Photo by Rūta Smith

Going live

Khari Lucas, one of the most prolific Charleston artists over recent years, is the latest local to kick off a virtual performance with an Oct. 24 appearance on a livestream by Oakland-based Smartbomb VHS.

Contour, Lucas’ music project, has always been elusive of genre, operating in its own hushed, somber realm of lo-fi minimalism and psychedelic glimmers. Whether playing with his full band which operates more in the mode of modern jazz or making sample oriented songs akin to contemporary soul and hip-hop, Lucas’ music always feels united. The feel and execution of Smartbomb’s content fits Contour like a glove.

Smartbomb VHS organized concerts and performances before COVID-19 brought that corner of the industry to a halt. In the past six months, they have adapted to hosting live streams of independent electronic, experimental artists and DJs. Lucas describes its format almost like a variety show, where artists pre-record their sets, which are then given a warped home movie look. In between sets, the stream features short films or music videos.

Of course, livestreams weren’t the norm until 2020. 

“I probably would have gone on tour a couple of times,” he said. “There’s music that I conceptualized coming out this year that I had to reevaluate my plans for. But it may be for the benefit of the work that I’m reevaluating it. I’ve also been reading and watching more things, having all of this excess time has given me a period to return to being a student so to speak.”

The way that music and arts communities have been shaken this year is not just a new frontier for artists like Contour to experiment and perform with new mediums. For Lucas, this year has brought to light certain conversations that he believes are necessary for the future of music and what needs to change for artists.

He knows that he is lucky to have that excess time he mentioned to absorb new things and reevaluate the music that he was working on. “There are artists all over the country, particularly of marginalized communities that are literally worried about not having what they need to survive and having to source their needs through mutual aid, or having to go back out into the workforce and face potential exposure to the virus,” Lucas said.

While touring may have provided stability for some artists, it certainly was not enough for many, and to Lucas, that’s an indicator that the model is broken. “I’ve had a lot of people tell me, especially in the Southeast, like, ‘Yeah man, you’ve got to just go on tour and get on the road over and over,’” he said. “It really might be a necessary thing to challenge the sustainability of the way that we’re approaching this music thing in the first place. And, some people are meant to have touring projects, I’m not knocking that, but I think there’s an obligatory, ‘This is the way things are,’ mentality.” 

On top of all that, many minority artists are among those feeling the pinch. Lucas even believes Charleston is a “lost cause” for racial equity in the music and arts communities.

“People aren’t going to challenge each other and root out the nepotism. It’s tricky because I don’t want Black people to be coming into spaces as tokens or diversity metrics. Finding a Black artist to put on the bill is the bare minimum,” he said. “The majority of white musicians are white supremacists whether they realize it or not. There’s doing it in explicit ways, and they’re upholding it by continuing to do nothing and be comfortable.”

“If white people want to know what they can do, everyone who is living above the poverty line with any level of expendable income, start handing that money to real Black people and mutual aid, not through nonprofits,” he added.

As for what might happen in a non-COVID future, Lucas doesn’t see a need to think far ahead. It’ll be a while. “It’s going to take a lot to get me back to a venue space with a bunch of people, I don’t see anything that points to it being viable any time soon.”