JASON MORAN: How did you even hear about Coin Coin? How did she come into your conscience?
MATANA ROBERTS: My grandparents. My grandfather was from Natchitoches [pronounced NAG-uh-dish] and my grandmother was from Memphis, and they used to talk to me about the Coin Coin lineage because my grandfather was raised by a family that was related to the Balthazars. My grandfather and his brother were orphans in the 1920s. Their father actually was a major landowner in Natchitoches by the last name of Jones. And their mother died in New Orleans. It’s a long, sordid story about how she passed away. And they were sent back down to the river to live. Their father left the area because of heartbreak over her death—her death was really traumatic—and left the boys there. They would have been five and three at the time, and they were taken in by the Balthazars. And the whole lore came from that. They used to talk about Coin Coin and my grandfather used to call me Coin Coin as a nickname. He just took it on. And it became this thing where they would talk about her in the same way that they would talk about Harriet Tubman, the same way they would talk about Sojourner Truth. And I just became really fascinated. And in the corner of my grandparents living room on the South Side of Chicago with the plastic…
JASON: …on the sofa.
MATANA: On the sofa. I’ll never forget that—the white sofa with the plastic on it and the blue rug. Everything had plastic on it. And in the corner was a stack of photo albums. And there were photos in those photo albums from the 1870s on down to the 1980s. I used to spend a lot of time looking at those old photos. My grandmother came from a very…her father was one of the first African American doctors in Memphis. And her father and mother had a lot to do with society things that were started in Memphis. And so they had a lot of means. So between my grandfather’s grandfather, who was very wealthy, and my grandmother’s family, who were very wealthy, they kept a lot of documents and photographs and every year there were family photos. My grandmother’s family photos were all taken by the Hooks Brothers. And the Hooks Brothers were two of the most important African American Southern photographers that took a lot of pictures of Southern life, and Memphis life. They took that famous photo of Robert Johnson. And my great grandfather had a medical practice on Beale Street.
JASON: Oh, shit, wow.
MATANA: [laughs] I used to spend summers at my grandparents’ in Chicago, and I would just peel through these photo albums. Older photos interested me the most. There was a lot of Louisiana, a lot of Natchitoches, a lot of photos of black people living well, at a time where I would not have expected that to be happening.
JASON: And the Chicago/Natchitoches thing is pretty central for me because the only other musicians in my family were from Natchitoches and then moved to Chicago. They played the blues with Albert King;they’re on Albert King records. And they were the coolest people Iknew. They are my father’s first cousins. And when they would come to Houston, they’d be with Albert King, and then they would come over to the house. One of them, Tony Llorens, he’d sit at the piano and play. I’d be like Oh shit. That’s how the piano is supposed to be played. He’s having fun with this shit. I’m struggling with Mozart. And so my great-grandfather and his wife, they left Natchitoches and moved up to Chicago.
MATANA: Oh, damn.
JASON: His name was Tony Moran and his wife was Zarada Moran.
MATANA: Oh, yeah, I’ve seen her name sometimes.
JASON: Yeah, so they go up to Chicago. And they would come down every once in a while. In all the years that we went to Cane River as kids, people would talk about Coin Coin. Nobody would talk to us about her, but you would hear other people talk to each other about her. And so my uncle Joseph, whom you met, he was the family historian. He’s the one who really cared about the culture that was on Cane River. He was the artist in the family. He built his own house, built his own studio by the river. He’s got that romantic version of what an artist is, living the rural life, and he loves drawing with a pencil. So we would hear it the same way as you, like family lore.
JASON: And then when the movie Steel Magnolias came out, people might ask, “Well, where is Cane River?” Well, Steel Magnolias.
MATANA: I had no idea about that.
JASON: That was the only reference point for popular culture. There were enough summers spent there that we understood what it felt like to be there, you know.
MATANA: I would hear so much about it. My mother and her brothers would go every summer. And there would be old photos from that. My grandfather died in 1985. I never got to ask him a lot of questions about it. But my grandmother kept everything. She would keep land records, every piece of correspondence
from family. I have a whole archive.
JASON: What did your grandmother do?
