Posts Tagged ‘W.E.B. Du Bois’


The narrative which emerges from Lamar’s GKMC is implicated in the African-American freedom struggle insofar as it reflects a key principle of Afro-American revolutionary thought: “the self-realization of individuality within community.”[1] A hip-hop “secular spiritual” in its own right, GKMC muses on so-called secular themes—gang violence and sexuality—to present an image of life as it is in the experience of one black soul’s longing for the truth of his own personhood. In an interview with MTV, Lamar admits:

I wouldn’t say I’m the most religious person, neither were both of my parents. I always do quote-unquote religious songs or whatever you want to call them from the standpoint where I’m trying to find answers. That’s the space I speak from and a lot of people can relate because they feel the same way. [I’m] not a person that’s putting it in your head — “believe this, believe this, believe this.” I’m going through something, I’m a sinner and I’m trying to figure myself out. It never sounds preachy. It sounds like a person who’s really confused by what the world has put upon him.[2]

GKMC thus gives witness to the work Lamar does to sort out this confusion, which is part and parcel of a deeply spiritual struggle to achieve self-realization as an African-American man. Indeed, as African-American cultural critic Michael Eric Dyson says of Michael Jackson, the rapper’s “own moral perspective is informed by an understanding of human nature that acknowledges that all human beings embody the potential for wrongdoing.”[3]

As such, GKMC represents an expression of soul, and a definitive move toward the will to love over and against the alluring will to power. Using his stance as artist to enter into and deconstruct his demons from within, Lamar finds the resources to make meaning in a context that challenges him to confront “existential anxiety, political oppression, economic exploitation, and social deportation.”[4]

Describing the album himself, Lamar says in one interview:

It’s really just a self-portrait. I feel I need to make this album in order to move on with my life, and I had negative vibes and demons haunting me. It’s that real. I had to come from somewhere, I had to come from a place — it could have been negative, it could have been positive but for the majority of it, it was negative place. I needed to vent and put this message out in order for me to grow as a person. I’m glad I did, because it was a venting process, you know, to tell these stories I never told.[5]

In coming to grips with the demons of his past and offering the lessons learned to the community from which he hails, Lamar accomplishes two crucial tasks central to Afro-American revolutionary theory and practice. He “confronts candidly the tragic character of human history (and the hope for ultimate historical triumph) [and takes] more seriously the existential anxiety, political oppression, economic exploitation, and social degradation of actual human beings” (as in members of the Compton community) and “elevates the notion of struggle (against the odds!)—personal and collective struggle regulated by the norms of individuality and democracy—to the highest priority.”[6]

For Lamar this is a mission that calls on faith in the human family. Standing on the shoulders of Martin Luther King, Jr., Lamar recognizes (in songs such as “Sing About Me”) that “shattering blows on the Negro family have made it fragile, deprived and often psychopathic [read ‘m.A.A.d.’]” and sees that “nothing is so much needed as a secure family life for a people seeking to rise out of poverty and backwardness.”[7] This is especially true in light of poverty’s connection to juvenile delinquency in a postindustrial age such as Lamar’s.

Playing the role of the Gramscian organic intellectual, Lamar uses the album, as a form of hip-hop discourse, to relate popular culture and religion to structural social change.[8] In the context of GKMC religion serves as signifier for personal transformation (the redemption of sin) which in turn leads to societal transformation through the cultural work of  “storying” (i.e. rapping).  It is through his role as rap artist that Lamar can “look at the weak and cry,” “pray one day you’ll be strong,” and fight “for your rights, even when you’re wrong.” It is his way of affirming individuality in the creation of a new human community.

