The Influence

Solange’s 2016 album A Seat at the Table is a touchstone for musician and visual artist Ripley Kavara. By Kate Holden.

Ripley Kavara

Solange (centre) in a promotional photo for her 2016 album, A Seat at the Table, and Ripley Kavara (below).
Solange (centre) in a promotional photo for her 2016 album, A Seat at the Table, and Ripley Kavara (below).
Credit: Sony Music Australia (above), Lydia Rui (below)

Ripley Kavara is a transdisciplinary artist and community worker who’s worked with music since he was a teenager. An electronic musician, vocalist and instrumentalist, he has played in jazz bands, punk bands and the acclaimed hip-hop/R&B duo Kandere, rooted in queerness and shared Melanesian ancestry. He also DJs, produces, composes, curates and presents events. His visual art has been exhibited in Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

Most recently Kavara has co-ordinated the First Nations and Pasifika artist collaboration FAMILI. He chose to speak of Solange’s 2016 album, A Seat at the Table.

Ripley, can you tell me a bit about what you do?

I am an artist with Papua New Guinean and Scottish heritage. I was born in PNG and have grown up most of my life in Melbourne. As a teenager I fell in love with the power of music to access emotions that sometimes we can’t name or describe or process through words. Eventually I found my way into producing and making beats on a computer. I must have driven my grandparents absolutely fucking nuts, because I was in there making these crazy beats – ts-ts-ts – for hours and hours and hours, just blasting it.

That was where I learnt to produce – I just taught myself. Later I went to uni. But the way I work, I shaped that when I was a kid. I was fascinated by producing in this way: you can create this whole world of sound – with one person – and you can tell a story. I ended up working with Lakyn Tarai, and we were in a band [Kandere] for two years. We went from doing little backyard shows at share houses to performing at Dark Mofo. It was quite wild. Then that ended around the end of 2018. That’s when FAMILI was born.

I was sitting there thinking, what do I really want to do? What’s missing? I had this strong pull to do something that was more collective-based and based around my identity as an Islander or Pasifika person, and being mixed-race, being separated from my homelands and culture and language – my unnamed, unprocessed grief. Music has the power to release these emotions; I was interested in taking the audience on a journey through music. So that’s how it all started. I got some funding to make an EP, I contacted all these artists – some were my friends, some were strangers I’d seen perform or known from going down SoundCloud tunnels – and we ended up collaborating. I became a composer and producer for this quite big work that had all these different artists involved. That’s what I’ve dedicated my creative practice to since 2018.

So tell me about Solange’s album, A Seat at the Table.

I remember when this album came out in 2016. It was a huge moment in music. For a lot of people in my circles it was just mind-blowing, the visuals and the music and the messages. These anthems about Blackness and identity and what it means to be a Black woman in this day and age, these clap-backs quietly going “eff you, you can’t do this stuff anymore!” Music has this history of being political – there’s protest music and there’s music that just describes the human experience in this way, almost like it creates a time capsule: “Oh my gosh, that was what it must have been like to live as a person in that time…” This album was nuanced – I felt it was getting to the heart of some of these issues around race, gentrification, the music industry, capitalism. It touched on a lot of the things I wanted to touch on too, from a completely different social and cultural landscape. It just affected me so much as a body of work.

The thing about Solange is that she wasn’t angry or aggressive – the music was quite ethereal and beautiful – but it was delivering these messages that were so powerful and so timely and so needed. I just remember listening to it and being just blown away. I thought: this is a masterpiece.

And I became fascinated about what does it mean to create a collection of songs, a body of work? I loved that this whole body of work takes you on a narrative journey. It’s definitely inspired me on so many levels. Musically, I love the way Solange writes songs. I think her song structure and vocal harmonies are really simple but very powerful. The production: there are things I started exploring in my own work after that, like not just doing everything on the computer, but going, “I want to hear real instrumentation and real voices, and people talking, and field recordings, and all these textures of life come together in this album. It doesn’t need to be perfect, it doesn’t need to be recorded and produced meticulously, it just needs the right energy.” This intimacy that you get on the album around these yarns that she’s having with her family and people that she knows, you’re getting little snippets of these stories. We work with a lot of spoken-word artists and poets, amazing community members. I was like, “I want to get their stories, and put that into music.”

The track that interests me the most is “Cranes in the Sky”, after listening to Solange discuss her process of making it and everything from the instrumentation to how she recorded things. There are takes of her laughing because she doesn’t know how to play piano; the way she describes the harmonies as her aunties whispering in her ear, saying “it’s going to be okay”. After hearing that it inspired me so much in the way I look at things: the composition, the harmonies, the bodies of work we’re creating and the songs we’ve made as these ancestors kind of comforting us. Every human being on Earth has a connection to their ancestry and lineage, even if severed. So “Cranes in the Sky” – the lyrics, the way she wrote it, the composition of the song, the musical references, recording things in bars in New Orleans on these janky pianos – yeah, I just loved hearing those stories.

There’s an exploratory, questioning element in this. You’ve been a questing person yourself, I think.

I think that’s kind of the process we go through: this questioning, this curiosity and exploring. That was where the project really started. I came to the artists and said, “Look, this is my idea.” I also said, “I don’t know, I want to hear what you think. What does this mean to you?” And their ideas trickled in, we’d be in studio or writing sessions, hanging out and talking about it, and it turned into this evolving conversation. I wanted to create an acknowledgement of Country, but in a musical sense. We needed to work with Aboriginal artists. I reached out to people, we started collaborating, all of our artists started working together and it was this natural, ongoing conversation. The more I made things, the more I realised how many voices and experiences needed to be part of it.

Race issues are presented explicitly in your work and Solange’s. As a QTIPOC person, how does racism discourse sit in your feeling about the album?

There have been times in my career where it’s felt like people are consuming my art and consuming me but not connecting to my human experience. I want to talk about these real issues without it being “oh, we want your awesome music, we want your bangers, we want your good vibes up on stage and you get everyone partying, but we don’t want to talk about the shit that’s going on behind closed doors”. I definitely took issue with the music industry around the way it treats artists of colour as expendable. That narrative began decades ago. Now I feel we’re kind of getting to this space where a lot of these artists are blowing up. The stuff they’re talking about is real and it’s relevant, they’re coming out with music that slices through all that and gets you right to the heart.

As a person not of colour, I guess I listen to Solange’s album differently to you. Can we listen differently but hear the same message?

I think it’s for everyone. If this is reaching people from all walks of life, all different ages, racial backgrounds, cultural backgrounds, sexuality, gender, that’s what I want, actually. Don’t just consume it, but listen to the words. What are people saying? I want people to come and listen – listen to the conversation at the table. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 7, 2022 as "Ripley Kavara".

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Kate Holden is the author of The Winter Road, winner of the 2021 Walkley Book Award and the 2022 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Douglas Stewart Prize for Nonfiction.

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