Archive for May, 2007

Beyonce, Dreamgirls, drag, and the imperative of whiteness

May 6, 2007

Since the film version of the extraordinary 1981 Broadway musical ‘Dreamgirls’ appeared last December, critical acclaim for the film has been tremendous. One of its stars, Beyonce Knowles, is, at this point, nearly universally known. She first emerged in the public consciousness in the group Destiny’s Child. The group began in Houston, Texas in 1990, driven by the ambition of Beyonce’s father, Matthew Knowles.

Of the three members of Destiny’s Child, Letoya Luckett was the darkest of the three women. When various feuds began to erupt within the group, Luckett was one of those who left Destiny’s Child. Beyonce Knowles and her ambitious father made sure that his daughter and neice were given preferential treatment. By favoring Beyonce, Matthew Knowles and Beyonce effectively forced Luckett, a childhood friend, out of the group. It is no coincidence that Beyonce, the woman with the lightest complexion, would subsequently go on to have a tremendously successful solo career. Her latest album ‘B’day’ is a platinum selling success par excellence.

When one sees ‘Dreamgirls’, in which predominantly light skinned Black women go on to great success, it is necessary to point out that the film, and the musical, are based loosely on the rise to fame of the The Supremes, perhaps Motown’s most succesful artists. The 1980 Broadway musical on which the film is based, starred Jennifer Holliday in the leading role. Jennifer Holliday is not a super-thin, bone rack like the women in the film. She is also a darker skinned Black women. I don’t mean they look like Kate Moss, but they do not look like Jennifer Holliday.

The makers of the film used Holliday’s “And I Am Telling You” vocal to advertise the film, yet never once consulted or asked Holliday to be involved in any part of the project. This speaks volumes about how the public wants to see skinny, light skinned Black women who ostensibly worked their way up from up from a small teenage vocal group to become international superstars. After all, is this not the white American dream par excellence—if you’re good enough, no amount of structural forces of oppression can hold you back.

Another recent Black film which relied on the deeply American, white “self-made man [sic]” narrative is Will Smith’s dismal ‘The Pursuit of Happyness’, an index of the near impossibility of the development a progressive Black film culture under the present circumstances.

The elision of Jennifer Holliday in the making of the ‘Dreamgirls’ film points up the enormous success of Holliday’s “I Am Changing’ song from the musical. This song became a drag anthem, and is still played today in LGBTQ clubs. Holliday, in fact, enjoys a modicum of success of the ‘drag circuit’, alongside Donna Summer (“Bad Girls”), Gloria Gaynor (“I Will Survive”) and The Weather Girls (“It’s Raining Men”)

Finally, the aforementioned dream of American whiteness lies at the heart of the success of The Supremes, upon which both the musical and the film are based. There is an unfortunate tendency among music fans and critics to view Berry Gordy’s Motown as a utopian musical culture. However, Gordy was first and foremost an entrepeneur. He created his label, Motown, on the Fordist economic model. Motown, like the automobile plants on the other side of Detroit, was an assembly line. It was, for the 1960s, the apotheosis of music as pure commodity.

Certainly, great music emerged from Motown. But is was premised on the whiteness of economic models of mass production. Berry Gordy did not want to release Marvin Gaye’s epochal, profoundly political 1968 album, “What’s Going On” because he felt it was too political and too experimental.

Given my analysis of the ‘Dreamgirls’ film, it is no longer possible to see the film as apolitical. The conditions of possibility for both Beyonce’s rise to fame and the critical success of the film are particularly nefarious and ‘silent’ instances of the immense political power of whiteness and homophobia within contemporary Black popular culture.

Critics could argue that singling out Beyonce and the ‘Dreamgirls’ film for a stringent critique is to ‘make’ too much of yet another Hollywood film about Black people rising to success as self-made stars. My fear is that enjoyment of popular culture often results in a sacrifice on the part of audiences who don’t want their entertainment ‘spoiled’ by politics. Nevertheless, the political lies at the heart of popular culture and simply cannot be ignored.

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Textual Healing? I Don’t Think So.

May 6, 2007

Firstly, let me thank Farah Jasmine Griffin’s essay in Callaloo for the pun on the Marvin Gaye song.

Paul Gilroy, in an essay in his book, Small Acts, once helpfully offered a footnote in which he wondered if treating Black music as merely a series of texts was a sound political idea. Inspired by Gilroy, as well as Amiri Baraka and, of course, Nathaniel Mackey, I want to consider how the textualization of everything within contemporary critical theory, particularly in the academy, takes what is called ‘the linguistic turn’ too far, to the point where analyses of Black music end up as exercises in textual readings unmoored to the material conditions of Black music production and distribution.

The insurgent beginnings of Black Studies at San Francisco State University and subsequently in college campuses across the US grew out of an anger and frustration at the total lack of pedagogy which addressed Black life and history.

The demonstrations and sit-ins at student centers were not quiet events. The sound of the rhetoric telegraphed a demand for both the establishment of Black Studies and recognition that the founding of this ‘discipline’ was a profoundly important political and intellectual endeavor. That a distinct Black sound had political effects is hardly a new phenomenon in African-American history. For now, suffice it to recall the resonance (literal and metaphorical) of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s voice, the cadence of songs sung by the enslaved on Southern plantations, and the cavernous echo and delay in the dub music created in tiny recording studios in Kingston, Jamaica in the 1970s.

MUSIC, PLEASE

It was already Plato who understood the political power of music. He warned of the danger to the empire inherent in a change of music. In other words, he understood that music could topple the state:

Music…must be preserved in (its) original form, and no innovation
made. For any musical innovation is full of danger in the whole
State, and ought to be prohibited. When modes of music change,
the fundamental laws of the State always change with them
…” “Then,”
I said, “our guardians must lay the foundations of their fortress
in music?” “Yes,” I replied, ‘in the form of amusement: and at first
sight
it always appears harmless’.” (Plato. The Great Dialogues, Volume 1)

I’ll come back to Plato’s ‘first sight’ metaphor in the next post. In contemporary terms, Plato’s thoughts on music are deeply conservative. What is of interest is his comprehension of music’s danger. Who now would consider Black popular music a source of political danger? Such a suggestion usually elicits derisive laughter. And yet, African-American music has always been a source of political ‘danger’, a danger to the existing social order and the racist and repressive state practices which undergird it.

That Plato would be highly sensitive to music is not surprising. What is puzzling is why his insights vis-à-vis music have remained buried in the standard textual reading of his dialogues. One could say that his thought remains in suspended animation, only to be brought to life at certain historical junctures. One need only recall Hitler playing loud, hateful nationalist songs in order to excite the immense crowds at the Nuremberg Rally to grasp what Plato knew about the ‘danger’ of music.

In contrast, an understanding of music’s power, danger, and centrality in African cultures was evident long before Portuguese slave traders came to the Gold Coast and hoarded millions of Africans into slave ships, which made the monstrous, barbaric Middle Passage to Jamestown and other Southern ports in the Americas, the Caribbean, and Brazil. Enslaved Africans in what was becoming the ‘United States’ knew exactly how music could be the tremulous beginning of escape from bondage. Zora Neale Hurston recalls the story of High John de Conquer: “The song he helps the slaves find had no words. It was a tune that you could bend and shape in most any way you wanted to fit the words and feelings that you had.” (Hurston, The Sanctified Church) (italics mine)

The hegemony of textualism has blocked access to the consideration of the affective dimension of hearing, viewing, and reading. If this sounds like a return to phenomenology, it is not so much a return as a revision, a kind of New World African phenomenology. Music is the art of affect par excellence. Thus, ‘readings’ of lyrics in the interest of the political are, at best, only half the story. Utilizing the work of Wilson Harris, Eileen Southern, Billie Holliday, Anthony Braxton, Nathaniel Mackey, Fred Moten, and others, in the next few weeks, I will show that Black ‘popular’ music holds the potential for a new Black politics that escapes the capture of the linguistic to address the everyday in African-American life, which has always been close to music as a way of life and often, as Cornel West has pointed out, reason to go on living. The reference to phenomenology is not accidental. One need only spend several hours within the valley of speakers in a Jamaican sound system to realize that roots reggae or dancehall, two cite only two examples, are recorded to be heard at illegal volumes. The Cartesian mind/body binary quickly comes to grief in sound system culture. The sheer volume leaves no part of the mind and body untouched; surrender to the music is total.

