Graffiti and The Dance of Power Relations
From its beginning almost 40 years ago, Hip-Hop culture has had afrofuturist tendencies, from costumes and sounds of artists like Afrika Bambaataa and Ramellzee to later Missy Elliot and her videos with Hype Williams; to the hacking of street lamps to power sounds systems and other innovative rewiring to create the music; to the otherworldly movements of breakdancers and the artwork of graffiti. Well, choreographer and leader of the Renegade Performance Group, Andre M. Zachery, decided to pay homage to that spirit of Hip-Hop culture highlighting the power and politics of graffiti culture through dance. In the first work of Renegade’s AFROFUTURISM Series, called The Inscription Project, the piece takes inspiration from the art and philosophy of Ramellzee; it seeks to reignite the original purpose of the art movement as a politically empowering means to give voice and shed light on those who are on the margins of society and the social injustice they face everyday.
If you have been following the news, you most likely have heard about Azealia Banks’ interview on Hot 97, in which she gave an honest critique of appropriation of the cultural forms that originated in black cultures: “I feel, just in this country, whenever it comes to our things, like Black issues, or Black politics, or Black music or whatever there’s always this under current of a ‘Fuck you.’ Like ‘Fuck y’all niggas. Y’all don’t really own shit. Y’all don’t have shit…Like you’re trying to smudge out…it’s like a cultural smudging is what I see. And when they give these Grammys out all it says to White kids is ‘You’re great, you’re amazing, you can do whatever you put your mind to.’ And it says to Black kids, ‘You don’t have shit, you don’t own shit, not even the shit you created for yourself.’ And it makes me upset in that way (Source: Madam Noire.).
She continued: “What bothers me is when you have the media [which] is really evil. I told you that undercurrent of like “fuck you” and the sensationalization that comes around it. There was this time in the summer where I picked up the New York Post, and the cover was ‘Hip Hop Is White.’ They do that on purpose. They’re trying to erase us. They’re trying to erase all of our books and scripture. Everything that we’re supposed to know about ourselves is gone. Completely fucking gone. Never to be seen again.
The fact that metallurgy was started in Africa – agriculture, all those things that created the world are ours. It’s really upsetting when you read your social studies textbook and all you see is stories of you under some White person’s foot or you failing… I don’t wanna share [Hip Hop] with y’all. I’m sorry I don’t…This little thing called Hip Hop that I created for myself, that I’m holding on to with my dear fucking life – I feel like it’s being snatched away from me. It’s not, but they do that just to fuck with you. Why y’all trying to fuck with me?” (Source: All Hip Hop).
But as others have said before, this is nothing new. We have had to confront cultural exploitation for a while now. The only issue I had with what Banks said is I wanted her to continue putting it in a larger context of the twinning of white supremacy and capitalism not give personal attacks. White supremacy favors whiteness over everything and everybody else, and with capitalism, it can suck dry the cultural traditions and productions of local cultures like an invasive species, breaking them from their origins and deeper meanings for empty shell trends to sell to the highest bidder. It is through these erasures of origins and decontextualization of cultural art forms that we have difficulty claiming our cultural traditions, that they were cultivated in our communities. The mainstream will quickly disregard our right to claim and benefit from them for their own greedy, personal gain. As Greg Tate said “black culture matters” and so does black contributions.
The Azealia Banks interview fit well with a recent panel I attended about our communities moving forward our presence into the future, whether it is our art forms, our rituals, our values, or our institutions, and below is the recap from the event:
Futuring the Presence of the Blackness in Arts by the Renegade Performance Group
On Wednesday night after watching American Horror Story: Freak Show, I tuned in to watch the latest of TV One’s Hollywood Divas episode, “Five Black Witches.” One of the opening scenes is the de facto leader of the group, Paula Jai Parker, presenting to producer Carl Craig the idea agreed upon in previous episode for a supernatural film about five black sisters who are witches who each would have their own special powers.
Parker acknowledged that there is no film she was familiar with that deals with the supernatural through the experience of the black community, although it can be argued that several exist (Beloved? Sankofa? Several independent films?), but Craig’s immediate reaction was an obvious aversion to the concept. He looked as if he was wondering what the hell Parker just give him. Although he did say this was cutting edge material, he felt that black audiences would have a difficult time embracing this type of story, that they will look at it as “demonic” (here we go).
