Ornette Coleman once said that “Sound is to people what the sun is to light.” Sound is foundational to the human and it enhances our other senses. For Indigenous communities in Canada, music can be a healing balm and it is essential to cultural, spiritual, and communal beliefs and daily practices. Like my previous Black Lives Matter playlist and my ENGL 125 playlist, I offer this playlist in relation to my ENGL 332 coursefocused on Indigenous literature and media with a particular focus on artists living on Turtle Island. Indigenous music unifies and celebrates, but it can also resist and serve as protest. I hope you enjoy the music and please do let me know if you have any musical recommendations to add.
Week 1: Willie Dunn, “I Pity the Country” (1973) and Native North America
“I pity the country / I pity the state / And the mind of a man / Who thrives on hate” -Willie Dunn
There is so much fantastic Indigenous music in Canada and we are in the midst of an Indigenous resurgence and renaissance in music, art, literature, and film. That said, Indigenous creators have been part of popular music since its early days even though much of the music has been forgotten by mainstream Canadians. A good example of this is the remarkable collection, Native North America (vol. 1) by Light in the Attic. The collections features music from the Indigenous peoples of Canada, recorded in the turbulent period between 1966 to 1985. The genres are far ranging, and the compilation showcases Indigenous folk, rock, and country. It is criminal that much of this music remained unheard to modern audiences and the music deserves more than preservation—it merits many repeated close listenings and appreciation. Given the current climate crises, and the need for social revolution around Indigenous issues in Canada, the music is essential and urgent.
I’ve added a number of songs from the collection to the Spotify playlist, and I want to draw your attention to “I Pity the Country” by Mi’kmaq/Scottish/Irish Canadian artist Willie Dunn, which opens the collection. Writing for Pitchfork, Stephen M. Deusner describes the politics and personal verve of Dunn’s song: “The impression is one of forced isolation, as though society has stripped away every refuge that might comfort the singer – except music, that is. It’s a startling opener to the comp, especially since Dunn’s steadfast voice conveys resignation more than anger. He’s not fighting the system, but pitying the sad men who perpetuate their own unhappiness.” Have a listen to this song and the few others I’ve posted to the playlist, but I can’t recommend the entire collection enough.
This week in my ENGL 125 course on Music and Literature we are looking at Hip Hop. I thought I would make a short song (beat, lyrics, and video) to supplement the readings and songs for the week. While it has been some 11 years since I last recorded myself rapping standard verses, I thought I would give it a go. The track is a short history lesson about some of the roots of Hip-Hop music and culture and it focuses on the four essential elements: graffiti, breaking, DJing, and emceeing. Hip Hop is an improvisational art form that draws from the long history of disenfranchised people repurposing the tools of the master to create new forms of art. I also tried my hand at creating a lyric video with clips and made the most use of the classic Hip Hop documentary Style Wars (1983), which looks at Hip Hop culture during its early days in the 1970s until the early 1980s.
I hope you enjoy it and please do feel free to share the video!
In this video essay, I look at Damon Lindelof’s 2019 HBO series Watchmen, particularly episodes 1 and 6 and the way that the series remixes the original graphic novel to talk about race in America. I discuss the Tulsa Massacre of 1921 and the character Hooded Justice. I also provide a close reading of episode 6, “This Extraordinary Being.”
Disclaimer: This video is for educational purposes only.
[Note: If you are viewing the video on a computer, ensure you set the video to 1080p in the Quality Settings to view the video as intended]
Ornette Coleman once said that “Sound is to people what the sun is to light.” Sound is foundational to the human and it enhances our other senses. Like my previous Black Lives Matter playlist, I offer this playlist in relation to my ENGL 125 course focused on music, literature, and popular culture. Music is a through line of the two primary texts—Esi Edugyan’s Half-Blood Blues and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen—and the anthemic refrain of Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” punctuates the final work studied in this course: Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. Music unifies and celebrates, but it can also resist and serve as protest. From Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” (write-up on my #BLM playlist) to Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name,” music has played an integral role in the pursuit of social justice. That all said, get comfortable. Grab a cup of tea, coffee, or your beverage of choice, and sit back and listen.
Week 1: Talking Heads, “Once in a Lifetime” and DJ Techné, “Portals”
Given that one of the short readings for this week was David Byrne speaking about the coronavirus as offering an opportunity for change, I thought it appropriate to include a song from the rock/new wave band he led for nearly 30 years: Talking Heads. Talking Heads have a number of albums that appear on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, and they are probably most known for their song, “Psycho Killer.” Another one of their well-known songs, and the focus of this week’s listening is the obfuscate, “Once in a Lifetime” (produced by Brian Eno from Remain in Light). Sonically, the song is inspired by the Afrobeat sound of Fela Kuti, and lyrically Byrne borrows from the cadences and antiphony of sermonizing preachers (see the lyrics). In part, the song deals with the pointlessness of not being content with what you have. It is impossible to remove the water at the bottom of the ocean and there is no way to stop the flow of life. There is certainly a lesson here, especially in terms of how we adapt and try to remain content during the challenges presented by COVID-19. In an interview with Time Out, Byrne describes how the song came from “evangelists I recorded off the radio while taking notes and picking up phrases I thought were interesting directions. Maybe I’m fascinated with the middle class because it seems so different from my life, so distant from what I do. I can’t imagine living like that.” The song has also been analyzed as an invective against consumerism, but the central question the song asks is “How did I get here?” A question, we can ask ourselves as individuals and as a species. On NPR, musician Travis Morrison praised the lyrics saying it is the perfect song: “The lyrics are astounding – they are meaningless and totally meaningful at the same time. That’s as good as rock lyrics get.” What do you hear in them, and does the technologically outdated, but certainly interesting, music video for the song clarify its meaning? Probably not, but check it out.
Another song worth mentioning is Byrne’s Broadway cover of Janelle Monae’s anthemic “Hell You Talmbout,” which functions as a protest and uses call-and-response as the names of victims of police violence are shouted out. I am sharing the original Monae version, which feels as timely as ever, as it is not available on Spotify (but you can check out Byrne’s version there).
Lastly, I want to share my live track, “Portals.” The track opens with a sample from the Man Booker Prize-winning Indian novelist Arundhati Roy speaking about the coronavirus pandemic as a portal: “It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.” With systemic injustices more visible than ever, she asks us to use this opportunity to imagine another world, which is echoed in the second part of the performance as Sun Ra envisions music as another language. There is freedom in sound (especially when it is open to different styles) to dream and shape the future, which fits with Sun Ra’s vision of music as a gateway to a better world. If you listen closely, you will also hear vocal samples from Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Charles Mingus. Will we ignore the rupture the pandemic created and return to “normal,” or will we improvise and step through the portal into another world?
A slightly different version of song can be heard on my album, Portals.
Week 2: Feelin’ Blue: Johnson, Parker, Bessie, Billie, AND Armstrong
“I contend that the Negro is the creative voice of America, is creative America, and it was a happy day in America when the first unhappy slave was landed on its shores.” —Duke Ellington, The Duke Ellington Reader, 147
“There is no true American music but the wild sweet melodies of the Negro slave.” —W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk 7
I realize there is a lot of music for this week. Too much to fully grasp the meaning of all of the songs, but hopefully even reading through these short write-ups and having the playlist playing while you read the material, or think through it, will prove helpful and insightful. Esi Edugyan also made a written playlist to accompany her text, which you can find on VIULearn in the folder for this week’s class. This week is all about the blues and jazz.
The form of the blues comprises work songs, spirituals, field hollers, shouts, chants, and ballads, among other styles. However, it took some time before the blues were as classically ubiquitous and cross-cultural as they are today. As the Du Bois epigraph elucidates, and as James Weldon Johnson accurately predicted, “The day will come when this slave music will be the most treasured heritage of the American Negro” (Autobiography 1197). The blues plants the roots of much music: it is pervasive in jazz, provides the foundation of rhythm and blues, and the twelve-bar blues progression can even be heard throughout rock and roll. One particularly common feature of blues music is the blue note, which for expressive function is sung or played flattened or bent (from the minor 3rd to the major 3rd) relative to the pitch of the major scale. The idiom itself, “the blues,” refers to the “blue devils,” implicating melancholy and sadness with an early use of the term appearing in George Colman’s one-act farce Blue Devils. Some early innovators of the blues are W.C. Handy (known as the Father of Blues), Bessie Smith, Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Mamie Smith, Lead Belly, Robert Johnson, and too many others to list here. What is interesting to notice about this tentative list is how prominent women blues figures were in the creation, innovation, and dissemination of the blues, as female vaudeville blues singers were eminently popular in the 1920s.The blues genre—and the spirituals preceding it—helped materialize a classical African American canon of music (a formal counter canon to the European classical tradition), which provided potent standards off of which other artists could riff, beginning with the early spirituals. Case in point: the Negro Spirituals “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “Go Down Moses” have been covered and recorded on thousands of records, becoming standards, with everyone from Louis Armstrong, Etta James, Duke Ellington, Johnny Cash, Parliament, The Grateful Dead, and hip-hop group Bone Thugs and Harmony covering the former, to everyone from Grant Green, Fats Waller, Archie Shepp, and Will Smith on the sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air covering the latter. The blues have the power to connect people across diverse backgrounds and time periods, and represents, as Black liberation theologian James H. Cone argues in The Spirituals and the Blues, “The power of the song in the struggle for black survival—that is what the spirituals and blues are about” (1).
Jazz, similar to the blues, is a distinct musical form, prominently of African American origin, which emerged in the United States in the early decades of the twentieth century, although ragtime from the 1890s is also a type of jazz. Similar to the blues, jazz incorporates, adapts, and subverts other musical elements, with early influences including “African and European music, American folk music, marching band music, plantation songs, spirituals and gospel music, minstrelsy, ragtime and the blues” (Stanbridge 286). Jazz is largely defined by its ability to amalgamate other forms, along with the music’s broader techniques, which include various rhythmic properties, from swing and syncopation to complex harmonic languages, as well as an overarching focus on improvisation.
