On Everybody

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Logic Everybody AfricaryanLogic is no storyteller. The Maryland rapper has professed his love for Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan and favors lush, expansive soundscapes, but his cinematic ambitions are diminished by his vlogger perspective. Everybody, his third studio album is a feat of narrow vision. Covering race relations and identity and metaphysics, the album aims big but is utterly unrewarding, a dull haze of half-baked ideas and muddled intent.

Centered around an encounter between a deity, played by astrophysicist and TV personality Neil deGrasse Tyson, and a mortal named Atom following his death in a car accident, Everybody follows Atom as he is endlessly reincarnated, slowly becoming everybody across the span of human history. It’s a trippy conceit but Logic fails to ever develop it. His verses attempt to ping between perspectives, but his characters are indistinguishable blurs, always inevitably folding back into Logic’s own underdeveloped story. This slippage could have illustrated the album’s themes of reincarnation and collective unity, but its shoddy execution reveals the limits of Logic’s vision.

Simply put, Logic doesn’t have an eye for detail. His verses are pure information dumps, full of declarations and claims but rarely narratives. “I’m a dirty motherfucker, a waste of life, a waste of skin,” he says on “Confess,” summarizing a story he never told. “Television tellin’ my vision to get greedier!” he says on “Most Definitely,” citing the entire medium rather than a specific channel. When he does attempt a narrative, settings and scenarios are announced rather than evoked. “Imagine this child growing up and seeing the craziest shit, being apart of the craziest shit,” he says without elaboration on “Take It Back.” Imagine if he actually told that story. The Incredible True Story, Logic’s last album, lacked a compelling plot, but it at least didn’t confuse stage directions with action.

This album’s working title, “AfricAryaN” (a nod toward his biracial heritage), was discarded in the wake of a public backlash, but the original title’s hollow provocation is built into the album’s core. Logic frequently uses his mixed heritage to reject extremism, but he doesn’t even seem to grasp the difference between identity and prejudice. On “Everybody” he oscillates between questioning the idea of white privilege, rejecting racial identity outright, and claiming he contains the blood of slaves and masters. His confusion is forgivable, but it’s jarring that he resolves it by declaring everyone equal as if that were ever the question, as if his own discomfort encompasses the entirety of the issue.  On “Take it Back” his heritage becomes the key to transcending identity, another unsolicited solution. “He always saw things from two sides. He always knew that the message that everybody was born equal regardless of race, religion, creed, and sexual orientation, he knew that because he saw that,” he says in blank verse, referring to himself. This is Logic’s idea of racial harmony: a black man whitesplaining equality.

Logic’s rapping is just as tortured, full of empty flow shifts and whiffed punchlines. “Street’s disciple, my rap’s a trifle/I shoot slurs from my brain just like Cobain,” he raps on “America.” “I wish I had motivation to get money/My rainy day would be sunny if I had a vision of currency falling above from the sky,” he raps on “Killing Spree.” Logic has never been an evocative rapper, but what he’s lacked in imagery he’s typically made up for with earnestness. Here he frequents a choppy stutter flow that mimics a record scratch. It’s stylish, but the sense of tedium does Logic little justice, especially when he gets outclassed by Black Thought and Chuck D on “America,” rappers capable of rapping well and emoting, not just one at a time. And this tedium is even more punishing if you’re a listener who’s familiar with the corners from which Logic sources all his parts: “America” is a schlocky imitation of Kanye’s “Fade” (it even has a Post Malone impression); “Most Definitely” lacks the assured breeziness of Mos Def’s “Umi Says;” “Killing Spree” bites Jay Rock’s “Vice City” but isn’t as infectiously seedy.

Ultimately, it’s just not clear what Logic is trying to do. Is he having an identity crisis? Is he affirming his identity? Is he having a crisis of faith? What is the nature of his faith? Is he upset about Spider-Man: Homecoming? You’d think these questions could be addressed in 71 minutes and 13 songs (many of them 6+ minutes) but Everybody is Logic’s least focused album yet. Instead of surveying human history, Logic vaguely explores his own anxieties, stargazing into the mirror. The beats are gorgeous and the ambition is clear, but what was supposed to be an album about everybody ended up being another album about Logic. And it doesn’t even tell his own story very well. Reincarnation is cruel.

Recent Writing

I haven’t written here lately, but I have been writing elsewhere.

I wrote about triple-washed salad.

I wrote about smiling while black.

I wrote about paranoia in 2016 rap.

I reviewed Physics of Blackness.

I reviewed Coloring Book, untitled, unmastered, 99¢, and The Heart Speaks in Whispers.

