Posts Tagged ‘Blackness’

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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Lamar’s self-proclaimed “film in three acts” is a “secular spiritual” which takes place on the streets of Compton, a neighborhood in South Central L.A. that is emblematic of the postindustrial urban space from which hip-hop, as a cultural movement and form of critical discourse, emerged. GKMC is a consummate new-school appropriation of an old-school hip-hop form: the narrative. A veritable hip-hop bildungsroman, it tells in twelve tracks the tale of a young man, who navigates the rugged territory of an urbanscape riddled with violence. Throughout Lamar engages in conversation with his own psyche to strategically remap the American landscape[1] and thereby offer insight into an experience specific to life in a postindustrial city.

Lamar’s is a confessional narrative that begins with the musty recording of male voices offering a prayer of supplication: “Lord God, I come to you a sinner and I humbly repent for my sins. I believe that Jesus is Lord. […] I receive Jesus to take control of my life and that I may live for him from this day forth. Thank you Lord Jesus for saving me with your precious blood. In Jesus name, Amen.” It is with this invocation of God’s mercy that Lamar tells “a true mothafuckin’ story” full of sexual intrigue (e.g., “Sherane, a.k.a. Master Splinter’s Daughter” and “Poetic Justice”); hedonist fantasy (e.g., “Backseat Freestyle”); criminal activity (“The Art of Peer Pressure” and “Money Trees”); teenage antics (“Swimming Pool [Drank]”); social commentary on the nature of L.A. gang violence (“Good Kid” and “m.A.A.d. City”); hood representin(g) (“Compton”); hip-hop bravado (“Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe”) and existential self-reflection (“Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst” and “Real”).

Songs that bear close attention within the scope of this blog series and in light of what they bring to bear on the stated topic are “Good Kid,” “m.A.A.d. City,” and “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst.” They are culled from the second half of the album, which, as the full, artist-verified annotations of the LP reveal at rapgenius.com—indispensable to the interpretive work I do below, where I sample insights offered through the website, and to which I am indebted for aiding me in deciphering some of Lamar’s more coded language and in establishing the LP’s narrative context—deals explicitly with the “secular spiritual” theme of self-realization and the difficulties of negotiating life in a violent culture.

The Good Kid in a Mad City

In “Good Kid” Lamar speaks to the sense of being trapped, bound in by gang violence on one side and police brutality on the other. The hood is a pressure cooker and suicide, the safety valve: “I got animosity building / It’s probably big as a building / Me jumping off the roof is me just playing it safe.” Alluding to the colors of the L.A. gangs, the Bloods and the Crips, as well as to police car strobe lights, he asks in the first verse: “But what am I supposed to do / When the topic is red or blue?” Lamar then recalls an instance of being jumped by some gang members:

Just a couple that look for trouble
And live in the street with rank
No better picture to paint than me walking from bible study
And called his homies because he had said he noticed my face
From a function that tooken place
They was wondering if I bang
Step on my neck and get blood on your Nike checks

Despite being trapped inside a figurative prison and against the temptation to kill himself or run away, he turns to hip-hop as a source of empowerment, claiming that one day these “homies” will “respect.”

If Lamar was jumped for being innocent in the previous account (verse one), then he is jumped for being guilty in the second (verse two) in which he describes an instance of being profiled by the police.  While recognizing the importance of police in light of the gang violence on the streets, he engages them in their contradictions:

I can never pick out the difference and grade a cop on the bill / Every time you clock in the morning, I feel you just want to kill / All my innocence while ignoring my purpose to persevere as a better person / I know you heard this and probably in fear / But what am I supposed to do with the blinking of red and blue / Flash from the top of your roof and your dog has to say woof / And you ask, “Lift up your shirt” cause you wonder if a tattoo / Of affiliation can make it a pleasure to put me through / Gang files, but that don’t matter because the matter is racial profile

Blinded by fear, the police cannot see past their own prejudice. As a result of their racism, Lamar’s body is objectified, automatically assumed to be branded with a mark of gang affiliation. In light of this, Lamar can’t “pick out the difference” between good or bad cop. And unlike the gang members who jumped him in the first verse, these officers will only ever see him as a “black thug” and “never respect the good kid, m.A.A.d. city.”

Rapping from the margins of a society tripped out on paranoid hallucinations that stem from an experience of being systematically dispossessed, Lamar concludes his rap by admitting “it’s entirely stressful upon my brain.” Quietly hoping for change, he confesses to the temptation of numbing the existential hurt with “grown-up candy for pain”: the oft-overused antidepressant Xanax and psilocybin “magic” (mu)shrooms. He then closes on a note of triumph: “The streets sure to release the worst side of my best / Don’t mind, cause now you ever in debt to good kid, m.A.A.d. city.”

This segues into a song of dramatic self-assertion, “m.A.A.d. City,” that recalls memories of witnessing brutal violence as a means of protesting gang lifestyle. The song is prefaced by the intro: “If Pirus and Crips all got along / They’d probably gun me down by the end of this song / Seem like the whole city go against me.”

He thus indicates to his listeners that the message he’s soon to deliver renders, or will render, him a common enemy of the Crips and the Bloods. In this way, he plays the role of scapegoat and an ironic sort of peacemaker. “Compton’s human sacrifice,” he reconciles differences by dint of his heroic willingness to refuse participation in gang life.

With the Schoolboy Q-intoned onomatopoeia of gunshot blasts, “YAWK! YAWK! YAWK!,” Lamar sets the tenor for a “trip down memory lane” with the help of guest rapper MC Eiht, who appropriates gang-speak in order to claim ownership of the city: “Man down / Where you from, nigga? / Fuck who you know, where you from, my nigga? / This m.a.a.d. city I run my nigga.”

From there Lamar narrates a story about riding down Rosecrans Avenue—one of the major through-streets of Compton and a signifier of gang territory, as well as the “memory lane” to which he refers in the first bar of the verse. Using his memory as his figurative vehicle for navigation, he takes his listener through a dystopian wasteland where pictures of a traumatic past pass by like scenery outside of car windows. He thus recalls witnessing “a light-skinned nigga with his brains blown out” at the tender age of nine. He also speaks to the death of his cousin in 1994 as the result of a broken truce between the Bloods and the Crips. Lamar admits that with “Pakistan on every porch,” the inhabitants of Compton adapt to crime by becoming criminals themselves: “Pickin’ up the fuckin’ pump / Pickin’ off you suckers, suck a dick or die a sucker punch.”

Lamar thus lives in a “dog-eat-dog” world caught up in a vicious cycle of violence and drug-trafficking. There is no peace, as Lamar says, “just pieces” (read guns) and disposable “bodies on top of bodies” about which those with political power could care less. Lamenting the government’s failure to provide assistance to disenfranchised urban communities such as Compton, Lamar raps: “They say the governor collect, all our taxes except / When we in traffic and tragic happens, that shit ain’t no threat / You movin’ backwards if you suggest that you sleep with a Tec / Go buy a chopper and have a doctor on speed dial, I guess / m.a.a.d. City.”

In saying that “You movin’ backwards” if you sleep with a Tec (read gun), Lamar is essentially offering the moral adage:  “He who lives by the sword (read gun), dies by the sword.”

MC Eiht intones the second verse, readying the listener for “some lessons about the street” that are specific to growing up in Compton: “It ain’t nothin’ but a Compton thang.” This leads to an account in which Lamar raps about being fired from a job as a result of succumbing to pressure from his peers to stage a robbery. He did so in a drug-induced haze wrought by smoking a blunt laced with cocaine that had him “foaming at the mouth.” MC Eiht further contextualizes the account with signifiers of hood-life and metonyms of hyper-masculine manhood—“IV’s” (i.e. handguns), “bird” (i.e. crack cocaine), “whip” (i.e. car) and “a strap in the hand” (i.e. handgun)—that call attention to the dangers of living life in Compton, and the ease with which one can slip into a criminal lifestyle: “The hood took me under so I follow the rules.”

In the final verse, Lamar challenges his audience with the question, “If I killed a nigga at the age of 16, would you believe me?” Implying that he is no innocent bystander to the violence he has heretofore described, Lamar poses the question as a means of absolving the sins of his past—of “mashing all my skeletons”—so that others may learn from his mistakes and thereby fulfill “dreams of being a lawyer or doctor / Instead of a boy with a chopper [i.e. gun] that hold the cul de sac [i.e. neighborhood or, more symbolically, a “dead-end” life] hostage.” By telling his story and thus confessing his sins, Lamar is making an agency claim and an expression of freedom to be a somebody where he was once a nobody.

As though the biblical prophet Jonah once swallowed by a whale before delivering his prophetic message to Nineveh, Lamar delivers his own message of sin and redemption live and direct from the “belly of the rough Compton, U.S.A.”  A self-proclaimed “Angel on Angel Dust,” Lamar is one who has gained a hard-earned wisdom through his experience; he is one who has learned what it means to live righteously by dint of his own flirtations with unrighteous behavior, and life as it’s lived on the streets of a “m.a.a.d. city.”

Lamar further explores the complexity of life on the streets in a two-part composition, “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst.” In the first verse of “Sing About Me,” Lamar takes on the persona of a Piru Blood gang member mourning the loss of his brother to a gunfight. Addressing Lamar as though a friend, he thanks the rapper for cradling his brother during his dying moments. In this way, Lamar enters empathically into the thug’s psyche as a means to reveal that even “thugs” have heart. Not only that, but they are acutely aware of their own predicament. A child of his environment, the gang member admits:

I’m behind on what’s really important
My mind is really distorted
I find nothing but trouble in my life
I’m fortunate you believe in a dream
This orphanage we call a ghetto is quite a routine

[…]
Everybody’s a victim in my eyes
When I ride it’s a murderous rhythm
And outside became pitch black
A demon glued to my back whispering, “Get em”
I got ‘em, and I ain’t give a fuck

A self-proclaimed “dumb nigga” who will never prosper, this thug diagnoses himself as a “problem child,” asserts his loyalty to his Piru crew in the absence of an actual family, and then asks Lamar to tell his story should he die before the album “drop.” By way of empathy, Lamar explores the psychology of ghetto fatalism (what Cornel West in Race Matters [1994] would call “black nihilism”), internalized racism, and gang violence to suggest that these social diseases are symptomatic of a deeper ill: the break-up of the community and the family in light of racialized oppression. Hence: “This orphanage we call a ghetto is quite routine.” In this kind of shiftless environment, membership in a gang provides access to group-identity in the absence of family. Even without family, however, love finds a way, as in the last bar of verse one in which the gangbanger confesses to Lamar: “I love you cause you love my brother like you did.”

In verse two Lamar adopts the persona of a female prostitute, who is upset with Lamar for rapping about her sister in “Keisha’s Song,” off of his first album, Section .80. Inspired  by Tupac Shakur’s “Brenda’s Got a Baby” off of 2Pacalypse Now, “Keisha’s Song” tells a story of a young prostitute who was raped and slain. The female subject of “Sing About Me” reproaches Lamar on the charge that he unfairly judged her slain sister on the Section .80 track. She then goes on to describe the lifestyle of a prostitute through her own eyes. In the same manner of self-awareness as that of the male gangbanger in the first verse, she tells Lamar:

This is the life of another girl damaged by the system
These foster homes, I run away and never do miss ‘em
See, my hormones just run away and if I can get ‘em back
To where they used to be then I’ll probably be in the denim
Of a family gene that show women how to be woman, or better yet a leader
You need her to learn something, then you probably need to beat her
That’s how I was taught

Three niggas in one room, first time I was tossed
And I’m exhausted

Having grown up an orphan who lost her virginity to three gangbangers, she longs for the chance to relive a childhood in a family situation free from the domestic abuse on which she was reared. Again, Lamar plays on the trope of family, suggesting that the “system”—i.e. the government or, perhaps, the welfare system—has been set up only to tear families apart. It signifies a social structure rendered ineffective in the lives of society’s most disenfranchised, in no small part due to their status as racial minorities, who have to hustle just to get by. The verse closes with her threat that Lamar better not make a song about her because there is no story to tell. She feels physically great and if Lamar wants to help her, then he should “sell her pussy.” Locked into a system of economic exchange based on the exploitation of her body and her sexuality, she fatalistically resigns herself to her lot as a sexual escort: “I’m on the grind for this cake.”

