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Behind the scenes with Laamar, one of First Ave’s Best New Bands

Laamar frontman Geoffrey Lamar Wilson, photographed at Salon Sonics in northeast Minneapolis.
Laamar frontman Geoffrey Lamar Wilson, photographed at Salon Sonics in northeast Minneapolis.James Napoli for MPR

by James Napoli

December 06, 2023

One morning in early July 2016, Geoffrey Lamar Wilson remembers waking up in his first-floor duplex apartment in the Wedge and reading about Philando Castile, a 32-year-old Black man who had been shot and killed by a police officer during a traffic stop in Falcon Heights the night before. 

The news shook Wilson, who had just moved home to the Twin Cities after more than a decade of studying music and performing in New York.

“I had always thought of Minnesota as a friendly place. I hadn’t really thought of there being racist people here or this level of police violence. It was suddenly very visceral,” he recalls. “It made me think, how can you be a Black person, just navigating day-to-day life, if you can’t safely get pulled over? What more can you do to just be an average person and not get shot?”

Seven years later, it’s still hard for Geoffrey (pronounced JOFF-ree) Wilson to recount that day without tearing up. The moment became a major catalyst for him as a songwriter and musician.

“It sent a shock through my creative system,” he says, during a late-November conversation at his basement studio in North Minneapolis. “What is my place as an artist, to witness this moment, contribute to the conversation, document it, fight against it in some way?”

Wilson wrote a song the next day. He continued to write, stashing away songs in little notebooks, small acts of remembrance and protest. 

Then, the pandemic hit. The country faced a moment of racial reckoning in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder. And, not long after, Wilson felt a calling to put together a band and record his songs.

Heavy songs, catchy tunes

Laamar’s debut EP was released on June 9, 2023. Recorded at Holly Hansen’s Salon Sonics Studio in Northeast Minneapolis, Flowers features Wilson on guitar and vocals, Steve Bosmans on guitar, James Taylor on drums, and Megan Mahoney on bass.

(Wilson had to rebrand the band’s name — adding an extra ‘A’ in Laamar — after discovering Apple Music had already reached an arbitrary quota of musicians named Lamar in their streaming catalog.)

The songs blend folk and Americana influences with the sounds of soul, R&B, and indie pop. Wilson’s lyrics grapple directly with issues of police violence, racial justice, and collective trauma. 

On the day Flowers was released, Wilson posted to the band’s Instagram account: “These songs, like so many I write, come at the expense of needless tragedy, and rest on the shoulders black and brown bodies taken from us too soon.”

He continued: “While you won't hear their names spoken, know that the spirits of Philando Castile, Breonna Taylor, Jamar Clarke, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Elijah McClain, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, George Floyd, and so many more were heavy on my heart and mind as I wrote these songs. This is my humble contribution to the discourse, how I hope to honor them.”

The first single, “Home to My Baby,” centers on the harrowing tale of a traffic stop: “Flashing lights in the rearview, I'm getting pulled over / I'm so tired of being Black, and looking over my shoulder / I'm just trying to get home in one piece, to my baby tonight.

While the song isn’t specifically autobiographical, Wilson says it draws on an all-too-common experience for many people of color. “The song contrasted a rather innocuous slow drive, where someone is not doing anything illegal, but they’re feeling like a suspect, feeling endangered. The experience is traumatizing,” he says.

Wilson also juxtaposes the gravity of his lyrics with catchy hooks that he hopes listeners will bop along with.

“It’s a heavy task that a lot of Black songwriters in this country have tackled, putting meaningful things into what they’re saying while doing it in a fashion that makes you want to listen,” says Taylor, the band’s drummer and manager. “Geoffrey will sometimes make the comment at shows: ‘To my white friends in the audience who are resisting bobbing your head along to these songs, I give you permission to do that.’”

For Wilson, performing these songs is part of a cathartic process of both bearing witness and finding joy in troubled times. “Sometimes when I write, I get a good cry while I work through the song. It’s very emotional. Then to deliver the most emotive, resonating version of the songs live gets harder and harder as you have to do it over and over again,” he says. “I hope it’s adding to the conversation in the evolution that people are having on their journey of awareness or allyship.”

Musical roots

Wilson grew up in North Minneapolis and moved to Golden Valley in the late 1990s. His father played drums in several bands, including an eight-piece soul outfit that rehearsed in the family’s basement. Occasionally, the group would let the teenage Wilson sit in on saxophone.

“I would stand next to Snowman [Brian Powers] and he’d take a solo, and I’d just be like, ‘Wow, saxophone is so cool. I gotta get better at it,’ you know?” Wilson recalls.

