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)
In 2000, the Nigerian masked musician known as Lágbájá released a fourth album entitled We Before Me. One of the tracks, entitled “Vernacular,” is a conversation between the late Nigerian singer Fẹla Anikulapo-Kuti and Lágbájá on how Nigerians need to embrace the wisdom of native tongues. Achieved through studio effect, excerpts of a Fẹla interview were juxtaposed with Lágbájá’s singing in a call and response format. This conversation invokes the trope of the ancestor (Fẹla) returning to the world to instruct the living (Lágbájá).
“Vernacular” is a paean to Nigerian languages and a call to recover knowledge embodied therein. Its activist tone reveals a kinship with the black protest musical traditions of the larger African diaspora. Critiquing a “colo” mentality, one that lauds English as the quintessential language amongst average Nigerians, “Vernacular” aligns itself to a global veneration of Afro diasporic languages – patois, Ebonics etc. It reinforces the cosmopolitan nature of the local, employing the (live) technologies of digital audio mixing of voices to ask for advice from the dead in order to live a virtuous life.1
Fẹla Kuti’s death in 1997 and ensuing immortality as a musical icon hovers over “Vernacular,” echoing his prophecy that he would not die.2 In 1993, Bisade Ologunde, a Nigerian multi-instrumentalist of Yoruba extraction was one of those who heard Fẹla’s call. Ologunde launched his career in that year with a unique concept by adorning bright colored costumes of Yoruba masquerades from head to toe, while playing a tenor saxophone through a slit in the mask for his mouth. Calling himself “Lágbájá,” he received critical acclaim for his music from the late 1990s until the end of the first decade in the new millennium. Part of his appeal was the incredible lengths he took to conceal his identity while playing a tenor saxophone. Secrecy in masquerades in that region of Nigeria is critical – such individuals typify spirits and ancestral beings who “come” into the land of the living to cajole or instruct the latter on what to do. The masked nature of such individuals augments and reinforce their otherness from the living community. Lágbájá appropriates that logic for his own purposes. His choice of masquerade imbues his personae with a gravitas peculiar to the spirit world and gives him an avenue by which to conceal his real identity, a trick that dancers of masquerades use all the time. The conceit was innovative, unique and whetted the appetite of his fans who spent part of each performance trying to divine the identity of the man behind the mask. He almost never wore the same mask twice whether in concert or a musical video and borrowed costume concepts from rich masquerade traditions throughout the Southwestern region of Nigeria for centuries (e.g. Egúngún, Gẹlẹdẹ masquerades).
The name “Lágbájá” complements his concealed identity as it means “somebody,” “anybody,” or “nobody,” in Yoruba. Thus, the name typifies both the commoner on the street as well as a non-entity. Like Fẹla, his deceased mentor, the lyrics of “Vernacular” are a mixture of English, Pidgin English, and Yoruba. There is an ironic twist to the track’s title. While the English word may mean something that is quintessentially local, “Vernacular” in Nigeria’s linguistic history has connoted any local language that is not as “intellectually sophisticated” as English regardless of its dialect. In a manner of resistance, Lágbájá, embraces the word, stating in the chorus that “If I fire and you laugh, I don’t care/Na the beginning of craze be that…”3 The most repeated part of the song, the chorus is interspliced with Fẹla’s speaking voice that echoes the latter part of Lágbájá’s chorus by saying “That is the beginning of craze.” Lágbájá’s singing submits to Fẹla’s authoritative bass-laden voice repeatedly underscoring that Nigerians are crazy to discard their “vernacular” for English.4
The song opens with a bass guitar solo; then several electronic keyboard melodies in different keys, each percussive in structure, respond to the guitar solo in a complementary way, thus creating a sonic conversation among all the melodies. There is an interconnectedness between guitar solo and keyboard melodies recalling the call and response of the Black Atlantic. Drums ensue, transferring the previous multi-varied syncopation into another medium. The intermittent scratching of a turntable in the middle of the song introduces hip-hop.5 Lágbájá sings first in English and then in Yoruba before ending with Nigerian pidgin English. One can detect in this stanza a critique of sticklers of the English language with the following refrain:
I speak, You hear
When I speak, You Understand
Ọrọ wa ti yewa, idea lo ju
If I fire and you dodge, I don’t care
Na the beginning of craze be that
The third line consists of two sentences – one entirely in Yoruba and the other a combination of Yoruba and English. The first part states that “The issue is well understood” while the latter sentence states that “it is a great idea.”6
One may say that the great idea is that Fẹla, in the hands of a masked musician, returns to converse with another otherworldly being. But, Lágbájá differs from Fẹla because he has one foot in this world and the other in the afterlife as both assess the state of precolonial cultures in a postcolonial society.7 Lágbájá, a symbol of anonymity and individuality, critiques colonization by communing with the dead. His “Vernacular” is a mixture of precolonial and postcolonial musical forms that emerged during settler colonialism, and were transformed around the world. Hence Lágbájá’s (and Fẹla’s) call for a return to “pristine” cultures is an entangled attempt to unshackle the long-lasting effects of British colonialism by emphasizing once again the cosmopolitan nature of the vernacular.
