As I say every week, if you hear the wind in the background, you know it’s working as it should.
Host: Welcome to Breath of Air with Kerry Moss. This is Iowa People’s Radio. For the People, By the People Of The People. In Tthis week’s episode, we’re continuing our series Voicing the Green New Deal honoring 50 years of MARA, The Midwest Agricultural Regional Agency that worked to make the Heartland flower through green jobs, education, and collective care. This series examines how artists have given voice, power, and representation texture to a half century of transformation in the lives of Midwesterners. Each interview threads public history into private stories. It’s in these intimate spaces of home we can understand the ways our world changed for the better. This week before we speak to famed DJs of Detroit and Muscatine, we’re going to trace back the systems that had to end to bring us into our shared future of plentitude.
We start every episode of this series by asking, where do you call home and what does it mean to you?
DJ: Thank you so much for that Kerry, it’s a pleasure to be here today.
Home means so many different things to me. I grew up between Muscatine Iowa and Detroit, running through industrial corn fields that became peppered with wind turbines and an agrovoltaic farming co-operative known as Sunflower CLT while I was in elementary school in Iowa. I saw the clean energy industry that so many of neighbors now work in begin to take root in Detroit and its suburbs as a high schooler. It really forced me to recognize the connections between the labor and industrial investment in and around Detroit and what would become our co-operative system of electricity generation and food production in Iowa and throughout the Midwest–the ways in which we were all bound together through those early days of the GND.
What brought you to Detroit?
We wound up in Detroit because my parents were the beneficiaries of the first wave of real investment in making public universities free to attend. They received what became known as the green industry scholarships in the 2020s that funneled so many people in their generation through the University of Michigan and a few other large public universities to help grow the clean energy sector throughout the U.S.. They actually studied computer science and electrical engineering with [name], who went on to become Energy Secretary in the second Ocasio-Cortez Administration. , s.And in addition to their education being free, the program was connected to the first version of a jobs guarantee for their generation--so when they graduated, they went straight to work for a new, publicly-owned wind turbine manufacturing company headquartered in Dearborn, but with plants and installations all over the Midwest.
That program was funded through a partnership between the Departments of Education and Energy, aimed at the children of formerly incarcerated people--the government didn’t call it this, but my folks always referred to it as as test case for reparations.
long story short. My childhood was spent following my parents as they helped plan and build wind power arrays across the Midwest. As much as my community feels rooted in Detroit’s music scene, I also spent months and in some cases years at a time in towns with other kids just like me, whose parents were part of these early projects of building the turbines, laying the transmission line and batteries, turning the commodity farms into regenerative co-ops, and so on. I was listening to motown, Detroit techno, music from my home city, this Rust Belt urban experience, but every day I was seeing the transformation of these towns in rural parts of Ohio, in Iowa, in Indiana, in Michigan.
Kerry Moss: We so often refer to the 30s now in the Midwest, as the Rusting of the Corn belt –the construction of new jobs brought forth a sort of new wave of migration. Was this an alienating experience for a Black kid from Detroit?
DJ: So the weird thing is for my parents, I’m sure it absolutely was, but for me, there wasn’t much of a difference between my youth groups doing urban gardening in Detroit and the Black farmers I saw returning to the rural Midwest, grants in hand from the USDA as it sought to finally make up for a century-plus of stealing Black farm land to make way for massive industrial ag companies. It wasn’t until I was a teen that I could really feel the shift underneath my feet so to speak. There was also this great pride in our community, of being a part of this energy transformation and changing what it was like to live in shared communities. When we’d take road trips around the region, my parents would point out the farms or the wind arrays and tell me who built them–which were theirs, which were our neighbors, and so on. They’d tell me which of our aunts or uncles just got elected to their electric co-op and why it mattered that the folks who built and relied on the grid also owned it. There was this new understanding of land being shared, of labor connecting us, and of literally building a new world in real time. Growing up we saw our parents explain these shifts to us, the world seemed more natural for us to grapple with. Like, of course the energy system would be nationalized–the people of this nation built it!
