You’re Dead!: The Afrofuturistic Sounds of Flying Lotus

“The future is always here in the past.”
-Amiri Baraka, “Jazzmen: Diz & Sun Ra”

From Sun Ra to Janelle Monáe, Afrofuturism lets us know where we’ve been (from griot traditions and Egyptian pyramids and astronomy) to where we are going (mixing culture, technology, liberation, and imagination), particularly as a new generation of artists embody the movement’s philosophy and push jazz and hip-hop into new realms. As Afrofuturist Ytasha Womack writes of the movement, “It’s a way of bridging the future and the past and essentially helping to reimagine the experience of people of colour.” Few working DJs in the “beat scene,” particularly with mainstream recognition, embody the creative spirit of Afrofuturism as much as experimental electronic artist Flying Lotus, whose aunt is the legendary Alice Coltrane. He’s also the cousin of saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, and the grandson of singer/songwriter Marilyn McLeod (notable for writing Diana Ross’s “Love Hangover” and Freda Payne’s “I Get High (On Your Memory).”

Rather than letting his deep musical roots hold him down, Flying Lotus (aka FlyLo, born Steven Ellison) forges forward, sounding futures and making music that uses past recordings—made live through scratching and remix—as sources for improvisation. Flying Lotus first came to recognition making beats for Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim, eventually releasing a full-length record in 2006 entitled 1983. 1983 (of which I have a hard to find copy on vinyl), like its follow up, Los Angeles (2008), is a fairly straight ahead and accessible beats record, although it comes from the left field of jazz-based eletronica, video game music, and experimental hip-hop. His more recent releases include the albums Cosmogramma, and 2012’s sparse sounding and critically acclaimed, Until the Quiet ComesUntil the Quiet Comes displays the complexity of Ellison’s production, characterized by consonant and dissonant sounds, counterpoint, diverse shifts in tone and feel, and various improvisational modifications in mood, time signature, and overall structure. The psychedelic undertones, a mixture of downtempo jazz and post-rock ethos, add a dream quality to the album. Andy Beta of Spin described the record as the “dreams within dreams within dreams” concept of the 2010 film Inception while Karen Lawler of State insists that, “If the limbo between awake and sleeping, dreams and nightmares could be expressed through music, this album might well be it.”

Unique to Flying Lotus is how much sound he can get using a computer and digital production tools. Often he performs with live musicians (such as Ravi Coltrane) and his complex melodies, syncopated rhythms, and textured productions are largely a product of his own diverse interests. Some of his favourite albums, as he describes in one interview, include Alice Coltrane’s Lord of Lords; Radiohead’s Amnesiac; Charles Mingus’s Black Saint and the Lady Sinner, and J Dilla’s Ruff Draft. Stylistically, Ellison’s music reflects these diverse records, as Lotus’s albums contain free form jazz undertones and jazz-based patterns and time signatures. In 2010, Flying Lotus worked with the Ann Arbor Film Festival in a live scoring of the 1962 avant-garde film, Heaven and Earth Magic. Flying Lotus continues to surprise his audiences with imaginative live performances and by remaining true to the cross-fertilization of ideas and technological manipulation so present in Afrofuturism, Lotus (and the larger movement of young creative artists) continues to imagine possible futures.

Flying Lotus’s latest release, You’re Dead! (October 2014), embodies his mind-bending Afrofuturism more than any of his earlier recordings. The album is perhaps what Sun Ra’s and Miles Davis’s sonic child would sound like if they birthed an album together under the auspices of hip-hop. You’re Dead! is a breaking away and fresh approach to jazz-influenced hip-hop that feels a lot like Miles Davis’s On the Corner or Bitches Brew. In the liner notes of Bitches Brew, Ralph Gleason argues that “electric music is the music of this culture and in the breaking away (not breaking down) from previously assumed forms a new kind of music is emerging.” The great thing about You’re Dead! is that it recalls and echoes other fusion records, and yet its sounds are distinctive and in some ways unparalleled. You’re Dead! digs deep into jazz fusion, and takes the listener on a psychedelic journey into the unknown of the infinite afterlife. The exclamatory title (You’re Dead!) signals both the intensity and enthralled irreverence with which Ellison approaches death. Ellison’s own singing on the record is both goofy and haunting. Most impressive about this album is the well-orchestrated panoply of ideas, which are channeled through a tapestry of spirits and friends who converse together in the sonic afterlife.

You're_Dead!
Flying-Lotus-Dead-Mans-Tetris-608x804The artwork for the album is in itself a psychedelic trip.

