13.1 / Braids tuh’da flo(w) / Amy Herzog

Black One Shot stages brevity and precision in response to the art of blackness, contemporary and/or prescient. At 1000 words a pop, these pieces divest from academic respectability to inhabit the speculative, ambivalent, irreconcilable ways of black forms, and move through the fires this time. Seditiously, we are object forward, conjuring up the necessary intimacy generated between a critic and their object and keyed to the channels and frequencies of blackness. We hold fast to the given/taken works, the cultural productions without reduction, the condition of knowing all-too-well, and the imagining of something otherwise. Object love in the time of pandemics and insurrections. 

b.O.s. will run the course of summer 2020, come what may. We invite you to follow and share hard. Thanks to all the contributors and special thanks to Abram Foley, Aurelie Matheron, and Irenae Aigbedion of ASAP/J.

– Lisa Uddin and Michael Boyce Gillespie (Editors)

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Leikeli47’s mask redirects the eyes, and the ears. Masked individuals are transformed, but also bound, and not always comfortably, in anonymity, collectivity, legacy, freedom, isolation.1 In the rising tide of COVID-19, with mass masking, combat between cops and anti-racist organizers in the streets, and the shuttering of Black communal spaces like beauty salons, Leikeli47’s project seems amplified and all the more urgent. 

Leikeli 47, “MILK.” music video stills. Directed by Georgie Greville. Wash & Set, 2017 (Hardcover/RCA Records).

A self-described introvert, Leikeli47’s storytelling strategies bear the hallmarks of an intuitive listener. Gathering snippets of narratives, gestures, cinematic images, and sonic textures, her songs are less traditionally autobiographical, and more collaborative portraits of spaces and their people. Leikeli47 consistently tells us, through her recordings, where she is from, who she is with. There is a practiced generosity to her process. Sonically and lyrically, she weaves multiple perspectives and narrative modes, creating works that are at once documentary and speculative. “There’s hints of me in my songs,” she shared in an interview. “There’s hints of my friends. There’s hints of other people’s conversations. There’s hints of train rides. There’s hints of plane rides. That’s just what I am. Leikeli47 is strictly for the people. This is something created for the people.”2

Leikeli 47, “MILK.” music video stills. Directed by Georgie Greville. Wash & Set, 2017 (Hardcover/RCA Records).

The 2017 track “Braids tuh’da flo(w)” is an unapologetic celebration of Black femme material culture, leveling up, pliant strength, and the shared experiences of family, neighbors, friends.3 The mutual labor of upkeep and self-valuing is recognized here in meticulous detail and with a keen eye, always, toward the economics. “When you leave that salon,” Leikeli47 has remarked, “you don’t look like anything you’re going through.”4 Her “Beauty Series” project spans a diversity of genres, influences, and vocal inflections with a devotion to ballroom that persists throughout alongside trap, jazz, West Indian patois, pop, R&B and soul, drumline, skits, even a little Ashford and Simpson.5 Yet the themes and creative strategies throughout are remarkably consistent. Leikeli47’s delivery is rapid fire, dripping with wit and swagger. She latches onto a phrase or hook and digs in, riding the repetitions alongside minimalist beats. Catwalking and ferocity brim, but are unfailingly feminist and inclusive, a musical best-girlfriend to all the queens. 

“Braids” is a boast rooted in the sanctity (and specificity) of black spaces and the intimate work of care. Leikeli47’s declaratives steer the track with a certainty that the sparse instrumentation can’t help but follow. Each phrase, coupled by an ascending organ riff, ends with a piano chord thud. 

My girls don’t trip.
My girls keep winning.
My girls don’t lose.
My girls just keep on
Getting braids to the flo(w).

A front line joins the chorus led by a trombone that slides off Leikeli47’s phrasing while snares snap up the beat. A chorus of female voices back the lead with approving responses. The anachronism of the production—part New Orleans hot jazz, part HBCU band, all high gloss, extensions, and nails-nails to the ceiling—feels like a musical analogue for the artist’s own here-but-there status: Virginia/Bed-Stuy via I-95, then LA, then back, explicitly now, but rooted in before, ever-present-but-not-seen.

Tanisha 25, look 18. 2 kids, Master’s degree.
Put her own self through school.
Hot damn, drinks on me.
Shamira got her own shop. Got the whole block hot.
Chairs stay packed, she getting racks.
Homegirl just bought a new drop.
Who need a man in my clique? Ha, not nare one bitch.

“Braids,” like most of Leikeli47’s tracks, is an invitation to the listener.6  Walk-ins are welcome, but on very specific terms. Personal and financial autonomy in “Braids” is hard fought, a source of communal pride, a means of building up the whole block. And the joy on display is explicitly centered not only in Black female comradery, but also in Black female ownership. 

Cover image from Leikeli47, Pick a Color, promotional music bundle, 2018 (Hardcover/RCA Records).

 

There is an ongoing dialogue between the beauty spaces figured in Leikeli47’s songs and those in her own neighborhood. The cover image from her EP Pick a Color (a 2018 “creative bundle” that preceded the full-length album Acrylic) features the shuttered storefront of 888 Happy Red Apple nail salon in Flatbush Brooklyn. In August 2018, the salon was the site of a vicious attack by staff on a young Black customer and her grandmother.7 In response to a viral video, the salon became a rallying site for the community. The metal security gate is papered with homemade signs: demands for justice, a Malcolm X quotation, a picture of the Brooklyn Borough President on a milk carton, and organizing meetings for “Buy Black Flatbush.” “Black $$$ Matters” became a sustained call to support and promote Black-owned Brooklyn businesses. At the center of this photograph, a woman in a red beret and hoop earrings reads the mural of flyers, a visual sounding board that has superseded the operations of the salon itself. The selection of this cover image explicitly frames Leikeli47’s fictional salons, like their real-world counterparts, as sites of intense personal and political negotiation. Pick. A. Color.