There’s a few more things scheduled for the future, but I’ve got to say, I’m pretty thankful for the opportunities I’ve had so far. I always want to write more, and I know that I will write more, regardless of whether it’s here or at an outlet, but I’m always appreciative of being published outside of my own bubble. It’s not something that should be seen as validation because lots of poorly written and poorly developed stuff gets published at top places every second. It’s just personally satisfying to weather the harrowing timeline of pitching, researching, writing, and editing, and seeing an idea finally materialize on the other side. Plus, [good] editors are a treasure!

In other news, I have a novel that I’m trying to get published. Fingers crossed!

Thanks for reading.

On Unapologetic Blackness

Fuck you, understand me.” – Saul Williams. (“All Coltrane Solos at Once”)

According to the web, 2016 is the year of unapologetic blackness. There’s Lemonade. There’s Formation. There’s Cam Newton. There’s Black Panther. There’s Ta-Nehisi Coates. There’s Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Black Panther. There’s Kendrick. There’s Cornrow Kenny. There’s the Birth of a Nation. There’s Rihanna. There’s Empire. There isn’t Prince, but his spirit lives on. Ad infinitum.

I like the term and I think I know what it means – blackness unmediated, unfiltered, uncut – but I wonder how useful it is. On one hand, it’s a celebration of blackness without concession, especially in hyper-public spaces, like the Super Bowl and the Grammy’s. Even better, at the same time  it’s also a celebration of mundane blackness, in private and at ease: afros and hot sauce and selfies and t-shirts and cousins and aunties and church and attitude and crocs at Wal-Mart. Never has something so nebulous seemed so concrete. I love it. But what gives me pause about the term is that I don’t know why it’s needed and I think it might be too rosy.

I say this because unapologetic blackness, despite its defiant undertones, seems eerily similar to blackness. The term openly hints at the constant pressure to reduce blackness, in public and in private, so maybe it resonates because it highlights active affronts to that pressure. But doesn’t blackness itself already do that? We’re in the midst of a crazily racist presidential election, and to even mention that race is a factor in this election is to draw serious ire, on both sides of the political spectrum. And to go further and mention how blackness in particular is a factor might as well be witchcraft.

And beyond the election, even the way people talk about blackness is still guarded “Diversity” is still our go-to word to describe very specific problems with media. Terms like “race relations” and “racialized” gracefully slither around particular grievances.  It almost seems that as our terms proliferate, our grasp of what we’re referring to weakens.

This leads to my real concern. Unapologetic blackness gestures at these obstacles to unadulterated blackness, but it often focuses on the triumph, the breakthrough. This is fantastic, but I wonder if that focus obscures what gets stonewalled.

To put it differently, can unapologetic blackness account for mediated blackness? Can it encompass compromise or failure or resignation? Can it process another officer acquitted in the Freddie Gray case? Can it comprehend Stacey Dash and Azealia Banks endorsing Donald Trump? Can it oppose the execution of Dylann Roof?

I ask these questions because blackness, sans qualifier, can handle it, as it has been doing for years. Even though it’s well accepted that respectability politics is toxic, no one denies that respectability politics is a facet of blackness. Likewise, blackness encompasses religiosity and profanity, conservatism and progressivism, hate and love, tragedy and triumph, murder and excellence. Maybe it’s a good thing to purge the tension of blackness, to purify it, but what’s the cost? Unapologetic blackness may be indifferent to the white gaze, but what about black discord?

These are just speculations. Perhaps I’m being a lame ass literalist, something I’m often guilty of. Unapologetic blackness is probably just a cool term for the moments that make black people proud, collectively and individually. And more importantly, it’s probably just a defiant response to the longtime hegemony of respectability politics. I really want to believe this.

But at the end of the day, when it’s just me and the abyss, I wonder about those moments beyond pride and spectacle, where refusing to apologize is no different from refusing to engage, where not apologizing leaves the bridge burned, where the fuck you never leads to the understanding.

The Hateful Word (The Last Thing I’ll Ever Write on Quentin Tarantino and the Word Nigger)

 

I’ve watched a lot of movies that were explicitly interested in racism. Of these kinds of movies, films about athletes or sports teams overcoming racial prejudice in order to succeed (e.g., Remember The Titans, Hardball, Coach Carter, Ali, The Great Debaters) tend to be the most explicit. There’s a rhythm to “race movies” that sports stories tend to follow very closely and I think that that’s worth thinking about in the context of The Hateful Eight.

The plot of race movies is usually something to the tune of idealism (racial harmony, individuals unimpeded by prejudice) facing up against reality and being struck down repeatedly until reality bends and realizes that the ideal is the only way forward. The march is long and hard but the bridge is always crossed.

