As the malaria mosquitoes have become resistant to DDT, dieldrin has been substituted in malaria-control work, and, as this has happened, cases of poisoning have appeared among the spraymen. A study published in reported that the seizures were severe; from half to all of the men affected—the proportion varied in different programs—went into convulsions, and several died.
Some were still subject to convulsions as long as four months after the last exposure. Aldrin is a still more mysterious substance, for although it exists as a separate entity, it bears the relation of alter ego to dieldrin. When carrots are taken from a bed treated with aldrin, they are found to contain residues of dieldrin—a change that occurs both in the living tissues and in the soil.
If a chemist, knowing that aldrin has been applied, tests for it, he will be deceived into thinking all residues have been dissipated. The residues are there, but they are dieldrin, and this requires a different test. In any event, aldrin is slightly more toxic than dieldrin. It has produced degenerative changes in the liver and kidneys of experimental animals. A quantity the size of an aspirin tablet is enough to kill more than four hundred quail. Many cases of human poisoning are on record, most of them in connection with industrial handling.
Beyond that, aldrin, like most of this group of insecticides, projects a menacing shadow into the future—the shadow of sterility. Birds that consume it in quantities too small to kill them lay few eggs, and the chicks that hatch soon die. Rats who have been exposed to aldrin have fewer pregnancies, and their young are sickly and short-lived, and puppies whose mothers have been exposed to the poison have been known to die within three days.
By one means or another, the new generations suffer as a result of poisoning of their parents. No one knows whether the same effect will be seen in human beings. The third of the naphthalenes, endrin, is perhaps the most toxic of all the chlorinated hydrocarbons now in use.
Although it is chemically rather closely related to dieldrin, a little twist in its molecular structure makes it up to twelve times as poisonous to rats; by comparison, DDT seems almost harmless. In the decade of its use, endrin has killed enormous numbers of fish, has fatally poisoned cattle that have wandered into sprayed orchards, and has poisoned wells. At least one state health department has warned that careless use of endrin is endangering human lives. But even apparently careful use can be dangerous. In , an American couple with a year-old boy had gone to live in Venezuela..
There were cockroaches in the house they moved into, and after a few days they used a spray containing endrin. After the spraying, the floors were washed. The baby and dog were returned to the house in midafternoon. An hour or so later, the dog vomited, went into convulsions, and died. At ten in the evening, the baby also vomited and went into convulsions, and then lost consciousness. At once, this normal, healthy child became little more than a vegetable—unable to see or hear, subject to frequent muscular spasms, and, it would seem, completely cut off from his surroundings.
Several months of treatment in a New York hospital failed to change his condition or bring hope of change. The second major group of insecticides, the organic phosphates—esters of phosphoric acid—are among the most poisonous chemicals in the world. The origin of these chemicals has a certain ironic significance.
Some of them had been known for many years, but their insecticidal properties were first discovered by a German chemist, Gerhard Schrader, in the late nineteen-thirties. Some became nerve gases. Others became insecticides. The chief and most obvious hazard attending their use is that of acute poisoning of people applying the sprays or accidentally coming in contact with drifting spray, or vegetation coated with it, or a discarded container.
In Florida, in , two children used a discarded bag to repair a swing. Shortly thereafter, both of them died, and three of their playmates became ill. The bag had once contained the insecticide parathion, and tests established death by parathion poisoning. The organic-phosphate insecticides act on the living organism in a peculiar way.
They have the ability to destroy enzymes—enzymes that perform necessary functions in the body. Their target, whether the victim is an insect or a warm-blooded animal, is the nervous system. Indeed, its existence is so ephemeral that without special procedures medical researchers are unable to sample it before the body has destroyed it. The transient nature of the chemical transmitter is necessary to the normal functioning of the body. If the acetylcholine is not inactivated as soon as a nerve impulse has passed, impulses continue to flash across the bridge from nerve to nerve; the chemical not only goes on exerting its effect but exerts it in an ever more intensified manner.
Fortunately, the body has its own protective device against this peril—an enzyme called cholinesterase, which breaks down the transmitting chemical once it is no longer needed. By this means, a precise balance is struck, and the body never builds up a dangerous amount of acetylcholine. But on contact with the organic-phosphate insecticides the activity of the protective enzyme is inhibited, and as the effective quantity of the enzyme is reduced, that of the chemical transmitter builds up. In having this effect, the organic-phosphate compounds resemble the alkaloid poison muscarine, found in a poisonous mushroom, the fly amanita.
