XOXOK performs in the Downtown Raleigh Alliance’s Virtual First Friday series at 6:00 p.m. this Friday, July 3. The event also features Ayanna Albertson (read our feature), Kamara Thomas, INDY photographer Jade Wilson, and others.
“It wants to go somewhere,” Gerald Moshell told NPR in 2017. “It wants to settle either here, or [there]. You don’t know where it’ll go, but it can’t stop where it is.”
Moshell was talking about the tritone, the famously unsettling “devil’s interval,” which 29-year-old Carrboro musician Keenan Jenkins deploys to devastating double effect in “Right On,” a turning point for his atmospheric soul project XOXOK.
The spaces between those three whole tones are like the spaces between the murders of Black men by the state—regular and terrible and inexorable. Moshell was talking about musicology, but he might have been describing the state of the nation, as well.
When we premiered “Right On,” I pegged it as the best local song of the year and wanted to learn more about it. Jenkins wrote it in 2016, after the death of Philando Castile. It took him four years to record and release it—on May 20, five days before the death of George Floyd. But there’s no such thing as prescience when an injustice is evergreen. The devil’s interval, indeed.
INDY: Walk me back to when you created “Right On.”
KEENAN JENKINS: It was a long process. I’m not a “sit down in one session, write a song” kind of guy. I really wish I was. That would be very convenient.
The lyrics came first, after Philando Castile was killed in 2016. That happened the day after I defended my dissertation [at UNC]. A week or two later, I was driving to the gym on campus and listening to a podcast, NPR’s Code Switch, where they talk about race. They had an episode where they said, “We’re paid to talk about this stuff, but we have no words right now.”
Every time one of these shootings happened I’d think, man, that could be me, which was awful enough. But for some reason, that day, I thought, wow, that could be my dad next, and I just pulled over to the side of the road and started bawling. I don’t know why I thought about my dad. That’s where the song came from—that moment and thought process, along with the fact that I’d just gotten my PhD, and people might think I’m protected from this stuff, but I’m not.
The music itself, part of it came from learning about music theory. I was learning about tritones, which is a very jarring sound. I’d learned about them and forgotten many times before, so I said, I’m going to learn about them again and put them in a song where I can remember. The song is nice and melodic until it gets to that part where I say, “Just ‘cause I’ve got a PhD don’t mean they won’t light me right on up,” and that’s where I put that jarring tritone.
“Right On” sounds a lot different from your debut EP, Worthy.
That’s very intentional. Worthy was the stuff I’d been thinking about since college. I implemented that vision and I’m proud of it, and now I don’t want to do it again. It was very wandering stuff that might not have a hook or a bridge. I said, let me see if I can do this thing other people are doing, writing a song with a verse and a chorus, how about that? On Worthy, I was trying to show off my guitar-ing and theory. I’m not a shredder, but I was proud of all the things I could do on the guitar. I tried to make “Right On” less guitar-centric, focused more on the lyrics and feeling of the song.
Tell me about the timing of the release of “Right On.”
I wanted to put out something a year after Worthy and didn’t have enough material ready to record a full album yet. But I had a couple of singles. A few people have said to me, oh, how prescient that you released it this time. And I just want to respond to them like, nope, not really. I could have released this at any time, and it would have been a relevant song. I so desperately wish that it was outdated. It feels selfish to think about my song being attached to these events. Every single one of these shootings adds another layer of stress for me and most or all people of color.
I’m leery of creating the impression that “Right On” is a protest song or some kind of pedagogy for white people. It’s also so personal and bottles that experience you had, driving down the road, thinking of your dad.
It definitely is a very personal song. I think the reason it resonates is that either people can relate to the fear that they or someone they love could be next, or—white people specifically who talk to me about it, it’s not like they’re texting that they didn’t know racism exists, but maybe they feel more like this wouldn’t happen to their friend. It’s a reminder, to both myself and people who see me as their friend: George Floyd was someone’s friend. Philando Castile was someone’s friend. I hope that is what resonates beyond the personal feeling for me.
“Right On” is the most explicit song I’ve released, and not because of the F word, but because I’m not really cloaking things in metaphor, which is a little scary. I usually don’t even talk about what my songs are about. This has given me a bit of encouragement to continue doing that, to not cloak things in metaphor so much. It’s been encouraging to know I can do that and still make a good song. I have a second single I’d planned to release in a couple of weeks, but you know, I’m reading the room—the room being America.
This interview originally appeared in longer form on the blog Moistworks.
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