One night while sifting through the magical realm of Bandcamp, I came across the artist Pursuit Grooves, also known as VJ Smith. I was looking for artists who played around with raw, crunchy drum sounds, but what I found was full of a delicate and experimental sensitivity. After journeying through her extensive discography, I came upon one particularly bewitching album, Bess, released in November 2019. After contemplating the creative intention behind the project, I decided to reach out to VJ in the hope that she could elaborate on its construction.
A trend seen throughout Grooves’ discography is that she does not confine her sound to one genre. Instead, she invites listeners to open themselves to new possibilities of the electronic. Soaring through experimental and ambient dimensions, ‘Bess’ takes on influences from soul, bass, R&B, and house. This links powerfully to the album’s defining purpose, to pay tribute to a woman who saw no boundaries.
In 1921 Bessie Coleman, known colloquially as ‘Bess’, became the first black person to obtain an international pilot’s license. She was also the first American of any race or gender to be directly awarded a license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, the world governing body for air sports. After being denied entry to all American pilot schools on the basis of her race and gender, Coleman was far from discouraged, deciding to pursue her dreams further afield in France. ‘I was extremely inspired by her story’ described Smith, ‘She was a pioneer and had no role models that looked like her’.
Almost entirely instrumental, Bess is an adventure, an exploration of a seemingly impossible world. Although only one track features conventional vocal arrangements, Grooves narrates each interlude with a business-like tone. These mechanic, mystifying voiceovers provide a loose timeline of Bessie’s life, maintaining the dynamism of an already high-powered record.
Though the bones of some tracks are not dissimilar, they are by no means negatively repetitive. The funky buoyancy of‘The French Connect’ is soul-lifting, mimicking the sense of weightlessness Bessie would have felt as she completed her legendary air tricks.
Though living in an era of tight and diabolical segregation, Bessie carved her own path. She was rejected because she was black, because she was a woman, because she was the first of her kind, yet she refused to lose hope. What is truly magical about Bess is how the sound grasps onto that beating emotion, which is sometimes lost in the experimental. Representation is a key part of the record, as well as in the rest of Groove’s work as an artist and advocate. Smith elaborated on this; ‘many of us still find ourselves in place where we are the only. I’m speaking from a race and gender perspective’. Pursuit Grooves uses her platform of music, filmography and visual art design to promote such representation, encouraging younger generations to be ‘as bright and ambitious as they can be’.
‘Hair Raising’, with its pulsing dub bass lines and continuously stuttering snares, is an auditory embodiment of Bessie’s determination to reach the skies. Smith carries you with air-sirens and ethereal synths to a realm of hope and belief in one’s strength to achieve. Bessie and VJ never met, but they are intrinsically bound by a drive to defy the ordinary.
‘Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow’ ends the record, a tribute to Bessie’s request for her life to be put into a film. The film never happened; Bessie’s story remains untold on the screen. I cannot help but feel, however, that it has been redefined by Smith. Not only is it a tribute to her life, her plight, and her determination, but a spirit-elevating reflection of what it’s like to fall in love with flying.
I’d like to say a special thanks to Pursuit Grooves for answering my questions and for being so gracious and open!
¹ "The First Woman Rapper MC Sha Rock Talks Women in Rap, Sugar Hill Records, & Her Movie Project”, < https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_8UBKxJg1SQ >
² “On set w/ Aaliyah, Da Brat, Missy Elliott & Lil’ Kim (1999): You Had To Be There”, < https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mOzcH9Fim1M >
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⁴ hooks, b. (1994, February). Sexism and misogyny: Who takes the rap? . . . Misogyny, gangsta rap, andpiano. Z Magazine. < http://s18.middlebury.edu/AMST0325A/hooks_Sexism%20and%20Misogynywho-takes-the-rap.pdf >
⁵ Adams, Terri M., and Douglas B. Fuller. “The Words Have Changed but the Ideology Remains the Same:Misogynistic Lyrics in Rap Music.” Journal of Black Studies, vol. 36, no. 6, 2006, pp. 938–957, JSTOR, < http://www.jstor.org/stable/40034353 >
⁶ Barnes, Dee. “Here’s What’s Missing From Straight Outta Compton: Me and the Other Women Dr.Dre Beat Up”, < https://gawker.com/heres-whats-missing-from-straight-outta-compton-me-and1724735910 >
⁷ “Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche Flawless Speech”, < https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=75BknhBhWVg >
⁸ “Joan Morgan Talks Hip-Hop Feminism & The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill”, < https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zeYRRzt2ikQ >
⁹ “WAP and the Spectacle of Sexual Liberation”, < https://www.youtube.com/watch?app=desktop&v=ILApR36KgQw&fbclid=IwAR23XawseazqgOGpZJ-VknYVIx3SuO_qkbtovWHiPO5_KP3Z3IwTRmtCrp8 >
¹⁰ Gracie, Bianca. “How Women Reclaimed Hip-Hop in 2019 by Making Their Own Rules”, 19 December 2019, Billboard, < https://www.billboard.com/articles/columns/hip-hop/8546781/female-rappers-2019-dominance >
Music never lets you down
Puts a smile on your face
Anytime, any place
Dancing helps relieve the pain
Soothes your mind, makes you happy again
Listen to those dancing feet
Close your eyes and let go
But it don't mean a thing
If it ain't got that swing
Bop-shoo-wa, bop-shoo-wa, bop-shoo-wa
Chic - Everybody Dance from the album: Chic (1977)