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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Is Rap Really Black People’s CNN?

According to hearsay*, Chuck D of Public Enemy  once said, “Rap is CNN for black people,” basically claiming that rap broadcasts what goes on in black people’s lives. It’s an interesting quote, especially since it implies that the real CNN isn’t a reliable source of happenings in black life (or maybe any non-white life), but I’ve recently grown skeptical of the quote’s accuracy and of its sociopolitical usefulness. It all started when I heard this interview of writer, critic and filmmaker dream hampton last summer. Discussing her longtime relationship with hip-hop, hampton details why she’s recently moved away from hip-hop, saying, “I’m done with hip-hop being a central organizing tool for my ideas,” and concluding that hip-hop “doesn’t have the right to be the cultural arm of black America.”

She arrived at this conclusion after years of battling rappers and rap fans on the symbolic front as far as misogynist language and on the domestic front in terms of how women in hip-hop were personally treated by men. This quote says it all:

“I don’t hear Chuck D talking about how Flavor Flav abuses black people, because it turns out black women are black people [too]. Again, I’ve been doing this police brutality work forever. Often the victims are boys and men. And women show up. Sisters, mothers, daughters, women who have no relationships to these men show up and and show up for these men. We rally, raise our voices, organize and when it comes to domestic violence, when it comes to all the ways we’re abused…far more women are gonna be assaulted in their homes than men are gonna be assaulted in the street and yet that same outcry doesn’t exist.”

To put it bluntly, hampton is saying that hip-hop largely doesn’t care about black women and from her twenty years of experience, it most likely never will. This isn’t a shocking statement if you listen to hip-hop either closely or marginally, but in addition to giving insight into hip-hop’s deeply entrenched gender exclusions, I think hampton’s statements also point toward some other entrenched exclusions.

For instance, as far as I know, the first and possibly only hip-hop album that my mom ever purchased was The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. My aunts and uncles have probably never purchased a hip-hop album. The same is imaginable for their friends and so forth. My first personal introduction to rap came from a random Coolio cameo on some early ’90s Muppets show. Aside from occasionally listening to the radio, my girlfriend’s knowledge of rap stops after high school. I doubt that my family, my girlfriend and I are statistical outliers or that we were all musically deprived. I’ve been in barbershops and hair salons where members of the so-called hip-hop generation (people born and raised between ’72-87) expressed no interest in hip-hop whatsoever, musically or stylistically. In fact, at a barbershop I used to frequent at Greenbriar Mall when I lived in East Point, Georgia during the ’90s, the barbers mostly discussed (and watched) basketball, football, and sitcoms like Martin and Living Single.

I would never absolutely say that these people lived totally outside of hip-hop’s sphere of influence or that hip-hop could say nothing about their lives, but I doubt that it would be a particularly reliable lens for understanding how they lived. At the same time that hip-hop was on the rise, R&B, soul, jazz and gospel were prosperous as well. Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Anita Baker and Prince were having some especially successful careers. And elsewhere, reggae and dub were thriving in their own way. And not that institutional recognition really matters, but there wasn’t even a Grammy award for best rap album until 1996. I think this is all important because when we discuss who hip-hop speaks for and speaks to, it’s easy to conflate hip-hop’s political potential with its [present and past] social reality. Stated bluntly, it’s easy to think that hip-hop represents all black people when it doesn’t, never has and probably never should.

People who are symbolically excluded from hip-hop have always flocked to it, but I think it’s apparent that those relationships are often tenuous. In hampton’s interview, she contrasts the fervor she had for hip-hop in her twenties with the indifference she has for it now, in her forties. What I take from that is that from the beginning, fandom, passion for the genre, is the only thing that kept her around. Once that passion was finally snuffed out by the harsh winds of misogyny and insistent indifference to black women’s lives, she had no reason to remain interested, besides an occasional song that didn’t treat her like trash.

In the end, I think that Chuck D’s statement was more a fantasy of rap than an actual description of what rap socially does. For Chuck D, if rap could act as black people’s CNN, it could be relied upon to express the problems facing black America in a way that wasn’t mediated by political and corporate disinterest in black life. In this fantasy black people are the news anchors, reporting straight from the source: ourselves. But as I’ve tried to point out, I think blackness is being stretched in this metaphor. Women, black people who don’t like particularly like rap, black people with Caribbean roots and black people rooted in other musical and aesthetic traditions**, etc., just weren’t included in rap. And though inclusion is certainly not destiny, I think it’s responsible to admit that the most reliable thing rap can tell you is about the imagined and actual lives of mostly black males. Everything else is relatively marginal.

Other narratives abound and occasionally bubble up – Queen Latifah, Azealia Banks, Eminem, B. Dolan, Jasiri X, Invincible and more all have great stories to tell – and songs like Tupac’s “Brenda’s Got a Baby and Aesop Rock’s “Ruby 81” are great examples of these narratives being told by men, which shows that gender isn’t artistic destiny. Heck, “Ruby 81” shows that even species isn’t artistic destiny; it’s about a dog saving a girl from drowning! Nevertheless, in the end, this fantasy of rap as the premier window into black people’s lives just doesn’t hold up, historically or in practice. If you really want a media lens into black American’s lives, cross-generationally and relatively unmediated by gender***, you probably should just watch and discuss Scandal. Your view will still be partial, of course, but at least you’ll be able to talk to my mother. 

*I couldn’t track down its first utterance, but Chuck D has never claimed misattribution, so I assume it’s something he actually said. Plus, even if he hadn’t, it’s taken on a life of it’s own by now.

**Of course, race isn’t artistic/vocational/occupational destiny either. Beyond hip-hop, jazz, blues, R&B and soul, there’s an unacknowledged history of black opera singers, ballet dancers, hockey players, heavy metal drummers and more. In addition to working on accurately demonstrating what kinds of popular things actually do represent black people, I think we should also think about the unpopular things too. Popularity is always contingent, after all.

***That isn’t to say that a gendered lens isn’t sometimes (or often) important. I think there’s a reason why every black woman under forty that I know is enthralled by this new Beyonce album. If you don’t think about gender when interrogating that reason you’re gonna look and feel fairly silly.