Poems are bullshit unless they are
Teeth or trees or lemons piled
On a step.
–Amiri Baraka, “Black Art”
Language is the fetish that is supposed to prevent us from committing blood sin. Until it does not.
All of the talk of Afrofuturism these days most certainly has something to do with the internet and the recent publication history of works by Octavia Butler. Like the 1922 raiding of Tut’s tomb brought word of black excellence to the magic city where sister Redoshi, the last African imported as a slave on the ‘Clotilda,’ had landed not too long before. And in the place of Sun Ra’s mysterious births.
Qualifiers like astro-, cosmic, stellar (etc.) are the rhetoric of sublimation and transcendence. Above and beyond. Like whatever Africa could have been called before Romans arrived, Kemet without the Greeks. Like the system of life that Molefi Kete Asante once echoed:
The Afrocentrist asks the question, ‘What would African people do if there were no white people?’ In other words, what natural responses would occur in the relationships, attitudes toward the environment, kinship patterns, preferences for colors, type of religion, and historical referent points for African people if there had not been any intervention of colonialism or enslavement? Afrocentricity answers this question by asserting the central role of the African subject within the context of African history, thereby removing Europe from the center of the African reality.
Claiming the center requires that language and consciousness be used to mobilize black people. This would be, in effect, blackness seen by its own light.
Drumming called me to Chicago for the recent presentation of David Boykin & SEBAU’s ritual drama “The Lynching of (Insert the Name of Any White Killer of an Unarmed Black Here).” Live at Chicago Art Department.
In the Kemetic system of the good life, the Sebau give instruction. They challenge the ingrained individualism that has many taking on the history of our collective struggle alone. They deliver the wisdom of ancestors after they themselves get motherwit from the communion cup.
I originally met David Boykin in 1999 through bassist & engineer Griffin Rodriguez. I was new to Chicago, green but full of spirit; without responsibilities and could play the drums some. David pulled me into his circle of musicians, for whom he most often provided the ride, sometimes the instruments and any a/v equipment the set required. His was self-determination, not for lack of resources, but for lack of patience and too much integrity. At least that much remains the same twenty years later:
I arrived in Chicago the morning of the performance and met up with David at the south 79th street Redline station for a quick ride to the Sonic Healing Ministries house. On one Sunday each month, David gathers at the house members from his musical community for a live improvisation-as-prayer session. Audience members in the flesh and online can submit calls for prayers, which the ensemble answers. And, so, his “avant garde jazz hip-hopera”, “The Lynching of…,” is part of a pattern of intention that pushes the language of music past its aural limits and its function as entertainment under the dollar. Sense and saturation making for ritual rather than spectacle. A ritual which renders the past useful for the present. Not the movie past of spectacular violence and black Oscar nominees, but a past that lives now in memory and the senses as a system.
David assembled an intergenerational, great black cast of players whose experiences bring together a book most excellent; some of those generated from this long, drawn-out drama: Quenna Lené, actor, director, organizer as Activist 1; Jo Schaeffer, actor and musician playing Activist 2 ; Rollo Radford, the Sun Ra-veteran and beloved elder on bass; Cher Jey, artists, vocalist and Abbey Lincoln devotee; Rhonda Gray, visual artist and vocalist; Mighty Wisdom of the Chess Mastaz crew on rhymes; Gira Dahnee, keyboardist and bandleader of the Chicago-based ensemble Future Geechee ; Abstract Black (JayVe Montgomery), improvisor, composer, turntablist in Nashville; me, Davu Seru on drums and David Boykin on tenor saxophone and vocals.
A bench deep enough to know that ritual drama works by symbolic action. That text, tone and effigy spare blood. All but the blood… That’s to say that, for all of its themes,”The Lynching of…” turns on a dialogue and a game of hangman officiated by the people for the people.
Ernest Gaines’s short story “The Sky is Gray” (1968) features a scene in a dentist office where black people wait to suffer. There we find two men, an elder traditionally invested in a faith that promises him a seat at the table, the other a younger non-believer with the courage to question God and the elder preacher. The elder uses violence to defend the faith of his fathers as well as his own ego which–shaken by the doubt and skepticism of the educated youth–has been reduced to an impotent violence that leaves him embarrassed and morally confused. As audience, we witness the event over the shoulder of the young protagonist, James, whose job it is to sort out the lesson offered by their example. In his struggle, the preacher takes flight, un-heroically.
