L to R: Detail from “Alligator Man” episode of Atlanta; detail from Zeal & Ardor’s Devil is Fine album cover (2017); Sheila Bridges, Tarnish (2017); Janet Jackson (1987); detail from Kia LaBeija Featuring the Moon (2018).
Black One Shot is a series that stages brevity and precision in response to a single work of black art, contemporary and/or prescient. Using a 1000-word conceit, it references the pressures on scholars and curators to present complex discussions and formulations of blackness for public consumption, political action, and academic relevance. It disputes staid frameworks of interpretation that cannot or will not account for the speculative, ambivalent, and irreconcilable ways of black forms. It speaks to the ongoing case for black lives and art mattering. And it conjures up the necessary intimacy generated between a critic and their object.
As an assembly of strategies, impulses, and circuits, these pieces conduct an historiographic and aesthetic review of how blackness and the arts demand and distend. We circulate them as a new measure of art criticism, one keyed to the channels and frequencies of blackness, pleasure, and critical contemplation. Black visual and expressive culture and all to which it is connected is better for these queries.
With 30+ contributors, b.O.s. will run the course of summertime, when the living is (un)easy. We invite you to follow and share as new work is issued every two weeks. Thanks to all the contributors and special thanks to Abram Foley, editor of ASAP/J.
This fourth transmission (7.16.18) features Glenda R. Carpio on Atlanta‘s “Alligator Man” episode, Charles “Chip” Linscott on Zeal and Ardor’s “Blood in the River,” Macushla Robinson on Sheila Bridges’ Tarnish, Textures Material Culture Lab on Janet Jackson’s Skinny Jeans, and Keith M. Harris on Kia LaBeija Featuring the Moon.
– Michael Boyce Gillespie and Lisa Uddin (Editors)
The track “Blood in the River” comes from Zeal and Ardor’s full-length album Devil is Fine (2017). The LP is an exceedingly diverse mélange of influences and genres, including synth and electronica, hip hop, gospel, blues, spirituals, various sorts of metal (particularly black metal, speed metal, and melodic death metal), and more. Perhaps the most eccentric combination on the album is this particular song’s blend of black metal with American slave spirituals. This union is exceptional because of the musical differences inherent in each style, but it is even more remarkable due to the seemingly contradictory social histories and thematic contexts of these sonic forms. Black metal is often explicitly Satanic and, somewhat less often, overtly white supremacist, to the extent that there is even a sub-genre of the music known as National Socialist Black Metal (NSBM).1 By contrast, slave songs and/or spirituals broke up the monotony of slave labor, inspired hope and unity, and even gave secret direction for escape by overtly relying on Christian religious themes. In conjoining what might at first seem antithetical—namely, Negro/slave spirituals and black metal—Zeal and Ardor find artistic and emotional space for black life through death, calling for the fiery end of the antiblack world and hailing the nativity, in black, of a new existence.2
This music is a radical rapprochement, but the genesis of its style has an equally original, if hateful, provenance that speaks to its profound and strident aims. The prime mover behind Zeal and Ardor is Manuel Gagneux, a Swiss-born musician of European and American ancestry who now calls New York City home. (Importantly, this mash-up of American and European influences is clearly reflected in the music.) As the story goes, Gagneux was fond of employing a sort of informal, anonymous audience testing for his new musical productions. Seeking irreverent opinions, he would often challenge users on the notorious website 4Chan to provide him with incommensurable genre pairings—”hardcore gabber techno” and “swing,” for example—whereupon he would quickly write and record such a song for their assessment. One pair of particularly caustic suggestions from the site—”nigger music” and “black metal”—would eventually result in the fantastically hybrid music of Zeal and Ardor, but at the steep cost of hate. While Gagneux reports being unsurprised at such virulence coming from 4Chan users, he nonetheless found the pairing inspiring and began to concoct an amalgam of slave songs/blues/gospel/spirituals with the unrepentantly Satanic and aesthetically assaultive style known as black metal.3 If 4Chan’s racism was predictable, Gagneux’s musical and performative responses are anything but routine, as he gleefully brings a hot branding iron to live shows for audience members who want a more permanent reminder of their concert experience—and of the carnage of slavery.4 Despite the meticulous performative and musical citation of Zeal’s references to slavery, the chants themselves are Gagneux’s novel creations, and he does not stint:
