The following essay is adapted from a speech Greg Tate delivered at SAVVY Contemporary in Berlin, for their 2016 conference on Afro futurism.
We are gathered here tonight to reflect upon all the rhymers and the diviners, the soothsayers and the healers, the shamans and the sangomas, the tricksters and the players, the snake hips and the money grips and all those who captivate with painted lips and swiveling gluteus maximuses. Tonight is for the Little Richards and the James Browns, the Jimis and the Slys, the Superflys, the Slick Ricks and the Wicked, the Goodnight Beloved Princes and all those who need only one of their three eyes to hypnotize and cast spells on the preterites, the proles, the hoi polloi, the Hoteps, the Five Percenters, and those damned non-melanated ’85ers.
So Black Grrl Magic is on the agenda tonight for sure. But we also want to recognize all those of Triple Goddess Incarnation and Persuasion who occupy the imaginations of those who preceded us. Which is to say we want to flip a throwback nod to Mama Frau Holle, the mother goddess of Germanic folklore. She who counts among her multiple personas that of the Maiden and the Mother and the Crone. Back in the day, Frau was destined to marry Holler, the King of Winter and Frost, and a mad-shady ninja. But before Holler would marry her, he decided to test her gangsta with a riddle.
So one frosty winter Holler sez to our grrl Frau that when she comes to visit him in his domain she gots to come all kindsa WTF, okay? He puts it like this:
“Listen up, Witch: when you roll up on these gates you best understand these four things: I want you to come neither naked nor clothed; I need you to come neither riding nor walking; don’t come alone or with companions; and don’t even think about showing up on my doorstep in daylight or in darkness.’’
So Frau Holle gave this fool the classic universal side-eye like, “Ummm hmm, I see what game yo stankbutt wanna play, Holler.’’
Whereupon Frau arrived at twilight wrapped in a fishing net, sitting on a donkey with one toe dragging on the ground, surrounded by twenty-four wolves.
Give it up for Frau Holle.
In her Mother persona, Holle is said to appear as a woman from the front and a tree from the back. In this way, she represents both fertility and nature. She also, in this regard, would look exactly like the thirteen-foot sculpture of the freedom fighter Harriet Tubman that we Harlemites routinely dig high-stepping away from the police precinct on 122nd Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard.
Mama Harriet knew all about bringing hell to the hole and the keep and wherever wannabe slave masters try to creep and sleep, too.
Later, Frau Holle goes into full-on Crone-mode. At this point in the tale, Frau is the wise Queen of Winter. Meaning that when she shakes her bed, feathers fly and she makes it snow. Indeed, when it snows in Holland, people still say, “Dame Holle is shaking her bed.” In this sense she reminds us of an older Lady of the Evening we once saw in a stage production of director-composer Melvin Van Peebles’s cinematic opera, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. That Crone tells Sweetback, a young sex worker and the protagonist of the story, that he shouldn’t be fooled by her gray hairs. “Though there is snow on the chimney,” she says, “inside there’s still FIRE!’’
Frau Holle is also called “the Queen of the Witches.” The brothers Grimm tell a story of two stepsisters who fall through a well and end up in “the nether realms.” After wandering through this alternate reality, they encounter Holle, posted up in a little house down there. She offers them room and board in exchange for help with the housework. One of the sisters is diligent, learns the lessons Holle teaches, and gets showered with gold. The other sister is lazy and does not follow orders, and gets showered with manure. Moral of the story: don’t be an undisciplined and dis- tracted lil’ sorceress-in-training when Frau Holle is dropping knowledge on your dome. She ain’t got no kinda time for that sheet.
Now, while we discuss how one learns one’s craft as a young witch, we need to acknowledge a tradition of shamanism, sorcery, and healing that began on the African continent back in that forever-mother-loving day.
Which is to say we need to speak about the lineage of the sangomas in southern Africa. Divine feminine healers whose training involves twelve rigorous stages. To become a master sangoma, or sanusi, an aspirant must learn how to work plant medicines and how to navigate the vagaries of various spirit-forms as well. Because for the sangomas, the most serious affliction one can suffer is not an affliction of the mind or the body but the loss of one’s soul, whether from sorcery or natural causes. When these cases arise, the sangomas practice what they call “Soul Retrieval,” which may involve exorcism or a combination of emetics, salves, poultices, roots, and teas. Sangomas are taught to communicate with folk who are in both voluntary and involuntary hallucinogenic states. They are also taught the history of the impact on their people of extraterrestrial contact. Sangoma divination, above all else, requires trance states to achieve unison with the unseen world, a process that demands expert use of drumming, meditation, breathing, and fasting.
