#BLM Playlist: Revolution, Protest, and Peace

There is a specificity to Black voice and song, as Afrosporic poet and critic M. NourbeSe Philip describes in her engagement with Lindon Barrett’s Blackness and Value: Seeing Double, which “come[s] out of a particular history of pain, trauma and a determination to make meaning of one’s life no matter what; it is sound lodged in commitment to matter to and value one’s self and one’s community in the face of a culture that continues to assert that Black lives lack meaning and are irrelevant except and in so far as they are useful” (Blank 24). The history of Black music in North America is deeply embedded in a Black radical tradition which responds to the abject violence of slavery and Anti-Black Racism through unscripted performances, shouts, moans, and cries; furthermore, the history also concerns traditions of celebration, signifyin’, unity, play, and constant revision. From Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” to Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name,” music has played a part in the pursuit of social justice for a long time.

I offer this playlist—a song a day for the rest of the month of June—in response to ongoing civil unrest in the United States, and in solidarity with those protesting the killing of George Floyd who was himself a hip-hop artist. One can draw a line from Emmett Till to Michael Stewart to Trayvon Martin to Michael Brown to Sandra Bland to George Floyd, but one could also connect that line to a divergent one that includes Canada’s own Anti-Black police violence and Anti-Black Racism, which includes the recent deaths of Andrew Loku, Jermaine Carby, and Regis Korchinski-Paque to name but a few. The playlist (in progress) offers a small sampling of songs in support of Black Lives and in the spirit of revolution, protest, and peace. Some of the songs are rightfully angry, some confront Anti-Black Racism (as we all should), and others offer medicine and healing. The entire world benefits from the excellence and power of Black words, art, protest, and song. Listen! #BlackLivesMatter

Also, please considering donating to any of the following:

CONTENTS

June 3: Kendrick Lamar, “Alright” (2015)
June 4: Gil Scott-Heron, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” (1970)
June 5: Tracy Chapman, “Talkin’ Bout A Revolution” (1988)
June 6: Three Songs from Run the Jewels 4 (2020)
June 7: Public Enemy, “Fight the Power” (1989)
June 8: N.W.A., “Fuck tha Police” (1988) et al. 
June 9: Eight Canadian Hip-Hop Songs that Speak to Anti-Black and Anti-Indigenous Racism in Canada
June 10: Prince, “Baltimore” (2015)
June 11: John Coltrane, “Alabama (1964)
June 12: Nina Simone: “Mississippi Goddam” (1964)
June 13: Odetta, “Spiritual Trilogy: “Oh Freedom / Come and Go with Me / I’m on My Way” (1956)
June 14: Rhiannon Giddens, “Cry No More” (2015) and “At the Purchaser’s Option” (2017)
June 15: Childish Gambino, “This is America” (2018)
June 16: Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln, “Triptych: Prayer, Protest, and Peace” (1960)
June 17: Lillian Allen, “The Subversives” and “I Fight Back” (1986)
June 18: Beyoncé, “Formation” (2016)
June 19: Anderson .Paak, “Lockdown” (2020)
June 20: Marvin Gaye, “What’s Going On” and “Inner City Blues” (1971)
June 21: Brother Ali, “Dear Black Son” (2017)
June 22 and 23: Dead Kennedys, Nazi Punks Fuck Off (1981), Bad Brains, “I Against I” (1986), and The 1865, “Buckshot” (2019)
June 24: The Honey Drippers, “Impeach the President” (1973)
June 25: Sly and the Family Stone, “Stand!” (1969)
June 26: Billie Holiday and Nina Simone, “Strange Fruit” (1939 | 1965)  
June 27: Alice Coltrane, “Om Shanti” (1987) et al. 
June 28: Bob Marley, “Redemption Song” (1980)
June 29: Oscar Peterson, “Hymn to Freedom” (1962)
June 30: Sam Cooke, “A Change is Gonna Come” (1964) 

June 3: KENDRICK LAMAR, “ALRIGHT” (2015)

Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly provides an Umwalzung—that is, revolution—through a complete overturning of prior mainstream hip-hop album templates, as Lamar enacts one of the most ferocious black chants ever to appear on a hip-hop record. The album’s unforgiving blackness is important, because it reminds white and non-Black listeners that sometimes we need to sit down and listen to the conversation that is taking place rather than try to control or shape it. “Alright” captured the spirit of protest at the time, and feels just as relevant now. From Greg Tate: “Lamar’s “Alright” has been touted by many a comrade in today’s student activist cadre as their “We Shall Overcome.”

Listen to the song on my Spotify playlist (with a song added each day), and if you haven’t seen the video, which remains as relevant some 5 years later, make sure you do: 

June 4: Gil Scott-Heron, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” (1970)

Both The Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron linked poetry and music/jazz together, and their proto-rap lyrics and politics were major influences on hip-hop culture (also see). Scott-Heron has a number of incredible poems/ songs, but his most deeply embedded in the pop culture zeitgeist is “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” (first from Small Talk at 125th and Lenox). In part, Scott-Heron was responding to The Last Poet’s “When the Revolution Comes” (1970), which opens with “When the revolution comes some of us will probably catch it on TV” (also included on the Spotify playlist). In this current era of fake news and mass media, Scott-Heron’s anthem remains a staple of protest and Black social revolution. The song calls on Americans (and we can extend that beyond American borders) to wake up and realize that the revolution happens in the streets and not behind a television set (or in this day, an iPhone). The revolution lives on!

