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Courtesy of Contour

On Onwards!, Contour samples the past to soundtrack the present

Contour’s Onwards! is an immersive journey that maps Black arts of the past onto present-day reflections 

07 Nov 2022

Los Angeles in the late 1960s was in a state of turmoil. The Civil Rights movement was in full swing; and widespread rioting seized the city in the wake of police brutality. The LA Rebellion was an arts programme that emerged in the chaos of the time, a cinematographic movement dedicated to underserved communities of colour.

The LA Rebellion movement brought together students of colour to work and create films that chronicled the unseen, authentic experiences of LA life. Over fifty years later, the movement serves as the core inspiration of Onwards!, an ambitious conceptual album by 27-year old Khari Lucas, known as Contour. Struck by the thematic similarities between then and now, Lucas’ ambitious undertaking captures the disillusionment and introspection that comes with the endless fight within an unforgiving, unequal society.

Lucas does more than just share themes and ideas with the work of the LA Rebellion; he selected soundbites from the films and worked them onto the record. It’s a technically stunning effort – recorded and collected on a vintage Roland SP-404, the soundbites are looped to create immersive soundscapes that converse with didactic, melodic lyricism. In songs such as ‘You’d Do Well to Pack Light’, we hear a cryptical monologue selected from his archival selection, which is then layered on top of a harmonious neo-soul refrain to evoke thought-provoking wistfulness. 

gal-dem caught up with Lucas during a brief visit from his native South Carolina to cloudy South London, jetlagged yet engaged when discussing the twelve-track journey that delves into the Black Arts Movement, Black Radical Theory and archival footage. Alongside the LA Rebellion, he points to the work of notable African-American literature writers Amiri Baraka, Lucille Clifton and June Jordan as particular inspiration. Speaking with Lucas, you understand he is guided by reflection and engagement with fellow artists and writers, and his respect is shown in the way he interacts with their ideas through his own artistry. 

Meticulously sifting through hours of LA Rebellion archive footage and painstakingly selecting soundbites to weave into his songs required time, patience and learning. Though reluctant to frame his opus around the pandemic, he finds it hard to downplay how instrumental this seismic event was on his creative outlook. With the extra time found in lockdowns, Lucas took a more haphazard approach to choosing soundbites, selecting clips that spoke to him innately. “It just kind of gelled, I feel like my subconscious writes most of my songs,” he says. 

Although he is reluctant to reveal the sources featured on Onwards!, the snippets are so seamlessly interwoven that tracing exact origins feels less important: what matters is to experience the art afresh through Lucas’ interpretations. This is evidenced in tracks such as ‘At All’, where a sample captures an analogy on the role of the poet in perceptions initially be perceived as unwelcome. Lucas then blends his lyricism to explore the theme, questioning the validity of one’s own thought process (“My thoughts are kinda mine but some / Are just somewhere else”).

Acting as an audio diary of his theory-inspired ruminations, coupled with co-production from collaborators Swarvy and 10.4 ROG, Onwards! underpins an expansive foray into past issues that persist in the present. One such issue is touched on in lead single ‘Hearing Voices’, which talks of how labour contributes to the loss of one’s personhood. “I said I’m like / ten minutes from bankrupt” is uttered repeatedly, referencing the insecure nature of work and being subjected to a merciless capitalist system especially cruel to people of colour. 

“Most people don’t see artists as workers. The vast majority of especially Black artists… are struggling to live off their work”

The LA Rebellion movement did not only inform the album’s focus on wider civil rights; but also on the creative industry in particular. Much of the films born from the movement showcased realities ignored by mainstream media, highlighting the discriminatory standards of Hollywood. For Lucas, it is a prejudice that remains prevalent in creative industries. “Most people don’t see artists as workers,” he reflects. “The vast majority of…especially Black artists… are struggling to live off their work. [They] have their labour and their product modified to be sold at high volumes and often see a fraction of that profit.” 

He laments the lack of awareness for rights within the industry, which often results in a level of exploitation that he bluntly describes as “dire”. “Glamorisation makes it so that a consumer doesn’t see an artist as a worker, but also so that an artist doesn’t see themselves as a worker,” he explains. “[This] creates an internal sense of individualism that guides the artist’s actions away from making choices that would actually create solidarity.”

Despite his artistic achievements, Lucas’ wariness of the industry has enabled him to be resolutely original in his own ambitions. Ultimately, the archival rabbit hole into the past directly informed his wider creative endeavours both in the present – and the future. “I think this project was probably the starting point for me to really start exploring outside of music in a more intentional way,” he says. The record’s achievement reveals the promise of an unprecedented artistic possibility, where different mediums blend across different eras, and the one direction certain is… Onwards!