photo by Pierre Ware
Until recently, the Twin Cities collective now known as Astralblak fused together funk, soul, and hip-hop in fresh ways—under a different name.
Initially performing as Zuluzuluu, inspired by the Zulu tribe of South Africa, they won City Pages’ Picked to Click, an annual poll of best new Twin Cities musical acts, in 2016. They toured last summer with local rap royalty Atmosphere, and were chosen by Minneapolis music legends Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis to perform at this year’s Super Bowl Live.
So why change their identity with so much going right?
“The name change really came out of us wanting to be respectful to the Zulu culture and Zulu tribe,” says vocalist and multi-instrumentalist MMYYKK. “We’re not directly connected to the Zulu tribe, so we wanted to have a name that was more encompassing in its narrative of blackness. Astralblak comes from an idea of the universal black experience, so it leaves room for other narratives.”
The group—which consists of MMYYKK, Proper-T, Greg Grease, DJ Just Nine, Art Parte, and Trelly Mo, each of whom is a producer and multi-instrumentalist—has roots that run back to childhood friendships. Through a mixtape, called The Cover Up, and a full-length album, What’s the Price?, Zuluzuluu articulated a powerful message mixing ruminations on the African-American experience with dreamy, philosophical visions.
When they announced their new name in February, they also released a funky new song, “Dues.”
“We’ve been working on a new record and really honing in on the style that’s uniquely us, figuring out what exactly we’re trying to put out there musically,” says MMYYKK. “It has been a transitional phase for us. Not even a transition, but a progression.”
Aside from the thrill of taking part in an international event, a humbling Super Bowl Live highlight for the group was meeting Lewis, who along with Jam produced many hits for Janet Jackson, Usher, and more.
“We got to have a big conversation with Terry Lewis,” MMYYKK says. “What stood out to me most was we were talking about changing our name, and he was like, ‘That’s great, but you got to really put some power behind the name before it matters.’ That gave me the motivation that I got to do more.”
Performing: June 10 at Sociable Summer: Funk Fest at Sociable Cider Werks. More at facebook.com/astralblakmusic
Digital Extra: Extended Q&A
You’ve been explicit about wanting the group to be inclusive of everyone, so what made you want to tap into African identity in the first place with your original name Zuluzuluu?
MMYYKK: Zulu is this symbol of blackness, at least from an American, black point of view. For me personally, I was thinking of it as this real-deal representation of Africa and the heart of blackness. That’s what resonated with me from Zulu and why I gravitated toward that.
Greg Grease: I think, off that, there was a natural progression in terms of us realizing that that power exists outside of the Zulu context. Blackness comes in many different forms and facets. Initially, we looked up to the majesty and power that is and was Zulu. But through the natural progressions of knowledge, we realized that we are that way, too, being who we are in America.
Minneapolis does, for instance, have a large Somali population, but how do you feel people locally have responded to the band representing African culture so explicitly?
Grease: Minneapolis is going to accept artistic creation, regardless of the culture that it’s representing. That’s refreshing because, like you were saying, there’s the Somali representation, and there’s really big West African representation in the outer-rim suburbs, too. That’s one of the things that has helped us, is that Minneapolis is very open—to a certain extent, obviously—in terms of art and how you use art to convey a message.
Having tapped into that heritage and grown as a group, how has it inspired each of you individually to have the confidence to lean into your own personalities?
MMYYKK: There’s a real-deal cultural exchange. Our rehearsals are 50 percent us sitting around philosophizing. At least an hour and a half of these practice sessions are us conversing and having dialogues, and that will spring into the creation of new music. We each have our individual walks of life, then we come back and share.
You guys like to call yourselves a “production collective,” since you’re all producers. How do you designate roles and feed off one another’s processes?
Proper-T: We’ve learned a lot about each other over time, to the point where it’s not even spoken about; we’re so aware of it.
Grease: One thing I’ve learned from being in a band is how to be in a relationship with other people, how to communicate. That’s the key to anything: You can do anything with anyone if you can be in a relationship and communicate. That’s been really cool for me. That’s even helped me in my personal relationships at home, with my spouse and other family members.
Conscious music sometimes runs the risk of coming off as self-important or preachy. How do you maintain that balance?
Grease: We definitely have to intentionally dial that back sometimes, because we’re naturally those types of people, to have those messages in our creations. We have to be intentional about not over-presenting or over-complicating the message. It’s nice being in a group because we meter. It helps everyone dial each other back.
Last summer, you toured with Atmosphere. How did fans respond outside Minnesota?
MMYYKK: It was a great experience. The reception was great, too—which was interesting because Atmosphere has a specific sound, fans expect that specific sound, and our sound is definitely not in the same spectrum as theirs. But they were very into our music and were like, “How have we not heard of you guys?” We almost sold out of vinyl on that tour.
You played Super Bowl Live in February, which was your first show as Astralblak. What was that experience like?
MMYYKK: It was an incredible opportunity to meet Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. Those guys, their level of humility is just so high. It’s humbling for me, because I’m nobody compared to these guys, who are legends in the world, not just in Minnesota. And they’re just ordinary guys. It was super humbling.
Did they give you any advice?
Grease: “Don’t take no for an answer.” That was big to me.