June 5: Tracy Chapman, “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution” (1988)

Written during the Regan era, Tracy Chapman’s “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution” is about what empowers people to revolt and protest (“to rise up and take what’s theirs”), as well as a warning to those who stand in the way of change: “Don’t you know you better, run, run, run … Finally the tables are starting to turn.” In 1990, Chapman sang the song at a Free South Africa concert where she met Nelson Mandela, and in 2016 it was the unofficial theme for Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign. The song remains incredibly pertinent in its call for revolution. 

Listen to the song on my Spotify playlist (with a song added each day).

June 6: Three Songs from Run the Jewels 4 (2020)

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. Every album they’ve released has been a banger, and their fourth installment feels like their most mature work. They’ve always been a political group, as evident on many songs—the video for “Close Your Eyes (And Count To F**k)” feels germane for this moment—or statements by Killer Mike,  but the fervour of dissent in their fourth offering 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. 

June 7: 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.”

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. 

June 8: N.W.A., “Fuck tha Police” (1988) et al. 

Hip-hop’s didactic function is in part its ability to trouble, as heard in N.W.A.’s anti-police brutality and anti-racial profiling anthem “Fuck tha Police,” which drew the ire of the FBI and which repeats the phrase “fuck tha police” multiple times in the chorus. “Fuck tha Police” appears on the group’s 1988 album, Straight Outta Compton: the song portrays a mock court scene, in which the Police Department is put on trial. The song itself has been translated into other mediums and genres and was covered by the alternative rock group Rage Against the Machine. Rage Against the Machine are, of course, known for “Killing in the Name” (1992), which was written in relation to institutional racism and police brutality: “Some of those that work forces are the same that burn crosses.” N.W.A.’s ire comes from a similar place although it is located specifically within the community of young black youths in Compton (it is worth noting that the Compton Police Department was disbanded by the City Council in 2000). The song’s violent and anti-authoritarian message provokes response by stating that the Compton police “have the authority to kill a minority.” Rather than simply dismiss an intentionally incendiary song, it is better to look at the ethos that creates anger towards the establishment in the first place, recalling Curtis Mayfield’s defense of the honest depiction of poverty and social violence in blaxploitation films; he believes that “the way you clean up the films is by cleaning up the street. The music and movies of today are the conditions that exist. You change music and movies by changing the conditions” (qtd. in Wax Poetics, “Gangster Boogie” 88). Back in 1991, 2pac responded to police brutality on songs like “I Don’t Give a Fuck” and “Violent” and systemic educational racism by rapping: “No Malcolm X in my history text, why is that? / Cause he tried to educate and liberate all blacks” (2pacalypse, “Words of Wisdom”).  Other notable songs, although there are far too many to name here, include KRS-One’s “Sound of Da Police” (1993), Dead Prez’s “Police State” (2000), Jay Dilla’s “Fuck the Police” (2001), Vince Staples’s “Hands Up (2014), and Nas’s “Cops Shot the Kid” (2018). Depending on context, it’s time to reform, defund, or disband police, as there our other alternative (and even hybrid) possibilities.  Tomorrow, I will focus on a few songs in a Canadian context. 

June 9: Eight Canadian Hip-Hop Songs that Speak to Anti-Black and Anti-Indigenous Racism in Canada

Clearly, I am going beyond the song a day scope of this project, but there is far too much to cover, and even this playlist barely scratches the surface. Just in the context of Canadian hip-hop, there could easily be 100s of songs listed here. 

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 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.

No playlist would be complete without a little Kardinal Offishall, and Everyday (Rudebwoy)” (2005) speaks directly to Kardinal’s experience as a Black man in Toronto: “So where I rest I’m stressed by the 5-0 (Here we go) / Cops drive around the turf, lookin’ for someone to search / With they flashlights checkin’ in my dashboard (Whatchu lookin’ for?).”

Few Canadian hip-hop artists (other than Drake) have had the level of international success that rapper/ poet K’naan has, and few Canadian hip-hop songs are as well-known as K’naan’s song of global fraternity, “Wavin’ Flag.” K’naan was born in Somalia in 1978 and grew up in the violent capital of Mogadishu until the Somali Civil War struck in 1991. Much of his earlier music also speaks to his experience in Rexdale in Toronto, which has a large Somali community. K’naan brings us directly into the struggle that he embodies, even in a supposedly safe space like Toronto (particularly, Rexdale), and calls together a community of post-sufferers in the anthemic track, “Strugglin’” (2006) one of K’naan’s first singles from The Dusty Foot Philosopher. 

Next is a track (and feature) from one of my favourite rappers, Shad. Black Canadian rap artist Shad relates the crazed infatuation with Blackness to the roles he is expected to perform as a black man in Canada as a form of mental slavery: “With mental slavery, the shackles is loose / And it’s hard to cut chains when they attached at the roots” (Old Prince, “Brother Watching,” 2007). The next track is “24 (Toronto Remix)” ( 2020) by Tobi—a Nigerian-Canadian rapper— and features Shad along with Haviah Mighty, Jazz Cartier, and Ejji Smith. The lyrics and video are both incredibly poignant, and Shad’s verse is a standout. See the video

Toronto rapper Spek Won makes politically charged hip-hop and his jazzy “Black Body” (2015), featuring Shi Wisdom, recalls the past for the present moment, especially as Shi Wisdom incorporates lyrics from the powerful and iconic “Strange Fruit” for the chorus. See an interview with Spek Won with Exclaim!, here.