The album’s musical influences range from the spiritual jazz of the Coltranes, the prog jazz fusion of Weather Report (a major stylistic conduit for Ellison on the record), to the humour and cosmic tones of Sun Ra. Such a mix makes You’re Dead! Ellison’s most free sounding album to date; impressively the record never spirals out of control because it clocks in at less than 40 minutes. In those 38 minutes we encounter a wide spectrum of sounds (and silences) with more live instrumentation than any prior Lotus album. The collaborative cast on the album is diverse, and includes Herbie Hancock, Kendrick Lamar, Captain Murphy, Snoop Dogg, Thundercat, Angel Deradoorian, and others. Given his role at the helm of the fusion movement, Herbie Hancock is well deployed and his mellifluous keys on “Telsa” and “Moment of Hesitation” add to the jazz feel of the album. To really appreciate You’re Dead! you need to listen to the album in one continuous sitting: preferably in a smoky moon-lit room. The smoke could just as fittingly be from incense or cannabis. The tracks seamlessly flow together and the intense opening to the ethereal closing creates a cinematic experience that juxtaposes life and death, heaven and hell. This is cosmic music that is more meditative than it is consumptive. Yes, it is anthropophagic (cannibalistic) of other musical forms, but its channeling is meditative. We are not given a concrete answer to the nature of the afterlife, but I think that’s largely the point. The shamanistic journey FlyLo takes us on is Afrofuturistic because it lets us know that our past contains portals to explore the future of unknown horizons. You’re Dead! might just be the most exciting and confounding musical experience released this year.

images-4images-4images-4images-4 record 1:2(4.5 spins out of 5)

Check out some of Ellison’s music below, including the Kendrick Lamar collaboration on “Never Catch Me.”

Featured image from, here.

On Lower Frequencies: Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man

“Who knows but that on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?”
-Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man 581

Set primarily in 1948 tumultuous America, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man is an evocative novel that deals with black identity, technological manipulation (Afrofuturism), social disillusionment, racial oppression, and invisibility. More broadly, the novel concerns individuality, tracing the numerous ways we sound our identities within political or communal networks. In the novel, an unnamed black man embarks on a Dantean journey from the South—where local white men mock him in the infamous “Battle Royal” scene and offer him a scholarship to a black college—to the basement streets of Harlem where the narrator finds a new brand of racism and where everyone he encounters, whether white or black, has an idea of who he is and what purpose he can play in their destiny. Invisible Man, which appears as one of the 100 Best English Novels (Time), is, as Lev Grossman wrote, “far more than a race novel, or even a bildungsroman. It’s the quintessential American picaresque of the 20th century.”

Although published in 1952, Invisible Man remains as pertinent as ever, particularly against the recent backdrop of race riots and social unrest in Ferguson and all too frequent incidents of racial profiling, often with dire consequences as in the cases of Oscar Grant III and Trayvon Martin; within a Canadian framework, the novel’s theme of invisibility heartbreakingly relates to the general invisibility of First Nations people, specifically the disappearance and murder of Indigenous women. Beyond its continued relevance, Invisible Man remains controversial for its honest depiction of racist America, as well as its voyeuristic sexual content, particularly the story of incestuous rape told by the signifying blues singer, Jim Trueblood. In fact, last year the Randolph County School Board voted to remove Ellison’s novel from its library shelves. Aside from the graphic content, abstract language, and historical scope of the novel, Invisible Man is also a difficult novel to teach because of its sheer size—a robust 581 pages.

Yet it is for all these historical reasons and challenges that I recently taught Invisible Man and will continue to do so. In a course structured around Sonic Afro-Modernity and Social Change we used the theme of sonic Afro-modernity (a term that comes from theorist Alexander G. Weheliye) to examine how Ellison’s interplay between sound technologies (the phonograph) and Black music and speech produced new modes of thinking and becoming, particularly allowing for new ways to engage with identity, temporality, and community.

Ellison’s Invisible Man opens with the unnamed protagonist getting into the “grooves of history,” listening to Louis Armstrong’s “Black and Blue” on the phonograph—locating the music’s aura, as Wehelyie argues, “not in the original musical utterance but in the mode of mechanical reproduction itself, making him one of the foremost intellectual architects of sonic Afro-modernity” (47). Ellison’s unnamed narrator states: “Now I have one radio-phonograph; I plan to have five. There is a certain acoustical deadness in my hole, and when I have music I want to feel its vibration, not only with my ear but with my whole body. I’d like to hear five recordings of Louis Armstrong playing and singing ‘What Did I Do to Be so Black and Blue’—all at the same time” (7-8). Ellison’s choice to foreground Armstrong’s performance of “Black and Blue” (initially composed by Fats Waller) in the prologue to his circulatory text highlights how one articulates one’s historical somatic experience through the performance of identity.

The surreal hallucinatory episode of listening to the nodes of music via Armstrong’s own listening and discord of identity (with the aid of some reefer) becomes the act of improvised identity-performance for the narrator. The Invisible Man’s reimagining of the performance through a recorded performance—with a desire for simultaneous recordings—is the “authentic act” (in the non-authentic sense: that is, the performative nature of identity resists closure), where the grooves take the narrator inside and outside of history. Ellison—like a DJ mixing records to navigate a murky topology—creates a “mix” and becomes an innovator of “sonic Afro-modernity.” I use this example to show how there can be a politics at work in the DJ’s mixing (that “the mix” can articulate the layered nature of history, identity performance, and racial politics), and to emphasize that the DJ mix—certainly for Ellison—is an act of citizenship.