The first song I want to draw your attention to is Robert Johnson’s “Cross Road Blues” (also known as “Crossroads”). Recorded back in 1936 the song is about the crossroads in Mississippi—“I went to the crossroad, fell down on my knees”—where Johnson supposedly sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his musical talents. The song was popularized by Eric Clapton—who deeply admired Johnson—in the late ‘60s. Another standard and related Johnson track is “Me and the Devil Blues” (1937), which tells the story of the devil knocking on Johnson’s door and telling him that it’s time to go. Notice the call and response technique as various lines are repeated with some spontaneous vocal alteration. This antiphonic form is a big part of the blues and jazz, and it would later be heard in punk and hip-hop music. I remixed Johnson’s track with Bessie Smith’s “Devil’s Gonna Git You,” along with film and art, which you can view, here.
Hopefully, you had the chance to read James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues,” which introduces us to a few pivotal figures of jazz, namely Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker. While Armstrong is redeemed in Half-BloodBlues, he is considered “old-time, down home crap” (although check out his “What Did I do to be so Black and Blue” for its persistent themes) by Sonny largely because he wants to play what is new and cutting edge for his time: Bebop music. I’ve written about the power of Bebop music and its relation to hip-hop before, but what is so exciting about Charlie Parker for Sonny is that he took the music somewhere completely new as heard in “Ko Ko” or “Ornithology,” which is a contrafact—that is, a newly created melody written over the chord progressions of another song, in this instance the standard “How High the Moon.” Sonny also covers “Am I Blue” (notably recorded and performed by Billie Holiday) and makes it his own.
Many of these songs would make for excellent choices for your close reading if you decide to go that route.
Week 3 (Half-Blood Blues): King Oliver, Bessie Smith, Jelly Roll Morton, Oscar Peterson, AND ARMSTRONG
I hope you are enjoying Half-Blood Blues. If you were finding the language and style difficult, I also hope that it is getting easier for you as you work through it. There are a number of musical references throughout the novel and this week I want to draw your attention to a few of them.
“Crowder told Armstrong Hiero reminded him of King Oliver in his prime” (84) … “Have you ever seen King Oliver?” (111)
The novel talks a lot about Louis Armstrong (and later features him as a character) and Armstrong is considered one of the great innovators of jazz, but without King Oliver (1881-1938) we might not get Louis Armstrong. Oliver was both a mentor and teacher of Armstrong. As Armstrong says, in Satchmo: My Life In New Orleans, “if it had not been for Joe Oliver, Jazz would not be what it is today.” I’ve added both “Riverside Blues” and “Speakeasy Blues” to the Spotify playlist.
“He was playing Empty Bed Blues, but doing it so coy it ain’t sound nothing like itself.” (122)
Bessie Smith was a major figure of the blues (we will watch the film Bessie about her in a few weeks), and she, along with others like Ma Rainey represent, as observed by Angela Davis, a “black working-class social consciousness,” while moreover they “foreshadowed a brand of protest that refused to privilege racism over sexism, or the conventional public realm over the private as the preeminent domain of power” (Blues Legacies 42). And so, (in tandem with its often-bawdy nature), the blues genre was, as Davis concludes, “responsible for the dissemination of attitudes toward male supremacy that had decidedly feminist implications” (55). In a moment that leaves Sid very jealous, Delilah and Hiero perform Bessie Smith’s “Empty Bed Blues” (originally from 1928). You can read the lyrics here and listen to the song below (also on the playlist).
What do you think this song is about? Read the lyrics while listening to the song and then come back here. I’ll wait…
Okay. Did you listen to the song and read the lyrics? It is full on innuendos about sex (“coffee grinder”) and even references performing cunnilingus: her new lover is a “deep sea diver” who can “stay down at the bottom” holding his breath. No wonder Sid is jealous.
Deeply personal and explicit lyrics have always been part of the blues. At one point in the novel Jelly Roll Morton is mentioned. Born in 1890 Jelly Roll Morton is one of the earliest jazz artists and he even claimed to have invented the music in 1902 (this is disputed). He also played in Vancouver cabarets as early as 1919 and as late as 1921. He played piano, gambled, drank, told bawdy jokes, and sang during his residency at the Patricia in Vancouver. He also wrote some very explicit music, such as “Winin’ Boys Blues” (recorded by Alan Lomax in 1939).
Warning: the song below is very explicit and you may find it offensive (lyrics, here). There’s a clean version of it on the Spotify playlist, as well as a version by singer Stephanie Niles with the original explicit lyrics. Does our understanding of the song change when a woman sings it?
“I’m from Montreal … Little Burgundy” (108).
Alright, let’s end with something less dirty. We learn that Delilah is from Little Burgundy in Montreal, which is the home of famous jazz musicians Oliver Jones and Oscar Peterson. You can view a short Wikipedia article that I wrote about a legendary club in Little Burgundy named “Rockhead’s Paradise” if you want to learn a little more about the history.
While there are number of Canadian jazz songs I could add, I will share one from Oscar Peterson. Drawing on the energy of the black church, and speaking across borders, Black Montreal-based musician Oscar Peterson conceived of “Hymn to Freedom,” which was sung in various places in the States as an anthem to the Civil Rights Movement.
Also, make sure you check out the clips from Jazz (posted to VIULearn) as they provide more detail about the man and legend, Louis Armstrong. In particular, see the short clip on the novelty number called “Heebie Jeebies,” which Armstrong sang with vocal improvisations. Innovation is often a result of chance, and Louis Armstrong’s impromptu scatting in “Heebie Jeebies” (the first scat caught on a recording) was the result of a mistake: as the legend goes, Armstrong’s lyric sheet fell while recording and so he began to scat/improvise.
You can hear the song (and the others) on the Spotifyplaylist.
Week 4: Louis Armstrong, “West End Blues” (1928) and Ella Fitzgerald, Ella in Berlin (1960)
It is hardly an understatement to say Louis Armstrong helped invent modern time. “West End Blues” is a multi-strain twelve-bar blues composition by Joe “King” Oliver that Armstrong uniquely makes his own. The opening is one of the great cadenzas in modern music and it helped define jazz as a soloist’s art. Make sure you watch the segment on “West End Blues” from Jazz in the lecture on VIULearn. Armstrong continues to inspire musicians, such as DJ Kid Koala, whose “Basin Street Blues” riffs on another Armstrong track.
Also, worth mentioning is Ella Fitzgerald’s incredible live album, Mack the Knife: Ella in Berlin (1960). In her version of “Mac the Knife,” Ella forgot the lyrics and improvised new ones on the spot showing her incredible skill as a consummate improviser.
Equally impressive and one of the best scat performances ever recorded is Ella’s version of “How Hight the Moon.” The way Ella uses her voice like a horn, her references to Charlie Parker’s “Ornithology,” and her ability to improvise upon a standard, is absolutely stunning. One must simply hear it to believe it. Enjoy.
Week 6 (Watchmen): Bob Dylan, “Desolation Row” (1965)
At midnight all the agents And the superhuman crew Come out and round up everyone That knows more than they do
-Bob Dylan, “Desolation Row”
As Dave Gibbons—the illustrator behind Watchmen—wrote in his 2013 preface to the book: “It began with Bob Dylan.” This song formed the spark that would one day ignite Watchmen: “These lines must have also lodged in Alan’s consciousness for, nearly twenty years later, Dylan’s words eventually provided the title of the first issue of our comic book series WATCHMEN.” I hardly have the space here to describe a song like “Desolation Row” in detail, but I suggest you listen to the song in its entirety with the lyrics (and detailed notes) open on Genius. The song is an 11-minute epic of entropy (comprised of 10 verses) that features a large cast of iconic characters (historical, biblical, fictional, and literary). The song was the final song on Dylan’s classic, Highway 61 Revisitedand the lyrics move between the surreal and the hardships and realities of the Holocaust and post-World War II society. Desolation Row plays on the expression “skid row,” which is used to describe a seedy run-down part of town. Some interpretations have read the song as an allegory for the Holocaust, but part of the power of the song is that it resists simple interpretation, much like the graphic novel we are now reading. The band, My Chemical Romance performed a cover of the song for the 2009 soundtrack of Watchmen, but that film actually opens with another Dylan song.
Even three chapters in, you’ve likely noticed that music runs through the veins of Watchmen as chapters and themes are shaped by individual songs and artists. A song like Dylan’s “Desolation Row,” which moves across time and space from Nero to Einstein, speaks to the possibilities of the graphic novel as an artform informed by music (and other media). The first three chapters also feature Elvis Costello’s “The Comedians,” Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” The Police’s “Walking on the Moon,” and references to The Beatles and Elvis (but while you likely know his version of “Hound Dog,” how many know of Big Mama Thornton’s earlier, and frankly, better version). These have all been added to the playlist.
Also, check out the student playlist comprised of songs from your close readings:
Week 7 (Watchmen): Nina Simone, “Pirate Jenny” and Billie Holiday, “You’re My Thrill”
The majority of the musical references in today’s Watchmen readings are in Chapter 7, but there is also a coded one in Chapter 5. In Chapter 5, The Black Freighter (a reference from “Pirate Jenny”) takes on symbolic meaning in the comic-within-the-comic as a revenge fantasy, but the song is also endued with the spirit of overcoming anti-Black racism. The use of music in Chapter 7 highlights Dan and Laurie’s age gap, their nostalgia for the past, and their unfolding romance.
“Pirate Jenny” is a song from The Threepenny Opera written by Brecht and composer Kurt Weill. In Half-Blood Blues we listened to “Mack the Knife” from that same opera. Nina Simone included the song on her 1964 album, Nina Simone in Concert, which featured other civil right songs such as “Old Jim Crow” and a track we previously listened to, “Mississippi Goddam.” “Pirate Jenny” is a song about a maid who imagines herself getting vengeance for the contempt she endures from the townspeople. She teams up with pirates from the Black Freighter and kills everyone and sails away to sea. Simone adapts the song into an African American context and uses “The Black Freighter” as “metaphor for an African-American force powerful enough to destroy the racism and intolerance of the American South. Simone did not perform the song often, saying that it took so much energy out of her that it took her seven years to recover each time” (Mary Borsellino, Watchmen and Music). It is also worth noting that the song was a major influence on Bob Dylan who would record “Desolation Row” (the genesis of Watchmen) just a few years later.