Lamar comes back into his own voice in the third verse to offer a “lesson before dying”[2] in which he speculates on his life’s purpose: to tell the aforementioned stories and others like them. Hip-hop is his reason for being alive and his most available resource for engaging with the reality of death and life on the streets. There is no time to sleep when there are lessons to learn and teach. Addressing the two subjects of the previous verses, he raps:

And you’re right, your brother was a brother to me
And your sister’s situation was the one that put me
In a direction to speak of something that’s realer than the TV screen
By any means, wasn’t trying to offend or come between
Her personal life, I was like “it need to be told
Cursing the life of 20 generations after her” so
Exactly what would have happened if I hadn’t continued rappin’
Or steady being distracted by money drugs and four
Fives, I count lives all on these songs
Look at the weak and cry, pray one day you’ll be strong
Fighting for your rights, even when you’re wrong
And hope that at least one of you sing about me when I’m gone
Now am I worth it?
Did I put enough work in?

These are existential questions par excellence, and they inform the underlying motivation for Lamar’s album: to make something worthy of his life through the cultural work of hip-hop. His work as a rap artist is a way not only to immortalize himself, but to affirm himself as a gifted storyteller who has something important to offer the world. Moreover, his “mighty powerful” tongue allows him to “fight for your rights, even when you’re wrong.” It also enables him to reorder reality and deconstruct the Debordian “spectacle” and thereby “speak of something that’s realer than the TV screen.” Indeed, it is his way of confronting reality, of no longer running from it by resorting to illicit activity.

On that note, “Sing About Me” transitions into “I’m Dying of Thirst,” which plays on the trope of spiritual dehydration that runs like a stream through the entire album. Implying that his community of peers is attempting to satisfy its desire for wealth and security in all the wrong ways, he asks:

What are we doing?
Who are we fooling?
Hell is hot, fire is proven
To burn for eternity, return of the student
That never learned how to live right just by how to shoot it
[…]
It’s no discussion, hereditary
All of my cousins
Dying of thirst
Dying of thirst
Dying of thirst

Lamar here equates the culture of violence to a figurative hell while also reminding his listeners that those who play with fire are sure to be burned. He also signifies on the hell of religious imagination to which all those who have not reconciled for their sins are banished for eternity. Those living a life of violence are thus doomed to a hell of their own making. Lamar then admits that violence is in his blood: “It’s no discussion, hereditary / All of my cousins / Dying of thirst.” A product of his environment like his cousins, he is just as liable as they are to a doomed fate.

The track ends with the voice of an older woman (played by Maya Angelou), who is taken to be one of Lamar’s neighbors. She rebukes him and his friends for carrying a handgun: “I know that’s not what I think that is! Why are you so angry?! You young men are dying of thirst! Do you know what that means? That means, you need water, holy water! You need to be baptized with the spirit of the Lord!” She then leads them in the same confessional prayer that opens the entire album, bringing GKMC to near close in the manner of a spiritual.

With this act of contrition, Lamar effectively achieves his transformation into realness, a sense of spiritual wholeness initiated by the figurative baptism he undergoes at the end of “I’m Tired of Running.” It is this re-birth that completes the narrative arc of the “short film” and leads him into “Real”—a testimony to the fact that love saves. Not, echoing music critic Jayson Greene, love of money, power, respect, or the block—as “none of that shit make me real”—but love of Self. That is the only kind of love which will satiate the hunger and quench the thirst that had him running aimlessly toward a doomed fate. It is a disarming love, one that can help the world take off the masks “we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.”[3] It is as though Lamar is positing to the human community the same message Baldwin proffers to his nephew in The Fire Next Time: “Well, you were born, here you came […]: to be loved. To be loved, baby, hard, at once, and forever, to strengthen you against the loveless world.”[4]

The song ends in a similar vein as Baldwin’s familial address with a recording of two separate voicemails—one from his father, one from his mother—that bring the narrative to a triumphant end. His father, offering his consolation to Lamar in light of his friend’s death by a bullet wound, exclaims: “Any nigga can kill a man, that don’t make you a real nigga. Real is responsibility. Real is taking care of your motherfucking family.” As for his mother’s sage wisdom: “If I don’t hear from you by tomorrow, I hope you come back and learn from your mistakes. Come back a man… Tell your story to these black and brown kids in Compton… When you do make it, give back with your words of encouragement. And that’s the best way to give back to your city. And I love you, Kendrick.” As Greene notes, Lamar foregrounds the themes of faith and family that not only tie the album’s songs together, but function as the “fraying tethers holding Lamar back from the chasm of gang violence that threatens to consume him.”[5] In the end, again sampling Greene, the album gives witness to Lamar’s love for his family[6] and serves as an achievement of what his mother encouraged him to do: give back.

The album closes with a tribute to his hood in, “Compton,” which begins with the triumphal bar: “Now everybody serenade the new faith of Kendrick Lamar.” A self-proclaimed philosopher-king, Lamar has transitioned from rags to royalty in attaining the riches of freedom understood as self-respect, self-realization, and self-consciousness. Lamar does so through the art of “secular spiritual” storytelling, so central to black expressive culture and a means by which he rapper/minister/street prophet engages the African-American struggle for existential and social freedom.

[1] Here, I am riffing on Kevin Young in his discussion of the spirituals in The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness (Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press, 2012), 81.

[2] A reference I make intentionally to a novel of similar import as Lamar’s LP: Ernest J. Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying (New York: Vintage, 1993).

[3] James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (New York: Dell, 1963), 128.

[4] Ibid., 17.

[5] Jayson Greene, review of good kid, m.A.A.d. City: A Short Film by Kendrick Lamar, by Kendrick Lamar, Pitchfork Media, October 23, 2012,  http://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/17253-good-kid-maad-city/ (accessed December 2012).

[6] Made more apparent by the album art, full of old family photos.

Erykah Badu, New Amerykah Part Two: Return of the Ankh, cover art by Emek, 2010.

Erykah Badu, New Amerykah Part Two: Return of the Ankh, cover art by Emek, 2010.

Against a luminescent violet backdrop resplendent with flowery, multi-colored foliage the mechanized bust of a misty-eyed Badu stares serenely at the viewer. A rich mixture of orange, blood red, deep purple, royal blue, and fuschia wildflowers , some of which resemble peacock feathers in shape and pattern, reach in full flourish toward a twilight sky arched by three crescent moons—two on the left-hand side of the portrait in wax; and one on the right-hand side in wane.  A closer look at the thick vegetation reveals a human fetus just beyond the android’s right shoulder.

Nestled inside of a yellow-orange wildflower in full bloom, the little human body gestates as if a bud awaiting its first blossom or a caterpillar on the verge of hatching its chrysalis. Beyond the robotic figure’s left shoulder lies a babe firmly planted in a purple flower blossom just after the word Return (of the album’s title). Above that is another baby wrapped in the pink leaves of a daffodil as if in swaddling clothes.

Beneath this other-worldly garden is a mound of random objects in miniature detail—an amalgam of fighter planes; a smashed TV with a cracked glass screen; a porcelain toilet bowl; space satellites; cell phones; a one-story house with the word “foreclosed” written across its side; chain links; a dollar sign; the Washington D.C. Capital building with the mythical “Eye of Horus” covering its dome; an open packet of cigarettes; sports utility vehicles; a Caduceus staff stuck inside (or rising from) a toilet bowl; a tea bag; a cheeseburger; power plants; bullets; and bombs—that together form what looks to be a massive trash heap of technological waste away from which the feminine android seems to be moving. Across the top of this dystopian landfill read the words of the album title in capitalized bubble lettering: A New Amerykah Part Two on the right-hand side of the forward-facing body; Return of the Ankh on its left.

Flanked by Japanese bonsai trees that rise up in the far background on each side of this metallic visage, the robot stands in juxtaposition to the mostly untainted natural environ that surrounds the quasi-human being’s silver form. The figure appears to be the singer herself, transformed into a machine as evidenced by the metallic blue and silver bolts, wires, and plates that constitute her humanesque head and shoulders. A neck ring, also called a “dzilla,” coils around her throat, ornamenting the figure with an air of wealth and status that is attributed to such accouterments by cultures indigenous to Africa including the South Ndebele peoples.[1]

A circular medallion with a triangle inside—a dual symbol of creation and eternity—is situated where the figure’s collar bone would be, and on either side of that are two silver medallions with heart-shaped ankhs engraved into them. Also known as the “key of life,” “the key of the Nile,” or crux ansanta (Latin for “cross with a handle”), the ankh is an ancient Egyptian hieroglyph that symbolizes eternal life.[2] The two ankhs depicted on each of the plates form the base of a trinity completed by a third ankh, tattooed on the curved back of the bronze-skinned, female body emerging  from the android’s open crown as though from a plant bed.

Taken together, the three ankhs form the points of an invisible triangle—a multivalent symbol of ascension, harmony, creativity, subjectivity, culmination and integration.[3] As figurative tattoos, the ankhs signify on what literary theorist Hortense Spillers calls the “hieroglyphics of the flesh”—a reference to the wounds such as lash marks, whipping scars, and brands inscribed on slave bodies that designated their subhuman status as objects of their white masters’ possession.[4] In terms of how Badu is performing them, they mark a reclamation of and ownership over her own black body—whether depicted as a goddess-birthing robot, or the goddess herself.

A classic depiction of the Egyptian symbol of the Ankh.

A classic depiction of the Egyptian symbol of the Ankh.

The arabesque branches of the sprouting figuration on the mythical Tree of Life to which this miniature, goddess-like figure clings spiral upwards, forming letters that spell out the singer’s full name. The small human figure meanwhile gives a sidelong glance over the smooth contours of her left shoulder, naked like her backside and the partially revealed front of her upper torso. A lush, light green bed of shrubs blanket her lower torso. The figure holds a tuning fork in her left hand, its glitter as golden as the royal wig she dons to compliment the sharp features of her face. It is an evocative stance, indicative of one who holds the power to instill harmony and balance in the universe as intimated by the two-pronged instrument she wields which, when struck, sends out a vibratory frequency that ripples like the circular vortex hovering just above the tree as if waves caused by a pebble thrown into a still pond.

As a whole, the portrait is an evocation of a new beginning, made plain not only by dint of the album title, but by the symbolism the cover art portrays. It pictures an “outer space” landscape fashioned as a kind of utopia.  At once futuristic and seemingly “pre-civilized,” the world pictured here is mythic—a kind of virgin forest untouched by the rapaciousness of modern “progress,” signified by the landfill behind these two figures.

A symbol of a failed American Dream, the trash heap equates the project of modernity—built on the black backs of slaves—to nothing more than a pile of compost that functions as fertilizer for the evolution of a new epoch. Indeed, the portraiture announces a new era of earth-consciousness, ushered in with the dawn of the divine feminine as symbolized by the brown-skinned goddess that emerges from the robot’s head like Athena from the crown of Zeus. In this way, Badu signifies on Ancient Greek mythology, appropriating a tradition associated with the dawn of Western civilization through a black feminist lens that culls from Ancient Egyptian symbolism to reroute (read:  “re-root”) modern history in a far more ancient and black past.

Athena emerging from the head of Zeus. Image from Username or e-mail:  Password:  CREATE NEW ACCOUNTFORGOT YOUR PASSWORD? D'Aulaires Book of Greek Myths. See: http://www.indiebound.org/book/9780385015837?aff=annieandaunt

Athena emerging from the head of Zeus.  Image from D’Aulaires Book of Greek Myths.

