B. E. Farrow — interview
Americana Award Nominee B.E. Farrow on Gangstagrass And Community Movements
Multi-instrumentalist and educator B.E. Farrow has been nominated for Instrumentalist of the Year by The Americana Honors & Awards that will be held at Americana Fest in September. His most well-known current role is as the fiddle player in Gangstagrass, the ground-breaking experimental band that blends genre elements from Americana, Hip-Hop and more through reworking traditional songs and also through brand new original compositions. Their latest album, No Time for Enemies, reached #1 on the Billboard Bluegrass Chart and the band recently won UNESCO’s International Innovator award. Farrow is also active in preserving historical music, researching and spreading knowledge of early African American musicians like Francis Johnson, and he also supports local causes such as The Bethesda Cemetery Coalition working to protect African American heritage in Maryland.
While Farrow is very honored by his award nomination, he also hopes that the nomination will help him amplify important causes and issues. I spoke with Farrow during and after a major UK and European tour with Gangstagrass that saw them playing smaller venues as well as big festivals, and we talked about his “fall” into Bluegrass music, what he finds so compelling about Gangstagrass, his future plans, and his involvement helping spread the word for the Bethesda Cemetery Coalition.
Americana Highways: Joining Gangastagrass in 2018 was a development for you. How surprising was that for you? Did you know the guys already?
B.E. Farrow: My fall into Bluegrass music started with me playing a lot of Jazz and Classical on the upright bass. I happened across Delafield String Band playing in a Punk bar. I was going in there for some Punk or Metal music and I found them, but I was loving what they were throwing down. Eventually they called me up because they needed a bassist and I ended up playing a big Bluegrass festival with them in an opening slot. We stayed for the show and I wandered backstage and saw Ferd Moyse sawing away on the fiddle, who at the time was playing with the Hackensaw Boys. He said, “Looks like you need a friend.”
So I sat down and started chatting with the guys. At the time, they didn’t have a bass player and I offered my services. Surprisingly enough, I went on with them headlining that night, and they brought me on the road. Fast-forward, and that’s how I met Dom Flemons. Fast-forward even further by a couple of years, I was at the same festival with Dom and we did a really fun set. Gangstagrass played after us, and we hung out back stage.
Gangstagrass’ current manager and I have been a friends since I was 19 or so and she started to talk the band up to me, but I was interested at the time because I wanted to stick to old time stuff. But she encouraged me and I checked out more of their music. It was really the lyricism that convinced me on it because I’m a Hip-Hop fan and they just had bars. I thought I’d try it out for a little while. I’ve just been sticking with it since!
AH: You got sucked in!
Farrow: I think there’s a lot to be said for the melting pot that we’re working with, the soup that we’re making with this band, and we have constant discussions about making it the most genuine blend of all of our backgrounds. We sell it as bluegrass hip-hop, but I’m actually not a bluegrasser. I’m more old time than anything, and maybe I can hang on a bluegrass tune, but that’s because I know jazz. They are sort of twisted branches from the same tree. We have some bluegrass in the band, also honky tonk and country, and Dolio is more Southern hip-hop whereas R-Son The Voice of Reason is more about the Philly scene, so it’s a bunch of different subgenres and elements coming together. It’s not just bluegrass and hip-hop and learning that has kept me on the train.
AH: Listening to No Time For Enemies and Will The Cypher Be Unbroken, I can definitely pick up on a lot of different threads that people are bringing in. This is clearly not a cookie-cutter approach. Every song is very different. One thing that really stood out to me was looking at the two covers of “California Love” on Will The Cypher Be Unbroken.
One of them comes from Hip-Hop into Americana and the other ones comes from Americana into Hip-Hop and they are two totally different songs. That shows the possibilities you are dealing with where each song could go twenty different ways.
Farrow: Yes! We have these discussions all the time, which way to spin certain tunes. I’m glad we have those on there. There’s another one that we did, a Farside song, where we did a fiddle version of the melody and also the Farside version as well, and we got a whole fiddle tune out of it.
AH: I understand that you have been teaching music in other countries and bringing traditions together that way. Were you doing that before Gangstagrass? Was the idea of blending musical traditions already important to you?
Farrow: Yes, when I was working with Dom and on the road with him, I would take a couple months off a year. This was between 2014 and 2018. I would take some time to go over to Greece while the refugee crisis was being advertised in America pretty heavily. I went over there and would do that sort of programming with the refugees. I even teamed up with a Kurdish musician and we had some beautiful programs. I eventually stopped doing it because too many times people asked why I wasn’t doing this program for my own community. Eventually I did, and I ended up working for DC Youth Orchestra.
Then I discovered why I didn’t do it back in the States, and that’s because, like a lot of orchestra programs, they don’t take into consideration the kids’ influences. A lot of the kids had very hard home lives and that needed to be considered. I did my best to make the classes a safe space, we’d talk about what they wanted in the music, but I felt this constant pressure from the administration to get them to play things like “Little Drummer Boy.” That was to be videoed and used to show to donors.
