Raoul Peck’s recent documentary I Am Not Your Negro served as a timely reminder of the relevance of James Baldwin to contemporary American society, and this show-stopper of a performance makes art of the writer’s eventful life. A novelist-essayist who offered uncompromisingly acute observations on race relations as well as the bitter political hypocrisy at the heart of Uncle Sam during the Civil Rights era, Baldwin expounded un-alternative facts that could be uncomfortable for black and white, and faced no end of challenges for his grandstand intelligence as well as the arch threat he posed, by dint of his homosexuality, to fellow activists narrow of mind.

Active since the late 1990s, The Negro Problem is a provocative name, for the Baldwin Negro was a problem on many levels. In any case Stew is a front man with a waspish playfulness that livelys up the Spiegel tent at the popular cross-arts summer festival that is Underbelly. He resists categorisation as much as Baldwin does trivialisation. From the git-go he leads his troops – Marty Beller (drums), Art Terry (keys), Dana Lyn (violin), Heidi Rodewald (bass) – as Dick Gregory might marshal a sparkly Weimar Republic cabaret. Los Angeles-born and Europe-embedded Stew’s asides suit that of a Tony-winning author (for Passing Strange in 2008), but the pleasing arrangements of long-time musical collaborator Rodewald have the kind of taut precision – sometimes with basslines stripped to a few chords, sometimes stretched to more expansive harmony – that makes for listenable music amid theatrical story-in-song. Time and again echoes of John Cale and The Velvet Underground ring out, perhaps with an itchy scratchy catchy rock’n’roll animalism skewing smartly to Elmore James’ territory.

Tales of Baldwin’s literary assassination of his former benefactor Richard Wright, the Kan-Jay or Ye-Z of the 1950s whose hook-up of the young pretender was met with an almighty putdown, are gripping because they highlight an era when ideas moving forward mattered more than careers pushing upward. As do the revelations that our hero became a hate figure because of a lifestyle choice not seen as wholesome, uniting both the Black Panthers and Black Nationalists in censure of his less than ‘manly’ ways. Moving seamlessly into biography-cum-travelogue mode Stew also regales us with snapshot chronicles of Baldwin’s sojourns in Istanbul and France.

Sharp as the focus is on Baldwin, it is a song about Trayvon Martin that is arguably the moment that captures so much of the writer’s anguish over the state of America, and, more to the point, underlines how the tragic death of a black teenager in 2012 at the hands of a ‘brown man with a very German name’, George Zimmerman, still resonates with the chilling divides in society that were prevalent in Baldwin’s time. If Black Lives Matters hails Martin and many others then Baldwin remains one of the ultimate black lives that still matter precisely because he saw, just as Sly did, the reality of ‘everyday people’, the ordinary among the extraordinary, the bare fact that there were black Harlemites too busy scrappling for the rentman’s apple to know who Charlie Parker was. They had to be rather than bop. Stew & The Negro Problem bring us James Baldwin as a present day flame of truth rather than a nostalgic fire last time.

– Kevin Le Gendre
– Photos by Jen Pearce

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