Lastly, I thought it worth mentioning two songs (there are so many more) from Indigenous hip-hop artists based in Canada who also face police brutality and oppression in Canada. 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.

There are now so many important Indigenous artists making politically charged music in Canada, but it’s been incredible to watch the rise of Haisla Nation duo, Snotty Nose Rez Kids. Their latest, Trapline, is full of deft lyricism, unique beats that mix classic hip-hop with trap, and raw truths. They recently released a song entitled “Cops With Guns Are the Worst!!!” (2020), which animates the track’s title well. 

For more on Canadian Hip Hop, check out the Northside Hip Hop project by director Mark V. Campbell. 

June 10: Prince, “Baltimore” (2015)

A few days back, on June 7, Prince’s Estate released a lyric video for Prince’s 2015 song “Baltimore” in honour of Prince’s Birthday and George Floyd. The estate also released a handwritten note from the musician that read: “Nothing more ugly in the whole wide world than intolerance [between] black, white, red, yellow, boy or girl. Intolerance.” “Baltimore” was written as a response to the death of Baltimore’s Freddie Gray who died in 2015 while in police custody, which led to large protests in the city. The funk-driven song is part protest and part peace anthem, and was performed live in Baltimore at the Rally 4 Peace, which provided some needed healing for many in the city. Given that Minneapolis is Prince’s hometown, one can only imagine about how sad he would feel about the killing of George Floyd. As he recognized, adapting a popular political slogan dating back to the 1986 murder of Michael Griffith: “If there ain’t no justice, then there ain’t no peace” (“Baltimore”). 

June 11: John Coltrane: “Alabama” (1964)

So much of the music of John Coltrane is intricate and dense, at times intensely beautiful and at others primal and unsettling. Coltrane’s music was also very spiritual as he envisioned a cosmic understanding of peace. Arguably, there is always a politics at work in jazz, but one of Coltrane’s most directly political tracks is “Alabama” (1964) from Live at Birdland. “Alabama” was a direct response to the 1963 bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. The attack was orchestrated by the KKK and it left four young girls dead and another twenty-two injured. This act of white American terrorism was a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement as mass support grew for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. 

June 12: Nina Simone: “Mississippi Goddam” (1964)

Nina Simone might just be my favourite singer. She’s also a very talented pianist and she spent the summer of 1950 training at Julliard to apply to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. She wasn’t accepted and believed it was because she was a Black woman. Nina Simone has a number of protest songs that deal with the Black experience, including “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free,” “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” “Four Women,” “Why? The King of Love is Dead,” and others (I’ve added a number to the playlist).  One of the most memorable protest songs written by Simone is “Mississippi Goddam,” which was an impassioned response to the 1963 murder of Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers, as well as the same church bombing that inspired Coltrane’s “Alabama.” The song was banned in several Southern states, in part because of the use of “Goddam” in the title. Simone uses the jaunty show-tune structure to deliver a powerful song that speaks out against the brutality of state-sanctioned violence towards African Americans who were denied the rights of citizenship. The song was performed in front of 10,000 people at the end of the Selma Marches when she and other Black activists crossed police lines. 

June 13: Odetta, “Spiritual Trilogy: “Oh Freedom / Come and Go with Me / I’m on My Way” (1956)

Odetta has been referred to as “The Voice of the Civil Rights Movement,” and Martin Luther King, Jr. called her the Queen of American Folk music. She influenced a number of folk musicians including Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin, and her music mixed folk, blues, and spirituals. All of her music is worth checking out, but I want to highlight her “Spiritual Trilogy” (1956) because, 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). The spirituals affirm unity and Black humanity though a communal context, and Odetta was a consummate performer of the tradition. 

June 14: Rhiannon Giddens, “Cry No More” (2015) and “At the Purchaser’s Option” (2017)  

This weekend I am focusing on Black folk music, and one of the most talented musicians working in folk music today is Rhiannon Giddens. “At the Purchaser’s Option” (2017) is based on an advertisement from the 1830s of a young black woman for sale. In the song, Giddens asserts the woman’s humanity against the horrific conditions she finds herself in. The other song I want to share is “Cry No More” (2015), which was written as a direct response to the Charleston church shooting in which nine African Americans were killed during a Bible study by a white terrorist. The song is fairly bare bones and features Giddens’s voice and drum, and a choir. The song reaches deep into the annals of history with the refrain, “I can’t cry no more:” 

Five hundred years of poison (I can’t cry no more
Five hundred years of grief (I can’t cry no more)
Five hundred years of reasons (I can’t cry no more)
To weep with disbelief (I can’t cry no more)

See the moving video (unfortunately it is not available on Spotify) and check out more from Giddens’s discography!

June 15: Childish Gambino, “THIS IS America” (2018)

Childish Gambino’s “This is America” (2018) is an obvious choice for the playlist, but both the song and video remain 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. Other recent hip-hop songs—also added to the playlist—that tackle America’s history of violence and Anti-Black racism include Kevin Abstract’s “Miserable America” (2016), Common’s “Black America Again” (2016), Joey Bada$$’s “Land of the Free” (2017), and JAG’s “Kapernick Effect” (2018). 

You’ve likely seen the video for Gambino’s “This is America,” but even if you have, it’s worth another close watch. 