Speaking to the role of cultural worker in his concept of the New Politics of Difference, West notes that the cultural critic calls for “‘new forms of intellectual consciousness’ that will advance the struggle for individuality and democracy”:

To put it bluntly, the new cultural politics of difference consists of creative responses to the precise circumstances of our present moment—especially those of the marginalized. First World agents who shun degraded self-representations, articulating instead their sense of the flow of history in light of the contemporary terrors, anxieties, and fears of highly commercialized North Atlantic capitalist cultures (with their escalating xenophobias against people of color, Jews, women, gays, lesbians and the elderly).[9]

Lamar is one such agent who signifies on the dominant (read white) society’s fears of the postindustrial ghettos, such as Compton, it has helped create. Consider this verse of “Compton”:

Now we can all celebrate, we can all harvest the rap artist of NWA
America target a rap market, it’s controversy and hate
Harsh realities we in, made our music translate
To the coke dealers, the hood rich and the broke niggas that play
With them gorillas that know killers that know where you stay
Roll that kush, crack that case, 10 bottles of Rose
This was brought to you by Dre
Now every muthafucka in here say
Look who responsible for taking Compton international

Lamar here celebrates his city as the birthplace that harvested the likes of legendary rap group N.W.A. At the same time he recognizes how it has been commodified by a rap market and, through the media, made the subject of controversy and hate. Regardless, the “harsh realities we in” speak directly to the real life experiences of urban dwellers which dominant society at once ignores and fetishizes.

Lamar’s work as hip-hop cultural worker meanwhile extends beyond his efforts on the album as evidenced by his leadership of the “HiiiPoWeR Movement.” The purpose of the HiiiPoWeR movement is to encourage social awareness among young people living in a self-destructive society through the cultivation of the mind. The three “i’s” in the movement’s name stand for heart, honor and respect—the basic tenets of the movement’s quasi-religious credo, inspired by the example of freedom fighters such as Martin Luther King, Malcom X, Marcus Garvey, Fred Hampton, Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, and rapper Tupac Shakur. It is Lamar’s way of professing King’s unenforceable law of love “written on the heart.”[10]

With Lamar’s album as its twelve-track anthem, the HiiiPoWeR Movement is a cultural thrust toward “realness” understood as freedom in love. For King, as for Lamar, such freedom expresses itself in “the capacity to deliberate or to weigh alternatives” (reflected in the lyrics of “m.A.A.d. City”); a decision to cut off other alternatives (reflected in “I’m Tired of Running”); and responsibility (reflected in the recording of the father’s reproach at the end of “Real”: “Real is responsibility!”). Ultimately a constructive engagement with existential freedom, the creation of GKMC and the HiiiPoWeR Movement reflects an important step in the African-American freedom struggle: “to work passionately for group identity.”[11]

This kind of cultural work is tied up in the challenge of self-determination against what W.E.B. Du Bois would call the temptations to self-doubt, despair and hatred in a society that has systematically rendered the African-American invisible. Lamar is no stranger to these temptations, as evidenced by the track, “I’m Dying of Thirst.” Furthermore, he is no stranger to Du Boisian “double consciousness” as indicated by the meaning of the acronym, “m.A.A.d.”: “my angry adolescence divided.” The album details his reconciliation of the seemingly irreconcilable “two-ness” within himself—a  psychic parlay between innocence and guilt; self-love and self-loathing; good and bad; self-empowered, black subject and exploited, black object—that he transcends through positive self-assertion as a “good kid” in the context of a “beloved community” (read Compton).

In this, we find Lamar composing a sonic self-portrait that reveals the psychic turmoil of one whose “religious sensibilities are expressed in his wrestling with religiously informed, morally shaped, and culturally conditioned themes” which include:

an [examination] of the nature of good and evil; an [exploration] of the potentialities for transformation of the self, human nature, and society; a probing of the true nature of manhood in American culture; a [confrontation with] the material lures and sexual seductions of everyday life in post-modern American culture; a [proclamation] of the place of peace and love in transforming the world; and a surveying of the politics of American racial identity and awareness.[12]

Just as W.E.B. Du Bois did in The Souls of Black Folk, Lamar asserts himself as one seeking to live life above the “Veil,” to live into the authenticity of his own personhood, as in the opening bars of “Real”:

I do what I wanna do
I say what I wanna say
When I feel, and I…
Look in the mirror and know I’m there
With my hands in the air
I’m proud to say yea
I’m real, I’m real, I’m really really real.