a good god is a dead one
a good god is the one
a good god is a dead one
a good god is the one
a good lord is a dark one
a good lord is the one that brings the fire
a good lord is a dark one
a good lord is the one that brings the fire
the riverbed will run red with the blood of the saints and the blood of the holy
(the one that brings the fire)5
How can one radical form seek shelter with its enemy? How can black freedom come from concert with the radical Other? Is black metal merely a set of aesthetic conventions like blast beats, tremolo-picked guitars, lo-fi production, and screeched vocals? Or is the “black” in black metal more of a transformative shift, a productive modulation that cannot be constrained?6 Stuart Hall once famously asked after the “black” in “black popular culture,” and it is reasonable to query the same of “black metal” while expecting rather different results.7
While debate over the essential elements of black metal is perpetual and impassioned, it is worth noting, as Gagneux does, that the oppositional tendencies of black metal—Satanism, anti-Christian iconoclasm, non-conformism—dovetail with the desire to discard, if not immolate, the enforced values of white, Eurocentric religion and culture that were inflicted upon African slaves whose own traditions were violently repressed in the interest of chattel and control.8
Like the protagonist in The Ballad of Black Tom, the black singer of “Blood in the River” prefers the diabolical and the infernal to the horrors of enslavement and antiblack racism.9 Finding black revivification in the promise of the destruction of white orthodoxy, Zeal and Ardor raise a field cry that finds harmony with a sort of black metal that frequently tempts white supremacy.10 Putting aside the question of whether the devil of black metal is yet another Western imposition, Zeal and Ardor tell us that “a good god/lord is a dead one, [a] dark one…that brings the fire.” In “Blood in the River,” the clinking of slave chains forms a rhythmic percussion base for the blues and slave chanting. Together, they call for the blazing and bloody end of “the saints” and “the holy”—nothing less than the total end of the slavers’ culture. Thus comes a hymn to the death of the old lord and the rebirth of a new god, a dark one, wrought in fire. A site of sanctification and renegade hope, the river is where the God-fearing bleed out and make way for the reborn black god.11 But Zeal and Ardor do not merely cry out for the demise of white divinity at the hands of a dark deity. They also set fire to the musical genre itself, invoking a fresh heresy by summoning the black lord to spread his darkness deep: even the devil’s own music cannot escape the blackening. Black metal indeed.
This is one of five essays from the fourth transmission of b.O.s. (Black One Shot). Read the other essays here:
b.O.s. 4.1 / “Alligator Man” / Glenda R. Carpio
b.O.s. 4.3 / Tarnish / Macushla Robinson
b.O.s. 4.4 / Janet Jackson’s Skinny Jeans / TEXTURES Material Culture Lab
b.O.s. 4.5 / Kia featuring the moon / Keith M. Harris
About the editors:
Michael Boyce Gillespie is Associate Professor of Film at The City College of New York, CUNY. He has published on film theory, black visual and expressive culture, and contemporary art. Recent work includes co-editing (w/ Racquel Gates) the “Dimensions in Black: Perspectives on Black Film and Media” dossier for Film Quarterly 71.2 (Winter 2017). He is the author of Film Blackness: American Cinema and the Idea of Black Film (Duke University Press, 2016). He is currently working on his next book tentatively titled Death Grips: Film Blackness and Cinema in the Wake. He would rather live in Oakland than Wakanda.
Lisa Uddin is Associate Professor of Art History and Visual Culture Studies and Paul Garrett Fellow at Whitman College. She has published widely on race, space, and human/nonhuman entanglements in modern and contemporary visual culture, and is the author of Zoo Renewal: White Flight and the Animal Ghetto (University of Minnesota Press, 2015). Her current book project, Sunspots: Black Cosmologies of California Design, considers black expressive practices in formations of California architecture and urbanism since the 1960s. She is mid-tone beige.
- Modern black metal emerged from Norway in the early 1990s and took its thematic, if not musical, cues from previous European metal bands that relied heavily upon demonic content. Contemporary black metal quickly spread to other parts of Europe, notably Sweden, from its Norwegian roots. It is now a global phenomenon and has been hybridized with musical genres as diverse as jazz, folk, outlaw country, post-rock, and classical.
- There is a temptation to understand such tendencies—toward absolute destruction of the old and white, with a concomitant black rebirth from the rubble—as Afropessimist. I think this is a provocative line of inquiry, yet space and focus keep me from pursuing it here.
