African Hacker


[Thoughts on Saul Williams, Martyr Loser King, hacking & scavenger culture]

Saul Williams appears in a black bird’s mask and black jacket, crouching down on stage in a kind of bow, before stepping up to the mic. He’s alone on stage, without a backing band or DJ, musical support coming via the sound booth from collaborator Thavius Beck. His vulnerability becomes all the more real when, just a few minutes in, he trips over one of the monitors and falls head first into the crowd. The tumble only slows him down for a few seconds though. He keeps singing from the floor, rising victoriously a few moments later. A couple of tracks in and he’s back in the middle of the floor, mic raised towards the ceiling, surrounded by bouncing fans.


Visuals flashing across a screen are transmitting signals just as important as his lyrics: they convey some of the reference points for his new album Martyr Loser King. Figures from across the African-American artistic pantheon – Jean-Michel Basquiat, Nina Simone, James Baldwin, Octavia Butler – appear and disappear like spectres or deities, bearing messages, cryptic clues.

The album was born out of the constantly fluctuating memes of social media, but also from field recordings he made during a trip to Central Africa – a region whose polyrhythms he sees as precursors to digital drum programming. In a podcast for NPR radio, Williams stated that part of his creative process was to “take all the stuff I’m thinking about, all the stuff that’s in the news, all the stuff that people share on social media, all the interesting finds and kinda dump it in my drum machine and create a thinly-veiled fiction where I can talk about all the stuff that is of interest to me”.

The album – which charts the adventures of a hacker living in Burundi, and the stunts he is able to pull before being targeted by the authorities – is also based on scenarios he encountered on his journeys in that region of the world. As he mentions in the NPR broadcast, Africa has one of the world’s youngest populations, one which is increasingly connected to the internet. While in the West, Africa’s role as a node in the information economy tends to be dismissed, it is actually central to it in many ways.

For a start, Central Africa, and Congo in particular, is where the majority of the world’s coltan – used in the production of capacitors in electronic devices, especially mobile phones – is mined. Secondly, much of the rest of the world’s E-waste (old phones, monitors, motherboards etc) is dumped in Africa. In fact the world’s largest e-waste site is in Agbogbloshie, Ghana. In his travels, Williams came across instances of ‘scavenger culture’ where people use these discarded objects, and rework them in ingenious ways (by building a 3-D printer, for instance). Africa then, can be seen as a central nexus of information and technology, and of a shape-shifting hacker culture.

kid on computer

Kid standing on a monitor, Agbogbloshie, Ghana.

So the album is in part an exploration, in sonic/science fiction form, of the material origins of online culture, a reimagining of what the world might look like according to those whose lives are built around the off-casts of the richer world’s decadence. It’s also an exploration of what the powers of those people might be. But he uses the idea of ‘hacking’ in a broader sense than rupturing information systems. For Williams, hacking becomes a tool for deconstructing and subverting words, symbols, images, media narratives and systems of thought, especially those surrounding race, gender, class or immigration status. As he puts it:

hack into comfort and compliance / hack into the rebellious gene / hack into doctrine, capitalism and the relation of free labour and slavery / hack into desperation and loneliness, the history of community and the marketplace

We can all become hackers then. Using our own codes, building our own worlds, manipulating the images and messages that are broadcast at us, and turning them to our own ends.


Electronic Alchemy

[Connecting the dots between Jungle, time travel, sampling, alchemy & Alan Moore]

Two things have got me thinking recently about the role of electronic musicians in an increasingly digital and media-saturated culture. The first was seeing The Last Angel of History, a film made in 1996 by John Akomfrah. Its key preoccupations – the spread of the internet, and the interplay between black culture, technology and science fiction – were tropes of what was then the emerging aesthetic of Afrofuturism.

The film looks at the way computer technologies that were originally designed for military purposes in the wake of the Second World War were being used by the end of the twentieth century by young electronic musicians in the US and UK ‘to construct a soundtrack to the end of the industrial epoch’. While in the US, much of this soundtrack was provided by Detroit Techno, in the UK it was the emergence of Jungle in the early ’90s which signalled a musical rupture. Jungle uprooted rhythms from other forms of music – most notably the ‘Amen Break’ – chopped them up and spat them back out at furious speeds that never been heard before; creating a sonic landscape that simultaneously tapped into the angst and aggression of inner-city Britain and provided a relief from its pressures. With its mix of black and white participants, it often broke down racial barriers in the process.

Goldie – one of the era’s most influential producers – explains the way that the technology used to produce early jungle and hip hop records broke down time: the act of sampling allowed producers from Detroit to Hackney direct access to music such as reggae, soul, funk and jazz that had been produced decades earlier. Sampling thus became a form of time travel – taking splices from pre-existing forms of music and transcending its historical specificity by creating something wholly new. This temporal fluidity meant that jungle was in constant dialogue with other forms of music and other cultural artefacts from the African diaspora. But it also created a separate time/space that made you pay attention: ‘straight in, information; straight out in dance, in aggression, in movement’.

But the film was made almost 20 years ago. We have now moved into a world where a generation is being born who will have no memory of a pre-internet existence. What is the role of the electronic musician in an universe in which the rate of information that is available to us is increasing exponentially? The second thing that got me thinking was a comment by Om Unit – who has been steadily rearranging the parameters of drum n bass in recent years, and is signed to Goldie’s pioneering Metalheadz label. He put forward the notion that musicians, and artists in general, are ‘transreceivers of information‘ – individuals who receive input such as sound or visual imagery – and reinterpret them. So, if in the ’90s, jungle producers were able to disrupt linear time and produce a fractured soundtrack to the end of an era, using Om Unit’s notion, electronic musicians in the current era could be seen as following in the footsteps of the ancient practice of alchemy – the search for new and purer substances by altering materials already in existence, with the intention of eliciting psychological and spiritual changes in its practitioners. In his recent mix for FACT magazine, Om Unit hints at this process by including a sample from visionary comic book artist, anarchist and magician Alan Moore, who posits that art in all its forms is a way of transforming reality by ‘manipulating symbols, words or images to achieve changes in consciousness’. For Alan Moore, the work of the artist or writer is akin to that of the shaman. In a world of increasing information overload, the creative act is as vital as ever. Not only because in creating a new piece of music or art we change the world around us, but also because we reclaim the act from advertisers, those who have the most power at their disposal to create ‘cheap entertainment and manipulation’ and thus shape our culture. 


Music is the vessel

[Reflections on Sun Ra, Afrofuturism and music as liberation]

I recently attended a packed-out late night screening of the 1974 film Space is the Place, shown as part of Bristol Watershed’s Afrofuturism season. For the uninitiated, the movie showcases the unique talents and perspectives of one of the twentieth century’s most significant musical innovators – Jazz musician, mystic, prophet, and space traveller Sun Ra, who became the key philosopher of what would later come to be termed Afrofuturism. This cultural movement, which evolved against the backdrop of the struggle for black liberation in the 1960s and ’70s, is heavily influenced by sci-fi, various forms of mysticism and Afrocentric ideas. Along with Sun Ra, the ‘holy trinity’ of Afrofuturist innovators were funk pioneer George Clinton and dub revolutionary Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry – three outsiders operating in completely different sonic and cultural contexts, yet all of whom incorporated the theme of space and space travel as a key element in their outlook. The infinite possibilities of outer space came to be seen as offering uncharted territory for musical and cultural exploration, and a reimagining of possible futures to offer alternatives to the alienation experienced by humans in general, and the African diaspora in particular.

Space is the Place, shows Sun Ra divesting himself, by the means of his Ra Ship, of the shackles and oppression of Planet Earth, its sounds of ‘guns, anger and frustration’, and visiting other planets where ‘the vibrations are different’. He then returns to Earth, touching down in Oakland, where he offers the young black people he meets a choice between the more harmonious frequencies available to them through his teachings and the music of his Arkestra, or to remain ensnared in the poisonous realities of addiction and violence, presided over by the nefarious, Mephistophelean Overseer.

In the context of the film, the FBI, who ineptly bungle an assassination attempt on Ra, understand very well the significance of what an ‘African Space Programme’ could mean: a psychic shift that could alter the spirits of African Americans, thereby threatening the very basis of American society, with its origins in white supremacist violence. Space is the place precisely because its potentials are infinite. In a limitless void belonging to no one, up and down do not exist and Earthly hierarchies become irrelevant. Space becomes a canvas and laboratory for exploring alternative ways of being. Devising an Outer Space Employment Agency as part of his recruitment drive to find fellow-travellers to explore these realms, Ra explains: ‘everything you desire upon this planet, and have never have received, will be yours in outer space’.

Not only is the film an amazing and frequently hilarious cultural landmark, but it illustrates a unique way of thinking about music. In the Sun Ra cosmology, music is both means and end: a method to communicate to Earth-bound creatures that their myopic understanding of reality is entirely defunct, and also an expression of a higher mode of consciousness – a guide to a different way of existing altogether. Music is therefore not a mere appendage to daily life, a temporary relief from its tribulations, but an essential element in the expansion of human capabilities and the traversing of alternate realities.

Sun Ra – who throughout his entire adult life maintained that he was from the planet Saturn – has long since returned to his home planet without leaving us a physical vehicle to explore the realities that he mapped out for us; our technological capacities for teleportation are still sorely lacking. Meanwhile, the oppression he sought to dissolve through music continues: many of us still lost down on Planet Earth are ruled by oligarchs and distant political classes, who enrich themselves while the populations beneath them writhe in limbo-states of anxiety and frustration. Even the racial oppression which Ra surely hoped would come to an end within his lifetime, continues, as the recent slaying of Michael Brown at the hands of police in Ferguson, Missouri, reminds us. Yet the Afrofuturist impulse for music to be a vessel for expansion, experimentation and liberation, is as strong as ever.

Unsurprisingly, the LA Beat Scene, where the foundations of hip hop are being stretched, scuttled, dissected, and rearranged in multiple ways, is one of the primary bastions for this kind of sonic exploration. Brainfeeder founder and psychedelic electronic visionary Flying Lotus, has long been assimilating and reconfiguring Afrofuturist ideas. While his recently released album You’re Dead! Takes death as its central motif, his previous album Until The Quiet Comes is arguably an exploration of the idea of inner spaces – subconscious realms, dream states – as a starting point for re-envisioning life aboard Planet Earth. Likewise, LA beatsmith Ras G takes more explicit cues from Sun Ra’s ideas, taking up the mantle of the Afrikan Space Program for the 21st century.

Still stateside, Erykah Badu, Shabazz Palaces and Janelle Monae are exploring similar territories. But one of the lesser-known but no less talented proponents of modern Afrofuturist music come from Southeast London: United Vibrations have been exploring Sun Ra’s legacy for several years, rooting themselves in jazz, funk, afrobeat, but expanding ever outward, beyond definable genre. In an age where music is largely becoming a cheap and disposable commodity, a lineage of musical explorers continue in their quest to remind us that music is far more important: when created with the proper intention, it is a means to transcend our realities, to rethink what is possible, and to be a tool in our own liberation.