Du Bois_SoulsA figurative Alexander Crummell[13] of whom Du Bois speaks in Souls, Lamar is one who has passed through the “Lonesome Valley of Death”[14] (read Compton / m.A.A.d. city) and lived to tell a moral tale about successfully negotiating the tension between despair and hope through self-love. An exemplar of a Du Boisian soul who has successfully “walked within” and  transcended “the Veil,” Lamar, like Crummell, has “bent to all the gibes and prejudices, to all hatred and discrimination, with that rare courtesy which is the armor of pure souls.”[15] Moreover, he is the archetypal Du Boisian “Teacher,” embodying the ideals of the “Black World” in its “strife for another and a juster world, the vague dream of righteousness, the mystery of knowing.”[16]

And, lastly, like the classic bluesman, that tragi-comic spokesman of the “secular spiritual,” Lamar embodies paradox. He is at once sinner and saint. The space he creates for himself within the album’s narrative contours lets him affirm his own self-worth in the midst of navigating the pressures of day-to-day existence in a postindustrial world.

“Look inside of my soul and you can find gold and maybe get rich,” Lamar raps in “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe,” suggesting that he has come to a place of self-knowledge through a process not unlike that of the alchemist turning base metal into gold. Yet he doesn’t keep that alchemical gold for himself. Rather, he shares it as wisdom with the world so that others may become rich in soul and self-worth. Lamar admits that his own identity-formation has been a painful process, riddled with mistakes that he wears like scars. Yet these scars, like the “secular spiritual” songs he sings, are constant reminders of what he has learned in order to become who he proclaims himself to be: a self-realized “good kid” in a (self-)critically examined “m.A.A.d. city.”

[1] Cornel West, Prophesy Deliverance! An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity (Philadelphia: Westminster, Press, 1982) 16.

[2] See, (accessed December 2012)

[3] Michael Eric Dyson, Reflecting Black: African-American Cultural Criticism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 53.

[4] Riffing on Terrance Wiley’s conception of black blight in America, Class Lecture, Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, CA, Fall 2013.

[5] See, (accessed December 2012)

[6] West, Prophesy!…, op. cit., 19.

[7] See Martin Luther King, Jr., Where Do We Go From Here?Chaos or Community (Boston: Beacon Press, 2010), 114.

[8] See Cornel West, “Black Theology and Marxist Thought,” in Black Theology: A Documentary History, 1966-1979, edited by Gayraud S. Wilmore and James H. Cone: 552-567.

[9] Cornel West, “The New Cultural Politics of Difference,” in Keeping Faith: Philosophy and Race in America (New York: Routledge, 1993), 4.

[10] See King, op. cit., 106.

[11] Ibid., 131.

[12] Dyson, op. cit.

[13] The Episcopal priest and leading figure of the Pan-African Movement.

[14] See W.E.B. Du Bois, “Of Alexander Crummell, The Souls of Black Folk (New York: Dover, 1994), 139.

[15] Ibid.

[16] “Of the Wings of Atalanta, ibid., 50.


The Roots, undun, album cover (2011)

This is the history of a human heart,—the tale of a black boy who many long years ago began to struggle with life that he might know the world and know himself. Three temptations he met on those dark dunes that lay gray and dismal before the wonder-eyes of the child: the Temptation of Hate, that stood out against the red dawn; the Temptation of Despair, that darkened noonday; and the Temptation of Doubt, that never steals along with twilight. Above all, you must hear of the vales he crossed,—the Valley Of Humiliation and the Valley of the Shadow of Death. – W.E.B. Du Bois

Set against the dystopian backdrop of a post-industrial cityscape, The Roots undun (2011) tells the fictional tale of a turmoiled young man named Redford Stephens, a hip-hop variation on novelist Richard Wright’s Bigger Thomas of Native Son, whose story is metonymic for the existential plight of black youth up against what Cornel West calls the “fundamental condition of black culture—that of black invisibility and namelessness (sic).”[1]

Recounted in reverse chronological order by the likes of Roots frontman Black Thought, North Carolinian Phonte, Philadelphia-based Dice Raw, among others, Redford’s first-person narrative begins with the second track “Sleep” as the protagonist, in a postmortem daze, reflects despairingly on his life story—a “black symphony” of “illegal activity” that ended prematurely, leaving him doubtful that his “family will remember me.” The conceit of contrite deathbed retrospection, which plays out like a night terror, expands backwards through time and extends across the remainder of the album. It is a narrative that the moving nine minute short which accompanies the concept album (see below) vivifies in a montage of images which together constitute the retelling of Redford’s story.

