I feel fortunate to have been introduced to PJ Harvey earlier, and differently, than how much of southeast Washington D.C. was introduced to her.
My introduction came in 1993. I had just started 9th grade, and the proprietor of a record store near my high school knew I’d hand over my lunch money if he could successfully pitch me something to listen to. My musical taste was just beginning to develop, and I’d take almost any recommendation, so I bought a copy of 4-Track Demos at his insistence. I fell in love with Harvey immediately—the rawness of her sound, the frankness of her lyrics, and the wit and erudition of her themes, like “Snake,” which retells the story of the Garden Of Eden from the perspective of Eve. I worked my way backward through her discography and I’ve remained a fan, relishing the drastic sonic and conceptual departures that come with each of her albums. But apparently the migration of Harvey’s music from England to America missed some spots, like Anacostia, a D.C. neighborhood whose residents may never be able to see Harvey for the thoughtful, terrific artist she usually is.
Harvey pays tribute, if one could call it that, to Anacostia in “The Community Of Hope,” the second single from her forthcoming ninth studio album, The Hope Six Demolition Project. The album’s title is drawn from a controversial U.S. public housing initiative which critics say essentially leads to a kind of state-sponsored gentrification that displaces poor, and usually black and brown people. “Community” is a branch of that theme, an urban slice-of-life Harvey composed during a visit she made to Washington D.C. with photographer and filmmaker Seamus Murphy. Harvey and Murphy arranged a personal tour of the impoverished, crime-ridden southeast quadrant with Washington Post reporter Paul Schwartzman, who was unfamiliar with Harvey and tickled upon finding out the stature of the woman who had been in his car.
The lyrics to “Community” evince a strong sense of place, sounding as though Harvey sang them from her notebook as is: “Here’s the Hope Six Demolition Project / Switching down the Benning Road / The well-known pathway of destruction / At least that’s what I’m told.” The song continues: “Here’s the highway to death and destruction / South Capitol is its name / And the school that looks like a shit hole / Does that look like a nice place?” The song is strictly reportage for the bulk of its roughly two-and-a-half minutes, but the final refrain leaves a peculiar aftertaste: “They’re gonna put a Walmart here.” On its face, the line isn’t terribly different from the rest of the song’s observations about the neighborhoods Harvey toured. But it stands in contrast with the rest of the song, a pronouncement about what will be in Anacostia rather than what’s already there. It’s also implicitly anti-corporate and anti-commercial in a way that ignores the complicated realities of such a project.
“Community” set off a firestorm in the community whose story Harvey is trying to tell, and as is usually the case with modern musical controversies, the thorns are in the images, not the sounds. “Community” was announced by last week’s premiere of the video, which Murphy assembled from footage he shot during his visits to southeast D.C. The clip opens with shots from inside Schwartzman’s car as he provides his windshield tour and describes a low-income housing project razed to make room for a mixed-income property. Then it cycles through a series of urban pastorals, with some images captured in southeast D.C., and others captured elsewhere in D.C. At two minutes in, the video takes an interesting turn, when Murphy’s camera finally rests for a moment in the office of Michael Scott, the music minister at southeast’s Union Temple Baptist Church. Scott listens to the song on a cell phone, and runs a few of his choir members through the chorus, then the Walmart refrain. A handful of choral voices becomes a large group—“They’re gonna put a Walmart here”—before returning to Harvey’s voice again.
As details around the project have spilled out since the video’s release, I’ve felt disappointed by Harvey just on a basic human level. In his first-person account of the time he spent with Harvey, Schwartzman mentions requesting an interview with Harvey after learning who he had spent the day chauffeuring, only to be denied. A later Washington Post story detailed how Murphy captured his footage at Union Temple. According to Scott, Murphy began taking pictures near the church and eventually asked if the choir wanted to participate. Scott was enthusiastic based on the title, which he said resonated with his vision for an Anacostia renaissance. The Walmart line didn’t resonate: “I didn’t get it. I just thought maybe some songwriter was writing some other weird song.” When Scott saw the video, which didn’t happen until the reporter tracked him down for comment, he was dismayed by the totality of the words and the images, in particular the Walmart line. The lyric implies the Walmart would be a bad thing, but Scott can only think about how disappointed the community was upon finding out the store wouldn’t be built after all. “Somebody has to build a Walmart,” said Scott. “Somebody has to work in a Walmart. A Walmart means jobs.”
If an artist is going to come into a community to mine insights for a project, the decent thing to do is to treat the natives of that community with dignity and respect, and Harvey came up short. Granting Schwartzman an interview would have been the courteous thing to do, and it would have gone a long way toward explaining the motives and thought process involved with the project. Instead she stayed silent, which includes her failure to mention to the folks at Union Temple that the video they were featured in was being released. That seems a reasonable accommodation, considering they’re in the video singing a line that, in context, could be interpreted as disdainful of their own community. Former D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray and Yvette Alexander, the city councilwoman for Anacostia’s Ward Seven, didn’t mince words in blasting the project.
I have no idea about Harvey’s personal character, but because of her impeccable reputation as an artist, “Community” is doubly disappointing. In particular, the involvement of the Union Temple choir fits into the exhausted pop music trope wherein a black gospel choir is marched to evoke earthiness, spirituality, and rapturous emotion. It’s a prime example of cultural appropriation, a concept that has been around for ages—think the Washington Redskins. But cultural appropriation has taken on such a life of its own, with recent examples like Gwen Stefani’s controversial Harajuku girls or Miley Cyrus’ coterie of curvy black strippers, that it’s approaching the level of a moral panic. While the practice of using a different, distant culture as ornaments in a pop-music narrative is nothing new, it’s new for Harvey, whose spent a career distinguishing herself as the type of artist who doesn’t make such thoughtless missteps.
To her limited credit, Harvey doesn’t appear in the “Community” video, so it isn’t nearly as vexing as it would have been had Murphy chosen to splice in performance footage. But she also doesn’t appear anywhere in the community she’s depicting, making it seem like she didn’t even do the bare minimum of talking with the people who live in the community she’s trying to capture rather than briefly observing them like an ant farm. Trying to artistically capture a community to which you don’t belong is always challenging, but it can be done. Not everyone who lives in the communities David Simon has captured in his television shows is happy about the way they’re depicted, but the general consensus is that he genuinely invests in the areas and the people who live there. Harvey seems to have the best intentions to explore how people live in different parts of the world. But outsider status can be overcome with genuine interest and investment, and Harvey sadly displayed neither. There’s also a Walmart (operating under Europe’s Asda brand) a half-hour drive away from Harvey’s birthplace of Bridport. Surely there’s a song in there, too.