PLAYING NASHVILLE: Louis York Carry the Tradition of “American Griots” on Debut LP

A “griot” is defined as an oral storyteller in West Africa, the roots of the tradition tracing back centuries. Nashville-based duo Louis York not only bring this tradition into the modern era with their debut album, American Griots, but prove they’ve long been griots themselves.

The journey begins with Claude Kelly and Chuck Harmony, Grammy nominated songwriters and producers who spent more than a decade writing era-defining pop hits (Kelly wrote “Party in the U.S.A.” by Miley Cyrus and Bruno Mars’ “Grenade,” while Harmony penned Rihanna’s “Russian Roulette” and produced Ne-Yo’s six-time Grammy nominated album, Year of the Gentleman). After breaking away from the grind of the mainstream music industry, they created Louis York and launched their own artist collective, Weirdo Workshop, in Franklin, Tennessee (just outside of Nashville) in 2017. Deriving their namesake from Kelly’s native New York and Harmony’s home city of St. Louis, Louis York introduced themselves as a genre-defying act with an important message to share on a succession of EPs: 2015’s Masterpiece Theater – Act I, 2016’s Masterpiece Theater – Act II, and finally, Masterpiece Theater – Act III, released in 2017.


But with the turn of the new year in 2019, the duo knew it was time to create a comprehensive body of work in order to evolve, setting their sights on a debut album. As they began writing songs and developing themes for the impending project, Kelly and Harmony discovered the word “griot” – a traveling musician, poet or performer who would visit the villages of West Africa and share stories of the people and culture through art. “That part really resonated with us because it felt like there was an ancestral tradition to why music and soul music and this mission will always feel so familiar,” Kelly tells Audiofemme. “That was a beautiful thing to embrace.”

The album reflects a tapestry of the experiences, frustrations and lessons they’ve gathered through their journey, reclaiming the griot’s mission of transforming valuable life lessons into art that not only entertains, but instills education, intellect and spirituality. “We’re asking more questions than we’re giving solutions,” Harmony says of the project. “The songs go different places and take on different twists and turns in ways that I think a lot of people now don’t think fans and consumers can take, but we don’t buy that. We know that music has always been adventurous and progressive and fun and poetry, that’s what we fell in love with when we first came into it,” Kelly describes. “These are all soul songs, each one is kind of a realization for us.”

Louis York called on a team of Nashville griots to help them share these realizations. Caroline Randall Williams, an award-winning poet and co-author of NAACP Image Award winning book Soul Food Love, opens the project with her “piercing” voice, as Kelly notes, on an original poem that proclaims over a groove of horns and drums, “this, an American story / a fists up story / an our power story.” Her moving words take shape again on the reprise of “Teach Me a Song,” the duo’s duet with country star Jimmie Allen, while The Shindellas, the powerhouse trio founded under Weirdo Workshop, follow in their footsteps on “No Regrets.” The ’80s style electro-funk melody doesn’t disguise the uplifting lyrics that encourage self-love and personal freedom, and The Shindellas’ glistening harmonies shining alongside Kelly’s voice as they declare, “I want the world to know / you don’t have to be alone / we don’t have very long / so love anyone you want.” “That part was an important message, so we chose to repeat it over and over again so it could be drilled in people’s heads,” Kelly says.


For Harmony, the album’s profound identity lives in “I Wonder.” Originally released on Masterpiece Theater – Act I as an eclectic R&B number titled “Nerds,” Louis York give the song a new identity on American Griots. Inspired by hymns and Negro spirituals, “I Wonder” intertwines spoken word poetry, jazz, hip-hop and R&B to ponder how Civil Rights pioneers Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X would perceive the world today. The almighty voice of opera singer Patrick Dailey unites with Harmony’s cinematic production of strings and booming drums to elevate the compelling notion, “I wonder / if Martin was alive now / would he be proud? / I wonder / if Malcom was alive now / would he be proud?” “It’s such a vital part of our social message and it’s a missing part musically in pop culture,” Harmony explains. “It feels like it’s encompassing all of what African Americans have contributed artistically to pop culture, and still sounds futuristic,” Kelly remarks, calling Dailey’s presence a “stand alone moment.” “We wanted to feel reverent, but we also wanted it to feel like it was the best of who we are.”

