Pigeonholing of artists is a cherished tradition among critics and audiences. Some artists are never able to escape their association with the struggle for a better planet. Consider Woody Guthrie, Rage Against the Machine, or Ani Difranco. Each one is noted for their social commentary, but offered much more than that. The label of activism keeps their artistic vision from the wider audience it deserves.
Marla Mase is just such an artist, noted for her work addressing women’s and human rights. Though she’s not as visible as Pussy Riot, she’s delivering a message just as potent. Speak is her latest release in the fight. Unfortunately, it is this sort of press that is going to dominate coverage of Mase’s work, a portrayal that ignores the deeper dimensions of her work.
Speak is the soundtrack to a stage production by the same name that deals with the oppression of women through song, poetry, dance, and spoken word performances. All the raw energy that typified that production is here in the new deluxe version of the soundtrack with 6 new tracks.
Unlike many modern commentaries on social ills, Mase transmits a message unclouded by lofty concepts. The closest she gets to ambiguity is sarcasm, and she shies away from metaphor and symbolism. The songs on this record only briefly address the issues of inequality and women’s issues explicitly. With those touchstones, Mase goes on to explore more complex issues of dehumanization, technology, and the dark corners of sexuality. This disc is a Trojan horse of dark contemplation on weighty matters, cloaked in mostly upbeat music. It took this listener by pleasant surprise.
Mase delivers her peering insight via a voice that isn’t traditionally accomplished. What she lacks in technique is more than made up for in gusto and energy. While she’s not the best singer in the world, she uses her voice to great effect and is able to exploit its strengths.
Much of the album consists of spoken word commentary on the state of the world floating over the music, punctuated by catchy. Mase’s musical company includes David Byrne, Henry Rollins, and Patti Smith. There is also a liberal dose of the sarcasm of Frank Zappa, which is a welcome addition to the sonic stew. In fact, comparisons to Zappa’s work, particularly Joe’s Garage, are likely and accurate.
The message of her music, impossible to miss, sits atop a melting pot of musical styles that keeps the listener guessing. Under the broader framework of rock, the Tomas Doncker band incorporates elements of funk, reggae, experimental, folk, and world music from across the globe. Intelligent musical choices with an overt rock influence dominate, giving legitimacy to Mase’s mission and affirming that this music is more than a complaint. It would be easy for Mase to slide off the vehicle of artistic complexity she has developed. Instead, she takes the punk ethos that defines her presentation and subject matter and keeps it classy. This is punk for the sophisticate.
All in all, Mase presents a strange face to the world. She espouses a vision of peace you would find at the local co-op but includes all the gritty, uncomfortable truths of living in the messy world of human emotions. It’s an unflinching and realistic artistic statement that is rare in any time or place.
Hopefully, wider audiences will see into the depths of her music and message, rather than being seduced by the hype that Mase is all about women’s liberation. She is a vocal advocate for rights for all humans, especially woman, but there is more to her work. I hope she would agree with me when I say that it is this sort of label that keeps audiences from wholly appreciating an artist.