As the founder and director of the popular UnderCover Presents shows, Lyz Luke has designed a concept that nurtures the truly unique and gifted fabric of the Bay’s music community, while producing world-class shows which are more than the sum of their parts. But Luke had no experience in the music industry when she started. She was just a music lover. “I would go to 5-7 shows a week. I’m that band girl and totally [love]different genres.”
She tells a great story of UnderCover Presents’ beginning, which started with a 2am Google Chat after a show. This brainstorm session was with Cherith Premawardhana, the founder of Classical Revolution, and Luke’s idea was for a show in which very different bands would perform each song off of The Velvet Underground & Nico album. They stayed up all night, and by 11am, they were calling bands from Revolution Cafe in the Mission.. They brought in Peter Vorchasky of Porto Franco Records, and the three collaborated to produce the first UnderCover show in 2011.
That first show was packed with a line around the block, yet what happened backstage was what really inspired Luke. Most of the artists had never met, yet knew of and respected each other’s work. Luke was struck by the impact she could have by bringing artists together. With multiple bands, each playing only one song, there was a lot of backstage networking time. This led to collaborating on arrangements, recording on each other’s albums, and overall facilitating musical community, as well as exposing audiences to new bands and genres. Although Luke might not have anticipated this when she conceived of the idea, by the first show she was hooked. The UnderCover model not only fosters creativity, collaboration, and community, but requires it. The model acts as a sieve, distilling the Bay Area’s creative juices.
On February 16-18th, UnderCover and YBCA’s Clas/sick Hip Hop festival (which focuses this year on gender in hip-hop) will co-present A Tribute to The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, the breakthrough solo debut of the former Fugees emcee and singer. Guest Music Director Meklit Hadero, an established and successful Bay Area artist, was actually one of the performers in that first show.
“There’s a list of running albums in my head I’d love to do, but the most important thing is to find the right Music Director for each project,” said Luke. “And that’s the person who really puts a lot of love in it, has been heavily influenced by the album, and knows it inside and out.”
While the entire production team collectively reviews bands, the Music Director has the final say. Hadero referenced her own curation style as the “Miles Davis approach”; Davis was known for hiring artists who he had already studied and trusted their art.
The list of artists for the show and accompanying album showcases local diversity: Femme Deadly Venoms, Inspector Gadje, the Dynamic Miss Faye Carol, the Kev Choice Ensemble, the Josh Jones Latin Ensemble, SOL Development, Vocal Rush, Noah Kibreab, the RUBaDUB Possee, Howard Wiley & Extra Nappy, FR33, Cosa Nosa Strings, Babii Cris, Katdelic, and Hadero herself
But what prevents UnderCover shows from being lazy cover band shows? “We always say we don’t want this to sound like the original at all,” said Luke. “In fact, if you come wanting to hear the original album, you’ll be very angry and disappointed. For me, really good art does change your emotional situation or status. And it evokes a conversation.” Classic albums, Luke said, represent “a little snapshot in history.”
Back in 2007, Choice — whose ensemble will perform the song “Final Hour” — paid dues as Hill’s Musical Director, working extensively with her to put together a Bay Area band. There are stories which center around Hill introducing Choice and another performer in the UCP show, saxophonist Howard Wiley, to Ethiopian jazz — seeking to influence and inspire them to reinterpret her own songs.
The crossing of musical genres is a facet which both Hadero and UnderCover delight in. Hadero shared a quote by Faye Carol – also a performer in the project – who said, “what I do is hip hop before hip hop had a name.” Hadero’s own upcoming album reinterprets Ethio-jazz, which can also be found in her contribution to the UCP show, “Doesn’t Even Matter.”
Hadero also spoke about the dovetailing of UnderCover and YBCA festival’s inquiry into the impact of groundbreaking albums, gender norms, and the global role of hip-hop — all of which are significantly-represented on this album. “It is important to have women’s voices be at the forefront in representing this record,” she said, because women in the music industry “have to shout in order to be heard.”
But Miseducation wasn’t just a female-empowerment album; it was also abundant with conscious and political lyrical content. Choice said he tackled one of Hill’s more politically-focused songs because of his own commitment to breaking away from oppression. “What side you gonna be on when that final hour comes? How we gonna live our life? And what we gonna stand for in these times, for real?”
Luke, meanwhile, has recently been moving into arts advocacy leadership roles. “For me, community is my number one motivator and music just creates a place to have that conversation and to build it,” she said. Now a Governor on the SF Board of The Recording Academy (the producers of the Grammy Awards), she sits on the Advocacy and Membership Committees. Recently, she has begun working with the Oakland Symphony in community outreach and engagement, joined Leadership Oakland, and stepped up her advocacy for arts funding in Oakland, speaking up at city committee meetings and encouraging others to do the same.
“I feel like the role with my life is just really making sure everyone is at the table for the conversation and looking around and seeing who’s missing,” she said. Her actions show that she seeks to be a voice for increased inclusion, representation, and investing in the arts. “Just asking the hard questions like does this really speak to this community? Who are the community partners [who]we need to be bringing to the table, instead of bringing artists from across the country or the world? Why aren’t we working with someone from the Bay Area?”
Luke’s her future plans include further developing her burgeoning interest in arts advocacy. “Learning how parts of the city actually work together, who the movers and shakers are, just learning that system . . . things are [becoming]less daunting to me.” She has established herself as a facilitator of the Bay’s musical zeitgeist and a committed fighter for community. She’s already making a positive impact on the Bay’s musical landscape, with much more to come.
A Tribute to The Miseducation of Lauyrn Hill
Yerba Buena Center For the Arts
701 Mission St, San Francisco, CA 94103