Nandi Comer: #RecordDet Interview

Carlton Gholz: Welcome to Record Detroit. Today is December the 2st 2015 we’re at United Sound Systems, 5840 2nd Avenue in Detroit. And if we weren’t in a recording studio right now, we could probably hear I-94 the cars, going by, I am here today. My name is Carlton Goals. I’m the Executive Director of the Detroit Sound Conservancy and I am here today with Nandi. Can you pronounce your last name for me? 

Nandi Comer:  Comer…

Gholz: Comer?   

Comer: Yeah, Nandi Comer.  

Gholz:  Nandi Comer, Nandi and I have already been doing an interview for her earlier today and we’re gonna do a quick interview here for the Sound Conservancy. Nandi…

Comer: Yes?

Gholz: Briefly describe who you are and what is your relationship to Detroit music?  

Well I like to think of myself as just a ‘Soul Detroiter’ in the city doing my thing. I am known as the poet. I’m also known as an educator activist, and community leader. I’ve spent most of my adult life writing and writing poetry and teaching poetry. 

Comer: So my connection with Detroit poetry nowadays recently has been tied to, I mean, Detroit music are so used to saying Detroit poetry, Detroit music has been that I decided to take on a project where I write about Detroit Techno History. Basically it came out of rage because someone, I was out of town and this older guy, when I told him I was from Detroit, he went, ‘Oh, Motown’. And I was like, ‘yay, like 60, 50 years ago’. And so I was curious about, I’ve been very curious about a thing that I really didn’t participate in as a young person.  I’ve been really curious about writing about what the contemporary sound is like and how it has affected us as Detroiters to kind of identify what our music is like post Motown. Is that, I think that’s, yeah, that’s my connection right now. But I should say that I was a huge hip hop head when I was a kid when I was in high school. So I still have a lot of relationship. I still go to a lot of hip hop events and producer, events that were a lot of hip hop people are really involved. So yeah, those are the two ways.  

Gholz: I love it. What was the first Detroit record you remember hearing? It doesn’t have to be a Detroit record, it could also just be a record. You remember hearing, what was it? How’d you hear it and what’d you think?  

Comer: I don’t know if I remember hearing it. But there was I have a very keen memory of my relationship to music and knowing music.  I used to sing with a spoon in my mother’s house, I used to sing Denise Williams’ ‘Silly’ and I feel like around the same time I was really also into Michael Jackson. So those songs like sums like that were playing all the time for me when I was a kid and I knew then I couldn’t carry a tune cause everybody told me that child. So I gave up singing my singing career, but I was very adamant about, you know, those high notes that Denise Williams sung. I think we all sometimes like to con ourselves into thinking that we can hit that beautiful high note in her heartbroken song, you know?  

Gholz: That’s good. That’s very good. What was the first or best so it could be as long as it was, is it in Detroit is the spirit of this question? So what was the first or best live music performance you remember, going to hearing whatever it was? Who was it? Where was it? Who’d you go with…a live performance?

But I remember seeing the breakers breakin’, in one corner of the main hall and then there were dreads and backpackers freestylin before the show started.

Comer:  Oh man. All of my, I think almost all of my most impressive moments what had to happen at St Andrews when I was in high school and college. There are still some things that happen that I’m impressed by, but none that leave me as like absolutely rejuvenated as I think it was. It was like Common, Outkast, and like all these people were playing and I might be mixing up memories, but I just felt like St Andrew’s was a place that really gave me all kinds of experiences, genuinely, hip hop experiences. But I remember seeing, the breakers breakin’, in one corner of the main hall and then like there were dreads and backpackers freestylin before the show started. This was also a place that was very familiar to me as a high school student.   I knew a lot while my dad used to produce a local hip hop show and we went there a lot. I mean almost every other weekend where they’re interviewing people that were coming into town. And so my dad interviewed Common and, Common when he had just come out with his second album after ‘Can I Borrow A Dollar’ and ‘One Day It Will All Makes Sense’. And he, we, I remember going with a camera with my sister and interviewing Black Eyed Peas before they had Fergie. It was a space that was really kind of sacred for concerts in general. And there were also, there were also people who were party people, party promoters who would do these like live art on the stage while people were performing on the main stage. And then upstairs it was like a relaxation. Like there, I felt like St Andrew’s was always a place that was really open to the kind of events that really would allow you to not only be able to participate in your own kind of like comfort zone, but you could explore. So I like, maybe I wasn’t a part of the techno scene, but I definitely saw house and techno on Three Floors of Fun. And I know you didn’t say like one event, but I have to tell you to that one space that has a lot of my formative memories of a relationship to music and live music even, I don’t think I’ve been there in maybe 10 years, but I really even, I came back after not being in Detroit for a long time and one of my favorite Latin American artists was performing at St Andrews. 