In so doing, Badu not only rewrites a dominant western narrative of origins in Greek civilization, but refigures a mythological tradition so as to position herself as a goddess in her own right, embodying the virtues of “wisdom, courage, inspiration, civilization, law and justice, just warfare, mathematics, strength, strategy, the arts, crafts, and skill” that the classical Pallas Athena represents.[5] Moreover, she inverts the paradigm of Father God by playing the role of Zeus. That is, if we take this manifestation of herself as android to represent an albeit dehumanized, though strikingly human, embodiment of the female sex—of Badu herself. Taking this to be the case, Badu further queers an already queer mythological figure and professes a kind of faith in the cult of divine motherhood in which the creator is “Mother of all (wo)men” rather than simply “Father of all men.”

Granted it is difficult to escape the fact that this version of herself is a post-human machine. Yet, what is significant in the way of its giving birth to a fully formed woman, who herself is a kind of super-human figure, is the fact that it humanizes what could easily be mistaken for a mere android. In this way Badu signifies on the dehumanizing forces of technological advancement and a global political economy that has reduced the human subject to an object of labor, a mere cog in the capitalist machinery of modern civilization, and no more or less than the commodities produced for mass consumption within capitalism’s austere system of wage slavery.

Against this, Badu works to humanize the technologies that have reduced her to the status of object, personifying the machine that even she, as socially peripheral artist who in many ways exists outside of the labor force, is subject to becoming. In the vein of an Afrofuturist she appropriates images of technology and a “prosthetically enhanced future” and reclaims her own humanity in the process. She therefore posits a “uni-versal humanity” on the cyborg landscape of “spaceship earth” in the midst of the devastation wrought by the forces of a global “austerity economy” that runs the capitalist machine.

Moreover, in this portrayal of herself as android, Badu critiques the idea of prosthetics bettering humanity insofar as it exists “alongside a dystopic notion of prosthetics as dehumanizing [in the way it] replaces people and/or reduces them to a single mechanized labor function.”[6] To echo cultural critic Bershini Bhana Young’s assessment of graphic arts/writer John Jenning’s 2009 series Matterz of Fact, Badu, by way of Emek, “insist[s] on tempering our celebration of the cyborg and the prosthetic,” issuing a “quiet warning lest we embrace the cyborg too easily without careful attention to its historical context” as a flesh-consuming machine that turns persons into commodities, life into death. [7]

From John Jennings' Matterz of Fact series

From John Jennings’ Matterz of Fact series, 2009. For an engaging write-up on Jennings’ work, visit: http://www.buffalo.edu/home/feature_story/black-comix.html.

As Young says of Jennings’ images, the picture of Badu as machine shows that

disembodiment and/or hyperembodiment, in fact, is not an escape from the traumatic consequences of race. Rather the monstrosity of the cyborg draws our attention to the monstrosity of the master as he forcibly removed blacks form categories of the human and converted them into prosthetic devices.[8]

By taking ownership of the figurative machine and giving fleshy, human features to the cyborg, Badu vivifies it and the technological landscape it inhabits with new life that emerges like the black Athenian goddess from the forehead of this “new human.” Badu thus attempts to “conjure up a different kind of world that re-focuses our attention on the intimate encounters between capitalism’s violence, artistic world-making, technology and the (black) body.”[9]

The vision she creates of the future, then, is no longer a machinery of civilization, but a humanity of civilization. What we have, echoing cultural critic Griffith Rollefson, is the “tactical recovery of the black soul” that foregrounds—literally, in terms of Badu’s album art—black subjectivity in reimagining history with the mythic dimensions of an African past.  Badu thereby puts a black face not on the technological catastrophes of modern progress but on the actual redemption of the human race through and in spite of technoculture itself.

Indeed, insofar as the android represents a variation on her own black, female body, Badu’s human figure breathes life into the machine in a way that infuses technology with black power and black female “being-hood.”

As evidenced by the tuning fork that the mini-goddess clasps, the force with which Badu aims to accomplish this task of regeneration is that of music, a labor of love and an expression of the very lifeforce responsible for the overwhelming fertility of this “New Amerykah” pictured on the cover.

Shorthand for “I am Erykah” as well as a pun on the word, “America,” the term signifies her struggle to reconcile with the American Dream-cum-nightmare, as Black Power figurehead Malcom X would have it, and be wary of its many false promises of security and success. A self-described “bundle of light energy,” according to her liner notes for Part Two, Badu considers herself “a spiritual being first, man or woman second, Black or White 3rd, Jew or Gentile 4th, and pretty or ugly 5th.”[10]

Erykah_Badu_-_New_Amerykah part 1

Erykah Badu, New Amerykah Part One (4th World War), cover art by Emek, 2008.

It is from this queer positionality, simultaneously located between and on both sides of various binaries (of gender, phenotype, race, religion and appearance), that Badu the artist sings herself into a new existence as a figure of enlightenment, master teacher, goddess and soldier alike—engaged in the long, hard struggle to “stay woke” through the healing power of “fire, dance, sex, music, hip hop.”[11]

It is also from this intersubjective stance that Badu offers her “oppositional gaze,” to recall the words of black feminist bell hooks, by which she finds power in looking and thereby reclaims the right to gaze that has been historically denied black people in the “politics of slavery.”[12] The black Athena’s “sidelong glance” [13] meanwhile embellishes this defiant “looking back,” making of the album art and the “other-world” it portrays a site of resistance, a space of agency wherein the singer can construct her presence through bodily performance. By making visible a so often invisible presence in the “scopic regime” of white patriarchal society, Badu inverts a paradigm of “phallocentric spectatorship where the woman to be looked at and desired is ‘white.’”[14]

She therefore upends the threat of erasure by acknowledging her own black womanhood through a defiant gaze, and “sidelong glance,” that functions to interrogate the viewer’s return gaze, calling him or her to question their assumptions with regard to what the black female body signifies in the context of a “New Amerykah.” As hooks writes, “Looking and look back, black women involve ourselves in a process whereby we see our history as counter-memory using it as a way to know the present and invent the future.”[15]

There is little question that Badu is engaged in this very practice of “counter-memory” by looking back at the objectifying stare that has reduced her, as black woman, to the status of the “abject”—the invisible presence, the horrifying corporeality of blackness[16]–on account of her doubly-layered alterity (read: “otherness”) as both black and woman. Hers is the depiction of a black female body free of the discipline and punishment wrought on black female bodies according to dominant ideals of beauty as white and feminine. In this way, she breaks free from the dehumanizing glare of whiteness by returning the gaze as both android and sidelong glancing goddess.

In using her own flesh—whether as humanized cyborg or super-human black goddess—as a site of protest to authenticate an embodied expression of black female subjectivity, Badu accomplishes a task that black feminist and conceptual artist Lorraine O’Grady commissions the cultural worker to take up in her work: (re)inscribing the black, female body with new meaning and purpose in order to liberate it from the colonizing  claims of patriarchy and racism on its freedom as a “place” of agency, autonomy, and movement.[17] Badu in this way engages in an act of deconstruction. By making her body a matter of public display, Badu casts a critical eye on a society that has historically exploited the black body as a means to define racial difference and, ultimately, racial (read: black) inferiority.

Cultural critic Lisa Gail Collins does well to unpack this historical reality in her investigation of the “Hottentot Venus”[18]—a derogatory term that references the exploitative use of South African-born American slave Saartjie Baartman’s body by 19th century French zoologist George Cuvier as evidence of difference between the white and black races. Like the African-American women Collins uplifts in her assessment of artistic confrontation with the denigration of Baartman’s rotund body—at once contained, observed, dissected and labeled in a manner of both “scientific” exploration and pornographic entertainment—Badu resituates and recontexualizes the “Hottentot Venus” as a signifier of radical insubordination of, versus subjection to, the white supremacist logic of racial superiority.

Illustration of Baartman from Illustrations de Histoire naturelle des mammifères

Illustration of Baartman from Illustrations de Histoire naturelle des mammifères

Badu does so by placing herself in the position of Baartman, personifying not only a black variation on the Greek goddess Athena, but a 21st century black Venus through the visual medium of Emek’s poster art—a kind of portraiture in its own right by which she asserts black, female individuality despite threats of its erasure by “representational colonialism.”[19] A term coined by cultural critic Brian Wallis, “representational colonialism” references the white supremacist gaze to which the black, female body has been held captive in a history of sexual exploitation that is typified by the 19th century phenomenon of slave photography.

Exercised as a way to type and order bodies according to a hierarchy of being in which the Caucasian body—representing the classical Greek ideal of beauty set forth by Enlightenment era art historian Johann Joachim Winkelmann[20]–slave photography made use of pictures, originally called “daguerreotypes,” to demarcate the races and generalize the racialized “other” according to features that became associated with inferiority. In this, the myth of white superiority was established as an essentially historical fact through the semblance of realism that photographs portray.[21]

In protest to this, Badu positions her own body as part of a visual “counter memory” that functions to create a new future predicated on black self-love, which the album’s various songs, as testimonies to the trials of human relationship, vivify. Indeed, love is Badu’s ultimate “language of redress.” As heart-shaped-ankh-bearing harbinger of a “New Amerykah,” the singer embodies a Utopian longing for justice that seeks to repair present social ills—signified by the trash heap with its various emblems of a defunct social system such as those of warfare (fighter planes, bombs and bullets) and government corruption, symbolized by the Capital building with the mythical “Eye of Horus” inscribed into its dome.

Recognized as the “Great Seal of the United States” used to authenticate government documents, and also found on the reverse of the one-dollar bill, the ancient Egyptian symbol of protection, royal power and good health was appropriated by the founding fathers as a stamp of approval for, and blessing of prosperity on, the formation of the United States as though divinely mandated.[22] It has since become known as the “Eye of Providence” and is linked by way of conspiracy theory to the “Illuminati”—a sectarian group with supposed historical ties to the Bavarian Illumaniti, an Enlightenment-Era secret society aimed at opposing superstition, prejudice against women, and abuses of state power.[23] In the contemporary context, it has, however, come to refer to something more insidious in intent: a secret organization aimed at masterminding a New World Order by planting covert agents in government and big business.[24]

The mythical Eye of Providence as inscribed in the U.S. dollar bill.

The mythical Eye of Providence as inscribed into the U.S. dollar bill.

It is as a symbol of such corruption that the “Eye of Horus” is being deployed in Badu’s album art, inverted here as an indication of government failure, which is further illustrated by the mound of images that surround the “evil eye.” Taken together, these pieces of figurative garbage evoke a sense of social decay attendant to a global “austerity economy,” signified by the dollar sign, that has resulted in the disease (read: dis-ease) of society’s general welfare—emblematized by the image of a caduceus stuck inside of a toilet bowl, that porcelain receptacle for human waste.

A staff entwined with two serpents and bearing a pair of wings at the top, the caduceus was carried by Hermes (Mercury) as messenger of the gods according to Greek mythology.[25] It has come to symbolize the medical profession and signals both healing and transformation.[26] As pictured in the techno-trash heap on the album’s cover, however, the ancient symbol has lost its power to an historical present of racialized oppression as it manifests in failed welfare reform, unjust war, post-industrial urban decay, unemployment, drug violence, the cooptation of government by corporate interests (the “almighty dollar” inscribed as it is with the “Eye of Horus”), the militarization of urban space, and the prison industrial complex.

What Badu offers in this despairing portrait is the possibility of redemption through love, signifying on the “now-time” of a contemporary America in shambles and making of this decay fertile soil ripe for the nourishment of fresh fruit. In this way, she arrests the “fierce urgency” of the present moment in a hopeful nod toward the future rich with erotic lifeforce, signified by the babes—and the flowers that cradle them—in full bloom. As the heart-shaped ankhs indicate, love will save the day, restoring the “Eye of Horus” to its original meaning as the eye of Ra, Egyptian God of the Sun, and reinscribing the caduceus as a triumphal and emergent symbol of resurrection from the feces of modernity.

