Angel of History-A Beginning

Why 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


One Response to “Angel of History-A Beginning”

  1. saynsumthn Says:

    Have you seen: Maafa21? Clips here:

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