So I’ve had all these really great concert moments and that one space where from neo soul to hip hop to techno, to Latin rocker-ska music [laugh]

Gholz: I mean I worked, I worked at Record Time with House Shoes and he was a resident. 

Comer:  I saw House Shoes spin there. I mean Erikah Badu…..I’ve seen so many good concerts there, not as of recent, which is really sad.  I remember going there on  one Friday when I realized Three Floors of Fun, was not Three Floors of Fun anymore. It was the worst I’d ever gotten. I was like, Oh, this is really sad.  I’ve always had a little bit of like hesitance when going there, but I got almost always concerts. That place is just like really, a very rarely did I hate my time in that space. 

Gholz:  When you were doing that, I was rocking there. I saw Jeff Buckley there.  I saw rock rock stuff. 


Comer: I saw Estero there like crazy, like undergrad. I felt like that was the place that if you… right before you really blew up, you had to play at St Andrews. And so you saw people that I guess maybe what the Royal Oak Theater is now, but you saw people that came in…  Les Nubians played there just people that just really, that were coming in from all over the world and that weren’t big and that weren’ they wanted to play in Detroit and they couldn’t do something the State Theater, which is the Filmore now or they couldn’t do the Fox Theater. Nobody wanted to be in the Fox Theater it was too [inaudible, 9:06] we all wanted to stand up and get sweaty and bang our heads to, you know, Goodie Mob and stuff like that. [laugh] Like,  

Gholz: Yeah, there was some window there. There was a, yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. And that’s really, that’s a great answer. Motown is known the world over. You might even have said it for your first, most people say when their first record, you know, just wherever this, they’ll say a term record or something like that. It’s known the world over described one aspect of music history that you wish got more attention.  

Comer: I think anything that’s been produced in the last 10 years from a Detroiter that isn’t [inaudible, 9:48] or Big Sean. Nothing against them in the pop world. I think that we have a really hard culture where Detroiters have so many different genres that we’re producing right now. We have this really strong hood rapper sort of [inaudible, 10:10] We have this, and it’s not enough to say ‘hood rap’, it’s like you have to say ‘hood ass rapper’ because like, and it’s a really strong community people that are online throwing their stuff out there and they never get any play in Detroit and in Detroit radio. I would go back to our electronic scene like, there are people that are like, it’s a shame that we have these young artists who make beautiful, incredible sounds and they’re listened to more in Japan than in Detroit. I actually don’t know if it’s just getting attention in general because some of them are quite successful. Some of our artists are just doing incredible work, but they’re not able to do it here because our means of communication have really, really shut down for local work. And the kind of ways in which we find, I think we are so broad that we can’t, like we look around, we’ve got our eyes open and we’re looking around the whole room, but we forget to look at our hands and like what’s actually in our own hands if Detroit is a person in that sense. So we have access to so much right now tha, I think we sometimes forget that we have people up on 7 Mile. We have people on Jefferson, we got people on Iron Street and the Iron Street [inaudible, 11:41] that are just like really kicking out some really beautiful work. And it’s a shame that so many artists end up having to tour or be like, they can’t even then, even, they can’t even be emergent right now and rely on the Detroit scene as an emerging artist. They almost have to immediately start touring because they won’t survive on being an emerging artist in Detroit. 


Gholz: Your favorite Detroit poet? 

Comer: I have a lot of them. I will always, I will always have love for my contemporaries. Right now Vibey Francis is an incredible, incredible poet. Like she is just doing so, such good work. I read broadly, so I also love now she’s more of a page writer. And that she’s not out in the performance poetry scene. She used to be.   

But she is very well… very comfortably seated in the public, in the publication world. But I love as much, I love her work as much as I love some of our performance artists like Mike Wright, T Miller. And then I like, I really enjoyed listening to, reading Detroit writers that have been able to do both Dee Matthews, Erica Foreman, Jamal Mayne. These are all writers that are making extreme waves on a national level that maybe, again, they suffer the same plight as Detroit musicians that maybe a lot of Detroiters don’t know them, but within the poetry community, Detroit writers are to be reckoned with. They are in slam, in the performance world, in the theater world, we have Detroiters that are killing it in the theater world. 

