Rupa and the April Fishes’ new album, Growing Upward, is music for the movements of our time (release: April 19 on Electric Gumbo Radio Music). Anthems of resilience, spitfire commentary, and collaborations with indigenous artists make up an album that resounds with joy, love, and transformation.
Borderless ensemble Rupa and the April Fishes has always been rooted in activism—in subject matter and practice. Previous albums have taken on love, loss, and xenophobia in the Bush years and the plight of migrants crossing borders. After a live album was hit with a licensing claim, Rupa faced up to media giant Warner in the legal battle that affirmed the public domain status of “Happy Birthday” and returned $14 million to artists.
There’s a new sense of urgency on their sixth album to match the current political and ecological climate. Its 12 songs took shape over a seven-year span as frontwoman Rupa, a doctor and social thinker as well as a musician, underwent experiences that transformed her: providing medical care to hunger strikers protesting police killings in San Francisco; treating Water Protectors confronting state-supported violence at Standing Rock, collaborating with Lakota/Dakota healers and leaders to decolonize medicine by creating a clinic in North Dakota, becoming a mother. “All those intense experiences are reflecting on the same crisis.” Rupa reflects, “Everything we face is interconnected: the international rise of fascism, the festering of American racism, the increase in police violence, the ongoing oppression of indigenous people, the imminent threat of catastrophic climate change.” The result is an album of impassioned songs energized by Rupa and the April Fishes’ global perspective that offers strength and solace to those already in the fight and a call to action for everyone else.
Multicultural fusion? Global indie rock? It’s hard to pin down the sound of Rupa and the April Fishes, and that’s how Rupa likes it. “I call it purposeful boundlessness. I don’t strive for a style.” Their eclectic sound is shaped by a multitalented string section (Misha Khalikulov on cello, Matt Szemela on violin), diverse rhythms (Aaron Kierbel on drums, JHNO on organ, Daniel Fabricant and Todd Sickafoose on bass), and soaring trumpet (Mario Alberto Silva). The common ground in which each song sprouts is Rupa’s distinctive, expressive vocal style, ranging from ethereal heights to low earthy tones.
One label that does sit comfortably with Rupa is “Liberation Music,” a designation bestowed by Gil Scott Heron, the legendary spoken word poet and godfather of rap. When Rupa spent time with him not long before his death, they spoke about post-national identity, and Heron asked her to contribute to America’s dialogue about race. “What I learned from him was not being afraid to expand my sense of genre,” Rupa recalls. “It’s my job to communicate honestly and passionately using whatever palette I have, to create a sound identity that exists beyond borders.”
Responses to Heron’s challenge shape the album’s most powerful songs. “Yelamu (We Are Still Here),” an electronic track produced by Rupa and Damion Gallegos, amplifies the voices of marginalized peoples. The rhythmic spine of the song comes from radical Chicano performance artist Guillermo Gomez-Peña reciting a “Declaration of Human Rights from The Other San Francisco,” co-written with Rupa. The words “we are still here” spoken in many indigenous languages create a counterpoint. A diverse cohort of activists lend their voices: Kalamaoka'aina Niheu (Kingdom of Hawaii), Tasos Sagris (Greece), Antonio M (Comanche/Otomi/Costanoan), and Tipiziwin Tolman (Lakota Nation). “It was important to me to collect voices from all places we’ve visited,” says Rupa, “and to bear witness to the astounding resiliency of the people we’ve met along the way.”
Listening to and singing with indigenous people is a taproot that feeds Growing Upward. The anthem “Frontline” was written at the request of the grandmothers at Standing Rock. Rupa had already written “Water” and released a recording online in 2005 when Ojibwe matriarch Sharon Brass invited Rupa to record an indigenized version. Rupa collaborated with a circle of native women in British Columbia to create a new track, “Water Song,” that layers their voices— howling, chanting, and serenely singing in languages from along the Pacific Coast— over the haunting sounds of four-foot-tall gongs played by guest artist Karen Stackpole.
The album’s title track Growing Upward explores what reconnecting to indigenous perspectives sounds like. “This song grew out of talking with indigenous people who haven’t lost the capacity to hear nonhuman voices,” Rupa explains. “I tried to imagine what it feels like to be a dandelion seed germinating under asphalt and breaking through.” The track showcases Rupa’s versatile vocal and verbal style, opening with a full-throated sinuous melody that climbs like vine tendrils over a rich sonic undergrowth of strings and marimba. Then a rhythmic break has Rupa reciting tabla bol and rapping about contemporary threats to the wellbeing of seeds and humans alike. Video artist Zen Cohen has directed a powerful music video to be released on April 1, the perfect date for a band named after a French April Fool’s Day tradition.
What Rupa and the April Fishes offer with Growing Upward—both musically and lyrically—is a hopeful map to a better future. “The central idea for this album is encountering indigenous cultures, collaborating, and learning humility from them,” Rupa elaborates. “Confronting past and present wrongs with humility doesn’t have to be dismal or miserable; it can be full of compassion and joy. When we look back with kindness and open-heartedness, we can go forward in the right way and correct past wrongs.”
Artist Mona Caron, internationally known for multi-story murals celebrating the rebellious resilience of weeds and creating art for the climate justice movement, gives visual form to the album with cover art of twelve sprouting seedlings in a mandala-like circle, each growing through one of the April Fishes or their collaborators against a backdrop of the crises we face: state violence, petrochemical pollution, devastating weather events, media manipulated by nationalist entities. The image is not mere metaphor: the album will be released in a plastic-free form as twelve seed packets so listeners can grow their own medicinal plants, reawakening their own connection with the earth. “We’re in a challenging time,” remarks Rupa, “but when you look at the power of these seeds, you can’t do anything but hope.”