14.1 / Somesay-Someday / L.H. Stallings

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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Black queer British singer, songwriter, and poet Claudius Afolabi Siffre’s song(s)1 “Somesay-Someday” (1973)2 is an old song (s) about odd futures. Taken from his fourth studio album For the Children, “Somesay-Someday” is a sonic zygote produced not by black stars or planets, but by a black universe tired of miniscule empires acting as if they were ever capable of producing and sustaining all Black life. For Siffre, the future of that life hinges on unconditionally embracing differences.

For the Children lists “Somesay-Someday” as two different songs. Yet, Siffre employs the same singular melody in each, infusing the original and refrain with signifyin’; a Black cultural technology that teaches that all Black life, whatever its intersectionalities, matters. According to Samuel A. Floyd, “In African American music, musical figures signify by commenting on other musical figures, on themselves, on performances of other music, on performances of the same piece, and on completely new works of music.”3 Siffre’s signifyin’ is all of these, with the intent of unfettering difference in various contexts. As the absence of space between words can reflect rhythmic aesthetics and/or have grammatical intent, the absence of space in someday and somesay should be noted as Siffre’s first mode of signifyin’. The choice to not split “some” from “day” or “say” in title and lyrics introduces an indeterminate speaking subject and indefinite relationship with time. His strategic refrain provides a revision of lyrics, which is undergirded by the technique of repetition with difference so important in the worldmaking of black beings.

As James Weldon Johnson noted, arrangements are affective philosophies and spiritual tools of a community.4 Siffre’s use of folk, blues, jazz, soul, funk, and rock in one arrangement are stunning in this respect. With musical influences such as Jimmy Reed, Miles Davis, Little Richard, and Ella Fitzgerald, Siffre produces seemingly effortless musical arrangements.5 Contemporary performers in black music genres have showcased, through the sampling and covering of Siffre’s oeuvre, that his music is capable of imaginatively undermining Western necropolitics and fusing Black Atlantic spaces into new universes.6

Siffre’s instrumental arrangements signify on the role of the sacred and secular to do so.7 The rhetoric of secular and sacred in black music traditions thematically reflects ideologies of sin and the fallen man that demonize difference. However, Siffre demonstrates that black music aesthetics disputes the spiritual logics of difference.

“Somesay” is under three minutes. “Someday” is almost five minutes. The variances between the versions are lyrics and instruments, but both replicate the same melody and three-period movement structure. Early on, “Somesay” utilizes electric piano, piano, voice, and upright bass. “Someday” uses electric piano, electric guitar, and voice. Later, “Somesay” concludes with toms, brushing of cymbals, and speaker pedal tech to produce a whirling guitar that spirals out into spacey scat-deliberation. “Someday” ends with funk guitar licks and folksy, scat ad-libbing.

The song(s) first movement is instrumental. Siffre allows listeners to center their emotions in sound. His soundscape represents a genre of (human) being before it becomes fallen, black, cis, man, or heterosexual. The first movement’s contemplative modalities symbolize a natural disposition that fades out before an abrupt change in tempo and instrumentation occurs in the second movement. Whatever being existed gets disrupted by a grand narrative of some other body’s manifest destiny, as seen in “Somesay”s lyrics: “Somesay, someday/Hosanna will take them away.” Here, “Somesay’s” hymnody, specifically the acoustic layering of Siffre’s voice on “Hosanna” creates a chorus-effect, which is Siffre’s subtle critique of organized religions’ layered doctrines that introduce salvation, sin, and detrimental hierarchies of difference. Siffre begins the third movement of “Somesay” singing, “Is this the way that it must be, can anyone see does it matter?” This question initiates an ongoing discussion throughout the album. By the time he answers the question, in the second movement of “Someday,” it is definitely “no.”

On “Someday,” Siffre changes tempo and instruments to signal a secular tone and an interruption of the faith doctrines and moral imagination of religious institutions. He uses the electric guitar to ground the shift in theme: “Someday, somehow, we’ll find/A new life, a new way of work.” Rather than begin this second movement narrating a moral authority’s words (somesay) and world, Siffre authorizes his own narrative and situates listeners temporally in another universe different than that of organized religion. Along with new lyrics, the secular electric guitar of blues and rock stipulates that doctrines of faith do not have to become dogma where difference is perceived to be impossible.

As Siffre once explained in an interview: “… in so far as songs constitute words and music, and as an abstract art form[,] it conveys only feelings and emotions. And those feelings and emotions of the music may, in fact, be more profound than the lyric of the song…”8 Certainly the final third movement blurs secular/sacred music aesthetics to symbolically destroy moral binaries that could impede worldmaking for Black beings. Siffre immerses listeners in a black universe that affectively moves from contemplation and exhaustion and onto exuberance, joy, and hope. As black queer optimism, Siffre’s song exemplifies a black futurist arrangement that expresses and predicts an odd future, our present living in which we have to voice not only that Black lives matter but that all Black lives matter.

I offer that this song (s) is the blunt you should have smoked before the meeting you knew you should have skipped; the theme song that should play in your head when shopping for a pistol at gun stores; and the mushroom tea you should drink before dream working, embarking upon astral-projection, or creating some new something. All of this would be hyperbole were it not for 2020. Thus, this song(s) is for the child you who imagined a future you that the present you still hopes is on the way. “Somesay-Someday.”

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

b.O.s. 14.2 / Glenville / Allyson Nadia Field
b.O.s. 14.3 / Bag Lady in Flight / Sampada Aranke
b.O.s. 14.4 / Claudette’s Star / Matthew Barrington
b.O.s. 14.5 / Habla Lamadre / Courtney Desiree Morris

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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. The parenthetical “s” throughout this piece is deliberate.
  2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PYiDjNY9Z6U&list=PLBXbCS2RJibpCQY5KVYQBYwuihPan0fkT&index=34 and  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AYGMUeKPgjs
  3. See Samuel A. Floyd’s “Ring Shout! Literary Studies, Historical Studies, and Black Music Inquiry” in Black Music Research Journal 11, no. 2  (October 1, 1991): 265–87, in addition to Claudia in Mitchell-Kernan’s “Signifying and marking: Two Afro-American speech acts” in  Directions in sociolinguistics: The ethnography of communication. Eds. John J. Gumperz and Dell H. Hymes (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1972: 161-179),  and Henry L. Gates The Signifying Monkey :A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.)
  4. See the forward from James Weldon Johnson The Book of American Negro Spirituals (New York: Penguin Books, 1969).
  5. July 28, 2017. Tom Robinson Interview/ BBC Loud and Proud Music Series, https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p059x1yv
  6. Jay Z, Pacewon, Eminem, and Kanye West sampled his works. Jazmine Sullivan and Miguel sampled him for R&B songs, while Vanessa Bell Armstrong, Kelis, and Sal Masekela’s covered his genre blurring songs.
  7. Raised as a Catholic, Siffre’s biographies repeatedly detail his early shift to atheism/secularism.
  8. See Jeffrey Side interview with Labi Siffre in The Argotist Magazine Online (England: Liverpool University and Arts Council, 1997), accessed 7/23/20, https://argotistonline.co.uk/Siffre%20interview.htm
L.H. Stallings
L.H. Stallings is Professor and Chair of African American Studies at Georgetown University. She is the author of A Dirty South Manifesto: Sexual Resistance and Imagination in the New South (2019), Funk the Erotic: Transaesthetics and Black Sexual Cultures (2015), and Mutha’ is Half a Word!: Intersections of Folklore, Vernacular, Myth, and Queerness in Black Female Culture (2007).