You have no items in your cart

Added to cart:

${ item.product_title.split('|')[0] }

${ item.variant_options[0] }

Size: ${ item.variant_options[1] } / ${ item.variant_options[2] }

${ item.price | money }

The Gospel of Kelman Duran

From coming up in LA’s underground club scene to earning production credits on Beyoncé’s latest album, artist Kelman Duran, featured in issue 07 of WIP magazine, takes a scholarly approach to composing his expansive, sample-steeped soundscapes. 

 

Words: Khalila Douze

Images: Rafa Castells

The Gospel of Kelman Duran

Interviewing Kelman Duran feels like the Wikipedia game where players race to get from one random article to another in the fewest amount of clicks. In a conversation with the multi-hyphenate Dominican artist, the path to the finish line is intriguing, erudite and unpredictable. And all the while, time is of the essence. Duran, known for his reverberating avant-garde club sounds, haunting riddim-inflected DJ sets at L.A.’s famed Rail Up party series, and filming with the Lakota community at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, is generous, thoughtful, and blunt when sharing his outlook on his practice and his political reflections. At times he is attentive and self-effacing, keen to connect over our shared Caribbean ancestry through anecdotes, films, and texts. “France is never gonna forgive me,” he admits at one point. “I have a song on my album called ‘Haiti’s Owed 200 Billion.’ A reference to Haiti’s “double debt” (‘reparations’ and a loan to pay said ‘reparations’) owed to France for its independence – Haiti is the only country in the world where for generations the descendents of enslaved people repaid the descendents of their masters.

 

Duran’s music emerged in a club-filled haze of reggaéton, dancehall, and dembow, and has evolved into a complex musical tapestry since the release of his first edit-based record 1804 Kids in 2017. Last year’s Night in Tijuana lands as an abstract sonic atmosphere that traverses spiritual jazz, electronic, and ambient, while his forthcoming record, Black Genesis, is an equally dreamlike soundscape that intentionally explores religion, politics, and history through recorded audio. That all his music isn’t readily accessible (many of his earlier releases incorporate popular samples that obstruct them from play across streaming services) is a reflection of his elusiveness, as a musician who subtly straddles the underground and the mainstream. Duran is the type of artist whose work, like the Sangre Nueva project alongside DJ Python and Florentino, pairs with an experimental club scene, as well as one who’s shared studio time with the likes of Kanye West and super-producer Mike Dean. Last month, Duran surprised fans with songwriting credits on Beyoncé’s new album Renaissance – his production appears on intro track “I’m That Girl”, which blends a Tommy Wright III and Princess Loko sample (“Still Pimpin’”) with a delicate dembow rhythm.

 

Duran joins a call from Barcelona, where he’s been based in recent months working on his record label Scorpio Red with artist Ans M, for a sprawling conversation that spans his childhood growing up playing jazz in New York City, dropping out of a PhD program, and how the ahistorical framing of Ancient Egypt has influenced his new project.

The Gospel of Kelman Duran

KHALILA DOUZE

Did you make your last album, Night in Tijuana, in Tijuana?

 

KELMAN DURAN

I actually made that in London. I lived [in Tijuana] in 2013, so it took quite a while to come to terms with that. I probably worked on [that album] the most, but it’s also the one that means the most to me just because of my time there. It was quite a tough time. 

 

KHALILA DOUZE

Can you speak to some of the things that make the album meaningful?

 

KELMAN DURAN

To tell you the truth, I’m not really the type of person that tries to self-reflect really hard. Traumatic things, I’d rather just forget about them. I know other people deal with it differently, but I’d rather just know where the energy is and I’ll use that energy for that. And I know that there’s something there, but I’m not necessarily trying to figure it out that deeply on a musical level. It’s not like I can really talk my way through the album. I mean, I could make a talking album. But yeah, I just dealt with it that way. I felt like I found something for myself. I’ll send you my new album too. It sounds kind of like this one, but [it’s] a religious album.

 

KHALILA DOUZE

Religious in what way?

 

KELMAN DURAN

Did you ever live in New York City?

 

KHALILA DOUZE

Yes, for six years.

 

KELMAN DURAN

It might have been in the fifties, sixties, seventies, but there was this pro-Black professor at City College,

[Yosef Ben-Jochannan]. Just like there was after 9/11 [with] all these anti-government, conspiracy feelings in New York City, there was a wave of people saying that Ancient Egypt was Black and that Christianity was a Black religion, and the Black Madonna is a Black god, et cetera. The point is that they were trying to reclaim a sort of Black spirituality. A lot of people took it other ways. Like if you see Israelites on the corner, that also comes from there, but they’re a bit misguided [and] I don’t want to talk about Israelites.