For sangomas, music, medicine, and magic are entwined. But beyond the world of the sangoma, there is a distinguished body of literature dealing with the relationship between witchery, music, and healing. The great freedom swing saxophonist Albert Ayler said music is the healing force of the universe. And Sufis in Turkey believe the sound produced by the ney flute and the kemençe fiddle can help a soul in distress and provide it with a feeling of peace and serenity. One modern practitioner of this tradition, a cat named Can, recently underwent heart bypass surgery. As he was preparing for the operation, he wanted to hear the sound of the ney. Can said,
“My blood pressure had jumped to one hundred and sixty for I was quite nervous before I listened to the ney sound. But after I listened to it, I took my blood pressure again and it was one hundred and thirty.”
A few hours after he awoke from surgery, Can said, he began playing his ney, and the effect of the music made him feel like he’d swallowed painkillers.
There’s much to say about healing and the individual body, but what about sickness running through our social bodies, our economic bodies, and our political bodies? In America we are witnessing the ghastly, ecstatic unleashing of hostilities by the angry, race-privileged white body politic— this through the ritualized form of political rallies in service to the megalomaniacal machinations, incantations, and charismatic and oxymoronic leadership of a dude we refer to variously as Mein Chumpf, Ronald McChump, Orange Julius, Tangerine Mussolini, Agent Orange, or the Cheesy Dorito. In America the white majority’s democratic spirit has long been alchemically linked to a demonizing spirit. How else to rationalize the irrationality of double ethnocide, against Mexicans and Muslims, in pursuit of manifest destiny?
One cannot look at the rise of Mein Chumpf as anything but symptomatic of American democracy’s maniacally depressed soul. A crazed spirit-animal, which for 240 years has ceaselessly pursued overt and covert means of Otherizing, lynching, and witch burning all those whose supernatural practices treated disorder and spirit-dispossession with love rather than hellfire.
In American public life, the obsession with European purity has often taken a form that political historian Richard Hofstadter called “the paranoid style in American politics.” The delusion of racial purity in America is an incantation sung every day in the state’s legislative, military, medical, media, policing, and prosecutorial apparatuses. If these demonizing mechanisms now need so obvious an operative as an Agent Orange to activate them, it may be that they needed an avatar to crush Barack Obama’s Afro futurist mesmerism over the span of his two terms.
The paranoid demonology of American democracy has long been magically effective at mythifying the relationship between consumption and liberty, acquisition and purity. It once legalized the consumption of liberty through slavery and Jim Crow and now repeats the operation through a multibillion-dollar prison-industrial pipeline, which capitalizes and exploits the cheap labor potential of demonized black, brown, and po’-white populations.The paranoid rage for demons among America’s elites quickly established Orange Julius’s legitimacy when he proposed building a phantasmagorical great wall of concretized white hate to deny Mexicans entry into the country. He further sought to deplane every yearning-to-be-tech-employed Muslim—and even boxing champion Muhammad Ali’s son—because of their religion.
The prospect of future acts of terror and error by the Cheesy Dorito provoked Candidate Clinton to invoke her own demonic specters by proposing that the codes to launch nuclear weap-ons be kept from him. Even though this proclamation oddly echoed her own warmongering boast in 2008, while running against Obama, in which she implied that she would be ready to launch a nuclear strike, should the call come at 3 a.m.
Candidate Clinton also once warned her fellow white Americans to beware of the rise of supernatural entities she identified and trademarked as “super-predators.” By which I believe she meant the millions of young black men born in poverty during the years when her husband was president and embraced the mass incarceration of demonized African Americans as political fodder.
McChump, of course, also has his own history of encouraging the demonizing and mass incarceration of black youth. We recall his inflammatory full-page newspaper ad that was meant to spur mobs into purging society of their young and gifted black ranks.