Repeated exposure may lower the cholinesterase level until an individual reaches the brink of acute poisoning—a brink over which he may be pushed by a very small additional exposure. For this reason, it is considered important to make periodic examinations of the blood of spray operators and others regularly exposed. Parathion is one of the most widely used of the organic phosphates. It is also one of the most powerful. Honeybees become agitated and bellicose on contact with it, engage in frantic cleaning movements, and are near death within half an hour.
A chemist, hoping to learn by the most direct means the dose acutely toxic to human beings, swallowed a minute amount, about. Paralysis followed so swiftly that he could not reach the antidotes he had at hand, and so he died. One of the circumstances that save us from extinction by parathion and the other chemicals of the organic-phosphate group is that they are decomposed rather rapidly. However, they last long enough to create hazards and produce consequences that range from the merely serious to the fatal.
In Riverside, California, eleven out of thirty men picking oranges became violently ill, and all but one of the eleven had to be hospitalized. The grove had been sprayed with parathion some two and a half weeks earlier; the residues that reduced them to retching, half-blind, semi-conscious misery were from sixteen to nineteen days old. And this is not by any means a record for persistence. The danger to all workers applying the organic-phosphate insecticides is so extreme that some states using these chemicals have established laboratories where physicians may obtain aid in diagnosis and treatment.
The physicians themselves may be in some danger, unless they wear rubber gloves while they are handling the victims of poisoning. Parathion is now said to be a favorite instrument of suicide in Finland. In recent years, the state of California has reported an average of two hundred cases of accidental parathion poisoning annually. In many parts of the world, the fatality rate from parathion is startling: a hundred fatal cases in India and sixty-seven in Syria in , and an average of three hundred and thirty-six a year in Japan.
Yet some six million pounds of parathion are now applied annually to fields, orchards, and vineyards of the United States—by hand sprayers, by motorized blowers and dusters, and by airplane. The amount used on California farms alone could, according to Dr. Malathion is almost as familiar to the public as DDT, being widely used in gardening, in household insecticides, in mosquito spraying, and in such blanket attacks on insects as the spraying of nearly a million acres in Florida for the Mediterranean fruit fly.
It is considered the least toxic of the organic phosphates, and many people assume that they may use it freely.
Actually, the alleged safety of malathion rests on rather precarious ground, although—as often happens—this was not discovered until the chemical had been in use for several years. The detoxication is accomplished by one of the enzymes of the liver. If, however, something destroys this enzyme or interferes with its action, the person exposed to malathion receives the full force of its toxic action, which resembles that of the other organic phosphates. Unfortunately for all of us, opportunities for this sort of thing to happen are legion.
A few years ago, a team of Food and Drug Administration scientists discovered that when malathion and one of the other organic phosphates are administered simultaneously, a severe poisoning results—up to fifty times as severe as one would predict on the basis of adding together the toxicities of the two. In other words, one one-hundredth of the lethal dose of each compound can be fatal when the two are combined. Potentiation seems to take place when one compound destroys the liver enzyme responsible for detoxicating the other. The two need not be given simultaneously. And the hazard exists not only for the man who may spray this week with one insecticide and next week with another; it exists also for the consumer of sprayed products.
The common salad bowl may easily present a combination of organic-phosphate insecticides in quantities large enough to interact. In Greek mythology, the sorceress Medea, enraged at being supplanted by a rival in the affections of her husband, Jason, presented the new bride with a robe possessing magical properties The wearer of the robe immediately suffered a violent death. The purpose is to kill insects that may come in contact with these poisonous beings, especially by sucking their juices or their blood.
The world of systemic insecticides is a weird world, surpassing the imaginings of the brothers Grimm. It is a world where the enchanted forest of the fairy tales has become a poisonous forest. It is a world where a flea bites a dog and dies, where an insect may die as a result of chewing a leaf or inhaling vapors emanating from a plant it has never touched, where a bee may carry poisonous nectar back to its hive and presently produce poisonous honey.
Selenium, a naturally occurring element found sparingly in rocks and soils of many parts of the world, thus became the first systemic insecticide. What makes an insecticide a systemic is its ability to permeate all the tissues of a plant or animal and make them toxic. This quality is possessed by some chemicals of the chlorinated-hydrocarbon group and by others of the organic-phosphate group, all synthetically produced. In practice, most systemics are drawn from the organic-phosphate group, because with these the problem of residues is somewhat less acute.
Systemics can act in devious ways. Applied to seeds, either by soaking or by means of a coating in which the systemic is combined with carbon, they extend their effects into the following plant generation and produce seedlings poisonous to aphids and other sucking insects. Such vegetables as peas, beans, and sugar beets are sometimes thus protected. Cotton seeds coated with a systemic called phorate have been in use for some time in California, and in twenty-five farm laborers in the San Joaquin Valley, who had handled bags of treated seeds, were seized with sudden illness.
