruv, who is also an artist, gave me advice on the lyrics and melodic line. My friend Elliot helped me create a cohesive chord progression for the verses and chorus. My friend Jane, who is also an artist, produced the song and Frankie Scoca, who has worked with Myles Cameron & Dhruv, mixed the song.

In some of the other press about this piece, you’ve talked about the final section of the song as one of ‘joy and resilience.’ What does this joy and liberation look like to you?

I wanted the last song to be hopeful and reminiscent of the feelings of support and joy I get when I am at a protest. It always amazes me that though African-Americans have centuries of slavery, oppression, and genocide, we are still able to create! We created a new language to be able to communicate across different African tribes, we created clothes, we did each other’s hair, we created music, we danced. Through everything, we danced. Regardless of how racist or anti-Black the world is, it is so important for Black people to not be anti-Black with ourselves and our community… if anyone is going to be anti-racist and pro-Black, it will be us. Joy and liberation for me is confidence and pride in being Black because that in and of itself is political warfare.

Thank you so much for talking with us, Gabrielle, and for sharing your intimate, creative, and powerful thoughts. For more, tune in to Barnes’ birthday concert on August 21. Follow @gabrielle.barnez on Instagram to stay updated and check out her song “2020” on all music platforms and in our Alchemical Records playlists.

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