In Chapter 7 we get a number of music references, including Devo, Billie Holiday, and Nat King Cole. Many of these references are picked up in both the Snyder film and Lindelof’s HBO series, including Nat King Cole’s “Unforgettable” and Billie Holiday’s “You’re My Thrill.” In part, music functions as a cultural marker of connection or disconnection and it highlights the stark difference between Laurie and Dan in terms of age. Laurie’s Devo reference goes over Dan’s head while Laurie is unable to recognize the voice of Billie Holiday, which plays just before they have sex.
Week 8 (Watchmen): Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix, “All Along the Watchtower” (1968) and John Cale, “Sanities” (1982)
Chapter 10’s title of Watchmen is a reference to Bob Dylan’s song “All Along the Watchtower” (1967/68): the song is partially based on Isaiah 21, the prophecy of the fall of Babylon. The song is not only the source of the chapter’s title, but it provides imagery that is quoted and echoed in the chapter: “Two riders were approaching, and the wind began to howl.” However, the really iconic version of this song appears on Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland album released around the same time as Dylan’s version. Everyone from Eric Clapton, Neil Young, and Pearl Jam have covered the song, but Hendrix’s version is the most well-known and potent.
The final chapter of Watchmen, Chapter 12, gets its title from a 1982 John Cale song, “Sanctus (Sanities).” The song ends with the lyrics, “All so that it would be a stronger world / A strong though loving world / To die in.” Moore slightly misquotes these lines at the very end of the graphic novel, and we get a paraphrased version by Adrian Veidt in Lindelof’s Watchmen series (2019).
Week 9: Intercultural Hip Hop Panel with Mo Moshiri, Nantali Indongo, and Curtis Clear Sky
See the event page and feel free to let friends know in case they want to watch too. The event will be recorded in case you are unable to watch live. You don’t need a Facebook account to watch, but if you are signed in you can comment and ask questions during the live broadcast. The co-host will share the Zoom link (it is not our regular class link) towards the end of the interview in case you want to jump on that way to ask a question.
I will ask our panelists to talk about their personal journeys in finding their voice through hip hop and how it connects to identity, culture, and community-building.
The three artists:
Nantali Indongo aka Tali Taliwah is a Montreal emcee of Caribbean roots and a member of multilingual hip hop super group Nomadic Massive. In addition to performing live hip hop Nantali is host of CBC Montreal’s provincial arts and culture program, The Bridge, as well as a regular arts contributor for CBC Montreal. Indongo is also the co-founder of Hip Hop No Pop, an educational and interactive workshop series that looks at the non-violent origins of hip hop culture and uses hip hop as a tool to encourage storytelling and foster confidence in youth.
Nantali (Tali) raps second on the Nomadic Massive track “Times.”
Curtis Clear Sky is a Vancouver emcee and funk musician of Blackfoot and Anishinabe heritage. In 2005 the United Nations Human Settlements Program designated Clear Sky as an International Messenger of Truth, a group of artists recognized for their ability to reach young people through their music. In recent years he has shifted efforts to his band Curtis Clear Sky & The Constellationz, a hip hop funk group that invites engagement and participation in healing, growth and recognition of Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island over funky danceable grooves.
Mo Moshiri has lived in four countries. He was a refugee at age three and a Canadian citizen at age 19. He speaks English, Farsi and German. He first became known in Canadian hip hop as a member of Sweatshop Union, a BC conscious hip hop collective which has produced six albums and earned many awards and Juno nominations. He is now focused on solo work and applying his hip hop experience to inspire creativity and musical expression among children and youth though workshops and after-school programs. Mo released his first solo album Can I Tell you Something in 2019.
Everyone is welcome to this free event! See the full 2020 International Hip Hop Forum Schedule, here.
I’ve also suggested you check out Ed Piskor’s Hip-Hop Family Tree available on VIULearn. I’ve added a few early hip-hop songs to the playlists: “Rapper’s Delight” (1979), “The Breaks” (1979), “That’s the Joint” (1980), “Rapture” (1981), and “The Message” (1982).
Week 11:Watchmen (2019): The Ink Spots and Eartha Kitt
Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen is full of music. I’ve added a few key songs to playlist from various episodes, but I want to focus on a few that I discuss in my lecture for this week from episode 6, “This Extraordinary Being.” In that episode we see Hooded Justice release years of hurt, trauma, and aggression on a group of Klansmen. The scene is also beautifully choreographed in its kinesis and the song “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire” by The Ink Spots is a clever choice not only for the juxtaposition between the action and violence but in the layered meaning of the group name and song. The episode features three songs by The Ink Spots and the name of the group recalls a Rorschach test. Rorschach was one of the main characters of the original series and a Rorschach test is used to examine one’s personality and emotional functioning. The song playing, “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire” was used in commercials in the 1980s, which is when the original Watchmen was set and one of those commercials was for a perfume, which again reminds us of Nostalgia from the original comics. This nostalgia and heritage, a reminder where one comes from as well as the history of hate that pervades the present is entangled throughout the episode. We also get two other songs from Ink Spots: “We Three (My Echo, My Shadow, And Me)” and “Whispering Grass (Don’t Tell the Trees).”
Lastly, we get Eartha Kitt’s “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” when Hooded Justice infiltrates the Cyclops plot. The song fits the episode’s focus on fire, but it goes deeper than that. Kitt—a Black woman known for her song “Santa Baby”—was also known for her masked role as Cat woman for the 1960s series of Batman. We are being shown how media can demonize and create stereotypes and how it also has the power to resist and undo them. Hooded Justice literally and figuratively burns it down. I hope you enjoyed the TV series and its clever use of music throughout.
Don’t forget to check out my full lecture for this week, here.
Week 12: It’s Bigger than Hip Hop
Hip-hop music and culture is a chiaroscuro of social consciousness and mainstream commodification, a chameleonesque art form that adapts to every environment it encounters, a personal saviour and communitarian mobilizer born out of a disenfranchised youth movement in the post-industrial urban nightmare of America’s neglected ghettos. There are many songs I could highlight here, but I’ve kept it to six songs (3 American and 3 Canadian).
I’ve been listening to EL-P and Killer Mike since the early 2000s and so I was thrilled when the two formed Run the Jewels back in 2013. The fervour of dissent in their fourth offering (2020) feels louder and more urgent with recent protests and Anti-Black racism and killings in North America. One of the most powerful verses on the entire album comes from Killer Mike on “Walking in the Snow” where he raps: “And you so numb you watch the cops choke out a man like me / Until my voice goes from a shriek to whisper, ‘I can’t breathe’ / And you sit there in the house on couch and watch it on TV.” Given this track was recorded months ago it is about Eric Garner, but it is also inadvertently about George Floyd too. Despite the nearly six years between these events, and the very public spectacle of the unjust killings, the lyrics underscore the perpetual cycle of America’s racist violence. This spirit of protest—although the album is still full of the usual braggadocio lyricism the two are known for—runs through the veins of the album. The first single (released back in late April)—“Ooh La La”— is a homage to the old school for the present moment and features veterans DJ Premier and Greg Nice. The video for the song, as described by RTJ “is a fantasy of waking up on a day that there is no monetary system, no dividing line, no false construct to tell our fellow man that they are less or more than anyone else.” I’d also be remiss to not mention ““JU$T,” which features Pharrell Williams and Rage Against the Machine’s Zack de la Rocha and a classic protest chorus: “Look at all these slave masters posin’ on yo’ dollar (Get it, yeah).” Kill Your Masters.
Speaking of America, Childish Gambino’s “This is America” (2018) remains a visceral and surreal statement for addressing gun violence, racism, and police brutality in America: “This is America / Don’t catch you slippin’ now / Look at how I’m livin’ now / Police be trippin’ now / Yeah, this is America.” In the video, directed by Hiro Murai, who also directed the incredible “Teddy Perkins” episode of Atlanta, Gambino plays with the Jump Jim Crow caricature, as he directly deals with America’s persistent violence. You’ve likely seen the video for Gambino’s “This is America,” but even if you have, it’s worth another close watch.
Anderson .Paak’s “Lockdown” speaks to the COVID-19 lockdown as a kind of container that makes systemic injustices more visible than ever, and which overfills and explodes as we’ve seen in recent protests: “You shoulda been downtown, the people are rising / We thought it was a lock down … Sicker than the covid how they did him on the ground / Speaking of the covid is it still goin around? / Oh why don’t you tell me bout the lootin what’s that really all about? / Cause they throw away Black lives like paper towels.” It’s often easier to talk about the past, but I feel that Anderson really captures this moment in relation to the ongoing struggle for Black liberation. Also, if you haven’t seen The Free Nationals featuring Anderson .Paak’s Tiny Desk Concert, do yourself a favour and watch that! ✊🏾
There is a long history of hip-hop culture and music in Canada as well as a long history of Black resistance going back to slavery in Canada. Critic Rinaldo Walcott usefully contends that “what is at stake in Canadian hip hop is a refiguring of an elaboration of the urban landscape of Canada and by extension the urban landscape of North America—black and otherwise” (“Methodology” 239). In Canadian hip-hop, narratives of belonging and unbelonging resist simple reductions of multiculturalism and ask us to reconsider the scope of Anti-Black racism, the nation-state, and geographical boundaries.
The first Canadian track is from Maestro Fresh Wes. Maestro Fresh Wes’s 1989 “Let Your Backbone Slide” was the first Canadian hip-hop single to break into the US Billboard chart. But, it is his track “Nothin’ At All” (1991) from his follow-up album that I want to highlight, which directly looks at Canada as country a “plagued with racism.” Despite this, Wes rightly celebrates Black excellence.