The Eye of Horus

The Eye of Horus

This trope of resurrection is made more explicit in the figure of Badu as black goddess—at once Athena, Venus, Phoenix, and Wadjet. The personification of the “Eye of Horus (Ra),” the goddess Wadjet, whose name translates to “the green one” and, according to some derivations, “the risen one,” is an early Egyptian deity of protection.[27] By way of such associations, Badu the artist, particularly as depicted by Emek, embodies a “mythic consciousness” that signifies on themes of rebirth and regeneration not only tied to Egyptology, but to Christianity as well. In many ways, she is the female Christ who died (and rose), according to Christian myth, for the sake of ushering in an era of “uni-versal humanity.” As Christ, her eschatology—that is, her theology concerning the future state of the world—is a fully realized one of hope for things to come as they take shape in the present moment, even if it is one of seeming decay. Her Afrofuture thus finds its telos (read: its fulfillment) embodied in and through “uni-versal” love.

This is especially the case if we read her emerging body to be an Afrofuturist variation on Isis, the ankh-bearing Egyptian goddess who was worshipped as the ideal personification of motherhood, magic and fertility, and who was seen as the companion of slaves, sinners, artists, the disenfranchised, aristocrats and rulers alike.[28] Isis was also responsible for resuscitating her husband Osiris (whom Badu also represents as symbol of resurrection) after he was torn to pieces in a battle with his brother Set, Egyptian god of disorder and violence that the old America signifies.[29]

In this proliferation of alter egos that Emek’s depictions of Badu on the album cover open up, we have what Alexander G. Weheliye would call a “surplus of signification” that is imbued with critical aesthetic power.[30] Asserting a “crowd of synthetic subjects”[31] within and by this artistic portrayal of her own black being, Badu signifies on W.E.B. Du Bois’s conception of double-consciousness, layering it with multiple meanings in light of the various allusions she makes to mythic figures of the “pre-modern” past.

For Badu, the critical aesthetic power she assumes in this tricksteresque “surplus of signification”—reminiscent of the shapeshifting capacity found in the West African trickster God, Esu-Elegbara—is that of dreaming a “New Amerykah” into existence, one that reinvests the future toward the interests of a radical black subjectivity.[32]

In her evocative exploration of Erykah Badu’s “post-soul sensibility,” cultural critic Marlo David notes that the singer does well to mediate the tensions between R&B’s humanist concern for professing black subjectivity and the strategic rejection of blackness as a “unitary subject position” in “post-soul” or “post-black” aesthetic through her Afrofuturist gestures.[33] Speaking of Afrofuturist thought as a “reconciliation between an imagined disembodied, identity-free future and the embodied identity-specific past and present” useful in expressing a “radical black subjectivity,” David notes that Badu works toward a similar aim.[34]

That is, Badu casts a “backward glance” into the “imagined spaces inhabited by precolonial African spirituality” redolent with Egyptian symbolism and “Nile Valley mysticism,” while looking forward with “allusions to space travel [which] give birth to an unashamedly hybrid, self-created version of black humanity” resonant with “Civil Rights and black nationalist era values that were integral to ‘soul’ music.”[35]

As the foregoing analysis attests, the same can be said of Emek’s album art for Badu’s New Amerykah Part Two. Through it, Badu performs a self-image that articulates an Afrofuturist “language of redress” in the cover’s simultaneous allusions to a pre-modern African past and a post-modern American present—all with an eye, a glance, a gaze toward the future. In this, Badu’s body functions as a site of Afrofuturist signification as she dons the form of an “Afro-centric New Age Goddess.”[36]

As such, she deploys Afrofuturism to check the “destructive capacity of America’s technological rationality” through “mystic, natural forces” contained in the symbolism of the ankh.[37] It is with this ankh inscribed into her body as a “hieroglyphics of the flesh” that she unlocks the key to a future oriented toward justice, offering us a vision of tomorrow that makes of today a hopeful moment in the “now-time” of the Afropresent, evolving toward the future under the soft glow of modernity’s waxing moon.

[1] See “Neck Ring,” in Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia, (Wikimedia Foundation Inc., updated March 26, 2014) [encyclopedia online], accessed July 19, 2014, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neck_ring.

[2] See “Ankh,” in ibid. (updated and accessed July 19, 2014), http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ankh.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Referenced in Huey Copeland, Bound to Appear: Art, Slavery, and the Site of Blackness in Multicultural America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 50.

[5] See “Athena,” in Wikipedia: The Free Encylcopedia, op. cit. (updated July 18, 2014) accessed July 19, 2014, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Athena.

[6] See Hershini Bhana Young, “21st Century Aliens: The Rise of the See-J,” (unnumbered, unpublished paper).

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Erykah Badu, New Amerykah Part Two Return of the Ankh, CD, Motown, 2010.

[11] See lyrics to “The Healer,” New Amerykah Part One (4th World War), CD, Motown, 2008.

[12] See bell hooks, “The Oppositional Gaze,” in Black Looks: Race and Representation (Boston: South End Press, 1992), 115.

[13] See Krista Thompson, “A Sidelong Glance: The Practice of African Diasporic Art History in the United States,” CAA Journal (2011).

[14] hooks, op. cit., 118.

[15] Ibid., 131.

[16] See Nicole Fleetwood, “Colorism, Vision, and the Dark Female Body,” in Troubling Vision: Performance, Visuality, and Blackness (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011),  90, 94.

[17] See Lorraine O’Grady, “Olympia’s Maid: Reclaiming Black Female Subjectivity,” Afterimage 2 (1992): 1-23. The full version of “Olympia’s Maid” has since been anthologized several times, most recently in Amelia Jones’s  The Feminism and Visual Culture Reader, publ. Routledge. Those wishing to read the article in full may also download it from the WRITING section of O’Grady’s website: http://www.lorraineogrady.com.

[18] See Lisa Gail Collins, “Historical Retrievals: Confronting Visual Evidence and the Imaging of Truth,” In The Art of History: African American Women Artists Engage the Past (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2002): 12-36.

[19] See Brian Wallis, “Black Bodies, White Science: Louis Agassiz’s Slave Daguerreotypes,” American Art 9, no. 2 (Summer, 1995): 54.

[20] See ibid., 52.

[21] See ibid., 48. According to Wallis, author Roland Barthes calls this the “reality effect.”

[22] See “Eye of Horus,” in Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia (updated July 7, 2014), accessed July 19, 2014, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eye_of_horus.

[23] See “Illuminati,” in ibid., (updated July 8, 2014), accessed July 19, 2014, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Illuminati.

[24] Ibid.

[25] See “Caduceus,” in ibid., (updated July 3, 2014), accessed July 19, 2014, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caduceus.

[26] Ibid.

[27] See “Wadjet,” in ibid., (updated December 28, 2013), accessed July 19, 2014, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wadjet.

[28] R.E Witt, Isis in the Ancient World (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), 7.

[29] See “Isis,” in Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia, op. cit., (updated July 19, 2014), accessed July 19, 2014, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isis.

[30] Quoted in J. Griffith Rollefson, “The ‘Robot Voodoo Power’ Thesis: Afrofuturism and Anti-Anti-Essentialism from Sun Ra to Kool Keith,” in “Becoming: Blackness and the Musical Imagination,” Black Music Research Journal 28, no. 1 (Spring 2008): 89. Cf. Alexander Weheliye, “‘I am I be’: The Subject of Sonic Afro-modernity,” Boundary 2, vol. 30, no. 2 (2003): 111.

[31] Riffing on Afrofuturist scholar Kodwo Eshun, quoted in Rollefson, ibid.,89. Cf. Kodwo Eshun, More Brilliant than the Sun: Adventures in Sonic Fiction (London: Quartet, 1998), 27.

[32] Riffing on Marlo David, “Afrofuturism and Post-Soul Possibility in Black Popular Music,” in “Post-Soul Aesthetic,” African American Review 41, no. 4, (Winter, 2007): 697.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid., 697-98.

[36] Ibid., 700.

[37] Riffing on black Atlantic theorist Paul Gilroy in his discussion of P-Funk’s Afrofuturism, quoted in Rollefson, op. cit., 92. Cf. Paul Gilroy, ‘There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack’: The Cultural Politics of Race and Nation (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1987), 180.

In its attempts to engage the past while looking toward the future, Afrofuturism is part and parcel of what art historian and cultural critic Huey Copeland calls a “rhetoric of redress”–a concept to which he refers in his close reading of such works as African-American artist Fred Wilson’s Mining the Museum (1992).

In Part 2 of this blog series on the ways in which an Afrofuturist “rhetoric of redress” factors into neo-soul singer Erykah Badu’s album art for Return of the Ankh (2010), I summarize Copeland’s interpretation of Wilson’s exhibition, which sees Mining… as an act of reparation aimed at healing the social ill of racism. In this, I hope to explain further what Copeland’s “rhetoric of redress” entails as a form social activism geared toward healing the wounds of historical trauma associated with the (neo)colonial subjugation of bodies rendered “other” according to a web of racist, classicist, sexist, nationalist, and homophobic notions of personhood that lie at the heart of the formation of the modern nation-state.

Fred Wilson’s Mining the Museum: Reclaiming Black History in Institutional Space

Fred Wilson

Fred Wilson

An exhibition which displayed prized objects housed in the annals of the Maryland Historical Society (MHS), Wilson’s Mining functioned to critique the use of the museum, broadly speaking, as an institutional space which disciplines its attendants to view what is on display according to its own logic. Along the lines of Wilson’s critique, the museum, as a cultural institution, essentially freezes cultural formation–or the development of cultural traditions–in time and space.

In so doing, it creates a distance, or imagined border, between the museum as a community resource and the ongoing cultural dynamics of the community it supposedly serves.

The museum is meant to be a tool for engaging, or “mining,” history for a deeper understanding of one’s present context and the past which shapes it. According to institutional critique, however,  it often fails to include history’s untold narratives in the ways it frames its exhibitions. In so doing, the community it serves cannot claim a sense of ownership, that is, “mine,” the history being represented. Put another way, the museum occasionally misrepresents the community/ies it is meant to represent. This is particularly the case in terms of histories that relate to the experiences of those on society’s margins–those whose histories have been silenced by the various displacements of European-American colonialism, which manifests in the contemporary moment as global capitalism.

Predicated on subjugating the racialized other–be it in Haiti or America–capitalism operates through a system of wage slavery structured to maximize business profits by way of cheap, outsourced labor exported  to the  so-called “Third World” and a concomitant process of de-industrialization, or the replacement of the manufacturing with a service sector, in the so-called “Developed World.”

In the failure to adequately represent the narratives of those excluded from ownership over the means of production, the museum, generally speaking, meanwhile perpetuates colonial power-relations as they exist between the oppressor and the oppressed–that is, those who have historically held a monopoly on political power and those who have been castigated as abject, or “wretched,” to use Frantz Fanon’s terms. The latter are those who are subjected to White hegemony, or the consolidation of power into the hands of a white “ruling elite,” through an economic system rooted in class- and race-based prejudices that place the non-White Other at the lowest rungs of the socioeconomic ladder.

The museum, which can function as a means of White self-preservation, or the preservation of “White culture” over and against the non-White Other, creates “hierarchical modes of seeing, framing and memorializing the [cultural] other.”[1] In other words, the museum operates as a kind of “scopic regime.” A term coined by film theorist Christian Metz, the notion of “scopic regime” refers to the “power of looking […] to assess, surveil, and represent the visual world.”[2] As black cultural theorist Nicole Fleetwood writes, “Scopic regime more broadly theorized gets deployed to describe the use of vision and visual technologies in a given historical or cultural context to maintain power relations.”[3]

The Maryland Historical Society (MHS) Library

The Maryland Historical Society (MHS) Library

In this regard, the museum, generally speaking, acts as a kind of “scopic regime” insofar as it implicitly tells its viewers what to see and how to see it, assuming authority for determining a rather static and fixed conception of culture, frozen on display, while excluding other cultural narratives viable for representation that exist outside of the museum’s institutional and colonizing gaze.

