Afrodiasporic Intimacy: Ab-Soul’s “Terrorist Threats” as “Vagabond Internationalism”

Posted: July 27, 2015 in Uncategorized
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514QhW+WJqL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_Enlisting the support of Detroit lyricist Danny Brown and LA-based female vocalist Jhene Aiko, L.A. rapper and Top Dawg Entertainment (TDE) figurehead Ab-Soul offers an anti-capitalist critique in “Terrorist Threats” that plays on new meanings of the African diaspora through a practice of what diaspora theorist Brent Hayes Edwards would call a “vagabond internationalism.” Such a practice balks at American hegemony and imagines a revolutionary coup of the capitalist state through diasporic identification with anti-colonial struggles abroad. Coined by Edwards, “vagabond internationalism” refers to a shifting black community that subsists outside of the labor force, or political economy, and which reframes our understanding of the ‘surplus population’ (made up of “vagabonds”) not as passive recipient’s of the labor force’s alms, but as a testament to “the powerful history of proletarian self-activity.”[1]

Through the lyrics and video performance of “Terrorist Threats,” Ab-Soul and company engage in a diasporic practice of “articulation”–that is, the connection across gaps of cultural difference through shared experience–by which he invokes the name and image of the Rastafarian emperor of Ethiopia Haile Selassie I to introduce the theme of personal agency, predicated on a rejection of the machinery of Western imperialism that runs through the track. Exhibiting a kind of “vagabond internationalism” in its own right, the song is premised on a “radical doubt” about the black male subject’s place in a capitalist system.

Furthermore, the video proffers what black British cultural critic Paul Gilroy calls a “politics of transfiguration”–“the basic desire to conjure up and enact the new modes of friendship, happiness, and solidarity that are consequent on overcoming of the racial oppression on which modernity and its antinomy of rational, western progress as excessive barbarity relied”[2]–in its photographic piecing together of documentary fragments evidencing urban blight, international terrorism, the puppetry of politicos, and the revolutionary zeal of Pan-Africanism.

Ab-soul’s “bad nationalism”[3] ultimately balks at white supremacy through a subversive subtext that challenges the racism inherent in the American political system. In a manner of diasporic exchange, he stakes a claim in his African heritage without aligning himself explicitly with any nation, creed, or dogma. In this way Ab-Soul’s video and lyrics, as indicated by the ironic title of the song, are a threat to the status quo. They are Ab-Soul’s way of playing off of the highly inflated and propagandistic rhetoric of the “War on Terror” in a manner that allows him to launch a figurative counter-terrorism. By way of black expressive culture, in the form of rap music, he rails against the evils of racial violence and, through the power of the written word, negotiates what Houston Baker calls the “economics of slavery.”[4]

In a word, “he ain’t gonna be nobody’s chattel.”

Ab-Soul’s music video for “Terrorist Threats” begins with a refrain sung by L.A. singer-songwriter Jhene Aiko, who offers a variation on an intro to the 1999 Jay-Z hit, “Jigga What, Jigga Who.” As commentators at rapgenius.com testify, Ab-Soul first establishes himself as one in lineage with the New York-bred rap mogul, self-proclaimed hustler, and an emperor of the hip-hop movement, Jay-Z, crooning the song’s hook while paying homage to the political heritage of the aforementioned emperor of Ethiopia who ruled between 1930 and 1974.

Considered by members of the Rastafari movement to be the second messiah who would usher in an age of peace, righteousness and prosperity, Haile Salassie was famous for his involvement in Ethiopia’s liberation from Italy during the Italo-Ethiopia crisis, his charter membership to the United Nations, his attempts at land reform, his support for the decolonization of Africa, and his involvement in the Organization of African Unity. With Haile Salassie as his figurative muse, Ab-Soul imagines the possibility of unifying America’s gangs in a plot to take over the military—a subtle jab at militarism in general and the military industrial complex in particular, which exploits the underprivileged and minority populations, and instrumentalizes human bodies to fight so-called wars for freedom.

Haile Selassie I

Haile Selassie I

In this way Ab-Soul summons the emperor’s memory to frame his critique of American society while hinting at political aspirations for Pan-African nationhood with the words, “Wish I could see out Haile Selassie’s eye.” It is through the lens of this proclaimed messiah that he begins his first verse, portraying images of a socio-economically depressed urbanscape. A kind of heterology,[5] the video collects images of the so-called “waste” or “excess” of capitalism with its unsettling documentary evidence of post-industrial urban decay and homelessness. In it, we see a Western cityscape worn down by an outsourced manufacturing industry and the subsequent street politics of drug-trade and gang violence—the result of political disenfranchisement and a racist infrastructure in “Babylon” where thugs (read: street-hustling drug runners and politicians alike), as Ab-Soul says in clever word play, just “babble on.”