When it comes to depictions of black people in history from the Medieval era to the 20th century, the tendency is to show us only as slaves or to downplay stories outside of that narrative. But black people have existed in various forms throughout these periods of time within and outside the narrow scope of slave narratives. Many contemporary creatives have explored and are exploring these times to reconstruct and highlight those histories. Through speculative and historical revision stories in steamfunk, dieselfunk, rococoa/black medieval, and black westerns, they are showing us in a broader light, opening the door for everyone to revisit those times to include more of our faces and stories. Below are a few examples and resources to learn about and enjoy:
Panel discussion featuring Kevin Sipp (David Walker Blackstone), Balogun Ojetade (Chronicles of Harriet and Rite of Passage film), Milton Davis and Mark Curtis at the Alien Encounters IV Atlanta 2013 conference:
Currently, when we think of a black woman artist who showcases an androgynous or gender-bending look, we think of Janelle Monae. But, before Monae, other black women have challenged gender coding and in less accepting times, and possibly with less conventionally attractive features. Black women doing gender-bending often received less attention than when it is black men who do it, but it is just as important to highlight it as one way black women confront a world that can be sexist, misogynistic, misogynoiristic, and LGBTQ-phobic. This is a way of showing your womanhood and black female sexuality through a traditionally masculine mask, even as society already declares you as too masculine to be feminine or attractive. These woman were groundbreaking in their own right and paved the way for artists like Monae to do her thing. Let’s take a look at other ladies who have broke the mold in the past:
1) Gladys Bentley: If you study deeply into the Harlem Renaissance, you will come across that several of the major creative people were not heterosexual, like Langston Hughes, but that is often suppressed. One known figure was Gladys Bentley, a lesbian, cross-dressing singer and pianist of the 1920s. She was out and proud as a lesbian, known as the bulldagger of the Harlem Renaissance, and was known for her top hats, coat tails and suits.
However, during the McCarthy Era, she feared for her life and family, so she forced “back into the closet,” so to speak, and supposedly fabricated a story of being cured of lesbianism, returning to the church, and marrying a man. Still today, she is celebrated for her bravery in an era that was not comfortable with black women (or woman in general_ expressing themselves in such a manner. Ms. Magazine did a piece comparing her to Monae. Several people have paid tribute to her:
*Rapper and poet Shirlette Ammons dedicated an album to her, Twilight for Gladys Bentley, which you can listen to below.
This is jazz singer, Jose James’, Martin Luther King, Jr.-inspired song, “The Dreamer:”
“I saw the dreamer raise his hand
Into a world of possibilities”
While today many will try to appropriate and sanitize his image and legacy for their own agendas (looking at you PETA), let us remember that King fought for the freedom of oppressed people all over the world, especially the black communities from which he originated. Hamden Rice on Daily Kos wrote about his legacy, helping black people to confront their fears of daily life living in the South and in general. Not that those fears or dangers have gone completely away, but that we can stand up to them.
Also, let’s be clear, that is what made him dangerous, too, and eventually why he was assassinated. Some can pretend that they love and respect him now, but probably would have been the same people back then who would have jailed him. Do you think they would have agreed so easily with speeches like, “Where Do We Go From Here?,” or “A Time to Break the Silence,” or any of his other later speeches. But some in America want the King stuck in time in 1963 like his perpetual Groundhog’s Day because it is easier to take and appeals to their own desires. But King envisioned a different world than what they had in mind.
Here are premieres of two videos from women taking female empowerment to higher levels:
Colored Girls Hustle (Taja Lindley and Jessica Valoris) – “Afro Aliens”
Donate to their Colored Girls Hustle Hard mixtape fundraiser!
After watching their Colored Girls Hustle videos, I wanted to give special highlight to these two women and artists, Taja Lindley and Jessica Valoris and their Colored Girls Hustle artistic creations, including jewelry, poetry and music. I am definitely attracted to their positive message and mission of self-affirmation and self-expression for women of color, whether through physical adornment of jewelry, through their creative and world-building passions or uplifting other women.
Currently they are fundraising on Indiegogo for their Colored Girls Hustle Hard mixtape. Also, on Wednesday at the Caribbean (yay!) restaurant, Dee and Ricky’s, in Brooklyn, they will premiere the first single video for “Afro Aliens” (some of the behind the scenes you can see at the end of the campaign video). Here is their headline for the event:
“Afro Aliens call us weird. Traveled through the galaxy and we landed here. Xigga.
Brooklyn is a planet and we’ve landed.
Anyone on social media has probably already come across the shitstorm of white people dressing in blackface/brownface costumes. The recent events have included dancer and actress Julianne Hough‘s Orange is the New Black costume, the 21-year-old Australian woman’s “African”-themed birthday party, the Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman costumers, Italian fashion designer Allesandro Dell’Acqua‘s “Disco Africa” themed Halloween party and the San Diego high school football coaches who wore blackface for their Cool Runnings Halloween costumes.
When we look at these photographs, we see ignorance, insensitivity, prejudice, and disrespect, but often we do not examine how these ritualistic masquerades are part of a production of and investment in pleasure and community at the expense of people of color. The main reason why they continue is that their is an enjoyment and communal, identity-structuring power, albeit sickening, in doing so. It is no coincidence that often these blackface costumes are done during times of celebration and joy, like Halloween, birthday parties, and Christmas, as in the tradition of Zwarte Piet in The Netherlands. As holiday season comes, we see the greater occurrences of these costumes. Egbert Alejandro Martina wrote a post, “The Delicious Pleasures of Racism” about the sadistic kind of pleasure white Netherlands enjoy from dressing up as Zwarte Piet: