Jonathan Merenivitch talks race, otherness, and Shepherd's latest single
With 'Moment,' the group creates a bold and soulful rock 'n' roll number fueled by the times
Shepherds kicked off election season with a limited, lathe-cut 7-inch boasting two new songs, “Moment” b/w “Violet Violence” (Chunklet Industries/Third Uncle). The vinyl singles are sold out, but the A-side lives on as one of Shepherds’ most charged numbers so far. The trio, featuring Peter Cauthorn (bass), Adrian Świtoń (drums), and Jonathan Merenivitch (voice, guitar), rendered a bold and soulful rock ’n’ roll number fueled by the racial and political turmoil that defines 2016. Merenivitch, Shepherds’ principal songwriter, penned the lyrics as both catharsis and a contemplative exploration of his thoughts and feelings about his place as a black man in modern America. “Moment” is a raw nerve fueled by anger, vulnerability, and propulsive rhythms. As the song picks up speed online, Merenivitch sat down to talk about finding balance in life, and finding his way as an artist amid a tumultuous year marked by death, political destabilization, and racial strife.
How does “Moment” channel your inner dialogue about race in America?
Over the last year, I’ve wanted to talk about everything I feel as a black person in America. There’s been so much inspiration from other artists, whether it was D’Angelo’s record that came out last year, or Kendrick Lamar, or Beyoncé. I want to wrap my head around what my blackness means to me. Part of it is a mix of anger and defiance. Part of it is fear and depression. “Moment” draws from all of these things. It’s an exciting triumph and an angry song about confronting these feelings. It’s a universal fear that your life can be snatched away from you at any moment.
This fear is illustrated by the lyrics: “Don’t you know everything you love will be gone someday? It’s not fatalistic, it’s reality. These moments when I face my fear, I realize that everything is irrelevant.”
The last line is the sting. “Irrelevant” in that I have to keep moving, not be paralyzed by this fear. “Irrelevant” in that so many people don’t care about this fear. They don’t care about black folks or a genuine, factual, statistical concern about how many of us have been murdered by policemen.
Have you been in a situation where you felt afraid for your life because of your race?
There have been instances when I’ve been racially profiled by police, or just in general. Whether it’s being followed in a convenience store, or getting in an elevator with an older white woman and watching her physically tense up and grab her purse. There was a period when I was driving a relatively nice car. I couldn’t drive down Moreland Avenue after 9 p.m. without being pulled over. I got stopped once while coming back from tour. I was speeding. He made me get out of the car. It was November, it was cold outside. I put my hands in my pockets and the cop freaked out! He yelled, “Stop! Take your hands out of your pockets! I don’t know if you have a weapon!” I said, “I’m gonna slowly take my hands out of my pockets. It’s OK. Please relax.” People say you’ll be OK if you’re polite. I’m a polite motherfucker — a relatively chill person. I wouldn’t talk to the police any kind of way. But when you roll down the window and they see the color of your skin, their fear level goes up.
Why does the fear level go up?
Throughout history, African-American males have been systematically disenfranchised. We have terrible schooling, no housing, no jobs, no access to anything. From that, culturally, we’re presented as thugs and desperate criminals. That is indoctrinated in you from the moment you’re born in America. The core of America is a bunch of rich, white, land-owning guys thinking, “We’re better than everyone else.” That arrogance affects women and people of color. It’s really only been about 50 years since black people have had rights in this country. That’s a drop in the bucket of history. To act like I’m treated the same as you, and that I have the same opportunities, is not real. It’s horrible to cope with that because I would like to be a more defiant, angry person, but part of me has moments of depression. I’m trying to reconcile all of these things in terms of myself as an artist and musician, trying to present this new ideal of what it means to be black. Acknowledge my anger and defiance, but also my vulnerability and sadness at the whole situation.
Many white people are sensitive to the situation we’re discussing. Is the onus of proving you’re not a terrible person more important after everything that’s happened in 2016?
From my perspective — and not every person of color agrees with this — I don’t want any white person to feel terrible about their heritage. I want awareness of what has happened, and a frank discussion about it. I want white people to live their lives in a way in which they’re able to confront racism in a healthy way, and to confront people who are being racially destructive when they see it.
Will “Moment” appear on the next Shepherds record?
We’ve been arguing about what’s going on the record. We have a lot of songs. Earlier this year, when I started contemplating what we’re talking about, I wanted to make an album that was unconscionably black, where every song was about this shit. I have written and recorded two records that tackle this stuff, but they’re side projects. One’s a country record called Music Of the Oppressors. The other one’s called Young King Trash, which I imagine is my trap persona; like if 21 Savage fronted the Fall. But with Shepherds there’s such a depth and breadth of things we tackle: Our drummer, Adrian Świtoń, sings on a lot more songs. He’s a first generation Polish immigrant. He’s one of my best friends and someone who understands what it’s like to be “the other” in America. When he first went to school, being a Polish kid, people made fun of him. So there are songs that cover his feelings of otherness — my feeling of otherness. There are songs that cover lust and Catholic guilt, and a song that I’m writing about Tupac. Have you seen that interview he did on YouTube from when he’s a 17-years-old, effeminate art school kid? It shocked me. That was me in high school. "Moment" is about how black men cope with being “the other” in America. How do you deal with all the shit that you have to do as a black person? Tupac chose to present himself as this ultra-masculine, angry, confrontational figure. Honestly, I think it was a way to protect himself. And he still got killed.