Thoughts on I Am Not Your Negro

James Baldwin is one of those writers whose work I keep returning to at different stages of my life. I read him first when I was a student, and then found a copy of Nobody Knows My Name while I was living for a year in Berlin, in a bookstore run by a gregarious American who let you buy books and then swap them for other ones once you’d finished reading. Every time I read a bit of Baldwin, his dissections of American narratives around race, identity and history still reverberate. Baldwin writes about violence, bigotry and the moral blindness of his country of birth with a mixture of poetry and rage that I haven’t encountered in many other places.

For Raoul Peck, the director whose documentary I Am Not Your Negro is based around the unfinished book Baldwin started writing in the late ‘70s, Baldwin’s writing had a similar hold on his mind from a young age. Peck, who spoke in a Q&A after a screening of the film, explained how Baldwin’s writing had ‘structured his mind’, giving him signposts to understand his reality as an exiled Haitian who has also lived in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the US and Germany.

Peck used the words of Baldwin to create a film about race in America, representation, and the refusal of the country to fully come to terms with its past. Baldwin had been driven to start writing the book following the assassinations of three of the civil rights movement’s most important figures: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. The disturbing thing about the film is that words that were written almost 40 years ago are still relevant to what is happening in the United States (and elsewhere) today. The film contains shots of both the Oakland and Watts uprisings in 1968, and footage of the uprising in Ferguson in 2014. The two are barely distinguishable, and half a century on from the height of the civil rights movement, deep structural inequality, police brutality and mass incarceration of African Americans are all endemic.

I found the structure of the film frustrating in places. It seemed to meander around a lot of different themes before arriving at its key point: that America has still not confronted the truth of its history. Despite the fact that he was heavily criticised by more militant sections of the civil rights movement at the time, such as by Eldrige Cleaver in Soul on Ice, Baldwin was especially on point when he managed to turn the table on the whole ‘race problem’ in America, by asking white America why it had felt it necessary to invent ‘The Nigger’ in the first place.

In some ways I Am Not Your Negro it’s a pessimistic film. It shows that, despite the election of America’s first black president, real structural change has yet to appear, precisely because white America has largely refused to answer those kinds of questions. Part of the reason for this, according to Peck, is down to an ‘intellectual gentrification’, where consumerism has left us with 500 cable TV channels and an inability to actually confront what’s happening in the real world, so that when many Americans (or others) see images of their own cities burning, and militarised police firing tear gas at their own citizens, the response is “that can’t be happening here!”.

i-am-not-your-negro ferguson

Image from Ferguson protests, 2014

But as Baldwin himself put it, “I cannot be a pessimist. Because I am alive. To be a pessimist means you have agreed that human life is an academic matter, so I’m forced to be an optimist. I’m forced to believe that we can survive whatever we must survive.” Despite his fury at the atrocities that America had committed, he was a humanist, believing deeply in human beings’ innate ability to transcend horror. Ultimately, the message of the film, and of Baldwin’s writings, is that by staring unflinchingly at our own lives and the history that has produced us, we will be able to become something much more than that which we currently are.

Thoughts on Space – part 1

I’ve been thinking about space a lot recently.

Maybe it’s because a friend of mine went to see Rogue One – the most recent addition to the bloated Star Wars franchise – a few weeks ago, without having seen any of the original movies. So we had to start from the beginning and watch them all.

Which took me back a bit. Having grown up on those films, it felt like a reenactment of childhood, and a pang of nostalgia for simpler narratives, ones in which things explode immediately when they crash into something and there are forested planets full of cute aliens.

In Star Wars, we don’t need an explanation for why the Empire is Evil and the Rebels are inherently Good. We just have the intuitive understanding that this is the case and that all is as it should be. Even though the technology might be more complex, life is actually simpler: you know who whose side you’re on and who the enemy is.

I wonder whether that’s part of the appeal of space in storytelling: when life on Earth feels increasingly complex and incomprehensible, and our grip on reality feels slippery and nebulous, space offers the possibility of escape, and of perspective – we get to see ourselves as we really are in relation to the rest of the universe.  It also affords us the possibility of change and redemption – of being able to begin again, away from the failures and havoc that we’ve wreaked on our home planet.