Through music I was able to index many of Ellison’s signifying strategies and show my students how identity—much like community and society itself—is a process that is always changing. As Ellison writes in his work Shadow and Act, “because jazz finds its very life in an endless improvisation upon traditional materials, the jazzman must lose his identity even as he finds it” (234), suggesting that Black identity, or any identity formed within improvising principles, is continually in process. Hence, jazz and, more ubiquitously, improvisation are about finding alternatives to dominant modes of being, which is why Ellison’s nightmare of living as a black man in America is also filled with possibility and hope.

There are moments when we realize (along with the narrator) that freedom can be as simple as walking down the street in our own skin proudly displaying our cultural heritage. For the narrator that comes in one moment (there are others) where he eats a cooked, syrupy yam on the streets of Harlem: “I walked along, munching the yam, just as suddenly overcome with a sense of freedom—simply because I was eating while walking on the street” (Invisible 263-64). No longer compelled to hide his Southern Black identity, the narrator ponders the connection between food and identity, feeling a profound sense of self-determination and autonomy—a sense that comes with progressing forward while simultaneously embracing, confronting, and remixing the past.

In this way, Ellison’s novel is prophetic (and Afrofuturistic): it speaks of change and resistance while acknowledging the cyclical nature and echo effect of oppression. History, as a metaphorical record, is distressed, scratched, and in need of a DJ (and an audience) to make it sound. Ellison, as a sonic architect, is an early progenitor of Afrofuturism: a movement that lets us know where we’ve been (from griot traditions and Egyptian pyramids and astronomy) to tell us we are going (mixing culture, technology, liberation, and imagination). As Afrofuturist Ytasha Womack writes of the movement, “It’s a way of bridging the future and the past and essentially helping to reimagine the experience of people of colour” (Guardian). Combating visions of tomorrow that view blackness as the failure of progress and technological cataclysm, Ellison shows that through the manipulation of technology, Black culture actually helped create modernity and notions of subjectivity, temporality, and community. History as remix, as a cyclical boomerang, allows Ellison to dig into the crates of the past to explore and expose the effects racism has on both victims and perpetrators.

Invisible Man deals with an entire “unrecorded history” (471) that is open for (re)interpretation and (re)examination, particularly by and for those groups of people who were once relegated to historical footnotes. We are thus challenged, as Robin D. G. Kelley argues in Race Rebels, to “not only redefine what is ‘political’ but question a lot of common ideas about what are ‘authentic’ movements and strategies of resistance” (4). Politics, as a “history from below” (5), also functions by what Kelley defines as “infrapolitics” (8), a term he uses to describe the circumspect struggle waged daily by subordinate groups who function beyond the visible spectrum. It is from “the lower frequencies” (581)—those subtonic bass notes—that the unnamed narrator (as a representative of the oppressed) continues to speak to a contemporary North America still recovering and living with the legacy and malaise of slavery, reformulated in some respects, under the guise of capitalism. Under this lens, we cannot trivialize contemporary acts of resistance by political youth movements like Occupy, Idle No More, or the Egyptian Revolution (2011, Tahrir Square), which effectively connected various people and global media outlets together to enact change—however grand or relative in scale and action. The recent First Nations Idle No More movement was the result of legislation (most directly Bill C-45) introduced by the Harper government, which violated treaty and land rights. Again and again: the record of history continues to spin.

Ellison’s Invisible Man remains a multifarious DJ mix of apposition and amalgamation. We encounter characters that personify actual historical figures like Booker T. Washington, Emerson, and Marcus Garvey and cultural references and influences that include Dante, Dostoevsky, T.S. Eliot, Melville, and Louis Armstrong. It is in this mixing, between Western classical and Negro Folk traditions (Shadow 190) that Ellison creates a polyphonic dialogue, displaying that Black music, literature, and culture are never fixed or stable, but rather layered and complex: the novel, like Brother Tarp’s chain, “signifies a heap” (388). Invisible Man matters because race and culture still matter. On a more global level, especially in the age of information and censorship, art still matters.

Reading (and making space to teach Invisible Man) remains an act of allowing one’s own identity position to be moved by the lower bass registers of sound. We are called to listen to those deemed to be on the lower registers of society. Ultimately, identity and, by extension, community involve the precarious act of yielding to others’ voices, which is at the crux of genuine multiculturalism and, often, interesting literature. I have an original first edition of the novel (3rd printing) and I can only imagine how people felt reading the novel for the first time in 1952. As I leaf through its taupe and textured pages, I realize that in spite of much change in terms of citizenship rights in North America, many of the power structures in the novel remain entrenched in our current society. When we finish the novel, a long endeavour, we (as the narrator does) are challenged to leave our holes of hibernation, “shake off the old skin and come up for breath […] even an invisible man has a socially responsible role to play” (581). The landscape might have slightly changed, certainly our understanding of the world via technology has, but our responsibility to make the world a better place remains as pertinent as ever. No wonder the highly visible want the book taken off the shelves.

Works Cited

Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. New York: Vintage International Edition, 1995. Print.

—. Shadow and Act. New York: Random House, 1964. Print.

Kelley, Robin D. G. Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class. New York: The Free Press, 1996. Print.

Weheliye, Alexander. Phonographies: Grooves in Sonic Afro-Modernity. Durham: Duke UP, 2005. Print.