All Deja Carr needs to move an audience is a bass guitar and her voice, which is as emotive as it is acrobatic. In her recordings and minimalist live shows as Mal Devisa, she uses only a few elements to conjure an enormous range of emotions: hopeful melancholy, confident defiance, revelatory pathos. Many of her songs, like “Sea of Limbs” from her album Kiid, are reminiscent of bedroom folk pop, but she’s also capable of nimble leaps to classic blues and jazz, bombastic industrial textures, and self-assured rap.
If her influences are wide, it’s partially because she’s as obsessive about other people’s music as she is about her own. At her sold out show at Silent Barn last month, she was effusive toward the other artists, saying after her first song, “I’m so humbled to be on this bill.” The lineup, which had drawn a crowd so dense it was no match for Silent Barn’s air conditioning, included some of Brooklyn’s most exciting artists on the rise: Vagabon, Swings, and 100%. (“Can i just express feeling grateful that a bill with 2blackwomen+1woc happened last night w.o being curated as such,” Vagabon’s Laetitia Tamko would tweet the next day.)
The show took place two days after the death of Philando Castile and one day after the death of Alton Sterling, and it offered opportunities for both respite from and dialogue about the recent tragedies. Watching Deja’s remarkable performance, a stirring mix of beauty and pain, felt appropriate given this backdrop. The multiple shades of meaning behind lines like, “Does it kill you to know that we’re all dying? It kills me to know,” in the song “Fire,” rang with extra significance. You could say she represents both the personal and the political with equal depth, but it’s more than that—her music makes those two realms feel inseparable.
Wearing a black t-shirt, large gold hoop earrings, and a black baseball cap over her recently buzzed hair, she played with the pleasure of someone who is practiced enough to improvise, surprising herself with each new rendition of her set. She later said over email of her improvisation, “There’s an element to trusting yourself that you have to have, and that’s something that permeates fear.” She is a performer whose self-imposed limitations have cleared a path for the freedom to experiment. Her vocals are often delicate, making it all the more surprising and poignant when she belts the chorus or descends into a frenetic bass solo.
Carr has fought to make the often exclusionary world of DIY music more welcoming to people of color. Nina Simone has been a source of inspiration, both artistically and politically. In high school, she wrote an essay about both Nina Simone and Merrill Garbus from tUnE-yArDs, comparing the different ways they addressed oppression and their role as women who play music. When she was a child, her parents moved the family from the Bronx to Western Massachusetts, a pastoral place known for its rich music scene, and Carr has played a crucial role in recent years in building a version of that scene that is welcoming to and driven by people of color. She put together a festival called Strange Noir as a response to the lack of representation of people of color in the DIY scene. “I called on my friends from the scene, just local friends of color in the music scene, and they were there,” she said, snapping her finger. “Remembering the times where I was like, ‘I don’t belong here, this is not a place for me’—getting to see them, just my friends, in the room playing music with me, filled me with so much hope.”
As she played that night at Silent Barn, there were no talkers at the back of the room. Even at her most quiet, she was crisply audible due to the rapt silence of the audience. Her music relies on spaciousness, and that night the audience participated in that spaciousness. It felt like a celebration. It wasn’t until almost the end of her set that she commented on the shootings. She recited a poem in response to the shootings and then launched into a searing rap. “She’s burning down Birmingham, next stop Texas,” she said, and as she paused between verses, the audience cheered.
After the crowds had trickled away at the end of the show, Carr sat on the benches outside in the yard of Silent Barn and reflected on how to respond to the recent shootings on a night of artistic celebration. “It’s so much easier to sing about it than it is to talk about it, really with anything,” she said. “But that almost doesn’t feel like enough either.” But she’s not one to fall into despair and inaction. “When I heard the news,” she said, “I felt that I couldn’t, or shouldn’t stop doing everything, especially playing music.” She later added, “My response to tragedy is music and art and those things create spaces where we can alleviate and heal.”