But equally, space can bring us the opposite: far from offering a new beginning, or the start of a new phase in our evolution, space can become just a wider canvas on which to paint our collective pathology.

Take Netflix’s The Expanse, for example. Its premise is that humanity has colonised the rest of the solar system: Earth and Mars have become two competing powers, while in-between sit the belters, human inhabitants of the Asteroid Belt, who mostly do all the heavy lifting, and who seek independence.

The labyrinthine plot notwithstanding, it offers a more realist depiction of what life on other worlds would be like. Humans are still humans, doing humdrum human things, and our old ways – conflict, hierarchy, violence, lust for power and control – are still very much with us. Resources, such as water, are still scarce, and human existence is as precarious as it ever was.

Maybe what I’m trying to get at is that right now there’s more than ample reason to want to fantasise about getting the fuck off the planet and starting again elsewhere. But even though we might be able to envision traveling into hyperspace, part of our brains are still descended from reptiles, and we’re apt to keep making the same mistakes over again. We might long for the possibility of escape. But it won’t help us to escape ourselves.

Dub genealogies

[Thoughts on listening to Rider Shafique’s I-Dentity]

Sometimes you find yourself scrabbling around for the right words to express something that’s been bubbling away in your mind for a while, only to find that someone else has said exactly what you wanted to say, using half the words, and far better ones.

I’ve had this unfinished piece of writing lying dormant in my ‘half-baked ideas’ folder for months. It was supposed to be a reflection on identity, on the concept of ‘race’ and how we refuse to let it go, on the experience of being a mixed-race person and having multiple narratives written onto my skin, on the ridiculousness of the term ‘mixed-race’ and and on how answering the questioned ‘where are you from?’ always ends with a conversation rather than a one-word answer.

It was a fumbled attempt to write about thoughts and feelings that have swirled around inside of me for most of my adult life, thoughts which I had always assumed would dissipate as I got older. But as 2016 has shown, the forces of xenophobia, nationalism and white supremacy are constantly being re-kindled, and we seem collectively to be intent on recycling ancient prejudices, falling back into nasty tribal allegiances, peering at each other with mistrust and even hatred.

Those are some of the sentiments that come through on Rider Shafique’s I-Dentity, recently released on the new record label by the Young Echo collective.

It’s a mournful track, and feels as though Shafique is trying to evict feelings that have long been bugging him, giving voice to a deep-seated frustration. It’s a frustration built on continually trying to untangle all the accumulated injustices of the past 500 years: hierarchies, classifications, categories that should be dead and buried but still shape our world and how we move through it.

The track also sits within a tradition: you could trace its genealogy to the dub poetry of Linton Kwesi Johnson, but its more recent analogues are with the dread-infused growlings of The Spaceape, and the dub commentaries of King Midas Sounds‘ Roger Robinson. It’s a tradition of trying to destabilize and unravel systems of meaning that have kept us apart and oppressed. It’s also a tradition of transcendence, of trying to nullify Babylon’s notions, and through using the right frequencies, reaching a deeper level of understanding.

 

Lost in the Circuits

My mind is awash with paranoia. I’m sleeping poorly, my body riddled with tension. Too much vacant time, filled up sat in front of a screen.

I’ve been in a consistently dystopian headspace over the last month or so. Trump and Brexit were the precursors, but the dread seeps into the microlevel: underemployment gnaws at me; bad vibrations in my living situation becoming intolerable.

I take long walks along the river and into the woods to try and escape. There are moments of bleak beauty as the mist draws in, pre-sunset, though crows perching on top of trees seem like harbingers of some ominous future.

My room is filled with stacks of books I’ve borrowed. On the floor lies an intimidating tome about The Singularity – the idea that technology will eventually supersede the limits of the human body, and our own biologically-rooted consciousness. But I can’t bring myself to read more than a few pages.

Meanwhile, the Snoopers Charter becomes law in the UK, but no one seems too fussed. Why worry about the government spying on you when it already fills like we’re living in one long looping Hour of Chaos? Atrocities I can’t begin to comprehend are happening in Syria, but it’s Christmas time here so let’s go and do some shopping.