The griot tradition is in capable hands as Louis York continue on an artistic journey that finds them channeling expression, attention to detail, honesty and true musicianship into their craft. These elements reward them with a true sense of freedom, the liberating gift they pass on to those who embrace American Griots. “With us spilling our guts and pouring our hearts on this album, we’re hoping that listeners will have a revelation, which is deeper than inspiration,” Kelly says of the most “complete” body of work they’ve created in their careers. “This album is also a reminder to them that this is what freedom can sound like. Now take that same feeling and apply it to yourself.”

“The only thing that we can offer people is love and happiness and having fun and being introspective. But at the end of it is love,” Harmony observes. “That’s what the world needs.”

American Griots is available on Oct. 18.

PREMIERE: The Shindellas Reveal Their Truest Selves With “Costume”

The Shindellas

When pressing play on “Costume,” the new single from up-and-coming trio The Shindellas, it’s as much a journey as it is a song.

The genre-blending act of Kasi Jones, Stacy Johnson and Tamara Chauniece begin by transporting us back in time to the 1960s with a spirited introduction that offers glimmers into each woman’s personality: Stacy is mean on the bass, love is Kasi’s middle name and Tam can sing like the best of them. They share these idiosyncrasies over a melody that captures the cinematic sound reminiscent of iconic groups like The Supremes and The Chiffons. But just as you’re reveling in this throwback sound, the beat drops, transforming into a slick R&B jam.

Written and produced by Grammy nominated songwriters and producers Claude Kelly and Chuck Harmony, along with former American Idol contestant and Grammy Award winner Tori Kelly, a close ear to the lyrics reveal that the infectious melody surrounds a powerful message that encourages self-acceptance and the freedom to walk in one’s truth, the trio’s glistening harmonies lifting up such inspiring words, “All we want is love / all we got is us / baby that’s enough / let me see the real you / ain’t gotta wear your costume tonight.”

Kelly and Harmony are co-founders and CEOs of Weirdo Workshop, a Nashville-based artist collective that produces The Shindellas and their own work as groundbreaking duo, Louis York.

Listen to Audiofemme’s exclusive premiere of “Costume” and read our interview with The Shindellas below.

AF: What was your reaction when you first heard “Costume”?

SJ: It’s a really fun song, it’s got a fun beat. It’s one of those songs that I feel like everyone can sing along to. It’s uplifting, it feels like a party song.

KJ: The blended styles, it literally feels like a party song from the ’20s and also from the future, it really is theatrical. It plays with a lot of different parts of our voices, it was like all of us could really sink our teeth into something.

AF: What are listeners going to learn about you through this song? 

SJ: They’re going to learn our names, they’re going to know what we bring, our perspectives, we talk about that. And they’re going to learn about this different movement and be encouraged to join that movement and be a part of it, just women singing together about that kind of thing. I don’t think it’s a new thing, but it’s just an encouraging thing that they’re going to learn, encouraged to be close with your sisters and empower your sisters around you.

KJ: It starts with all of our playfulness. We actually introduce ourselves on the song, but I think it’s the most direct of our songs in terms of our actual messaging like self-love, self-respect, self-worth. “You are allowed to be yourself without fear” is our mantra and this song is just talking about being authentically you, and that’s what we are creating. It’s an anthem to all the weirdos.

AF: What do you want listeners to take away when they listen to this song? What message are you trying to convey and how do you hope it impacts them when they hear this song?

