Stew and The Negro Problem

Live Performance

1997 Nominee – Outstanding Musical Group of the Year – 7th annual LA Music Awards

Mark Stewart (born August 16, 1961), known by his stage name Stew, is an American singer-songwriter and playwright from Los Angeles, California, United States. In the early 1990s, he formed a band called The Negro Problem and later went on to release albums under his own name. His 2000 release Guest Host was named Album of the Year by Entertainment Weekly and his 2002 album, The Naked Dutch Painter and Other Songs, repeated that feat. He toured in support of Love’s Arthur Lee in 2002 and in 2003 he was invited to take part in the Lincoln Center’s American Songbook series of concerts.

Starting in 2004, he began writing the book, lyrics and music (with Heidi Rodewald) for his semi-autobiographical rock musical Passing Strange, produced with the support of the Sundance Institute and The Public Theater, which won him the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Lyrics. In 2005, he wrote and performed “Gary’s Song” for the SpongeBob SquarePants episode “Have You Seen This Snail? (Where’s Gary?)”. In 2006, he and Rodewald continued to produce Passing Strange as well as working on a film project with The Sundance Institute. Passing Strange had successful runs at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre in Berkeley, California, in the fall of 2006, and off-Broadway at The Public Theater in New York City during the spring of 2007. It received critical praise from both the New York Times and Variety and opened on Broadway at the Belasco Theatre in February 2008 under the aegis of producer Liz McCann and the Shubert Organization. The play garnered seven Tony nominations in 2008, with Stew receiving four nominations and winning the award for Best Book. The play closed in July 2008, with Spike Lee filming the final performances for a feature film which screened at the Sundance Festival in January 2009.

Stew and Heidi debuted a new show, “Making It,” at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn in February 2010.

In December 2011, The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis announced that its 2012 new theatre series, Ignite!, would feature a reading of a stage musical adaptation of the graphic novel, Stagger Lee, with a book by the graphic novel’s author, Derek McCulloch, and music and lyrics by Stew and Heidi Rodewald.

Invariably, first one must discuss the matter of the name. The name the Negro Problem is meant ironically, but it’s in no way used for simple shock value. Indeed, the name illuminates the entire raison d’être of the band: although artists as disparate as Jimi Hendrix, Love, the Chambers Brothers, and the Fifth Dimension were making psychedelic rock music in the late ’60s, a disturbing racial divide has reasserted itself since then. The concept of a supposed stylistic division into “white music” and “black music,” a holdover from the first half of the 20th century when records by black artists were shunted over into the “race music” category, has insidiously grown back since the genre-busting, polyglot days of the immediate post-Civil Rights era, into an even stronger and more invisible divide. Once in a blue moon, a Prince or a Lenny Kravitz might gain a foothold in the rock marketplace, but more often, a genre-busting artist like Chocolate Genius or Shuggie Otis remains firmly locked, in the industry view, in the euphemistically-named “urban” marketplace. This is why singer/songwriter Mark Stewart’s band is called the Negro Problem, and it’s why that is such a brilliant name: how else will the music industry see an otherwise white band fronted by a black man whose primary influences include not only Sly Stone and George Clinton, but also Jimmy Webb, Stephen Sondheim, Burt Bacharach, Syd Barrett, Brian Wilson, and Paul McCartney, except as a problem?

Stewart, who goes by the name Stew (at least partially to differentiate himself from the British-born former singer for the Pop Group and New Age Steppers), fills his lyrics with that sort of bracing, ironic wit, and his tunes mix soulful vocals, the muscularity of hard rock and the unabashed prettiness of his beloved Webb (the group did a surprisingly rocking cover of Richard Harris’ “MacArthur Park” on an early single, and Stew counts Webb protégés the 5th Dimension among his all-time favorites) into a trippy but accessible brand of psych-influenced power pop. Surprisingly, Stew did not enter music professionally until his thirties, forming the Negro Problem in 1995 after resettling in the Los Angeles suburb of Silverlake after a period spent living in Europe. The original lineup included keyboardist Jill Meschke Blair, bassist Gwynne Kahn (formerly of the Pandoras), and drummer Charles Pagano, with the Wondermints’ multi-instrumentalist Probyn Gregory helping out as an auxiliary member.

The group made their recording debut with an attention-grabbing limited-edition boxed set of five singles in late 1995, following that with the equally eyebrow-raising single of “MacArthur Park” (changing the key line to “Someone left the crack out in the rain” to illustrate the L.A. landmark’s decline) and the “A Quick One While He’s Away”-style multi-part pop-operetta “Miss Jones” the next year. Both of those songs showed up on the group’s full-length debut, Post-Minstrel Syndrome, in 1997, along with 11 other freaky, Phil Spector-on-acid psych-pop gems. The album gains extra emotional heft, however, from the five unlisted bonus tracks: three haunting solo acoustic performances by Stew, the anxiety-ridden full-band performances “Camelot” and “Racket,” a mélange of silly on-the-road tape recordings and giggles that are meant as a farewell to the original lineup, which was breaking up as the record was being completed.

Blair was the first to leave, followed by Kahn. A revolving door lineup of temporary keyboardists and bassists (including Gregory and Adam Marsland of Cockeyed Ghost) joined the group on their many tours until former Wednesday Week bassist Heidi Rodewald joined, filling both roles. The second Negro Problem album, 1999’s Joys and Concerns, was recorded as a trio with guest musicians. A darker and more foreboding work than Post-Minstrel Syndrome, Joys and Concerns deals in large part with the breakup of Stew’s marriage, and was originally recorded as major-label bankrolled demos, which the trio then finished on their own rather than wait for the record company to make up its mind.

Compounding the slow-motion dissolution of the Negro Problem, Pagano left the group in late 1999, although he continued to perform with them on occasion. Stew, with Rodewald’s help, recorded and released his first solo album, the critically acclaimed Guest Host, in 2000. Upon its release, Stew announced that the Negro Problem was not breaking up, but that his solo career was meant as a vehicle for the acoustic singer/songwriter-style songs on the first two Negro Problem discs, so that the full-band records could become, in his words, “even freakier.” The first test of this was 2002’s Welcome Black, a step towards baroque pop that did seem to include more ideas from the band as a whole.