To the guys that draw lines and make the borders real But then bend the rules when there’s more to drill Don’t turn away the stateless, think of the waste If one in three refugees is a Lauryn Hill
—Shad, Flying Colours, “Fam Jam”
Shad’s “Fam Jam (Fe Sum Immigrins)” is a throwback and toast to the trials of immigrant experience in Canada—deconstructs the faulty notion that immigrants contribute little to Canadian society by providing potent examples of how immigrants construct the new Canada, consisting of the catchy hook, “Not bad, huh, for some immigrants?” The hook is a direct sampling of Jay-Z’s identical line in the track “Otis,” which itself was taken from the movie Scarface: a film about the perversion of the American dream. In the Canadian context, the line sounds the possibility of the Canadian dream within the larger multicultural project. Shad describes that on working on “Fam Jam” (from Flying Colours) “in the city of Toronto offered a daily reminder of the diversity of stories in our midst. This diversity is often and rightly celebrated, but the innumerable stories that comprise our treasured multiculturalism here in Canada can also hold a lot [sic] pain, as well as some complicated questions around what it means to succeed, and what it means to belong” (Blog, “Fam Jam”). The feeling of not fully belonging is manifested when Shad raps, “Don’t turn away the stateless, think of the waste / If one in three refugees is a Lauryn Hill,” referring to the Grammy wining artist who was part of the group The Fugees, a word derived from refugee, which was a derogatory term for Haitian Americans. The video for “Fam Jam” provides a celebratory mix where the larger community gathers—family, friends, children—in order to throw a large party that celebrates diversity. Like K’naan’s negotiation between borders and two worlds—Somalia and North America— Shad confronts his own negotiation of borders: “Now when you’re Third World born, but First World formed / Sometimes you feel pride, sometimes you feel torn / See my Mother’s tongue is not what they speak where my Mother’s from / She moved to London with her husband when their son was 1.” Shad, who was born in Kenya of Rwandan parents, uses his own story as an example of how much an immigrant can achieve in order to remove the negative connotations of the word, suggesting that Canada should allow for dual identities and cultural allegiances if it is to work against global colonialism and be a truly multicultural society.
War Party’s first album, The Reign, put First Nations rappers on the Canadian Hip Hop radar: their song “Feelin’ Reserved” (2000) was the first major First Nations Hip Hop music video to get rotation on Much Music; furthermore, War Party won the Aboriginal Music Award for best rap album in 2000. In a conversation with Tara Henley of Vancouver’s Georgia Straight, Rex Smallboy (the de facto leader of War Party) states that it was natural for Indigenous youth to adopt Hip Hop as a mode of expression: “When I heard a lot of the African-American artists talking about what they saw in their communities, the social conditions, that made me take a look at what was going on in my own neighborhood […] This is the reserve—this is not Compton; this is not the Bronx” (“Beyond the Reserve”). In War Party’s The Reign, there is no romanticizing of life on the reserve: “it is depicted as a place of loss, degradation, and ultimately as an endless reminder of the effects of colonization.”
I’ve added these songs and a few others to the playlist. Happy listening.
I thought I would make a short song (beat, lyrics, and video) to supplement the readings and songs for the week. Yes, your professor is rapping. While it has been some 11 years since I last recorded myself rapping standard verses, I thought I would give it a go. The track is a short history lesson about some of the roots of Hip-Hop music and culture and it focuses on the four essential elements: graffiti, breaking, DJing, and emceeing. Hip Hop is an improvisational art form that draws from the long history of disenfranchised people repurposing the tools of the master to create new forms of art. I also tried my hand at creating a lyric video with clips and made the most use of the classic Hip Hop documentary Style Wars (1983), which looks at Hip Hop culture during its early days in the 1970s until the early 1980s.
Week 13: DJing and Wayde Compton: Kid Koala and Charlie Pride
Various DJs, producers, and archivists use recorded material in inventive ways that show they are highly aware of the improvised nature of history and cultural practice.Sampling, like quotation, provides diacritical difference, detournement, carnival, wildstyle, parade, and allows, as Paul D. Miller (DJ Spooky) suggests, “people to replay their own memories of the sounds and situations of their lives … sampling is dematerialized sculpture” (Rhythm Science 28-29). The rise of the DJ fits within the postmodern desire of contemporary masses to bring things closer. Technology changes culture and the invention of the Technics 1200 series of turntables, manufactured from October 1972 until 2010 (and then resumed in 2016) by Matsushita (and later known as Panasonic), made DJ culture largely possible in the first place, even though the Technics 1200 was never intended to be repurposed as a musical instrument. The Technics 1200s (in hip-hop they are often referred to as “Tec 12’s,” “Wheels of Steel” and the “Ones & Twos”) with their direct drive high torque motor design initially made them suitable for cueing and starting tracks on the radio, although young DJs in New York would soon realize just how much you could do with a turntable and some records. As Compton writes in “The Reinventing Wheel,” “the author was born in 1972,” a direct reference to the invention of the Technics 1200 turntable, the primary signifier of hip-hop and remix culture.
In an Interview I conducted with Compton, he described how changes in technology are swift, while also asserting the value of traditions, which are never static and are always technological: “There are new things so quickly that I want to engage with. That’s the other beauty, the beauty of hip-hop. Kid Koala, he’s still vinyl. He’s still a vinyl guy, a vinyl and turntables guy. It’s all still there. So talking about tradition, he is working with the traditional tools that are old, old tools now, forty-year-old tools. Well, older than that” (“Audio-interplay” 10). Kid Koala is a Canadian DJ, turntablist, musician and author/illustrator, among other things, who is known for his incredible tactile manipulations on the turntables. Koala popularized a method of playing the turntable like a melodic instrument, where a long, single note is dragged under the needle at different speeds, creating distinctive pitches. This effect can be heard on his mix of “Moon River,” where he creates and edits in an extended violin solo by playing various long violin notes from the song’s instrumental section at different pitches on three turntables, all live. Compton was enraptured by Koala’s performance—“There were certain points where I was looking at it, saying, ‘You can’t do that. You can’t do the thing I’m watching you do. It just can’t be done. And yet you’re doing it’” (8)—describing the story to me as how “his [Koala’s] mom couldn’t understand that he could be doing this, how this was his job. And so he said, ‘What’s your favorite song? I’ll do a version of it. And we’ll meet here, somewhere. You’ll understand.’ And then he did it, and it’s the most beautiful thing he’s done” (“Audio-interplay” 10). It is precisely Kid Koala’s version of a 1961 easy listening song—far removed from the context of hip-hop and remix culture—that highlights how the past is a network for DJs to rework.
Henry Mancini initially composed “Moon River” with lyrics written by Johnny Mercer. The song received an Academy Award for Best Original Song for Audrey Hepburn’s performance of the piece in the 1961 movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s. It’s been covered thousands of times, although Kid Koala’s version is the most adventurous. Here’s the original and then check out Koala’s live performance below. I’ve added a few other songs by Koala to the playlist.
Compton doesn’t only reference hip-hop and DJ culture in his act of audio recovery. His poem “The Essential Charley Pride” is about the African American (of mixed-race) country singer, Charley Pride. Given how white country music was in the 1960s (and still is), for the first few years of Pride’s career no pictures of him were distributed in order to avoid Jim Crow backlashes. Hence, Compton’s poem opens with the following lines:
There is a Church of John Coltrane; Charley Pride is a heretic. There is a Funkadelic Parliament; Charley Pride is Guy Fawkes.
By calling Pride a heretic and comparing him to Guy Fawkes (a man who tried to kill the King and was hanged for treason), Compton sets up how radical the concept of a black country singer was in the 1960s, even though country is actually the music of black and white people playing together in the rural south. Compton calls Pride “the Jackie Robinson of country and western” (37) and claims him as part of the black nexus, even “though the Afrocentrists won’t even have him” (38). Compton goes on to write that the “first black person in the Country / Music Hall of Fame ranks somewhere lower / than the seventh black astronaut in space” (38). Pride’s crossing over into a predominately white genre, and Compton’s assertion of the value of that crossing, defies the specious notion that skin colour determines identity, or citizenship for that matter. “The Essential Charley Pride” references (samples) essential Charley Pride recordings throughout, much in the way that “To Poitier” samples various Poitier films, in order to represent the diaspora and Blackness as boundless.
I’ve added a few Pride songs to the Spotifyplaylist.
Week 14: PUBLIC ENEMY, “FIGHT THE POWER” (1989)
Public Enemy’s anthemic “Fight the Power” was written at the request of film director Spike Lee who was looking for a musical theme for his 1989 film, Do the Right Thing. The song remains one of the greatest protest songs of all time, and its militancy can be heard in both its lyrics and sound (which features samples from Civil Rights refrains, the black church, and the music of James Brown, including the line “I’m black and I’m proud”). Sadly, after I played Do the Right Thing in a FILM 101 class last year, I had many white students focus on the loss of Sal’s Pizzeria while the murdering of Radio Raheem didn’t register. The reality of “We Can’t Breathe” remains and is part of a continuum that stretches back to slavery. Lee’s film was inspired by a 1986 event, where a young black man, Michael Griffith, was chased by Italians and then killed by a car. With this background, and throughout the film, the refrain of Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” functions like a Greek Chorus. Coming from the ghetto blaster of Radio Raheem, we are given a sonic metaphor for what it is like to walk in stereo. Like the “love” and “hate” brass knuckles that adorn the hands of Radio Raheem (and like Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” blasting out of his portable ghetto blaster), we need to find ways to use love to battle the hate that cannibalizes North America. We need to continue to find creative, positive, hopeful, and, at times, militant ways, “to fight the powers that be.”
Note 1: Spike Lee directed the video for “Fight the Power” and staged a protest/ live performance. Lee opens the video with footage from the 1963 March on Washington, which transitions to a staged political rally in Brooklyn named the “Young People’s March to End Racial Violence.” See the full version, here.
Note 2: I’ve also added Brown’s Black Power classic “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud” (1968) to the playlist.
Note 3: I wanted to share the 2020 remix version of the song as well, which features Nas, Rapsody, Black Thought, Jahi, YG & QuestLove.
Despite these challenging times during COVID-19, I hope everyone is having a lovely day and finding moments of joy. This is the first full beat I made using the pattern sequencer (and then performing it live) on the SP-404SX. It’s hardly perfect, but it was fun to put together. The intro features my 2-year old daughter (Ella) and the vocals are from my wife (Meg). The end clip is from Ikiru (“To Live”), which is a 1952 Japanese film by the legendary director, Akira Kurosawa. Peace.