With respect to black Americans’ choice between Candidate Clinton and Candidate McChump, we were during campaign season reminded of an old family friend named David whom everyone called “Castro” because of his resemblance to Fidel. In observing the field of candidates put before us once in the 1970s, Castro commented, “That fool’s not the lesser of two evils. He’s the only evil we got.” Hey, we can demonize a sick mutha humper, too. Least we used to be capable of doing so, back when hip-hop was vocally, constitutionally, and radically oppositional to a-holes like 45. But I digress…
Novelist Toni Morrison said the remarkable thing about slavery is that bestial treatment does not produce bestial people. In fact, in America, something quite the opposite occurred. The gutbucket, low-down, lyrical, high-flying strains of the Afro-Angelic sprang up to civilize the demonic. The darkly musical beings that emerged were a most gorgeous spectrum haunting a nation whose twisted, paradisiacal dreams consisted of segregated schools, family-picnic necktie parties, nigga-witch burnings, CIA spreadsheets, employment-annihilating acquisitions, human trafficking, fossil fuels, and international gun running.
As poet and essayist Amiri Baraka wrote in his liner notes to John Coltrane’s Live at Birdland, “One of the most baffling things about America is that despite its essentially vile profile, so much beauty continues to exist here.” Such extreme beauty, Baraka speculated, may balance the vileness. It’s why we often feel like Sun Ra did every day: that, as a black American, you live on an existential and extraterrestrial world way off the coast of the place where America’s most paranoid and demonic live.
Like Public Enemy (and the late black American psychiatrist and race-conflict theorist Frances Cress Welsing), we recognize the palpable fear our Astro-Black Planet evokes. The irony being that those who fear it also can’t stop biting its style, its rhythmic scriptures, and its most twerksome trap-house liturgies.
The Bible (and the Melodians) asked, “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” But we answer that we can sing it marvelously, magically, and majestically. Like Sam Cooke and Muhammad Ali. Like Miles Davis and Cicely. Like Al Green and Patti LaBelle. Like Rakim, Nas, and (per Public Enemy’s Chuck D) “LL as well, hell.’’
So for all the orators and truth-tellers who made us breathe a cleansed atmosphere refreshed by rhetorical gnosticism and virtuosically tongued precision, and for all the spirit catchers like Gylan Kain who transformed metal lungs into fire-engine crybaby sirens come to assuage our sickened souls, and for all the jazz messengers from another plane who treated their Earth visitations as parole from a higher calling, we beg you to consider that the land of this writer’s birth remains undecided. We are not sure if we prefer the nightmare or the dream, the abnormal or the paranormal, the supernatural flow or the less-than-humane constipated wannabe Tangerine Mussolini Übermensch.
The inevitable blowback has finally arrived because this imaginary lily-white country has nowhere else to expand to. Which is to say that where once Afghanistan was routinely described as the place where empires go to die, the Afghanistan of America may actually be California, a place named after a black Amazonian witch, Calafia, in anticipation of times like these, when such a bewitching ancestress would be needed to perform revival meetings upon her distressed stretch of the nation’s terminus. This is a frightened republic that is still uncertain as to whether it desires most to be possessed by the devil or beset upon, once again, by generous legions of dark poets capable of Soul Retrieval, who simply Can’t Stop Won’t Stop letting us know that the Word remains bigger than rage-ghosted machines with no style to call their own except for demonic paranoia and the aping of all things Negro.
Yo soy un hombre sincero
I’m a man without a zero
De donde crece la palma
From the land of the pawn-trees
Y antes de morirme quiero
And ’fore lay-dying I xerox
Hechar mile voces del alma.
One thousand copies of me.
—excerpted from Guillermo Cabrera Infante’s playful mistranslation of José Martí’s celebrated poem “Guantanamera” in his novel Three Trapped Tigers
Our brother Jean-Michel Basquiat knew the deal. A poet, a scribbler, a scrawler was he. A salvager of verbal resources and an intertextual sorcerer. A bruja, a badass witchy-man with crayon-sticks and Xerox machines,who had his tricks and his poultices, his incantations and his shrines, his potions, haints, and elixirs, his free-verse block printing and his mojo handwriting on the walls.
He was a writer of codes and ciphers and cryptograms and X-ray reports. He engaged in ceremonial rite-ing and the righting of various racially determined wrongs through his low-down-and-dirty blues undertones, chromatic breaks, and mock-classical choruses. An artful dodger of post-disaster nouveau-riche traders and seductively predatory gallerists. A man of the city, who in fine painterly form endeavored to leave behind 1,001 maps of his interior—a task he did so well that writer Hilton Als would say upon his passing that his work represented the most indelible representation of black consciousness of his generation. A writer of graffiti, though not of the subway tribe, he would come to graphically define his generation’s lines of demarcation and terms of combative engagement— the ongoing war between the African Mystery School and a white-supremacist art world that had temporarily fixed its gaze on a node of black expressionism given to hieroglyphics and sermon-length exhortations on the vagaries, vortices, and vulgarities of city life. Look upon his works and witness a record of his visualized divinations that traversed and negotiated diverse realms of status and ethnicity, consumption and dispossessions, waste and wastes, minstrels and wastrels, dope and change.