In England, someone wondered what happened when bees made use of nectar from plants that had been treated with systemics. This was investigated in areas treated with a chemical called schradan. Although the plants had been sprayed before the flowers were formed, the nectar they produced contained the poison. The result, as might have been predicted, was that the honey made by the bees was also contaminated with schradan.
Animal systemics have been used chiefly to control the cattle grub, a damaging parasite of livestock. Extreme care must be taken in order to create an insecticidal effect in the blood and tissues of the host without setting up a fatal poisoning. As yet, no one seems to have proposed a human systemic that would make us lethal to a mosquito. Perhaps this is the next step.
When we turn our attention to herbicides, or weed killers, we quickly come across the legend that they are toxic only to plants. Unfortunately, this is only a legend. The plant killers include a large variety of chemicals that act on animal tissue as well as on vegetation. No general statement can describe the action of all of them. Some are general poisons; some are powerful stimulants of metabolism, causing a fatal rise in body temperature; some can induce malignant tumors, either alone or in partnership with other chemicals; some can cause gene mutations.
Arsenic compounds are still liberally used, both as insecticides and as weed killers, where they usually take the chemical form of sodium arsenite. The history of their use is not reassuring. As roadside sprays, they have cost many a farmer his cow and killed uncounted numbers of wild creatures. As aquatic weed killers, they have made public waters unsuitable for drinking, or even for swimming.
As a spray applied to potato fields to destroy the vines, they have taken a toll of human and non-human life. In England, this last practice developed in about , as a result of a shortage of sulphuric acid, which had formerly been used to burn off the potato vines. The Ministry of Agriculture considered it necessary to issue a warning of the hazard of going into arsenic-sprayed fields, but the warning was not understood by the cattle or by the wild animals and birds , and reports of poisoned cattle were received with monotonous regularity.
In , the Australian government announced a similar ban. No such restrictions impede the use of these poisons in the United States. The most widely used herbicides are 2,4-D, 2,4,5-T, and related members of what is known as the phenol group. Many experts deny that these are toxic. However, people spraying their lawns with 2,4-D and becoming wet with spray have occasionally developed severe neuritis and even paralysis. Although such incidents are apparently uncommon, medical authorities advise caution in the use of these compounds.
Other hazards, more obscure, may also attend the use of 2,4-D. Experiments have shown its ability to disturb the basic physiological process of respiration in the cell, and, like X-rays, to damage the chromosomes. Some very recent work indicates that sub-lethal doses of these herbicides may affect reproduction in birds. The rest of the phenols may be equally dangerous. Dinitrophenol, for example, steps up the metabolism.
For this reason, it was at one time used in the United States as a reducing drug, but the margin between the slimming dose and the dose required to poison or kill was slight—so slight that at least nine patients died and many suffered permanent injury before use of the drug was finally halted. The fearful power of penta, which acts in much the same way as dinitrophenol, is illustrated in a fatal accident recently reported by the California State Department of Public Health. A man was preparing a cotton defoliant by mixing diesel oil with penta.
As he was drawing the concentrated chemical out of a drum, the spigot accidentally toppled back. He reached in with his bare hand to regain the spigot. Although he washed immediately, he became acutely ill, and died the next day. Curious indirect results follow the use of certain herbicides.
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It has been found that animals—both wild herbivores and livestock—are sometimes strangely attracted to a plant that has been sprayed, even though it is not one of their natural foods. Apparently, the wilting that follows spraying or cutting makes the plant attractive. If a highly poisonous herbicide, such as arsenic, has been used, this intense desire to reach the wilting vegetation inevitably has disastrous consequences.
Such consequences may also stem from the use of less toxic herbicides in cases where the plant itself happens to be poisonous or, perhaps, to possess thorns or burs. Poisonous range weeds, for example, have suddenly become attractive to livestock after spraying, and the animals have died from indulging this unnatural appetite. The literature of veterinary medicine abounds in similar examples: swine eating sprayed cockleburs with consequent severe illness, lambs eating sprayed thistles, bees poisoned by pasturing on mustard that had been sprayed after it came into bloom.
Wild cherry, the leaves of which are highly poisonous, has had a fatal attraction for cattle once its foliage has been sprayed with 2,4-D. The explanation of this peculiar behavior sometimes appears to lie in the changes that the chemical brings about in the metabolism of the plant. There is a temporary but marked increase in sugar content, and many animals seek the plant out for its sweetness. Another curious effect of 2,4-D has important consequences for livestock and wildlife, and apparently for men as well. Some of these are normally ignored by cattle but are eaten with relish after treatment with 2,4-D.