MATANA: She was a schoolteacher. She sent my mother and uncle to a Catholic school, but she would purposely teach in the worst public school in Chicago. She felt that was her form of doing social justice. My grandfather was a decorated World War II veteran. I have his discharge papers, with honors, and his medals. He was part of the first colored regiments to storm Normandy. He became a postman. There were certain traditions passed down from Cane River that he went through. In his family they would send teenagers on a gap year to Paris. He spent a year in Paris taking classes at the Sorbonne. I had always thought that I was the only musician, or the only artist. I didn’t understand enough about Louisiana lore to understand that you could throw a rock and hit another musician in your family tree. My grandmother was a Robicheaux [or Robishaw], and she was related to the musician Joe Robishaw, who was a Dixieland trumpeter. I have not found out enough information about him. But she came from a very wealthy planting family, and it was a very big deal for her to be brought to live down on the river because no one knew what her family lineage was. Everybody down there was dealing with color in a different way. It’s complicated.
JASON: Yes, it is. And I haven’t had enough drink or enough food to go into all of that shit.
MATANA: I know.
JASON: I’m also trying to pinpoint this time when Edward P. Jones’s The Known World came out. I think my family saw some similarity in that story. But it is totally different because Coin Coin is a woman, and because of what she managed to do. All of these children she mothers, the love of the slavemaster’s son, freedom, making money to buy the freedom of her kids by operating her own slavery. It’s much like Toni Morrison’s Beloved, the things black folks did that seem surreal. Today it might be like some kid being convicted of some shit, and the mother trying to get him free by raising money to get a lawyer for fifteen years fighting some bullshit case. And there’s a point for us when we decided “I’m going to make this something. This is not gonna just be an anecdote to be framed and put on the wall. I’m gonna make this something that lives.”
MATANA: I’ve always been interested in genealogy. And my grandmother kept everything I ever gave her, everything I ever made from the first birthday card I could sign my name to. And there was a family tree I made when I was seven. And she kept that. I interviewed her and I asked her questions. Literally the family tree said things like “slave 1” and “slave 2,” and then there’s a Coin Coin. I’ve always been fascinated by where people come from and how it informs who they are and what they believe in. But to be quite honest with you, the Coin Coin project came out of.…[to server] You know what, I haven’t had fried chicken in twenty years, so can I have one drumstick? So, my grandparents were NAACP prideful. They both could have passed as white but chose not to do that. And it was always such a very real back and forth.
JASON: That’s a very real thing. My grandparents did the exact same thing. Lived in the black part of town in Pleasantville…
MATANA: Looking so white. My uncle had blond hair and blue eyes, and people used to go up to him and ask him if he had been kidnapped when he was with his cousins who were a little browner, running around Chicago. That was my maternal grandmother and grandfather. My paternal grandmother was from Mississippi, a dark brown wonderful woman. But going back and forth between these people as a little black girl was really intense for me. I couldn’t understand saying my grandmother is white but I know she’s not white because when she opens her mouth, you know you’re not talking to a white woman. You are definitely talking to a Southern black woman. But my grandfather’s brother actually ran off to the West Coast and decided to pass as white and married a black woman from Mississippi and decided to pass as white. And that’s a whole other….
JASON: It’s the same thing. Some of my grandfather’s brothers in Detroit, California, and so forth. My father and his cousins, they have a thing like “y’all think y’all white.” And there’s a real divide in the family, which is about that thing.
MATANA: It’s so real.
JASON: And some of them really claim the pride of being French Creole. One of my father’s cousin’s is a Hell’s Angel that lives up in Portland.
MATANA: He’s a black Hell’s Angel?
JASON: Yeah, and he’s got FRENCH tattooed on one forearm and the other says CREOLE. He’s the one that’s gonna fight for you. There is that part. I interrupted, though. You were talking about your grandmother.
MATANA: She taught me everything I know about…she was very much a Southern belle, but she was very much a Francophile as well. And so it was Chanel all the time.
JASON: Oh, really?