Against this threat of cultural stasis and the exclusion of under-represented populations, such as those in the African-American community, from the museum space, Wilson’s Mining the Museum reclaims (i.e. “mines”) the cultural institution that is the museum for the purposes of disclosing the unheard narrative of African and Native American subjugation that is the often ignored shadow-side of the American democratic project–contextualized, in the case of Mining, by Baltimore City’s history of race antagonism that is deeply embedded in the formation of the Maryland Historical Society (MHS) under the whims of its primarily “white male board” [4].

Playing on MHS’s exclusion of subaltern narratives from the collection of cultural artifacts it houses, Wilson reordered the space in a way that brought history’s shadow to light. He did so by “mining” the museum’s collection to recover those objects which give visual testimony to the violence of slavery and white domination as it exists in the history of a once slave-holding state, Maryland. In this way, Wilson’s Mining worked to bring consciousness of race relations (read: race differences) to the fore through a re-staging of local history using artifacts of the local culture, artifacts that the museum itself owned, rife with the terrific memory of slavery.

Metalwork 1793-1880

“Metalwork 1793-1880,” Fred Wilson, 1992. A set of shackles is placed inside a glass case displaying silver objects and prized possessions of the landed nobility whom American slave served.

In this, Wilson played, or signified, on the concept of the museum as a “scopic regime” by guiding his audience to see the installation as a counter-narrative to a history of racialized oppression in which MHS itself played a part by its failure to account for the untold histories of slave society, abolition, and colonization to which its collection, as Elisabeth Ginsberg notes, implicitly refers. To do so, Wilson introduced the exhibit with a televised recording of himself on a TV monitor, flanked with black nationalist flags, by which he familiarized viewers with the story being told inside the museum.[5]

Cabinet Making 1920-1960

“Cabinet Making 1920-1960,” Fred Wilson, 1992

He meanwhile situated the museum’s collection in such a way as to to implicate it in a history of slave capture and punishment. “Cabinetmaking, 1820-1960” is one such example, whereby Wilson centered antique chairs around a “Baltimore Whipping Post” gifted to MHS. In this, he restaged lynching “as a kind of living-room leisure sport”[6] to satirize the ways in which the brutal act functioned as a spectacular kind of white entertainment, or enjoyment, at the expense of the subjugated black body in an ante- and post-bellum South. In a manner of irony, he meanwhile indicts the MHS for its complicity in silencing the history of black subjugation by previously refusing to acknowledge the history of suffering that such objects embody.

“Mining” the Past to Make the Present “Mine”: The “Rhetoric of Redress” and Afrofuturism

Speaking to this, Copeland notes that Wilson’s practice articulates a “language of redress” which, through its “varied aesthetic means—objects, texts, space, artworks, and sound”—reveals a “fundamental imbrication,” or deep-rooted linkage, with “rhetorics of reparative speech,” or ways of speaking, that seek to repair social relations and which “seek justice for the subjects of racial oppression.”[7] Copeland therefore frames the “rhetoric (or language) of redress,” especially as it is operating in Wilson’s work, as a form of cultural expression, a “language,” oriented toward correcting (i.e. “redressing”) social ills symptomatic of white supremacist ways of being. With Wilson’s work in mind, he writes that the task of redress “is terminally unfinished, requiring constant repetition and renewal to keep the past alive and the present under scrutiny.”[8]

Quoting literary theorists Stephen Best and Saidiya Hartman, he further delineates the “rhetoric of redress” as “‘the kinds of political claims that can be mobilized on behalf of the slave (the stateless, the socially dead, and the disposable) in the political present.’”[9] As with “Cabinetmaking,” Wilson’s Mining, according to Copeland, revealed racialized violence so that it “might be turned back on itself”[10]–brought to the viewer and white society’s attention so as to awaken them from the slumber of what Marx would call “false consciousness.” In other words, Wilson’s Mining is a kind of archaeological dig that seeks to excavate cultural objects, or artifacts, in order to reveal experiences of oppression related to sexism, racism, classicism, etc. through the vantage point of the oppressed themselves. The work of redress therefore serves as a means of waking people up, shaking them out of apathy, and disclosing the reality of racism as it operates, mostly unacknowledged, in the social practices of everyday life within an advanced capitalist society such as our own that was built on the black backs of slaves.

Homework

“Homework,” Fred Wilson, 1992. A Ku Klux Klan hood is placed inside of a black baby carriage to signify the fact that racism is a learned condition and a legacy which carries across generations.

For Wilson’s intent and purposes, Mining was a way to address the historical specificity of black suffering, rooted in slavery, while engaging the MHS collection as charged space in which to assert black self-determination through an act of “re-membering” that used found objects, the collection itself, as tools for bringing the past of black blight to bear on the present–this as a means to mediate race relations and cultivate the anti-racist consciousness as well as discourse necessary for creating a more egalitarian society.

Wilson’s work in this sense served to awaken in his viewers a sense of historical consciousness that accounts for social injustices–one which holds itself accountable to the diversity of histories which shape the local community–and in turn reorients historical discourse, the way we remember the past, from the perspective of the dispossessed.

In the same way, the tropes, or themes, used for seeing the world as found in Afrofuturist thought cultivate an epistemology (a way of thinking) deeply rooted in black historical consciousness that figures on the past as a means to bring reparative justice to a post-industrial present—one characterized by the horrific memory of slavery as it is relived in the loss of a strong manufacturing sector in North American cities; the introduction of drugs into urban communities and the subsequent proliferation of the drug trade therein; poor housing standards; and what Marc Anthony Neal calls the “juvenizaton of poverty,” or the militarization of the black urbanscape through gang violence and turf wars associated with the drug trade.[11]

In such a blighted context as this, Afrofuturism became, and remains, an imaginative means to ask important questions rooted firmly in a black radical stance that aims to deconstruct  what cultural theorist George Lipsitz calls the global “austerity economy”[12]–that is, a global economic system in which transnational corporations control the flow of capital through the workings of free-market structures, such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, which exclude black, or minority, ownership over the technological means of production through the State-sanctioned business practices that solidify class- and race-based divisions of labor.

Against the triple threat of economic disenfranchisement, social dislocation and existential angst wrought by the global “austerity economy,” Afrofuturism embodies the kind of critical inquiry necessary to dismantle the spectacle of capitalism. This is the case inasmuch as it asks not only why black people are so beset, but what black people can do to change a social system in which relations between individuals are essentially reduced to the status of an economic transaction–one that capitalizes on the exploitation of the non-White body.

Noted above, such critique mandates a preoccupation with history embedded in a longing for roots that, in the case of Afrofuturism, finds a home in a prehistoric, Egyptian past—one which precedes modernity, yet signifies a kind of modernism (read: “futurism”), or turn toward the future, associated with technological advancement in the present era. In this, Afrofuturism professes the innate creativity of the “Black” (wo)man as the original (wo)man[13] endowed with a capacity for constructing the technologies deemed necessary to human progress.

As black cultural theorists posit, Afrofuturism is rooted in a “b(l)ack to the future” kind of thinking that signifies on themes of technological progress through the lens of science fiction “as if to signal to African Americans,” writes cultural critic Graham Lock, “that the only way to define personal identity, to experience a form of rebirth, to be ‘saved’ in fact, [is] not by following the old myths of the Christian Church and its Bible, but by embracing a future in which (as [Sun Ra] sang in one song, based pointedly on the spiritual ‘No Hiding Place’): ‘The space age is here to stay / Ain’t no place that you can run away.’”[14]

outerspaceways incorporated

Cover Art, Sun Ra, Outer Spaceways Incorporated, 1968

Constitutive of an “Astro Black” mythology, this “mythic consciousness” of Afrofuturism articulates its message through a “rhetoric of redress” that ultimately incorporates a “mixture of black Bible interpretations, [mystic] texts, modern science, Egyptology and science fiction”[15] to imagine new ways of black being in and for the world.

Taken in context of the wider historical narrative of the black freedom struggle and the narrower specificity of Afrofuturism itself, the ideology engages in various “aesthetic means”–or artistic-cultural practices –to capture what Jewish political philosopher Walter Benjamin terms, “now-time,”[16] referencing the “production and performance of what is to come” by arresting “the ‘fierce urgency’ of its moment”[17] through elaborate sci-fi costumes and visions of outer space grounded in a prophetic turn toward present historical conditions, particularly as they relate to the marginalized.

In this way, Afrofoturism is an engagement with the present moment which gives evidence to history’s catastrophes, namely as experienced by “real life” black people in the unpictured “then” of racialized oppression that has implications for the ongoing “now” of the current black struggle for fuller participation in the American democratic project. As a kind of historical documentation (read: “mining”) of the past and a nod toward the political possibilities inherent in the future of humankind, Afrofuturism ultimately crystallizes reflection on the historical present–what’s fucked up about it, what’s great about it, and what could stand to change.  Afrofuturism is in this way rife with potential for inspiring future, movement-oriented action as related to the black freedom struggle in which it is situated, and in the struggle that extends beyond the context in both time and space of the present moment. In short, it is a way to claim ownership of (read: “mine”) the present.

Afrofuturism is thus deeply invested in an historical process that offers a “promise of an alternative future”[18] (such as Erykah Badu’s “New Amerykah”)  pregnant with the tension born between despair and hope—between the “then” and “now”—that Badu, through Emek’s deft hand, engages in her visual, Afrofuturist articulation of a “language of redress.” It is to an interpretation of her album cover as an expression of Copeland’s “language of redress” that this blog series turns in Part 3.

[1] Huey Copeland, Bound to Appear: Art, Slavery, and the Site of Blackness in Multicultural America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 31.

[2] Nicole Fleetwood, Troubling Vision: Performance, Visuality, and Blackness (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2011), 16-17.

[3] Ibid., 17.

[4] See Elisabeth Ginsberg, “Case Study: Mining the Museum,” http://beautifultrouble.org/case/mining-the-museum/, accessed July 12, 2014.

[5] Darby English, How to See A Work of Art in Total Darkness (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 200&), 156.

[6] Ibid., 165.

[7] Copeland, op. cit., 26.

[8] Ibid., 35.

[9] Quoted in ibid., 34.

[10] Ibid., 47.

[11] Mark Anthony Neal, “Postindustrial Soul: Black Popular Music at the Crossroads,” in That’s the Joint! The Hip-Hop Studies Reader 2n ed., edited by Murray Forman and Mark Anthony Neal, 477-502 (New York: Routledge, 2004): 477.

[12] See George Lipsitz, “Diasporic Noise: History, Hip Hop, and the Post-colonial Politics of Sound,” in Dangerous Crossroads: Popular Music, Postmodernism and the Poetics of Place (New York: Verso, 1994), 27.

[13] Riffing on Kerry James Marshall, “The Legend of Sun Man Continues,” in Traveling the Spaceways: Sun-Ra: The Astro Black and Other Solar Myths, edited by John Corbett, Anthony Elms, and Terri Kapsalis (Chicago: WhiteWalls, 2010), 59.

[14] Graham Lock, “Right Place, Right Time, Wrong Planet [Chicago Talk Remix],” in Traveling…, ibid., 33.

[15] Ben Schot, “Astro-Black Mythology,” Blastitude, Ethics 13 (August 2002), accessed January 11, 2014, http://www.blastitude.com/13/ETERNITY/sun_ra.htm

[16] As referenced in Leigh Raiford’s evocative discussion on the way in which SNCC posters used in civil rights marches captured the “fierce urgency” of the historical moment. See Imprisoned in a Luminous Glare: Photography and the African American Freedom Struggle (Chapel Hill: North Carolina Press, 2011), 96-97.

[17] Ibid., 97.

[18] Playing off of Raiford in her discussion of Civil Rights movement photography, ibid., 79.

Erykah Badu, New Amerykah Part Two: Return of the Ankh, cover art by Emek, 2010.

Erykah Badu, New Amerykah Part Two: Return of the Ankh, cover art by Emek, 2010.