At the time, those of us given to deciphering his scrawl wondered: Were the words signifying on the signal-to-noise ratio of common speech and highfalutin verbiage or to the rhythm of Klook-Mop’s drums? Were the words meaningful or intentionally meaningless reproductions of a random-access file?
We know from the poster for his last exhibition, at the Vrej Baghoomian Gallery, that he’d read Jack Kerouac’s The Subterraneans so he must have read William S. Burroughs, too, and had more than a passing familiarity with the aggressive jabberwocky and jibber-jabber of the cut-up method. There was Cy Twombly in there as well but Basquiat was far more insistent than Brer Cy on the way his wordiness could occupy the ground and the air in his paintings. There was a war going on between syntax and statement, sentence structure and alphabetic statement. Gradually, a linguistic thinker emerged from behind the veil of the canvas, one who masked his thoughts with eviscerated human and animal spirits not unlike the sagacious cave painters of the Kalahari bush, the indigenous San tribe of South Africa, whose ateliers from the dawn of human relations bequeathed all the disciplines we know today as the humanities.
The visual has been a coefficient of the philosophical since the San were painting transhuman-cum-transbestial figures in caves in southwestern Africa more than twenty thousand years ago. The continent of Africa has given us several symbolic tongues and pictogrammatic language systems to cherish—the hieroglyphics of Kemet, the flowery codes of Adinkra, the directional stargaze equations of Dahomean and Haitian vèvè. But there is also a linguistic component to all five of our senses. The feedback loop of interpretations and messaging units is profound—think of Amiri Baraka’s demand that we recognize the penis as intelligent because it feels. There are the metalanguages operating in our senses, a notion that speaks to our extrasensory capacities and drifts toward synesthesia. Evidence for this can be found in the late composer and abstractionist Ornette Coleman’s claim that he could “smell the music” and found it especially pungent when it was “fresh.” The lexicon of black music appreciation is rife with words appropriated to translate the experience of one sensory organ into another. What keeps us returning to the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat nearly thirty years after his corporeal demise is the very aliveness, the freshness—or, as we say in Funkville—the stank of the work. When we look at a Basquiat, we too can smell the music and taste the oratorio. We also can’t help but remark on how Basquiat’s varied markings present us with the proposition of prophetic transliteration going on in the work all the time—similar to how hip-hop culture upset fossilized paradigms about what Western art and culture were in service to.
This deep into the twenty-first century, it’s no stretch to say that Basquiat’s oeuvre has transcended the hip-hop culture of 1970s and ’80s New York that spawned it—not least because that culture has been subsumed by the hip-hop “brand” (an operation Basquiat also predicted with his constant visual refrain, the ubiquitous copyright symbol that echoes through his work). Hip-hop also went global as it became branded, producing a charismatic metalanguage, and Basquiat presages this via the spelling out of words in at least four romance tongues—English, Spanish, French, and, occasionally, Italian.
The artist’s poly-linguistic bent served a gestural purpose, and, as a poet of succinct, cryptic asides, word-play mattered to him, as sound, sense, and nonsense did, too. The prevalent juxtapositions of jabberwocky allowed his art free range to collapse abstrac- tion and figuration, spectrality and specificity, language poetry and the spoken-word aesthetic that hip-hop vocalist Hanifah Walidah refers to as the “Boom Poetic.” At times, however, Basquiat put away his carnivalesque mask of arty obliquity and allowed words to function as blunt political rhetoric. Take, for example, the foreground of Irony of Negro Policeman (1981), scribbled with the tag “IRONY OF NEGRO PLCEMN.” Note how the artist manipulates the word’s vowels, emphasizing its dead-language numerical correlatives in the deadest of Western languages, Latin—in that decrepit tongue, L equals 50, C equals 100, M equals 1,000, and N equals 90. This all speaks to Basquiat’s gamesmanship and his cunning linguistic marksmanship. In the Black Lives Matter era no one should have to explain the frightful and frightening interactions between black and Latino communities and the police, but Basquiat’s oppositional and painterly intervention into his era’s own activism was prescient—particularly as it preceded the incendiary bombs lobbed at their local constabulary by Public Enemy and N.W.A.
