Songwriting, says Cécile Doo-Kingué, is a cathartic act—or perhaps even something stronger.
“There’s definitely an aspect of songwriting as exorcism for me,” the New York City–born, Montreal-based singer-guitarist tells the Straight, during a Lower Mainland lunch break before she heads to some friends’ Langley wedding. “Through song, I find that I express my anger, my sorrow, and my concerns in a healthier way than if they just stay in my head.”
And having that safety valve, she continues, was never more valuable than in the early days of the Black Lives Matter movement, when a string of brutal, racially charged murders—many of them perpetrated by police officers—tore a gaping rent in the social fabric of the United States. Doo-Kingué, the child of Cameroonian immigrants, naturally identified with the victims, and just as naturally turned to song as a way of both finding release and expressing her mournful indignation.
That’s nowhere more obvious than on “Six Letters”, from her 2015 release, Anybody Listening, Pt. 1: Monologues. The letters in question spell out what’s either a playful endearment or a vicious racial slur, depending on who’s using them and how, but for Doo-Kingué it’s clear that using the language of slavery only perpetrates the conditions under which black lives don’t matter.
“Slavery’s abolished but people are still enslaved,” she sings, to an acoustic-guitar riff that invokes both the gods of the Delta blues and the angry urgency of the present moment. And while Doo-Kingué isn’t always a political songwriter, she’s relieved—if not exactly happy—that she has a vehicle for social and political expression.
“With ‘Six Letters’, for example, all the shootings that were happening, the amount of negative energy they triggered in me was overwhelming,” she explains. “So I was like, ‘Well, how do you put that into song in a way that can open a dialogue, or that can express the sorrow, the anger, all of that, but without going there?’ So it’s like, ‘Tell the stories, and what those stories represent.’
“Take the kids who go around calling each other ‘nigger’ without realizing the weight of that word,” she continues. “Well, the weight of the word, if you want a real-life example, is the kid that got shot down and whose dead body was left to rot in the sun for three hours for everyone to see. That’s a modern-day lynching by the cops—and, you know, that’s the present-day reality of that word. So I’m trying to contextualize consequences and emotions.”
For all that “Six Letters” is emblematic of Doo-Kingué’s moral compass, Monologues isn’t entirely representative of her musical output. On the follow-up, last year’s Anybody Listening, Pt. 2: Dialogues, she steps away from acoustic music toward an energetic full-band sound, proving herself an adept and extroverted electric guitarist. And on both discs, as in her live shows, she’s more than willing to open her essentially blues-based sound to influences both old and new.
“I think I get bored!’ she says, laughing, when asked about working hard-rock, vintage-soul, and hip-hop elements into her sound.
“Unfortunately, a lot of times the type of blues that gets pushed is a stereotype of itself, right? And so sometimes I get a kick out of playing a blues gig and never once playing a 12-bar. Blues is also a very rich genre, so the idea is to see how to represent it nowadays without being limited to that.”
Doo-Kingué’s versatility will certainly be tested in her two upcoming Rogue Folk Club shows. A Mighty String Thing finds her in the company of Tex-Mex specialists Josh and Max Baca, Vancouver Island roots duo Doug Cox and Sam Hurrie, and Brazilian-born singer, guitarist, and percussionist Celso Machado. Hornby Blues offers a less diverse package, but singer-guitarists Rick Fines, Paul Pigat, Susie Vinnick, and Doo-Kingué will presumably have had some time to work on their act while teaching at the annual Gulf Island blues retreat that gives the show its name.
Both combinations, Doo-Kingué promises, should play out like particularly friendly and focused folk-festival workshops. “I know that with the Mighty String Thing, if it’s anything like it was last year, the idea is for us to see what kind of fun we can come up with together‚” she explains. “It’s not so much ‘Hey, let’s each do our thing and be an island,’ as it is ‘How can we merge our universes into making magic and sharing it with folks?’ So that’s what I’m hoping those two nights are going to be.”
There will be rollicking dance tunes, deep blues meditations, a diversity of cultural approaches, and perhaps even a little friendly rivalry, given the playful virtuosos involved. And as long as Doo-Kingué’s on-stage, meaningful music won’t be overlooked.
“It’s important to put a good, strong message out there,” she says. “All the big movements towards social justice, towards equality, have been aided by art and artists, because we have people’s ears and eyes and souls in a way that politicians don’t have. And when you see how low the bar of human decency has been dropped, now, more than ever, they need us to be part of the mobilization to bring some dignity back to our species.”
A Mighty String Thing plays St. James Hall on Saturday (April 22). Hornby Blues takes place at the same venue on May 4.