Crafted by Israeli-born illustrator Emek, the psychedelic cover art for Neo-Soul singer Erykah Badu’s New Amerykah Part Two (Return of the Ankh) deploys tropes of Afrofuturism to construct what cultural theorist Huey Copeland would call a “rhetoric of redress.”

In the cartoon portrait of her black female body—or bodies[1]—that the album cover depicts, Badu indexes a range of utopian aspirations that intervene in experiences of African-American blight, refuse historical forgetting of the black freedom struggle, and point toward a future aimed at societal transformation through an invocation of a mythical past.[2]As Copeland says of the mid-twentieth century avant jazz artist and Afrofuturist Sun Ra, Badu addresses the “contingency of black [female] being,” gesturing toward a temporal outside—a “New Amerykah”—that remains firmly rooted in the present post-industrial urban predicament experienced by many black Americans.[3] She does this through a kind of bodily performance, captured in the visuality of Emek’s album art, that ultimately signifies on the black female body as a site of both reparation for social injustice and liberation there from.

To both ground and substantiate this claim, the ensuing blog series first details the contours of Afrofuturism in part one. Part two of the series then interprets the Afrodiasporic movement of Afrofuturism as a Copelandesque “language of redress.” In this, I make reference to African-American conceptual artist Fred Wilson’s Mining the Museum, which Copeland treats in his own work, as a means to explain what we mean by “language of redress.” Through the dual lens of Afrofuturism and the “language of redress,” part three of this series finally interprets Badu’s album art for Return of the Ankh. In so doing I address the ways in which Badu—by way of Emek’s Afrofuturistic depictions of her black female being as simultaneously super-, sub-, and post-human[4]—engages Afrofuturism as an act of protest aimed at repairing the injustice of racial (or race-based) oppression.

Finding a Place Beyond Time and Space: Afrofuturism and the Outerspaceways of Sunny Ray

Cover art, Space is the Place, 1973

Cover art, Sun Ra, Space is the Place, 1973

First coined by scholar Mark Dery in the preface to a set of interviews with semiotician Samuel R. Delaney and cultural critics Greg Tate and Tricia Rose, the term Afrofuturism designates “speculative fiction that treats African-American themes and addresses African-American concerns in the context of twentieth-century technoculture.” [5]

More generally, it involves “African-American signification that appropriates images of technology and a prosthetically enhanced future.”[6] Afrofuturism is in this way a collective habit of imagining concerned specifically with the question of black liberation in the context of existential anxiety, political oppression, economic exploitation and social deportation that has become part and parcel of the Afrodiasporic experience since the dawn of modernity in the form of the slave trade.

In this, it is a kind of cultural work which engages technology and technological imagery, artifacts and rhetoric as a means of envisioning alternative futures for the black subject in the present moment. As Afrofturist scholar Alondra Nelson frames it, Afrofuturism references a “past of abduction, displacement and alien-nation” and deploys science fiction tropes and technology not only to index black life and history as it unfolds in the present, but to imagine things to come.[7] It therefore invites a practice of self-making for a people historically denied access to the political right of self-determination. It meanwhile invokes a mythic past that extends beyond the horrific memory of the rupturing New World slave trade for the purposes of shaping the present and future.

For example, Sun Ra (né Herman Poole Blount), the 20th century mystic and avant-jazz musician (who is part of a legacy of Afrofuturist cultural producers, including musicians George Clinton, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, and Afrika Bambaataa, as well as writers Octavia Butler and Samuel Delaney) was famous for his mytho-poetic musings that linked Afrodiasporic peoples to the advanced civilization of Ancient Egypt, and implicated them in an evolutionary process which culminated in the formation of an extra-terrestrial utopia predicated on black self-government.

For Ra, who renamed himself after the Egyptian God of the Sun following a visionary experience at the age of 23 in which he visited the planet Saturn by way of astral projection, Egypt functioned as an imaginative motherland for peoples of African descent.[8] Outer Space (or the “spaceways”) meanwhile served as a figurative, if not literal, “final frontier” of black self-consciousness. Claiming himself a native of the planet Saturn, Sun Ra cultivated what scholar Daniel Kreiss calls a “‘mythic consciousness’ of technologically empowered racial identity that would enable blacks to recreate and invent technologies and construct utopian societies on outer space landscapes.”[9]

sun ra_outer nothingness

Covert art, Sun Ra, “Outer Nothingness,” The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra, Vol. One, 1965

Yet for Ra in particular and Afrofuturists in general, such consciousness is by no means a form of escapism or an ahistorical longing for life elsewhere. Indeed, it refuses historical forgetting and in fact serves as a means of reconstructing society as if it were an “outer space landscape”; in other words, it grounds the spaced out “elsewhere” of Afrodiasporic utopian imagining in reality on the ground. Indeed, Afrofuturism asks the pointed question: “Why is the black subject to so beset?”[10]

À la the black power inflected cultural politics of Sun Ra, Afrofuturism calls for the radical transformation of the black mind, body and spirit by re-articulating Afrodiasporic social narratives of liberation and empowerment through the lens of science fiction.[11] Themes of re-birth and self-possession emerge as key tropes in such “fiction”—understood more broadly as cultural work—that seeks to rewrite history from the perspective of the earth’s “wretched.”

Afrofuturism as Counter-narrative to White Supremacy

In this regard, Afrofuturism offers a counternarrative to white supremacist and Eurocentric constructions of history. As Lisa Yaszek puts it her article “An Afrofuturist Reading of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man,” Afrofuturism puts a “‘black face on the future’” and, in so doing, “‘combats those whitewashed visions of tomorrow generated by a global ‘futures industry’ that equates blackness with the failure of progress and technological catastrophe.’”[12]

It is therefore concerned with bridging the so-called “digital divide”—“a phrase that has been used to describe gaps in technological access that [have to do with prejudices concerning] race, gender, region, and ability but has mostly become a code word for the tech inequities that exist between blacks and whites”[13]. As a black way of being, doing, and thinking in the world, Afrofuturism frees black subjects from the mire of white liberal subjectivity[14] that undergirds, to echo scholar J. Griffith Rollefson, “Western universalism, rationalism, empiricism, logocentrism and their standard-bearer: white supremacy.”[15]

It is with this in mind that Sun Ra, in an interview recorded for the 1981 documentary Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise, implicitly denounces Eurocentric constructions of history (pronouncing it “his story”) in favor of upholding “my story” (punning on the term mystery), as refracted through the sound of his own music. He says:

In my music I speak of unknown things, impossible things, ancient things, potential things. No two songs tell the same story. They say history repeats itself. History is only ‘his story.’ You haven’t heard my story yet. My story is different from his story. My story is not part of history. Because history repeats itself. But my story is endless. It never repeats itself. Why should it? A sunset does not repeat itself. Neither does the sun rise. Nature never repeats itself. Why should I repeat myself?[16]

Here Sun Ra speaks directly to the Afrofuturist aim of reclaiming personal and collective black history—a collection of “my-stories”—in light of a past that has “been deliberately rubbed out”[17] by the displacements of the slave trade and institutionalized racism in the form of slavery, a failed Reconstruction project, de facto segregation, and, most recently, post-industrial urban blight.

Speaking to this issue in an American context, Delany tells Dery matter-of-factly in the interview referenced above: “When, indeed, we say that this country was founded on slavery, we must remember that we mean, specifically, that it was founded on the systematic, conscientious, and massive destruction of African cultural remnants.”[18] He adds, “That some musical rhythms endured, that certain religious attitudes and structures seems to have persisted, is quite astonishing, when you study the efforts of the white, slave-importing machinery to wipe them out.”[19]

Afrofuturism is one such enduring “musical rhythm” and “religious attitude” in its own right, which works to combat whiteness as it operates in the neo-colonial processes of capitalism that secure white privilege and power while excluding non-Whites from participation in the political sphere. As Dery makes clear in his introductory remarks to the interviews with Delany et al., the state of the future is no less precarious than the slave past, as it remains fixed firmly in the hands of white “technocrats, futurologists, streamliners and set designers” who have a stake in engineering our “collective fantasies” of things to come.[20]

nubians of plutonia

Cover art, Sun Ra, The Nubians of Plutonia, 1966

Because of this, Rollefson states, the “Afrofuturist project also focuses on the past [sic] through its tactical recovery of black soul.”[21] This is not to essentialize blackness–that is, argue for the existence of blackness as a kind of bodily essence, which further perpetuates stereotypes of the black body by dint of differences in skin color–nor posit it as an identity marker defined strictly as anti-white opposition. Rather, it is to define black subjectivity as an historically rooted and culturally constituted experience that is  shaped by what Michael Omi and Howard Winant would call “racial formation”–the “sociohistorical process by which racial categories [such as ‘blackness’] are created, inhabited, transformed and destroyed” (see Racial Formation in the United States, 1994: 55).

Playing on race as a socially constructed category of difference that has been used historically to solidify conceptions of white superiority and black inferiority in the (white) popular imagination, Afrofuturism reclaims blackness and black subjectivity itself so as to profess black power. It does so by involving blackness in the (re)construction of history with the mythic dimensions of a black past located in Africa and a black present located in the contemporary context. In this way, Afrofuturism lays the groundwork for the creation of a new “‘uni-versal’ humanity”[22] on what Ra would call “spaceship earth. ” It does so by utilizing technology and/or themes involving technology inherent in science fiction to imagine new ways of black communal belonging that are fundamentally rooted in the experiences of what it means to be black in what history has thus far rendered a white planet.

In the next installment of this series, we will consider the ways in which a “language of redress” enables the Afrofuturist project to conceive of as well as think and talk about a “new creation” predicated on black self-determination.

 

[1] As this subtextual analysis of Badu’s album art hopes to make clear, Badu is depicted in both super and sub-human forms. However, it is still her own black female body that Emek is inscribing into these depictions, and it is as Afrofuturist variations on her black female body that I read them.

[2] In positing this, I want to acknowledge that it is Emek who is responsible for creating the art itself. However, for the purposes of this blog series, I treat the art as an object of Badu’s deployment and thus foreground her as primary agent in the album cover’s engagement with Afrofuturism and the “rhetoric of redress.” In other words, I read the album cover as a performance of her own self-image as a self-proclaimed “analogue girl in a digital world” (see lyrics, “On & On,” Baduizm, CD, Universal, 1997) for which Badu is ultimately responsible in her collaboration with Emek. This is not to discredit Emek, nor deny the fact that he has a hand in helping Badu perform her self-image. Rather, it is to give space and place to the subject of black female performativity and, in this, emphasize that it is finally Badu who exercises creative control over what she produces. Moreover, to date, I have found nothing of note on Badu and Emek’s collaborative process in conceiving the conceptual frame for the cover art. That said, it is outside the reach of this blog series to address the details of this collective effort beyond making a nod toward Emek. For more on Emek’s hand drawn and, as one critic on www.sleevage.com describes it, “heavily layered” mashing of “the political and personal; the organic and the intellectual,” see http://www.emek.net/. See also http://sleevage.com/?s=Erykah+Badu&key=Musical+Artist. For a close-up of the album art itself see: http://www.erykah-badu.com/gallery/displayimage.php?album=2&pid=10#top_display_media.

[3] Riffing on Huey Copeland, “Solar Ethics,” (paper delivered at University California Berkeley, Department of Art History, October 22, 2013). See also: http://arthistory.berkeley.edu/events/event/1785566-huey-copeland-solar-ethics

[4] A term which those within and outside of black cultural studies have used to designate as an alternative to traditional (black) humanism. In the context of black cultural studies, it serves as a theoretical model for the rejection of blackness as a “unitary subject position” (See Marlo David, “Afrofuturism and Post-Soul Possibility in Black Popular Music,” in “Post-Soul Aesthetic,” African American Review 41, no. 4, [Winter, 2007]: 695). For the purposes of this discussion, it signifies the loss of (black) corporeality in an increasingly digitized world—“a universe governed by ones and zeroes”—where “the body cease to matter, thereby fracturing and finally dissolving ties to a racialized subjectivity, positionality, and [more generally a] ‘self’” (ibid).