This is clearly a myth, especially in the context of sports, an arena where loss is literally designed into the game, but it persists. In order to sustain this myth, especially within movies that aim for realism, racism and other deadlocked issues have to be reconstructed within the movie. I know this is obvious, but let’s dwell on it. Racism, like any other element in fiction, be it gender roles, family ties, or setting, has to be built piece by piece. It has to be washed, prepared, cooked up. Racism is never microwave-ready.

So how does one go about building a racist world? In a (American) sports movie, you dwell on those moments where Racism – big, scary R, with fangs, Klan sheets, badges, police cruisers, old and crusty Southern white men with bullhorns, smiling Southern white women with poisoned sweet tea – discards all manners and speaks directly, forcefully. I hate you. You are less than me. You are nigger.

I tend to frown and sometimes laugh at these movies because racism is just so conspicuous. Note that I didn’t say it’s fake – I still recognize it as real, plausible. But it’s a bit too in-your-face, too hideously ugly, too confrontational. Maybe I’m just a product of my era, but outside of a few rare instances I rarely have prolonged personal encounters with racism. This is definitely privilege talking, but I tend to catch it in glimpses, flashbacks, moments. Racism’s tendency toward evanescence is why I think most robust anti-racism movements have focused on structures of oppression: institutions, policies, laws, nations, doctrines. Now these I come into contact with everyday.

That said, I’ve never seen a movie [that was explicitly] about structural racism. I won’t say that the nature of structures makes it impossible for them to be narratively compelling, but I’ve never seen it done. Ever. Our current way of making movies and maybe even of just telling stories just seems to be too tied to character and individuals and groups and consciousness to deal with the inhumanity of structural racism. This isn’t a bad thing, but that’s the rub.

That said, some filmmakers try really hard to reproduce those structures, to mobilize them even in movies about individuals. Higher Learning takes aim at college. Training Day takes aim at cops. The Pursuit of Happyness takes aim at the economy. The Hateful Eight takes aim at the Civil War.

In The Hateful Eight the aim is scattershot (that’s my wide-screen joke) and it doesn’t always hit (the movie is deeply sexist, I think), but I’m not convinced it isn’t effective. The word nigger gets volleyed around over and over and over and I don’t think it’s in vain. Of course there are other ways to build a racist world, but in a world of speechifying, pissy, loquacious strangers, I think that deeply violent language is an awfully reliable brick.

Sure, the story as it was told did not have to be told this way and yes highly privileged white man Quentin Tarantino seems to use the word pretty comfortably, but all of this righteous indignation regarding the word nigger is starting to strike me as goofy. Structural racism is hard to produce on screen – there are people who don’t believe in it in real life, after all. And for better or worse the word nigger hits. And when it comes in unrelenting flurries the way it does in The Hateful Eight, I think it hits hard.

Cameron Kunzelman once made a video game called “My Rage is a Cloud That Will Cover The Earth.” The game features a cloud (of rage) that hangs over an avatar’s head and expands as sexist and condescending quotes linger on the screen. The cloud is explicitly meant to represent the avatar’s rage and frustration, but I’ve always thought it could also represent the quotes themselves, and their ability to slowly engulf the world, the universe, life itself.

Major Warren in The Hateful Eight seems to live in such a world and I think that the frequency and vitriol of the word nigger makes that apparent. Each utterance of nigger is a virulent droplet of hate in an atmosphere that’s already impossibly humid.

This doesn’t mean that the word nigger is necessary to convey racism against black people on screen.* Black strife now, then, and forever will always be larger than slurs. It just means that one particular filmmaker’s choice worked. This time.

I don’t think it will work forever or in all contexts. In Django, for example, the humor of the film made the word nigger and other forms of racism somewhat ambiguous, especially since nigger was used in all directions, by all kinds of characters. And that ambiguity can definitely come across as carelessness or insensitivity.

But beyond whether it will always work, I think the ultimate question about Quentin Tarantino and the role of race in his movies is who carries the burden of his representations? Who has to deal with laughs at racist jokes during his films? Who has to be pushed to the margins to realize Tarantino’s vision of black masculinity and American racism? Who suffers when Tarantino goes for indulgence over concision? The answers to these questions vary between his movies, but I think they are much better ways of engaging with his body of work and with his representations of black people than tallying up the occurrence of a word that he tends to employ quite strategically (in his films; in his interviews, he isn’t always so tactful).

In short, if you want to find the troubling racial undertones in Quentin Tarantino’s work (they are there!) please look beyond the word nigger. Your rage, your argument, and my experience of your argument deserve it.