The importance of the everyday cannot be emphasized strongly enough. If there is an art form that reaches the African-American ‘body politic’ in the everyday, it is ‘popular’ music. (I strongly dislike the term ‘popular music’ because it not only condenses a vast range of musical genres, practices, and styles, few of which are actually ‘popular’, but it also reintroduces the high/low divide in cultural practices. In other words, ‘classical’ music does not lie within the purview of the ‘popular’).

To put it bluntly, I think it would be difficult to find African-Americans of any generation, gender, class, or sexual preference who never listen to Black ‘popular’ music. (This also applies to the rest of the US populace, but this is not the moment to consider the larger consequences of that fact.) Can the same be said for literature? I think the answer is obvious. I make this point not at all to disparage literature but rather place it in relation to ‘popular’ music in terms of the size of their respective audiences.

THE TEXTUAL AND THE POLITICAL?

I always regard with suspicion scholarly work that claims to be ‘political’. If an author announces their book/essay as a ‘political reading’, this is cause for a greater degree of skepticism. By all means, give the author the benefit of the doubt, but ‘reading’ is not yet sufficiently metaphorical. Thus, ‘reading’ as a hermeneutic remains almost entirely within the sphere of textualism.

The naïve point is that a broad range of the population is unlikely to read such a critique. If this statement seems simple-minded and parochial, I must point out certain epistemological and institutional problems which have, to a great extent, domesticated Black Studies, moving it further and further away from anything that can reasonably be called ‘the black community’ (though that term clearly remains a contentious one). Though Black Studies was a serious, rigorous, intellectual, and affective endeavor from the beginning, it also addressed a constituency that contemporary, academic Black Studies has, to a great extent, little connection with. The field once represented, addressed, and crucially, embarked on pro-Black projects, from literacy campaigns, work in appallingly under-funded secondary schools, and other social programs. In short, it initially occupied a place, no matter how imperfect, in those geographical places where non-middle class Black people lived in the everyday.

Thus, it drew on the best dimensions of US Black lifeworlds: a commitment to pedagogy, a ‘canon’ which was not restricted to literature or poetry-and this is where Black Studies’ understanding of the power of affect and intellect as inextricable categories emerged.

The task ahead consists in comprehending African-American popular music precisely not from the creeping scientism of (ethno)musicology (which reduces musical forms to a checklist of presences & absences on a diatonic scale), nor from textual and/or deconstructive ‘methods’, not even from standard cultural studies approaches (discussion of youth culture, audience formation, or the banal ‘reading’ of song lyrics, et. al.) but from the sound of the music: tonality, timbre, cadence, rhythm, and the famous ‘blue note’ in jazz, one instance of the vast range of irreducibly Black structures of feeling. Is this not what Wesley Brown’s “tragic magic” means when he says:

I played in a Bar Mitzvah band. And it was a great job until I got
hit by that tragic magic, and I start playing a little bit before the
beat, a little bit behind the beat. I couldn’t help myself. I lost the job.
(Thanks to Arthur Jafa for this wonderful quote)

If this seems a misdirected and arcane approach, consider that slaves, denied literacy, found recourse to the sound of music, the sung, not the spoken word. And the sound of music, for enslaved Africans, not only communicated plans for lines of flight out of plantation space, but also allowed them to seize hold of music as a source of joy, outside of the range of hearing of overseers and slave masters. Music became a way of life. It contained the possibility of danger because it had the power to threaten the absolute control of Black bodies under chattel slavery. And it was music that played a central role in the agency and movement of Black people in white space, even though that agency remained severely truncated.

In an African-American context, this remains the case. There is another danger here, one I am mindful of avoiding: the hasty romanticization of African-American music. This trap has ruined many otherwise excellent historical accounts of the emergence of African-American music. It often runs dangerously close to racist, biological essentialist claims concerning the ‘natural rhythmic sense of Negroes’. And if anyone believes that idea is a laughable, historical relic, I can assure you that it is alive and well in forms not always so readily identifiable.

The textual has broadened its reach, in a relatively short period, attempting to address broader dimensions of experience in social, domestic, and public spheres. In other words, the social and political can, ostensibly, be ‘read’ as one would read ‘Beloved’ or ‘Moby Dick’. In response to the widening explanatory power of textualism, I want to explore sound, and more specifically the sound of popular music, which holds the potential for enormous political power, though it is regularly consigned to the growing realm of that which can be ‘read’ or, worse, thought of as entertainment for the masses, whose ‘real’ political work lies elsewhere (the orthodox Marxist view). This is a grave mistake.

I write this with a sense of urgency that is, in no way, an ad hominem attack on writers. Novelists, poets, playwrights, and all those who value the art of writing do not participate in the increasing power of textualism. They simply make art in the medium of writing.

This inquiry comes from a desire to find novel political and aesthetic strategies to slow or push back the terrifying rightward movement which has paralyzed the left, incarcerated thousands of Black people, and recently created an authoritarain system of surveillance and detention. When I speak of urgency, it is to speak also of insurgency. I want to reanimate the spirit and political passion which led to the creation of Black Studies as a renegade intellectual movement.

It is necessary to launch a strong, and unapologetic critique of the ways in which the textual hermeneutic has gained tremendous currency outside of literary criticism. It now informs criticism in visual culture, anthropology, history, and other disciplines.

Sign systems and signification came to prominence through structuralist anthropology ala Claude Levi-Strauss and the ways in which Ferdinand de Saussure, Charles Peirce, Emile Benveniste, J.L. Austin, and their peers fashioned linguistics discourses which migrated into the work of French structuralist critics such as Roland Barthes, who developed semiotics as a ‘political’ critical practice.

The late Jacques Derrida’s early work, particularly his immensely influential ‘On Grammatology’ was crucial to the emergence of the ‘linguistic turn’, which, though attempting to critique the logocentric character of Western discourse, nevertheless found recourse to the written word, and displayed a fidelity to signs, signifiers, and referents, influenced by Jacques Lacan’s belief that ‘the unconscious is structured like a language’. French post-structuralists and the cadre of scholars primarily responsible for the dissemination of deconstruction in the US academy might not have been aware that it would become rapidly de-politicized and eventually apolitical. But that is, nevertheless, what took place. The scholars to whom I’m referring above are part of what gets called The Yale School, and includes Paul De Man, Geoffrey Hartman, Jonathan Culler, and, to a lesser extent, J. Hillis Miller.

Deconstruction has become hegemonic in humanities departments in the academy. It is now another methodology which often runs precisely counter to Derrida’s early thought. His early work was in fact wholly concerned with the instability of language, the indeterminate character of truth claims, ways in which the written and the spoken were entirely asymmetrical, in an attempt to demystify the written word for those who still worshipped at its altar, and wanted nothing of the oral, the visual and ‘languages’ that had little to do with the written. The late Derrida’s concerns had very little to do with deconstruction. Rather, his last books were concerned with neo-marxism (the ‘spectres’ of Marx), human rights, friendship and the rise of fascism in fortress Europe.