June 16: Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln, “TRIPTYCH: Prayer, Protest, and Peace” (1960)

There are a lot of political jazz records—a somewhat recent example being Wadada Leo Smith’s Ten Freedom Summers (2012)—but a major landmark album is the 1960s Civil Rights-focused album, We Insist: Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite. The standout—for me and many—on the album is “Triptych: Prayer, Protest, and Peace,” which is an improvised collaboration between Roach on drums and Abbey Lincoln on vocals. Abbey’s voice is remarkable, and the wordless performance feels visceral. The song climaxes with Lincoln’s screams and cries, as she traces the parallels between the African American experience and slavery and apartheid in South Africa. Be prepared as it is a fairly intense, but essential listen.

June 17: Lillian Allen, “The Subversives” and “I Fight Back” (1986)

Dub poetry is a form of performance poetry with a West Indian aesthetic and origin. It evolved out of dub music comprised of spoken word pieces over reggae rhythms and Nyabinghi traditions in Jamaica beginning in the 1970s, and a number of Caribbean immigrant women have used the form to articulate their experience upon emigrating to Canada. Dub is an immigrant art form: it is an articulation and performance of citizenship rights, often across borders and through cross-cultural connections to diasporic communities. Black women have used poetry and music to fight back and resist, and in an American context we hear this in the work of Jayne Cortez, Sonia Sanchez, and Nikki Giovanni (see the playlist). In Canada, we hear this same resistance in the work of dub poets (although hardly limited to that form) Lillian Allen, Afua Cooper, d’bi.young, Ahdri Zhina Mandiela, among many others. Lillian Allen is one of the founding mothers of dub poetry in Canada and her first two albums won the Juno Award for Best Reggae/Calypso Album (for Revolutionary Tea Party in 1986 and Conditions Critical in 1988). Allen is a trailblazer in the field of spoken word and dub, and her album Revolutionary Tea Party is a good starting place for getting into her music and poetry as she translates her diasporic experience into “new forms” (“The Subversives”). In “I Fight Back” she reminds us that in a “just” country like Canada they label her “Immigrant, Law-breaker, Illegal, Minimum Wager / Ah no, Not Mother, Not Worker, Not fighter / And I Fight Back.” See her live performance of “I Fight Back” at the Shipdeck Stage, Harbourfront Toronto in 1988 for the WOMAD Festival.

June 18: Beyoncé, “Formation” (2016)

Back in 2016, we got to see notions of Malcolm X’s “Black is Beautiful” (à la Steve Biko) and “By any means necessary” reach millions vis-à-vis Beyoncé’s charged Super Bowl performance of “Formation” (the closing track of Lemonade). The performance, which featured dancers dressed as Black Panthers getting into the “Formation” of an X (an icon of identity, resistance, and the human right for self-identification), was a fervid Black Power anthem and a call to arms. The video for “Formation,” directed by Melina Matsoukas, who made her film directorial debut in 2019 with Queen and Slim, is itself a resonant intervention into the popular imagination concerning the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and it unapologetically celebrates roots and history while disavowing white supremacy’s desire to control Black cultural narratives. It’s remarkable to see the intersection of aesthetics and politics taking place in popular music, as new Black radical thinkers, activists, writers, and musicians provide the soundtrack for the current zeitgeist. Beyoncé and the various poets and filmmakers who worked on Lemonade enact their own resistive formation to reclaim subjectivity and Black womanhood.

Here’s a list of “Six Beyoncé Pieces By Women of Color That You Should Read Right Now.”

Check out the video for “Formation” below:

June 19: Anderson .Paak, “Lockdown” (2020)

Today is Juneteenth, which commemorates the liberation of enslaved African-Americans on June 19, 1865. It is a day to honour Black resistance, excellence, and freedom from slavery (at least in one form). There are a number of spirituals that would be fitting for today, but both Anderson .Paak and Public Enemy dropped a new song in the last 24 hours, and both speak to the ongoing struggle for the liberation of Black people. Because I’ve already posted on Public Enemy (but check out “State of the Union (STFU)” on the playlist), I am focusing on Anderson .Paak’s “Lockdown,” which 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! ✊🏾

June 20: Marvin Gaye, “What’s Going On” and “Inner City Blues” (1971)

“For only love can conquer hate.”
—Marvin Gaye, “What’s Going On”

“Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” 
—Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love 47

I am reminded of how Nelson Mandela, while in prison, drew strength—momentarily dissolving the prison walls—while listening to Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”: an anti-war, anti-poverty, and anti-injustice post-Civil Rights anthem (Gilroy, The Black Atlantic). Mandela was able to draw power from the energy of the Civil Rights Movement in the States and relate it to his own struggles in apartheid South Africa. “What’s Going On” (the album and the song) are a powerful statement about the state of the world (across borders) and the specific Black struggle within it. The lyrics could have been written yesterday: “Mother, mother / There’s far too many of you crying / Brother, brother, brother / There’s far too many of you dying …/ Picket lines and picket signs / Don’t punish me with brutality / Talk to me, so you can see / Oh, what’s going on.” So many people know and love this album, but as composer and trumpeter Terence Blanchard has recently pointed out, “how many people listen to the groove and the melody of this song, without really hearing the words. And that made me realize that many well-meaning people have heard only the melody of our plight, without knowing what the song means for us.” Blanchard goes on to say that now is the time (an echo of MLK. and Charlie Parker before him) to “see the pain that doesn’t go away. To understand the smile that hides the immense hurt.” There is a connection between aesthetics and rhetoric (sound and meaning)—how a song sounds can be instrumental in conveying its meaning, and as listeners, especially those of us on the outside looking in, we need to work to understand that and feel it as much as is possible. The other incredibly relevant song from the same album (manifesto?) is “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler),” which speaks to the bleak economic situation of inner-city America, a holler that is echoed as African Americans bear the brunt of COVID-19’s economic impact. Both songs, and a few covers of “Inner City Blues” (Sly Dunbar and Etta James) are now on the playlist.

