The members of Denver's Grand Alliance, an Afrofuturist supergroup that's putting out its self-titled debut two days after Joe Biden and Kamala Harris’s inauguration, couldn’t have timed the release better. White supremacists and insurrectionists are now acting out their miserable, violent vision of life: no morals, no joy, no art, no love. The Grand Alliance, in contrast, dishes out positivity in abundance, imagining a better world through song.
The album time-travels through Black music, from tribal drumming to such nostalgic genres as funk, R&B, disco, hip-hop and house, while also experimenting with contemporary computer-generated sounds. The Grand Alliance has invented timely music that honors its artistic heritage while drafting a blueprint for a culturally rich future.
“I think we kind of dove into Afrofuturism, which can be defined by many different things,” says Grand Alliance singer and songwriter Kayla Marque. “For me, I think the most simple way to put it is creating a space for Black people to exist in that we wouldn’t exist in otherwise, based on history. That’s a big part of that project — carving that space to reimagine something in the future for Black people.”
Critic Mark Dery came up with the concept of Afrofuturism in 1993 to address the art, technology, culture and philosophy of the African diaspora. The term has been used to describe everything from Sun Ra's work to the novels of Samuel Delany and Octavia Butler, as well as the five pillars of hip-hop. In recent years, Afrofuturism has been given new energy through films like Black Panther, pop stars such as Janelle Monáe and authors like Rivers Solomon.
Here in Denver, Afrofuturism has caught on, too. Multicultural band Ramakhandra’s sci-fi electronic jazz dreams up ways of moving through grief toward utopia; visual artist Thomas “Detour” Evans’s 2019 RedLine installation The 5 Pointers brought to life a future vision of the Black music and culture of Five Points; and comic-book writer R. Alan Brooks uses sci-fi to take on white supremacy in Anguish Garden.
These artists and others created fertile ground for the Grand Alliance, an act that includes Marque; Khalil Arcady, aka Sur Ellz; and producer Carl Carrell, aka Crl Crrll — all luminaries in their genre-spanning solo projects. But unlike their individual work, Grand Alliance songs like “Chakra Khan,” “Boogie Man” and “United Funk” pay homage to, and occasionally imitate, the songwriters' ’70s inspirations who embraced an Afrocentric space age — acts like Parliament, Afrika Bambaataa and Sun Ra.
As conceptually rigorous as the group's new album is, the collaboration of the three musicians happened on a whim.
Arcady counts himself among Marque’s biggest fans, and has worked with her on occasion; Carrell also produced an unrealized track for Arcady. In late 2019, Marque and Arcady happened into Carrell’s studio at the same time after Carrell posted an open invitation on Facebook encouraging people to stop by and record.
After one day in the studio, the trio wrote and recorded the dance track "Chakra Khan.” Proud of the new song, they took it that night to the Black Box, where DJ Low Key and Lazy Eyes were spinning at the Solution, a regular event at the club.
“You’ve got to play it,” Arcady recalls telling the DJs. "People will love it.” Never having heard the track, the DJs gave it a spin...and the people did love it.
“We recorded the song that day, and we danced in the club to the song that night,“ Arcady says. “That’s when we pretty much knew we have a synergy: 'Let’s create something dope.' We kept going back to the studio every other week and having fun. We were just playing around with stuff.”
By the time they produced their third song together, they realized something special was going on.
“I think it’s because we’re all fans of this sci-fi genre of everything from film to books to writings,” explains Carrell. “When we started making the music, it started to reflect on the themes we’re part of. We’re all fans of funk and soul. Even though we all live in the present, our souls tether back to the past. A lot of that music is nostalgic for us.
“We wanted to bridge the gap and create something new out of these elements and tell people a story, and create something not typical to the music we do ourselves,” he continues. “We all have different projects going on. This was almost a getaway project to go and have some fun and make something different and create that futuristic world.”
Carrell, who fancies himself the science-minded member of the group, says that Arcady and Marque bring spirituality to the collaboration.
“We all imagined this concept of us being ancient spirits that have traveled into the distant future and coming back to the present to share a message,” says Arcady. “We all had the influence of funk. The funk is what brought us together.”
(While the three musicians all grew up listening to funk and other Black music of the ’70s, Marque has a family connection to the genre: Her uncle is Larry Dunn of Earth, Wind & Fire — a fact that Arcady can’t tout enough.)
According to the narrative of The Grand Alliance, the three musicians travel on a spaceship built by the gods to bring positive energy and funk back to Earth. Marque’s character represents ancient woman, a warrior goddess archetype; Arcady embodies the spirit of a witch doctor, constantly creating and driven by divine masculinity; and Carrell is technology — the spaceship itself.
As the group wrapped up production on the album in the late spring and early summer, the protests against police violence were spreading nationwide. “Politically, we were seeing all this turmoil — crimes against humanity and against Black people,” says Marque.
The members began organizing politically, using their music to fight for justice. And as their sound evolved, they hoped it would become part of the movement. “We wanted to use our platform to say something,” says Marque. “We wanted to bring something to heal people.”
If much of the music that dropped during the heat of last summer’s anti-racist protests raged against the police state and racist violence, The Grand Alliance empowers listeners to take action and build a brighter tomorrow fueled by love and joy. The album does not deny the violence of the world or reflect only misery; rather, it offers healing and something better: a reason to struggle.
Although the musicians had hoped to drop the record earlier, they're glad it’s coming out now, when energy from the summer protests has waned and white-supremacist organizing is rising. The country is wounded, the culture is exhausted, and the threat of revived racism is as pervasive as air.
“None of us knew what was going to happen at all,” says Carrell of the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. “Who would have thought?”
In the face of such violence, the Grand Alliance is now “channeling a message to help awaken and enlighten people and give people something to be proud of when the world says we can’t be proud of our own fucking country right now,” says Arcady.
While the band's name refers to the three core members — Marque, Arcady and Carrell — fifteen other Denver creatives were brought in to help with the album. Blake Jackson shot a photograph that Detour turned into cover art for the album (it’s also the cover of this week’s Westword); Tobias Krause helped get the album funded through his work with Red Bull; and Wes Watkins and Typhy appear on the songs. The Grand Alliance is also in talks with Brooks about the possibility of producing a comic book in conjunction with the record, though nothing's been finalized.
Collaboration remains part of the trio's vision moving forward.
“It expands the 'alliance' element of us being the Grand Alliance,” explains Marque. “It’s rare to have a community like we do here in Denver — artists supporting each other and not hating on each other.”
The Grand Alliance, which is dropping on vinyl, is an artwork unto itself — a testament to beauty and love, a monument to a grander future.
“We see the climate of the world today, and I think it’s really clear how much anti-Blackness there is in the world. I think we’re trying to surround that with some love and light,” says Marque. “I think Black people and the way that we not only survive, but create and innovate the culture, is one of the most advanced forms of technology and humanity.”
The Grand Alliance will be available at LeGrandAlliance.com at midnight on Friday, January 22.
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