It wasn’t just the change in musical direction that made Letlive’s fourth album, If I’m The Devil…, stand out from the rest of their work. It was its impassioned rallying cry against the racism and violence suffered by black Americans. The lead single, Good Mourning, America, was written following a conversation at a protest for Michael Brown, the unarmed black teenager who was killed by a white officer in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. Its protest chant pulls no punches.
“I was impressed with people grabbing onto what was being said, and noticing the element of revolt that we were weaving into that rhythmic presentation,” says vocalist Jason Aalon Butler, when we ask how he felt in the days after the song was released back in April. “It was cool that people understood it was a commentary on something crucial to us as a generation.”
While the message was heard loud and clear, some fans were surprised by the band’s poppier sound. Lyrically, it was as searing and reflective as anything Letlive have written, but the jagged and abrasive riffs on 2013’s smasher The Blackest Beautiful had been toned down. “Sometimes when people don’t get what they expect, they’re a bit salty at first,” reflects Jason. “But it seems like people understand what we’re doing and why we’re doing it now. It’s a bigger idea that will evolve; it’s a new iteration of Letlive. It’s not like we wrote a fucking classical album! I wanted the message to be clearer in offering a bit more understanding of the lyrics and what was being said.”
While the album touched on an array of topics, from Jason’s identity as a mixed race man to his relationship with his wife, the loudest message was that police brutality against black Americans is an issue that desperately needs addressing. When Jason spoke to Hammer in May, he described how, in 2007, he was beaten, choked and arrested by officers while walking his drunk friend home. Research by Guardian project The Counted found that young black men were nine times more likely then other Americans to be killed by police last year. Since If I’m The Devil… was released, more men have tragically died at the hands of officers. In July, Philando Castile was shot in his car in Minnesota, as his girlfriend filmed the incident. Terence Crutcher was unarmed when police Tasered and shot him in Oklahoma in September. Later that month, Alfred Olango, a Ugandan refugee described as mentally unwell by his sister, was unarmed when he was shot in San Diego. There are many more incidents, and Jason is painfully aware that, although a light has been shone on the plight of black communities since Michael Brown’s shooting sparked countrywide protests, it’s not a new phenomenon.
“It’s been happening for centuries, and that’s a lot of what our country was fucking based on,” he says, angrily. “A lot of the early police departments’ job was to keep black people out of areas. That’s the truth. How are you going to erase that? It’s happening, and I’m glad there’s a light being shone on it, but this is nothing new. It’s time to change that.”
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In August, Letlive released a limited-edition t-shirt bearing the names of every person who’d died at the hands of police in 2016. All proceeds went to the NAACP’s (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) legal defence fund, but some people missed the point, leaving comments on the band’s Facebook page asking why they weren’t talking about police officers who’d been shot. Is Jason angry that supposed fans of the band are unaware, wilfully or otherwise, of the real issue?
“No, I don’t get upset, because I think people that don’t understand haven’t been given opportunities to learn,” he says. “I was given the opportunity to learn as a child because my idea of authority was one of fear. I learned why we have to watch what we say and do, and a lot of people don’t have that. Extending that kind of empathy will be more difficult, because you just don’t see it. I understand that police officers did lose their lives, but citizens of a certain colour and demographic lose their lives every fucking day, every week, every month.”
As for what the future holds for Jason and Letlive, he says he wants to continue with his activism and supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. “I’ll keep talking about it in music,” he says. “That means more to me than someone buying my record and thinking I’m cool. I want them to fucking listen. I want them to feel something. I want them to understand there is something bigger than all of us.”
The devil’s in the detail
Jason organised an art exhibition based on If I’m The Devil… He tells us why the album is all about expression
Ask Jason to describe fourth album If I’m The Devil…, and he’ll point out its ability to resonate with many different types of people, all with their own life experiences. It was a deliberate attempt to give a voice to those who aren’t always heard.
“We’re still trying to encapsulate that emotive quality that is Letlive,” he explains. “But there are other things that don’t just affect us but affect other people that we wanted to give representation to, because I think that’s what we lack in music – we lack representation for certain contingents or demographics. We’re a rather diverse band; we’ve got black dudes, white dudes, dudes from Lebanon, we had an Asian guitar player, we have a guy from Ukraine playing guitar. We’ve got representation from a lot of folks, and we’re trying to offer that to people who may feel like they’re a misfit or an outcast.”
With this in mind, he put together an exhibition at Lethal Amounts gallery in Los Angeles earlier this year, with a different artist interpreting each track on the album.
“We had an amazing turnout of beautiful folks eager for a glimpse of the visual representation of the new record,” Jason enthuses. “I was blown away by the commitment of all of the artists to the project. Every piece presented a unique perspective on each song, as well as the influence of If I’m The Devil… on each artist after listening to the record and reading the lyrics. Essentially, we were hoping to offer people another way to experience this album, and that evening I feel we accomplished just that.”