An official video for the song was released in 2019, and was shot in Detroit and Flint Michigan: 

June 21: Brother Ali, “Dear Black Son” (2017)

Today is Father’s Day. George Floyd’s three kids—the youngest is 6—will not get to see their Dad today and that is truly horrible for so many reasons. It’s never too early to start talking to kids about race and to teach them to be Anti-racist.

Rapper and activist Brother Ali is known for his adept lyrics, and as a legally blind albino and Muslim, he has dealt with his share of being seen as different. As he raps on “US,” “can’t nobody be free unless we’re all free/ there’s no me and no you it’s just us” (“Us”). One of his most touching songs is “Dear Black Son” (2017), and on the track he addresses his black son directly, explaining that there are racist people who have stereotypes of him based on his skin colour, including police officers who mask their fears and racism as self-defence: “Dear Black Son, there’s people you’ve never met / Who fear and hate you for something that you never did / And these people are so self-convinced / Sometimes they pull the trigger, call that self-defence.” See the song on the playlist, as well as Brother Ali’s breakdown of the song, below:

June 22 and 23: Dead Kennedys, Nazi Punks Fuck Off (1981), Bad Brains, “I Against I” (1986), and The 1865, “Buckshot” (2019)

“When you’re black you’re punk rock all the time” (Sacha Jenkins, The 1865). 

When many people think of early punk music, they often mention The Sex Pistols and The Clash in relation to the angst of working-class white men. But when we dig a little deeper, we find numerous black and brown (especially Latino) pioneers of punk. Black punks were at the forefront of early punk, including groups like Death (see the documentary A Band Called Death), Pure Hell, Fishbone, and the most famous of them all, Bad Brains. Bad Brains formed in 1976 and got their name from a Ramone’s song, and their music mixed reggae and other elements within the burgeoning field of hardcore (also spearheaded by groups like Black Flag and Minor Threat). Bad Brain’s song, “I Against I” (1986), speaks against the selfishness of a society that pits people against one another. Arguably, much of punk music has always been anti-racist and self-reflexive about its own movement, evidenced in a song like “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” (1981) by The Dead Kennedys (whose drummer, D. H. Peligro, is Black). There are also many current Black punk bands, such as The 1865. The 1865 is a direct reference to the Emancipation proclamation, and their work explores different aspects of life in 1865 America: a land living in the shadows of the fallen Confederacy. See the video for their song, “Buckshot” (2019). Also, see the 2003 documentary, Afro-Punk for a view into the history of Black punk rock music.

June 24: The Honey Drippers, “Impeach the President” (1973)

The Honey Drippers “Impeach the President” has been sampled in nearly 800 songs and its recognizable intro drum break can be heard in songs by everyone from Eric B & Rakim, Nas, Dr. Dre, and Janet Jackson. The 1973 song was a funky protest that advocated for the impeachment of President Nixon during the Watergate scandal. Of course, this song could really be posted any day in relation to the many racist (including anti-Black), homophobic/transphobic, and misogynistic statements and scandals by America’s current “idiot” (type the word into Google) in charge. Trump was impeached by the house, but then acquitted by the Senate, and so it looks like voting him out in November is America’s only option.  

June 25: Sly & the Family Stone, “Stand!” (1969) 

“Stand!” (from Stand!) is one of Sly & the Family Stone’s defining political statements as well as a watershed moment in protest music. “Stand!” features their typical church-infused harmonies (including an extended gospel break) with piano and unexpected mood and tone shifts. The lyrics encourage protest while also acknowledging that many are engaged in less visible acts of protest that reflect on personal change and oppression. Ultimately, the song encourages us to act and stand up and speak up for what we believe in even when others disagree. Stand! 

June 26: Billie Holiday and Nina Simone, “Strange Fruit” (1939 | 1965) 

Time magazine called “Strange Fruit” the song of the century, and Bob Dylan said that the song is a personal inspiration. Originally “Strange Fruit” was a poem written by Jewish high school teacher Abel Meeropol. A photograph of the lynching of two black teenagers, Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith (August 7, 1930), inspired the poem. Billie Holiday pushed Columbia to record “Strange Fruit” but fearing a backlash they declined. Holiday instead went to Commodore records with her band and recorded it in a single afternoon. It was a song, Billie Holiday explained, “that was blacklisted in the United States for being too controversial. A song that speaks to all the disregarded and downtrodden black people in the United States. A song that is a reminder of how love is the only thing that will conquer all the hatred in this world.” Jazz musician and journalist Leonard Feather called the song “the first significant protest in words and music, the first unmuted cry against racism,” and it remains a song that still inspires books, an opera, and other renditions. One of the best versions of the song is Nina Simone’s stripped-down and highly emotive take (which Kanye West, with some controversy, samples on his “Blood on The Leaves”). Sadly, recent Anti-Black violence and lynchings in the United States speak to America’s ongoing legacy of slavery and racism.  See Holiday’s live version (1959) below, and definitely listen to Simone’s version if you’ve never heard it before:

June 27: Alice Coltrane, “Om Shanti” (1987) et al. 

Alice Coltrane is often overshadowed by the work of her husband John Coltrane, but she is a formidable force in creative and cosmic music in her own right. From her early recordings with Terry Gibbs and John Coltrane, to her solo work starting with A Monastic Trio (1968), and to her later devotional music, Alice Coltrane embarked on a deep journey into music as a kind of universal consciousness. She was driven by an immovable belief in the healing power of sound. Her fourth solo album, Journey in Satchidananda (1971) reflects her spiritual journey and the influence of Swami Satchidananda of whom she was a disciple at the time. For Alice Coltrane, music was a spiritual language and therefore a political force for love and change (although some statements by the Coltranes were more politically direct such as their 1966 track “Reverend King”). We hear this love manifested in her excellent arrangement of Coltrane’s “Love Supreme” on World Galaxy, which features her on organ and harp, as well as the intonations of Swami Satchidananda; in addition, “Om Supreme,” from Eternity (1975), is also worth a close listen. Although lesser known in Coltrane’s oeuvre, her later devotional works (under her adopted name Turiyasangitananda—meaning roughly the Lord’s highest song of Bliss) from the 1980s and ‘90s recorded at her Shanti Anantam Ashram in North California are phenomenal. Her posthumously released compilation The Ecstatic Music Of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda (2017) features her voice for the first time on a number of tracks, most notably on “Om Shanti” (originally from 1987): a mantra that is an invocation of peace. In “Om Shanti,” her lone voice is gradually joined by other signers and percussion as the chant rises upwards. It is both humbling and inspiring to listen to and study her music and her dedication to love and peace. Alice Coltrane left the planet over 13 years ago, but the current political and social climate of 2020 needs her meditative and healing music more than ever. As cliché as it sounds, it is imperative that we all take time to look inward and genuinely bring more love into the world. 

June 28: Bob Marley, “Redemption Song” (1980) 

“Redemption Song” is the final track on Bob Marley and The Wailers’ Uprising and it was inspired in part by Pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey’s 1937 speech in Nova Scotia about African redemption, “The Work That Has Been Done.” In particular, the song riffs on Garvey’s words, “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery … None but ourselves can free our minds.” Much of the work for real change needs to come from within, and it is not too late for us, and the world even, to find redemption, freedom, and emancipation. Official Video below:

June 29: Oscar Peterson, “Hymn to Freedom” (1962)

Fraternity crosses borders, which is why a Black Montreal-based musician like Oscar Peterson was able to conceive of “Hymn to Freedom,” which drew on the energy of the Black church and was sung in various places in the States as an anthem to the Civil Rights Movement. Peterson managed to capture a pivotal moment of radical change, as we continue along the road towards true freedom and equality for all.  

June 30: Sam Cooke, “A Change is Gonna Come” (1964)

Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” is one of the most emblematic songs of the Civil Rights Movement and so it is appropriate that it is the final song I am posting about for this playlist. The song was inspired by various events in Cooke’s life, particularly the time he and his group were turned away at a whites-only motel in Louisiana. Building on the energy of the Civil Rights Movement, as well as his own shame for having not written something like it earlier (he was moved by Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind”), he decided to write and record the song. Later that year change did come in the US with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and then the following year with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The last segregated schools didn’t close until 1983 in Canada (see the 1977 Canadian Human Rights Act) and the last residential school didn’t close until 1996. Despite these changes, the US and Canada are still very much anti-Black and anti-Indigenous spaces and there are massive inequities in both countries. The work is far from done, but for any of us who work on anti-racism and believe in a truly Just Society, we must hold hope that a change is still gonna come. We must act now. In that spirit, I end with one of my favourite quotations from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:

“We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there “is” such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action” (Where Do We Go from Here, 1967).

I’ve added a number of other songs to the playlist and will continue to do so, but please feel free to leave a comment with any glaring omissions that you see, and I can likely add them! 

Dedications II

I recently completed a new DJ project/album. Dedications II continues in the spirit of the first album. While the first Dedications project largely explored the space between poetry and music, particularly jazz and jazz-influenced poetry, Dedications II is particularly indebted to the blues and is blue-tinged throughout with a low-fi aesthetic, and a boom-bap poetics. The album mixes, mashes, samples, spins, cuts, signifies, rhapsodizes, poetizes, layers, collages, remixes, breaks, distresses, archives, remakes, reshapes, and re-edits pieces of recorded history to create a sonic audio homage to a host of musicians and styles with a nod to the avant-garde. If you listen closely you will hear J Dilla, Louis Armstrong, Sun Ra, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Bessie Smith, Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, Alice Coltrane, Pauline Oliveros, Ursula K. Le Guin, among a slew of other voices, sounds, samples, echoes, and cuts. At times I added a live-recorded layer of chant/voice, singing bowl, beatbox, or field recordings (especially on the final track). I played most of the drums on an MPC Live, and many of the samples are recorded directly from vinyl. Dedications is an opening and a close listening exercise: it is a portal to the past and the future.

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). It is available, here: http://djtechne.bandcamp.com

Recommended for late night listening with headphones.