I realise I’ve been slipping into a disembodied state: permanently wired, locked into an information stream that brings only bad news. I feel the need, again, to step away. I’m craving open space, mountains, landscapes. Anything to break with the monotony of the flickering screen, the grey terraces outside my window, and the rattling of thoughts inside my skull.

I keep thinking back to the man I met in the woods: purposely divorcing himself from civilisation, to scrape a life from the moss, the trees, the rocks. I feel like doing the same: finding some way to step back into the physical world, breaking away from being a spirit lost in the circuits.

Creativity & Waste

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking recently about the weirdness of the digital universe we now inhabit. In particular, I’ve been thinking about the internet, social media, and how it relates to the creative process.

Part of my job revolves around keeping my company’s social media channels updated. So I spend a chunk of my working day monitoring Twitter and Facebook feeds, commenting on things, posting and retweeting stuff, all so that more people pay attention to us online.

It’s a bizarre state of affairs when you think about it: thousands of people are now employed to do this, almost as though social media ‘likes’ have become a de facto currency, a form of ranking in an online hierarchy (much like s3 e1 of Black Mirror – but I need to stop referring to Black Mirror now, as I’ve done it in three recent posts).

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A few months ago, I watched a video of a conversation that took place during Ableton’s Loop conference in Berlin. The speakers were discussing ways to overcome creative blocks. They talked about the importance of discipline, setting limits, creating structures, and dealing with the aspects of the creative process that are tedious and boring.

There was a comment made by composer Matthew Herbert that I’ve had rattling around in the back of my brain ever since. He said ‘we need to accept that music is now a form of waste. The same as food and clothes. We’re just sort of spewing it out and no-one’s listening any more’.

He felt that the work that artists and producers spend weeks, months or years working on, is spat out into a digital landscape that is so saturated that most of it goes unnoticed. Without a coherent philosophy underpinning the creative process, he argues, the act of making music just becomes the act of ‘plopping out waste’.

The whole conversation was confronting one of the unintended consequences of the democratisation of creativity and distribution brought by the internet: anyone can upload anything, which brings with it the unprecedented freedom for all of us to express what we think, feel, desire. But The flipside is a world of banality, short attention spans dulled by trivia, and complex ideas reduced to brief, fluttering memes.

(Paul Virilio put this another way: ‘the invention of the ship was also the invention of the shipwreck’.)

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This is a bit disheartening if you’re a musician or writer trying to find a voice, knowing full well that most of what you spend your time on (like this blog post) is basically irrelevant and will be immediately be forgotten.

But though the online world maybe awash with bullshit, what we do still have is space: space to experiment, try things out, make mistakes and try again. Even if (maybe especially if) no one is paying any attention.

Entropy & Dread [watching the world burn through a screen]

A kind of entropy, a pressure pushing down on my consciousness has been working on me for a while now, as though there’s a dimmer light glowing in my soul, an emotional flatness filling my being. I feel less surprised, less shocked by things, even when the world looks like it’s turning to shit, and chaos and confusion lie around every corner. I’m not just talking about the election of Trump, I’m battling an overall sense that my senses are being dulled by forces inside and outside of me.

It’s a feeling that Adam Curtis seemed to be getting at in Hypernormalisation – the idea that the ‘real’ world has become such a hideous and distorted farce that we’re all in retreat from it, vanishing into cyber worlds, seeking alternate realities online, even though these are in turn controlled by corporations who can influence which narratives we click on.

Hypernormalisation took some stamina to watch, and by the time I’d got through all 2hours and 40 minutes of it, the feeling of dread had only intensified. But it touched on many things that resonated: the idea that politics is now a form of theatre, divorced from any tangible ‘facts’ in the real world. A spectacle that allows a showman, a manipulator of words and images (like Trump) to gain vast amounts of control.


It feels like reality and fiction are constantly bleeding into each other, melting and rearranging our perception. Science fiction or satire can’t really keep up anymore, because there’s no more fixed reality to satirise or parody, no dystopia that can envision things that aren’t already happening. Take Black Mirror: it’s scary as fuck, but not because it foretells some dark future that we’re slipping towards, but because everything it depicts is already coming to pass.