A potential victim to involvement in such warfare, Ab-Soul plays on the stereotypes of black culture that he’s internalized as a result of “Mama’s” (read: America’s) claim that violence is in his blood. “But she don’t know what the fuck I been through,” he says, as he pinpoints in a spirit of anti-capitalist critique, the ways in which the African-American male negotiates the economics of slavery: “To creep through the back door, the typical black boy in the good old U-S-A / Before I pushed rhymes like weight, I used to wanna play for the NBA.” Signifying on the black male’s limited access to social mobility, Ab-Soul stakes his claim resolutely, like the black drifters of McKay’s Banjo, in the institution of music at America’s back door. In this vein, Ab-Soul later raps with revolutionary intent, “Pee on your PhD or your AA.”

Likening America to the disdained Babylon of the Rastafari, Ab-Soul claims his agency in this wasteland of failed welfare reform where the destitute sell water to make a buck. He does this through the power of Nommo (a West-African concept) which he uses to rise above a socioeconomic condition likened to chattel slavery—a common trope, as Gilroy makes clear, in rap’s anti-capitalist critique.

This leads to an iteration of the hook followed by Ab-Soul’s second verse, which is an inventory of his arsenal of marijuana strains, sacramental elements of the Rastafarian Movement that sees smoking weed as a spiritual practice, and the rapper’s weapons of choice in the “War on Terror.” Punning on the figurations of gunnery used to label the pot he smokes, Ab-Soul frames his revolutionary aspirations to “link up every gang” and reclaim the American government (read: “put out the White House lights today / We mobbin’ like the black KKK). His references to such strains meanwhile sacramentalize an open letter to President Barak Obama in which he simultaneously commends the President, as black male, for securing such a position of political power, while at the same time calling Mr. Obama’s bluff: “I know you just a puppet.”

The video meanwhile replays disturbing footage of the toppling World Trade Centers to the recitation of: “I see an image of Hitler in the picture / When the Twin Towers dropped.” A conspiratorial gesture, the line intimates a subtle critique of the ways in which the 9/11 attacks were used as propaganda to dupe America into supporting military conquests abroad as Ab-Soul raps: “Peep the concept / You’ve got progress, you’ve got congress / We protest in hopes they confess / Just proceed on your conquest.” In this, Ab-Soul calls the United States to account for the ways in which it wrought such destruction upon itself, if not at the same time suggesting that 9/11 could very well be an inside job.

Thus enters Detroit rapper Danny Brown who rails against the situation of homelessness and poverty in the United States. No stranger to post-industrial decay, he rationalizes, if not justifies, domestic drug-trafficking in light of a seemingly desperate socioeconomic situation at home where society’s most disenfranchised are not being provided for: “Cause I ain’t got shit but an EBT card from a fiend / That owe me and it’s in her daughter’s name / How the fuck is they pose to eat? / How the fuck am I pose to eat?”

Brown, following Ab-Soul’s lead, paints a lyrical picture of a depraved Babylon—seemingly hopeless—where a 400 year-old peculiar institutional legacy continues to manifest in a system of wage slavery (read: “global austerity economy”) with little to no governmental accountability to “the wretched of the earth.” Brown thus raps: “Got a nigga in the streets, no health care / Tryna slang weed just to put shoes on his feet / So fuck you, you don’t give a fuck about me / Can’t get a job if they drug test me / Got a nigga stressed depressed / Got a feeling in his chest / And the world’s stripped of happiness.”

The video meanwhile foregrounds the underlying message of revolt with images of an inverted American flag, the Washington Capital building, President Obama speaking in public, President Reagan (so often and righteously demonized in hip-hop performance), police brutality, and footage of the American military. The phrases “wake up” and “control system” flash across the screen at various points following the song’s midway point as kind of Orwellian injunction to become aware of the ways in which the media disciplines its viewers to view reality. Also interpolated throughout is the visage of Haile Salassie to whom the three rappers, as the “Powerful Trinity” his name represents, stand in salute with the chorus: “Wish I could see out Haile Selassie’ eye / Maybe my sovereignty would still be mine.”

Lastly, most striking is the repeated image of Ab-Soul burning one dollar bills, his ultimate claim on his own freedom, and a staunch inversion of the economics of slavery and commercial deportation that ushered in the capitalist era of modernity on the black backs of slaves.

