Among the many major acts in the powerhouse lineup for the 2019 Boston Art & Music Soul Festival, known belovedly to Bostonians as BAMS Fest, is an upstart pair of musicians with radical intentions: a self-described “future soul” duo by the name of Optic Bloom. Rooted in hip-hop with inclinations toward experimentation and disruption, the two-piece band recognizes music as a spiritual technology and harness its transformative capacity to explore trauma, identity, and liberation. Having previously released their debut single “Tropical Depression” on YouTube in 2018, the duo is gearing up for their festival debut at BAMS this coming Saturday, June 22. Hassle writer Hassan Ghanny sat down with the members of Optic Bloom, vocalist/co-producer FlowerThief and instrumentalist/co-producer Dephrase, to discuss their upcoming set. (Spoiler alert: Optic Bloom will be putting out a limited physical release at BAMS, so make sure to read through to the end to obtain the details!)
HASSAN GHANNY: What is Optic Bloom’s message?
FlowerThief: Well, for me, it would be healing and transformation. And I feel like a lot of music that is about healing and transformation [bypasses] the dark parts of it, right? Like, with every rebirth, there’s a death. There’s, like, slopping through, plowing through [really] dark, difficult things. And so… I felt like in this project I was able to start bearing witness to that process in myself, and actually expressing it. And as a generally, like, colorful and bright person, it’s often hard for me to talk about going to those really difficult places? And how the light that people see from me is really fed from my journeys through and my relationships to that underworld of self. And this project has given me an opportunity to actually express that.
HG: Is Optic Bloom’s music driven by both of your identities, or is the music aiming to do something universal?
FT: I think both. I think by nature of telling our stories, because of our identities, it ends up centering identity. I think that I’ve come to heal through coming into my identity — those processes have been really intertwined. The more I got to know myself, and live and stand in that truth, and speak that truth, the more I began to heal. And so because, like, our work is about healing and transformation, identity is necessarily woven into that. And sometimes it’s in your face where — you know like, between songs in a set, I’ll be like, ‘Hi everyone, I’m trans.’ (laughs) You know?
Dephrase: Or like, ‘This song’s about being trans.’
FT: Exactly. Just saying explicitly, because I feel like people project a lot of things onto me when I don’t tell my story. So in those ways, like, yeah it’s intentional. Sometimes it’s intentional because I’m trying to interrupt that process of people projecting onto me and onto us. And saying, like, this song isn’t just about whatever you want it to be about. Like, sure, you can internalize it however you want, but I need you to know that this song is grounded in my experience of being queer, being trans, being non-binary and black, and being in community with all of those people. This song is an expression of those communities, and if you resonate with it, like… I hope you’re out in these streets protecting and standing with and supporting queer, trans, black, non-binary POC. Like, if you’re getting something from this, support us staying alive and support our healing. You know?
DP: This project’s been really transformational for me as far as realizing my own identity. I wasn’t out as a bisexual man before we started working together. And this has been really transformational as far as… I mean, the way we write, a lot of times… I’m not the lyrics person, but a lot of these lyrics will stem off of our conversations, and there have been several times where I made a beat, and my explanation of the beat has informed the topic of the song.
HG: Thinking about BAMS Fest as a space which is filling this necessary space as a festival that uplifts the Black and ethnic presence of Boston — a presence that is more and moreso acknowledged without being rewarded — what does it mean for Optic Bloom as a band of two queer people of color to be on this stage? What do you anticipate?
FT: Where my mind is immediately going, actually, is all of the volunteers and all of the people who are working to make this space. I feel an immense amount of gratitude for that, for the preparation that’s gone into this. And for the opportunity to give back, if not to other communities coming in and watching, then just to the community that has created the festival. So that’s a big thing I’m thinking about. And being able to be in community with all these amazing acts who are gonna perform, and just be on the same stages as them, and be held with them… feels like an amazing, amazing opportunity.
DP: Can I get deep here?
FT: Go ahead.
DP: So my dad’s from Iran, and I think he was… you know, while I was growing up right around 9/11… trying to blend in as much as possible. And he married a Jewish woman, my mom, and I grew up in a predominantly white town. So this is a huge privilege for me, ‘cause I feel like I’m understanding where I’m coming from. I’m starting to come into my community a lot more. And just in every sense, being a part of BAMS Fest is allowing me to kind of take o the camouflage and really start embracing this entire community.
FT: And your entire self.
DP: Right, yeah. It feels incredible.
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WE ARE PLAYING AT @bamsfest ON JUNE 22 IN FRANKLIN PARK ITS GONNA BE AMAZING AND WE’RE GONNA HAVE MERCH. But seriously we’re about to hand-dye all of this shirts with dyes made from plants and flowers YAY. Alsooooo another special merch item will be there………..#opticbloom #bamsfest @dephrase @flowerthief
HG: As Optic Bloom, you also hosted the New Ecologies event back in March where you curated a space for yourselves alongside other queer & trans artists and artists of color. What has the reaction been to your music thus far in the QTPOC community of Boston?
