It’s been “Red Summer” for over a hundred years. While the term “Red Summer” typically refers to the race-driven violence in the Summer of 1919 across the United States, its repercussions, its vocabulary can be felt or heard on every corner of every street. In Chicago, it has a special significance, as Chicago was one of two catalysts for that era’s violence, exploded by invisible racial borders along the South Side, a phenomenon that exists today, constantly considered by long-running gospel industrial band ONO.
ONO bandleader P Michael Grego and frontperson travis had met before 1980, sharing a love for written and spoken word, the transcendent, and the genuine. Through continual poking and prodding, P Michael convinced travis to join him in ONO, the name coming from shortening “onomatopoeia,” and underscoring a desire to create “noise not music.” P Michael would handle the audio. travis the words. Since January 5, 1980, ONO’s roster has changed drastically, but always fiercely defended a singular construct: “The ONO STATEMENT OF PURPOSE: Experimental Performance, NOISE, and Industrial Poetry Performance Band; Exploring Gospel's Darkest Conflicts, Tragedies and Premises.”
ONO began Red Summer in 2015 and finished three years later. It is a record about Chicago, racial violence, and the long arm of history, starting with events as distant - and relevant - as 1619, the year the Dutch ship Pearl filled with African slaves appeared on the American East Coast. This is where the record begins - the unsettling, carnivalesque overture “20th August 1619.” Frontperson Travis begins “SOLD! 23 ‘Negars!’ N-E-G-A-R-S!! FIELD ‘Negars’ good as Gold! Money down!”
It’s a jarring moment, but what’s not jarring about the arrival of slavery? Ono frequently packages disturbing lyrics or content into absurd, even catchy songs. Take the groovy funk track “I Dream of Sodomy,” an ONO live staple for nearly six years. P Michel’s earworm bassline is a persuasive siren, so much so that when the chorus - “I Dream of Sodomy” repeated multiple times - hits, somehow it’s hard not to sing along. On this song, travis meditates on his Black and Native American heritage, Haitian reparations, and sexual abuse at the hands of a commanding officer in the Vietnam era while he served in the U.S. Navy.
Other songs like “Coon” transform from glacial, elegiac mood-pieces into danceable numbers, all the while musing on racial violence in the U.S. history and militarism. “Early morning, greasy spoon,” travis incants for the chorus. “Possum fat for the hainty coon” before shifting the song’s narrative to a Lockheed U-2 reconnaissance aircraft and the potential for a [Future] all-Black NSA/SAC U-2/SR-71 fighter squadron that turns revolutionary mid-flight!
Though Red Summer is named after a specific era, it explodes temporal constraints, necessarily so. As is made clear in books like Claire Hartfield’s A Few Red Drops and Cameron McWhirter’s Red Summer, these things are hard to bookend. Racial violence occurred before the Red Summer, and it is still occuring now - systemically, to boot.
We hope that this record instills a need to learn, to study, and functions as an inlet into something much bigger.
- Jordan Reyes