The Black Tones Look Oppressors in the Eye on "The Key of Black (They Want Us Dead)" (KEXP Premiere)

Local Music, KEXP Premiere
Martin Douglas
photo by Oliver Strasser

There’s a certain look they give us, a certain tone in their voice when they talk to us. A certain set of standards they hold us to even (sometimes especially) if they don’t uphold themselves to the same standards. Our parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, older cousins, neighbors told us these things would happen. They told us about them; they told us no matter how much good we put into the world, there are people who still actively desire the worst for us.

We want love, they want us dead
We want peace, they want us dead
We want to go to school, they want us dead
We pay our taxes, they want us dead
We love our families, they want us dead
We want to go to work, they want us dead
We want to make love, they want us dead
And we love you, but they want us dead

The only lyrics of “The Key of Black (They Want Us Dead)” are sung more than halfway through the running time (which clocks in at just over six minutes), a call-and-response with the Black Tones' frontwoman Eva Walker’s voice front and center. The “they” lurking in the shadows represents the culture of white supremacy, seemingly emboldened in the sixteen months since the presidential election of November 2016. The words are few, but they are stark and they are powerful.

Informed by the blues which inspired the first wave of rock music, a moody riff and sulking bassline guides the song and splits into an extended paragraph of a solo while a heavy drumbeat (much in the vein of the Cascadian rock we’ve been weaned on for decades) provides the groundwork. There is a sort of histrionic fervor that accompanies the frustrating pointlessness of racism, but here on “The Key of Black (They Want Us Dead),” the message is delivered as a needling, embedded fact. There’s no need to overstate seeing hate in the eyes of those who hate us; many of us have seen that hate all of our lives.

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