Over the last year or so Khari Lucas (a.k.a. Contour) has become one of the most, if not the most, prominent figure in Charleston’s DIY music scene. All of the work that he’s put in up to this point in his still very young career seemed to culminate together this past Saturday, February 11 when Contour debuted a short film and accompanying music both entitled Softer at the Redux Contemporary Art Center. While the event was centered around the Softer project, in many ways the night felt like a salute to everything that Contour has done in trying to put Charleston on the map as an artistic landmark in the South. The night’s bill boasted Niecy Blues (Columbia, SC), Diaspoura (Charleston), a screening of Softer, and a special performance from Contour backed by a jazz trio.
What was really astounding about the musical performances were that they felt massive without doing anything flashy. Partly because the sound in Redux was great, but moreso because of the raw power that the three performers carry with them onstage. Niecy Blues’ set consisted of her alone at the mic and a DJ playing beats (some of which were produced by Contour) behind her. The beats wove perfectly in with the sheer soulfulness of her voice and filled up every bit of empty space on the stage in a cool blue, heavenly sound. Even with a minimalist set up, she can make any room feel like a planetarium when she performs.
Local favorite Diaspoura’s performance was similarly atmospheric, complete with a tightly wound full band and Valentine’s Day themed outfit from singer Anjali Naik. Naik brought her signature hypnotic, otherworldly vocals and dreamlike neo-soul production to the forefront of her set, which included an absolutely on point cover of The Internet’s “Get Away”. Per usual, she brought the house down and left a few jaws on the floor. The one-two punch of Niecy Blues and Diaspoura performing on the same night was an epiphany of how lucky a state like South Carolina is to have two voices that strong and innovative whom we can call our own.
However, during their sets both performers made a point of how the night was at its core a celebration of Contour. After all of the hype and the screening of the film, there was a palpable excitement in the crowd to see what he was going to do with his own performance. Naturally, the man did not disappoint. Contour played songs from Softer (with a few others thrown in) with a live jazz trio consisting of keys (Tyler Sim), electric bass (Jesse Kieve), and drums (Chase Bunes). Not only did the presence of the live band provide an interesting change from the beat based soul heard in the film, but it was a reminder that every performance is finite and provides something different every time the songs are played live. The instrumentals on the Softer soundtrack are reminiscent of alternative hip-hop producers in the vein of Knxwledge, but with Contour’s own psychedelic touches. His vocals give it a touch that truly makes the sound all his own, his voice is ominous but like great soul singers there is an ever present element of torment in his inflections. He takes what were already gripping, spacious beats, and seals them with humanity.
There is a chance that those songs will never be played with those jazz arrangements again, which added greatly to the set. Contour’s dark, echoing vocals sat in the spotlight while the band grooved around him, pulling out other Contour cuts and an Isaiah Rashad cover. At the end of the set, in grand Contour fashion, he walked offstage without a word and returned a few seconds later only to give a confident “thank you” before leaving the stage for the night. Contour knows he is talented, and he has earned every right to quietly remind you of that. He does not make anything a big deal, because he does not have to. He lets his art speak for itself and leaves it at that.
Then there is the Softer film and accompanying album. A good journalist knows that any kind of review or reporting is supposed to be unbiased, and that the writer is not supposed to enter the first person and make the story personal to them. I have to break that this time. I am a Charlestonian. I was raised here. My parents were both born here, their parents were born here, and that repetition goes back generations. No matter how conflicting this city is, it is a part of who I am and the same goes for a lot of other people. It is not easy being a Charlestonian, and to a greater degree a South Carolinian, who loves art. We occasionally get a Toro y Moi who breaks into the national spotlight, but what’s even more rare is that we get artists who push boundaries while still making something that is very much related to this place. I can say with the utmost certainty that Softer is the most beautifully Charlestonian thing that I have ever witnessed in my twenty-one years here. The shots of Contour almost levitating through an overgrown downtown alley, a black couple spending a carefree afternoon at the beach, and a sailboat against a fading pink and baby blue sunset give a gorgeous, honest presentation of Charleston in 2017. Contour along with cinematographer Carson Tucker and co-director John Peters have depicted Charleston the way that it really is. It’s not just Rainbow Row, sweetgrass, and shrimp. There are social complexities to Charleston that the city tries to hide, but you can’t keep something behind a curtain for three-hundred and some odd years. Contour’s pulling the curtain back, not to reveal anything in a spectacular, Wizard of Oz type way, but slowly in order to get people thinking — to get Charleston working together creatively. I have been to a lot of events around the city over the years. Riverdogs games, the Ravenel Bridge opening in 2005, parades, concerts, plays, the women’s march this past month, and in all of that time I have never seen an event as diverse and genuinely welcoming as Redux. It was Contour’s night. He has done a lot more for this city in the last year than a number of the men that we name buildings and parks after. Charleston can be a great place for the arts, we have the talent as the Softer event proved. Now we just need to take a lesson from Contour and really, truly act on it.
Releases from Contour, Diaspoura, and Niecy Blues can all be found on streaming services and are available for purchase on Bandcamp.
Feature Photo by Clifford Pate
Softer can be watched via the link below