According to some agricultural specialists, a number of deaths among cattle have been traced to such sprayed weeds. All ruminants—not only cattle but wild ruminants, such as deer, antelope, sheep, and goats—have a digestive system of extraordinary complexity, including a stomach divided into several chambers. The digestion of cellulose is accomplished in one of the chambers, through the action of microorganisms known as rumen bacteria. When the animal feeds on vegetation containing nitrates, the rumen bacteria change them into nitrites, and if the level of nitrates is abnormally high, a fatal series of events ensues.
When the nitrites are present in large quantities, they act on the blood pigment to form a chocolate-brown substance in which oxygen is so firmly held that it cannot be transferred from the lungs to the tissues. And death occurs within a few hours from anoxia, or lack of oxygen. In a series of cases studied by the University of Minnesota Medical School, all but one terminated fatally.
Of these, water has become the most precious. Ever since chemists began to manufacture substances that nature never invented, the problems of water purification have grown more complex and the danger to users of water has increased. Because they become inextricably mixed with domestic and other wastes, they sometimes defy detection by the standard methods used in purification plants.
Often they cannot be identified, and even if they are, most of them are so stable that they cannot be broken down by ordinary processes. Some are deliberately applied to bodies of water to destroy plants, insect larvae, or undesired fish. Some come from forest spraying, in the course of which two or three million acres of one of our states may be blanketed with spray directed against a single insect pest—spray that falls directly into streams or else drips down through the leafy canopy to the forest floor, there to become part of the slow movement of seeping moisture beginning its long journey to the sea.
Probably the bulk of such contaminants, however, consists of water-borne residues of the millions of pounds of agricultural chemicals that have been leached out of the ground by rains to become part of the same seaward movement. Here and there we have dramatic evidence of the presence of these chemicals in our streams, and even in public water supplies.
A sample of drinking water from an orchard area in Pennsylvania was tested on fish in a laboratory; it contained enough insecticide to kill all the fish within four hours, The runoff from fields treated with a chlorinated hydrocarbon called toxaphene killed all the fish in fifteen streams tributary to the Tennessee River, in Alabama, two of which were sources of municipal water supplies; the water remained poisonous for a week after the application of the insecticide—a fact that was determined by the daily deaths of goldfish suspended in cages downstream. For the most part, such pollution is invisible; it may make its presence known when hundreds or thousands of fish die, but more often it is never detected at all.
Anyone who doubts that our waters have become almost universally contaminated with insecticides might well study a brief report issued by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service in The Service had carried out studies to discover whether fish, like warm-blooded animals, store insecticides in their tissues. The first samples were taken from a creek in a forest area in the West where there had been mass spraying of DDT for the control of the spruce budworm.
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As might have been expected, all these fish contained DDT. The really significant findings were made when the investigators turned for comparison to a remote creek thirty miles from the nearest area sprayed for budworm control. This creek was upstream from the first, and separated from it by a high waterfall. No local spraying was known to have occurred. Yet the fish in that creek, too, contained DDT. Had the chemical been airborne, drifting down as fallout on the surface of the creek?
Or had it reached the creek by hidden underground streams? Probably no aspect of the entire water-pollution problem is more disturbing than the threat of widespread contamination of ground water.
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As rain falls on the land, it seeps down through pores and cracks in soil and rock, penetrating deeper and deeper, until eventually it reaches a zone where all the pores of the bedrock are filled with water—a dark, subsurface sea, rising under hills, sinking beneath valleys. This ground water is always on the move, sometimes as slowly as fifty feet a year, sometimes as rapidly as nearly a tenth of a mile in a day. It travels unseen until, here and there, it comes to the surface as a spring, or perhaps is tapped to feed a well. But mostly it contributes invisibly to streams, and so to rivers.
And so pollution of the ground water is pollution of water everywhere. It must have been by such a dark underground sea that poisonous chemicals travelled from a manufacturing plant in Colorado to a farming district several miles away. What happened, in brief, is this. Eight years later, the facilities of the arsenal were leased to a private oil company for the production of insecticides.
Even before the changeover, however, mysterious reports had begun to come in. Farmers several miles from the plant reported unexplained sickness among livestock, and they complained of extensive crop damage; foliage turned yellow, plants failed to mature, and many crops were killed outright. And there were reports of human illness. The waters used for the irrigation of these farms were derived from shallow wells. In , a study was undertaken, in which several state and federal agencies participated, and when the well waters were examined they were found to contain an assortment of chemicals.