Basquiat famously identified his primary subjects as “royalty, heroism, and the streets.” He spoke of aggressively erecting effigies of black male figures in his art because they were so noticeably absent from most modern paintings that American museums exhibit. His belief that heroes, royalty, and the streets were central to the condition of black existence in America accounts for the numerous references to boxers and jazz in his paintings—Bird and Diz, Jack Johnson and Sugar Ray Robinson. Jersey Joe Walcott, Max Roach, and Muhammad Ali, a.k.a. Cassius Clay, a.k.a. the Louisville Slugger, a.k.a. The G.O.A.T.
Hoodoo is what we doowop. That old black magic made anew. By who? By you, Fool—the master of that Jes Grew, the American (N)egro. That (N) ew World Afrikan, That (N)igga. Master of the Jes Grew and the Tis What It Is and Making Something out of Nothing and When Life Give Yous Lemonade You Bow Down to Sister Beyoncé. Who will power whole civilizations with That Monkey Rhythm and This Bridge Called My Back? The same one known to declare, “I ain’t no African.” The same one also known to speak in tongues, keep bottle-trees in his front yard, scatter cracked pottery on the gravestones out back, dance the Juba, broomsweep spirits off dirt floors, toss salt over his shoulders, pour Thunderbird libations for the brothers who cain’t be here, consult dreambooks for divination, and not only see dead peo- ple but openly conversate with them on the regular.
So what kind of African are you is the real mystery of history? (“Are you free or are you a mystery?”) The DNA might say Zimbabwe, but when you came asking Richard Pryor about your roots, he said, “You come from Cleveland.” And that was true, too, because you were blessed or cursed with this whole double-consciousness thing—you’re your own twin, your own masks of Janus, your own Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and Al Jol- son, too. You’ve learned to see yourself from the inside out and from the outside in and from the outside out, too. It’s why your champions are often given to talking about themselves in the third person, like they’re having an out-of-body experience.
Bo knows Hoodoo.
Call it the black man’s theory of evolution. Call it the Funk, as so defined by the funk doctor George Clinton himself. Who once defined that force by culinary metaphor. “Funk means that when you’re in Chinatown, you learn to like Chinese food real fast.” That’s funky. About as funky as your ass, not so fresh off the boat from Africa after ninety days spent heaving and hurling across the Atlantic in the form of chained, lashed, shit-and-piss-splashed cargo, a voyage best described by our man Arthur Jafa as an “Auschwitz on the water.” Funkier still when you’re then taken to Wall Street to the sounds of a marching band to be redistributed and renditioned to the land of Cotton for the rest of your daze—no time off for good behavior—where you’ll learn to like table scraps real fast. Does it get any funkier than that? The Hoodoo comes in when you figure that while your fate is to be treated like a garden tool, you’re this strange sort of garden tool who has a need to pray, and to love, and to plant, and to run away, and to rebel, and to read, and one day even to rule like rock and roll in dis uncul- tured nation you were supposed to only slave, stay black (and blue), and die in.
Hoodoo is what you call hope, what you call medicine, what you call the nine billion names of God: a mojo hand, a gris-gris bag, High John the Conqueror Root, a Congo Square, a Madame Marie Laveau, the Witch Queen of New Orleans, a Nat Turner and a Toussaint Louverture, too. Because who needs sorcery or secret societies more than a rebellious garden tool? Who will have to also make myth, music, magic, muscle memory, race memory, and, yeah, the English language, do strange things, forbidden and unbidden things, unofficial and twisted creole things, thangs even, to steal a drink from freedom’s cup?
This is what we mean by Hoodoo.