In “Make My,” Mississippi-bred lyricist Big K.R.I.T. (a.k.a. King Remembered in Time) takes on the persona of a renunciatory Redford, admitting, “I did it all for the money, Lord / That’s what it seems…,” before asking God’s mercy for a life lived too lavishly (i.e. “addicted to green”). Coming to grips with the law of karma as it has played out in the failed dream of his own life, the figure of Redford croons dejectedly:

They told me that the ends
Won’t justify the means
They told me at the end
Don’t justify the dreams
That I’ve had since a child
Maybe I’ll throw in the towel
Make my (make my)
Make my (make my)
Departure from the world

Resigned to die in a state of despair, the protagonist finds himself vanishing like a lost soul into the atmosphere, admitting defeat and, signifyin(g) on the famed Led Zeppelin song, claims: “If there’s a heaven I can’t find a stairway.”

This leads into “One Time,” a track that finds Redford “figuring on his mortality”[2] as he expresses the hopelessness of his predicament amidst the dire circumstances of urban decay, symptoms of which include, Cornel West notes, “increasing suicides and homicides, alcoholism and drug addiction, distrust and disloyalty, coldheartedness and mean-spiritedness, isolation and loneliness, cheap sexual thrills and cowardly patriarchal violence.”[3]

As Phonte raps in the first verse, such is the life of a street thug, whom the rapper likens to a “Kam-I-Ka-Ze pilot”—out of control and reeling toward death as if it were the only means of escape from what West calls the “gangsterization of everyday life, characterized by the escalating fear of violent attack, vicious assault or cruel insult”[4] that manifests as a “kill or be killed” mentality. In this way Phonte raps:

Feared in all streets so, if you ever see me out in ya streets
Find another one to occupy
I never hope for the best, I wish a nigga would
Turn around and walk away, I wish a nigga could
Listen to my instincts and say fuck the rest
But once you’ve had the best better ain’t as good
Weak-heartedness cannot be involved
Stick to the script, nigga – fuck your improv
Like the samurai
The street’s Hammurabi Code
Play your part, shut the fuck up, and do as I was told

Driven by the desire to attain some semblance of material, if not spiritual, wealth amidst the ghetto squalor in which he lives, the figure of Redford yields to the hedonistic pleasure of, as one critic puts it, “the gangster’s high life”[5] in the track “Kool On.” Black Thought, playing the part of Redford, thus raps:

Yo, I’m never sleeping like I’m on meth-amphtamines
Move like my enemy ten steps ahead of me
Say my reputation precedes me like a pedigree
Gentlemanly gangsta steez beyond the seventies
Holdin fast money without running out of patience
Move in silence without running up in places

To this, rapper Truck North adds that he, as Redford, “Made the quantum leap to a king from a pawn,” dressed up as if fitted for a black tie affair that has him singing like a serenade to the cruel days of chattel slavery out of which he, as a descendent of African-American slaves, emerged to rest in “luxury’s lap”—if only for a short time.

The meditation continues in “The OtherSide” which finds Black Thought, singer Bilal, and rapper Greg Porn ruminating further on the desperation that leads young men such as Redford to “undo” themselves by recourse to the “fast life” in the “narrow lane” of criminal activity. As Black Thought spits in the first verse:

You might say I could be doing something positive
Humble head down low and broke like promises
Soaking and broken in a joke like comics is

He adds:

Listen if it not for these hood inventions
I’d just be another kid from the block with no intentions
On the dock of that bay serving a life sentence
Even if I’m going to hell I’m gonna make an entrance

This kind of fatalistic thinking is indicative of the “black temptation of despair” that West, extending the insights of W.E.B. Du Bois, references in his discussion of Native Son’s Bigger Thomas, whose own temptation to self-hatred and despair leads him to kill.[6] Redford enacts this drama of temptation in a dual spirit of hedonism and nihilism, the latter of which leads him into a fiendish pursuit of the “high life,” as in Greg Porn’s verse:

I’m sitting on top of the world ready to jump off
Thinking of various ways to breaking the law
Thinking that enough is enough but still I want more
Thinking of how I’m playing with fire that burned my young boy
By any means necessary, don’t give a damn
So every night I’m on a flight that never lands

At once a hapless victim and willing co-conspirator of a “predatory market culture,”[7] Redford bets his life “on a bluff and a bad hand,” realizing that he “can’t win, can’t lose” because “either way the market moves” and “cash” rules everything around him: “kings, queens, princes, and princesses.” Stuck in a seemingly hopeless and helpless situation, Redford finds (or loses) himself: “too far gone to come back to my senses.” He therefore succumbs sadly to the temptation of despair, “predicated on a world with no room for black space, place or face.”[8] In this regard, the figurative black face is nothing more than a visage from the past, as Black Thought raps, that “we no longer have an image of / carrying cold blood hearts that never been for love.”

