Sound check: Phillip-Michael Scales' new single addresses the personal impact of racism
"Tell Me How I Sound Again," the new single out Friday by dive-bar soul singer Phillip-Michael Scales, speaks to how he feels as a Black man in today's America. Going back to his childhood, Scales was told numerous times that he doesn't sound Black. While it was often said in jest, it sometimes played as a denigration of his culture, he said, and as he got older the responsibility fell to him to figure out which it was.
"Just being told you talk white from a young age, something that seems so harmless and so innocuous," he explained. "But it isn't harmless, because these are the struggles that I go through all the time. So you want to make a joke out of this thing?"
Scales, who studied at the Berklee College of Music before spending years playing around the Chicago music scene, recently left the Windy City for Nashville. There he partnered up with another recent transplant, Mike Maimone of Chicago band Mutts, to record the song Scales has been performing regularly for the last two years.
"Music can change people. Music can heal, and music can bring things to light. And you can change somebody's heart or somebody's mind or make them re-examine something," Scales said.
The two worked a lot into the background of the fiery, soulful song, with repetitive shouts that could be cries of protesters or hearken back to slave chants and spirituals. In it, he addresses the stigma that seems to follow him around, the contributions Black artists have made to culture and sports, the concept of the angry Black man and realizing there's life outside one's own cultural bubble.
"It's uncomfortable to talk about race," he said. "What I've noticed in my personal life is it's fine to talk about racism sort of broadly, right? Like, OK, racism exists, it's bad, we all agree, blah blah blah. But once you start talking about your personal experience, that's where things get murky. ... It's like we're trying to avoid this discomfort. If that's someone's experience and when someone's telling you how they feel, maybe listen."
Of the many pointed observations Scales makes in "Tell Me How I Sound Again," the dismissal of someone else's pain or story bites through the song with one particular lyric repeated several times throughout: You didn't mean to offend.
"It's just discrete enough that maybe the person saying something doesn't even realize what they're saying," he explained. "But there's something that just feels off that you can't put your finger on."
Race relations have become a hot-button topic in America recently, most notably during and in response to this summer's Black Lives Matter protests.
"It's just so entrenched in society in terms of the way I'm perceived as a Black person in America. We all have bias, we all have implicit bias. And, you know, we would like to think that we think everybody's equal, but when we see images of people on TV looting or rioting or committing crimes, your brain goes out to these types of people, these people who look like this tend to do things like this."
"I think that what my goal as an artist is to challenge and comfort myself and my audience," he said. "Maybe (the song is) angry, or maybe there's anger in it, but I don't think that's overall. ... This is a very safe place for me to channel my frustration because it lives in this little song and I don't have to worry about yelling or screaming or whatever. And it's like a gentle way to talk about something, maybe not so gentle but a poetic way of talking about something that really does happen, you know. And you can address it, and people can think about it without having to be confrontational in the same way."
"I think that people are just looking for understanding, and that's a core of what I'm doing and what I want people to know. I just want people to hear what my feelings are."
"Tell Me How I Sound Again" is available for streaming and download on all major platforms.
• Brian Shamie is a Daily Herald multiplatform editor and local music junkie. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, find him on Facebook or follow him on Twitter (@thatshamieguy) or Instagram (@chicagosoundcheck). Brian also keeps tabs on the local music scene at chicagosoundcheck.com.