[5] Mark Dery, “Black to the Future: Interviews with Samuel R. Delaney, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose,” in “Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture,” South Atlantic Quarterly 94, no. 4 (Fall 1993): 736.

[6] Ibid., 736.

[7] See Alondra Nelson, “Afrofuturism definition,” http://afrofuturism.com/text/about.html (accessed December 7, 2013). See also Nelson, “Introduction: Future Texts,” Social Text 20, no. 2 (Summer 2002): 9.

[8] See Calvin Forbes, “Sun Ra: From Negro to Black,” in Sun Ra: Traveling the Spaceways: The Astro Black and Other Solar Myths, edited by John Corbett, Anthony Elms, and Terri Kapsalis, 61-65 (Chicago: WhiteWalls, 2010): 64.

[9] Daniel Kreiss, “Appropriating the Master’s Tools: Sun Ra, the Black Panthers, and Black Consciousness, 1952-1973,” in “Becoming: Blackness and the Musical Imagination,” Black Music Research Journal 28, no. 1 (Spring 2008): 58.

[10] Riffing on Forbes, op. cit., 64.

[11] Kreiss, op. cit., 61.

[12] Quoted in J. Griffith Rollefson, “The ‘Robot Voodoo Power’ Thesis: Afrofuturism and Anti-Anti-Essentialism from Sun Ra to Kool Keith,” in “Becoming: Blackness and the Musical Imagination,” op cit., 84.

[13] Nelson, op. cit., 1.

[14] See Alexander Weheliye, “‘Feenin’: Posthuman Voices in Contemporary Black Popular Music,” Social Text 20, no. 2 (Summer 2002): 30.

[15] See Rollefson, op. cit.

[16] Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise, DVD, directed by Robert Mugge (Baltimore; Philadelphia; Washington, D.C.: Winstar, 2006).

[17] Dery, op. cit.

[18] Ibid., 747.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid., 736.

[21] Rollefson, op. cit., 85.

[22] Ibid., 94-95.

On the Chuck Anderson-designed cover of Lupe Fiasco’s Grammy winning Food and Liquor (2006), the Chicago-based rapper is pictured hovering in what appears to be outer space—a black sky dotted with stars. Light at once emanates from and passes through his seemingly celestial body, which refracts the shine into a rainbow as if a diamond prism. With his head tilted forward, he stares intently in the direction of the viewer, transfixing us in a return gaze. The rapper’s eyes are mesmerizing, set in sharp relief by dark outlines and eyebrows that, by play of light and shadow, seem to lift at the outer tips. Just above his forehead floats a pair of glasses that call to mind Superman’s disguise as the bespectacled Clark Kent. Hanging about his body in this space of anti-gravity are various commodities including DVDs, a cell phone, a Nintendo DS, a windup toy mouse, a sketch of a super hero, some books (including what may be the Koran), and of course the shining metallic boombox, which he grasps firmly with his right hand like Radio Raheem of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing.

Image

Chuck Anderson, Cover Art, Food and Liquor (2006)

The rapper’s body is meanwhile clothed in rather modest hip-hop street wear—a tan retro chic track jacket, unzipped and worn over a white tee-shirt depicting a scantily-clad woman whose body lies mostly hidden behind the stereo. His baggy blue jeans are tucked into open-lipped black high-top Puma sneakers with the brand’s signature stripe, in red, lining each side. Beneath his body on the lower right hand side of the cover read the words Lupe Fiasco’s Food & Liquor in an Anglicized variation on Arabic calligraphy. Reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s famed cover art for Dark Side of the Moon, movie posters advertising futuristic odysseys released in the 1980s such as Back to the Future, as well as extra-terrestrial and ultra-human tropes of Afro-futurism, the comic bookesque album art for Food & Liquor makes use of surfacism[1] to fashion black (hyper)visibility[2] and personhood. Through a more down-played variation on the “bling”[3] hip-hop aesthetic, Anderson’s art capitalizes on the concept and practice of “shine” to represent black male power and, ultimately, exceed the perceptual boundaries of normal vision.

Not unlike the work of contemporary artists such as Kehinde Wiley, Luis Gispert, and Hype Williams, who have experimented with hip-hop’s “vernacular forms of visual culture”[4] as a means to unveil and signify on canonized modes of artistic production from the Renaissance and Baroque periods, Anderson’s portrait depicts a black male subject bathed in the sparkle of a light as if the otherworldly subject of a Renaissance religious painting. It is a light so bright that it threatens to obfuscate the central figure from the field of vision. As cultural critic Krista Thompson says of Williams’ productions, Anderson thus “pinpoints an aspect of bling and the surface effect of late hip-hop more broadly: it calls attention to the failure of vision, to how vision obscures from view what it purports to reveal.”[5] In this way, Anderson plays on the paradox of hip-hop surfacism, negotiating the tension between hypervisibility and invisibility that the “bling” aesthetic conveys.[6]

Bronx-born and Golden era rapper Slick Rock, with classic pirate eye-patch, donning his blinged-out booty.

Bronx-born and Golden era rapper Slick Rock, with classic pirate eye-patch, donning his blinged-out booty.

An example of that shimmering "sonic light," New Orleans-bred and Cash Money rapper B.G. (a.k.a. "Baby Gangsta") sports large in this blingified cover art for his 1999 major label (Universal) debut, Chopper City in the Ghetto.

Another example of that shimmering “sonic light” and the blinged black body, New Orleans-bred and Cash Money rapper B.G. (a.k.a. “Baby Gangsta”) sports large in this blingified cover art for his 1999 major label (Universal) debut, Chopper City in the Ghetto.

In this case, the black male body is the site of hypervisibility whereby we are enticed to see it in a light that almost blinds. Anderson capitalizes on the use of what French cultural theorist Roland Barthes would call “sheen” or “shine”—that is, the “visual production of light” which reflects off the “polished surface” of an object or passes through translucent glass, “to emphasize the materiality and haptic [read: palpable] quality of objects.”[7] Looking at the album art for Food & Liquor, we see that Lupe Fiasco’s body is both polished surface and translucent glass the shine of which, like the “shellac” of Renaissance Dutch still life paintings and human portraiture, suggests a value intrinsic to the subject on display.[8]

Of course this value could easily be mistaken as simply “commercial,” denoting nothing more than the rapper’s status as a highly desired commodity for public consumption—not unlike the various goodies that surround his aura’s luminous glow. Yet, as Thompson says of the “bling” aesthetic in hip-hop visual culture, the “shine” is valued for its own sake, irrespective of the black body’s potential commoditization or fetishization through the exploitation of its visibility. Thus “bling” is a means of “being seen being seen,”[9] and functions as a method of self-fashioning that allows for an assertion of black humanity implicitly subversive of the “visual production” of slave bodies when the master shellacked them to secure retail on the auction block.[10] Moreover, echoing Thompson, it is a signification on the “glare of blackness” in the prevailing scopic regimes of art history, particularly as manifest in the baroque style of Renaissance painters whose subjects were predominately white royalty.[11]

Johannes Cornelisz Verspronck, Andries Stilte as a Standard Bearer, 1640.

Johannes Cornelisz Verspronck, Andries Stilte as a Standard Bearer, 1640.

That Lupe Fiasco’s body is essentially unadorned and that the objects surrounding him are relatively inexpensive items suggests a further signification on the “bling” aesthetic itself. This rapper’s power is innate. His material possessions are less important to the construction of his self-identity than that which comes from within, imaged by the shining light emanating from and towards his glowing frame. In this, he embodies and conveys a kind of “organic ‘bling’” that maintains shine without the glitter of ostentation and unnecessary accoutrement of more stereotypical displays of hypervisible black self-representation. His is an imagined existence sustained by bare necessities—instruments of intellectual development and spiritual wisdom (eg., the books); of play (eg., the video game console, video games and toy figurines); of entertainment (eg., the DVDs); of clear sightedness in all sense of the term (eg., the glasses); of creative imagination and day-dreaming (eg., the sketch of the super hero) and, most importantly, of music-making, symbolized by the archetypal boombox.

A signifier of “sonic light,” as Thompson would have it, this hip-hop commodity symbolizes the conflation of sight and sound, aurality and visuality that “bling” by definition evokes. Indeed, the boombox is foregrounded in the portrait, taking “center stage,” as it were, in the picture plane as if to give sound to the light that ushers forth from this rapper’s super-human body. Indeed, it is not the rapper who communicates, but the light coming through him. It is a “sonic light” amplified by the boombox, a sacramental instrument signaling the soul force that bursts through the shining surface of the rapper’s black-brown skin. In this way, Lupe Fiasco’s body manifests in the picture plane not as commodity but as a testament to its own corporeal value,[12] as well as a statement about who he purports himself to be: a street-level everyman sustained by food and liquor—perhaps a metaphor for the hip-hop culture that created and sustains him—who carries a latent super-power which manifests as the “sonic light” of rapping. His shine is a creative surge that his body, though seemingly ultra-human, can barely contain and which is emblematized by the boombox that vessels the voices of his internal “bling.”

His status as an ultra-human figure of blackness is further exaggerated by his suspension in space. The image, as Thompson says of Luis Gispert’s Untitled (Single Floating Cheerleader, a.k.a. Hoochy Goddess), “recalls the many scenes of heavenly ascension, typically toward or within light, that animate Renaissance and

Luis Gispert, Untitled (Single Floating Cheerleader, a.k.a. Hoochy Goddess), 2000.

Luis Gispert, Untitled (Single Floating Cheerleader, a.k.a. Hoochy Goddess), 2000.

Baroque paintings.”[13] As such, the album cover brings heavenly figures down to earth, evidenced by Lupe Fiasco’s self-offering as a “sacred embodiment of hip-hop’s secular culture.”[14] Through the use of light and the background of outer space, Anderson focuses on the illusion of gravity in much the same way Gispert does in his Cheerleader exhibition, creating, like the Renaissance and Baroque painters before him, an “optical effect […] central to the representation of otherworldly power” and which inspires “deference” and “devotion.”[15]

Furthermore, by placing Lupe Fiasco against the unearthly backdrop, he, as Thompson says of Gispert’s portraiture, “literally pulls the ground from the representation”[16] to highlight the illusion of Godliness. It is an otherworldliness brought to earth, an incarnation of the divine, enfleshed in the adorned embodiment of hip-hop hipsterism that Fiasco’s body signifies as it simultaneously undergoes a kind of apotheosis by way of a neo-old school hip-hop spiritualism. Indeed, Lupe Fiasco’s self-image in this portrait embodies what cultural theorist Nicole Fleetwood calls in reference to rapper-designer Pharrell Williams, an “urbane self-fashioning,” by which “hip-hop’s past is rendered palatable and even somewhat kitsch” through a “throw-back” aesthetic that replaces the flashiness of “bling” with a more hybridized fashion of skateboarding style and science fiction.[17] As noted above, this rapper’s power is not predicated on ostentation, but on a certain kind of humility—a deference of his ego to an inner “bling” [read: “being”], a signification of the deep Self, symbolized by the light radiating in and through him as well as by the boombox itself, as sacred tabernacle for hip-hop’s rhythm, to which he bows his head.

