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.

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Sleaford Mods & the politics of austerity

The last time I saw Sleaford Mods play live, beatmaker Andrew Fearn was stood on stage texting, five minutes before the gig was due to start. A few moments later and and Jason Williamson, the other half of the Nottingham duo, comes shoving through the crowd and gets up to join his partner, who pushes a button on his laptop. Williamson immediately launches into his demolition of the state of the UK in all its dank dreariness: shit jobs, raging hangovers and constant, low-level desperation.

If you tried to explain the band to someone who had never heard them before, it wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense: there’s one bloke who just stands there drinking beer and nodding his head, pressing play on a laptop, while the other bloke twitches and prances, jabbering away at the audience. When I last saw them play in Bristol, there was part of me that couldn’t help thinking that their main appeal was to disgruntled white middle-aged men. But it’s their directness, lack of pretension and honesty that resonates so acutely with a wider demographic. They are one of the few bands receiving mainstream airplay to address the social and emotional turmoil of the Tories’ austerity policies. Although keen to avoid the label of ‘political’ band, the lo-fi aesthetic of their beats is matched by the fury and social conscience of punk, which documents the small-scale, everyday frustrations and fucks-up of a society burnt out and living close to hopelessness.

The documentary Invisible Britain, which I saw last week, follows the band as they tour some of the British towns and cities usually excluded from touring bands’ itineraries. Places like Scunthorpe and Barnsley, clinging to the broken remnants of industry, where cuts to pubic services are making everyday life increasingly precarious for a working class not merely forgotten but actively scorned and punished by the current government.

As a music documentary it’s unusual. The film cuts between interviews with the band and fans, and scenes of local campaigns in the towns where they play, ranging from groups of families campaigning for the release of unjustly imprisoned relatives in Liverpool, to union stewards in Yorkshire and a young venue owner trying to create job opportunities for young people in an area with few prospects.

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On the way to The Cube, where the film was showing, I was walking up Stokes Croft when I came across a young woman crouched over a teenage girl doubled over on the pavement. The woman asked me if I had a phone, as she wanted me to call an ambulance for the girl, who was sleeping rough, and said she was pregnant and was having stomach pains. I offered to call her an ambulance but she refused, saying that the people in the hospital refused to treat her properly. I called them anyway, and she started walking off, but I caught up with her and talked to her for a little while. It turns out she was seventeen, had been turfed out by her mum and had been previously been raped, leading to her suffering a miscarriage. She was trying to cobble together enough spare change from passersby to get into the backpackers’ hostel at the end of the road. I gave her the little money I had on me. She thanked me, saying she wasn’t used to people on the street being nice to her.

The experience chimed eerily with a statistic at the start of Invisible Britain: that street homelessness has increased by fifty five per cent since the Tories came to power. Yet another bleak reminder of the reverse redistribution of wealth that the Conservatives are orchestrating and a further illustration of their determination to decimate services protecting vulnerable people and to undermine all tiny semblances of solidarity that are keeping those at the bottom from falling apart.

Cover Image: still from Invisible Britain

Women of electronic music: Delia Derbyshire

I’ve written about this topic before, and it is one that I will keep returning to. Over the past year, as part of my explorations of the Bristol music scene, I have been to a lot of gigs and club nights. One thing that is impossible to ignore is the under-representation of women, particularly when it comes to audiences for and producers of electronic music. While it isn’t always the case, I have been to nights and stood amongst crowds that have been ninety per cent male. This trend is also reflected in wider narratives about electronic music and its origins, in which the contributions of women are often forgotten or marginalised.

This is not going unnoticed in Bristol. I’ve previously mentioned Saffron Records, who are doing much to promote the work of young female musicians in the city. Similarly, The World is Listening, a Bristol-based podcast, celebrates the contributions of women in the world of electronic music production. Taking a more overtly political stance on the issue, and the lack of creative spaces run by women, is the LaDIYfest collective, which organised a two-day festival last October in Bristol and has an objective to ‘celebrate the achievements of self-identifying women and oppressed genders in the arts’.

It was LaDIYfest who organised the showing of Kara Blake’s 2009 documentary The Delian Mode at Bristol’s Hydra bookshop last night. The 25-minute film focuses on the work of Delia Derbyshire, the composer of the Doctor Who theme tune, and a pioneer in electronic music who is slowly becoming recognised as a major influence on contemporary producers and musicians. The film highlights how her childhood in Coventry, and particularly, her experiences of the bombing of the city, were pivotal in her developing a fascination with sound theory. In one scene, she talks about hearing air-raid sirens, and later, following her family’s removal to her parent’s home town of Preston, the sounds of ‘clogs on cobblestones’ as a massive influence on her.

She went on to gain a Maths degree from Cambridge, an experience which she described as ‘quite something for a working class girl in the fifties, when only one in ten [students] were female’. From 1962 to 1973, she worked with the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop in Maida Vale, a studio set up to create sound effects and music for radio and TV programmes. She became a talented producer of musique concrète – the practice of using recorded sounds, often from field recordings or everyday objects, and manipulating these to create compositions. Her tools were primarily analogue tape reels, and the pain-staking work of splicing tape befitted her eccentric and obsessive character. Her talents as a producer were counter-balanced by depressive tendencies and a life-long dependency on alcohol, which would eventually lead to her death from renal failure  in 2001 at the age of 64.

In many ways, the techniques that Derbyshire was using prefigured the possibilities that would later come with synthesizers (which she disapproved of due to their ‘inorganic’ approach to sound creation) and with digital audio work stations. She influenced a generation of musicians who grew up in the 60s and 70s, listening to the radio and watching the TV programmes that her studio produced.

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.

https://soundcloud.com/ras_g/live-from-spacebase-vol-1

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.