Similarly, “The Lynching of…” involves a dialogue between what appear to be opposing sides, Activists 1 & 2, but where the rebel speaks with total disregard for polite society of the legitimacy of violence against the state and its police. That’s when the audience that night at Chicago Art Department got smaller by two (perhaps artless and certainly unenchanted) white people.
The situation recalled a same-old-situation that looks on at violence in black communities as racial pathology and state violence against unarmed black people as legitimate for carrying-on the workings of civilization.
The couple took flight from the violence of language. The stone-cold curses. The judgment game featuring both pig and cop; the symbol and the man it refers to. Sacrifice and the purification of black people. Groove. Rebirth. The band being the boat bringing back the light of life. A ship of memory and projection to always. And once the cut has been made, we enjoy the sweet reward of communion. All this in a corner of a dusty, industrial building in East Pilsen dedicated to the work of the Chicago Art Department.
“Hands Up Don’t Shoot” features a rally of rhythms and a call to action. And it’s urgent. The piece opens and closes with the turntablist’s willful distortion of a rally of voices; a big black dance rhythm in 6, played against a bassline that Curtis Mayfield might of wrote, or that Sun Ra might have made Rollo Radford play as people made there way along something fast-moving. Tenor and voice emerge with a floating lament before tenor meets the 6 and fire. And then two MCs make a demand for justice; four bars of walking reset the whole thing so that tenor can join the noise of the rally.
Next is a skeptical reflection on the the futility of the previous day’s rally. At first, the melody of “Another March, Another Rally” is given to the bass drum, which syncopates against a mid-tempo boom-bap; the bass and piano hold it down with a three-chord cycle that lightens-up the air of futility. Tenor leads with a bebop line, unswung but draped over every edge of the groove. Pre-recorded speech adds to the drama. But somehow the thing remains so cool that it feels like a hip hop instrumental track played late night on any black radio station in America.
“How Many People Are All In/Which Side Are You On”: here Nyabingi goes pop so as to appeal to a people in need. And, again, David orchestrates the drum lines to cross in a round, reminding us of the initial call. All amid the noise of an ironic rallying cry delivered by the voice of an elder women who asks a question that many of us post-integrationists may dread having to answer: “which side are you on?”
“No Part of My Body” introduces a voice claiming dominion over its body. Metonymic part representing the whole business that brought us here. And among one of the most fulsome grooves of the set; R & B of the 1990s but from a body and soul that yearns for self-control.
“Calculations” opens with an MC’s realist critique of conditions; a message and a call: “let’s get a riot on.” The logic seems to be that tactical, blow-by-blow maneuvers are the provenance of the people, strategy is that of the state, the property owners. Calculated unpredictability is a power.
Much of the set is about what to do when you have a state-issued gun in your face. “The Last Slave Movie” is the only piece that is about the problem of representation. And imagine Pharoah and Trane as imagists poets, aided by the helping hand of a chorus. A serious effort to be seen clearly. Telling us that, for every enslaved African who defeated the odds and learned to read and write so as to articulate their conditions to a public, there were those that freed themselves using violence–those who demanded to be seen clearly. Or else.
“Black Gods of Vengeance” offers the most dramatic tension. As should be the final judgment. The eschata; the unmasking that we can’t go back from before the knot is untied and we’re released to…?
Interestingly, David brings us and the boat back to the group feeling of the rally after having offered up the pig to the gods. “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” bookends the concert, cementing the athemic tune’s place in the set.
At the turning-point of “Black Art,” Amiri Baraka writes to say to teach:
Let Black people understand
That they are the lovers and the sons
Of warriors and sons
Of warriors Are poems & poets &
All of the lovlieness in the world
David’s latest effort demonstrates a loving commitment to fundamental principles of black revolutionary thought as they might be applied to the latest spectacle of state-legitimized violence against black people. It also embodies a black art tradition of gathering the folk and synthesizing the archive in an effort to flatten time and space. To coalesce the confusions of time and space around something material. Taking responsibility for the ground on which you stand by putting collective memory to work in language.
The whole of the night could have stood more rehearsal. And subsequent performances will benefit from a larger audience and venue used to presenting multimedia theatrical performances. But efforts that are as ambitious as what David is striving for here take time. Meanwhile, on our way, we will continue to mark success as those moments when our collective return to “the one” allows us congress with the eternal. Until it does not.