Such cold-heartedness is symptomatic of what West calls one of the “hidden injuries of blackness in American civilization”: black rage, which bleeds into hatred.[9] Redford, as representative of all black children who have come to “view themselves more and more as the degraded other,” personifies this kind of self-hatred that results simultaneously in acts of murder and his own self-destruction.[10] Speaking to this dual phenomenon of self-hatred and hatred of others that stems from black rage, Greg Porn raps in “Stomp”:

Flirt with death, every night it’s a blind date
One night stand, payback’s a bitch
Shit have you skinny dipping in a pool of your piss
Blood, sweat, and tears, broken teeth and spit
Put the barrel in your mouth
Blow the devil a kiss
Put the knife in ya back cut down to the red meat

This verse of self-congratulation for overpowering his imagined adversary/ies with violence is undercut by the brief slip of a suicidal thought—a violence done to himself: “Daddy should’ve let me be a stain on the bed sheets.” Indeed, Redford sees himself as nothing more (or less) than an “evil genius.” As such, he lives into the lie he has created of and for himself because, as Black Thought raps on “Lighthouse,” “that’s freedom.”

Yet it is a fleeting liberation, more along the lines of an insatiable libertinism, lasting only as long as the high of cheap weed and vodka that has Redford drowning, as in “Lighthouse,” face down in the oceanic turmoil of his own self-loathing and self-imposed isolation, emitting a scream for help that goes unanswered save for the menacing laughter of Redford’s reflection in the mirror.

Attempting to “survive on my own thoughts of suicide that’s competing / with thoughts of tryna stay alive which been weakened / by the feeling of putting on a smile while being beaten,” Redford offers us a glimpse into his encounter with the absurdity of negotiating a poverty-ridden terrain that has been decimated by a market-driven system predicated on racial, class, and gendered difference. It is a matter of Du Bois’ black striving that has the protagonist fighting against the “paralysis of madness and the stillness of death”[11] which is part and parcel of the post-industrial predicament presently afflicting North American cities.

Unfortunately, Redford’s striving fails to deliver him across the troubled water of his tragic existence. The final verse of “Lighthouse” makes this clear:

After the love is lost
Friendship dissolves
And even blood is lost
Where did it begin
The way we did each other wrong
Troubled water neither one of us could swim across
I stopped holding my breath
Now am I better off
There without a trace

Here his striving is reduced to a suicidal fantasy of self-annihilation by which he is resigned to the “social death,” à la the theory of cultural anthropologist Orlando Patterson,[12] that white supremacy has assigned to Redford as metaphor for the invisible and nameless black male whom the wider society has reduced to subhuman status. It is what prompts Redford to speak of himself and his life in “I Remember” as just “another hopeless story never read at all.”


Cover, Orland Patterson, Slavery and Social Death (1985)

Why? Because Redford is a “problem” as Du Bois, West, and members of The Roots would have it. An abstract object of and screen of projection for the white supremacist gaze, Redford is simply another animal that, Black Thought tells us in “Tip the Scale,” “consumes its own dreams like I’m a cannibal.” As such, Redford, like the black humanity he signifies, is deprived of individuality and the decency he deserves in a social system wherein “the scales of justice ain’t equally weighed out.” Accordingly, this leaves the black male subject only “two ways out”: homicide or suicide.

With the elegiac, Sufjan Stevens-inspired “Redford Suite,” the album ends on a contemplative note, equal parts mournful and uplifting, that reflects the stages of Redford’s life in four movements: “Redford,” “Possibility,” “Will to Power,” and “Finality.” An orchestral essay in its own right, rife with the heart-rending wail of strings layered within a wider range of orchestral instrumentation, the closing arrangement speaks sonically to the fragility of black existence and to the quick flight of Redford’s fall.[13]

In an article written for the The Huffington Post, Roots drummer Questlove writes: “Redford is the prototypical urban kid—young, gifted, black, and unraveling before our eyes. Too volatile to embrace, we wait for the shot clock to count down [his] demise.” Indeed. Yet what’s important about undun is that it gives a name, even if “semi-fictional,” to this urban kid who is metonym for all the nameless, rootless, and faceless black boys (and girls) out there going to the grave without ever really having lived. In this way, The Roots address the still-raging crisis of race in America by issuing an album-length transfiguration of the “guttural cry and […] wrenching moan—a cry not so much for help as for home, a moan less out of complaint than for recognition.”[14]


“Ahmir ‘?uestlove’ Thompson is an acclaimed drummer, DJ, producer, and co-founder, as well as the unmistakable heartbeat, of The Roots, Philadelphia’s most influential hip-hop band. This Grammy award-winning musician’s indisputable reputation has garnered him musical directing positions with everyone from D’Angelo to Eminem to Jay-Z. He is also the musical director for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon where he and fellow Roots crew members serve as the house band.”  (Bio courtesy of The Huffington Post)

In this, it is by way of Black Thought’s throaty raps atop Questlove’s pithy snare taps, we are being invited to listen to the internal dialogue of all America’s Redfords as they gaze into the “tragicomic and absurd character of black life in America.”[15] What’s more, we are being invited to take up that task ourselves and “look forward,” with Redford, “into our post-modern void”[16]—what West would call the “frightening abyss” and “terrifying inferno”[17] of our 21st century civilization at twilight—and reconsider our role in shaping the human community through empathic identification. Not in a way that erases the black bodies onto which animosity, crime, despair, rapacious desire, and fear have been inscribed, but as a means to recognize the ways in which racism is still deeply embedded in the functions of global capitalism as it operates in everyday life on the ground of American cities.

All this is not to paint a wholly fatalistic or tragic depiction of the American urban landscape, but to acknowledge the many ways in which it is, in this post-post-civil rights era moment,[18] still recovering from the economic devastation wrought upon it in the wake of the failed welfare reform of the 1990s and the policy-backed disenfranchisement of the 1970s. Moreover, it is not to discount or discredit the work local and federal policy makers as well as members of minority communities themselves are doing in the realm of formal politics and urban renewal. And, most especially, this is not to perpetuate the stereotype of the black male as super-predator, particularly as it exists in the white social imaginary.

Rather it is to pinpoint, engage, and interpret the cultural-politics that frames the story of undun, which does much in the way of heightening our consciousness of urban blight while unsettling our assumptions about what is possible for subaltern, or minority, communities within the United States in terms of social mobility, education, just wages, housing, and access to ownership over the means of production. Indeed, it is a story that, in its fictive documentation of “life on the streets” as it is navigated in the psychic seascape of young Redford, challenges us to rethink how we do community with each other and, at the very least, widens our perspective on the world. This, in turn, has implications for social change at the level of policy and, if nothing else, in the way we interact with each other at the level of everyday practice. In a word, it is by way of Redford’s tragic “undoing” that we are being taken to task for “redoing.” Together.


[1] Cornel West, “Black Strivings in a Twilight Civilization,” in The Cornel West Reader, 101.

[2] Questlove, “‘undun’: The Story of a Gifted Black Youth Unravels,” Huffington Post, November 11, 2011, path: (accessed November 20, 2013).

[3] West, op. cit., 113.

[4] Ibid.

[5] See rapgenius, path: (accessed November 20, 2013).

[6] See West, op. cit., 109 ff.

[7] Ibid., 115.

[8] Ibid., 112.

[9] Ibid., 108.

[10] Riffing on West, ibid., 109.

[11] See ibid., 103.

[12] See Orlando Patterson, Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985).

[13] See lyrics to “I Remember,” The Roots, undun, Def Jam, 2011.

[14] See West, op. cit., 102.

[15] Ibid., 118.

[16] Questlove, op. cit.

[17] West, op. cit.

[18] A trope I borrow from Richard Iton in his groundbreaking study of black cultural politics: In Search of the Black Fantastic: Politics and Popular Culture in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).

