Gengis Don Tackles Mental Health and the Black Experience on His New Album Sweet Pea
As countercultural and subversive forms of art, Hip Hop and Jazz have worked together since the early 90’s with groups like A Tribe Called Quest, Digable Planets, and Us3. Not quite mainstream, not exactly underground, it never seems to go away either as evidenced by its resurgence on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, releases by Madlib, and the smattering of artists on labels like Stones Throw and Mello Music.
On his newest release Sweet Pea drummer, producer, composer and multi-instrumentalist Lyndon Harewood, AKA Gengis Don, wrestles with the topics of race and mental health to the backdrop of hip hop and jazz.
Gengis Don is clearly a musician and composer, so he doesn’t just co-opt jazz for the aesthetic; Sweet Pea is a genuine jazz album with the chops to prove it. The album begins with the track “Manic,” which starts with two horns harmonizing and droning a simple two note lick. Then the rolling drum pattern kicks in, and for a split second there is a sense of calm, which is then unceremoniously shattered by a “manic” trumpet improvisation, hitting incredible runs per measure, playing for dear life as if gasping for air. A voice shouts “Yeah!” as a slow, steady, crooning Georgia Anne Muldrow asks “How can one share, one feels that they’re unhealthy?” You have now entered Gengis Don’s Sweet Pea, an album that brazenly and beautifully explores the black lives and the taboo of mental health.
The music is mesmerizing. As a drummer, he provides a solid groove, with ambient synths and a smooth bassline that sounds like chillhop. But the horns combined with sections of frenetic drumming lets you know that this is not background music to study to. Don draws clear inspiration from the blending of soul and jazz in the 70’s. The haunting strings and trumpet line on the track “The Reason” invokes Curtis Mayfield’s Move on Up (released in 1970). And the horn line hook on “Ride This Wave” sounds like the theme song a 70’s game show.
Gengis Don engages a troupe of guests to provide vocals (singing, rapping, and spoken word) for the tracks. The lyrics do not shy around the theme, directly addressing various mental health issues such as PTSD, depression, and suicide. They are honest, encouraging, and inspiring at times (“You call if you need anything, I got you son” PTSD), and heartbreaking at others (“Bitterness is acid, you pass it on to your kids” POWER).
“Red Woman,” a standout track on the album, tells the story of a single mother, overwhelmed by her circumstances and without help, who dies potentially by suicide. The track starts out from the perspective of the woman, “holding on to this life when I don’t want to,” before an emotional break when new narrator donSMITH finds the woman dead. He addresses the guilt of not having helped sooner saying “Ain’t no emotional currency to currently enable me to pay for this,” and “now you gone like Obama from the house, like I never really voted and that same guilt is coming out.” And he laments the tragedy of her unnecessary death, “Black single mom, ain’t no comfort in seeing you lying flat.”
This track is followed by a spoken word interlude called “Black Bodies,” which could serve as the manifesto for the entire album (TL;DR, racism has lead to increased mental health issues for African-American people, healing is possible, and it can start today.)
“But we do need help when we do fall through the cracks. That was why I want you to know that you can patch things up with me. Or we can kick it back like it was a drive-thru movie in the 1970s. We can get some help from people who actually understand us, refute our standards to stigmatize mental illness and fight against the structures that chronically misdiagnose what this really is, fight against the racism that brings up our mental health issues and lowers our treatment options bringing us one step closer to seeing no other option. I want us to see that we have a way to heal this wound that has been widening ever since day one with no means of contracting. I want us to know that the seed that we sow today is the harvest that we reap tomorrow. And when we finally reap, we can find peace in these moments. Noticing that the danger isn’t gone, we finally have a place where it feels like it is. The grounding of black bodies.”
Gengis Don isn’t just talking about mental health in the black community; he’s putting his money where his mouth is. All proceeds from this album are going to the Boris L. Henson Foundation (borislhensonfoundation.org), whose “vision is to eradicate the stigma around mental health issues in the African-American community.” Founded by actress Taraji P. Henson (Empire, Hidden Figures) in honor of her father who suffered through mental health struggles and a lack of adequate help, the foundation’s focus is to offer greater mental health support in urban schools, reduce prison recidivism rates, and increase the number of African-American therapists. The foundation currently offers free virtual individual and group counseling, training in African-American cultural competency, and resources for persons experiencing mental health crises. It’s an incredibly important organization for a time such in this when awareness, and resources for mental health needs are increasing but the need still vastly outweighs the availability of help. And unfortunately, until legislation and insurance companies fully legitimize mental health as a medical reality, it’s going to take independent groups such as these to fill in the gaps.
Regardless of whether you personally understand the African-American experience or deal with mental health challenges, you should immerse yourself in Gengis Don’s artistic vision. You will have a greater understanding of and compassion for the intersection of those two worlds. Sweet Pea isn’t just a mood; it’s a movement. This is the kind of album you want to listen to closely, taking in the vibes, the soundscape, and the message.