“Untitled”: Black Sounds and Music Video as an Object of Study
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Today, black musicians and directors are creating music videos that transform the despondencies of the present and imagine black futures. While the cinematic tradition is steeped in the power of vision and verisimilitude, music video reverses the vectors of cinema, beginning with sound before adapting the visual. This reversal allows the visual aspects of music video to come unhinged, constructing surreal, condensed worlds driven by sound.
In Young Fathers’ music video, “I Heard,” the structure and emotional textures of the song guide us through a psychedelic cavern of images which favor mood over narrative. A split-screen effect folds the lead singer’s face into insectoid variations that resist classification as human, and impressionistic shots of human faces are oddly detached from bodies, left to float in the affective resonance of what’s happening sonically.
Quasimoto’s “Come On Feet” interprets the heavy modulation of the rapper’s voice as a puppet show with alien figures manipulated by an offscreen force. The video mutates the inner city, imagining a moment in the life of a hapless space alien lost in a drab, monochromatic environment that only loosely resembles our world. Videos such as Bus Driver’s “Colonize the Moon,” Janelle Monáe’s “Q.U.E.E.N.” and Shabazz Palaces’ “#Cake” are also using sound to conceptualize futures that undermine the binary visibilities of blackness and humanness.
Furthermore, music video—across platforms such as Vine and YouTube—engenders new modes of spectatorship, which are far removed from the cinematic apparatus articulated by earlier film theorists. Classic black American films like Bill Gunn’s Ganja and Hess (1973) and Sam Greenlee and Ivan Dixon’s The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1974) employ a Third Cinema model to create a dialogue among spectators in an enclosed space, whereas music video can meet spectators on their own terms—in Facebook timelines, GIF art spinoffs, tweets and iPhone apps. Retweets and shares of Janelle Monáe’s “Hell You Talmbout” invited listeners to “say the names” of Mike Brown, Sandra Bland, and other victims of police violence; and Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” became the rallying cry at the 20th anniversary of the Million Man March this year. It will be of interest to black film criticism to think about the ways in which sound and social media are foregrounded in antiracist movements today: as a way of responding to the moment and sonifying the latencies of the future.
For example, R&B artist D’Angelo released his long-awaited album, Black Messiah, in the midst of the Eric Garner case and the public demonstrations of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. The album marks the neo-soul artist’s return after over a decade of struggles with alcoholism, arrests, reclusiveness and sporadic performances. By several accounts, Black Messiah was complete years before its debut, but D’Angelo pushed to release it in 2014 to express solidarity with the national outcry against police brutality. If, as Kodwo Eshun suggests in More Brilliant than the Sun, music technologies can be used to “[break] up [a] transmission... manifest[ing] communication breakdown and mak[ing] technical difficulties audible,” D’Angelo distorts, garbles, lilts, soothes and screams his way into the conversation, subordinating lyricism to feeling. The communicative rupture between protestors and the legal system is poignantly suggested on “The Charade” when the singer mumbles “all we wanted was a chance to talk / instead we only got outlined in chalk.”
One of Black Messiah’s most politically charged tracks, “1000 Deaths,” opens with an incendiary sample of a Khalid Abdul Muhammad speech. Backed by a stripped-down drum and bass riff—one reminiscent of Michael Henderson and Al Foster’s interplay on Miles Davis’ Dark Magus—Muhammad rails against the concept of a “pale-skinned, blue-eyed” Christ, insisting on one with “nappy hair [like lamb’s wool]” and “a body [like] jasper.” This audio intertext links the aesthetic of black leadership to masculine form, just as #BlackLivesMatter came into being in response to the compounded visual and social reality of black men murdered at the hands of the police. Along similar lines, Black Messiah negotiates D’Angelo’s hypersexualized body-image, a textual residue carried over from the iconic frontal nude shot of his “Untitled” music video, with the meticulously layered sonorities of his work. Drummer ?uestlove has pointed out that D’Angelo’s transformation into a sex symbol following that video led to his retreat from the industry as he struggled to reconcile the visual spectacle of his body with the performance of his music. On “Back to the Future (Part 1),” he muses “if you’re wondering ‘bout the shape I’m in / I hope it ain’t my abdomen you’re referring to.” Reclaiming the body from discourses of vision seems to be at the crux of Black Messiah’s sonic intervention in its moment—a time when black bodies were once again the visual exegesis of calls for recognition and reform.
Kevin Ball is a PhD student in Wayne State University’s English department with a concentration in Film and Media Studies. His research interests involve blaxploitation films, Third Cinema and afrofuturist media with an emphasis on audiovisual constructions of time and history.