With the spirit of exploration that sent Dante into the unknown, Ken Hunt’s poetry collection The Lost Cosmonauts examines the experiences of astronauts and cosmonauts who ventured into outer space, especially those who lost their lives in the pursuit of their missions. Drawing from myth, largely from the Greco-Roman pantheons, Hunt details the global and socio-political conflict of the Cold War era in relation to the space race between the Soviet Union and the United States. Following his debut collection, Space Administration (2014), Hunt’s The Lost Cosmonauts continues his exploration of language, history, and humankind’s endeavour to explore space. The book is a small thing to hold in your hands, but the ideas are expansive, moving from our nascent efforts to explore outer space to the celestial bodies of the planets in our solar system (the section “Celestial Bodies” is inspired by Gustav Holst’s orchestral suite, The Planets). Engaging with a mythopoeia of the space race and showing an impressive control over poetic form and history, The Lost Cosmonauts is vital reading for those interested in the history and mythic significance of humanity’s explorations into space.
You can read my full review over at The Malahat Review, here.
In time for Halloween, I’ve made a quick promo-video for “Devil’s Gonna Get You”: a remix of Robert Johnson’s “Me and the Devil.” Check it out! Thanks to Inke Goes (www.inekegoes.nl) for allowing me to use her art for the video.
From Dedications II (and dedicated to Bessie Smith & Robert Johnson).
Washington Black—the third novel by Esi Edugyan and her second to win the Giller Prize—depicts the life of Washington (Wash) Black, who rises above the conditions of his time to shape a life based on his imagination, intelligence, and artistic talent. Wash seeks freedom and dignity in a society that would deny him the right to be fully human. The novel opens when Wash is eleven years old (it is narrated from his perspective as an eighteen-year-old) on Faith Plantation in Barbados in 1830. The contrast between a young and curious Washington and the injustice of his brutal surroundings is provided through the recollections of his older self: “What I felt at that moment, though I then lacked the language for it, was the raw, violent injustice of it all.” Edugyan does not shy away from the “unspeakable acts” of slavery and the way that slavery continues to affect Wash even when it is abolished throughout the British Empire in 1833. Edugyan’s writing—from her careful plotting to her complex characters—speaks a veritable truth about what it means to be truly free.
You can read my full review over at Canadian Literature, here.
Katherena Vermette’s The Break is a devastatingly beautiful novel that depicts the bonds between the women of an extended Indigenous family. With warp and weft, Vermette weaves together the voices of numerous intergenerational women to tell their personal stories as they deal with the enduring after-effects of trauma. The prose is sparse, yet dense (“Stella blinks a tear”), as the narrative takes a bare-knuckles approach to cut a jagged truth. Like her stunning poetic debut, North End Love Songs (2012), The Break deftly crafts Vermette’s complex relationship to Winnipeg’s North End. A surface reading concerns the mystery surrounding the sexual assault of a thirteen-year-old Métis girl vis-à-vis the police procedural that unfolds as a result of the crime: “Aboriginal female. Blood loss. Signs of sexual assault.” But the novel is far more complex than this, using numerous viewpoints to reveal the complicated sociopolitical conditions that produce violence and racism, and that cause harm to people, especially women, in Indigenous communities.
Click here to read my full review at Canadian Literature.
Occasionally, I perform under the DJ Techné moniker. My latest track, “I am Om,” is about finding inner peace in a world that often feels disconnected and sick. The vocal clips are from Alice Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders (from Coltrane’s Om), the Dalai Lama, Louis Armstrong, and MLK. It is available for free download, here, or have a listen below:
I talk with Louise Bernice Halfe about her contribution of four poems to the Malahat’s Indigenous Perspectives issue: “Finding Bone,” “God of nightmares,” “it was a pure,” and “Skeletons and Cannibals.”
To cypher is to rap, break, beatbox tightly together in a circle where each person just might get a moment in the spotlight. To cypher is to borrow and to lend, to playfully freewheel through whilst taking an exacting care for each word and carefully considering all the sounds, meanings, and interpretations. It is to fight back, to borrow, to steal, to represent, and to collaborate, whilst suddenly—surprisingly—at times aggressively claiming your own voice, your own right to speak. A cypher is a gathering of rappers, beatboxers, and/or breakers in a circle, extemporaneously making music together. In recent years, the cypher has also grown to include the crowd and spectators who are integral to maintaining the energy of a given cypher. In a cypher, one emcee will rap about a certain topic, which is quickly taken up or flipped by another emcee who plays off the prior words and themes. Each artist takes his or her respective turn, much like in a jazz solo. Cyphers flow freely between diverse performers who improvise their words, sounds, or movements to create a complex matrix of sharing. The circle can go on continuously, as long as emcees, beatboxers, dancers, and the crowd keep the fluidity of the cypher going. The cypher is welcoming and thus models a pedagogy that is inclusive and improvisational in nature.
This issue of Critical Studies in Improvisation/ Études critiques en improvisation aims to act as a cypher, engaging with the embodied practice of locally specific yet globally implicated hip-hop, as we consider the cypher as a metaphor for the complexities of critically thinking about improvisation more broadly. Appropriately, our theme of “Cyphers” attracted a wide range of analyses with many points of intersection. Our final selection ranges from discussions with historically significant scholars and practitioners in hip-hop and Black expressive culture to newer texts at the intersections between hip-hop and other art forms, as well as those tracing the improvisatory affects of hip-hop across cultural and technological boundaries.
Each paper in this issue addresses specific responses to the improvisatory impulse in hip-hop. We start the issue with a number of interviews. We are honoured that George Lipsitz agreed to interview Tricia Rose for this issue, bringing two significant scholars in Black Studies into conversation. This interview emphasizes Rose’s vital contributions to the field of hip-hop scholarship and addresses the broader importance of improvisatory Black expressive cultural practices as “sites and sources of knowledges, as repositories of collective memory, as sights of moral instruction, as ways of calling communities into being through interaction and through performance.” Rebecca Caines’ interview with leading Canadian hip-hop researcher Charity Marsh focuses on Marsh’s creation and leadership of the Interactive Media and Performance Labs in Saskatchewan as an innovative, exploratory space for disenfranchised communities to meet and learn about themselves through hip-hop practices. In conversation with Vancouver-based poet/scholar/DJ Wayde Compton, Paul Watkins addresses Compton’s work on history, identity, and race, exploring the idea of improvising Blackness from within both local (BC) and transnational contexts. This audio interview is then remixed a number of times to allow the conversation to interact with Compton’s readings of his own poetry and with a number of different music samples. Watkins then continues this exploration of critically engaged approaches to artistic practice with his review of Flying Lotus’s (aka FlyLo, born Steven Ellison) 2014 release, “You’re Dead!”
Jesse Stewart examines the form of “jazz-rap” that emerged in the 1980s and ’90s. He charts the use of improvisational jazz forms in this type of hip-hop music and perceives this act as a kind of cultural memory practice that “mobilizes the musical past in the service of a socially progressive cultural politics of difference.” Niel Scobie addresses dissonance and “noise” in improvisation and in hip-hop music, with special attention to the music of Public Enemy. For Scobie, “anti-musical” aesthetics allow the group to create lineage with the “discordant cries” of African-American past practices whilst developing a potent improvisatory musical urgency and a call to arms.
Both Marcel Swiboda and Mark Campbell address technological mediation in hip-hop practices. Swiboda addresses “the break,” developing a new critical history of electronic tools for beatmaking to supplement existing scholarship, which has tended to focus more on the use of turntables for isolating and manipulating the breakbeat. Swiboda suggests that technological and material histories of improvisatory beatmaking practices can be “technologically driven, idiomatically specific vernacular modes of critical knowledge practice” and can also bear an “intimate link to improvisatory practices.” Campbell, on the other hand, focuses on current digital DJ practices. His ethnographic project is to discover how newer digital interfaces affect younger DJs in live performance and in radio settings. He argues that digital DJ interfaces might represent “ways to continue to humanize technology as a subversive afrosonic activity, while evolving the practice of DJing.”
Critical Studies in Improvisation / Études critiques en improvisation is generously supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (through both its Major Collaborative Research Initiatives and Aid to Scholarly Journals programs) and by the University of Guelph Library.
This post is an update from my original 50 must see horror film list (2013).
In our house, we watch an intense thriller or horror film about once a month. We ramp it up every October to around 8-10 horror films to celebrate Hallowe’en. I admit there were a couple films on this list my wife couldn’t finish and I don’t blame her … although she did make it to the end of Martyrs, so who knows what qualifies as too much? And why do we enjoy scary films, anyway? Probably, on some primal level, they are purgative and cathartic to watch. Catharsis is employed by Aristotle in the sixth chapter of his Tragedy as a defense of literature for its ability to release ourselves from the reception of our experience of shock and horror.
I’ve also included atypical horror films: the Pasolini film, Salo: 120 days of Sodom, which is not a horror proper but is still included on this list, is a visual representation of the Sade novel; the film is full of abject horror, grotesque materiality and torture, and yet the violence in that film is infused with representation— symbolizing fascism, corruption, and power. Horror films provide both abject representation and escape, and some—perhaps the Saw and Human Centipede franchises—might be simply what is often referred to as “torture porn.” Brazilian theatre director and pedagogue Augusto Boal argues against theatre as an Aristotelian construct because he saw it in this form as coercion to support the dominant ideology. And while Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed, which clearly states that the only liberating theatre is the kind that directly engages the spectator in action, hence allowing the people (spectators) the means to production in order to rehearse and potentially engage in revolution, I wonder if Boal somewhat misjudges the power of the directly uninvolved spectator, or at least his reading of spectators who, while they might not be able to control the production of a fixed text, they do, in fact, control its interpretation. And while theatre and film serve different yet similar purposes, I think it’s important to remember that horror and tragedy and its representation have a history that extends to the earliest of artistic practices.
All humans experience fear and nightmare. The horror genre was born out of a cultural need to confront and vicariously conquer something frightening that we do not fully comprehend. We will continue to find ways to represent those experiences. Here’s a list of some of my favourite horror films—although the list is hardly exhaustive and it is always evolving—in time for All Hallows’ Eve. I use Psycho as a turning point for modern horror as it set a new level (especially in American cinema) for the acceptability of violence, sex, and deviance. 60 years later and we’ve nearly seen it all. A pre-1960s horror list is a task for another day. And, of course, this list is just my opinion; ultimately, I focus on the horror films that have stayed with me the most. Enjoy these cinematic nightmares!