KJ: I hope people really feel that we’re embracing everyone’s most authentic self; that you are allowed to be yourself without fear and that that’s what we’re about. I also hope people will hear the song and want to come see it. I hope it reaches through the speaker and then makes them feel like they’re a part of something, like “I can turn this on when I’m feeling lonely or when I need that boost.”

AF: In the context of this song, how do you define the word ‘costume?’ 

SJ: It means to put on a persona. It can be a literal persona. It could be something as literal as makeup to saying you’re okay when you’re not okay. A costume is something that you’re using to guard yourself. But I feel like we’ve learned when you’re vulnerable, when you’re transparent, that is when people can really empathize and understand you and fall in love with you. So we’re asking everyone to take off their costume, whether it be makeup or it be something that you might find a flaw that you might be hiding and it could be somebody’s encouragement, somebody’s inspiration.

KJ: It makes me think of when we did our Tiny Book Club [an initiative through Weirdo Workshop] on passing and that sometimes your costume is how you pass. You wear a costume to your corporate job or you wear a costume with your family or we have different personas like [Stacy] said or costumes that we put on and maneuver through life. But like we talked about in that conversation, can you be really free if you’re constantly passing? We want people to be free.

AF: One line that stood out to me is “We’re The Shindellas, we’re truth tellers.” How do you define “truth teller?” 

TC: I think that a truth teller is someone who understands that you’re flawed, but they are a work in progress, and they are all about sharing that journey with whomever will listen. I think for truth tellers, they just want the truth to be the reality, so they’re willing to basically put themselves and their truth on the line to actually bring in more people so that the truth can actually be the one thing that prevails.

AF: So how do you, The Shindellas, feel that you are truth tellers? What truth are you hoping to share with the world?

KJ: The universal truth. We’re ones that love is and always will be our north star.

SJ: In our music so far that we’ve put out has been nothing but some pretty serious topics wrapped in bubbly sounds and cool harmonies. But a lot of the words and lyrics are honest experiences that we’ve had that, like [Tamara] said, want to share. Our music is a huge reflection of our truth telling.

The Shindellas

AF: Do you feel like your truth is reflected in “Costume”?

The Shindellas: Absolutely.

KJ: We all feel like costumes.

SJ: Stacy feels like her Jamaican roots are in “Costume” somehow without even having to force it or make it something that’s super prominent. It feels very real and true in the music.

KJ: That’s so true. I can hear all of the movie musicals that are what made me even want to be a singer and an actor. All those movie musicals and all those vocal performances in the intro and the bridge, that’s my grandma, it’s my childhood, what made me want to even play this way.

TC: I can totally hear my gospel roots because I feel like the entire song we’re testifying. We’re literally preaching but in a way that doesn’t sound so preachy, it actually sounds fun, so it’s a really weird juxtaposition. It’s kind of like what [Kelly and Harmony] coined a “deep fried veggie,” it’s such a fun beat and you kind of don’t even recognize that there’s such an awesome message in it until it’s over and you’re like “wait a minute, what was this experience?” That’s what I really love about it.

AF: Another big mantra for you is “when women come together, powerful things can happen.” How do you feel that you all have become more powerful since coming together?

SJ: For me personally, I’m inspired by these two women. Because we’re going through this together, every time they choose to be their truest self or to speak their truth or to face their fear, it encourages me to do the same. It’s been a magnifier for us. Also, I feel like I’m able to have a bigger voice and reach more people because we’re together and it’s still the same message that I would have been doing by myself, but now I have my sisters and more people can see themselves in us, so we’re able to reach so much more. We’re magnifying our words and our songs and our message by being together.

TC: I think that through this experience, I’ve become more powerful because now that I know that I have two women that are depending on me to be my best self, that is something that causes me to constantly self-reflect and constantly look in the mirror and make sure that I am being my best self when I’m with them because I know that we’re the most powerful when we’re all operating at our maximum potential. Knowing that I now have accountability buddies, it just makes for an incredible journey.