[This professor] was a preacher [at] tons of churches in Harlem. He taught at Cornell. He was what people would call controversial. The New York Times wrote a terrible obituary on him, kinda discrediting him. [There was] a picture of him in this old, frail state, not really celebrating his life. Obviously if the New York Times wrote about you, you definitely had some impact. He lectured in a lot of places. He does say some crazy shit. When I was in college, I went to Binghamton University for sociology – it had a good sociology program. I remember one of the Black Panthers (I don’t remember his name), he was Muslim, he had gotten outta jail, he was going back to Africa, and he was giving a lecture. They used to bring in some really amazing lecturers. I remember him saying the word “cracker” like a hundred times, and white people walking out, and him screaming at them while they were walking out. This person had been put in jail for 20 years through entrapment for no reason. So, he was not messing around. Today that kind of stuff will get you fired. I feel like we’re much more strict in our criteria and how someone’s supposed to act in public and I think that’s probably why I left academia, why I decided not to pursue it anymore. The album is based on this research. Ben-Jochannan wrote tons of books and was a freemason. It’s just the history of Ancient Egypt in a way that I don’t really understand why they are so hung up on not letting it be Black. It becomes a conspiracy at some point.The Gospel of Kelman Duran

KHALILA DOUZE

How did that album begin to come together?

 

KELMAN DURAN

I just wanted to make a soundtrack for that time, so it’s quite hypothetical. I’m not sure if I want to put it in yet, but I made a classical score for some of it. Most of it is ambient. There’s one song with Princess Loko again – the same sample that I used for the Beyoncé track. Her family gave me the rights to a lot of her music.

 

KHALILA DOUZE

You went to CalArts. What did you study there?

 

KELMAN DURAN

I did film and experimental video and I really liked it. It was really important for me and I really liked my professors, but I think academia started to change. I just saw an influx of students who are well-off and quite conservative, which I think is what happens to schools when they get put on the stock market. They have to accept people that can pay for school. Quite frankly, a lot of those students... I felt like they were less invested. My PhD was also like that. It was like if I stay in school, I can’t really make music anymore. So I chose music because the community felt like they had more at stake for some reason. It felt more urgent. Meanwhile, students at that school were like crossing the picket line. They were just doing weird stuff that I felt like students back in the day wouldn’t have done. Maybe it was also the town – in Santa Cruz the rent is insane. 

 

KHALILA DOUZE

Your music and your approach to art is so in touch with the notion of diaspora and it makes me think of Édouard Glissant’s Poetics of Relation. I read about his work last year and what I found really fascinating was this idea that we’re conditioned to think identity is these isolated categories and boxes, and he’s talking about identity being constructed in relation rather than in isolation. I was thinking about that while listening to your music and wondered about how your identity plays a role in your work.

 

KELMAN DURAN

When I go to the Dominican Republic, they know, and I know, that I’m not as ‘Dominican’ as them. So, there is a sort of resistance. But do I negate that, that part of myself? No, I definitely don’t. Am I critical of the way people in general create identities based on nationalism? Yeah, for sure. I did grow up in New York City and I think the majority of my influence was from that time that I was there from [age] five to 19 when I left. I went to a conservatory since I was a kid – the Harlem School of the Arts – and they just played free jazz. Not boring, swinging, big band jazz. They didn’t fuck around. We were kids. I didn’t know what it meant at the time. I didn’t know that you didn’t have to read the music, that you didn’t have to play when the conductor told you to play. I was quite shy. My teachers always said, “Oh, you could do more.” I think now I’ve definitely come around to it. I have songs that are on the album that I learned as a kid, like “The Lower” by Arthur Blythe. That’s an old jazz song that I learned as a kid. My professor sent it to the family and they really loved it.

The Gospel of Kelman Duran

KHALILA DOUZE

What do you think you incorporate from that education into your practice now?

 

KELMAN DURAN

Night in Tijuana and this new album are based more on that education that I got in Harlem. My professors, they weren’t against hip hop, but growing up back then there was a real danger of kids falling into the street. Dominicans had just come to America in the late 1980s, which is when I came. I just remember listening to a rap song and one of my professors being like, “You know, that’s a jazz song.” I was like, “What are you talking about?” He’s like, “The sampling.” They weren’t against it, but they always wanted to make sure you knew where it came from and the context for it and the history behind it. This was Harlem. There were a lot of very pro-Black people. My friends celebrated Kwanzaa when I was growing up. It was that kind of community. I don’t know why it took me so long to come around, but somehow I did. I was like let me try and remember some of this and play it, which in turn has gotten me more into a soulful, spiritual, jazz. 