Such wastes as chlorides, chlorates, salts of phosphonic acid, fluorides, and arsenic had been discharged from the Rocky Mountain Arsenal during the years of its operation by the Army Chemical Corps. The investigators knew of no way to contain the contamination—to halt its advance. All this was bad enough, but the most mysterious and probably, in the long run, the most significant feature of the whole episode was the discovery of 2,4-D in the holding ponds of the arsenal, even though no 2,4-D had been manufactured there during any stage of operations. After long and careful study, the chemists at the plant concluded that the 2,4-D had been formed spontaneously in the holding ponds, from other substances discharged from the arsenal; in the presence of catalyzing air and sunlight, and quite without the intervention of human chemists, the ponds had become laboratories for the production of a new chemical.
Indeed, one of the most alarming aspects of the chemical pollution of water is the fact that in river or lake or reservoir—or, for that matter, in the glass of water served at your dinner table—are mingled chemicals that no responsible chemist would think of combining in his laboratory. The possible interactions between these chemicals, often comparatively harmless in themselves, are deeply disturbing to officials of the United States Public Health Service.
The reactions may take place between two or more chemicals, or between various chemicals and radioactive wastes. Under the impact of ionizing radiation, rearrangements of atoms could easily occur, changing the nature of the chemical in a wholly unpredictable way, and one that would be wholly beyond control. A striking example of the contamination of surface waters seems to be building up in the National Wildlife Refuges at Tule Lake and Lower Klamath Lake, both in California.
These refuges are part of a group, which also includes the refuge on Upper Klamath Lake, just over the border in Oregon. The three are linked, perhaps fatefully, by a shared water supply, and they lie like small islands in a great sea of surrounding farmlands—land reclaimed by drainage and stream diversion from an original waterfowl paradise of marsh and open water. These farmlands around the refuges are now irrigated by water from Upper Klamath Lake. The irrigation waters, having been re-collected from the fields they have served, are pumped into Tule Lake and from there into Lower Klamath Lake.
In the summer of , biologists picked up hundreds of dead and dying birds at Tule Lake and Lower Klamath Lake. Most of them were fish-eating species—herons, pelicans, grebes, gulls. Upon analysis, they were found to contain insecticide residues identified as the chlorinated hydrocarbons toxaphene, DDD, and DDE. Fish from the lakes were also found to contain the insecticide residues; so were samples of plankton.
It appears that pesticide residues are now building up in the waters of these refuges, being conveyed there by return irrigation flow from heavily sprayed agricultural lands. The refuges are critically important to the conservation of Western waterfowl. They lie in a strip of territory corresponding to the narrow neck of a funnel, in which all the migratory paths constituting what is known as the Pacific Flyway converge.
During the fall migration, the three refuges receive many millions of ducks and geese, from nesting grounds that extend from the shores of the Bering Sea east to Hudson Bay—in fact, fully three-fourths of all the waterfowl that move south into or through the Pacific Coast states in autumn. During the summer, the refuges provide nesting areas for waterfowl, and especially for two endangered species, the redhead and the ruddy duck. If the lakes and pools of these refuges become seriously contaminated, the damage to the waterfowl populations of the Far West could be irreparable.
Water, of course, supports long chains of life—from the small-as-dust green cells of the drifting plant plankton, through the minute water fleas, to the fish that strain plankton from the water and are, in turn, eaten by other fish or by birds, mink, raccoons, and man himself, in an endless transfer of materials from life to life. We know that the minerals necessary for all these forms of life are extracted from the water and passed from link to link of the food chains.
Can we suppose that poisons we introduce into water will not follow the same course? The answer is to be found in the recent history of Clear Lake, California. Clear Lake lies in mountainous country some ninety miles north of San Francisco and has long been popular with anglers. The name is plainly inappropriate; actually the lake is rather turbid, because its bottom, which is shallow, is covered with soft black ooze. Unfortunately for the fishermen and the resort dwellers on its shores, its waters have long provided an ideal habitat for a small gnat, Chaoborus astictopus.
Although the gnat is closely related to mosquitoes, it is not a bloodsucker; indeed, it probably does not feed at all as an adult. However, the human beings who came to share its habitat found it annoying, because of its sheer numbers. Efforts were made to control it, but they were largely fruitless until, in the late nineteen-forties, the chlorinated-hydrocarbon insecticides offered a new weapon. The chemical chosen for a fresh attack was DDD, an insecticide that apparently offered fewer threats to fish life than DDT. The new control measures, undertaken in September of , were carefully planned, and few people would have supposed that any harm could result.