Any suggestions for other films I should watch that are deserving to be on the list?
113 MUST SEE HORROR FILMS (1960-2020)
113. Dr. Sleep(2019): I was surprised by how good this film was. Sure, it has its flaws, but it is a near impossible task to follow The Shining.
112. Mandy (2018): Gonzo and blood-soaked madness featuring an inspired performance from the one and only, Nic Cage.
111. We Are Still Here (2015): A smart and fun twist on familiar territory.
110. Honeymoon (2014): Leigh Janiak was badass in Game of Thrones and she’s just as badass in this slow building thriller.
109. Army of Darkness(1993): A well mixed horror brew of action, gore, and comedy.
108. The Dead Zone (1983): A strong Stephen King adaptation from Canadian director David Cronenberg. Both Cronenberg and King (unsurprisingly) appear on this list multiple times.
107. Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn (1987): Not quite as good, but certainly as much fun, as the first installation!
106. Fright Night (1985): Lots of thrills and humour in the original Fright Night.
105. Session 9 (2001): While the ending feels a little abrupt, this film is a masterclass in creating atmosphere.
104. Frozen (2010): Not to be confused with the Disney musical, Frozen is a tense film about three snowboarders who must fight for their lives in the freezing cold after getting stranded on a ski lift.
103. Scanners(1981): An older sci-fi horror classic from David Cronenberg with mind-blowing visuals.
102.10 Cloverfield Lane (2016):Of the Cloverfield franchise films, this is the one I enjoyed the most. It utilizes its confined setting to great effect and the acting is quite outstanding.
101. In Fear (2014): A high tension and immersive experience where most of the fear and violence takes place in your head.
100. Creep (2015): Black humour at its finest; Creep offers an idiosyncretic and fresh interpretation on found-footage horror films.
99. The Devil’s Backbone (2001): A great film from Guillermo del Toro with equal parts ghost story and political allegory.
98. High Tension/ Haute tension(Switchblade Romance) (2005): One of the crazy bloodbath French slashers you need to see to believe. The ending could be a little stronger.
97. Host (2020): The first quarantine horror film that takes place entirely over Zoom, Host is scarier than you’d think. Given I teach on Zoom these days, this film gave me real anxiety.
96. A Quiet Place (2018): If you would have told me back in 2013 when I first started this list that I would include a post-apocalyptic science fiction horror film directed and starting John Krasinski I would have laughed at you, but here we are.
95. We Are What We Are (2013): I guess there is such a thing as a smart cannibal film. Honourable mentions for Cannibal the Musical and Ravenous.
94. Don’t Breathe(2016): This intense film from Fede Álvarez is well written, acted, and it maintains its tense atmosphere throughout.
93. Pontypool (2009): A fantastic Canadian psychological thriller in which a deadly virus infects a small Ontario town. Pontypool is a tense, abstract, and unique contribution to the zombie canon.
92. Shaun of the Dead (2004):Who says the zombie apocalypse can’t be funny? Shaun of the Dead has earned its status as a bonafide cult classic.
91.Candyman (1992): I love the score from Philip Glass, which fits well with the nuanced and chilling premise of Candyman.
90. The Invitation (2015): This tension-rich and slow-building thriller from Karyn Kusama is confident and adds something new to the “dinner party from hell” subgenre.
89.Requiem for a Dream (2000): If one of the main components of the horror genre is to elicit fear in the audience, then Requiem for a Dream is truly a horror film. Rather than talking to my kids about drug addiction when they’re teenagers, I plan to have them watch this. And then we can have the talk … about how crazy this film is.
88. The Lighthouse (2019): Between this and The VVitch, Robert Eggers is on a role. This visually stunning black-and-white film takes place in a lighthouse (filmed in Nova Scotia) and loosely adapts a Poe story to great effect. The performances from the leads as lighthouse keepers—Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson-—is also a masterclass in acting.
87. The Conjuring(2013): Well-crafted horror film that reminded me of classics like TheExorcist and The Amityville Horror.
86. Hush (2016): Michael Flanagan proved he is a formidable talent in the horror genre with his followup to Oculus. Hush provides an original take on the slasher and home invasion thriller.
85. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986): A chilling and disturbing portrait of a psycho killer.
84. The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane(1976): A young Jodie Foster plays the title role in this taut Canadian thriller.
83. Calibre(2018): A twisted film that takes an unexpected turn. I caught this one on Netflix and was surprised by how good it was.
82. The Host (2006): This excellent monster feature from Bong Joon-ho (Okja and Parasite) is full of scares, humour, and astute political commentary.
81. Misery (1990): James Caan and Kathy Bates are both fantastic in what is certainly one of the better adaptations of Stephen King’s work.
80. Funny Games(2007): Michael Haneke remakes his own film (1997) with a strong performance from Naomi Watts. Easier to watch than the crime drama Irreversible, but that isn’t saying much. Is this voyeuristic sadism? Is Haneke successful in turning the camera back at us? You decide.
79. Red White & Blue(2010): Well-acted and taut thriller that is also a severely distressing revenge film with a surfeit of torture. Need I say more?
78. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978): A powerful remake that expands on the themes of the original.
77. The Descent(2005): Great performances from an all-female cast in this creepy and claustrophobic decent into nightmare.
76. Inside/ À l’Intérieur(2007): I think the French make the most messed up horror films, and this film, which is part of the New French Extremity, is about as bloody, visceral, disturbing, and engrossing as they come. As Rob Gonsalves of eFilmCritic put it, “Leave it to the French to make Suspiria look like a ’30s drawing-room comedy.” I can’t actually recommend this one, and kind of wish I could un-see it.
75. Salo: 120 days of Sodom (1975): The film updates Marquis de Sade’s most extreme novel to fascist Italy in the final days of WWII. You probably won’t enjoy watching it, but it does a great job in showing how we are often complicit voyeurs of the world’s most disturbing and real horrors.
74. Suspiria (2018): While Luca Guadagnino’s reimagining of Suspiria was certainly polarizing, I appreciated how daring and original it felt. The soundtrack from Thom Yorke is also excellent.
73. Scream (1996): Nice homage to early slasher flicks—many of which were Craven’s own—and revival of the genre.
72. Don’t Look Now (1973): With haunting imagery and and a bone chilling score, Don’t Look Now is a must see for fans of the horror genre. It seems that Donald Sutherland was in a lot of these kinds of films in the ’70s.
71. A Field in England (2013): Ben Wheatley’s A Field in Englandis a British historical (although revisionist) thriller/horror shot entirely in black-and-white and set during the mid-17th century English Civil War. The film is a gumbo concoction odyssey that breaks free of the historical thriller genre through the use of experimental film techniques: mixing humour, horror and hallucination, with a dissonant kaleidoscopic audio score—an homage to 60s psychedelia. See my full review, here. Also, for another unconventional “horror” film from Wheatley, see Sightseers.
70. Black Christmas [also released as Silent Night, Evil Night] (1975): One of the first slasher pics ever made, and it’s Canadian! Interestingly, it is one of Steve Martin’s favourite films.
69. Under the Skin (2013): With feet firmly in both the sci-fi and horror genre, Under the Skin offers a fresh take on both genres while taking the audience to strange new places. Also recommended in a similar vein: Annihilation (2018).
68. Carnival of Souls (1962): The surreal and dreamlike imagery in this film was a major influence on David Lynch and it is easy to see why. An example of effective storytelling that proves once again that less can often be more.
67. Jaws(1975): Spielberg’s Jaws remains a benchmark in blockbuster thrills, and has given sharks a bad name to this day. Da-Dum:It’s incredible that two simple notes can inspire so much terror. Check out the impressive new 4K restoration of the film.
66. 28 Days Later(2002): One of the best zombie movies out there; in addition, it has a fatal political bend to it.
65. [Park Chan-Wook’s Revenge Trilogy] Sympathy of Mr. Vengeance (2002); Oldboy (2003); Sympathy for Lady Vengeance(2005): While these films fall more into the mystery/thriller category, their grimy violence and high style allow them to verge into the horror genre (certainly in gore and subject matter) and presents the viewer with both shock and thought.
64. Los ojos de Julia/ Julia’s Eyes(2010): Full of Hitchcockian suspense. Your eyes will be glued to the screen.
63. Carrie (1976): Teen angst horror-prom blood fest at its best.
Rewatching Carrie a little while ago I noticed that Buck 65 samples the theme in his song, “The Centaur.“
62. Night of the Living Dead (1968): George A. Romero’s debut is a seminal horror classic and it almost single-handedly created the template for the zombie film.
61. An American Werewolf in London(1981): Pitch perfect genre-crossing horror-comedy.
60. Nightmare on Elm Street (1984): Featuring Johnny Depp in his screen debut, Nightmare on Elm Street showcases Wes Craven at his finest. Freddy Krueger remains as frightening as ever.
59. The Fly(1986): Wow, horror films before all the special effects crap were so inventive. The Fly is a macabre romance with all the early fleshy Cronenberg trademarks. Oh, and Goldblum.
58. Eden Lake (2008): This British horror film is brutal, but features incredible performances from both Kelly Reilly and Michael Fassbender.
57. Goodnight Mommy (2015): There’s been some fantastic horror films in the last five years, and this one by duo Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala is one of them. This unsettling identical-twin psycho-thriller is a riveting nightmare.
56. The Wicker Man(1973): While the Cage remake would likely end up on a slew of worst lists, the original is a classic with a truly unforgettable ending.
55. Videodrome(1983): Videodrome is a disorienting, wholly strange experience about technology and cybernetic flesh and lust that still resonates today.
54. Ringu(1998): I have to go with the Japanese original. Elemental nightmares with a dose of technological anxiety create an unnerving mix.
53. The Cabin in the Woods(2012): Meta-horror flick that is funny, scary, weird and wonderful, often within the same scene.
52. Re-Animator (1985): Stuart Gordon’s take on a H.P Lovecraft story is full of blood and gore and is a perfect mix of humour and horror.