KM: You can really see this milieu reflected in your music–the mixing of genres and styles, the emphasis on worker power. You’ve just won a Grammy award, been called a revolutionary artist with mainstream appeal. How do you see your work alongside those that inspired you in Detroit and Iowa?
DJ: I think growing up, in MARA and Detroit’s arts programs, there was a huge emphasis on the roots of struggle and joy reflected back
through music–that it could be both cathartic and empowering. As a teen during seasons where we would have to be in Iowa, I spent tons of time with friends listening to old sets from the Detroit techno scene. Frankie knuckles, the physical spaces of these clubs, the reactions of this industry to labor issues, unions, job loss, the decline of the auto industry–they had time on their hands and all manner of grievances to air. The whole scene took automation and technology as a rallying point, to build a movement that could overwhelm it. For a kid staring at turbines out the window every weekend, I felt a special connection to thatf technology, like we straight up just thought that shit was cool. We weren’t supposed to do it, but we’d drive out to the arrays, jump the fence, and watch them whirl all day and night. I had my first beer and my first joint out in the arrays. The other side of it was definitely a sense of loss or confusion about the changes in cities. I started out with a drum kit, basement tapes, and would just produce music with friends at home.
KM: Tell me more about your musical influences.
DJ: I have to really credit my education for this. I had so much exposure to culture from different eras. There was the blues and jazz. The thing about industrial music is it’s sort of always of its time. The clubs close and new ones open. Fights are won or lost and then new ones are waged. There is so much fluctuation. I listened to everything from pop music to R&B. Obviously I got really into this 1990s sound that my music is sort of known for. Detroit at this time was reckoning with the loss of our old industries. Using a reclaiming of these tools to create a Black Powered future. I sort of felt like I needed to sink back into that history in order to understand the experience around me. Like here we are again, at this moment where there is so much potential tied to technology and so many people failing to consider how this new industry or piece of tech might impact people and their communities. Instead of auto manufacturing, though, it’s the system that literally keeps the lights on. It’s a lot of history to grapple with, being a part of this moment that sort of saved the trajectory of our planet, and I’m like ok, teenager in Iowa.
KM: Your parents were also involved in Black Lives Matter in the early 20s. Did that experience shape you?
DJ: The cool part of my parents is they were teens during the rise of the Movement for Black Livesin the 20s–--they still talk about the pandemic uprisings all the damn time. I think that period really shifted a lot of things for them--maybe helped them see BLM and, say, the Land Back movement as part of the same struggle. They were super into urban gardening and were part of this big CareNotCops campaign in Minneapolis and Chicago. In my music, I’ve always been really fixated on the relationship between people and their tools. Tools to resist, tools to build community, tools to break down oppressive structures. For my parents, they just worked with tools all the time--they were building the things that would literally power their communities. There was this backdrop of energy, which is super technical and financial and required all of this new governing and ownership structure, but then for my parents there was always this connection back to abolition–that we’d never be able to be free until we had true self-determination, and, at least in the energy sector, that meant democratizing who controlled and benefitted from that complex system.
KM: How was abolition discussed in your home?
DJ: It was always there--on those road trips, at the dinner table, everywhere. It’s why the ongoing project of abolition is at the core of my music. Understanding freedom and healing conflict not through violence, but through attention, care and health has been intrinsic to understanding the Green New Deal. In my first album, Carbon Freedoms, we sort of went straight to the gut of it. One of the turbine sites my dad worked on in the early 30s was this former prison facility in Iowa. He brought me to work with him a few times because he knew how important it was for me to see it.
You had this site of just massive, intergenerational trauma–a place where cities like Detroit were raided for bodies to fill a prison so that it could keep sending profits out to its contractors, and now it was being decommissioned and converted into a source of clean, co-operatively owned power, in some cases for some of those same, formerly incarcerated people. It wasn’t lost on me that these spaces of incarceration, immiseration, this spiritual rupture, were now sites where new energy could support entire cities.
