If you haven’t read Octavia E. Butler’s 1993 dystopian masterpiece Parable of the Sower recently or her 1998 sequel Parable of the Talents, there’s no better time to take a bracing glimpse at tomorrow’s headlines.
Presented in the form of a journal kept by a Black teenager named Lauren Olamina, the first novel opens with an entry dated July 20, 2024, and goes on to describe California as a chaotic landscape where the weather is more unstable and extreme due to global warming and law and order has broken down as new drugs drive people to commit wanton acts of destruction. Talents is set amidst a presidential campaign by a demagogue claiming he’ll “make America great again,” though he also poses as a patriarchal paragon of virtue, so even the matriarch of Afrofuturism couldn’t foresee the funhouse-mirror distortions of recent national elections.
Last May, Cal Performances presented Toshi Reagon’s Butler-inspired folk opera Parable of the Sower, but a new work by East Bay rock band Skip the Needle looks past her writing to delve into Butler’s extraordinary life and mind. The quartet plays the Ivy Room Saturday to celebrate the release of a new six-track Little Village Foundation EP Octavia of the Earth Vol. Two, a project that explores her experience growing up and thriving creatively in Pasadena despite the long odds against a Black woman writing in the oft-disrespected sci-fi genre.
“The music is about her,” said Oakland drummer/vocalist Kofy Brown, who co-founded the all-star Skip the Needle with Berkeley bassist/vocalist Vicki Randle, Berkeley guitarist/vocalist Shelley Doty and Oakland guitarist/vocalist Katie Cash. “She had to carve out a path, and we interpret and envision her life based on what we know.”
Featuring three of the Bay Area’s most prominent Black women rockers and the versatile powerhouse Cash (aka Katie Colpitts), Skip the Needle has earned widespread attention with a repertoire of driving, elemental songs keyed to themes of social justice and resistance. Octavia of Earth opens with “Pasadena Goddam,” a nod to Nina Simone’s famous civil rights era cri de coeur about Mississippi.
The EP is the second contribution to an ongoing project spearheaded by Anand Kalra, the executive director of the Queer Cultural Center in San Francisco. In 2016, he and T. Carlis Roberts immersed themselves in Butler’s journals and milieu to make a musical documentary inspired by her life. They introduced Octavia of Earth with a live workshop production that premiered in San Francisco in 2018.
Kalra caught a video of Skip the Needle and “really dug the band,” Brown said, which paved the way for the collaboration. A devoted fan of Butler’s since the 1990s, when she encountered the novel Wild Seed, Brown was “astonished by the depth of the work about these two figures, one is immortal and another almost immortal,” she said. “It was fantastic and fantastical. I was hooked.”
The first science fiction writer awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, Butler died in 2006 at the age of 58 before she finished her planned third Parable novel. We’ll have to muddle through somehow on our own without the benefits of her astonishing prescience.
“I read the Sower in 1998 or ’99 and Talents when it came out,” Brown said. “It was like she had this window into the future.”
Saturday, Sept. 16, 8:30 p.m. The Ivy Room. $20.