Q&A with Ishmael Butler

Later this month, Sub Pop will issue Lese Majesty, the second album by Shabazz Palaces. The multivalent hip-hop ensemble is helmed by Ishmael Butler and involves a slew of collaborators—including musicians Tendai Maraire and THEESatisfaction, and artists Maikoiyo Alley-Barnes and Nep Sidhu—who work together as Black Constellation. We spoke with Butler while exploring the Frye Art Museum’s new exhibition Your Feast Has Ended, which collects work by Alley-Barnes, Sidhu, Alley-Barnes’ father, Curtis Barnes, and Nicholas Galanin.

Shabazz has an album coming out, Maraire put out his Chimurenga Renaissance album in May and now this exhibit is open, incorporating your lyrics and clothing made for Black Constellation. This feels like a movement.

Usually people feel that if something is new it’s somehow a better rendition of whatever it replaced. But that’s not true; it’s a marketing ploy to get us to purchase the new thing. If you were to go back in the ’60s or ’70s, look at Earth, Wind and Fire or any group with seven or eight musicians in it—these guys didn’t wear baseball hats and jeans like any other guy or even whatever the fashion of the day was. They had groups of talented, stylish, artistic people making clothes for them. Every single rapper, no matter how much money they have, if you put them in silhouette you wouldn’t be able to tell them apart. The notion that that’s better or newer, and thus cooler, is preposterous.

To us there is no art, music, painting, dance. There’s only movements that all of this stuff comes under. We don’t really separate it like, is this fashion? Of course it is. Is it art? Of course it is. Is it adornment? Of course it is. Is it ceremony? Of course it is. Is it protection? Of course it is. Are we just showing the fuck off? Of course we are.

Shabazz performed at the Frye last spring and you have another show here in September. Has there been a conscious effort to bring the music into spaces like this?

No, not conscious. But I’ll bring the music anywhere because, again, I think compartmentalization is anti-artistic, anti-union. I think it’s more commercial—with the emphasis on commerce. Venues are set up by businesspeople to do a certain thing. A lot of people think Shabazz Palaces is some conscious effort to not do what you’re supposed to do. But it’s not—it’s really just following your instinct instead of wholesale buying into whatever the party line is—just doing the things that come naturally. So these kinds of things are happening because of the work and the associations. And horizons get broadened.

The title of this exhibit is Your Feast Has Ended. The title of the album, Lese Majesty, is a French term for a crime against a sovereign or a state. Seems like an indictment. You’re all speaking to someone specific.

There’s a lot of people now that appropriate this aesthetic, they superficially glean these deeper meanings, and think we’re not talking to them. You can think that you’re a part of something that you’re not. Nowadays, man, if your Instagram has a certain amount of followers or if some white people let you say “nigger” when they’re around or you’re hanging out with this or that rapper, you may think you’re down with the program, but you’re not.

This whole notion of the individual being of ultimate importance is lame and weak and most of all, corny. There’s feast and then there’s famine. Those that have been hungry, not allowed to participate in the feast—that’s not going to continue. This blind, comment-less allowing of rampant avarice and greed, selling out of the culture for no reason and without really gaining anything but personal stuff here and there ain’t really the move. Cats that know better ain’t going to sit around and just let it happen.

What do you mean by “corny”?

Just being full of yourself. Not being considerate. Feeling like what you’re doing, thinking, feeling, is of paramount importance.

Have you seen this one? [Points at installation hanging on the wall.] It’s by Maikoiyo. The title’s in German. It means “The Heist.” 

Lese Majesty comes out July 29. Illustration by Shannon Perry. 

Ed. note: An earlier version of this article neglected to include Nicholas Galanin among the artists featured in Your Feast Has Ended. We regret the oversight.