 

KHALILA DOUZE

You’re focused on more of a soundscape environment with your new music. What is it that drew you into making this kind of music? 

 

KELMAN DURAN

In classical music, you have a key and you have all these progressions that [are] kind of quite strict, and jazz is the same. You have all these chords and you can hear everything. You can hear the drum, you can hear the piano, you can hear the saxophone. For the new stuff I wanted there to be not so much distinction between these things. Also because of my past history, I have trouble sleeping, so I was always in [a sleepy] state. I felt like I always made good music in that situation. I have a health problem. It’s self-induced. It was drug use and just kind of out of control. So that came from listening outside for hours. The street I live on in Barcelona, I [can] hear people’s conversations. Outside is ridiculous.

 

KHALILA DOUZE

What would you say is your main focus right now? 

 

KELMAN DURAN

I feel like Night in Tijuana was just a personal album and now I want to make music that’s more politically driven, that has more substance in it. Not in terms of sonically, but in terms of information. I get quite obsessive with stuff and I guess my obsession right now is Ancient Egypt and religion. It’s just quite sad that we don’t know. In schools they were scared to teach about slavery and the Civil War. I remember in undergrad, a teacher literally tried to tell me that the Civil War was not fought over slavery. Even kids know this. Imagine talking about the history of Africa in an honest way. Egypt has changed. The people that lived there before are not the people that live there now. Why does it have to be hidden? Why did they have to make a whole branch of Egyptology just to create a whole profession based on saying these people aren’t Black. Egyptology is a whole humanities field based on white archeology plundering resources. The fact that some of these things aren’t returned. The fact that some of these things are even fake and they’re still making money off of it. The Gospel of Kelman Duran

 

KHALILA DOUZE

I was in Paris a few weeks ago and went to the Louvre, and I overheard a tourist next to me say, I just want to go see the Mona Lisa. I don’t care about the Egypt stuff.

 

KELMAN DURAN

A white professor from Cornell, [Martin Bernal] wrote a book called Black Athena in the late 80s. It turned colleges upside down because he was saying that all the Greek classics, you have to teach them differently. You have to start from Ancient Egypt. He proved that from laws down to customs, to boat fairs, to sports – all of this was learned from them. These people had already discovered the universe [and] mathematics. Conservative think tanks literally paid people to write books against this. He had to make books called Revisited One [and] Revisited Two, because so many academics came after him. It was the biggest threat for some reason in academia. Just something as simple as saying, these people weren’t really Arab. They were Black, from Sudan and Libya. Yeah, eventually over 3,000 years, they all mixed. But, they were Black for a really long time. 

 

KHALILA DOUZE

In what ways do you want to inform people? How is it manifesting in the music?

 

KELMAN DURAN

I’m still working through that, but for right now I take phrases and speeches. I repeat them, but I also abstract them. I cut words and create new sentences. One of them is a track from the President of Nicaragua. It’s public. I’m sure Spotify might have a problem with it. The way things are going these days, they’re censoring people left and right. I’m trying to figure out that custom cut and paste in a formal way. Sonically, a lot of it is still just ambient. I wanted it to sound almost like you can’t tell what it is. You can’t tell when the rhythm starts and when it stops and where. I don’t want to say it’s a head space. It’s more like a physical space. 

 

KHALILA DOUZE

You’ve mentioned wanting to play shows with live instrumentation. Have you been able to do that, and if not, do you still want to?

 

KELMAN DURAN

To tell the truth, no. I played at a church recently in Berlin for a show that Edwin Nasr put on. It’s called CCA Berlin, the organization, and it was one of the most beautiful shows. I did a great job. I mean, the atmosphere. I really love being at the club, but I feel like it’s hard for me to pay attention in the club. There’s so much going on. A lot of being in the club is being with your friends and being with your community while you’re listening to music. But you also have to pay attention to that, unless you go by yourself. I’ve been to a club by myself. I’ve enjoyed it, and I feel like I pay attention. Like, treating a DJ like you would Alice Coltrane or something. Really listening.

 

This article was taken from issue 07 of WIP magazine, available from Carhartt WIP stores and our online shop.