Warmly,
Paul (DJ Techné)

DJ Techné - Dedications II - back

Some Notes Towards the (im)Possible: 3D Printing a Turntable

3D printing, which is also known as additive manufacturing (AM), uses successive layers of material under computer control to create 3D objects. The technological sphere of 3D printing is a space that excites futurists, scientists, engineers, inventors, pragmatists, and digital humanists. Given the relative infancy of this technology, it remains a truly improvisatory space where ample play (and a fair dosage of frustration) unfold in the process of creating and printing 3D objects.

Improvisation is the force by which we maintain the human, and yet it also foreshadows where the technocratic future will take us as we head further onto the ledge of the possible, or as jazz artist and creative icon Sun Ra writes, the impossible: “The possible has been tried and failed; now I want to try the impossible” (qtd. in Szwed 192). It is in imagining the impossible that we can create futures that at one time seemed only imaginable. There are concerns that 3D printing—which futurologist Jeremy Rifkin refers to as a third industrial revolution, following the production line—could replace the work of people, among a list of other concerns, such as unhealthy air emissions, a reliance on plastics, gun control loopholes, and 3D printed drugs. While these concerns need to be taken seriously, what I find particularly exciting about 3D printing is its relative accessibility, affordability, and the potential to inspire users to view themselves as creators and innovators.

In terms of pedagogy, 3D printing has enormous potential, and by introducing the technology into schools we can shift the paradigm of how young people view innovation and manufacturing. That is, we can get young people to see themselves as innovators, scientists, and futurists from an early age. The DJ in me sees a continuous loop of remixed potential, as users can control their own manufacturing as they see fit, printing household goods and responding to the enormous crisis of climate change by making conscious decisions to use biodegradable PLA plastic filament in printers like the MakerBot.

At the Innovation lab at the VIU Cowichan campus, we’ve printed a number of 3D printed prosthetic hands, which speaks to the massive potential of the emergent technology of 3D printing. Organizations like the Open Hand Project and Enabling the Future are reminders that technology can greatly improve the lives of those who are missing hands and arms and it can do so at a fraction of the cost. While 3D printers are not cheap (starting at around $1000), the material (filament) to print objects is incredibly inexpensive, which can lead to thousands in savings in terms of prosthetics or other printed objects such as instruments.

Case in point: Schools could print 3D ukuleles for less than half the cost of a traditional ukulele and have students assemble them, simultaneously learning two crafts. Working with the 3D printers at the Innovation lab at Vancouver Island University’s Cowichan campus presented an opportunity to print a hand-cranked turntable using an existing template—an appropriate meeting of the old world dialoging with the new. During the process, working alongside my work-op student Sam, who is truly an equal collaborator (and the creator of the video below), we utilized two 3D printers: MakerBot 3D and Lulzbot TAZ. You learn as you go, as there were challenging moments where printing suddenly stopped midpoint, or where we hadn’t heated the bed properly, or where we chose the wrong filament for printing. Through trial and error, and by making slight modifications along the way, we successfully printed a hand cranked 3D vinyl player.

Below is a video showcasing the process that eventually led to the finished and functional model. The fact that the completed player contains different colours than in the time lapse video speaks to the challenges of correctly printing a larger and multipart 3D object (especially when you are learning the technology). The video also puts a number of objects into juxtaposed conversation. For example, in the second part of the video we’ve chosen the backdrop of a pond with moving water to contrast the mechanical movements in the first part. You might also notice other objects that function as visual metaphor, such as a biography on inventor Alexander Graham Bell, or Pierre Bourdieu’s The Field of Cultural Production.

The choice of the Billie Holiday record was twofold: one, the record was already scratched up and so the further damage our sewing needle stylus would inflict would be fine; and two, its initial pre-digital recording and iconic sound provides a useful reflective space to think about how recording technologies and musical performance borrow from the past while suggesting new ways forward. That is: the past and the present are constantly speaking to one another. In addition, the music in the video, which I composed under my DJ Techné alias, is mixed, cut, scratched, distressed, mashed, and recontextualized largely from fragments of different Louis Armstrong recordings (taken from vinyl in real time), and functions like the Poundian maxim to “make it new.”

While these juxtapositions create some cognitive dissonance, they suggest that experimentation is about finding new ways to understand the social contexts of cultural practice and production in relation to new technologies. At its best, 3D printing and other forms of digital engagement can help us understand technologically based learning, and provide critical tools for pedagogues both within and outside the walls of academia. While the final result is a 3D turntable that looks far better than it sounds, it is important to remember that it sounds at all. It sounds a kind of way forward, which for us, involves an echoing back as we decide where we want to go next. We hope you enjoy the video.



Works Cited

Szwed, John. Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra. New York: Pantheon, 1997.
Print.

Special thanks to George Farris and Sally Carpentier for their technical support and encouragement through the process.

Improvisation and the Syrian Refugee Crisis

At the end of the summer the conversation around the Syrian refugee crisis changed when shocking images of a drowned Syrian boy went viral. Since then numerous videos have appeared that humanize the millions of displaced and dispossessed refugees. The conversation drastically shifted to one around security after the Paris attacks, and has changed again in Canada after Justin Trudeau gave a welcoming response to Syrian refugees.