Precisely because of the right’s inexorable intrusion into every space left empty, confused, and in need of direction, the rise of post-structuralist textualism in academic contexts throughout the 1980s is hardly surprising. Thousands of doctoral dissertations are written in humanities departments under the influence of Derrida and his descendants, even if filtered through nascent fields of study. Why? Because at first glance, much contemporary post-structuralist thought and Derridean deconstruction appears inherently political in contrast to close reading, new historicism, structuralism and other schools of literary criticism. In fact, the seemingly radical character of post-structuralist tendencies, and deconstruction in particular, are the safest way to tenure in the humanities.

Post-structuralist textualism is ultimately premised on representation. Important political questions around who represents, what is represented, and who and what has, historically, been unrepresented, have been at the center of fierce debates not only within cultural studies circles, but also within art institutions, some of which have not been made to answer such questions since their founding. And these battles were not always academic and polite. They frequently manifested themselves in a material fashion. Real, institutional changes did (and do) take place. However, the nearly endless production of scholarly work on representational practices brings with it the vocabulary of semiotics-signs, signifiers, referents, and so on. This clearly brings visual practices into the sphere of the textual.

It was already Renaissance art historian Walter Pater, in his magnificent book, ‘The School of Giorgione’, who remarked: “All art aspires to the condition of music”. Pater’s overwhelming love of painting and, moreover, the primacy he assigned the aesthetic meant he was willing to cede an extraordinary power to music. His eloquent statement also infers that music is not saddled with the burden of representation.

It is, therefore, not surprising, that to assert that ‘popular’ music has an immense political and social power in the context of a ‘serious’, scholarly discussion is to be met with reactions that range from a complete dismissal, to nervous evasions of the question, suggestions that ‘popular’ music is the purview of third-rate cultural studies scholars, and an incredulity that suggests the question might as well be: “How can we live without oxygen?”

“Louie, Louie” by The Kingsmen, two minutes, fifty-five seconds, has had a greater political, aesthetic, and social effect in the US than any novel, poem, painting, sculpture or film of the long twentieth-century. Because the present conceptual, hermeneutic tools available to critics are of so little use not only in evaluating this claim, but comprehending what sort of epistemological problems it presents for those whose intellectual passion has to exclude ‘pop’ songs. Ironically, it is the early Derrida’s most commonly misunderstood idea ‘deconstruction’, which serves as a conclusion of sorts. His term refers to the ‘procedure’ by which one social formation, art form, et. al, could only achieve a precarious stability by excluding some ‘thing’ that was central to it.

‘Popular’ music is the “constitutive outside” of what gets called ‘serious’ intellectual endeavors in the humanities. (Not to be mistaken with the Kantian notion of ‘condition of possibility’, though the two are often used interchangeably). ‘Pop’ music is the non-intellectual, the ‘entertainment’, mere kitsch against which real aesthetic objects are defined. Future work in the humanities will focus on sonority, discomfort, affect, auditory culture, racialized and gendered histories, and sensory formations which unseat the textual.

What is needed now is nothing less than a full-blown epistemic rupture. It is unlikely to come from ‘progressive’ humanities departments, which, though having broadened their purview, are, paradoxically, like McCarthyism. They look for subversion everywhere.

A repetition of, not to be confused with a return to, the insurgent birth of Black Studies remains possible. Novel ways of hearing cultural practices and artifacts, ways that take into account affect as central to the aesthetic and the everyday are so badly needed. A massive shift away from textual practices into the politically powerful domain of ‘popular’ music cannot but lead to a truly productive confrontation with the non-academic immiseration of the public sphere, the breakdown of civil society, and the ever growing ’surplus population’ (to quote Audre Lorde) required by the forces of global capital.

To attempt anything less betrays a terrible failure of the intellectual imagination.

Angel of History-A Beginning

May 6, 2007

Why angelofhistory.org? What is going on or going to go on here? This initial post is going to be a bit lengthy. I must first acknowledge John Akomfrah and The Black Audio Film Collective for their brilliant and totally overlooked, buried film, ‘Last Angel of History’, which looked to science fiction and Afrofuturism, all the while holding on to the fact that utopian Afro-futures cannot but entail ‘Afro-pasts’, pasts in which the degradation, downpression, and barbarity directed toward people of African descent in what gets called the ‘new world’ remain very much present in the ongoing project of African dehumanization. The figurative ‘angel of history’ is from Walter Benjamin’s ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, from which there is a one paragraph excerpt below.

To make a bit of a leap, I have been a music journalist since the mid 1980s and am now so disgusted with the state of that field, that I feel no desire to continue in orthodox ways.

It is not merely the infuriation at having to write 75-word album reviews or the transformation of music publications into lifestyle magazines (and there are a hardly a paucity of the latter. They have their place, and can be a great read), but the ‘mainstreaming’ of US national, glossy music magazines, some of which used to take ‘chances’. i.e.- agree to publish a 250 word piece on a nascent or ‘underground’ artist. That’s all over. But the cause of my immense anger has more to do with the manifold ways in which white supremacy has, in its usual fashion, found its way into every corner of music publications. You might well say: “nothing new about that”. And white appropriation of Black music has been going on for decades.

At the present moment however, this chronic malady on the part of white people has become far more subtle, pernicious, and hegemonic. I say hegemonic because it is the tacit agreement on the part of music listeners from every walk of life (crossing lines of race/ethnicity, gender, sexual preference, and class) which makes bald, unapologetic appropriation possible in ways which were either not technologically possible or which discerning Black audiences would take strong exception to.

Obviously, there are far too many scare quotes in here, and eventually I’ll drop them out of necessity. Is there, however, a way to identify music as ‘Black’? If so, why does it matter? It matters a great deal. That is because I believe that the last redoubt of Black liberation and the beginning of undermining white supremacy is Black music. I run a risk here of joining the ranks of those who romanticize Black music, and it is those people who can often run much too close to the biological essentialist claims about the ‘natural rhythmic and musical ability of Negroes’. Needless to say, this racist belief is a sorry idea inherited from The (European) Enlightenment and one that has merely changed shape rather than being cast aside as 19th century pseudo-science. I wanted to make that clear from start.

Planned escapes by slaves, lines of flight out of plantation space, often relied on song to telegraph clandestine meeting points and strategies. As Southern Black folk hero, High John De Conquer once said of these songs: “[They] had no words. It was a tune that you could bend and shape in most any way you wanted to fit the words and feelings that you had.” It is my conviction is that it is precisely the sound of Black musics which not only marks them as irreducibly Black, but which also holds enormous political, and revolutionary, potential. Though there is not a simple, unbroken line of Black sound from the time of enslavement to the present, it is impossible to ignore what maverick improvisational artists (and John Coltrane is exemplary here) have done with white US ‘standards’ and furthermore what they have done with Western instruments never designed with Black people in mind. If plantation songs, often without vocals, held, and, more importantly realized forms of freedom, why should that have changed at a certain fundamental level, at what Arthur Jafa calls “Black primal sites” in the US. There are numerous traditions of ‘protest songs’ which carry a liberatory element, but why did Hitler use massively amplified German nationalist music at the Nuremberg rallies? Because, despite the monstrous political aims of the Third Reich, Hitler knew very well that the sound of music was a far more powerful political weapon than any written or spoken propaganda. But this political power doesn’t belong to fascists. It should be carried over into the core of contemporary Black liberation struggles, not as mere entertainment for the masses. Having said that, don’t read me as endorsing the idea that Black musics must only be utilitarian. This would be a tragic mistake. As Cornel West once remarked. “I listen to Aretha, ‘Trane, and Mahalia Jackson because they bring me great joy, and also reason to go on living”.

