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Watch: Esperanza Spalding Shares Striking Video For 'How To (hair)'

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YouTube screen grab by NPR

For as long as Esperanza Spalding has been in the public eye, she's been defined in part by her hair. A boundlessly creative singer, bassist and composer — dubbed "The 21st Century's Jazz Genius" by NPR Music's Turning the Tables series — she's known for her natural style, a trademark as fundamental to her persona as the coiled-spring feeling in her vocal phrasing. Her first NPR mention, on All Things Considered in 2008, included a nod to her "outsized Afro."

Spalding has a striking new music video that sheds some light on this subject. "How To (hair)" is one of several bonus tracks recently added to her 2018 album 12 Little Spells (Concord Jazz). By and large it's a spoken-word poem with sharp musical accompaniment.

The black-and-white video was directed by Vincent Martell of the Chicago-based VAM Studio, who has also directed videos for Junglepussy and Jamila Woods. Featuring nearly two dozen black women in three-quarter view, it's a dreamy procession of tight braids and flowing dreadlocks, of waves and shapes and curls. Martell periodically jump-cuts to a rhyming image: a solar orb, palm trees, fireworks. He also plays with a kaleidoscopic effect, tempering the wildness of psychedelia with a Rorschach-esque axis of symmetry.

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Spalding designed "How To (hair)" as an unsparing statement, a reflection on the legacies of colonialism and slavery, as well as the unbroken promise of black pride. But in contrast to a song like Solange's "Don't Touch My Hair," whose music video incorporates the same framing and swish of tendrils, "How To (hair)" makes no provision for an outsider's vantage. Its message is exhortatory, its intended audience an empowered sisterhood.

To that end, there's a cathartic moment two minutes into the song. "In this stately hall built for silence," Spalding evenly recites, "Bald bulbs blearily focus / On our loudness."

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