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During his early career, the music industry was intent on fitting Moses Sumney into boxes. But as his latest album, græ, attests, he is an artist determined to seek his own truths beyond the confines of expectation and identity. “I’m really interested in the collapse of identity politics, increasingly. I want us to get to a place where we can seek equality for ourselves without having to define as anything that’s simple. It feels really petrifying, the idea that you explain yourself to someone in order to gain their respect [and that] in doing that, you’re kind of solidifying your identity in a way that feels quite limiting.” By Shaad D’Souza.

Singer-songwriter Moses Sumney

Moses Sumney.
Credit: Eric Gyamfi

Amid the dense squall of American artist Moses Sumney’s new double album græ exist moments of stunning, revelatory clarity. “Dissatisfaction seems like the natural byproduct of identification,” goes one line. “I insist on my right to be multiple – even more so, I insist upon the recognition of my multiplicity.” From the diaphanous, gently manipulated voices of Sumney and his collaborators spring truths: “Honesty is the most moral way, but morality is grey.”

“Most people will miss that, I will say,” Sumney laughs, as I read him back the “dissatisfaction” line, one of græ’s more brazen lyrics. For the artist behind one of 2020’s most musically and emotionally groundbreaking records, Sumney is unusually – or, perhaps, realistically – pessimistic about the way people will consume his latest opus. “People don’t listen as attentively nor as intently as they used to, as I would like them to,” he says. “I make the kind of music that requires a lot of attention and rewards multiple listens.”

Sumney’s read on the complexity of his own music is not hubristic: græ is a gargantuan undertaking, a 20-song record beholden only to its own internal sense of logic and style. Both gentle and aggressive, accessible and experimental, it embodies and communicates the kind of multiplicity that Sumney has been coveting for his entire career. Or, indeed, his entire life.

The long list of collaborators is striking – renowned experimental musicians Daniel Lopatin and Matt Otto, pop stars Jill Scott and James Blake, bassist Thundercat, writers Michael Chabon, Ayesha K. Faines and Taiye Selasi, and actors Michaela Coel and Ezra Miller among them – with græ functioning as a survey of art’s most independent thinkers. At the centre of the album’s galaxy is Sumney, an old-fashioned and thoroughly modern iconoclast who, after years toiling, finally has the resources, and the platform, to present his unfiltered and dazzlingly rendered truth.

Sumney, 28, is speaking to me over Skype from his home in Asheville, North Carolina, where he is waiting out the Covid-19 pandemic by himself. Isolation is a recurrent theme on græ. The record refers, more than once, to the concept of being “islanded” on an emotional level, but for Sumney, it’s a natural state. “I love living alone,” he says, “and I moved [to Asheville] because I wanted to be isolated.”

Even over webcam, Sumney is striking – wire-framed glasses and what looks to be a black durag framing his face. I can see four guitars in the room behind him, as well as pull-up bars mounted to a doorframe. He’s verbose and witty, speaking with a deep timbre at odds with the powerful falsetto he sings in, freely and fluidly mixing fragments of academic terminology with youthful slang. “Periodt, as the kids say,” he exclaims at one point, to cap off a pontification on the politics of self-determination. “She made some points!” he later quips, in reference to the thesis of radical feminist writer Valerie Solanas. Sumney’s insistence on his right to be multiple is not only artistic licence but also a fact of his own nature.

Sumney has lived much of his life in an islanded, isolated state. Born in America to undocumented Ghanaian immigrants, he spent the first few years of his life in the United States, before his family moved to Accra, Ghana. There, Sumney felt strange, an American among Ghanaians, but when his family moved back to America a few years later, he felt out of place again, too Ghanaian for the Americans.

Moving to Los Angeles for college, and to pursue a career in music, he found himself once again out of place, broke. “Real broke,” he notes. “Not like some of my friends whose parents were paying their rent or who had been given guitar and singing lessons growing up.” Those around him, his network of peers, had means, a safety net. He didn’t. When he began his career in earnest in the mid-2010s with the EPs Mid-City Island and Lamentations, Sumney was continually perturbed, alienated, by the boxes the music industry would attempt to put him in – being labelled an electronic R&B artist, despite the fact he was often performing acoustically, or as a folk artist, despite his music having little to do with the form.

He has spent much of his career trying to articulate his own, and humanity’s own, inherent multiplicity – his own life has been a story of multiple existences at once. “I feel constantly like I’m being asked to choose who I am in public, or what I am, and that just feels really antithetical to the organic nature of being a human,” he says. “We are all dynamic and we change, we change our minds, we change our clothes, our desires change.”

græ represents a refinement of this concept. Sumney’s 2017 debut Aromanticism used its guiding theme – the absence of romance from Sumney’s life – as a starting point to explore the multitudes contained within one person, the idea that one can, and should, seek their own truths outside society’s established constraints of identification.