In their joint proclamation, “I just wanna be free,” Ab-Soul and company both “[mock and deform] pretensions of a civilization that ‘had uprooted, enchained, transported, and transformed’ peoples of African descent ‘to labor under its laws, and yet lacked the spirit to tolerate them within its walls.’”[6]  Music, then, is the “only place where the black boys [and girl] stand—there is no other ‘plot,’ no other ground or foundation, whether nation or narrative, engine or economy, that contains them.”[7]

They seek only their own personal sovereignty without gavel, without fighting anyone else’s battle (particularly that of the U.S. military which would have those least-serviced by their country in service to their country), and without being reduced to commodity in a capitalist system that they successfully  evade, like the vagabonds of Claude McKay’s Banjo, through expressive culture. And Ab-Soul does this, to use Hayes Edwards words in reference to McKay’s text “without grounding [his vision] in any alternative universalism (an internationalism of the ‘human’ or an internationalism of the ‘proletariat,’ for instance). This is an internationalism of the defective: the unregistered, the undocumented, the untracked [and I would add homeless]—a [nationalism], as it were, of all the ‘Doubtful.’”[8] claude-mckey

Ab-Soul’s vagabond aesthetic of racial solidarity is a practice of diaspora that calls on the memory of an Ethiopian revolutionary to create a black American, or “Aframerican,” imaginary which translates across difference as a desire for personal sovereignty against the threat of racist dehumanization. He and his cohorts cannot position themselves in such a provocative stance without the aid of rap music which, to echo James Weldon Johnson’s take on ragtime, “possesses the vital spark, the power to appeal universally, without which any artistic production, no matter how approved its form may be, is dead.”[9]

Ab-Soul’s rapping is a diasporic practice, his way of reading the past of black internationalism to find “relations of ‘difference-within-unity’”[10]  that speak to present circumstances in a spirit of social critique. In saying this, I wish to stress, with Hayes Edwards, that discourses of black internationalism are not limited by class or reserved to black, elitist intelligentsia. This is evidenced by the force of black expressive culture’s hold on the public imagination, particularly today in our hip-hop infused global environment.

In many ways the contemporary rap artist, at least ones of Ab-Soul and company’s caliber, answer Johnson’s injunction to the “colored poet of the United States” to develop, without essentializing,

[a] form that is freer and larger than dialect, but which will still hold the racial flavor; a form expressing the imagery, the idioms, the peculiar turns of thought, and the distinctive humor and pathos, too, of the Negro, but which will also be capable of voicing the deepest and highest emotions and aspirations, and allow the widest range of subjects and the widest scope of treatment.[11]

It is my contention that Ab-Soul proffers us a glimpse of how this might look, feel, sound with his rap-inflected vernacular of cultural criticism and hip-hop ideology, or politics, of form that ultimately “sucks up the national spirit”of American democracy “from the soil and creates something artistic and original” by way of a transnational linkage with the revolutionary, black nationalist spirit of Haile Sallasie I.[12]

In The Wretched of the Earth the Martinique-born Algerian psychiatrist and member of the Algerian Liberation Front (ALF) Frantz Fanon stresses the importance of rooting the anti-colonial struggle for independence in the experience of society’s most underrepresented, giving particular emphasis to the inclusion of the lumpenproletariat in the rebellion.[13] By the same token, he warns that the revolution cannot be reduced to the unchecked spontaneity of revolutionary urges for the brutal reestablishment of nationhood, which has the adverse and ironic effect of turning into chauvinism—an “ultra-nationalism,” as Fanon calls it, that leads to territorialism, inter-tribal warfare, and a more deeply entrenched racism.[14]

He therefore upholds the role of the cultural worker, or what 20th century Marxist social philosopher  Antonio Gramsci dubbed the “organic intellectual,” to help provide a framework for social change that functions to enlighten the consciousness of the masses while staying true to deeply democratic principle of cooperation and socialist principle of redistribution.[15] The nationalist agenda therefore stays from transforming into a dictatorship, the native intellectual stays from turning into a mouthpiece for the colonial bourgeoisie, and the concept of nationhood stays from morphing into a new kind of colonial regime.

A humanist intellectual in his own right, Ab-Soul, and the Afrodiasporic wielders of Nommo (i.e. “the power of the word”) like him, speak from the perspective of the lumpen—the world’s so-called vagabonds and social outcasts who have been severed from ownership over the  means of production by a capitalist system geared specifically for the maintenance of a social order demarcated along lines of class, gender, and race—those identified as racially other (than white) constituting the lowest rungs of the socioeconomic world order.

