Dwight Dunston is a 28-year-old Quaker and a rapper from West Philly with a penchant for social justice. Brian Miller is a 42-year-old father from Lancaster who’s a longtime musician, a practicing Zen meditator and a certified sex therapist. And in a studio on the second floor of Miller’s home in Germantown, this unlikely pair fuses hip hop, indie rock and layers of sounds with a sometimes political message that they describe as Peter Gabriel meets Kendrick Lamar meets The Cure.
They’re called Moon and the Tiger, and they might just be Philadelphia’s most unique new band.
“I don’t hear a lot of rap music today that you have entire soundscapes being created,” Dunston, who goes by the stage name Sterling Duns, said of Miller’s instrumentals. “The intentionality around every instrument being chosen and every word being chosen — it was just very so thoughtful and powerful.”
The duo that’s been working together for two years plays house shows, has dropped an EP and has other projects in the works. Here’s a taste of what they sound like:
Miller is a former guitarist for Jolie Holland, a folk / indie rock / country singer with whom he toured the world in the mid aughts. But after he and his wife had a baby, they settled in Philly and Miller quit the band. He needed a way to make some real money. He’d worked with a couples’ therapist before, and decided he’d get his masters in couples and family therapy with a concentration in sex therapy.
Meanwhile, Dunston grew up not far from Overbrook High School, though he attended the Friends’ Central Quaker School just across City Avenue beginning when he was 14. After graduating from Dickinson College in Carlisle with a masters in poetry, Dunston is now working back at that Quaker school and spends a chunk of his time rapping and writing verses about everything from parties to prison reform.
Quakerism informs everything Dunston does. The religion practices what’s called meaningful worship, where parishioners sit in silence for introspection and are free to stand up and speak if they’re so moved. But Quakers also have a long history of social justice work, whether it’s fighting for the abolition of slavery the rights of women or racial and economic equality.
So about two years ago when Miller went to a house party with a mutual friend of Dunston’s, he saw the young rapper performing with another group — and he knew the sound was something special.
“It’s only happened a few times in my life where I’ve heard somebody’s voice and it was just like, ‘oh wow,’” Miller said. “There’s just like a certain resonance and integrity.”
A few weeks later, Miller sent Dunston an email telling him he liked his work and would love to collaborate on something in the future. Life happened, Dunston read the email, listened to some of Miller’s beats and completely forgot to respond. So Miller followed up again, reiterating how much he loved his sound. Dunston felt bad enough for not responding to the first message, that he got back to Miller and they set up a time to talk about music. And something just clicked.
“I would just be like ‘Hey mom, I’m hanging out with a 42-year-old white guy with his wife and kids,’ and this is my homie now,” Dunston said. “There are things that disconnect us — the type of music [he] plays and what I grew up with. There’s so much more that connects us though.”
They came up with a name: Moon and the Tiger. (In Zen meditation, the moon represents spirituality while the tiger represents animalistic nature.) And then they got to work writing. The lyrics Dunston and Miller have created have a certain political nature to them. These two have an agenda — making listeners aware of racial and economic inequality — and they’re not afraid to put it in the music.
What’s striking is how the group translates its studio sounds to live shows. With the help of a few friends, Moon and the Tiger is able to re-create some of the layers of sounds Miller works to perfect in the studio.
For him, it’s about creating instrumentals that match Dunston’s intense tone.
“It’s about making these landscapes for him to walk through,” Miller said. “And then we played a show like a month ago and it was just like, there were black people, white people, my age, his age. It felt almost like it was bridging communities.”