Isolation Drills: Lee Clarke

Like the majority of you, all of us in the Philadelphia area are staying at home, learning to adapt to our “new normal.” MAGNET is checking in with local musicians to see how and what they’re doing during this unprecedented time. Photos by Chris Sikich.

Clarke: This year I’ve been discarding things that weren’t serving me and giving more of my energy and attention to what I want to uplift in music and life in general. Early on, the COVID outbreak forced me to quit DJing and take a pause on a few production projects. This gave me time to finally finish and release my first-ever solo project, Off Nights, which came out in May. In September, I released a follow-up single, “Evaporate,” with two frequent collaborators, Kingsley Ibeneche and Ivy Sole.

I also used some of the extra time to finish some collaborative projects that I didn’t have a plan for releasing pre-COVID. With my housemates, who run the record label Astro Nautico, I helped organize the Atlantics X series, which is raising money for artists who have been negatively impacted by the pandemic. We put out singles from several of my collaborative projects, including Ibeneche, KillerWhale and Jasmine Cassell.

Recently, I’ve also been working on music for dance tutorial videos by Urban Movement Arts, who are offering a variety of COVID-safe ways to learn dance. I’ve been practicing dance with their guidance throughout the year, which has been rewarding physically and spiritually. I’m finding a new way to connect with the music I love, centering my body. 

Overall, I’ve been blessed to be doing things that I’m passionate about, more so than ever. I’m fortunate to have some students who have stuck with me for remote lessons throughout this year. The main thing I’m excited about though, is all the producing I’ve been doing, specifically working with some amazing singers and songwriters. I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be a music producer, what a great responsibility it is to work on other people’s songs. Whereas at one point in my career, I may have been quick to take on any project, rush through it and move on, in this slower version of my life, I have time to really sit with and nurture every project.

The recent public attention to the ongoing oppression of Black people in the United States has had me reflecting on my role as a white producer largely working in hip hop, jazz and other musical forms created by Black people. The music that I love to make fits into a lineage of exploitation by white people of Black communities’ creativity. I want my relationships with Black artists to be reciprocal and equitable, not extractive or harmful.

This is a lifelong pursuit without easy answers. I think the best way forward is to come in close with my collaborators and try to model relationships between us that feel in line with living an anti-racist life. I see music as a valuable tool in bringing people together to dismantle white supremacy.

It can be hard to feel a sense of community when I’ve been physically isolated from my closest friends and collaborators for months. Lacking that physical sense of togetherness really wears on me and a lot of my peers. Recognizing the importance of social distancing, I also hope we can find ways to emphasize the importance of social connection. Music has an incredible power to bring people together, whether as listeners, on the bandstand or in the studio, often across lines of difference. 

Though it has felt difficult and uncertain to be a musician right now, the value of music feels very clear to me. I’m finding myself connecting with music on an emotional level, using it for processing and healing in a way that reminds me of my teenage years, often alone in my room with headphones on. It may have to be a solo activity for a while longer, but I know it will feel amazing when we can all get together again one day.