MATANA: Yeah, I come from a very fashionable group of people and I try to play it down because that used to drive me crazy, but they taught me a lot about how to have a sense of self, a sense of style, a sense of place, a sense of respect. I was closer to her than to my other grandmother. When she passed away in 2005, my grief was so thick. And when we were going through her house, she left all of this documentation of the Coin Coin lineage. Everything about Cane River. And I just felt these stories about race and family and slaves were so fascinating that I wanted to share them with other people somehow. But I also knew that I had to spend some time trying to be a composer, trying to be an artist, and I wondered how I could combine the two, so that I could have time for both. That’s how it started—because I had so much data. And I thought it was really special to have. I have all these beautiful photographs from a time period that I never expected to have. I have all these records of not only the Cane River side but also the Memphis, Tennessee, side because everybody was of means, so there was a paper trail. Because they were able to participate in the capitalist system or whatever you want to call it. There was this one photo of my mother’s christening. There is a man standing next to her at the christening, and I’m like, “Who is that?” and she’s like, “Oh that’s so-and so Moran, my godfather.” I’ll never forget that, and I was like, “What?!”
JASON: I remember when you sent that e-mail asking, “Do you have family down in Cane River?” and I’m, like, Yeah, like all of them.
MATANA: And the Internet was very helpful. I started doing research in ’98–’99. I contacted this woman in upstate New York who’s a Balthazar. And she sent me a whole family tree, and you were on there. And I’m, like, oh, that’s another Jason. And that’s when I e-mailed you.
JASON: Also, I had made these pieces in 2002. I interviewed all three of my grandparents. I had them go back as far as they could go. What it made me realize is that we know our family is so fucking crazy, that it only gets more interesting. For most black families, it gets so dramatic, so recently in our history, and there are so many gaps, and so many question marks about tendencies, about landscapes they’re functioning in, about class. I wanted to hear them walk me through the stuff.
MATANA: It’s so important.
JASON: And I need to go back to the raw files of them. But I only extracted the moments when they would say names. And then I put all of these names in a row and played a piece against the names. I was touring this and playing it everywhere. I’m thinking “I’m gonna play this in Europe because I know they haven’t heard no country black folk talking.” And I would play it everywhere. I would play it as a Sound, just to hear the names. My grandmother was the one who while going through her line, she got all the way up to Coin Coin.
JASON: And this is also around the same time that our other cousin the artist
Angelbert Metoyer is going deep in the visual.
MATANA: I know, right, right.
JASON: How does this look? What does this represent? What are the colors?What does the horse mean? He’s a Metoyer. He’s got all that burden, so it kinda became a moment when the ancestors conspired to make all of these artists of a certain generation, not knowing each other for years.
MATANA: That’s the crazy thing. It was shocking to me because I had been listening to your records. And it was really nice to know that I’m not the only artist. And how would I think that with these thick Louisiana roots there would be no other artists or musicians? That’s not possible. The last time I went to New Orleans I think I met at least three or four other cousins who are musicians.
JASON: You know Kidd Jordan is apparently kin, too.
MATANA: I know, I know! He told me that.
JASON: The last time I was down there was about a year and a half ago. I was writing you a lot. I was like, Oh my god. This shit is so unreal. There’s so much to do. There’s so much space. And it was not long after when they had found Coin Coin’s house or was it a house she had kids in?
MATANA: You talking about the hut?
JASON: Not the hut.
MATANA: I tried to find her grave and couldn’t find it.
JASON: Was that in a graveyard that was downtown?
JASON: Anyway, now they have named it the Coin Coin house.
MATANA: Oh, I had always seen pictures of the hut that’s on the plantation grounds.
JASON: On Magnolia plantation? No, not that. Some folks bought this house for something like sixty thousand dollars. That’s when I wrote you so angry, like, how did this slip out of the family’s hands? I was shocked. Sometimes with the South, I feel guilty that I’ve left for so long. I came up here and there’s a lot of help that Houston needs. And I’m thinking about my grandparents when they decided to leave Natchitoches. And they came to Houston in search of jobs. My father was born in Natchitoches and then they came to Houston. And what is it to leave that space rather than stay? The only thing I’ve seen that I thought was similar was when I went to Gee’s Bend, Alabama, where the quilters are. After slavery was over they didn’t leave. And all these people with the same names, a lot of them just stayed. And I noticed what black rural America was, and how beautiful it is.