The lake was surveyed, its volume was determined, and the insecticide was applied in the concentration of one part to every seventy million parts of water. Control of the gnats was good at first, but by September of the treatment had to be repeated, and this time the chemical was added in the concentration of one part in fifty million parts of water.
Encore Sat. Encore Fri. Raiders of the Lost Ark Paramount Sat. Paramount Sat. AMC Sat. BBC America Thur. BBC America Sun. AMC Mon. BBC America Mon. The Untouchables Sundance Mon. Sundance Mon. IFC Thur. IFC Fri. IFC Tues. BBC America Fri. Bravo Fri. Bravo Sat. Sundance Tues. IFC Wed. Sundance Sat. Godzilla, King of the Monsters! IFC Mon. IFC Sat. IFC Sun. Sundance Wed. Noon Sundance Wed. VH1 Thur. Noon IFC Wed. Some 4, miles away, they seemed more excited than the people physically present in the concert hall.
The audience, charmed at last, succumbed to the irresistible beat and danced along. The moment was buoyant but short-lived: It was her last number. She thanked the crowd and then bounded offstage. When she was back in her dressing room, the composure Kelela had projected to the audience quickly dissipated.
She stood with her hands on her hips, chewing on her lip. Her boyfriend — a filmmaker named Cieron Magat, with whom she shares an apartment in London — murmured words of reassurance and handed her a cup of homemade ginger tea. Magat told her not to worry, but Kelela wanted to deconstruct the performance. The music of these women is aimed squarely at the heart chakra of young black women; it legitimizes as much as it asserts the value of being yourself — even if that self is thought to be a little off-center.
Kelela, in particular, explodes the notion that blackness is monolithic, a single Pantone square instead of untold variations. Her music is geared to a generation that lives for juxtapositions and unexpected arrangements, sonically and visually. She asked for a demo and gave the song to Solange, who asked Kelela to come on tour with her later that year, introducing Kelela to an audience who could appreciate her innovations in R.
At the time, Kelela wanted to see how far she could push herself as an artist and play with the boundaries of R. Pitchfork gave the collection a rare 8. It felt like a sonic relic of the past unearthed years in the future. Since then, fans have been waiting for her first full-length album, which Kelela expects to release this year.
In her dressing room, Kelela folded herself into a pretzel on the couch next to me. A candle burned in the background. She knew it had been an off night, but because she loves performing so much, she was still buzzing from the energy. Kelela Mizanekristos was born in to Mizanekristos Yohannes and Neghist Girma, students who escaped war-torn Ethopia and immigrated separately to the United States. She was raised in Gaithersburg, Md. He often took Kelela with him, and she fell in love with the culture of music.
You can still catch the influence in her voice — the way she turns sounds into sacred geometry, almost unconsciously stairstepping through the vowels and consonants. In her early to mid 20s, she would go to a Washington bar called 18th Street Lounge for its Sunday-night house sessions.
Her first boyfriend, Kris Funn, whom she met when she was 19, played the upright bass, and she sat in bars for hours, watching him and his friends play. Eventually the couple broke up, but Funn encouraged Kelela to trust her instincts and not be intimidated by her lack of formal music training. By that time, Kelela was a student at American University, studying international studies and sociology. In my head, I am supposed to be a college graduate. I wanted to finish. But I was not motivated to sit there and do that paper. I had a lot of resistance.
She dropped out. This was in , and synthpop, epitomized by bands like the Knife, was trending. She began recording in a punk house in Washington, a city with a hard-core lineage that included acts like Fugazi and Bad Brains. She thrived in an environment devoid of rules. Just try. She spent hours on MySpace, scrolling through pages of music and listening to instrumentals.
She recorded herself singing over sounds she liked. Then she would send the artist her sample, along with an invitation to collaborate. Two notable electronic producers agreed, including Daedelus, who featured her on a track. At the same time, a friend introduced her to the electro duo Teengirl Fantasy, and they created a song. By then, Kelela was living in Los Angeles, and Boston brought her a thumb drive of sounds from the label and its British counterpart, Night Slugs. Kelela spent the next several days poring over the files, improvising lyrics over the sounds she liked, turning them into songs.
She loved the otherworldliness of the instrumentals — staccato mixes that used sound effects like tinkling glass and guns reloading over drum machines. The music complemented the gossamer scales she likes to sing in. Two of the songs she produced during this time were on the mixtape she released in Electronica, Sushon told me, is referential in the same way that R. Because of the internet, he explained, musicians can share references more easily than they did in the past.