In his chapter “Beyond Black Representational Space” from How to See a Work of Art in Total Darkness, art historian Darby English gleans key insights from the Martinique-born, French revolutionary Frantz Fanon, the African-American art historian James A. Porter, African-American cultural critic W.E.B. Du Bois, and African-American novelist Ralph Ellison to explore the dual function of black representational space as a means for artists who are black to both own the production of self-representation and self-reflexively engage with the politics of said representation (see 29-30).

Cover, Darby English, "How to See a Work of Art in Total Darkness" (2007)

Darby English, How to See a Work of Art in Total Darkness (2007)

Underlying English’s project is a concern for upholding the contextual specificity out of which black art is created against “essentialist” notions of blackness. In terms of race theory, “essentialist” (or “essentialism”) refers to the tendency to reduce blackness to an ahistorical, racial “essence” (or racialized ontology) that resists the many meanings of blackness–meanings that are at once grounded in yet go beyond race or skin color (i.e. phenotype) in defining what blackness signifies in its many shades as an identity marker rooted in history (read: “contextual specificity” above). Essentialism, in reducing race in general and black subjectivity in particular to a biological essence, meanwhile fails to account for the many ways in which race is a social construct, rooted in discourse out of which the signifier of “blackness” as a social identification is conceived.

English recognizes, with the likes of many contemporary black artists, that race informs rather than determines artistic production—that a work of art created by a black artist must be understood on its own terms rather than approached through the lens of blackness, or any preconceived notions of what blackness signifies. English argues that the concept of blackness obscures the complexity of the art object and forecloses the possibility for multiple interpretations (34). In this way, he echoes Ellison and various voices issuing from the 1960s era artist collective, Spiral, spearheaded by African-American visual artist and writer Romare Bearden, noting that we must treat black artists’ work in context while seeing black art as an experimentation with subjectivity, broadly construed (English, 70).  The meaning of black art therefore resists closure, and ultimately transcends the borders of blackness within which it is produced.

Juxtaposed to this stance, which seeks to get beyond a narrow racializing (if not essentializing) of black art, is that of mid 20th century black artists and cultural workers such as Du Bois, Alain Locke, Porter, and Aaron Douglas among others, who saw in black art a potential for establishing a distinct sense of individual and communal self identity rooted in black (read: African-American) experience. Indeed, Du Bois is famed for claiming that “all Art is propaganda and ever must be” in his oft-cited “Criteria for Negro Art,” published in the October 1926 edition of The Crisis. It was a commonly held assumption during the Harlem Renaissance that art would usher in a new dawn of political freedom for African-Americans. It became for members of the New Negro movement such as Locke, as well as those participating in the artistic and intellectual fervor of the Harlem Renaissance, a means of asserting black presence in a society whose cultural practices excluded or essentially negated African-American existence.


Promotional art, Shabazz Palaces, Black Up (2011)

Art historian Krista Thompson captures this ideal of black self-representation through art in her piece, “The Dream of Diaspora in African American Art, 1915-1942,” which speaks to the valorization of Haiti’s independence struggle as emblematic of the African-American freedom struggle in the States. Haiti became for many African-American artists the site of a diasporic, or transnational and Pan-African, imaginary (read: a collective habit of imagining new modes of being in and for the world), signifying a representational space of unity and uplift between all peoples of African origin (Thompson, 75). While the actual encounter with Haiti on the part of some black artists shattered the illusion of racial solidarity across, or between, cultures of the black Atlantic, it still inspired African-American cultural workers to imagine “collective diasporic freedom dreams” while keeping in mind the complexity of—and numerous differences within—their cultural heritage (Thompson, 95).

Fast-forward to the contemporary moment and works by Seattle-based hip-hop collective Shabazz Palaces calls us to question how much the politics of representation has really changed in some aspects, or avenues, of black expressive (visual) culture since the mid 20th century. For instance, a Pan-African and essentialist narrative runs through the music video for a song off of the 2011 LP Black Up called, “Are You… Can You… Were you? (Felt)” that, not unlike the work of African-American painter William E. Scott, creates a virtual portrait of a black, female subject so as to establish an ahistorical link between black representational space and a romanticized African(ized) imaginary.