DiAna’s Hair Ego REMIX, Cheryl Dunye and Ellen Spiro, 2017.

I’m reminded of DiAna DiAna’s hair salon in Columbia, South Carolina, as documented in Ellen Spiro’s DiAna’s Hair Ego (1990), and later in Cheryl Dunye and Sprio’s DiAna’s Hair Ego REMIX (2017).8 In response to the ongoing AIDS crisis and state failure to address the impact on Black communities, DiAna’s services expanded into a full-service public health advocacy and activist center, distributing condoms and sex education materials alongside color and conditioning treatments. The beauty shop here becomes a model for caregiving as mutual, wraparound, sustaining, local, Black.

In this ravaged moment of human and financial loss, the disproportionate hit to local, Black-owned spaces for upkeep, refreshing, and mutual support is painfully felt. Listening to “Braids” now, it strikes me that Leikeli47 channels the narrative and musical vernacular of salons and barbershops: anonymity and extreme intimacy; posturing and self-invention; shared vulnerability; gossip and surgical take downs; empathy and amplification. Braid, flo(w). Noun, verb. Intimate objects that are simultaneously actions and ongoing labor. Leikeli47’s deep engagement with the social geography of Black beauty spaces channels these processes, and spins them into something worldmaking and resilient.

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This is one of four essays from the thirteenth transmission of b.O.s. (Black One Shot). Read the other essays here:

b.O.s. 13.2 / The Throne of the Third Heaven of Nations Millennium, General Assembly / Taylor Renee Aldridge
b.O.s. 13.3 / Vivid Seams / Genevieve Hyacinthe 
b.O.s. 13.4 / Numbers Station [Red Record] / Julie Beth Napolin

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Lisa Uddin is author of Zoo Renewal: White Flight and the Animal Ghetto (University of Minnesota Press, 2015), and has recent writing in the volume Race and Modern Architecture: A Critical History from the Enlightenment to the Present (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2020), ASAP/J, Los Angeles Review of Books, and Postmodern Culture. She’s here for the freedom.

Michael Boyce Gillespie is the author of Film Blackness: American Cinema and the Idea of Black Film (Duke University Press, 2016). His recent work has appeared in Black Light: A Retrospective of International Black Cinema, Flash Art, Unwatchable, and Film Quarterly. He hopes that people are still outraged in November.

Endnotes

  1. Post HBO’s Watchman (2019), Leikeli47’s masks, which she has called her “superhero capes,” inadvertently took on new resonance as acts of black supernatural reinvention. See J’na Jefferson, NEXT Interview, “Leikeli47 Won’t Be Seen, But Best Believe She’ll Be Heard,” Vibe, November 16, 2018, https://www.vibe.com/2018/11/leikeli47-next-interview.
  2. Leikeli47 interview with Frannie Kelly, Microphone Check with Frannie & Ali, July 21, 2018, transcript at https://www.frannieandali.com/home/2018/8/29/leikeli47.
  3. Wash & Set, 2017 (Hardcover/RCA Records). The lyrics and composition for the track are credited to frequent collaborators Gavin Williams, Harold Lilly (Leikeli47’s cousin and mentor), and Hasben Jones, with production by Gavolina.
  4. Jefferson, NEXT Interview.
  5. The bulk of Leikeli47’s recorded work contributes to a “Beauty Series” trilogy of albums: Wash & Set (2017), Acrylic (2018), and the forthcoming Shape Up (“for the guys”) set to be released in August 2020. 
  6. Leikeli47 repeatedly invokes the objective of her project as an invitation, one that is designed for Black women and girls first, but that is open and accepting to all. “It’s an invite for everyone to come in. It’s an invite for everyone to understand the black culture, my perspective of my black culture, of my black hair, of my black streets, of my black college experiences. These are stories surrounding the way I came up, but I want people to know that you are also welcome to come along this journey and learn with me because I want to learn about you.” Interview with Joshua Barajas, “Brooklyn Rapper Leikeli47 Wants You to Step into Her Neighborhood,” PBS NewsHour, March 25, 2019, https://www.pbs.org/newshour/arts/brooklyn-rapper-leikeli47-wants-you-to-step-into-her-neighborhood-walk-ins-welcome.
  7. The young woman and her grandmother were beaten with broomsticks and doused with acetone during a dispute with the Asian staff over a botched $5 eyebrow waxing.
  8. DiAna’s Hair Ego (Ellen Spiro, 1990), https://vimeo.com/ondemand/dianashairego.
Amy Herzog
Amy Herzog is Professor of Media Studies at Queens College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. She has published work on media and popular music, pornography and urban history, parasites, gentrification, and dioramas. She is the author of Dreams of Difference, Songs of the Same: The Musical Moment in Film (University of Minnesota Press, 2010) and co-editor, with Carol Vernallis and John Richardson, of The Oxford Handbook of Sound and Image in Digital Media (Oxford, 2013).