*The defense that it is historically accurate doesn’t fly either. The accents in the Hateful Eight are free-wheeling and I’m pretty sure that Negro was a more common word than black during the time period when the movie takes place. Likewise, since fictional worlds are artificial, the idea that the word adds realism to a movie is also questionable. I think that the real strength of the word in his films is affect, not realism.

Further Reading: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.

Ain’t I Clean Though? Quick Notes on Respectability Politics and Vanity

Last week, Code Switch ran an article about the origin of respectability politics. They didn’t find an exact answer (because there probably isn’t one), but I don’t want to focus on that. At the top of the article was a sample of directives/advice/commands that a respectability politician might offer:

Pull up your pants. Calm down. Get good grades. Stop the violence. Buy a gun. Fix your hair. Go to church. Have a normal name. Speak properly. Be polite. Put your hands up. Stop loitering. Go inside. Have a good job. Smile. Apologize. Don’t shout. Try harder. Own a home (in the right neighborhood). Lose weight. Be braver. Do better. Don’t move. Seriously. Stay. The heck. Put.

There’s a clear individualist bent to all of these mandates. This is DIY anti-racism, the self being the only thing that needs to change. There’s no point in reiterating how ridiculous and condescending it is to be told that beating structural racism is simply a matter of self-improvement, but I do think that it’s worth noting how deeply vain this list is.

Smile, pull up your pants, go to church, speak properly – all of these instructions can be flipped: be seen smiling, be seen with your pants up, be seen at church, be heard speaking “properly.” Respectability politics is heavily invested in perception, in surfaces.

It’s not surprising that a racial group that has [primarily] been visually marked would invest in perception. But what’s troubling is how naive this investment is. To strive for respectability is to submit your self-image, your self-worth, your self-importance, to the person looking at you, judging you, evaluating you, shaming you. To be respectable is to become a surface.

Respectability isn’t so much individualist as it is submissive, deferential.

I can see the appeal. There’s an inherent contingency in submission. Looks can change. Judges can break with precedent. Shame can become admiration. Maybe if we just look good enough, they’ll have to smile back.

But what if there’s no one looking back at you? Structural racism has always struck me as horrifyingly inhuman. One of the most memorable things about the Case for Reparations was that although Coates followed the Ross family, the outcomes for an entire generation of black people were largely the same. This really can’t be overstated. Despite the fact that black migrants from the South traveled north along different trajectories, settling in different cities, and interfacing with various government institutions – they largely all had similar outcomes. And this isn’t surprising. As Coates forcefully argues, absconding with black wealth was policy. In other words, what he gets at in that piece is that institutions are designed to eliminate contingency, to standardize outcomes.

So even if respectability politics did begin to acknowledge structural racism, to concede that there is a system, not a just a bigoted person or two exacting judgment and pulling triggers, it could still only submit, looking flawless in front of the obelisk instead of toppling it or finding away around it. I honestly can’t imagine a belief system that is more suited (pun intended) for late capitalism.

So, all that to say, maybe Riley Freeman should be the new poster child for respectability politics. I think he gets it.

Byzantine Blues/I’m Feeling Lucky

Last night I was stopped in Arlington, Virginia for being an “unlicensed driver in the state of Virginia” (apparently having a Georgia license and a Virginia registration is not acceptable) and was issued a ticket for not having a Virginia driver’s license. The officer told me that I can avoid the court summons and a fine by getting a Virginia license and going to the courthouse before my court date to prove that I am newly compliant with Virginia driving laws. Maybe I’m being reductive, but paying for an unnecessary new license (my Georgia license expires in 2017) and visiting a courthouse sounds incredibly similar to appearing in court and paying a fine.

I wasn’t too excited about being forced to waste time and take off work for something so slight and inane. But I soon realized that because I’m moving to DC proper at the end of the month, I will now have to get a VA license just to own it for 2 weeks, then exchange that license for a DC license within 30 days of moving in.

Hoping to avoid this ridiculously annoying sequence of events, today I called the courthouse and asked if there were other options. They very dryly told me that I have a “perfect grasp” of the situation and that my only other option is to appear in court and explain my situation.

I hadn’t considered this, but it really is an option. I could wait 3 months, then appear before the judge and explain, “I am here before you today because instead of navigating the Byzantine system that has been elaborately and weirdly designed to coerce me into paying nominal licensing fees at the expense of my time and money, I have decided to expend my time and money in order to explain this Byzantine system to you in hopes that you, someone who is comfortably ensconced within this system, will suddenly recognize the horror of this nightmarish machine of parasitic pettiness and solve my silly problems in a heroic swoop of Reason and compassion.”