It was such a problem that I eventually started touring more. Now, however, I’m going to be returning to doing that kind of work in South America. I hope we get to the place in the education in the states where we think of our students like bandmates. In a band, you have to take into account everyone’s influences and interests, and that’s how we should be teaching.
AH: Coming off such a big UK tour, are you starting to think about the future more in terms of your musical plans? I feel like a lot of people are starting to feel like looking at the future is good for mental health.
Farrow: The pandemic gave me a lot of time to switch perspectives and think about how I want to be in music. It also made me think about what I want to incorporate. The person who taught me how to play fiddle was actually Ferd Moyse. While he used to play for The Hackensaw Boys, he now tours on his own. He’s part of a group of musicians who are really into sailing, like me. He’s a big, huge inspiration both in fiddle and in sailing. I got a chance to play with him in Rotterdam and Amsterdam and that was really fun. His big plan is doing a sail tour sometime next year, and that’s definitely something that I’m going to be a part of. That’s the way I want to be touring.
I did a lot of thinking during the pandemic about how I want to be touring. With the over-commodification of music, I feel like touring can feel like a conga-line. Sometimes I get a bit wary of it. Touring with Gangstagrass, we are connecting with people, and connecting our songs with movements and people, but it can be tough to make yourself do the gigs that just make ends meet.
AH: So you’d like to do touring that’s more like a series of events rather than a stream of constant motion?
Farrow: Yes. Figuring out what that looks like for Gangstagrass and figuring out what that looks like for myself has been heavy on my mind. Right now, I have some opportunities to record with a couple museums in Philadelphia, old Francis Johnson music and I have an eye on that. I’m digging those songs up, and doing some projects like that, where I’m bringing some of the history forward, feels important. I can connect with that. I’m trying to stay in realms like that. I’m really happy to have meaningful projects coming my way, but I don’t want to put so much pressure on my music career to be economically viable because I don’t want to do gigs that are not filling me up.
Another project I have coming up is the Bethesda Cemetery Coalition. With the Bethesda Cemetery, it’s this weird case where the woman who basically raised the flag about this, [BACC President] Marsha Coleman-Adebayo went through all the right channels in 2015 to make sure that the space would be cherished. She’s the wife of the pastor at the nearby church, Macedonia Baptist Church, which was the first African-American church in the area.
The cemetery has been attacked throughout the decades. It was a Black neighborhood at the turn of the century, and the city developed around it, then a sewer was put through it, degrading the space. There wasn’t any say from the Black folks in the neighborhood. Then there were nefarious means of getting the land from under the Black folks. In the 60s, when the land was dug up for other projects, they found bodies and gravestones. Public housing was then put on it, with a lot of minority individuals living in it. It’s a space that’s been tarnished for years, but in 2015, another developer was looking at the site, so Coleman-Adebayo did a call to get a survey of the site, and do some ground-penetrating radar to see if anything was there. She talked to professors and the city government and a survey was made, but then the city completely dropped the project and went straight to building on top of it.
She’s been campaigning ever since and her constant support has kept it going. I came in during the pandemic and saw the movement because I was learning about how Francis Johnson was dealing with something similar in early Philadelphia. I came across this tune called “Potter’s Hornpipe” that was dedicated to a potter’s cemetery, or a poor person’s cemetery, that was dug up in Philadelphia. Poetry had been written about it at the time. Francis Johnson made that song for it and I keep it with me and play it when I’m at these protests. It’s an auditory reminder that this struggle, the struggle to respect our path and respect our history of minority groups is constant. For some reason, America is constantly over-developing. It’s erasing its past. On a personal note, I think that’s because we’ve never been fully proud of all parts of our history, which is understandable. But we have to reconcile with it, or we’ll continue to over-develop.
I have hardcore beliefs against capitalism and how it’s degrading what could be a culturally rich country. I use this tune and play it, and I use old slave spirituals to talk about this, and how that struggle is akin to the struggles that we continue to have in this country. Luckily, there has been some legislation passed by the government to start the revitalization of some of these cemetery spaces, but the issue with the Bethesda cemetery is that the government will not acknowledge the space. We have to protect the history that’s being forgotten. I find my role in these things is to remind people that the struggle for African American agency is a continual struggle and we need to continue to be involved in it.
AH: There’s something about the positive energy and momentum that can build up if you can keep a clear view of the past in mind when you’re trying to bring about change. It’s much harder to start from zero, if we don’t have a sense of how people have felt in previous generations. Knowing that can change the dynamic and make a big difference, like keeping connection with the Bethesda Cemetery and valuing that heritage.
Farrow: Honestly, I couldn’t agree more. I was able to join the protests for the cemetery a lot more earlier in the pandemic, but I stood in front of trucks. I stood in front of cops. I sang these songs and talked about the history at the protests and I’m really happy that stuck with the protesters there and I’m glad it helped keep people on board.
Thanks for talking with us! Enjoy our earlier related coverage here: INTERVIEW: Rench And R-SON, the Voice of Reason Of Gangstagrass Talk About Their Music and Their New Album “No Time For Enemies”
Find more info on B. E. Farrow and Gangstagrass, here: https://gangstagrass.com