An Interview with Kofy Brown (Part 1)
The Love Warrior’s Tale
Kofy Brown, an Oakland-based songwriter and performer, is living the musical dream. With eight albums under her belt, she has been around the world touring, plays different instruments in multiple projects, has a newly built home studio in Oakland, and the rough mixes from her new album playing in her car — “I am really liking these!”
Kofy Brown drove me to her home in Oakland on a lovely hillside where redwood trees grow. In her living room she played her favorite records: expressing the love for each song with her whole body and swaying to the music. You can’t help but smile when you are around her. I asked her about how it all started, her inspirations for her music, and the ride through the changing times — the musical journey of Kofy Brown.
――So, Kofy. What is music to you?
Well, it started in the very beginning. I was born during the riots; during the struggle for civil rights. They were hard times for my family and for my mother, who would play music at home everyday. It was a way to get through all of it. For me, frankly, music was solace: my dad died when I was young and it really formed the way I emoted. Words failed me many times, but music was the thing that I could point to and say — I feel like this. My life's story or soundtrack is music, and the way I walk through the world energetically is with music. It's my closest friend.
――What was playing at your house when you were growing up?
If I close my eyes and envision my house, I hear Labelle. I can hear Rufus and Chaka Khan, I can hear the Isley Brothers, The Delfonics, The Chi-Lites, I can hear the Temptations: Motown — The Jackson 5, James Brown, soul music, soul music, soul music! Sam Cooke, Sarah Vaughan and Lena Horne — so much music. Bill Withers! So my influences earlier on were for sure, groups like The Jackson 5, The Sylvers, The Isley Brothers. When you listen to their records, there is always a breakdown. If you see me perform, there is always going to be a breakdown. You have to break the song down and talk to people and then build the song back up. Now I understand it. I write that way. All that soul and funk music.
"My mom would have the hairbrush singing as Gladys,
and my brother and I would be The Pips:
we were her backup singers."
And my mom would play records — we had a big console that would hold three records and they would drop and automatically play. Her records would be Isaac Hayes, Labelle, and maybe Nancy Wilson. And then the Isley Brothers, Bill Withers, Diana Ross and the Supremes, a lot of Gladys Knight! My mom would have the hairbrush singing as Gladys, and my brother and I would be The Pips: we were her backup singers. We’d go every Sunday to my grandmother's house, my mother had six siblings, and there her youngest sisters would play their music. Their jams were The Delfonics, The Chi-Lites, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, man, Aretha… [ Sighs.] Oh and Curtis Mayfield, I’m just throwing names, but as you can see — it was constant music in my house.
――So you were one of the youngest in a big family with a wide range in age. You were soaking it all in.
Exactly. Soul and R&B were the huge influences, and how they delivered it. From the mid '60s to the mid '70s I was super young, and that's when I absorbed it subconsciously. In my writings and how I perform, there is always a breakdown. All of that music had an emotional climax!
――And now you only play records at your home. How have you collected them over the years?
Yeah, I have 45s, too. I have been handed down a lot of my collection from my aunts, my mom, and from my brother. I remember between 10-12 years-old, going to record stores and buying records myself. I bought a lot of Prince. I saved up my allowance and purchased those records. Then, when I got older and when I started making music — I did my fare share of sampling in the early '90s — it was all yard sales, the best place to find records! Also places like Rasputin and Amoeba, are the jam. Amoeba is where I go for records.
――The Amoeba in Berkeley or SF?
Berkeley, the one on Telegraph.
――So you soaked up all of that great soul and R&B growing up. Where does your inspiration come from and how do you write songs?
A variety of places. Again, the consistent theme for me is, mood, feelings, and emotions. Because that is how music came into my life. I feel like I was born into very traumatic times, and I am fortunate and blessed in a way, to still have this optimistic nature. There has been a lot of sadness and sorrow in my life, and a way for me to process that has been music. I write music that is difficult for me to express in words. Chord changes, progressions, and what I play especially on bass, is almost the opposite of how I walk through life with my natural optimism. It's because I get to let out my sadness through music. So that's the main inspiration. Moving to California from DC, though, was a complete shift. That is when I really became Kofy Brown MC and I started writing different things; it became more of a social commentary. Regarding the crack epidemic, I wrote songs like Dope Fiend and A Day In A Life. Sabotage was about the black community, inequality, drugs, violence, and police brutality... "41 TIMES" — about the shooting of Amadou Diallo — was another song. So my writing became more about my environment and the broader community, and then of course, relationships and friends, and how they make me feel and how I see them. Those are my biggest inspirations.
――As a musician, which aspect of the process do you identify with the most?
I see myself primarily as a performer; I see myself on stage. I also see myself as a songwriter, and as a musician — I am a creative. It changes over time. Earlier on, I always thought that my songs were my strength, and I think that's true, my music has allowed me to perform all over. I know a lot of friends that play cover music. I only play originals. I have gone on tour and played 40 songs — all originals — that we put together in 4 sets. I think that’s pretty big. So, I see myself as a songwriter and performer.