 I will always have a love for Robert Hayden, which was, is an elder and a person that we all look towards. And I mentioned all the writers I’ve mentioned are black, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t read outside of black writers. Phillip Levine who we just lost. I really, really enjoyed his work. And then of course there’s a whole number of fiction writers in Detroit that are really doing a damn thing. Like they just do in the poetry community. They’ve already started recognizing the poets as a Detroit school. And, and I didn’t mention Tommy Blount, but he’s also another writer that is, but they, like nationally there is just as much as the nation is, has an eye on Detroit as for industry or how it post-industrial city revitalizing the arts community is also looking at how creative we are. So visual arts, music and creative writing where we are of interest to the rest of the world. Even if Detroiters don’t want to look at themselves, we are, the world is looking at us.  

Gholz:  Why do you think I want to ask you? So we’re in the, I did my standard and now we’re in the freelance. I got a couple of questions. I’m gonna bring it all back home. So let me ask you the specifics of Techno Poetics, give me, can you give me a sense of just, you know, your elevator pitch about what that project is, sort of, give us a sense of how much work has been done, just given the scope and then maybe you can talk just briefly about why you were interested in talking to the Detroit Sound Conservancy about, does that help?  

Comer: Yeah. Yeah. 

Techno Poetics is an interdisciplinary project where Detroit writers are responding to the Detroit contemporary sound and the history of that Detroit contemporary sound, particularly as it relates to techno. 

It has a variety of things that it encompasses from community gatherings to in school workshops and individual performances that all lead up to a culminating performance next year in May. We also, in order to achieve this work, we’ve not only been planning these community gatherings and working with youth either through the summer, we did a summer program. We’re also doing a kind of archival research in history where we had been interviewing people. You were one of the people that we interviewed, asking them about their relationship to Detroit music, in particularly techno. How do they see it, what is their, what do they see its presence and what is their personal connection or disconnect to it?  So far as I said, we did a summer program. We’ve talked to a couple of people from, media who were interested. We have a performance coming up on the December 12th at the DIA and … I should say that project is sponsored by Inside Out Literary Arts Project. Which is an organization that places writers in schools and communities. And this is a one, a year long project that it, that has allowed both adult writers and youth writers to engage with sound artists and Detroit residents to talk about this [inaudible, 17:58] techno.  So anyway, we, one of the, in conjunction with the DIA ‘Three Americans’, exhibit, we are doing a special presentation of Techno Poetics to people who will participate in a day long  workshops. We also have in the 2016 these community gatherings that will help to gather several residents from around the city in different community centers around the city to talk about, to not only discuss the sound like as an educational tool, but ask them about their reactions to what they’re hearing, whether or not they’re familiar with it or not.  Yeah, so I think I covered a lot of…

Gholz: Scope and everything. What’s the most surprising thing you learned during this Techno Poetics process? 

Comer: I am surprised by everyone’s has a very different take on what happened to Detroit techno, what is happening. From the people that are involved in it. There’s a very different narrative than the people that loved it in the eighties and no longer listen to it. I’m really, really shocked at sometimes, how it might, it might be seen as another Detroit tragic story. 

Even the largest success stories… it ends. Sometimes they end on notes where they’re like, ‘yeah, I’m so successful but I can’t even play my own city. And the city is what helped me make this sound’. And I think that’s really sad and partly part why I continue to do this because I think there has to be other modes of making that connection for Detroiters.

Comer: I am surprised by everyone’s has a very different take on what happened to Detroit techno, what is happening. From the people that are involved in it. There’s a very different narrative than the people that loved it in the eighties and no longer listen to it. I’m really, really shocked at sometimes, how it might, it might be seen as another Detroit tragic story. Even the largest success stories… it ends. Sometimes they end on notes where they’re like, ‘yeah, I’m so successful but I can’t even play my own city. And the city is what helped me make this sound’. And I think that’s really sad and partly part why I continue to do this because I think there has to be other modes of making that connection for Detroiters. Like how maybe poetry isn’t the most successful for everyone. But I think it’s a new means of communicating. Partly because I think that people who are involved, the sound, the sound artists that are involved in the scene right now have a desire to connect with youth. They have a desire to connect with Detroiters. And I feel like we have come up with a collaboration that is so absolutely unexpected that somebody is gonna raise their eyebrow and go, huh [laugh]. So, yeah.

Gholz: Techno Poetics, I see you’ve got the Dan Sicko our quarter here is on top of, Techno Rebels, the second edition of Techno Rebels. Sound Conservancy is involved in, trying to figure out how to best preserve, an aspect of Dan’s legacy while also imparting what we think is important in what we see in music journalism and how important user can only see has been in being sort of we what we said in the Kickstarter, sort of the first responders to the musical history of the city. And so, maybe you could just say one thing or something about, that book and what it matters to you or how, how it’s been relevant or helpful or just something about, Dan’s, legacy.  


Comer: Yeah.  And I just realized I didn’t answer the second part of your other question. 