This is one of four essays from the eleventh transmission of b.O.s. (Black One Shot). Read the other essays here:
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.
- “Vernacular”’s conversation between the living and the dead belongs to a tradition that includes Kendrick Lamar’s conversation with Tupac Shakur about young Black men in “Mortal Man” (2015). In the latter song, Kendrick and Tupac converse about the future of young black men. There are in fact two ghosts in “Mortal Man.” Tupac Shakur and the South African leader Nelson Mandela, who remains silent even as he dominates Lamar’s lyrics in the first half of the song.
- Born Olufẹla Ransome Kuti in 1938 into a distinguished Southwest Nigerian family, “Fẹla” studied music at Trinity College in England, specializing in the trumpet. Yet, he blamed all of Nigeria’s alleged ills on the history of the British presence in Nigeria. Fẹla’s music contains lyrics of Pigeon English, in Twi and Yoruba; and draws inspiration from James Brown, South Nigerian percussive rhythms, Ghanaian highlife music, and even jazz. For more on Fẹla Kuti’s life refer to Michael Veal, Fẹla: The Life and Times of an African Musical Icon (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2000).
- The chorus is in Pidgin English, translated it means “If I speak incorrectly and you laugh, I don’t care – is the beginning of lunacy (to speak only in Queen’s English).” In Southwest Nigeria in the 1980s, if a child spoke incorrect English, others would ridicule the child by shouting “Ibọn!” which means a “gun” in Yoruba. The joke was that the child’s error was akin to a gun that was fired. The incorrect word was like a gunshot or gun “fire”. Hence when Lágbájá sings, “If I fire and you laugh I don’t care,” he is stating that ridiculing one for speaking the language of one’s former colonial masters incorrectly is the height of lunacy. Why? It is because it reveals that one still has a colonial mindset. Additionally, such an attitude fails to see how the linguistic logic of one’s native language when applied to speaking English makes some English words or articles – indispensable for making properly grammatical sentences – unnecessary. For example, “ I wan reach market” is a common pidgin English expression for “I want to go to the market.” Notice how the articles “to,” and “the” were eliminated and “reach” was used instead of “go.” That logic flows from the Yoruba expression of the same activity, which is “Mo fẹ lọ s’ọja.” Literarlly, “I want go market.” Hence, one can infer that Lágbájá is arguing that a commitment to make English articles appear modern and “sophisticated” rids the world of the ways in which the rich linguistic logic of Yoruba animates pidgin English. Elsewhere in the song, Lágbájá refers to those Nigerian sticklers for the English articles and proper grammar as “colo” people.
- The serious tone of Fẹla’s spoken voice reinforces the hierarchical nature of the conversation. Fẹla, being the wise ancestral spirit and Lágbájá, the younger liminal character affirming Fẹla’s words. This manner of conversation is also congruous with ways of talking throughout the Black Atlantic world, where the youth defer to the authority of elders. The power dynamic is created in “Vernacular” sonically in the varying tempos of both speakers. Fẹla’s voice is slow and measured. Lágbájá’s singing voice is a bit quicker. Historically in Southern Nigeria, slowness in speech and movement was associated with wisdom. A king moves slowly to show that he is wise. I believe that this dynamic is at play in the conversation between Fẹla and Lágbájá.
- The underlying thread of the sonic conversation between the guitar solo and the various keyboard melodies is how percussive they sound individually and in unison. In other words, both the guitar player and the keyboardist transform their instruments into drums. Hence, I am arguing that the overall musical construction evokes harmonies that are commonplace with drum ensembles in the Black Atlantic world. Therefore, perhaps one can say that the opening sequence of “Vernacular” is part of that musical tradition.
- After establishing the efficacy of Nigerian languages in communication, the song also invokes repeatedly, Fẹla’s claim that “English is not expression” and Nigerian languages have “deep meanings” that cannot be translated into English. Repetition too is part of a long-lasting tradition in non-Western languages to emphasize a message. Towards the end of the song, Lágbájá distills this sense of repetition to its bare essentials, where “deep meanings” is repeated sequentially.
- The practice of boys and men in Southwest Nigeria donning masquerades – representing spirits and dead ancestors – underscores the ways in which the volunteers are living beings who represent spirits. Hence the volunteers “occupy” two realms: the after-life realm and the world that the volunteers live in. For some this only occurs when the volunteers don the mask.