DP: When we first started making music together, I think it started out as just completely raw expression, and we weren’t trying to do anything. Besides, we were still getting to know each other. Just… and this is still the way we write a lot, just basically throwing a bunch of shit at the wall to see what sticks. And I think, like, I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t feed off of validation that we got? Both from shows and from social media. And I think any artist is probably lying if they don’t — if they say they never feed off validation. So I think once we started the great response from the communities that [FlowerThief] mentioned, it became part of our mission to do exactly what you said — to ride for these people and to make sure that people are being heard. And really any way that we can be part of a voice for that, I think we’re kind of actively trying to pursue at this point.
FT: Yeah. Where it was like, ‘Oh, we’re just making this for us.’ And then people started saying, ‘Hey, I resonate with this.’ And we’re like… ‘Yeah, we’re making this for us. The larger us.’ And then more intentionality in there.
HG: And how has your music been received in the local Boston scene overall?
DP: I’d love to give a quick plug to my other community, which is the Boston beat[makers] scene. And the whole Nightworks crew — Rah Zen has really spearheaded the whole coming together of [artists, including] not just what people think of as artists… And I’ve really had the privilege of really seeing this and being a part of this community transform[ation] of just hip-hop to really embracing all these different people and all this different kind of music. And that’s really happened in the last 2-3 years. So seeing the hip-hop scene specifically grow like that — and it’s just exploding, and we’re starting to bring in all these different producers from across the country, and across the world. It’s been incredible to watch, and it sort of takes… it seems like Boston’s always on the verge of exploding, and then, like, a bunch of people move to LA. So I feel like this is a departure from that, both from like the QTPOC community and the beatmaker community. Both realms, they’re kind of bringing this new energy and this staying power in Boston. And I’ve really only been able to bear witness to that in the last two years.
FT: I’m from Philly originally. It wasn’t until I met [Dephrase] and started working with him and… you know, a lot had happened with me and I had really strongly come into my identity as a queer person, as a black person… I was politicized during that period. A lot has happened for me in Boston. But yeah, it wasn’t until I met [Dephrase] just, like, through friends that I was like, I can casually get into this again [because] I feel safe working with him… And yeah, I was really scared when we started performing again. I was really scared to be who I was in public, especially in settings where I had been met with… not even, like, overt hostility, but fetishization, and expectations about how I would carry my femininity and masculinity. And especially in relationship to how I was gonna relate to people consuming our music, consuming our art. And the expectations about how they would consume me, in a way.
I felt a really big shift for me when we got connected to HipStory, and to [fellow BAMS Fest headliner] Cliff [Notez], and to that whole family of people, where I was like… I feel seen. I feel safe. I feel uplifted. And I feel like I can take up space [because] I have this backdrop of people behind me who have been doing this work, and making space for people like me, like Billy Dean Thomas and Oompa. I feel so grateful for all the work they’ve done in the Boston music scene, and it helps me to show up as who I am now. And I’m really grateful that all of this growth has been happening on this scene.
HG: What can we expect from an Optic Bloom live show?
DP: Well I think it’s always evolving. And every time we hit a new milestone, we’re always thinking about where we could be ten steps ahead. So I think, like… what I try to do is sort of — as the main instrumentalist of the group — is try to create this ever-flowing sort of… I try to create this interconnected sonic scape even when the song is over. And just let FlowerThief do their thing over it. I think we try to evoke these feelings of… really everything from super-dreamy and these kind of really pretty moments, to starting to integrate these kind of tougher, heavy moments in our music.
FT: [And for this set] we have a new machine friend, the bass.
DP: Yeah! So I’ve been playing this synth that, in each of our songs, it’s interesting because we have this full instrumentation and we’re still working on the backing track. So we’ve been picking out parts to drop out, and for me to replace, essentially, with a live instrument. And we just got this amazing synth bass, so… yeah, it’s just a keyboard rig with DJ effects.
FT: I think it’s like — since we were just talking about machines, thinking about our live setup, I’m like… Ugh, yes, the band. Cause it’s just me and Dephrase, but we have our little machine friends, you know?
DP: And they all have these kind of personalities.
FT: (laughs) Yeah. It feels like in the spaceship that is the stage of Optic Bloom, those are all of our other drivers. And, yeah… I’m excited for the new bass to join us on stage, cause it’s felt really… It’s brought a new energy even in the studio. And also, I think I’m gonna be trying to use a new, like, vocal effects box? Which I haven’t tried to do at one of our live performances before. And it’ll allow me to do looping and other stuff like that, so… Yeah. We’ll kinda see how having those new machines transforms our set. Spoiler for us, we don’t even know yet fully what’s gonna come out. Cause especially in between songs, when we’re building those atmospheric scapes, they are just kind of emergent, and we just let them move and flow. So yeah, I’m excited.
HG: Last question — do you have any releases planned around your BAMS Fest set?
FT: So “Tropical Depression” is on YouTube… we’ve been really trying to get this album out, and like, really, both of us are devoted towards growing our lives in like, sustainable and hearty ways. So like, [Dephrase] has just taken on co-owning [Ugly Duck Studios], and I’m in an accelerated nursing program for mental health nursing. And it’s been really hard to wrap up the album. But, like… it’s there!
DP: So I’m mixing all of next week, which I’m really excited about. We’re gonna have some long-form release out by the end of the summer. It is for sure happening.
FT: And a reason to definitely come to BAMS Fest is that we’re gonna have a limited release EP, 25 copies on USB. It’ll be three unmastered tracks.
DP: And stuff that might not be released ever in the form that we release it in at BAMS Fest.
FT: So… there’s that. (laughs)