Moby, Black appropriation, and white electronics

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.

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  3. DUTTY ARTZ » Blog Archive » Audio Black Face Says:

    […] Moby’s work provides a different type of mediation however, from that of Allen Lomax and other archivists. While Lomax did indeed choose when and what to record, it is the really the technology of the recording apparatus, in Lomax’s case 1/8” tape, that provides the essential link between the original sound and the listener. Moby’s mediation, the loading of an entire song, a complete hymnal, into ProTools (or equivalent DAW) and violently puncturing it through editing is a different kind of act. I agree with departed ethnomusicologist and cultural historian Tim Haslett when he writes: […]

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