J.S. Ondara played 89.3 the Current's birthday party at First Avenue in January 2017. (Anthony Souffle/Star Tribune)
Just in time for his three-week tour this weekend with ascending Nashville rocker Anderson East, Minneapolis singer/songwriter J.S. Ondara – the artist formerly known as Jay Smart – debuted a new song and video that remind us one reason he moved to Minnesota from his native Kenya was because he’s a Bob Dylan nut.
Titled “Revolution Blues” (no relation to the Neil Young of the same name), the tune was directly inspired by last year’s women’s march to the Minnesota State Capitol the day after the presidential inauguration.
“It didn't feel much like a protest, rather than a gathering for love and solidarity,” said Ondara, who got the hook of the song stuck in his head on the spot: "Let it loose, it's the revolution blues." Other lyrics include, "Now that the ballot don't mean much / Democracy is for the birds / Now that the news have met their match / Democracy is for the birds."
Previously known from his covers of Haley Bonar's "Kismet Kill" and Dylan's "Knocking on Heaven's Door" (read our 2016 profile of him here), Ondara produced two different videos for the new song: One is a live version gorgeously filmed at the Minneapolis Institute of Art by local photographer Nate Ryan (which influential hipster music blog BrooklynVegan also posted), and the other is a collage of clips from the aforementioned march. Take your pick below.
He also wrote an essay about the song for the institute of art’s site, in which he explains how he wrestled with the idea of writing political songs. “Being a foreigner in America presented another layer of internal discord as I struggled to find where my place was amidst all the chaos,” he wrote, citing the influence of last year’s topical albums by Hurray for the Riff Raff and Jason Isbell. “Some would argue that with so much tumult and uncertainty, maybe such albums that offer a distraction are what people need to stay sane. Others would contend that sanity is but a luxury in the face of injustice.”
It sounds like we know which direction Ondara is taking as he works toward an album that's already earning plenty of label attention. You can bet this week’s gigs with East will add to the buzz, as it finds him performing at such venues as the Filmore in San Francisco and the Blue Note in Columbia, Mo. He also landed a slot at this year’s Bonnaroo on June 10.