Music

his words may make you uncomfortable, but cipher pushes for lyrical liberation

February 28, 2011

There are probably more black and multi-ethnic bands making punk sounds now than ever before. Bands are adopting punk’s DIY creed to hammer out their own unrepentant lyrics about love, life, politics and race. I spoke to Moe Mitchell, songwriter and front man of the band Cipher to get some insight into the mind of an awesome young black writer and performer, about what lyrical liberation means to him.  And if you want to check out Moe Mitchell and his band Cipher, they will be performing at  The Vibe Lounge in New York this Saturday, March 5, 2011 for the THY WILL BE DONE show.  

 

His Words May Make You Uncomfortable, but Cipher Pushes for Lyrical Liberation

Words Camille Collins

Photos Richie Tuffini and web


 

“I read a lot and I’m very self-critical.  So I’m always trying to improve my craft, and in a constant effort to self-critique.  I also do a lot of editing until I think I have something that doesn’t fall into clichés or is too simple or perhaps contradicts its own premises.”- Moe Mitchell, lead singer and writer of Cipher

CC: Your lyrics strike me as weighty and literary.  What are some of your influences?

MOE: Lyrically I’m influenced by Gil-Scott Heron, and some of the more lyrical hip-hop artists like Black Thought, Mos Def, MF DOOM, and KRS-ONE.   
 
When did you start writing songs?
I started writing songs when I was in high school, just jamming with friends, putting riffs together and writing lyrics.  In the beginning I had not yet found my lyrical voice, so I was all over the place.  I was young. 

 

 

“It’s morning, can’t you taste it?  URGENT REVERIE.  Standing at the precipice.  WAKE ME FROM MY SLEEP.  Engaged in new beginnings.  NOW GO OUT, BUILD FROM MEMORY.  Bury the age of leaders.  TRACING ENDLESSLY.  Tell them we have new orders.  DRAW STRAIGHT LINES, HERE TO OUR DREAMS.  We want it so we’ll take it.  THOSE CARRYING PATIENCE IN THE FLAMES OF IMMOLATION, SUGGESTS THE NARROWLY SACRED REGIN OF CORONATION UNDER THE HAZE OF LEGACY.  Self enclosed prisons paint red like state religion. AROUND US.“- Lyrics from Cipher

 
 

 How did you develop your particular style of writing? 

I read a lot and I’m very self-critical.  So I’m always trying to improve my craft, and in a constant effort to self-critique.  I also do a lot of editing until I think I have something that doesn’t fall into clichés or is too simple or perhaps contradicts its own premises.
 
Lets take a closer look at some specific lyrics you wrote: “THOSE CARRYING PATIENCE IN THE FLAMES OF IMMOLATION.”  I know that it’s primarily the job of the listener to interpret the writer’s words for themselves, but some insight from you as to what you meant by this lyric would be really cool.  
Well, here I’m discussing the urgency those most effected by oppression feel about social change.  During the civil rights movement, there were those talking about gradualism.  Most of them were white, and didn’t feel the pressing nature of White-Supremacy.  I consider self-immolation one of the most desperate acts of political speech.
It is a decision made when someone can no longer deal with gradualism.  A perfect example would be the self-immolations that took place in Tunisia and Egypt recently.  Those who continue to be patient in the face of such desperate pleas are really disconnected.

 

 
The lyric goes on to say: “SUGGESTS THE NARROWLY SACRED REGIN OF CORONATION UNDER THE HAZE OF LEGACY.”  Can you get into some of the ideas that motivated you to write this song? 
I go on here to suggest that the disconnection is related to inherited privileges. There are those that feel a divine right to their privileges similarly to the divine right of Kings.  So this flimsy coronation, this narrowly sacred sense of entitlement is perhaps the source of one’s disconnect with the urgency of the moment.  

 

 

(Cipher at the 2008 Afro-punk Festival )

Do you consider your lyrics highly political? 
Well, yes. Some of our lyrics are kind of didactic, and some are more poetic.  Some are personal and emotional.  Others are deliberately provocative.  But they all are political.  But I think all speech is political in some way.  Things that we do that may not seem to be political acts are in some ways political.

 

Do you think audiences at your live shows have a full appreciation of all the expression and art you put into your lyrics, or do they mostly rock out on your vibe and the instrumentality of what you do?
We discuss the meanings of the songs between each song, so they understand generally what we’re about.  Then when they go home and read lyrics, they could explore those themes more.  Some are in it for the more visceral feelings, like the mosh, the performance, and the musical intensity.  That’s fine too.
 
You’re an African-American singer, fronting a mixed band which draws mixed audiences. Do you ever feel inhibited about expressing frank opinions about race issues as a result of who you play to and with?
The short answer is “no.”  The reason way racism and white supremacy continues to thrive is that so many people are afraid to have honest conversations about it.  It’s sometime uncomfortable but so necessary.  I’m not saying it’s easy or always fun, but it’s necessary.  We need to challenge ourselves to have the uncomfortable conversations.  I’d like to think that’s one of the reasons why we exist as a band.  

It’s nice to reflect back over the past few decades and see how things have changed, in the world, in politics and in punk. There are undoubtedly many more “uncomfortable” conversations in all of our futures, but thankfully there is a greater diversity of people at the table, weighing in, writing lyrics, letting folks know what’s on our minds.

Related