Jimi Hendrix told you he was a Voodoo Child. Told you he stood right next to a mountain, chopped it down with the edge of his hand, picked up all the pieces, made himself an island. Told you he made love to you in your sleep and yet you felt no pain because he was a million miles away and at the same time right there in your picture frame. Miles Davis told you he was running the Voodoo down, but drummer Don Alias told you the song didn’t come together until he put a rhythm on it that he’d picked up on the streets of New Orleans a week earlier. This is what we mean by Hoodoo. George Clinton essaying about how the “rhythm of vision is a dancer.” George Clinton telling you he was one of five born to a mother who’d seen it rough, but who always, with a smile, tried to hide from them the fact that life was really hard and how this night he heard his mother call to the lord about how it was, “for the kids, any and every thing I did, please, please, don’t judge me too strong.” And how he heard the devil sing, “Would you like to dance with me? / We’re doing the Cosmic Slop!” And though the neighbors would stop and call her Jezebel, she always tried to hide from them the fact that she was catching hell. (Way before 2 Live Crew, Mama was in Chinatown loving that Chinese food real good and loving it a long time.)
Check the books: The Souls of Black Folk. The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. Cane. I Wonder as I Wander. Their Eyes Were Watching God. Native Son. Black Boy. Invisible Man. The Free-Lance Pallbearers. All-Night Visitors. Mumbo Jumbo. Nova. Dhalgren. Beloved. The literature of a people obsessed with affirming the somethingness of their nothingness, the Dada of their Nada, the Beep of their Bop, the Hep of their Hop, and the Reification of their Thingification. A people whose most eloquent defense of their humanity would be “I Have a Dream,” later distilled to “I Am Some- body,” distilled later still to “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.” Forty million Somebodies still need to prove they’re not Nobodies to Any- body who’ll listen. And buy the T-shirt.
We still need to prove we’re not ghosts in the flesh. Hence the reason we gave our invisibility and insur- gencies a fanciful name and thus became Freedom Riders, and members of SNCC and CORE, or joined the Lost-Found Nation of Islam, the Five Percent Nation, or recruited for the Black Panther Party and the Simbas and US, or got jumped into the Bloods and the Crips and the Blackstone Rangers and the Black Liberation Army and the Black Guerilla Family and the All-African People’s Revolutionary Party and the Republic of New Afrika, and they would all tell you they were all out for the block, or the people, or to free the land, except this was America and not Palestine, so the most you could ever hope to liberate was your dream name from your slave name, or your slave name from a slave’s visceral terror of becoming visible. Benjamin Banneker–style. Crispus Attucks–style. David Walker– style. Nat Turner–style. Harriet Tub- man–style. Frederick Douglass–style. Paul Laurence Dunbar–and Booker T. Washington–style. Ida B. Wells–, Anna Julia Cooper–, Sojourner Truth–style. Marcus Garvey–, A. Philip Randolph–, Paul Robeson–, Duke Ellington–style. This is what we mean by Hoodoo, too. Doing the thing on your name and taking it to the stage in the name of all the Invisibles and Nobodies from whom you came. Like the man born Little who became the man named X who became the man named Shabazz. Like the man named Blount who became the man named Ra. Like the man named Ramm who told us Rammellzee was not a name but an equation, and his mobile, style-obsessed army of spraycan thieves, who moved in stealth, deep underground, transforming train cars into two-, four-, six-, eight-, and ten- piece illuminated manuscripts, crypts, chapels, temples, and cathedrals. An army of Nobodies armed with Krylon spray cans making war on Invisibility with alphabetic geometries and wildstyle typographies. Bringing light to stygian darkness like Bernini ripped on hashish, speed, Ripple, Mogen David, Boone’s Farm, rum, coke, weed, speed, crystal meth, crack; like Caravaggio on freebase and Vaughn Bode; like Goya high off angel dust, LSD, and Andy Warhol. Because self-determination rhymes with self-medication like acid rhymes with Woodstock generation. Free your Invisible mind, and your Nameless ass will follow. But follow you where? Not back to Africa, nor back to slavery neither. Purgatory, perhaps, though that may be too biblical an interpretation for some—though if Nobodies have to be going somewhere, maybe Rasta supplies the best answer yet in Zion.