Google, YouTube and SoundCloud make it easy. I watched Kelela and her D. Here, suddenly, was the thrilling flicker of a decade-old hit that had almost entirely faded from popular culture, tucked into her own noir love song. After the show , back at her Strasbourg Airbnb, Kelela changed into oversize gray sweatpants and a black button-down crop top, and padded into the kitchen in white slippers. She plugged in an electric kettle and made another cup of ginger tea as our conversation turned to her debut album.
I expected her to talk about its sound, but she wanted to speak about the intention behind it. I like that. I like playing to mixed crowds. These women helped her make sense of the racial and sexist forces that shape the world, and she still turns to them to navigate the music industry. She internalized their insistence to not be apologetic for her womanhood or blackness and not be debilitated by exclusion. Kelela is aware of how artists like her get co-opted, morphed into something symbolic that they no longer control, and is determined to avoid it. I had already heard the lengths to which she would go to prevent this from happening.
The first night we met, I asked her how she managed expectations as an artist in an age of hyperconsumption. I mostly meant her reserve on social media, despite the disturbingly insistent demands in her Twitter and Instagram mentions for her next release. Instead, she described an encounter with Fendi, the Italian luxury brand, which invited her to perform at its new headquarters in Rome to celebrate the start of a new website aimed at millennials.
She asked Fendi representatives to agree to release a statement addressing her concerns as a condition of her involvement. She sees herself as someone who can wield her status as a celebrity to catalyze change. As the evening wound down, Kelela invited me to get comfortable and listen to some of her new tracks. She gave me earbuds and left me alone to listen. When I pressed her about a release date, she made a coquettish face and demurred, saying the songs were still being mixed.
In reality, she just signed with Warp Records, which will take over the release of the album. But I could never not make anything from any other place. Her voice is as pretty as ever, rising and crashing like cresting waves over beats that swing from a druggy drone to throbbing bass lines perfect for dance-floor grinding. In their own way, they are a quiet protest: They feel radical in the way a Kerry James Marshall painting or a Ntozake Shange poem expresses the humanity and beauty of black life. The video , which has been viewed over million times and depicts a summer romance on a Greek isle, is followed by hundreds of comments from jubilant global citizens who have finally trapped their earworm.
For nine weeks, it was the most Shazammed song in the world. The retro, cheerful, almost cloying guitar riff? The result is youthful magic, the aural version of dancing until dawn with a boy you just met. Of smoking cigarettes on a rooftop all hot summer night. These days, an enterprising year-old can browse YouTube, find something that catches his fancy, transform it and broadcast it to the world. Our atmosphere is on track to become one long hot summer night. In harrowing times, this earworm asks little and gives a lot.
Sometimes you just want to kill somebody, you know? Really end their life: make mourners of their friends and family, make orphans of their children, leave a hole in the world where a person once was. But sometimes you do. But if you do, when you do, maybe sometimes it kind of gets away from you, right? Would you cover your tracks? Try to hide the body? Go into hiding and hear about yourself on the news? Walk through the doors of the police station and turn yourself in? You think about these things when you want to kill somebody.
You have the occasional dream about them. How did you get like this?
Brain chemistry? Read too many stories about Ozzy Osbourne biting the heads off bats when you were a kid? For some people, that means hitting the gym. For others, it means a stereo with a volume knob. Heavy metal has been providing people with catharsis for nearly 50 years. I listen to it because of how it makes me feel.
They have six studio efforts, numerous EPs and a live album to their credit, and every song on every album except one takes, as its theme, a known serial killer. Others are so obscure that only true crime buffs are likely to recognize their names. Look them up at your peril: These are people whose crimes will give you nightmares. It begins with a thudding kick drum all alone, with the central guitar riff ambling in murderously after two bars — a figure that lurches methodically through three five-note patterns to resolve on three descending chords that land like boulders being dropped on a house.
My iTunes play count shows that I listened to it more than I listened to any song in except for drafts of songs I was writing myself. Scott Carlson of the legendary Repulsion sings it; the incarnation of the band was essentially a reboot, with Mikami the only original member. It has a cowbell. You can bang your head and sing along.
I have spent a fair bit of idle time over the years wondering what it says about me that I want to indulge this mood at least a few times a week for the rest of my life, occasionally at earsplitting volumes in clubs. When I was young, if I heard something that sounded too celebratory of death, it terrified me.
How much time can I spend with it? What part of me is it? What does it look like up close? The cheap answer is something about the cathartic value of transgression, etc. The truer answer, for me, is that sometimes you really wanna kill somebody. It would be wrong. You try not to do wrong. But if you spend a little time in the presence of a perfect groove contemplating the wrong directly without moralizing about it, you can ride the feeling in safety and go in as deep as you want, emerging later not wanting to kill anybody.