Social media also plays a big part in the sense of alienation, I think. Dave Egger’s The Circle, which I read over a year ago, has been playing on my mind ever since. I can’t shake his prediction that the impulse for us to ‘share’ our lives online will eventually lead to individual privacy being seen as a crime. More than that, it feels as though our entire perception of reality is being flattened: we experience a mediated reality, where murderous atrocities occupy the same amount of screen time as celebrity cooking programmes.

If there’s one TV character who embodies this state of permanent headfuck, it would have to be Eliot from Mr Robot: drug-addled, overwhelmed with neurosis and social anxiety and possibly psychotic. A hacker constantly seeking not only to bring down the monolithic power structures around him, but also to understand himself, and trying to pry apart the complexities of people around him.


I keep referring to films, books, TV to sort through my thoughts. This was one of Adam Curtis’ critiques of the radicals of the 60s: that they retreated from the harsh political reality around them to focus instead on music and art. But how do you engage with the world through the traditional political channels, when what you’re trying to engage with is a mirage and those supposedly representing you, whose twisted nature is plain to see, insult your senses in their claims to truth?

At the moment, It feels to me that it’s through these avenues – art, music, film – that the honesty of our emotions can come through, offering us a little sliver of space where we can be open about our brokenness, our sense of dislocation, the feeling of inner blankness that come from watching the world burn through a screen.

The Cave Dweller

The cave wasn’t difficult to find. Jazz and I had been walking through the woods for about two hours and we were headed back to the main road when she took me on a small detour to see it. She told me that the cave was sometimes used as a refuge by homeless people, those who had the will to escape the city for a few days, weeks, months.

We clambered down a short bit of hillside and walked in to find a small fire burning in a pit in the middle. Bundles of wood were piled up near the entrance, and scattered around were other signs of habitation: a sleeping bag against one stone wall, a small pile of books, a few cups.

He strolled in slowly a few minutes later, a brief moment of tension descending as we set eyes on each other, and evaporating just as quickly. He was bearded, dreadlocks tied back, wearing a warm jumper, torn black jeans, and work boots. He didn’t seem surprised to see us. “I saw you coming” he said, without any malevolence. Like a tracker, used to noting tiny movements in the forest. If anything, he seemed please to see some other humans.

Tea?” he asked. He filled a black kettle that had been nesting next to the fire with water from a two-litre bottle. We each picked up one of the cups that was dotted around the cave, cleaning them out with a few drops of water and rags. He talked as the water boiled.

He’d been homeless and living in and around Bristol for several years. Most recently, he’d been living in a small encampment with a few others, in a park in the east of the city. Before that, he’d been in a teepee, out in the countryside.

For a while, he’d lived in a house he’d built himself on the beach, made from bits of driftwood and discarded odds and ends. He told us that the walls were thick and the roof waterproof. He’d even had a sound system in there. It was when the local council discovered that he had electricity from a generator that they asked him to take down the building. He refused to do it but left peacefully.

As he talked it became clear that unlike many of the people sleeping rough around the city, he hadn’t just been thrown there by harsh circumstance. He talked of a time when he’d had a job and a car. But something in him had ruptured. A sense, maybe, that the forces acting upon him, acting upon us all, needed to be resisted. He was living in the cave by choice, removing himself from the logic of money, the hum of mobile phones, the clatter of people rattling against each other in the city. “We all need to take a step back from civilisation sometimes”, he said.

He’d discovered the cave a few days earlier and was determined to stay there for the winter, scavenging what he could find. He talked of foraging for mushrooms, keeping his hands busy by cleaning up the cave, using the stones by the entrance to build something. He seemed guided by his own inner need to know that he could survive, despite the threat of being blasted by rain or snow, or having his head kicked in while he slept, by night time wanderers less friendly than he.

The sky outside was darkening and our cups were almost empty. We said goodbye, telling him that we would bring him some provisions next time. He gave us a hug as we left, pleased to see that people from the city still hugged strangers.