A promised land without a fixed location—more a state of mind than a destination, as elusive and constantly receding as an event horizon, as distant as the nearest star, an abstraction with radical politics, mad flow, and bounce, a rhythm with vision, a breakdancer, broken free of gravity, spinning across the heavens and star systems. Who knew? Who Do? The Shadow Do and Jes Grew. Bo knew, too: that it ain’t who you do but who you Hoodoo. So one generation will call it Conjura- tion and another generation will call it Cultural Nationalism and another will call it the Hip-Hop Nation. A nation of tricksters and word magicians pre- tending to be gangsters and warriors, ballers and bankers, soldiers and sim- pletons. Only just like in Mizoguchi’s Kwaidan and Dunbar’s “We Wear the Mask,” if you wear the mask that grins and lies long enough, that mask will stick to you like a silk shirt on a ninety-degree day and people will see only the mask. The question then becomes who or what now actually lives on the other side of it? Who breathes and who dreams for the Hoodoo that’s now been put upon you? The Soul Man you sold to Viacom? The blue-sicians you sold to Scorsese? The jazz cred you sold to Coca-Cola and Ken Burns? The rap star you tricked out for a ride? Are you tax-free or are you still a mystery? A living captive joke or a runaway riddle? Busta Rhymes or Jean-Michel Basquiat? Elephant Man or Robert Nesta Marley?
The twentieth century was the Age of Black Music, but methinks that day is about done. All that sonic Hoodoo capital was spent, or at least generously redistributed—the wealth of Hoodoo nations having been translated into Norwegian jazz, German dub, Mum- bai house, British soul, French hip-hop, Japanese reggae, Brazilian funk, European improv—so that this twenty-first century could well become the Age of the Black Imagineers.
The Age of the Shadow Do- Doohickeys. The Age of Hoodoo Hieroglyphics. The Age of David Hammons. Who like Roy DeCarava has long seen in the dark an infinitude of hues, forms, and formulations, as many as or more than Inuit peoples are said to see in the driven Arctic snow. We think maybe our people are about to get, have already been about getting, all Manichean out this furthermucker, about to bring forth more darkness from the light. Talking about Lorna Simpson out this piece.
Talking about Carrie Mae Weems, Kerry James Marshall, Gary Simmons, Ellen Gallagher, and Kara Walker, too. Talking about all conceptual negroes and New World Afrikan conceptualists we’ve been known to associate with, the likes of Lyle Ashton Harris, Chris Ofili, Satch Hoyt, Sanford Biggers, Wangechi Mutu, Adia Millett, and Deborah Grant. Kehinde Wiley, Xaviera Simmons, Marc Andre Robinson, too. Not to mention all the conceptual negroes and New World Afrikan conceptualists we ain’t never met, or just barely, but mostly admired from afar: the Laylah Alis, Demetrius Olivers, Kojo Griffins, Mark Bradfords, Edgar Arceneauxes, Nadine Robinsons, etc., etc.
My grandfather used to say, “Son, no matter where you go in this world and no matter what you see, somewhere up in there you will find a Negro.” For a long time, this worldly truism was one I felt best described the Presence of the Black Imagist in the White Art World. But when you’ve got a whole mess of (N)egroes up in anything—like we find up in the Whyt Awt Whorl of today—their populous presence becomes a political state- ment and a Hoodoo-hollering political statement within itself, regardless of what one thinks of their work. Simply because a mess of New World Afrikans freely roaming and ranging the spaces of power and privilege nominally or metaphysically deemed white automatically translates into a Hoodoo Police Action, a Mojosexual Cotillion, a You-Know-How-We-Do insurgency. The misedjamacated mongrel hordes of Negroes rolled up in there visually, poetically, conceptually, hoodooistically doing the damn thang.
Ishmael Reed, author of the “Neo-HooDoo Manifesto,” once wrote a poem called, “Can a Metronome Know the Thunder or Summon a God?” In the poem, he invites comparisons between European symphonic music and West African drumming. The young African American jazz pianist Robert Glasper recently declared that his generational jazz peers have no soul compared to New World Afrikan churches or even hip-hop musicians, because the jazz cats of now don’t make music capable of making people dance, shout, cry, collapse, or speak in tongues.
This, of course, begs the question: is there a contemporary black visual art capable of dragging folk down to the floor, not to mention dragging them into other dimensions, as actually occurs through African visual forms—akwaba, vèvè, ground drawings, masks, and trance. Not to imply that there should be some sort of test of black authenticity or black magic grounded in black music for New World Afrikan visual culture, but to remind us that community-based African artistic practice has established a remote and miraculous event horizon, an oblique phenomological point of cosmological and quantum regeneration, and musical and visual mechanisms for invoking vertiginous, convulsive possession, psychic, and physiological transcendence.
Could such effects also become the target zone or even the provenance of our twenty-first-century New World Afrikan imagists? Not likely, but a (N) egro, a (N)ew World Afrikan, a stone cold (N)igga, even, can still have kundalini-fire-awakening dreams…