KEXP’s ‘Immigrant Songs’ digs for musical roots

The Nile Project performs for KEXP's 'Immigrant Project.' (Photo by Eric Gonzalez Alfaro, courtesy KEXP.)
The Nile Project performs for KEXP’s ‘Immigrant Songs’ online program. (Photo by Eric Gonzalez Alfaro, courtesy KEXP.)

KEXP is celebrating modern musicians influenced by the immigrant experience in a new online series. KEXP’s William Myers, known on the air as DJ Chilly, co-curates “Immigrant Songs,” which has featured interviews and in-person performances by local and national artists who wear their immigrant influences on their sleeves.

It’s going to be an outstanding way for all of us to see through different eyes and learn more about the different aspects of American culture,” he said. “And above all we’ll get to hear some incredible music.”

Performers have included Meklit, a San Francisco performer who immigrated from Ethiopia, and Seattle’s Chimurenga Renaissance, which explores African music. Coming up Wednesday is a performance from Dengue Fever, a Los Angeles band with a singer from Cambodia.

Excerpts have been on KEXP’s on air shows, Wo’Pop and El Sonido, KEXP’s Latin and Modern Global specialty shows.

Myers took some questions over email. Some of his answers were edited for length.

What kind of coverage, music, and discussions does the program feature?

We’ll be covering a range of artists and experiences with “Immigrant Songs.” Musically it will run the gamut from traditional styles of foreign countries to sounds that you might consider to be originally American inventions like rock and hip-hop, and most often fusions of these two worlds and beyond.

The dualistic experience of foreign-born musicians is one of the great catalysts in musical progression and experimentation. Everything from Cambodian psych to Afrocentric hip-hop to Latin folk, and many places in between. We promise to bring many different genres to the table as we look through different lenses of these musicians who are creating art in the United States both from right here in the Pacific Northwest and around the country. The series will include live radio performances that will air on “El Sonido” and “Wo’ Pop” on KEXP, accompanied by videos of these live sessions and blog posts that will include extended interviews, stories and much more.

Each artist or group has a completely unique tale to tell. There will be similarities between them as, in general, it’s the stories of immigrants working in the US, but each will have their own personal experiences and insights to share. The discussions will focus on the artists’ personal and work histories as well as how being a foreign-born artist has affected their path and creative process here in the United States. We’ll also talk about the challenges, successes and political and social issues that their communities face past and present in their homelands and more specifically here in this country.

How did the “Immigrant Songs” online program get started? Who had the idea(s) first?

KEXP’s Programming department and our great blog and video team got together with myself and [KEXP DJ] Darek Mazzone as curators to figure out how we could best use KEXP’s resources, to create a series that both honored the musicians that we’d be featuring and make it interesting and enriching for our listeners. We’re taking something that we already excel at, our live videos, and then digging deeper into the stories of these artists with interviews, writing and other media.

What aspects of the program are the most challenging, and how do you work through the challenges?

One of the challenges is deciding which artists to feature. We’re starting with ten artists this year and there are so many great immigrant artists out there. We’re going to do our best to pick an array of musical styles and stories, we really want to show the depth and variety of this American experience. We’ll be featuring artists that we would already be championing on “Wo’Pop” and “El Sonido.”

KEXP listeners are incredibly open-minded and so the field is wide open, which is great! The biggest challenge is perhaps keeping the interviews down in length. The stories, insights and opinions of the artists are deep and the topic of living and working in the United States as a foreign-born artist is substantial. Keeping it succinct, yet personal and comprehensive is a fun challenge.

Chimurenga Renaissance is from here, but has roots in Zimbabwe. Are all the members from overseas? How did they get together here?

Both members of Chimurenga Renaissance [Tendai Maraire & Hussein Kalonji]come from families that emigrated from Africa and they fuse Congolese and Zimbabwean sounds with hip-hop and beyond. They’re both sons of renowned musicians and have studied the traditional sounds of their homelands while experimenting in modern styles. After seeing each other live, they knew they had to work together as their stories were very similar, they connected with a love of hip-hop and futuristic flavors while holding on to their roots. Watch the videos for the in depth story of the group and the music.

What is in the future for the program, up to and beyond Dengue Fever on April 1?

I’m stoked to have Dengue Fever up next! And we’ll have more great stories and live sessions throughout the rest of this year. As host of “El Sonido” I’m definitely going to have to Latin artists in the mix and we’ll feature some other styles as well. We’ve got some great stuff on deck and plenty of yet-to-be-scheduled artists too. I’m so excited to see how this grows and unfolds. Stay tuned – there’s lots of great music and discovery ahead! Follow along on the KEXP blog.