My parents experienced this double failure of care first hand. Their parents were incarcerated so they had this brokenness at the family level, and then this experience of an unstable education. School sort of mirrored this fracture point at the community level. It was intensely traumatic for them and a source of pain that I felt growing up. You had politicians telling families that kids would just go to another school, without any sense of understanding the kind of stability that a school could offer. Schools were viewed as these simple places to put people until they outgrew them, not real spaces of learning.
KM: Obviously the past 50 years started with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, eventually leading to the mass closure and decommissioning of prisons throughout the U.S. Your music has a unique way of speaking to so many histories and places where this trauma has touched.
DJ: Something we actually did for research for the last album, Wind Powers, was to listen and sample a lot of these archives on talks and speeches given by abolitionists. I sampled a lot of these seminars, and also sampled talks given by radicals in the 1970s, 1940s. I think the story of abolition is also a story about the flows of Black people up from the Mississippi River into the region--about connecting the struggles of our ancestors to our own. As much as this land was consolidated and stripped, wealth was stripped, the closing of prisons symbolized the legacies of struggle that linked back downstream so to speak. This is a story that connects regions across the nation.
KM: You were part of a MARA program creating amphitheatres in former prison sites as a teen. What was this like, to make art directly tied to the memory of the carceral system.
DJ: This was specifically envisioned as this callback to the New Deal where there were all of these modernist amphitheatres created in the Midwest, specifically Ohio–I guess it was the Green New Deal’s way of sampling. My school in Iowa was sort of brought on in this project, Performing Repair, to help create and install part of the art that would cover this space. We worked with a few different schools to think about this space as a meeting point for different types of performance and expression. Poetry, theatre, music, comedy could all have a platform and place in different parts of the Midwest. You wouldn’t need cultural programming to be relegated to a few large cities with big performance centers anymore. The experience of walking through those sites, we first were like, who would want to be here? These should be torn down, the rubble buried and forgotten. But then, there was sort of this big feeling of preservation and reuse, and of living with or confronting the kind of state violence that they made possible. These had to become sites of repair, and repair isn’t possible without that kind of purposeful reckoning.
KM: In the 2030s, MARA was sort of contested as this top down agency. It’s initial rollout was kind of a disaster–very little local control, much of it pretty disconnected from local communities and administered by elites. There were a lot of fears amongst Black and Indigenous communities and activists that the government had too much power. It would be mismanaged.
DJ: Yeah it’s easy to look back on it now and feel nostalgic–like it was all a big success story. But my parents protested MARA, while being employed by the agency. They were part of the massive strikes in the late 2020s. Things got better and MARA really did evolve into something that made the life I enjoy now possible, but it wasn’t easy and it wasn’t won without a lot of fights. In all of this political tension, there was still an understanding that the point of an agency was to funnel collective ownership and stewardship to movement groups–that if you were going to use public funds to build these new industries and infrastructures, then we had to share in the wealth that was created. When that didn’t happen, people fought back. There’s this sort of erasure in the history of the agency as if it was well intentioned the whole time. I think in my music, I always wanted that tension to feel palpable. I wanted a sense that this wasn’t utopia beginning 2022. This was and remains a struggle.
KM: Your early sets are described by music critics as blending all of these scenes in cities. You’d play house shows and the punk kids would come, white kids from rural towns were super into it. You would also pick your sites accordingly. You played a set on the former site of Enbridge Line 3 in Minnesota. You’ve played at former prisons. Your recent tour played in the rec centers of various community land trusts in rural communities.
DJ: Obviously, you could also look back on my career thus far and think it’s been popular or successful or whatever all this time. But it hasn’t. I’m happy white rural people feel my music speaks to their experience now, but I got booed out of clubs and chased out of town more than once when I was starting out. I think a shared identity in the midwest comes through in this relationship to land, obviously, but also about the subtle intimacies of daily life. And as some of those first energy co-ops began to really perform as advertised–creating real, well-paying jobs, providing abundant food and clean energy, that’s when things began to flip. There’s work and pride in plentitude. There is also pride in the quiet private-sphere moments in the midst of all of this production. The creative power in making something to be shared. That’s something fostered in us at all of these arts schools.