Coates sat on the edge of a couch; Levi took a chair; each looked expectant, borderline anxious. It had been a busy year.
Levi is also a producer and D. Coates has scored films, too, but is better known for his work as a cellist. Its 13 tracks, some less than a minute in length, jump from beat-heavy, densely layered and looped orchestrations to atmospheric and spacey noodlings. It is a sketchbook in which every figure gestures toward newer, more exciting ideas to come, outlining musical rules a key, a beat, a melody one minute only to abandon them in the next.
Before they listened to the record, Coates reached into his backpack and pulled out a coloring book. He showed Levi one of the images he had colored in, a mandala filled with bright blues and greens, thin wisps of gold, bursts of coral pink. Levi leaned in for a closer look, drawing her finger across the page. It was a visual cantus firmus, she said: a fixed melody providing a structure for a limited range of improvisation. The pair sat in silence, pleased enough but also distracted.
A few tracks later, Coates looked up at Levi, who was looking at his mandala. It seemed like a familiar conversation. Levi massaged her temples, thinking, listening. Maybe, Levi said, you set up the rules and then find a way to break them; color inside the lines, so to speak, and then scribble a face over the results.
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Coates liked it. In fact, he added, his coloring was loaded with mistakes already, but the mistakes were what made the thing come together, in a subtle way. He turned the page, exposing the blots where the pen ink bled through to the other side and the sharp lines of the pattern were barely visible. Coates and Levi met almost a decade ago. Coates had come to perform student string quartets for a class Levi was taking, and he was struck by her compositions. Coates sent Levi a video by the electronic producer Daniel Lopatin, also known as Oneohtrix Point Never; Levi sent Coates a mixtape she made with some tracks by Harry Partch, a composer who created new musical scales and built his own instruments.
He wanted an experienced composer who had never written music for a movie, someone who would come at the task differently. For 10 months, she worked on almost nothing else, worried that if she listened to anything — particularly another soundtrack — she would unintentionally steal from it. The soundtrack is unsettling, but also strangely empathetic. Levi describes much of her work as mixtapes. She was thinking of music not in terms of classical or hip-hop or any other genre, but in terms of people.
Some music was Oliver Coates music. Some music was Mica Levi music. I f you buy a record on brownsvilleka. Every few days, Ka sits in a study in his home near Prospect Park in Brooklyn and goes through the orders on his site. He was there on a morning not long ago, with a MacBook propped on his knees. On the floor were cardboard boxes holding copies of his five full-length albums.
He placed five CDs in a padded envelope. There was a time when Ka took a guerrilla approach to promoting his music. I still had, like, CDs left. So I started giving them away. This has become a tradition: On the day that Ka drops a new album, he tweets, turns up on a street corner and sells a few dozen records out of the trunk of his car.
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It would be hard to find a more thoroughgoing D. Ka is the rare rapper who handles both rhymes and beats, writing his lyrics and producing the music that accompanies them. He has directed most of his videos, and he self-releases his music, on his own label. It is not a profitable venture. Over the past several years, Ka has released some of the most gripping music in any genre. His records offer a poignant, distinctive take on classic New York hip-hop: vivid stories of street life and struggle narrated in virtuosic rhymes over music of bleak beauty.
His output has won him a small but passionate fan base and critical raves in Pitchfork and Spin.
In , the Los Angeles M. For Ka to have won even modest recognition is an improbable underdog triumph. He spent much of the s trying to make it as a rapper, quit music altogether and returned a decade later, releasing his solo debut at age Today he is This career trajectory defies one of the seemingly immutable laws of pop, and of hip-hop in particular, a genre in which the cult of youth and novelty is especially pronounced. And when I come home, I try to make some dope music. Last Aug.
With me, they had all three. Ka grew up poor, in Brownsville. As a teenager, he drifted into the drug trade, dealing crack and selling firearms. If Ka is not in the music business, his wife definitively is. Today she is chief creative officer for i am OTHER, a multimedia company founded by Pharrell Williams, the superstar rapper-singer-producer.
But a commercial breakthrough is far-fetched, and a prospect for which Ka seems constitutionally ill equipped. He has performed just a few live shows and professes little interest in playing more. Those records are, in the best sense, strange. His songs are unnervingly quiet and still; they hold a listener in thrall because they hold so much back. Often the songs discard drums altogether, opening vast spaces that are filled by samples in brooding minor keys. It is an unshakable voice of experience, delivering hard-boiled tales and hard-won wisdom.