Because I really doubt that I could speak so eloquently for so long, I’m going to go with the first option of getting a license, going to the courthouse, then getting another license. Even if I got a DC license, then appeared in court, I would probably still end up being fined because on that day I was driving without a VA license.


I know that this annoying episode will come and go as quickly as it came, but I can’t help but dwell on it because there’s something scary about how normal this situation is. There is nothing unusual about a police officer scanning vehicle license plates while driving (generously assuming that’s even the real reason I was stopped…), stopping drivers, sidling up to their car windows, and enforcing municipal licensing rules that people have never heard of until the moment they were enforced. This happens every day, multiple times a day, everywhere.

This was my first time ever being pulled over, so perhaps that, plus the fact that I’ve actively kept up with the nationwide epidemic of police violence against folks of color, just have me on high alert. But even if that is true, that I’m being paranoid over what was a rather uneventful encounter, why shouldn’t I be? It is precisely the very uneventfulness of this entire experience that alarms me. All it takes is one unlucky and unnecessary police scan to send someone spiraling down a bureaucratic rabbit hole that can only be escaped via time, money or an unlikely rejection of the bureaucracy by someone who holds power within it. For some people, like the residents of Ferguson, the spiral never ends .

But that’s not a surprise. I’ve always known that I live in a world where a black male who gets stopped by a cop feels “lucky” to “only” receive a ticket and “only” have to do some pesky bureaucratic maneuvering. The surprise is just how exhausting this so-called luck feels. I haven’t even started my bureaucratic relay race yet, but I already feel winded, defeated.

After I got home, I undressed, brushed my teeth, then told my girlfriend what had happened.  “I’m just glad you’re okay,” she responded. I told her that I was glad too, and to my horror, I really meant it.

Remind Me To Remember What You Told Me (On Black History Month)

Like most commemorative events, Black History Month is an assertion, a statement that this month and what it represents are important. The Canadian rapper Shad almost captures this commemorative spirit in his song “Remember to Remember.” I say “almost” because despite its pithy title, which is repeated in the chorus, “Remember to Remember” betrays an attempt to conceal its own origins. We have to be to told to remember to remember precisely because it is easy to forget. And this ease suggests that the things we want to remember might actually be unmemorable, unimportant. The sheer conviction of the statement “Remember to remember” paints over that anxiety of forgetting, which I think is dangerous.

Another rapper, DOOM, more accurately captures the spirit of commemorative holidays, drunkenly rapping, “Remind me to remember what you told me,” in his song “All Outta Ale.” DOOM’s line simultaneously asserts his desire to remember and admits that he’s already forgotten. He knows that the importance of memories is contrived, arbitrary, so that’s how he treats them, embracing the artifice. He doesn’t see forgetting as a vice, a denial of Truth. He sees it as more reason to remember. Importance is a concentrated effort, not an inherent characteristic.

I pinball between these two modes of thinking about historical memory, but I ultimately side with the DOOM approach because it is more transparent. “Remember to Remember” has a certain self-evidence to it that I think is ultimately self-defeating. If black lives and history inherently mattered, we wouldn’t have to declare their importance.

This is precisely why #alllivesmatter falls flat on its face. Not only does it grossly deface the point of #blacklivesmatter, which is to highlight the devaluation of black life through ongoing systemic racism, but it obscures its own origins. In other words, #alllivesmatters paints itself as an “obvious” correction, an “of course,” when it is really a reaction to #blacklivesmatters’ collective observation that all lives seem to matter except for black lives (as well as other marginalized groups). If all lives inherently mattered, no one would be compelled to make the counterclaim that certain lives don’t.

The same goes for the silly annual tradition of people asking, “Why is there no White History Month?” which is unfortunately rarely a rhetorical question. That question can only be asked if you view history with a severely unempirical eye, thinking of it as a mere archive rather than as the process of archiving certain things toward certain ends, like the Texas school board fighting to get textbooks that misrepresent Islam, climate change, and the Mexican-American war, among other things.

There might be some implicit nihilism in the assertion that no life is inherently important, but I’d rather embrace that nihilism than bet my life on some alleged inherent properties of this life that have never been acknowledged. This stance, and Black History Month as a whole may seem like a concession, but that’s the point. Black life and history matter precisely because we say that they matter in spite of how they are routinely treated. Without that concession, that painful admission that this remembrance is willed, it’s just another empty cause.

In the end, I’m just saying that I think it’s important to remember why we remember, not just to remember. Because as soon as Black History Month or #blacklivesmatters forgets or elides their reasons for existing, they spiral into meaninglessness, losing their power to change and joining the ranks of other defanged projects and customs, like Labor Day and Earth Day. We can do better and it starts with actively remembering why we have to.