I’ll finish this post by talking about another crucial, Black political movement proceeding at a rapid clip: Reparations. For those of you unfamiliar with the tenets of the cause, suffice it to say that it is a tremendously important insistence that the State acknowledge and apologize for the ‘Maafa’-The Middle Passage, during which between 20 and 100 million Africans died, the subsequent 250 year enslavement of Africans in the US, Caribbean, Brazil, and other parts of the African Diaspora. Reparationists further demand that the State and those corporations and/or institutions who are clearly linked to the traffic in African bodies, provide monetary compensation to the descendants of the enslaved. Despite the popular, though entirely incorrect notion that this remuneration will take the form of individual checks being issued to Black people in the US, it is very important to emphasize that these monies will be used to create autonomous Black institutions of every sort. To say that this issue is a contentious one is not to say enough.

Angel of History will therefore range from polemics, to record reviews, discussion of books, ‘now playing’ / ‘now reading’ lists, drawing attention to buried histories (not history with a capital ‘H’-a parade of heroes, heroines, great figures, et al.), and a great deal else.

This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past.
Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps
piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken
the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from
Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no
longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his
back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward.
-Walter Benjamin

Excising the political from the life of the mind is a sacrifice that has proven costly.
I think of the erasure as a kind of trembling hypochondria always curing itself with
unnecessary surgery.
-Toni Morrison

A past of slavery, until you confront it, until you live through it, keeps coming
back in other forms. The shapes redesign themselves in other constellations,
until you get a chance to play it over again.

-Toni Morrison

Moby, Black appropriation, and white electronics

May 6, 2007

MOBY, ELVIS AND OTHER POPULAR MUSICAL TRAGEDIES

Elvis Presley seemingly successfully mimicked popular black musical styles of the time and became a US pop culture hero, adorning the cover of hundreds of magazines and after middle age, died of excessive alcohol consumption and the ingestion of painkillers and weight-loss pills. His death was mourned only by those who somehow still believe he was an American hero who made great music. He is neither. Though his place should be as a mere afterthought in the history of popular music, he is sanctified in a way that perhaps only The Beatles (artists who also have a lot to answer for, but this is not the space to to elaborate) are, and thus his music will ‘live on’. He was not the first white musician to appropriate Black music such that white America could deal with it, and he is certainly not the last. White Americans are actually terrified of Black music’s aesthetic, political, and affective power. It is as if they understand that for Black people, including artists, music is not a recreational activity, it is a way of life and often a means of survival. It has to arrive via a white mediator in order to be absorbed without damaging whiteness. This mediation process is evident in the current success of the electronic artist, Moby.

Richard Hall, AKA Moby, raised in Connecticut and involved in hardcore at an early age formed his own band. Later, in NY, he recorded two or three gigantic rave anthems for Jared Hoffmann’s Instinct label. After breaking free from that contract, he signed to Elektra Records where he proceeded to release a series of albums which received little commercial success until ‘Play’, which sampled Southern blues lyrics from the 1920s and 30s. This record was regarded as magnificent by critics and listeners alike for breaking new musical boundaries, for making an ‘electronica’ record with ‘real’ blues samples. Subsequently, Moby appeared on numerous music and non-music magazines, most recently ‘Muzik’ in the UK and ‘Wired’.

Robert Johnson and Charley Patton, blues vocalist from the early part of the 20th century, both died penniless in the racist south.

In Detroit, Juan Atkins and Kevin Saunderson, alongside Derrick May took hold of the European instruments of (post)modernity and fashioned an entirely new genre from the largely abandoned instruments of the Roland corporation. They now spend most of their time outside Detroit, DJing and playing live for appreciative audiences in the UK. Western Europe, and Japan. They are infrequently asked to play in the US.

How are these seemingly disparate events linked? If we look beyond the everyday racist humiliation experienced by black people in the US, we see how white supremacy functions just as powerfully in the contemporary moment as it did in 1925. It is hardly necessary to take into consideration the aesthetic merit of the music of any of the aforementioned artists to see how clearly Elvis and Moby can be located on the same historical continuum.

The key to understanding how white supremacy functions is to identify how it makes itself invisible to the majority of US citizens (consumers might be a better term). But whiteness is a powerful privilege which allows certain white people access to positions of relative power that are rarely, if ever, afforded black people.

We need only look at Moby’s recent summer tours in which he invites other artists to play across the country with him. What, you might ask, is the problem here? The answer is simple: there isn’t a promoter in this country who would allow a black techno ‘star’ to organize their own national tour, inviting any artists they wish.

The typical response to these charges is: Is not Moby is a vegetarian? Does he not live an ascetic, non-materialist life style and give money to environmental causes? Yes. But one can easily dismiss these banal liberal nostrums with the fact that Moby is understood by many in the US as the future of music, as the person who has made ‘electronica’ (a term used by the mainstream media to refer to contemporary, instrumental electronic music intended for the dance floor). In other words, he stopped making ‘dance music’, still denigrated because of the depth at which the homophobic ‘disco sucks’ ideology runs in the psyche of the US white body politic.

At this point, many of you may feel that I am singling out Moby as a racist. My case is precisely the inverse. Undoubtedly, Moby is not a racist in the commonsensical way that word is understood by white liberals. I am sure he is aware of the truncated life chances of millions of poor African-Americans. I am sure he thinks all the cops in the Abner Louima trial should have been thrown in jail. But these facts are, frankly, irrelevant to my argument. Racism and white supremacy are not synonymous. By virtue of his middle-class whiteness, Moby is not only able to gain access to a record deal with a major label; he is praised for using the blues in his records, as if this made him a genius.

Blues arose from a specific Southern Black context and its resonance had a great deal to do with communicating the sacred and the profane, joy and suffering to slaves and freed Black people. The ‘blue note’ in African-American music has a particular cadence and timbre which communicates particular Black structures of feeling. This is not to say that the blues was a strictly utilitarian, political music. The powerful aesthetic component of the blues made possible such modern, bloodless music as Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. Only there isn’t a note of the blues in the latter’s songs.

When I talk about white supremacy in this context, I am talking about the ability of white people to move further in virtually every sphere of US life due to their whiteness. Do you think it is a coincidence that Moby’s appearance on a recent cover of ‘Wired’ is set against an all-white background with only parts of his face peeking through the monochromatic cover? Why, in a recent issue of the UK magazine, ‘Muzik’, is Moby shown on the cover with a white T-shirt, on a white background, holding a wand that radiates bright white light? These are the representational practices that continually consolidate white supremacy.

One could make the claim that Moby just worked hard, produced a lot of tracks, refined his style, and moved beyond ‘dance music’ to create an entirely new genre. In other words, he was just good at what he did and his talent was recognized. That claim is without merit. Yes, he worked hard and actually made some good rave tracks for Instinct in the early ‘90s. He subsequently moved on and fashioned full-length albums which won him praise. ‘Play’ made the top ten on a number of critics’ year-end lists in 2001. Was this album ‘adventurous’, ‘ground-breaking’, or ‘innovative’? No. There are eighteen-year old artists in the projects of Houston’s 5th Ward who made ‘electronic’ records in the same year so profoundly experimental, their influence won’t be understood for years. (This is the phenomenon of ‘screwed & chopped’ music, which I’ve not the space to talk about yet).

Perhaps the only ‘redemptive’ aspect of this story is that Black people throughout the diaspora continue to make music that, at the time of its creation, is relegated to the domain of faddishness, kitsch, and the not-worthy-of-remembering by white artists, though it is, almost without exception, later celebrated by white musicians who go on to worship it, imitate it, and make wan versions of it that are lauded by critics as highly original. This phenomenon is, I believe, a result of the fact that the nearly incomprehensible barbarity of enslavement could not rob entirely Black people of agency, forms of communication and sometimes joy that resided in the tonal, timbral, chord changes, and melodic structures that expressed a sense of the lost and found.