The desire to improve as a musician led Wilson to Bard College in New York, where he studied jazz performance and composition, with a double major in African American history and literature. “At the time, they felt like two very separate things. But, as I started making art, I realized the music and the history are all coming together for me,” he says.  

In his mid-20s, Wilson moved to Brooklyn and formed Jus Post Bellum with a few classmates and singer Hannah Jensen, a Minnesota native who is now married to Wilson. The rootsy folk band specialized in songs inspired by the American Civil War.

“I wrote a lot about the Antebellum and Postbellum period of America as it relates to Black Americans, and race and racial relations,” Wilson says. “That was my trial by fire in terms of being a bandleader and songwriter.”

After two albums and a handful of tours, Jensen and Wilson wrapped up Jus Post Bellum and moved back home to Minnesota.

“Van Dad” 

Today, outside Wilson’s North Minneapolis home sits a black Ford Transit Connect, covered in bumper stickers. Their messages include: “BLACK LIVES MATTER.” “Keep Honking! I’m listening to JAZZ.” “FOLLOW ME to the BULK AISLE.” “THICC DADS WHO VAPE FOR CHRIST.” 

One sticker features an alligator emblazoned with a singular directive: “EAT RACISTS.” And, in the middle of this colorful cacophony, a vanity license plate reads: “VAN DAD.”

Back inside the house, Wilson spends his days with his wife and their two young sons, ages 1 and 4. The oldest, Ezra, joins his dad in the basement music studio every day to play together on the ukulele, drums, piano, and guitar. “He makes up songs, and it’s all about creative improv. My phone storage is full of gigabytes of videos of him,” Wilson says.

As he closes in on 40, Wilson reflects on how being a musician today looks much different than it did in his 20s, when he didn’t have to juggle the demands of family, career, and home ownership. Yet, despite the challenges of constantly coordinating work schedules and childcare, fatherhood has allowed a deeper engagement with the art of songwriting and performance.

“Having a kid just opens the heart of your emotional self to be more vulnerable, be more present, be more open to experiencing emotion. I’m a man who has struggled to put my emotions into words and build really deep relationships with people,” Wilson says.

Ezra sometimes joins his father at pre-show soundchecks and enjoys getting on stage with his father.

“Singing your songs in front of your kids is really kind of funny and weird. They’re not judging you,” Wilson says. “All of those things help me get out of my head. It’s helped me navigate this small modicum of success that I’m having right now and not get too worried when it will end.”

Best New Band

In mid-November, First Avenue listed Laamar among its roster of the Best New Bands of 2023. Taylor — who works in booking at the venue but is divested from any conflict of interest in the selection process — couldn’t wait to text the news to his bandmate. Wilson responded via emoji — a smiling face with hearts. And then he posted on Instagram about being honored to be selected.

In the coming months, Laamar is set to play shows around the Twin Cities on bills with Arlo Parks, All Tomorrow’s Petty, and The Cactus Blossoms. And, of course, there’s the Best New Bands gig at First Avenue on January 12. 

As manager, Taylor says he’s very pleased with the current trajectory of the band and is looking ahead to more outstate performance opportunities. “It’d be nice to take the full band out to Duluth, over to Eau Claire or Red Wing. We should take these songs to areas in Greater Minnesota,” he says. “I always tell Geoffrey, you’ve poured your heart and soul into these songs, you owe it to the art to pursue it and get it to as many ears as possible.”

Pushing boundaries, staying grounded

Laamar recently headed back to Salon Sonics to record nine new tracks. Listeners can expect to hear a few singles in the spring and a full-length album later in 2024.

“The new batch of songs push the boundaries of genre and production a bit further,” Wilson says. “I don’t want to get pigeonholed into ‘indie Americana’ or whatever you want to call it. We hope to start releasing some singles that broaden folks’ understanding of our musical tastes and capacity.”

Despite a Best New Band nod and growing momentum in the Twin Cities, Wilson says he’s trying to keep a level head about Laamar’s success amidst a volatile music industry.“In the end, we’re a small, relatively unknown local band. We could put out a record next year, then the band dissolves, and I write music in solitude for the next 30 years,” he says.

As important as the music and its message are to his identity, Wilson ultimately finds grounding among his young family.

“I’ll be a dad in the morning and drop my kids off. Then I’ll go play this show at Fine Line that has hundreds of people there. Then I’ll come home and give my kid a bottle in the middle of the night, like nothing happened,” he says. “But I hope they’ll look back someday like, ‘Oh, Dad was kind of cool for a minute.’”

Laamar is the opening act for Arlo Parks’ Unplugged Music & Poetry performance. 18+, 7 p.m., Thursday, Dec. 7, at Fine Line. Tickets

Clean Water Land & Legacy Amendment
This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.