――Can you tell me the progression of your career?
I’ll start at my first band: I was in my brother's band, and I was the MD (Musical Director) and I played keyboards in that band. I was 15 or 16 and we played clubs in DC. So that was my first exposure to playing shows. Soon after that, maybe three years later, I left my brother's band... because it was my brother's band! I wanted to get more experience so I joined another band called Park Avenue. With that band, we played original music in the style of Minneapolis, like Prince, and we played the Constitution Hall of Washington DC. I was 17. We also came out to LA and did the BRE. The band had a lot of momentum. With Park Avenue, we put out my very first vinyl record on EP and it was called Grace. I wrote a song on it. That was my first vinyl, it was 1987. We ended up breaking up, and then the other keyboard player in that band, Paul Bonomo, and I had a quick band called Genius-N-Genius. His DJ name is DJ Snax and he lives in Berlin; we are still friends. We put out a record together. My second vinyl was Ride by Genius-N-Genius.
After that I moved to California and Kofy Brown was born! I put out my first record in ‘95, and came out with a vinyl Can you hear me and the B side was You Don't Stop. I was Kofy Brown MC. Then with the Kofy Brown Band we went to the North Sea Jazz Festival in the Hague. We had an open mic session with George Benson, Lucky Peterson, and Roy Hargrove, and it was amazing! I got to freestyle and that was awesome; a highlight! I put out a couple more records Hungry, Skinny & Tight… I had my own label Simba Music that I ran with Zinga, my partner at the time.
In 2001, we found out there was another band called Kofy Brown! Grrrrrrrr. We put a cease and desist letter out and we made that other band stop using our name and we got a payment. I put out Area 32 as “The Real” Kofy Brown — my biggest selling record — which got national press from Vibe Magazine and USA Today.
――When you moved to California and Kofy Brown was born, that is when you officially became a front person?
Exactly, that is when I became a front person and was on vocals. I was singing backups in the bands up until then. Keyboards and singing.
Eventually, I got a little bit tired and bogged down, after 20 years of doing Kofy Brown. So I started to just play bass; my friends Anita Lofton and Ieela Grant came to me and asked: “You wanna play with us?” and I was like: “Sure!” and Sistas In The Pit was born. I was the bass player and singer songwriter for that threesome, an all girl rock band.
We went on tour with Iggy Pop and Mike Watt from Black Flag and we toured all over: China, SXSW, and it was great. We still are not completely dead; we play occasionally. After 10 years in Sistas In The Pit, I started missing my own music again. So then I was back on Kofy Brown stuff and then other friends wanted to make another band! [Laughter.] I had always wanted to play drums and Skip the Needle was born. So that's kind of present day. I play bass with Gina Breedlove and Marcelle Davies-Lashley, and now I am putting out a new record, so! Phew! That's the trajectory! [ Laughs. ]
――Wow, you have traveled far! Any other notable incidents that happened along the way?
Well, there's a lot, but my mind goes to when I was trying to get record deals. That was scary, you know. So we played these BMI showcases back in the mid '90s and I remember being at MCA Records and Sony Records. What really freaked me out was that this A&R guy who basically told me that if he could sleep with my manager (who at the time was my girlfriend, and we were in the closet so he didn't know) then he could get me a record deal. That was the underlying, “Whaaaaat!” What is this? That’s #RecordCompanyPeopleAreShady!
Then we went to Holland for the first time to play the North Sea Jazz Festival. This dude, Dick Alder, was basically trying to force us to sign this record deal where we would sign over the masters of our record Hungry at the time. We were in his house on an island off the shore of the Netherlands, part of Amsterdam, but it felt like we were gonna get jacked in his house and we felt like we couldn't leave. So we just said yes yes! He let us leave, but once we left we were like, “What just happened?” Later he was calling us to sign the contract, but fortunately we didn't sign it. A lot of crazy stuff.
Also, in Nanaimo, BC in Canada. We did a TV show called the Vicki Gabereau Show, while on tour, and we had to take a ferry from the mainland. When we got there, some people treated us like they had never seen black people before, you know they wanted to touch our hair... They were nice but they were more inquisitive. We played this set in a bar in Nanaimo and when we got back on the ferry, everyone was all like, “What was that all about… “ [ Laughs. ] Too many strange experiences!
Official Site: kofybrown.com
Kofy Brown is a fiercely independent recording artist. The Washington DC native has released eight full length recordings; Live & Delicious 1995, Hungry 1997 Skinny & Tight 1999, Area 32 2001, Love Warrior 2005, Stompin at the Paard – Live in The Netherlands 2006, The Mecca Sessions – Live in San Francisco 2006 and Soul Rock 2008 on her own indie label Simba Music and is currently working on number 9, yet to be titled.
Interview and article by Mika Anami
Photographs by Margaret Belton, Irene Young