Kenhinde Wiley, Portrait of Andries Stilte, 2005. As Thompson makes clear, L.A.-born African-American here deploys a deconstructive move in his artistic flirtation with the representations of black masculinity in much of hip-hop culture, attempting to "possess and depose hip-hop's visual construction of it." He does so by creating visual variations on what within normative discourse would be seen as today as the feminized self-portraiture of the European, white male who sported his own version of "bling." As Thomspon notes, "That his subjects often assume the poses of female figures or take female names- that they, in effect, cross-dress by taking on personas in art history- further destabilizes the cool pose of hip-hop's masculinity."  (Thompson, 494-95)
Kenhinde Wiley, Portrait of Andries Stilte, 2005. As Thompson makes clear, the L.A.-born African-American here deploys a deconstructive move in his artistic flirtation with the representations of black masculinity in much of hip-hop culture, attempting to “possess and depose hip-hop’s visual construction of it.” He does so by creating visual variations on what would, within today’s normative codes of masculinity and femininity, be seen as the feminized self-portraiture of the European, white male who sported his own version of “bling” in painters’ constructions of an exaggerated European self-image. As Thomspon notes, “That his subjects often assume the poses of female figures or take female names- that they, in effect, cross-dress by taking on personas in art history- further destabilizes the cool pose of hip-hop’s masculinity” (Thompson, 494-95). By the same token, however, it also signifies on the status and wealth  of those who fashioned the black body through slavery. In this way, it functions as a transgressive reclamation of black royalty denied those rendered slaves by the dictates of European imperialism. See also “Race and Hip Hop: The Theoretical Status of the Concept of Race,” jtdissues.blogspot.com/2012/02/race-and-hip-hop.html.

While the album art signals easy commoditization with its sleek visual appeal and markers of urban style, and could well have been used to “sell millions” as noted by one critic,[18] Anderson’s more tempered “bling” aesthetic keeps Lupe’s body from reaching a level of hypervisibility that would only serve to spectacularize his blackness. Indeed, implicit in Anderson’s depiction of Lupe Fiasco could very well be the same critique of black hypervisibility, and even masculinity, that artists such as Wiley and Gispert are offering in their significations on the hip-hop visual culture (see pictures and captions above).

In this way, Lupe “stands in”  as a black male subject whose shine is not so much determined by what he owns as what he embodies—a self that disregards the stereotypical signifiers of black hypermasculinity, commodity, and economic buying power in exchange for a more self-conscious sensibility of “bling” as the “sonic light” of soul power that vibrates like the bass trembling of a figurative boombox from within. Thus Anderson’s art reflects a surface shine with deep substance that is made only more apparent by the rapper’s disavowal of typical “bling” in favor of a shimmer that glows like his “blinging” body somewhere between “hypervisibility and disappearance”[19] as well as between the value of his blackness in and of itself and its use value as exploited commodity. He negoitates this terrain well, ultimately celebrating his blackness as the embodied apex of a force greater than himself, a sonic frequency that vibrates from a source somewhere deep inside the “sonic light” of the blinged-out break-beat.


[1] An aesthetic technique in visual art—particularly oil painting—that emerged as early as the 16th century in Europe and which refers to “a concentration on the materiality or visual texture of objects within or of the picture plane.” See Krista Thompson, “The Sound of Light: Reflections on Art History in the Visual Culture of Hip-Hop,” Art Bulletin 91, no. 4 (December 2009), 485.

[2] As black cultural theorist Nicole Fleetwood makes clear in Troubling Vision, “Hypervisibility [sic], used often in black cultural studies, is an interventionist term to describe processes that produce the overrepresentation of certain images of blacks and the visual currency of these images in public culture. It simultaneously announces the continual invisibility of black as ethical and enfleshed subjects in various realms of polity, economies, and discourse, so that blackness remains aligned with negation and decay.” See Troubling Vision: Performance, Visuality, and Blackness (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2011), 16.

[3] An expression that represents ‘the visual effect of light being reflected on stones and metals.’ Ibid., 483. Cf. Oxford English Dictionary. The term was coined by Southern rapper B.G. (Baby Gangsta) in 1998, it also refers to flashy jewelry and the ostentations ‘accoutrement that glorifies conspicuous consumption.’ Quoted in Thompson, op. cit.

[4] Ibid., 482.

[5] Ibid., 490.

[6] Ibid., 483.

[7] See ibid., 485.

[8] See ibid., 486.

[9] See ibid., 481, 493.

[10] See ibid., 488.

[11] See ibid., 489.

[12] See ibid., 496.

[13] Ibid., 497.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid., 498.

[17] See Fleetwood, op. cit., 173.

[18] See http://sleevage.com/lupe-fiasco-food-liquor/

[19] Riffing off Thompson, op. cit., 501.

Erykah Badu, New Amerykah Part Two: Return of the Ankh, cover art by Emek, 2010.

Erykah Badu, New Amerykah Part Two: Return of the Ankh, cover art by Emek, 2010.

In Erykah Badu’s music video for “Window Seat,”[1] a song off of her 2010 LP New Amerykah Part Two: Return of the Ankh, the African-American R & B singer reclaims black, female subjectivity through bodily performance. She uses her own flesh to protest the threat that “groupthink”[2] poses to authentic and embodied self-expression. In this way Badu accomplishes a task that black feminist and conceptual artist Lorraine O’Grady commissions the cultural worker to take up in her work; that is, to (re)inscribe the black, female body with new meaning and purpose in order to liberate it from the colonizing  claims of patriarchy and racism on its freedom as a site of agency, autonomy, and movement.[3]

Badu portrays herself in the video as a non-descript pedestrian walking through the site of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination—the Dealey Plaza Historic District of Downtown Dallas, Texas. The video begins with an image of a white, Lincoln Continental pulling into a parking space alongside the sidewalk bordering Elm Street. A sound recording of the televised broadcast documenting Kennedy’s motorcade to the Dallas Trade Mart for a luncheon with local politicians and business leaders plays as a kind of introduction to the song itself, which starts to the pattering roll of drumsticks against the snare’s canvas.  To mark the transition from sound footage to song, as well as to structure the video itself as a visual narrative, the camera shows a textual frame that reads: “A Story by Erykah Badu.”  The title sequence then segues into the short film, displaying a frontal view of Badu’s body, almost entirely concealed in clothing, as the singer strides confidently down the historic sidewalk. The camera lens meanwhile blurs the background against which Badu’s body is set like a human bas relief, obscuring images of seemingly perplexed spectators who witness the singer’s gradual denuding by the choice and power of her own will to reveal.

By the time Badu has stripped down to her black underwear, the camera angle shifts and we are presented a picture of Badu’s body from the perspective of both posterior and side views. Scrawled across the top of her back, between her shoulder blades, is the word evolve, written in black, capitalized letters. The song meanwhile progresses towards its final refrain when Badu’s undressed, moving body halts suddenly to the sound of gunfire, and falls to the ground after a back-bending thrust of convulsion at being a bullet’s marked target. As her body lay strewn across the concrete surface at the edge of a grassy knoll, a blue liquid substance spills like blood from her skull, forming the word groupthink.

This is accompanied by the amplified utterance of a male voice shouting the word, “Groupthink!” This sequence segues into a sermonizing coda that Badu offers as a way to thematize and, ultimately, close the piece: “They play it safe. Are quick to assassinate what they do not understand. They move in packs, ingesting more and more fear with every act of hate on one another. They feel most comfortable in groups—less guilt to swallow. They are us. This is what we have become—afraid to respect an individual. A single person within her circumstance can move one to change, to love herself, to evolve.” As this disembodied voice of narration speaks, the camera pans around to show the Dealey Plaza skyline, including a fleeting image of an American flag hanging limply from the top of a tall metal pole. The frame then returns to an image of a resurrected Badu, smiling beneath a braided hairpiece bedecked in jewels, gleaming as though a goddess come down to, or emerging from, earth.

As the video—with its interplay of soundtrack, text, and speech—attests, authentic social critique is a matter of embodied self-expression, something that O’Grady, echoing Indian literary theorist Gayatri Spivak argues is central to the act of deconstruction.[4] By putting her body “on the line” in such a way, as a matter of public display, Badu casts a critical eye on a society that has historically exploited the black (female) body as a means to define racial difference and, ultimately, racial (read: black) inferiority.

Cultural critic Lisa Gail Collins does well to unpack this social phenomenon in her investigation of the “Hottentot Venus”[5]—a derogatory term that references 19th century French zoologist Goerge Cuvier’s exploitative use of South African-born American slave Saartjie Baartman’s body as evidence of difference between the white and black races. Like the African and African-American women Collins’ uplifts in her assessment of various, critical artistic responses (such as that of Tracey Rose below) to the denigration of Baartman’s rotund body—at once contained, observed, dissected and labeled in a manner of “scientific” exploration and pornographic entertainment—Badu resituates and recontexualizes the “Hottentot Venus” as a signifier of radical insubordination of, versus subjection to, the white supremacist logic of racial superiority.

Illustration of Baartman from Illustrations de Histoire naturelle des mammifères

Illustration of Baartman from Illustrations de Histoire naturelle des mammifères

She does so by placing herself in the position of Baartman, personifying a 21st century black Venus through the visual medium of music video—a kind of moving portraiture (as filmic picture)—that asserts black, female individuality despite threats of its erasure by “representational colonialism.”[6]

A term coined by cultural critic Brian Wallis, it references the white supremacist gaze to which the black, female body has been held captive in a history of sexual exploitation

that is typified by the 19th century phenomenon of slave photography. Exercised as a way to type and order bodies according to a hierarchy of being in which the Caucasian body—representing the classical Greek ideal of beauty set forth by Enlightenment era art historian Johann Joachim Winkelmann[7] –slave photography made use of pictures, originally called “daguerreotypes,” to demarcate the races and generalize the racialized “other” according to features that became associated with inferiority. In this, the myth of white superiority was established as an essentially historical fact through the semblance of realism that photographs portray.[8]

Tracey Rose, Venus Baartman, 2001

Tracey Rose, Venus Baartman, 2001. In this “performance photograph” South African visual artist Tracey Rose, as Nicole Fleetwood notes in Troubling Vision: Performance, Visuality and Blackness, “attempts to render a visual depiction of Western fantasies of black femlae savagery and exoticism that were projected onto the body of Baartman” in the 19th century (118ff).

That said, Badu’s bodily performance in the music video functions as an anti-colonial/colonizing stance that restores voice and vision, privilege and power, to the objectified black body. And like Henry “Box” Brown—the ex-slave and Abolitionist made famous for his traveling panorama Mirror of Slavery[9]—Badu plays the role of activist-as-magician in a vanishing act by which she reappears at video’s end as a restored body, moving unabashedly naked in a public space where a political leader sympathetic to the African-American freedom struggle was slain. As cultural inheritor of that struggle, Badu associates herself with the assassinated to highlight the risk involved in speaking truth to power, particularly when it comes to matters of race, gender and sexuality (to say nothing of class). In the end, she uses her performance as an agency claim, conflating body, text, speech, and song as a way to bring a new center of black, female subjectivity into being and ultimately give her that longed-for chance to “fly away.”


[1] For lyrics of and commentary on the song, see: http://rapgenius.com/Erykah-badu-window-seat-lyrics

[2] A term signifying the loss of individual creativity, or sense of personal responsibility, in light of group (or social) interaction. Irving Janis, a research psychologist out of Yale University, is responsible for much of the initial research on this social phenomenon.

[3] See Lorraine O’Grady, “Olympia’s Maid: Reclaiming Black Female Subjectivity,” Afterimage 2 (1992): 1-23. The full version of “Olympia’s Maid” has since been anthologized several times, most recently in Amelia Jones’s  The Feminism and Visual Culture Reader, publ. Routledge. Those wishing to read the article in full may also download it from the WRITING section of O’Grady’s website: http://www.lorraineogrady.com.

[4] Ibid., 7.

[5] See Lisa Gail Collins, “Historical Retrievals: Confronting Visual Evidence and the Imaging of Truth,” The Art of History: African American Women Artists Engage the Past (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2002): 12-36.

[6] See Brian Wallis, “Black Bodies, White Science: Louis Agassiz’s Slave Daguerreotypes,” American Art 9, no. 2 (Summer, 1995), 54.

[7] See ibid., 52.

[8] See ibid., 48. According to Wallis, author Roland Barthes calls this the “reality effect.”

[9] For more information, see Daphne Brooks, “Escape Artist,” Bodies in Dissent: Spectacular Performances of Race and Freedom, 1850-1910 (North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2006): 66-130.