I’ve published a short paper about the crisis where I suggest that improvisation might be one way we can frame a meaningful response to the crisis. The current Syrian refugee crisis—the civil war and the displaced peoples that resulted from it, but also the crisis with respect to how Western countries have responded to it—affirms a renewed need to learn to deal with social dissonance. In this piece, I discuss the ways in which social and musical improvisation (particularly when immersed in the ethics of “cocreation”) can teach us about the merits of creative risk-taking in relation to the current Syrian refugee crisis, a form of social dissonance. Learning to improvise imbues citizens with the important notion that creative risk-taking makes for more exciting and, while unpredictable to a degree, egalitarian societies. Ultimately, I insist that we can fight the insular mechanics of an improvisation of fear with an improvisation of hope that challenges the anxiety that refugees destroy borders and culture, as if these things are pure, static, given, unchanging, and authentic.

See the full article, here.

Featured image from here.

PRESS RELEASE: Celebrated ‘Africadian’ Poet George Elliott Clarke Reads at VIU Oct. 22

Toronto Poet Laureate, playwright, and literary critic George Elliott Clarke, VIU’s 2015 Gustafson Distinguished Poet, will deliver a free public lecture, On Entering the Echo Chamber of Epic: My “Canticles” Vs Pound’s Cantos, Thursday Oct. 22nd at 7pm in building 355 on the Nanaimo campus.  Clarke introduces his epic poem, “Canticles,” in response to Ezra Pound’s contentious Cantos, a 20th-century post/modern epic both vilified for its integration of fascist propaganda and heralded for its haunting lyricism. Pound, a classicist, nodded to T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” and Stephen Vincent Benet’s “John Brown’s Body,” both of which skirted racist material yet refused to be contained, or restrained, by formalism.

Clarke will recite excerpts from his work-in-progress “Canticles,” which echoes slave and imperialist debates from Cleopatra to Celan. Clarke will also invoke contemporary poets Derek Walcott and NourbeSe Philip who invite harmonious, multiple, and multicultural voices in their revisions of Pound’s controversial masterpiece. Clarke champions writers of African descent and coined the term, “Africadian” to identify the Black culture of Atlantic Canada, a term he says is both “literal and liberal—I canonize songs and sonnets, histories and homilies.”

Clarke traces his own inspiration to “poet-politicos: jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, troubadour-bard Bob Dylan, libertine lyricist Irving Layton, guerrilla leader and poet Mao Zedong, reactionary modernist Ezra Pound, Black Power orator Malcolm X, and the Right Honourable Pierre Elliott Trudeau.” Clarke finds their “blunt talk, suave styles, acerbic independence, raunchy macho, feisty lyricism, singing heroic and a scarf-and-beret chivalry quite, well, liberating.”

Clarke’s colleague and VIU English professor Paul Watkins says, “For George, poetry is not only a printed form, but also an oral art. His boisterous readings present the listener with a gumbo-concoction of jazz rhythms, blues-infused gospel vernacular, and plenty of play upon the standards of the larger literary tradition. This is poetry presented with the ‘lightning of prophecy’.”

Clarke has published: a 13 works of poetry including Whylah Falls (2002 Canada Reads contender), Execution Poems, winner of the Governor General’s Award for Poetry, and his latest Traverse; 4 plays, screenplays, or libretti One Heart Broken Into SongBeatrice ChancyQuébécité, Trudeau; the novel George and Rue; and 4 anthologies of African-Canadian writing including Directions Home: Approaches to African-Canadian Literature. He has been the E.J. Pratt Professor of Canadian Literature at the University of Toronto for the last 12 years and holds 8 honorary doctorates from Royal Military College and Dalhousie, New Brunswick, Alberta, Waterloo, Windsor, Acadia, Saint Mary’s universities. He received the Martin Luther King Jr. Achievement Award, the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Fellows Prize, and Order of Nova Scotia and the Order of Canada.

After Clarke’s lecture, a catered reception, cash bar, and book signing will follow in Bldg 300’s Royal Arbutus Room. Several of Clarke’s books will be sold at the VIU Bookstore. Courtesy parking is available in Lot N, in front of building 355. Clarke will also perform with musician James Darling at the Corner Lounge Wednesday October 21st 7:30-8:30. These events are sponsored by VIU’s Faculty of Arts & Humanities, Writers on Campus, and the Canada Council for the Arts.

The Gustafson Distinguished Poetry Lecture was established in 1998 from the estate of the late, pre-eminent Canadian poet Ralph Gustafson and his wife, Betty. The Chair has been held by celebrated poets Don Domanski, Dionne Brand, Tom Wayman, Daphne Marlatt, Robert Bringhurst, Don MacKay, Jan Zwicky, Dennis Lee, Michael Crummey, and Katherena Vermette among others, most of whom have had their lectures published as chapbooks. An interview will also appear in Portal2016, VIU’s full-colour literary magazine, on stands in April.

For more info contact Chair of the Gustafson Committee Toni Smith at Toni.Smith@viu.ca or to buy a chapbook contact the series’ publisher Joy Gugeler at joy.gugeler@viu.ca. For more information about the lecturers visit http://www.mediastudies.viu.ca/gustafson/

See more at: http://www.mediastudies.viu.ca/gustafson/#sthash.Y6hAy6n0.dpuf

RED REVISED Gustafson Poet Poster PRINT[3]

clarke Poster-final copy

Special Issue of Critical Studies in Improvisation on Hip-Hop is Now Live

Cyphers: Hip-Hop and Improvisation

Vol 10, No 1

Edited by Paul Watkins and Rebecca Caines

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.”

See the full editorial and issue, here.


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.

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.