When Clinton Clegg, the gravelly-voiced frontman of The Commonheart, was a student at Finley Middle School, he auditioned for the school choir.
“‘Sing the national anthem,'” Clegg recalled his teacher saying.
It did not go well.
“I didn’t even understand voice then,” said Clegg, who didn’t make the school choir despite his enthusiasm. “I didn’t understand how to be a singer.”
Let’s just say he’s figured it out since then.
The Commonheart is just one of many local bands worth a look (and listen). Here’s more on them below, as well as other suggestions for diving into Pittsburgh’s growing and diverse music scene.
The Commonheart is going places, figuratively, and literally.
In March of this year, the 10-piece rock and soul band built around Clinton Clegg’s Joe Cocker-esque vocals, marked a musical milestone: performing at the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas. They followed that up with a performance at Summerfest in Milwaukee where the lineup included Ziggy Marley, Sheryl Crow, Bob Dylan and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
On the local front, in the last year especially, The Commonheart has performed to many sold-out crowds. Now they are ready to take their act to a larger, national audience, and they are all in.
“At some point we told the band, ‘If you’re in this for money, you are in the wrong band. There are 10 of us. We are going to play some gigs for cheeseburgers, so be ready.’”
All have made decisions in their jobs and in their lives that will allow them to adhere to an extensive travel season this summer that will take them across the country to Seattle and into Canada. They will cap off the summer with an August 25 show at South Park Amphitheater.
Blak Rapp M.A.D.U.S.A.
The words of Nina Simone guide Pittsburgh hip hop artist Blak Rapp M.A.D.U.S.A., née Melanie Carter.
“It’s an artist’s duty to reflect the times,” M.A.D.U.S.A. tells us on a rainy Sunday evening, just hours after visiting with inmates at the State Correctional Institution in Cambridge Springs. There she met with Avis Lee, who is serving a life sentence after being convicted at the age of 18 of serving as a lookout for a robbery that turned fatal. “We met a lot of juvenile lifers.”
M.A.D.U.S.A. explains that she has taken up the cause of prison justice because Pennsylvania is one of six states where anyone given a life sentence is denied parole by default. A lifer’s sentence ends either with their death or a rare pardon from the governor.
“When I pick up a pen and start to write, when I think of what I feel, it comes to injustice,” explains M.A.D.U.S.A.
With funding from a two-year Transformative Arts Process grant from The Heinz Endowments, M.A.D.U.S.A. returned to Pittsburgh last fall to bring her self-styled “Hip Hop Artivism” to youth-oriented programs such as the Hazelwood Youth Justice Program.
M.A.D.U.S.A.’s interests are many, but of late she is focused on teaching kids leadership skills through the five elements of hip hop: emceeing, deejaying, B-boying, graffiti art and knowledge.
Even with her many causes, hip hop and its potential as a catalyst for change remains central to her music.
“I’m dropping a mixed tape called Mary’s Daughter that talks about my life as a queer black woman and transitioning spiritually,” she says.
M.A.D.U.S.A. also directed a documentary film that will be released later this year. Her Time to Shyne details the impact of hip hop on black women in Pittsburgh.
In Pittsburgh, M.A.D.U.S.A. performs with 1Hood Media, a collective of socially conscious activists and artists, and will perform as part of their 1 Hood Day on August 11. She has also found a mentor in Pittsburgh-based Jasiri X, whom she calls the “Social Justice Guru of HipHop.”
4th River Music Collective
On a warm summer day, a group of musicians, mostly barefoot, started performing mashed up versions of traditional folk songs in front of Three Gateway Center near Point State Park. Within minutes, a raucous crowd encircled them. Banjo player Joey Schuller explained later that this type of immersive experience is what he loves about busking.
Schuller and the other musicians busking that day represent the 4th River Music Collective, a group of bands, artists and activists. The collective is buoyed by two flagships bands, Cousin Boneless and The Hills and the Rivers. An album compilation of 4th River’s traditional busking tunes is available on their Bandcamp site.