To use Harlem Renaissance-era black intellectual Alain Locke’s words in reference to the “negro,” Ab-Soul is one of “America’s Troubadour’s”—a “songster of the western world”[16]—with the “utopian aspirations” of one deeply invested in both a “politics of fulfillment” and “transfiguration” inasmuch as he addresses social and political promises that have gone unfilled while implicating the black American struggle in the memory of Ethiopia’s anti-colonial revolution.

Using Ab-Soul’s “Terrorist Threats” as a case in point, hip-hop embodies a deep potential for intercultural exchange—an exercise of “black internationalism” that represents Robin Cohen’s notion of a “deterritorialized diaspora”: a concept of human dispersal, or movement, without a fixed adherence to the idea of exile from and return to an originary homeland, and which stresses how communities of identification develop across transnational boundaries. For his own purposes, Ab-Soul is engaging in a practice of “deterritorialized diaspora” in the context of the black Atlantic–a term used to refer to the formation of black communities on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean rooted/routed in transnational cultural ties as expressed, for example, in art and music.

c6e3a31400953999c030862e0f9b7a3aAs the foregoing discussion posits, hip-hop opens up space for the cultivation of critical consciousness imbued with a cosmopolitan sensibility that is rooted (or “routed”) in an aesthetics and politics of Afrodiasporic solidarity—a shared sense of belonging that signifies on the African diaspora as a kind of unity within difference (and vice versa) through music.

In the context of black America, diaspora signals an experience of dislocation associated with post-industrial urban decay deeply resonant with the anti-colonial struggles of black and, more generally, marginal peoples abroad. As American civil rights leaders Kwame Ture (né Stokely Carmichael) and Charles Hamilton argue, Black Power “means that black people see themselves as part of a new force, sometimes called the ‘Third World’; that we see our struggle as closely related to liberation struggles around the world. We must hook up with these struggles.”[17]

This entails understanding how colonialism operates in a supposedly “free world” such as America. Ab-Soul and a lineage of hip-hop’s rap practitioners with whom he stands convey such an understanding by way of the internationalist stance they embody, establishing cross-Atlantic ties with other diasporic populations.

[1] Brent Hayes Edwards, The Practice of Diaspora: Literature, Translation, and the Rise of Black Internationalism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), 14-15.

[2] Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993), 38.

[3] A term I take from Hayes Edwards that he uses to describe the political stance of the protagonist Ray in Claude McKay’s Banjo:  “‘the vagabond lover of life’” who “‘finds individuals and things to love in many places and not in any one nation’” (quoted in Hayes Edwards, 239). In this way, Hayes Edwards argues, “McKay insists on locating internationalism against the grain of nationalism without grounding it in any alternative universalism (an internationalism of the ‘human’ or an internationalism of the ‘proletariat,’ for instance). This is an internationalism of the defective: the unregistered, the undocumented, the untracked—an ab-nationalism, as it were, of all the ‘Doubtful’” (ibid.).

[4] According to black literary theorist Houston Baker, the trope “signifies the social system of the Old [American] South that determined what, how, and for whom goods were produced to satisfy human wants. As a function of the European slave trade, the economy of the Old South was an exploitative mode of production embodied in the plantation system and spirited by a myth of aristocratic patriarchalism. […] While the ‘economics of slavery’ promoted the dehumanizing plunder of African labor, it also produced a corollary southern mythology of the ruling class. The primary features of this mythology were ‘patriarchy’ and ‘economic paternalism.’” See Blues, Ideology and Afro American Literature: A Vernacular Theory (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1984), 26-27.

[5] The term designates a fascination with “waste” that black culture represents to the civilizing machine which looks down upon it as primitive (see Hayes Edwards, op. cit., 224).

[6] Quoted in Hayes Edwards, ibid., 240.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 239.

[9] James Weldon Johnson, “Preface,” The Book of American Negro Poetry (Book Jungle, 2008), 11.

[10] See Hayes Edwards, op. cit., 11.

[11] Johnson, op. cit., 32.

[12] To borrow Johnson’s terminology, ibid., 15.

[13] Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (New York: Grove Press, Inc., 1963), 129-31.

[14] Ibid., 156-58.

[15] Ibid., 180.

[16] Referenced in Paul Gilroy, “Troubadors, Warriors, and Diplomats,” in Darker than Blue: On the Moral Economies of Black Atlantic Culture (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2011), 120.

[17] Kwame Ture and Charles Hamilton, Black Power: The Politics of Liberation (New York: Vintage, 1992), xix.

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