That white people would become envious of this is hardly surprising. The latter wanted to deprive Africans of everything that even resembled dignity or humanity. They never succeeded, and their ongoing rage, envy, fantasy, fears, and desires are inseparable from the panoply of Black musics. Suffice it to recall the ugly episode in which English ‘blues’ musician Eric Clapton, while observing Eddie Kendricks during a Temptations recording session asked the engineer if he could go into the studio and look down Kendricks’ throat, believing he’d find the ‘Black Thing’, that genetic/physiological ‘fact of blackness’ (as Fanon put it) that Clapton believed was the ‘secret’ which made Kendricks’ voice sublime. Clapton has been a joke for a long time with his soggy, tepid ‘blues/rock’ which couldn’t move the most reluctant wallflower.

Moby is the Elvis or Benny Goodman or Beastie Boys of his genre and generation. He directly appropriates African-American music, such that he is the white mediator through which the blues records he samples are ‘brought to life’, as one critic, in ‘The Big Takeover’, commented. In fashioning a career while seemingly unaware of how his whiteness functioned and functions at every point in his career, he is fully complicit with white supremacy in the US. Given his commercial success, he is obligated to credit his success to the music of unrecognized blues artists and the founders of Detroit techno, the Black post-industrial music par excellence. I am awaiting that acknowledgment with grinding teeth.

weapons of mass creation

May 6, 2007

I’m honestly delighted (no sarcasm intended) to have received three responses to the first couple of posts. Given the sheer number of blogs and ‘regular’ web sites, I wasn’t expecting any response for months, frankly. Responding to the first post I received from Felix, I agree with quite a lot of what you have to say. Yeah, Moby’s early rave tracks were great, and his ascendance into ‘rock star’ fame was perhaps nearly inevitable. But I don’t think the “tables have turned” despite wealthy hip-moguls (P. Diddy, Russell Simmons, etc.). Eric Clapton is, admittedly, not the worst offender in the contemporary music world, but the question remains: What drives the long-running fascination with Black music on the part of white ‘kids’.

What I’m trying to comprehend is the fear/fantasy, love/hate relationships between white people and certain kinds of Black music. Sure, the majority of hip-hop aficianados, at least in the US, are white. But I feel that this has a lot to do, historically, with a notion that Black transgression and/or aggressivity contains a special appeal for those who can’t express those same desires. The irony is that many Black hip-hop artists may well be middle-class folks whose ‘transgression’ is actually a living-out of the same fantasy/desire. I won’t prattle on for days about this, but I feel that though certain things have changed, most have not. As James Brown once remarked, “Racism is like Henry Ford’s cars, there’s a new model every year.”.

It’s Tuesday, oh wait, Wednesday, so why not list a few records that have been rotating in my apartment recently.

V/A-Trojan Sixties Box Set 3CD set: Since being acquired by the Sanctuary label, Trojan has released more box sets than you’ve had hot dinners, and this is more than a little frustrating. Nevertheless, I don’t think there have been any overlaps-a testament to the sheer number of singles made in Kingston in any given week since the mid 1960s. This Sixties collection broke me down like a shotgun. Not a dry eye in the house, with lovers & roots covers of “The Mighty Quinn”, “By The Time I Get To Phoenix”, and “Have You Ever Seen The Rain?” by artists such as Ken Boothe, Noel Brown, Pat Kelly, The Paragons and a lot more. I’ll never know why Jamaican vocalists covered ‘60s and ‘70s ‘AM Gold’ songs as well as Motown and Stax standards, but the genius of Caribbean technology (to borrow a phrase from Mad Professor) allows Hopeton Lewis, Henry Buckley, & Dienne with the Gaylettes to perform “The Mighty Quinn” and transform it into the most danceable song about love and its ruination I’ve heard.

V/A-Lif Up Yuh Leg An Trample LP (Honest Jon’s): I’ll be the first to admit I’m pretty ignorant about soca and other Trinidadian music, but
this collection of ‘new school’ soca from Port of Spain makes Lord Kitchener sound like Leo Sayer, winfluences from rave-era jungle, dancehall, and even early Detroit electronics. Laventille Rhythm Section, Dawg E Slaughter (not the kind of name one tends to associate with soca), and Maximus Dan fire lightning bolts from the tips of their fingers. And yet, the music here is, unmistakably, soca. Kudos to the Honest Jon’s folks for making available this startling collection. It’s existence demonstrates, once again, that in an age of global capital-which keeps the Caribbean in poverty-musical influences from throughout the African diaspora still evolve, change, turn inside out, in effect retaining their specific, local character while absorbing a tremendous range of influences that might, at first, seem completely incompatible.

The Marxmen-Here Today, Gone Tomorrow 12” (Traffic)
Without question, this M.O.P. ‘side project’, is the most painful, expertly arranged, disturbing, elephantine hip-hop single I’ve heard since The Skinny Boys’ “Rip The Cut”. The sound of the gun chamber reloading is the center of the dry, hyper-minimalist percussion. The drum patterns are almost unnecessary, and Lil’ Flame’s rhymes express an outrage that is less about gangsta braggadocio than a profound sense of loss & sorrow. This skeletal track is punctuated by the mournful vocal sample, after which the single is named. (I think its either the Ohio Players or Mandrill, but I welcome corrections or ‘identifications’ because the male singer’s voice is spine-tingling). Three quarters of the way through the track is, literally, a moment of silence. Everything drops out. This Marxmen single (taken from the recent album ‘M.O.P. Presents Marxmen Cinema’) might well be discredited as just another instance of ultra-violent, nihilistic gangstsa music, but this is a towering achievement.

Geoff Reacher & p7, I’m going to write something fairly lengthy about screwed & chopped music in the next couple of days. It occupies an odd position right now inasmuch as a lot of people are aware of it, yet it still suffers from terrible distribution in the US, let alone the rest world! And that has got to change. Be back soon.

Trax on Black Wax

May 6, 2007

I’ve kept deferring the long screwed & chopped piece, but it’s running around my head and it’ll get up here well before the end of the ice age (to borrow Ian Curtis’ song title). I felt compelled to rattle off a short ‘now playing’ (wherever) list, more will appear tomorrow. (Wednesday).

NOW PLAYING
in no particular order

Wasteland: October (Transparent) US CD
I-Sound and DJ Scud have left behind their third-rate ‘raggacore’ acolytes, to make electronic music that is never academic or sterile, but packed to the rafters with dirty rhythms, giving the lie to the threadbare idea that 3/4 time signatures can’t induce a deep head nod. Always keep your senses alert to the music of these two visionaries. Scud’s Ambush label releases towering, body-slamming records on a regular basis, but his Voice Crack remixes project makes clear that his talent and range go far beyond 210+ BPM tracks.

Various Artists: Seventies Box Set (Trojan) US 3xCD
Kingston vocalists like Alton Ellis, Hopeton Lewis, and Ken Boothe are already properly crowned, but if you don’t have goosebumps while listening to Honeyboy Martin’s cover of “Have You Ever Seen The Rain”, you’re probably comatose. Think you couldn’t bare another version of “Candle in the Wind”? That’s only because Eric Donaldson’s version was, until now, lying behind a thousand reels of tape in a Kingston studio.