51. Pulse (2001): Fantastic Japanese horror flick that uses the power of suggestion to provide real scares.
50. The Innocents(1961): Atmospheric British classic based on Henry James’s TheTurn of the Screw.
49. It Follows (2015): While it falters at times, It Follows is a smart and terrifying offering that reminds us that modern horror has plenty to offer.
48. Drag Me to Hell(2009): Horror veteran Sam Raimi delivers a modern campy thrill ride.
47. The Babadook (2014): Jennifer Kent’s film relies on genuine scares rather than gore. A modern classic in my opinion. Her latest film, The Nightingale is brutal and shows the full force of settler and patriarchal colonialism and its machinations of violence on women and Indigenous people.
46. The Brood(1979): The perfect example of David Cronenberg’s body horror cinema, offering a take on how repressed demons of the psyche worm their way to the surface. The Criterion print of this film is a work of art.
45. Revenge (2017): With a feminist edge, Coralie Fargeat infuses new life into the exploitation revenge flick.
44. What We Do in the Shadows (2015): One of the funniest horror-comedy films I’ve ever seen, and a great update on the modern vampire flick.
43. Train to Busan (2016): Entertaining South Korean Zombie apocalypse film that takes place mostly on a train.This one is lots of fun!
42. Halloween (1978): A Hallowe’en horror film list would feel inadequate without this film that set the bar for modern slasher films like Scream.
41. You’re Next(2013):This film has it all: energy, brutal gore, a strong female lead, and pitch black humour.
40. Spoorloos/ The Vanishing (1988): The original, of course. I mean how many great foreign horror films has Hollywood unnecessarily remade? This film slowly unravels until we are presented with one of the most shocking endings in any film.
39. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre(1974): While host to a surfeit of bad remakes, the original is low-budget exploitation gore at its optimum. Is this where chainsaw nightmare are made?
38. Rosemary’s Baby(1968): Polanski’s iconic thriller is a spellbinding film that will turn expectant mothers to prayer for safe passage.
37. A Tale of Two Sisters(2003): This South Korean psychological horror drama film written and directed by Kim Jee-woo is intricately structured and full of enough twists to reward multiple viewings.
36. Let the Right One In(2008): This film reenergizes the vampire genre. See Twilight if you want bad horror romance (I assume, as I haven’t actually seen it), but watch Let the Right One In if you want an intelligent film with affecting storytelling.
35. Eyes Without a Face(1960): This 1960 French film is both beautifully poetic and deeply disturbing, often within the same frame. While there’s not much in terms of character development, this film provides an interesting take on the mad-doctor saga and the heterografting scene still disturbs.
34. Us (2019): Jordan Peele has opened up the horror genre to show how America’s racism continues to haunt the present. Us expands on some of the themes in Peele’s debut film, Get Out, and critiques the interconnected territories of race and class. Moreover, Lupita Nyong’o’s performance is a thing of wonder. It’s also a genuinely creepy film and while some critics had a hard time classifying Get Out, this is a full-on horror film.
33. Mulholland Drive(2001): “Silencio.” In many ways this film parallels Lynch’s Blue Velvet as we gradually awaken into a living nightmare. Once Pandora’s box is opened the film enters into a mysterious realm that few, if any, films can travel, traverse, and transcend as beautifully and as well as this film does.
32. Antichrist(2009): Shocking and controversial art house horror. Another film on this list that is not for the squeamish.
31. Repulsion (1965): Schizophrenic decent into psychosis. One of Polanski’s best.
30. American Psycho (2000): This violent and sharp satire from co-writer and director Mary Harron exposes the shallow nature of American culture. It is also nearly impossible to imagine any actor playing Patrick Bateman other than Christian Bale.
29. Martyrs (2008): If you want to watch something utterly horrifying and violent (it is part of the French extremity movement), but also smart and daring, Martyrs might be the film for you. Even though I’ve only seen this film once close to when it was released, many of the images continue to haunt me.
28. [REC] (2007): One of my favourite zombie films and perhaps the best uses of POV found footage.
27. Kill List (2011): Slow burn crime-thriller that gradually becomes a corporal horror.
26. Raw (2016): Another crazy French horror film (big surprise!). This one, directed and written by Julia Ducournau, provides something new to the cannibal horror genre, and it is very atmospheric and full of symbols that stay with you.
25. Blood Quantum (2019): An Indigenous zombie film from writer and director Jeff Barnaby. Barnaby’s “bare knuckle” approach to cinema is an important cinematic intervention (see his excellent Rhymes for Young Ghouls), and this zombie horror film feels all the more pertinent during COVID-19.
24. The VVitch (2015): This directorial debut from Robert Eggers is visually compelling and unsettling as it shows that so much of the horror genre is about atmosphere.
23. Hausu (1977): This surreal Japanese horror flick is the stuff of legend. The script was influenced by the ideas of director Nobuhiko Obayashi’s pre-teen daughter. He asked her what she found to be truly scary, which is why it is likely the only film where a piano eats someone!
22. Come and See(1985): With a title that references the Book of Revelations, Elem Klimov’s Come and See is a harrowing and graphic anti-war film (about the horrors of the fascist genocide in Belorussia). It is also surreal and poetic. I realize choosing an anti-war film opens up the discussion of horror, but the last 45 minutes of this film really do feel like you’ve descended into Hell.
21. Alien(1979): A poetic sci-fi horror tour de force. I watch this film every few years and it never gets old.
20. I Saw the Devil (2010): You’ve likely noticed that I am a big fan of South Korean cinema and horror. If you are looking for something intense and full of action, I highly recommend this Korean film. The chilling performance from Choi Min-sik as a psychopathic serial killer is a sight to behold.
19. Hereditary (2018): Speaking of great performances, it is a blunder than Toni Collette was not nominated for an Oscar for her role in Hereditary. Most people reading through a horror list have likely seen Ari Aster’s debut film at this point, but if you haven’t you should get on that. Aside from Collette’s great performance, it is full of shocking twists and scares.
18. Audition (1999): kiri, kiri. This Japanese psychological drama will stay with you, and nothing can prepare you for the shocking ending.
17. Blue Velvet(1986): A surreal blend of psychological horror with film noir, David Lynch’s Blue Velvet still disturbs and perhaps tells us even more today about the horrors of small-town American life.
16. The Evil Dead (1981): Its careful mix of black comedy with supernatural horror made The Evil Dead an instant milestone in graphic horror.
15. The Loved Ones (2009): This Australian film mixes horror and teen drama well and the ending is one of the best of any horror film. It gives new meaning to the challenges of going to prom.
14. Eraserhead (1977): Shockingly, or not, David Lynch calls Eraserhead his most spiritual film. A surreal and experimental body horror about a man’s fear of being a father, the film is engrossing and disturbing. The creepy sound design for the film is also really incredible.
13. The Exorcist (1973): Considered by many to be the scariest film of all time, Friedkin’s The Exorcist is a horror classic with some of the most blood-curdling scenes (the spider walk scene!) on celluloid.
12. The Wailing (2016): This lengthy South Korean horror gem has it all: Asian mythology, exorcisms, shamans, zombies, and the devil. It starts off as a comedy, but quickly turns quite dark.
11. Midsommar (2019): While it is only his second film (after Hereditary), Ari Aster proved he is a true horror auteur with this one. I enjoyed this even more than Hereditary and although it is more unsettling than it is scary, the images are disturbing and the hallucinatory tone of the film lingers long after it’s over.
10. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me(1992): Some might disagree with having this rank so high, but I think it is David Lynch’s most pure horror film. It is also his most misunderstood and denigrated work. The film’s subject matter is not only difficult, but its narrative complexity can feel impenetrable at times. According to David Foster Wallace: “[Fire Walk with Me] sought to transform Laura Palmer from dramatic object to dramatic subject … Laura was no longer ‘an enigma’ or ‘the password to an inner sanctum of horror.’ She embodied, in full view, all the Dark Secrets that on the series had been the stuff of significant glances and delicious whispers.”
9. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014): Such an amazing debut from Ana Lily Amirpour. It’s not often you’ll come across an Iranian Vampire Spaghetti Western let alone one with a lonely chador-wearing feminist-vampire-vigilante on a skateboard who fights against the oppression of women. It’s also beautifully filmed and scored.
8. Silence of the Lambs (1991): Both Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster give incredible performances (in which they both won Oscars) in a film that legitimized horror in the eyes of the general public. As a psychological study and horror film, it has it all. However, I tend to agree with some of the criticisms of the film by the LGBTQ+ community around the portrayal of Buffalo Bill.
7. The Thing (1982): John Carpenter’s remake is such a fantastic and engrossing film. The fear and paranoia of a mutant disease spreading while in isolation takes on new meaning in 2020. After seeing this, watch the episode called “Ice” from the first season of The X-Files for some close parallels.
6. Deep Red/ Italian: Profondo Rosso (1975): Of all the Argento and giallo films I’ve seen, this one is the best. Even though I enjoy Suspiria slightly more for its abstraction and incredible cinematography, Deep Red is more compelling and complex and you can see its influence on later horror films and murder mysteries. The soundtrack by Goblin is also great.
5. Get Out (2017): Rarely does a film come out that changes the landscape of the conversation happening within a given genre, but Get Out manages to do that and more. American comedian and writer Jordan Peele recognized lacunas in the genre and crafted a film that uses the metaphor of the sunken place to address the pain of commodified black bodies in cinema/horror. It’s also a lot of fun to catch all the references to The Shining in the film.
4. Dead Ringers (1988): A progenitor of a genre typically referred to as body horror, Toronto-born and world-renowned auteur David Cronenberg remains one of the most audacious narrative directors working in cinema. One of Cronenberg’s most controlled and creepy films, Dead Ringerscentres on twin-brother gynaecologists who share everything, including a patient, and despite their best efforts, cannot be severed from one another. The “Instruments for Operating on Mutant Women” are a haunting metaphor for male desire to control reproduction. I had a chance to see this at TIFF as part of David Cronenberg: Evolution, and before the screening Cronenberg discussed how Dead Ringers was a critical turning point in his career; after the screening, the first words Jeremy Irons spoke were, “That’s a pretty strange film.” Indeed.