MATANA: I took this trip through the South last year. I started in Memphis, a place where I feel comfortable. And then I went to Mississippi, a place where I don’t feel comfortable. And then I ended in Louisiana because I feel like there’s some comfort zone there. But I took the train back from Louisiana to New York, which was really great. Because your uncle Joey made me stay for St. Joseph’s Day. I was supposed to leave on St. Joseph’s Day, I had a flight out, and he was like, Have you lost your mind?? I was like, What?
MATANA: He said, “You can’t leave on St. Joseph’s Day.” And I said, “What’s St. Joseph’s Day?”
JASON: What is it?
MATANA: It’s the day when the Mardi Gras Indians come out in the hood. And I had never seen anything like that before. But the whole trip really reminded me of how beautiful the South is. Mississippi is gorgeous; it’s beautiful. Louisiana is something. I literally broke down crying when I put my first foot down in Natchitoches. That was really something for me. Because here was this place I had been hearing about for so long, and here I am, finally there. And then being reminded of all of these codes that I had forgotten but had experienced in Chicago. I was raised by Southerners, not Chicagoans. And even when I came back to Harlem, as I was living in Harlem at that time, there were certain codes. And I was like, Oh, right. Everybody says hello to everybody.
JASON: When I was there, I visited Magnolia Plantation. That was a bit of a challenge. Because it’s so close to my grandparents’ land that they have. So it’s like, your own land close to where you were also a slave. And I was there with my kids, and we’re walking around, and I’m sharing what I think is appropriate for six year olds. They understood to a degree. We drove to three plantations. When I see the trees in Natchitoches, the rows and rows of trees…
MATANA: Those trees are weeping. Those willow weeping trees. You know I went through the South on Greyhound and Amtrak, and I had to get a car service to Natchitoches. A friend of mine said my grandfather has a friend in Shreveport that has a car service. We’ll come and pick you up. I’ll never forget it. I get out of the Greyhound bus station in Shreveport, I step outside, and there’s a white stretch limo, with a gentleman completely dressed to the nines. He says, “Are you Ms. Roberts?” with the thickest Southern accent I have ever heard in my life. The car was too big to even turn corners in Natchitoches. The driver is in his seventies or eighties, a wonderful man. We’re driving along and he tells me that he used to attend the technical school in Natchitoches. He started asking “why are you going down there? and “what’s your family’s last name?” I was telling him, and he said, “Oh, is there a such and such in that tree?” and there was, this woman. “Oh, I used to date her back in the day!!” And then he says, “Well, she was a wonderful woman but she really did a number on me.” I said, “I don’t need to know all of that.” He said, “No,” because she became a nun after they finished dating. But coming into Natchitoches in a stretch limo is hysterical and people were like, “Is she famous??” “Is she Steel Magnolias? Naw, I’m not Dolly Parton, I’m not Julia Roberts [laughs]. But to be honest with you, when I made that Coin Coin record, I didn’t think anybody would hear it.
Here I am making this experimental record, nobody’s ever gonna hear this, but this is something I needed to do. It’s really fascinating that it has become this whole other thing. And I chose to name the project after her as an umbrella term because she was the first strong female archetype that I remember so clearly being told about. And that helped me when I was feeling kinda low as a little black girl growing up in the ’80s and ’90s. Feeling low about my blackness, I remember. But then when you dig into that history it’s like “ugh.” Blackness is very complex in Natchitoches.
JASON: When I go on tour, every once in a while I get very nervous about what I am sharing with my audience.
MATANA: I felt the same way. In Chapter One of Coin Coin I wanted to learn about primal screaming and primal screaming therapy. And how screaming is supposed to be about joy and thinking about all the pain that slaves went through. To be punished, and where is that thin line. But performing that work in front of white European audiences is really intense for me. And in doing some of that work, it’s as if artists of color need automatic therapy alongside what you’re doing. I haven’t gotten to that point. In that dichotomy of going back and forth of am I black enough, can I be accepted in these white institutions. I struggled with that all of my life and it shows up in the work.