Jean Grae: This Week + accompanying Kay Slay mixtape (Baby Grande) US CD
Yeah, Ms. Grae’s become so trendy I’m half expecting a retrospective of her work to open at the Triple Five Soul store next month. But that’s not her fault. On occasion, imagination and skill actually do reach a wide audience. Nevertheless, her rhymes, timing, and flow still stun. One verse of Grae’s has more imagination and sheer wordsmith than many MCs can pull together on an entire album. Until Grae’s still rumbling ‘Attack of the Attacking Things’, ‘The Bootleg of the Bootleg’, the ‘Grae Mixtape’ and ‘Official Bootleg’, and her numerous quasi official releases on wax and CD, I’d forgotten how many rappers repeat verses, let their timing slide off-beat, and spit rhymes you forget by the time the track’s over. The fact that she enlists some of NY’s most skilled producers (perhaps they enlist her) means that the records are peerless. Grae also revives a lost old-school tradition, spoken shout-outs on tracks. Throw on Kool Moe Dee’s “Wild, Wild West”, or King Tre’s “Take A Pause” and you’ll hear what I’m talking about. Her gesture in that regard is anything but nostalgic. From start to finish, this is a gem. If it gives you a full body-wax, you can still obtain her older material and discover why she makes records that would impress Rakim.

DJ /rupture: Special Gunpowder (Tigerbeat 6) US CD or (Very Friendly) UK CD
It’s hard to believe that DJ /rupture has not released a full-length ‘album’, only because he’s so prolific and is seemingly on tour for six months at a time. Those not possessing a copy of his ‘Gold Teeth Thief’ mix CD should get their hands on a copy post haste. It is, without doubt, the contemporary equivalent of DJ Red Alert’s NY radio shows circa ‘84. He draws on a startling range of musics none of which sound overwrought or self-conscious. ‘Special Gunpowder’ may surprise some of his fans for it is not entirely made up of vein-throttling speedcore. But that is not to say it isn’t a remarkable accomplishment. Opening with an intro, ‘Overture: Watermelon City’ which features poet and Yale English professor Elizabeth Alexander before moving into a midtempo rockers track featuring the venerable Sister Nancy, the record is perfectly sequenced but without the dull linearity of ‘professionialism’. The final track, “Mole in the Ground” is a rendering of a traditional song, done with the elusive, sometime video-game designer, Sindhu Zagoren. There is hardly a lack of guest ‘stars’ here: Kit Clayton, Cocoa Tea, and Eugene Robinson. As Rupture notes: all samples cleared. And those consist of brilliantly timed bits of Sudden Infant (from the unfairly obscure Tochnit Aleph label), Ove-Naxx, Wayne Lonesome, and the vocals of Max Turner. Many lesser artists would have lost their balance among the panoply of musicians on this record, but dj /rupture never never makes a misstep. And if you think you hear one, it’s what Ishmael Reed once referred to as the “African deification of accident”.

“History, the smiler with the dagger ‘neath the cloak”-William Chaucer

May 6, 2007

Oh, boy, where are those elusive songs? The half-remembered lyric or verse, the chord change, but never the title and certainly not the artist. After an hour discussing this phenomenon with a friend, does anyone recall a fairly bland, ‘70s AOR track about James Dean? It’s not David Essex (‘Rock On’), mind you if I could find an instrumental of the Essex song! It’s not The Eagles’ “James Dean”. The only lyric I can recall is “he had a smile…rarely, and even then it was a smile, but barely”. I guess “Boys of Summer” will have to suffice. No it won’t. Instead it’ll be the despised yet brilliant “Dreadlock Holiday” by the apparently vilified 10cc What is so compelling about that song? It’s not nostalgia, I didn’t hear it until two years ago. Yet it is a ‘pre-emptive’ rebuke to an English micro-talent, Sting, who claimed that The Police were the band that introduced reggae to British & American ‘kids’. Please! The soggy, uninspired 10cc did that in 1976, and Stevie Wonder released the prescient, totally original “Master Blaster” before Stuart Copeland could roll a joint (with his toes).

Even more peculiar is that the band’s superb playing on that song almost overrides the appalling lyrics. What is the song about? It’s the story of a white English guy who goes on holiday in Jamaica, is nearly mugged by a group of Rastafarian men-who he demands respect from because he does, then doesn’t, like reggae. Next verse: bolting away from these ‘thugs’, he encounters an absurdly exoticized Jamaican woman at a bar who tells him “my harvest is the best, and if you try it, you’ll like it”. No doubt he liked it. But “Dreadlock Holiday” is an uncanny song. Why? Because, whether 10cc knew it or not, they were describing very precisely the ambivalence & ambiguity that is always present in the white, male tourist in a Black country, who is at once terrified/repulsed by the “natives” and yet drawn to ‘them’ in the unending colonial dialectic of pleasure/terror, excitement/fear, exotic/ordinary. Now if you think this is a ridiculous ‘academic’ approach to a song that was in the Radio 1 Top Ten, I can only say that it is a great pop song, and despite the actual content of the lyrics, I can’t pry myself loose from it. Therein lies the dilemma of digust/delight particularly with regards to music. This has a great deal to do with the sound of a piece of music and less to do with its lyrical content (unless it’s instrumental, of course).

The larger issue is that Frantz Fanon and Amilcar Cabral talked about this racialized desire/fear dynamic in the mid 1950s. And it hasn’t changed at all. At least 10cc expressed this openly in the lyrics to “Dreadlock Holiday”. We are now in a completely different era, one in which that song might well be attacked for its racism and exoticization of Jamaica, which was, after all, a British colony for a very long time. Now, as shapes change and open expression of white privilege is no longer acceptable within bureaucratic multiculturalism, in which citizens (consumers) are told to tolerate the racial ‘other’. And ‘tolerance’ suggests that the ‘other’ is intolerable to begin with. Very little progress, no?. What does this produce?

In the sphere of popular music and popular culture, the most immediate way to comprehend the shift in racialized positions throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, is simply to close one’s eyes and pick an arbitrary example of white supremacy’s extraordinary ability to adapt itself to new contexts. Hollertronix. There it is. Why single out these two guys? It’s not to lay blame at their feet. There are dozens of other instances of the same phenomenon. That it takes under a minute to find an example is troubling, to say the least.

But the most recent Hollertronix flyer is floating about, and their website speaks volumes. The front page of their site hints at what they are doing. Why is Flavor Flav on one their flyers? The history of these DJs is even more offensive. The question I have to ask here is: Why the need for Black hip-hop artists, from Lil’ Jon to Flavor Flav, in addition to images of Black women in their publicity material, and unnamed Black faces ‘holding’ pieces of text, or the Black men at the center, on the very first page of the site? Clearly, this is not accidental. They have a graphic design company under contract. The pictures they provide are, finally, the visual evidence of their appropriation of Black culture. The audiences in Philly, New York, and Sundance are overwhelmingly white. But, there are a sufficient number of photographs of Black people suggesting that their music crosses racial boundaries or simply that they have a ‘multicultural’ following. But isn’t this reminiscent of the standard undergraduate catalogue at any given non-HBCU, in which the cover photograph nearly always depicts at least two students of color, smiling, and is then dotted with other photos showing ‘racial harmony’ to convince would-be applicants that the institution is truly ‘inclusive’ and is a comfortable place for Black people and other students of color? (I hope not to insult the reader’s intelligence, by stating that HBCU is the acronym for ‘Historically Black Colleges and Universities”).

Returning to Hollertronix, Why on earth are they represented as crunk DJs? Certainly crunk has been exposed to a wider audience in the last two-three years, as Lil’ Jon and The Ying-Yang twins signed to TVT, Three 6 Mafia are on Sony, etc. But what is the relation between white people and emergent Black musical genres such that white people are so eager to begin playing/making/producing a given Black genre almost as soon as they hear it? It has been happening in the US for decades. The last thing to do is read me as saying that there is some absolute racial purity at work when Black people invent a new cultural form. I’m talking very specifically about Black culture as a whole way of life. I can’t claim Black folks own crunk. But you might well want to own something in a country in which your ancestors did not own their own bodies.

Consider crunk’s origins. it began In Black strip clubs in Atlanta and Memphis. Fortunately, the extraordinary ingenuity and pace with which Black culture, in all its forms changes form, shape, and content is too complex for white kids to mimic as it emerges. But the popularity of Hollertronix arises, at the very least (on the part of cops, for example), from the fact of youth and whiteness, which, in the US, will take you a long way. The old maxim ” you’re free, white, and twenty one” is far more than just an idle comment.

That crunk began to attract a young, white, suburban audience it no shock at all. But I ask that you consider this: For as long as the US has defined itself, Black people have been the object of both fear and fascination, terror and allure, lust and hatred. During enslavement, this took the form of lynchings, rape, torture, humiliation and numerous other kinds of violence. Those acts have been made ‘illegal’ and Abraham Lincoln made the so-called ‘emancipation proclamation’. The unconscious power of the fear/fascination dynamic and its analogues has not diminished one iota. Hollertronix are merely one instance of this terror/allure dynamic, the sadomasochism which defines black/white ‘relations’ in the US.

The French psychoanalytic theorist Jacques Lacan may seem completely out of place here. Nevertheless, he described what he called the ‘objet petit a’ (‘the small object’, in a literal translation). What is this and why here? My answer is simple. The ‘objet petit a’ is ‘that which is in the person more than themselves’. Imagine if someone asked you to write down all of the things/attributes of a person with whom you were in love, a checklist of sorts. Yeah, you could do it, but wouldn’t the ‘essence’ of the person, the real source of passion be missing from a mere mechanical list? Of course. That missing element is the ‘objet petit a’, that ‘thing’ about the person that is more than their ‘positive’ or ‘loveable’ qualities. The passion/love can’t be named in mere language.

This digression is not as far from the earlier argument as it might appear. In the US, white people have, for a very long time, felt fearful and fascinated by Black people. There are innumerable reasons for this, and the I may have driven away a lot readers already. One of the ‘things’ about Black musicians (of every stripe) that keeps white people spellbound is their ability to seize hold of the most ordinary of Western instruments and turn those instruments inside out , make them do things their inventor could not possibly have envisioned. John Coltrane. Albert Ayler. Kool Herc. Grandmaster Flash. I’m rattling off the names of those who immediately come to mind. Frankly stated, white musicians (or DJs) are tremendously envious of this ad hoc, improvisational, reconfiguring of musics/instruments (electronic or otherwise). So many white musicians think that Black musicians possess that ‘objet petit a’, something that is in those musicians more than themselves. How else to account for white musicians intense desire to mimic Black musicians? (As Elvis once said. “I don’t know anything about music. In my line, you don’t have to”). Of course he doesn’t need to know. Black people wrote the music & lyrics, and he was the mouthpiece, the charming whiteboy with a hint of the transgressive qualities so many white people believe are inherent to Black people en masse.

I’m not trying to insult your intelligence in saying that Hollertronix are not Elvis Presley. Nevertheless, the owe their success to the co-opting not only of Black visual images (Lil’ Jon, Flavor Flav, and the Black women dressed as strippers on their flyers) but Black, regional, vernacular art forms (crunk, in this case) that brought together an amalgam of Southern black music that speaks to a certain Southern blackness that has nothing to do with the East Coast. I emphasize the regional here only because it’s crucial to understand how radically different Black life in the Southern US has been, in contrast to the the East and West Coasts, since the first enslaved Africans arrived in 1619.

Finally, though, this is not about a politics of blame, finger-pointing, and accusation. There are thousands of white musicians/DJs/performers from the mid-17th century to the present who, in one way or another, have re-enacted the same old thing. The fight to be won here has nothing to do with banning or boycotting Hollertonix, casting them out into the desert. Rather, it is to emphasize the need to remain vigilant, to be always aware of how white supremacy and its desire to regulate the mobility, life chances, and representations of Black people, will continue until a vast, widespread understanding (among all people in the US) of its power leads to its demise.

Fredric Jameson once memorably said: “History is what hurts”.

I’ve got a CD in front of me by a group called West Indian Girl. The group’s members? Two white kids who emerged from the broken heart of Southern California’s post-rave culture. I bring this up as a conclusion because it speaks to the phenomenon I’ve been talking about above. And that phenomenon, to risk repetition is constantly taking new shapes and forms. That these two white guys would call themselves ‘West Indian Girl’ is so grossly offensive, that I’ll need to calm down before…

slightly dated response to recent comments

May 6, 2007

Well, since I’ve been inattentive to these comments and let the blog slow down just a little too long. I appreciate folks responding. judd, I understand your argument entirely. When I sat down to write that post, the Hollertronix stuff was, literally, close at hand, and I brought them up because they are symbolic/emblematic of a much larger, systemic problem. In other words, I could have talked about the phenomenon of white appropriation of Black music using hundreds of examples, but the burden of the kind of critique I’m trying to do is that if one singles out a particular artist, it seems unfair to hold them entirely culpable for a system (white supremacy) that was around long before they were born, and, at the rate we’re going, is going to be around for quite a bit longer. The alternative is to make an argument that is completely abstract, which then can be said to be just that, completely abstract.

I’m trying to find a language in which to talk about appropriation in a way that gets at white privilege-greater mobility, access to resources (of all sorts), being taken more seriously by club owners, etc.-without just, one by one, attacking individual white artists. hal brings up the issue of “…nefarious racist intent”. That speaks directly to the dilemma here. It is very unlikely that the two members of Hollertronix set out with any racist intent whatsoever. The question for me is: how, as a white person, do you participate in your life in such a way that does not contribute to the consolidation of white supremacy. As a white person, I am not able to simply jettision my privilege, even if I wanted to. And that’s because it is a consensual dynamic. Others grant it to me, whether I ask for it or not. All I can do is to remain aware of where it operates invisibly, and not do those things that constantly rely on it. Thus, Hollertronix (again, one instance) could have chosen other modes of self-representation on their site/flyers.

Why is the opening page of their site consist of two Black guys? If you didn’t know the artists, you could be forgiven for thinking that those two guys are them. If it’s part of a marketing concept, it is an instance of appropriating Black bodies, images, etc. in order to make Hollertronix appear cool?, Black, ‘down’ with Black people? I don’t know. But the fact that this sort of practice is unending cannot but lead to a demand for a pedagogical strategy by which white people learn about their white privilege at an early age, so that it is not perpetuated. The slipperiness of white supremacy is that is everywhere and nowhere. In this sense, I take the risk of asserting that racism per se can be defined as one or a series of discrete acts. These acts can range from the 41 bullets fired into the body of Abner Louima, and James Byrd-whose feet were tied to the back of a pick-up truck as he was dragged, mutilated, and killed-to the everyday racist acts-shouted/whispered racial epithets, being unable to get a taxi, security officers following a Black person in a retail store, being mistaken for an employee, and the list is endless. In all of these acts there is racist intent

White supremacy is not only what is still called institutional racism, but the accretion, over hundreds of years (in the US), of juridical, social, political, domestic practices which, though not intentionally racist, position non-white people below white people. And that remains a simplification.

gone by dawn

May 6, 2007

After an absurdly long time, I’m emerging from a long period of writer’s block. My politically motivated polemical mode remains unchanged, and as James Brown once eloquently put it, “racism is like Henry Ford’s cars, there’s a new model every year”. There is good news: two recent Baltimore ‘club’ mix CDs have left the perimeter of that town. Morphius Urban, a ‘division’ of this independent label/distributor, have got a deal with Club Kingz Records. Longstanding Baltimore wax technician Rod Lee is behind this Club Kingz operation (sorry, no Web site for those folks yet) and the two CD releases are like a painless invasive procedure. The first is DJ Lil Jay’s Operation: Playtime. This 15 or 16 year old rips through 31 tracks like a viral contagion. There’s no doubt that the Baltimore sound has changed since the mid ‘90s, when the Unruly and Hardhead labels released one bomb after the next, nevertheless, its renegade spirit is alive and well.

The genius of B’more club music lies in the artists’ use of threadbare, worn out samples, the likes of which are akin to early Todd Terry records, and make them sound as if these folks invented the sampler. “Work It” by DJ Manny employs the nearly unusable snippet from LNR/ Thompson & Lenoir’s “Work it to the Bone”, the sine qua non of ‘classic’ Chicago house. If that sample had fallen to the bottom of the Mariana trench, the deepest part of the Atlantic ocean, I think DJ Manny got too close to the thing. He was permanently altered by the ghosts and memories that are now inside his echo, distortion, and reverb. He brings it back to Balto and, like Coleridge’s ancient mariner, is compelled to tell his story again and again. And he rocks with a fierce repetition—he cuts the sample open, allowing envious voyeurs a peek at something they barely understand. No way ‘round it. This track contains everything that makes Baltimore club an irreducibly Black musical genre. Sure, there are white people who’ve released monstrous jams on various labels in the Balto scene. As with hip-hop, there will, of course, be white artists in what emerged from the poor/working class young Black men’s sense of nobodiness. As Audre Lorde wrote: “we were never meant to survive”.

Baltimore music is a nearly perfect instance of how white supremacy functions in contemporary electronic music. I’d rather not ‘name names’. because that strategy only causes anger and resentment However, some will emerge lest this writing were to exist at different level of abstraction. Now that the minimalist ‘movement’ has become increasingly embraced by art institutions, not to mention journals such as Leonardo and Computer Music Journal, it’s clear that artists considered worthy of inclusion within the academy are often writers themselves, they make ‘IDM’, they are relatively radical in their sonic approach, and with the exception of Paul D. Miller, these artists are white men. Do you imagine that DJ Manny, or DJ Deeon, Michael ‘Swishahouse’ Watts will be seen within academic and art institutions in the US or Western Europe? Of course not. Yet, I would argue that the aforementioned artists have all make radically experimental music. Balto music has the freakish energy of a downed power line in a thunderstorm, and underground screwed & chopped mixes are radical contemporary electronic music.

It came as no surprise to see the Aryan-esque cover of the DE:9 record on NovaMute. Again, this is not intended as a personal attack, rather it’s an attempt to identify cultural artifacts, music in this case, that are symptoms of white supremacy. Because the genesis of house has been narrated ad nauseam, it’s crucial to see where and why Black pioneers are located within the terrain of electronic music. Who has been chosen, by some cluster of A&R people to become ‘stars’? The music industry moves at a tremendous speed, thus it is crucial to remain vigilant about how race functions within this somewhat incestuous sphere.

We could, instead, look at what electronic music is built only for the dancefloor, that which is relatively danceable, and finally, music never intended for any dancefloor. Baltimore club is a good example ‘floor only’ music, and , It will never just doesn’t make it into the sphere of post-structuralist discourse in the way that, say, Ryoji Ikeda does. Does this seem like a convoluted argument? I can make it simpler: Where are people of African descent located in the hierarchy of electronic music (excluding hip-hop—for now). Needless to say, this reveals the submerged discourse of cultural division, manifested often in the crude ‘high/low’ notion. Peter Stallybrass and the late Allon White wrote about the relation of high and low in the sphere of culture. More specifically, they argued that high culture relied completely on low, or popular, culture. This is not the place to tease out the complexity of their thought. It is necessary to consider how high and low culture operates in music discourse. My recent example: Ryoji Ikeda.

He dwells in the rarefied spaces in and between art and academic institutions. Quite simply, DJ Deeon remains in the neighborhood in Chicago where he grew up. His tremendous influence, though barely acknowledged, will not allow him access to the domain of curators of contemporary arts. The standard response: “Those curatorial & institutional figures are not racists, they would open their art spaces to anyone” This neo-liberal confusion indicates a blindness with regard to structured and structural white supremacy. In contemporary conservative and neo-liberal discourse, there is a disavowal of racism per se, which allows these people to continue doing the work of white supremacy without a twinge of guilt. I can assure you I am not a conspiracy theorist with regards to white supremacy. I can also tell you that once you become conscious of how an age-old, highly intelligent and fast moving system of downpression operates on a global scale, you will never be able to look at anything in the same way. But this is a positive state. It overturns a lot of the cultural moorings that allow you to sleep well at night, and exposes you to what Susan Sontage calls the night side of life, where shelter from violence of every kind is rarely guaranteed.

To repeat a frustrating mantra: techno and house were invented by Black people, and that music has had an influence impossible to fully grasp. Though some might argue that searching for origins is a search in vain because there aren’t any. However if you put forward the notion that virtually all electronic music began with Chicago and Detroit, then you will be met with the opposing notion: Steve Reich, John Cage, Luciano Berio, and other modern and postmodern musicians, are the ‘founders’ of electronic music.

The result of the latter claim is to move the genealogy of electronic music towards a discourse populated by white European men. Many observers and listeners came to 20th century ‘classical’ experimental electronic music through Marley Marl, DJ Pierre, and Marshall Jefferson. Their (and I don’t need to spell out their numbers) tendency is, often unconsciously, to turn towards the standard euro-american way of comprehending Black music: as either the condition of possibility or as the ‘vanishing mediator’.

What do I mean by this? Well, let’s take Rob Acid, as just one example. The condition of possibility for his music is the Black pioneers of house and techno. Suppose those founding moments of Black secret technology could have had little to no influence. If that were the case, Rob Acid wouldn’t exist as we know/don’t know him. The same can be said for innumerable DJs/producers/artists. A A simple acknowledgement of those artists who made one’s work possible remains rare. What drives this lack of respect, even disdain, is ahistorical thought, a load bearing pillar at the center of white supremacy and as American as apple pie.

Unfortunately, Paul Oakenfold’s name is bandied about everywhere, while Juan Atkins’ name is spoken only by the disciples (who know better).
Borrowing ‘vanishing mediator’ from Fredric Jameson, I think it is clear that, despite the hagiography and worship of Juan Atkins, he remains a vanishing mediator because he had to ‘perform’ his music making, then ‘disappear’ from the media in order that Paul Oakenfold become lionized. Atkins made possible Oakenfold’s rise to success. I’m sure this is not unclear to you. It is the closest I can get to articulating the centuries long power of white supremacy, it’s tactical skill which makes a few white men wealthy and loved.

At this point (if you’re still reading) I imagine some might point to the example of Eminem & Snoop Dog, perhaps ideas like ‘music is universal’ or ‘music doesn’t belong to to one race or culture’. The latter may be true in the experiencing of passive listening, but historically it’s dead wrong. Ask yourself how you came to be listening/dancing/making electronic music. I don’t think you would answer: Christian Marclay.

Historical acknowledgement of the labor (sometimes of love) of Black people is the first step towards defacing the edifice of white supremacy. Arthur Jafa suggests, in relation to Black people and cultural production, a material/treatment split. That’s a helpful idea here. It posits that the material that Black people work on/with, is white. Black people, for the most part, do not have a means of production, therefore treatment of that material allows Black people to treat that material in such a way that it can never again be recognized. Simply consider the inventor of saxophone. He could never have imagined what someone such as John Coltrane would do with that instrument.

DJ Pierre took hold of a Roland TB 303 in the bargain bin. That he did with it things that inventors of the box never intended led to a mammoth revolution of the music world, its effects reached far beyond the U.S.. Here we can say that the 303’s current ubiquity is an example of the irreducibly Black treatment of a ‘white’ instrument. That Roland box might well have faded into obscurity. It was a commercial disaster. Once again we see the almost mystical material/treatment split as one example of the Black sublime, so low you can’t get under it, so high you can’t get over it.