3. Suspiria (1977): This abstract, glossy, and gory horror is full of phantasmagoric style. The soundtrack is incredible. While most horror stories take place in settings with isolated victims, Argento takes things one step further by placing his young protagonist, Suzy (Jessica Harper), in a particularly creepy ballet academy located in rural Italy. The movie is violent, jarring, and also full of breathtakingly beautiful cinematography and vibrant colours. Goblin’s score is one of the best in all of horror. Check out the original theme, and then listen to hip-hop producer RJD2’s use of the sample in his track “Weatherpeople.”
2. Psycho (1960): There’s before Psycho and after Psycho. While it seems hard to believe, Psycho was the first film to show someone flushing a toilet. With that said, we can see why the famous shower sequence (consisting of 78 set ups and 52 cuts in 45 seconds) sent some people running out of the theatre. No longer were our private domestic spaces safe. Hitchcock imagined the shower scene without sound, but fortunately Bernard Herrmann convinced him otherwise as it is one of the most recognizable sonic moments in all of cinema.
1. The Shining (1980):
blood: redrum, RƎⱭЯUM what’s in room two-three-seven? surprise: here’s Johnny!
There was a time when Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining was not considered to be the great horror film many people and critics see it as today. The film opened to derisive laughter. As Pauline Kael wrote, “Who wants to see evil in daylight, through a wide-angle lens?” Over time The Shining’s stature as a classic has grown and it introduced nearly all the elements that are part of horror’s popular lexicon: jump-cuts, modernist music (Kubrick uses six pieces from Polish composer, Krzystof Penderecki), subliminal inserts (Danny’s visions), and all kinds of visual metaphors. The film itself is structured like a piece of music with various movements and recurring rhythms. It is a film you can get lost in and think through every time you watch it. It was innovative, especially in its use of Steadicam (see Danny’s pedal car).
The most arresting element about Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s book is the engrossing labyrinthine structure of the film, which adds a dizzying effect as we get lost deeper and deeper in the film’s maze. Replacing King’s topiary (hedges that come alive) with a maze adds plenty of cinematic verve to the adaptation. Topiary just isn’t scary; on the other hand, a demented Minotaur of a man running through a maze to kill his kid in the dead cold of winter is bone chilling. For me, Kubrick’s version was much more terrifying because instead of ghosts—although mysterious elements are present—we are shown a more mythic and immediate evil. Evil exists in the world of the living and it is our responsibility to contest it. Kubrick’s finale is ice cold: the world freezes over and evil still waits in the halls of the Overlook Hotel.
Need a reprieve from all the scary carnage? Here’s The Shiningà la Seinfeld with a laugh track.
Reproduction—the debut novel from Ian Williams—is an inventive multi-generational saga that pushes the limits of narrative and language. The novel explores the ways families are bonded, whether by blood, story, or choice. Its size, encyclopedic knowledge, Biblical intertextuality, and peregrination through the complicated genealogy of family (from the cycle of birth, life, and death) recall Steinbeck’s East of Eden, but in language and style it is closer to the work of Zadie Smith and the late David Foster Wallace. Fitting the cyclical nature of life and the seasons, the novel is told in four sections (with an interlude between them titled “The Sex Talk”), moving from Toronto in the late seventies to the mid-nineties, and finally to the present. Before the narrative proper, we encounter an upwards-moving genealogy that begins with “before” and then seven epigraphs. The genealogy—devoid of names, with representative sex chromosomes in their place—and the epigraphs, ranging from Margaret Atwood to Genesis, speak to Williams’ awareness that both he, as author, and his characters are part of an inherited chain of stories.
Click here to read my full review at Canadian Literature.
“Sound is to people what the sun is to light.” —Ornette Coleman
I am happy to announce a new album!
Portals was made over the summer months of 2020 during the COVID-19 global pandemic. The first track—“Another World”—opens with a sample from the Man Booker Prize-winning Indian novelist Arundhati Roy speaking about the coronavirus pandemic as a portal: “It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.” With systemic injustices more visible than ever, she asks us to use this opportunity to imagine another world. This album is about that possibility, but it is also an album where I looked at music as healing, imagination, creativity, community, and play.
For me, music has been a sustaining joy during the pandemic. Unlike my previous Dedications projects, I didn’t begin with a sample or style to manipulate, but simply made music that I felt (with a lo-fi hip-hop aesthetic) while trying to have as much fun as I could along the way. Beyond the vocal samples throughout (including Dr. Bonnie Henry, Mr. Rogers, and Totoro), I played much of the album using sample and drum kits (on my MPC Live and Roland SP-404SX) and an Arturia KeyStep controlling a KORG volca fm. Two of the tracks feature my children—“Good Feelin’” and “Lovely Day,” which also features my wife—and are about living in the moment and finding daily happiness. Both “Lovely Day” and “Imagination” were played live and remixed in real time on my SP-404sx. The penultimate track samples from the audiobook of Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Talents and reminds us that not only are we capable of change, but in order to survive we surely must change. The final song features vocal samples from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, as well as words from John Lewis and Killer Mike. While the context is explicitly American, King’s fierce urgency of now reminds us of the need to resist Canada’s own Anti-Black police violence and Anti-Black racism and Anti-Indigenous racism, which includes the recent deaths of Andrew Loku, Jermaine Carby, and Regis Korchinski-Paquet, among many others. “Now’s the time” to respond to the fierce urgency of this moment. Will we ignore the rupture the pandemic created and return to “normal,” or will we step through the portal into another world?
The music is FREE and is a not-for-profit creative project (although you can donate to my musical praxis and future projects when downloading).
Released August 22, 2020. Recorded, produced, mixed, and mastered by Paul db Watkins. pauldbwatkins.com
I am fortunate to be part of the 24-hour online #ImprovFest2020 (IF) taking place on August 8 at 1 AM GMT+1. Fortunately, that’s 5 pm in British Columbia where I live.
IF 2020 will livestream pre-recorded curated video and audio submissions from over 150+ artists from 15+ countries. The 24-hour festival is free to “attend” and will feature a dynamic array of improvisational artists, including musicians, spoken word poets, dancers, and theatre practitioners.
Visit the website, and see the trailer below (you can see me at the end of this clip):
And, for anyone interested, here’s the performance from IF 2020:
Spending more time indoors (due to COVID-19) means that I have more opportunity to catch up on films from my massive watch list. From those recent viewings, I am recommending three phenomenal films directed and written by women, all of which shared themes of psychological isolation and featured women finding their worth outside of the definitions and limitations imposed upon them by a patriarchal society.
The first film is Anna Rose Holmer’s debut, The Fits (2015). The film tells the story of Toni (played by Royalty Hightower): an 11-year old who trains with her brother at the boxing gym and then decides to join and fit into a girl’s dance troupe in the same community centre. The troupe begins to inexplicably suffer from a wave of violent fits. Holmer did a lot of research into real-life stories of seizure-like attacks affecting young women, going all the way back to cases like the dancing plague of 1518. On the surface, the film is a typical bildungsroman, but it is a much deeper film about what it feels like to be psychologically isolated while trying to navigate a fledging sense of self. The film does an excellent job of establishing mood and the final sequence is pure cinema. In fact, much of the film defies traditional dramatic convention in order to take us directly inside the head of Toni who is often framed looking at herself (through mirrors), her peers (through windows), and directly at the audience.
The next film is Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale (2018). Of the three films, I recommend this one with some reserve and a warning that this is an extremely graphic and potentially very triggering movie. Where Kent’s The Babadook (2014) relied on implied psychical terror, The Nightingale is brutal and shows the full force of settler and patriarchal colonialism and its machinations of violence on women and Indigenous people. The story’s backdrop is colonization in Australia in 1825, and the film brings the violence through which the colony was established to the forefront: rape and violence inflicted upon children are prevalent throughout. I definitely got vibes of Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993), except where Indigenous people are mostly silent in Campion’s film, we do get a somewhat larger perspective of the effects of colonialism and racism through an excellent performance from Baykali Ganambarr as “Billy”: an Indigenous tracker who accompanies our central character as she seeks revenge on her oppressors. Roughly, the film is about an Irish women convict named Clare (played by Aisling Franciosi) seeking retribution for the atrocities committed against her and her family. The film deals directly with her psychological isolation and her lack of support, although she finds shared grief and solace with Billy who has also lost much to colonial violence. Kent’s film provides an unflinching look at the British penal colony of Van Diemen’s Land (now the Australian state of Tasmania), and while it is hardly a film many would want to endure, its palpable anger and themes of redemption are ultimately rewarding: “I belong to me and no one else!”
The final film is Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, or Portrait de la jeune fille en feu in French (2019). Portrait is a historical drama set in France during the late 18th century. It tells the story of a forbidden affair between an aristocrat and a painter. The painter—Marianne, played by Noémie Merlant—has been summoned to a remote seaside estate to paint a portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) to send to the family of her suitor (because Héloïse resists arranged marriage, Marianne is charged with painting in secret). The film is full of tension as the two women come to know each other through sustained gaze, expression, and eventually through physical intimacy. Spectacularly, this romance unfolds outside the world of men (and without men on screen) as these two women (and the house servant Sophie, played by Luàna Bajrami) learn to see themselves outside the confines of patriarchy. This film said so much about the nature of the gaze and the frames (boxes) in which the women felt confined. I was captivated by every second of this film and found Claire Mathon’s cinematography a revelation (her stellar work can also be seen in Atlantics, another film I highly recommend). Lastly, the extended use of music for the final shot— Presto from “Summer” from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons—reminded me of the great French director Claire Denis, and is a moment that lingers long after the film. If you enjoyed this film, make sure you check out other excellent work by Sciamma including Tomboy (2011) and Girlhood (2014).
A few other recent films by women with similar themes to the above that I would recommend include Dee Rees‘ Pariah (2011), Ana Lily Amirpour’sA Girls Walks Home Alone at Night(2014), Lulu Wang’s The Farewell(2019), andMati Diop’s Atlantics(2019; Diop was the first Black woman to direct a film featured in competition at Cannes).
What did you think of the films if you’ve seen any of them? Feel free to drop a comment below, and happy watching.
Also, remember to wear masks and social distance (as excellently demonstrated in Portraitof a Lady on Fire).