The problem, of course, was that this new identification simply became another tagline. Sumney’s complex, multilayered debut was reduced to “an album about hating love”. So græ distinctly does not fall into the trap of giving solid, easily commodified answers. It pushes forcefully against the tendrils of capitalism that have been fast infiltrating radical politics over the past decade. In its most galvanising and most emotionally risky moments, the album posits that being tied to an identity bloc may not be as free or as liberating as one might initially think. “It’s kind of a dangerous thing to talk about,” Sumney tells me. “So, naturally, that’s the thing I want to talk about.”

He continues: “I’m really interested in the collapse of identity politics, increasingly. I want us to get to a place where we can seek equality for ourselves without having to define as anything that’s simple.

“It feels really petrifying, the idea that you explain yourself to someone in order to gain their respect [and that] in doing that, you’re kind of solidifying your identity in a way that feels quite limiting.”

It may surprise some to hear a progressively minded black man bristle against the constraints of identity politics – in certain circles, marginalised identity blocs are often expected, or pushed, to share the same quest for collective equality. Which is exactly Sumney’s point.

A line on “boxes”, one of græ’s many spoken word interludes created by Chabon, Faines, Miller and Selasi alongside Sumney, sums it up best: “I truly believe that people who define you control you.” The concept brings to the fore a troubling, often unmentioned current bubbling under this era’s wave of progressive politics: How radical can a system of change be if it was created under capitalism, the very structure that built the inequalities? Sumney cites Audre Lorde as one of the most important figures in his artistic genesis, and her most famous quote comes to mind: “The master’s tools cannot dismantle the master’s house.”

When Sumney speaks about his qualms with progressive politics, it feels revelatory, and important for a discourse that can become stagnant. When I ask him, towards the end of our conversation, who he sees himself as an artistic descendant of, he cites Nina Simone, Grace Jones, Malcolm X. When he speaks, you can feel the fire, the measured and informed but combative spirit of those figures coming through.

“Part of my issue with identity politics over the past few years is that the pinnacle of success of minorities is beating the capitalist system, aka climbing up the ranks, and the idea that almost militantly identifying yourself as a minority and being vocal about it can now gain you capital and clout and money,” Sumney says. “We have a lot of talking heads now who are rich or are becoming rich, and that money is not uplifting the communities they came from. To me, the whole thing is a farce – a scam!

“I don’t think this is a malicious thing on anyone’s part, I think it’s just a truth,” he continues. “Although there is a risk – a career risk, maybe even a life risk for some people – in speaking out [about oppression], there is, now, an economic benefit. I think that capitalism [has found that] adopting people who speak out against it is the best way to calm down and satiate the communities they came from, and keep them from revolting.”

Sumney is uniquely equipped to tackle this topic. Part of being a musician in the modern era is about distilling your sound or your story into something – he once described it as “a bullet point or meme” – that is easily marketable. He’s had the gall to seek an alternative model, one that forces nuanced understanding and eludes the most viciously dehumanising aspects of the music industry. As it stands, Sumney is a star, one of the rare artists who has retained some kind of avant-garde potential even in relative fame. But one can’t help but wonder where he might be, what point size his name would be in on the mega-festival posters, if he had chosen a compromised and easily saleable path.

In the early days of his career, Sumney was courted by many major labels before he chose to go with the prestigious indie Jagjaguwar. Had he taken a more lucrative offer, he thinks his life would have gone one of two ways: “Either I would be incredibly famous, rich and popular, and have music that I think is shitty but that other people think is interesting – depressed and rich, my dream,” he says. “Or that I would have kind of been shelved. I probably would have been a really difficult artist in that system, because I would have constantly been fighting and refusing to do things.” I ask him if any major label artists he knows of haven’t had to compromise a vision. He can’t name any. He asks me the same thing, and I can’t either.

Sumney acknowledges, of course, that the indie music sphere can be as fraught as the major label system. A day or so before we talk, a controversy erupts on Twitter over whether indie artists with significant familial wealth should be “cancelled”. Sumney briefly tweeted a smart, silly quip about the controversy – “I personally won’t be satisfied until we destroy artists for having parents who loved them” – before deleting it.

“My problem, and this is a result of identity politics, is that so often there is a critique of the individual for coming from money, and not so much of a critique of society for rewarding people for coming from money, and there’s not a critique of ourselves for wanting to be those people,” he says of said controversy. Those who are upset about artists coming from money, he wryly suggests, are in for a rude awakening.

“We tend to project on to indie artists this idea that they are struggling or that they come from struggle, and we also associate a moral quality with financial struggle,” he continues. “That’s just not realistic. I do kind of feel bad about people who come from money – people assume all these things about them and then they get destroyed when they find out it’s not true. At the same time, yeah, money’s evil. I just think the system is fucked, and we’re only fooling ourselves when we pretend that it’s not – or put people on a pedestal.”

Ending this fraught, morally flattened system, for Sumney, begins with the destruction of America’s black-and-white two-party political landscape, which he believes cannot help most Americans. “I think too many of the terms of existence that rule our society are binaristic. Two options are not enough,” he explains. He is insisting, in other words, on the right to be multiple. Not just for himself, but for all.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 16, 2020 as "Multiple choice".

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Shaad D’Souza is a music critic for The Saturday Paper.