The piece begins with an image of African art objects, including sculptures and masks, placed in a nondescript space before showing a blank, black screen from which echoes the sound of an unseen baby crying, followed by the soft whisper ushered in the tone of a presumably female voice, which says, “Are you tellin’ a story? What is that story?” As this is heard, an ellipsis wrapped in parentheses and the word, “Feel,” appear in succession on the blank screen. The scene then transitions into an image of a young, light-skinned black woman sleeping in a wooden, rocking chair. Viewed from various angles, the woman’s body is associated with a collage of flowers that flash translucently in and out of the frame. As if waking from a beautiful dream, the woman suddenly emerges from her sleepy stupor and rushes from the chair. From there, the video follows this figure as she rides her bike through sunlit suburban streets, avoiding a fatal crash into an oncoming vehicle manned by a black male with whom she is seen getting into a violent verbal confrontation following the near collision.

This is proceeded by a second altercation with an older woman we could take to be the protagonist’s mother, who seems to be chiding her daughter for the risqué clothes she is wearing—cut-off jean shorts and a loose black tank top. The quarrel is spoken in an indecipherable tongue save for the words, “Who cares…,” which utter twice from the young woman’s mouth. This, as if to suggest a cross-cultural mixing of a foreign, perhaps African, dialect with standard English, as well as a generational clash marked by each party’s mutual refusal to recognize the identity statements they’re professing in style and dress.

Unresolved, the conflict sends the young woman upstairs to her room in a fury. There she finds a mysterious wooden box that she opens to reveal mixed media sketches, or portraits, of exotic, black female bodies. Images of translucent flowers flash across the screen, which eventually goes black by the song’s end. Against this blank, dark backdrop flicker the words “Felt?” and, following that, “Black up,” in bold, white lettering.

The video is set to music written and performed by lyricist Ishmael Butler a.k.a. “Palaceer Lazaro” (once “Butterfly”of jazz-rap group Digable Planets) and multi-instrumentalist Tendai “Baba” Maraire.  In his lyrics, Butler emphasizes the importance of feelings in constructing reality, at one point referencing Wangechi, a Kenyan artist and sculptor who lives and works in Brooklyn, NY, and whose work is known for its impressionistic—not in the classical sense of the term—feeling-toned quality. In this way, the video takes on the nature of a moving portrait, offering its viewers a chance to gaze at a collage of bodies, flowers and art objects meant to communicate certain feeling states associated with the visual representation of blackness.

The video thus provides a virtual space of/for black representation that functions to uphold blackness as a kind of essence—perhaps ontological (having to do with the nature being)—with ties to an African imaginary as signified by the African art objects which serve as frontispiece for the virtual “story,” and the black, female body, itself a kind of African art object. If the duo’s name doesn’t already make this obvious (being an allusion to the Tribe of Shabazz, an ancient Black state to which the Nation of Islam is linked), the video is indicative of a pan-African aesthetic, if not allegiance, that recalls the Black Art movement’s emphasis on the black body as a site of racialized identity formation and transnational imagining, and which finds diasporic identification with a lost Africa. Furthermore, in the vein of a pan-Africanis discourse,  the video presents images of blackness in a way that stresses, to use Thompson’s words, “homologies between African cultures” (85) that flattens difference in its black nationalist and essentialist thrust toward unity that begins and ends as a mere feeling, and culminates with the well-intentioned, though misguided, mandate to “Black up.”

That said, the video offers a rather naïve depiction of blackness that fails to account for the troubling aspects of the essentialist vision it implies. It therefore fails to achieve the transcendence of blackness that English sees as so important to the function and formation of black representational space in the present moment.

In this I wonder how self-reflexively engaged Shabazz Palaces was with the politics of representation in the making of this video, which reinforces a reactionary conception of blackness—for the purposes of racial typing and racial uplift—that English believes black art, and those approaching it, must get beyond if it is avoid the risk of sudden foreclosure.

Clearly, transcendence is not what Shabazz Palaces was shooting for in the long-run. Rather, as the video suggests, the duo was aiming at complete immersion in the deep feeling of a “diasporic freedom dream” which recalls an older, though not altogether outdated, criteria of black art, as propaganda, useful for the formation of a national consciousness and representational space that seeks to “black up” versus get beyond…