Kodwo Eshun on the Nonexistence of “Black Music,” How to Understand Black Culture and Why Sun Ra’s Music Isn’t Allegorical

Taking a leaf from This Cage is Worms, I’d like to pull some interesting quotes from Kodwo Eshun’s book More Brilliant Than the Sun, which I finished reading a few weeks ago. Though I didn’t directly cite it, MBTS was very formative for my recent article, “Is Rap Really Black People’s CNN?

On the Nonexistence of “Black Music”

“The Automator perpetually folds the mind into origami. Listening to The Automator reminds you that HipHop is computer music. Trad[itional] HipHop continues to install a painful binary machine, a rigid funk canon that cuts right through you, and polarizes your flux. But after Kool Keith’s, The Automator’s and guest producer Kut Master Kurt’s ’95 album Dr. Octagon, this restricted aesthetic feels like emotional amputation, like terminal insularity elevated to a fraudulent ethics, an ethics known as Black Music.

Which is why the term Black Music so often sounds stupid, so dated and pointless, a phrase only used by the most retarded r&b cheerleaders. Black Music: the term clamps the brain because it omits the role of the machine, because it blithely ignores computerization by locating all of HipHop back in the all-too-human zones of the soul of the street.

To use the phrase Black Music is to presume a consensus that has never existed, to assume a readily audible, pre-synthetic essence which machines have externalized, manufactured and globalized.

p. 37.

On Understanding Black Culture

“I look at black culture much more as a series of material that’s been agglomerated on one hand, and on the others, it’s much more like a series of techniques. A lot of the producers and engineers I talk about see themselves as scientists or technicians. I tend to think of black culture then as an instrument or an environment that they’ve invented. I’m very much looking into synthesizings, looking into new black synthetic versions. I can never think of a unified black culture out of which everything comes. To me everything now looks like it’s synthesized. There’s obviously stuff that’s been around long enough so that it feels solidified, calcified, but actually it’s all synthesized. Because I’m looking at emergences, and by definition they’re going to be really synthetic, like [Detroit] Techno. Because I bring the machine into it. It makes things much more complex because instead of talking about black culture, I’ll talk for instance a lot about Ghanian drum choirs, or talk a lot about the African polyrhythmic engine, the polyrhythmic percussion engine. And those will be very particular African traits. Sound is a sensory technology, so I talk a lot about black technologies. They’re machines – and if we’re talking about 19th or 18th century Africa, then they’d be machines built a long time ago and passed down. But in the present, it’s like more black culture is this series of machines built here and there. The dub plate was one, built in Jamaica. The Breakbeat was another, built in New York.”

p. 191 – 192.

On why he studied AfroFuturistic music

“There’s the key thing which drew me into all of this: the idea of alien abduction, the idea of slavery as an alien abduction which means that we’ve all been living in an alien-nation since the 18th century. And I definitely agree with that, I definitely use that a lot. The mutation of African male and female slaves in the 18th century into what became negro, and into the entire series of humans that were designed in America. That whole process, the key thing behind it all is that in America none of these humans were designated human. It’s in music that you get this sense that most African-Americans owe nothing to the status of the human. African-Americans still had to protest, still had to riot, to be judged Enlightenment humans in the 1960s – it’s quite incredible. And in music , if you listen to guys like Sun Ra – I call them the despots, Ra, Rammellzee and Mad Mike – part of the whole thing about being an African-American alien musician, is that there’s this sense of the human as being a really pointless and treacherous category, a category which has never meant anything to African-Americans. This is particularly true with Sun Ra – just because Ra pushes it by saying that he comes from Saturn. I always accept the impossibility of this. I always start with that, where most people would try and claim it was allegory. But it isn’t allegory: he really did come from Saturn. I try not to exaggerate that impossibility, until it’s irritating, until it’s annoying, and this annoyance is merely a threshold being crossed in the readers’ heads, and once they unseize, unclench their sensorium, they’ll have passed through a new threshold and be in my world. I’ll have got them. The key thing to do is register this annoyance, because a lot of the moves I’ve described will provoke real annoyance, the lack of the literary, the lack of the modernist, the lack of the postmodern. All of these things should provoke a real irritation, and simultaneously a real relief, a relief that somebody has left all stuff behind, and started from the pleasure principle, started from the materials, started from what really gives people pleasure.”

p. 192-193.

More Brilliant Than the Sun is currently out of print, but I might know a guy who has a pdf, if you’re interested.

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