Gholz: Oh okay.  You can do that too. [laugh]

Comer:  But you mentioned the Detroit Sound Conservancy.  

Gholz: Oh yes. Well you did say it was an historic, you said you were looking, I mean, I thought took that as your, yeah.  

Comer: So There are a couple of books that are out there about the Detroit techno sound. Very few of them are on display at the Detroit techno museum.  

Gholz: Hmm. Mmm. Right.  


Comer: And when you talked to the artist in Underground Resistance and you talk to, the directors of the museum, They point to this book as being the most comprehensive and true to this, to the narrative.   Mmm.  So I hold it close because there is a part of me that is also honoring a group of people who, who don’t get honored outside of the techno community as much.  Mmm.  And so for me, it’s an invaluable resource. It does something that I don’t think other books do. I think a lot of people who got involved with techno during the rave scene don’t want to discuss Detroit other than saying, ‘yeah, it started in Detroit, but let’s really talk about how big it was in Europe’.  Mmm.  And I think that narrative works as kind of like this historical colonizing that has happened to African American music for like almost every genre that has been invented, there’s a usurping of African American culture and African American identity and not wanting to recognize the group or groups of people who were or originates no matter how much it changed once it was in the hands of others.  Mmm.  Blues music sounded different when Elvis got it. And yet he made it this huge thing. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that he was singing songs that were written by black men in the South and therefore gained a lot of popularity by making it his own zone. Now do we ignore the fact that these black men were making these, this music? No, you can’t. And so I think one of the things that Sicko does is that he takes us back to prior to that, the, what we understand is techno and gives us the high school parties. He gives us the culture in Detroit and he gives it to us in a way that allows us to understand how it was happening in Europe simultaneously. But also what, what were the, what was this special sauce that was happening in Detroit to help produce this, this sound?  So I mean, I’ve literally read publications that said, ‘I’m not really concerned with all the origin’, you know, and I’m just like, how do you do that? How is that, I mean, I understand that you have it, then you have a different project than what I’m interested in. So every time someone wants to know more about things, I’m like, Hey, you should look at this, this publication. And this other way, like I said, I was very estranged from the scene and so it gave me a really good list of references to like, look up and listen to.  

Gholz: So finishing off here, I mean we’ve already sort of talked about it, you know, the need to be thinking about origins would need to be thinking about, you know, what, we’re here in a place, but there was another place before and we need to remember that. So, I’m not going to tell, ask you, why do you think we, what do you think we lose if we don’t preserve? I think you’ve already answered that question, but we are still a young group that Sound Conservancy is still a pretty young group. We’re in our fourth year. We just got our first home, you know, that we’re renting in the basement of this building. So what advice do you have for us moving forward? You know, we’re right in the middle of, we’re going to start strategic planning Saturday for what, 2016 looks and maybe even what 2017 looks like.  Mmm.  You know, give us some, give us some advice, Nandi.

Comer:  Maybe two things. One, building an historical institution is difficult. And we have seen, we’ve seen institutions in Detroit, become great institutions that are still faced with a lot of difficulty.  Mmm.  And so don’t be frustrated by that.  There… you are passionate about what you do and keep that passion, keep those, keep your vision. You know, there will be hard years even 10, 15, 20, 30, 50 years after. I mean, what,  the African American History Museum started in a trailer. And I can name 10 other museums that started that way, that aren’t around right now. 

Gholz: including the Greystone of which we are, we have downstairs. Yup.

Comer: So don’t become frustrated. Know that your work is important. But the other thing is too, because I’m very fearful of Detroit.  Mmm.  Just please make sure that the people that you work with and the people that you choose to represent you are as diverse as Detroit is. That is very difficult, it’s a very hard thing for organizations to do.  Mmm.  Especially now when Detroit is in a space… I have a fear of that, that in a hundred years they’ll see the time that Detroit was dominated by African Americans and had a very rich African-American culture that it’ll be seen as that dark time of bankruptcy and no one will be able to recognize the cultural diversity that Detroit has right now. And I think the only way to maintain that and to understand it very clearly is if our cultural institutions continue to maintain the diversity that we read, that we actually have right now. And so it does mean working much harder to be inclusive of communities that are being left out of the progress of Detroit right now. So it means extending an arm out to people who really might not speak in the same language as we do as young hip cultural makers like…

Gholz: Or middle-aged cultural makers. 

Comer: Oh, you’re young seven. He keeps trying to really date and if you say you’re old and I’m old.. [laugh], but yeah. How do we not lose sight of how culturally vast Detroit is. 

Gholz: Yup.  

Comer: Yeah.  

Goals: Nandi thank you so much. Really appreciate it. 

Comer: No problem. Thank you for having me. 

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