- Zeal and Ardor, “The Real Story Behind the Spiritual Black Metal Blues of Zeal and Ardor’s ‘Devil Is Fine’,” interview by Kim Kelly, Noisey, July 7, 2016, https://noisey.vice.com/en_ca/article/6wqvnb/zeal-and-ardor-interview.
- Zeal and Ardor (Manuel Gagneux), “A Conversation with Zeal and Ardor (Manuel Gagneux),” interview by Jimmy McNulty, Toilet ov Hell, June 13, 2016, http://www.toiletovhell.com/a-conversation-with-zeal-and-ardor-manuel-gagneux/.
- Zeal’s Satan-praising slave chants are so convincing that fans scoured the Alan Lomax and Smithsonian archives of folk music in order to find the “originals” that Gagneux must have sampled. Yet (Robert Johnson and crossroads mythology aside) there appear to be no extant devil-worshipping slave songs. Zeal and Ardor (Manuel Gagneux), “A Conversation.” Zeal and Ardor, “The Real Story.”
- I am thinking here of blackness as theorized by Fred Moten (blackness is “a disruptive surprise” enacted through the “inscriptional events of a set of performances”), Michael B. Gillespie (blackness is a “multi-accentual critical mediation and practice”), and others. Fred Moten, In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003), 255n1. Michael B. Gillespie, “Reckless Eyeballing: Coonskin, Film Blackness and the Racial Grotesque,” in Contemporary Black American Cinema: Race, Gender, and Sexuality at the Movies, ed. Mia Mask (New York: Routledge, 2012), 56.
- Hall concludes, in part, that dialogism is a key part of the blackness of black popular culture. Gagneux’s work is certainly dialogic. Yet there is more at stake here, with Hall acknowledging a “set of distinctive, historically defined black experiences” while refuting any essential “blackness.” Blackness is (if anything, and it is not nothing) always in a profound process of negotiation, with antagonisms that are “simply not reducible to one another.” Further, racial essentialism tempts us “to display that signifier [black] as a device that can purify the impure, bring the straying brothers and sisters who don’t know what they ought to be doing into line, and police the boundaries that are of course political, symbolic, and positional boundaries…as if they were genetic.” These essentializing procedures in fact return us to “the very ground of the racism we are trying to deconstruct.” Thus, it is not so much that Zeal and Ardor arrive at different conclusions than Hall, but that black metal, at least in its insistence on some sort of mythical white essence that is both pure and purifying, is not very “black.” However, black metal’s gleeful iconoclasm lends itself nicely to a blackness that wants to free itself from homogeneity (or even from whiteness). In this context, I think it is fitting to insist that Gagneux’s complex and contradictory work is actually “blackening” black metal. Stuart Hall, “What Is This ‘Black’ in Black Popular Culture?” Social Justice 20, no. 1/2 (51-52) (1993): 104-14. http://www.jstor.org/stable/29766735.
- Gagneux cites this thematic connection—Christianity being forced upon African slaves and black metal’s disdain for Christianity—as part of the inspiration for Zeal and Ardor’s music. Zeal and Ardor (Manuel Gagneux), “A Conversation.”
- “‘I bear a hell within me,’ Black Tom growled. ‘And finding myself unsympathized with, wished to tear up the trees, spread havoc and destruction around me, and then to have sat down and enjoyed the ruin.’” Later, Black Tom is even more direct: “I’ll take Cthulhu over you devils any day.” The devils in question are, of course, white people. It is also notable that LaValle’s novella is a brilliant re-envisioning, from a black perspective, of one of H.P. Lovecraft’s most notoriously xenophobic and racist works, “The Horror at Red Hook.” Victor LaValle, The Ballad of Black Tom (New York: Tom Doherty Associates, 2016), 130, 143. Similarly, the singer in another Zeal and Ardor song, “Devil is Fine,” chants, “We gonna go home to the flames now.”
- Notwithstanding the deep black roots of Southern gospel, it is difficult to ignore the profound antiblackness of much Christianity, which provided a theological rationale for chattel slavery and colonialism. This sort of Christian antiblackness leads in turn to the ready availability of black Satanic speculation and its potent mobility, allowing Gagneux to craft plausible Satanic slave songs without actual historical precedent. That black metal itself seems infinitely portable is no coincidence (cf. endnote 1).
- One cannot help but think of Fanon here, whose “end of the world” comes when black people discover that it is the fiction of whiteness that has caused their despair. Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, trans. Richard Philcox (New York: Grove Press, 2008), 191.