Imani Coppola: Songs of Protest, Joy, & Black Liberation

Photo credit: Keith Major

Some people know her as the indie-pop singer-songwriter of Legend of Cowgirl or the front-woman of the rhythm and cool musical duo Little Jackie — breakout hits include The Stoop and The World Should Revolve Around Me— but the truth is that Imani Coppola defies categorization, regardless of whichever of her 14 albums you’re listening to.

That might explain why she isn’t as well known as she should be. Even as she continues to release incredible bangers and grooves year after year, the commercial industry has frowned at her refusal to submit to predictability or playing it safe.

Doing it her own way

After Columbia Records dropped her in 2000 and shelved her second album (because they didn’t know what to do with her violin-riffing Black-boss-swag), Coppola dug into the independent life; worked with an eclectic coterie of weirdos — Baha Men, Sandra Benhard, Maia Sharp, Alice Russell, Peeping Tom — fought her way out of near poverty; co-founded Little Jackie; and released the acclaimed The Black and White Album.

Raindrops from the Sun (Hey Hey Hey) from The Black and White Album

In addition to her commitment to doing it her own way, what makes Coppola such a phenom is her propensity for tapping into musical undercurrents that other musicians seem to miss, if not outright ignore. Rather than chase dregs of easily digestible auto-tunes, she pushes pop and dance-beats forward while frequently sampling the past to create something delectably new.

The Same Pain

Two of her most recent singles, W.T.M.L. (Don’t Shoot!) and Breakin’ the Dance Floor sound as if they have been composed for the soundtrack of 2020, even as their base elements are recognizably pulled from the 60's and 80's.

Welcome To My Life

W.T.M.L. — shorthand for Welcome To My Life — functions as a cautionary tale on two levels. On the surface, it’s a literal warning to supposed white allies about what it means to be in solidarity with Black Liberation. But digging deeper it functions as a purposeful call for temperance to our Black brothers and sisters on the march for freedom.

As has been frequently noted, the ongoing civil rights movement is a marathon, not a sprint. The murder of George Floyd unleashed something in the world, but the outrages that built to this moment in time have been ravaging our people for centuries. Now that Western culture has finally taken notice, the need to press forward without burning-out is essential.

With W.T.M.L., Coppola has repurposed classic calls for restraint that Black people constantly hear from their worried elders into a work chant of constantly seething, though barely contained, anger bubbling beneath.

“Don’t get stressed out. This too shall pass”. That’s how the song opens answered by a long croon of “Yeah”. From the onset we hear a jamming drum line and two punctuated piano notes tripping along as Coppola’s soothing voice of authority calls out words of comfort. As the song picks up, this chant holds steady while whispered words of encouragement echo in rapid response.

It’s as if Coppola can tell that the listeners want to smack the shit out of some person for telling them that “you don’t belong here”, so she doubles up the rhythm to make sure that we hear her from all corners, just in case the message didn’t get through the first time. “Have patience. All things will come to an end”.

Video teaser of W.T.M.L. (Don’t Shoot!)

The parenthetical song title is Don’t Shoot! That’s a note to Black people about the constabulary’s intent. Listen to Coppola, brothers and sisters. Hold steady; we’re all triggered and agitated but don’t shoot your shot all at once, cause we are all in this for the long haul together, and we’re going to need you on the dance floor when our day finally comes.

Coppola has words for our white accomplices too. “Don’t get worked up. Ain’t worth the fuss. Cuz in the end, it’s just my stuff.” Support, but don’t get us shot with your shenanigans. Most importantly, back up when we tell you to because while you may love Black people, we ARE Black and have been fighting for longer than you’ve been breathing.

Breakin’ The Dance Floor

But Coppola is about more than just caution and restraint. Her old-school party-jam, Breakin’ the Dance Floor, is here to remind Black people that revolution cannot come at the expense of our joy. “A’one, two, three, fo! To the front, to the back, get on the flo! Head style, Old style, give me mo! Imma break the flo! Imma break the floor!” Wherever you are, as soon as you hear the laidback handclaps of this funkster, your hips will want to start swangin’ in glee.

In retrospect, after listening to this song, it’s easy to imagine what Columbia Records might have done with Coppola if she hadn’t said no. Though in all fairness to her prescience, they probably would have messed it up by pigeonholing her into a hip-hop mold instead of letting her do the damn thang as only she knows how.

In Breakin’ the Dance Floor, Coppola and producer Stix Bones have paired a light synth, amped up bass, and restrained tambourine to accompany a layered Black girl chorus of Coppola leaning into her tawny nasality. It’s not a pinched sound. It’s a fun tease of ‘You know you wanna join us! Don’t be shy; I’ll show you how!’ And brothers and sisters, that chorus shows us by calling out the directions of this dance and cheering us on to break the dance floor so hard that quarantine worries disappear.

Meanwhile, Coppola demolishes her lead vocals with a rasped-up MC shout-out that insists that we all dance it out! There is too much grief going on in the world right now. We are fighting for our lives while our leadership continues to fail, even as it blames us for dying. It’s a serious moment, but with Breakin’ the Dance Floor Coppola is highlighting that we deserve joy and must never get suckered into the shackles of grief.

Whatever your mood, pensive or rapturous, W.T.M.L. (Don’t Shoot!) and Breakin’ the Dance Floor are here for you. Both songs are refreshing and classic in the same breath, just like the spirit of protest that’s rocking the world from New York to Paris to New Zealand. Some might dismiss the notion as “everything old is new again”, but if you’re paying attention you’ll hear what Coppola is saying: freedom and cool ain’t never been out of style. See you in the streets and on the dance floor afterwards.

Social Soundtrack

This is the soundtrack of our resistance and our resilience