KM: Tell me more about the Enbridge show?
I think the Enbridge show, we were sort of honoring these new protected lands near the source of the Mississippi River. There was this bigspect of the TRC towards indigenous sovereignty, and I was honored to be invited to play something to honor the landscape. I also felt like these shows were moments to keep the history engaged with these sites. I worry a lot that now we have this sort of new agricultural system and energy system in the Midwest. A kid like me from the city lives in a place where I could access mental health care and education. The violence of the early 2000s is over. But, we risk so much in forgetting.
KM: Your music has been described as the soulful pop of Motown/jazz with the precision and intricacy of Detroit techno. You’ve been associated with the movement, Iowa techno.
DJ: Yeah well, ultimately, people want to dance, they want to emote, they want to feel something. Music’s not the only way to do that, but it’s my way of doing that. . It’s not just me either doing this type of music. I was lucky in Muscatine to be a part of this huge community of people finding themselves in this genre. The early years of this scene we would just fuck around in the fields near the turbines. It’s funny because it’s sort of this rust belt sound, this industrial music, brought out to the vastness of the prairie lands. We wanted the intimacy of the crowded room, that meeting place of all kinds of people in the cities, but also that expanse and very Midwestern rural feel where it’s you and the work of the prairie. The wonder of looking out and sort of seeing the beginnings of this new world. On top of that though, was the truth of the region, which is that Black people have always been in rural places, Black settlement and presence was a forgotten history.
KM: Media and making itself are tools of world building.
DJ: Absolutely. Most of my work would be impossible without the intervention of different programs and communication initiatives. The community-led journalism or even podcasting that exploded in the 20s as media was sort of reshuffling itself definitely gave way to all of this radical production over the airwaves. We would listen to so much stuff from the cities growing up in Iowa. It didn’t feel that removed. There wasn’t this sense of media monopoly either, it was like, here I am listening to this Cleveland activist group talking about their working group. All of the grants for radio, teachers who worked in community journalism, classes on mediamaking were huge for us.
KM: I can relate. I’m also a graduate of Midwest Radio Collective, which grew out of the City Bureau in Chicago in the mid 20s to provide radio education in every Midwestern middle school.
DJ: Exactly! Listening to those early years, when NPR sort of underwent those whose community source initiatives. Going through those archives was really interesting and inspiring for me because I could feel the shift to information models.
KM: Right, and in many ways, the rural Midwest now isn’t so removed from the cities. Radio education and community sourced communications models were pivotal. There are direct lines of communication, community, work, and creativity that sort of collapse these regions, or at least show their interdependence.
DJ: Exactly. I see energy, and my parent’s work, and the music I make, as directly in dialogue with this exact set of relationships. The energy system works in a way now where these planned turbines and the communities that support them draw brain power from schools in the city, employing people on gap years before college who wouldn’t have access to educational opportunities 30 years ago. They have been a huge part of the US energy system in ensuring power is both a net zero carbon emitter, while ensuring all households have energy access. e just have this shared knowledge about how we power our society. It’s a language we all speak. My parents describe the energy sector as something obtuse and sort of outside of common knowledge growing up. That’s just not our world anymore. Like farming in the Midwest, we all sort of get to be a part of this power sourcing. The difference now, and this is what my parents fought for and built, is that we all benefit from this. We sow and we reap and we all have a role.
KM: Reflecting on your albums, what sorts of impact do you hope your music has on the next generation?
DJ: I mean, it’s humbling that the sounds resonate at all. I think what was instilled in me growing up, and has been made possible through the material efforts of so many activists, is that culture and making is inherently political, and also directly reactive to both history and place. I grew up understanding that music is healing at a time when healing was sort of entrenched as this social and economic project. Underpinning all of that, is this community I live in where we connect so much to the land. Everything we do is in service of sort of delving back into these prairie root systems, you know? Like yeah, we’re capturing carbon while keeping the lights on, but we’re creating systems of healing and support that will outlive us.