Of Faith and Love: Kindred the Family Soul’s ‘A “Couple” Friends’
It was one of those not-as-rare-as-you-would-think-but-not-as-often-you-would–like times; driving around aimlessly in the car after dinner (no movie), trying to squeeze a few more minutes together, before we get back to the kids — who are no longer children — but still demand our parental attention and energies.
It is my partner who dreams most about the empty nest—even if just for a day or two—singing just audibly enough, “Far away from here…just jump in a taxi cab, pack a bag, and get away fast,” the hook from Kindred the Family Soul’s 2003 debut single, “Far Away.”
My partner’s little warble is notable, if only because we’ve long stopped listening to the same music—a distance somewhere between Jay Z and Smokie Norful—particularly if it is produced anytime in the last decade.
That “Far Away” still resonates for us speaks volumes not only about the quality of the music, but the foundational concerns of married duo Aja Graydon and Fatin Dantzler’s project—their music, their commitment, their babies—all six of them.
In the quarter century since the Philadelphia International Records label—that we all grew up with—closed shop, few artists have mined the everyday drama and pleasure of Black love and Black family in the way that Kindred the Family Soul have. If anything, what we hear with Graydon and Dantzler’s new release A “Couple” Friends on the independent label Shanachie, is more honesty—the kind bred in close proximity as parents, lovers, friends and collaborative artists.
On the bouncy opening track, Get It, Got It, Dantzler—whose vocals are as earnest as ever—sings, “We got our own rhythm,” and the lyric says much about an industry and perhaps a public that has rarely been interested in dynamic Black love. The acts of faith that have propelled sustainable Black relationships for centuries—“No idea what we were building,” (Look at What We Made) —offer little value to folks more interested in how Team Carter-Knowles or Team Pinkett-Smith love and parent (though we have no idea in either case).
Acts of faith abound throughout A “Couple” Friends. On Here We Go, which borrows a refrain from Run-DMC’s classic Live at the Funhouse (1983) track of the same name (itself a sample of Billy Squier’s Big Beat), Graydon reminds, “Don’t you know that faith is practical, that’s what makes it so wonderful, you gotta believe.” The matter-of-fact way she sings the lyric is reinforced by bassist Andre Pickney’s steady groove throughout.
With iconic actress Ruby Dee’s recent death, many remain nostalgic for the very public love that was the marriage of Dee and her late husband Ossie Davis, a neatness that the actors troubled in at least two Spike Lee films. Though not as visible, R&B singers Valerie Simpson and the late Nick Ashford serve a similar role, and remain the most logical example for Graydon and Dantzler.
It is fitting that Simpson appears on the recording’s stellar title track. The song serves as much a tribute to Ashford and Simpson’s craft, as it does their example as collaborative musicians.
Midway though A”Couple” Friends, the song changes pace, as Simpson performs an extended piano solo. Her “silent” coda on the track—she does not sing—is a touching nod to her primary role as composer in the context of Ashford and Simpson; Her late partner was the primary lyricist of classic tracks from Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s Ain’t No Mountain High Enough to Chaka Khan’s I’m Every Woman.
Kindred the Family Soul are most at ease with mid-tempo steppers—a metaphor for holding it all together, perhaps—and A “Couple” Friends is no different, with tracks like Never Love You More, Drop the Bomb, and Get It, Got It. The standout though is Not Complaining, which gets to the essence of the thing: “Last night we tore it up / we fought, then we made love…that’s the kind of sh** that we be going through.”
Sure there is no younger sister and sister-in-law bum-rushing Dantzler in an elevator, and Graydon—as grown as a woman can be—ain’t gonna be whispering about drinking watermelon on a beach (at least, that we know, which of course we don’t), but Kindred the Family Soul, keeps the drama of relationships real though—and we can ask for little more.
Mark Anthony Neal is professor of African & African American Studies at Duke University and the author of several books including the recent “Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities.” You can follow him on Twitter at @NewBlackMan.