A prompt, a parameter, a choreography, Black One Shot (b.O.s.) has been our ongoing concentration on the art of blackness. We value the complications, ambiguities, and ambivalences on which the art of blackness thrives. As we’ve said, our physics of black study amplifies the critical resonance of objects (centripetal) over the insistence on what objects must do (centrifugal). X = Object love + art of blackness criticism ≅ disassociate, distend, demand, refract, rejoice. Solve for X in no more than 1000 words.
b.O.s. will run the course of summer 2022 for five consecutive weeks. We invite you to follow and share hard. Thanks to all the contributors and special thanks to Alexandra Kingston-Reese and Wiktoria Tunska.
—Lisa Uddin and Michael Boyce Gillespie (Editors)
Something strange is happening…1
On August 25, 2013 at the MTV Video Music Awards in Brooklyn, New York, Kanye West stood on a bare stage and performed his track entitled “Blood on the Leaves.” The performance begins with a close-up of the rapper’s face awash in a red hue and framed in profile amidst pitch darkness. In a space indiscernible to the television audience, it is only when the song hits its crescendo that a cut to a medium shot positions West in silhouette against the backdrop image of a looming tree projected behind him. This is Lynching Tree, a photograph by British visual artist and filmmaker Steve McQueen.2 West spits on the mic and flails his body about with the outstretched hands of the crowd below the stage. At the end of the performance he stands tall at the center of the stage as the lights go up, unmoved and militant. A statement on the rapper’s website released after the show simply read: “This tree was used for lynching. Those who were murdered are buried in the ground around the tree. Blood on the leaves.”
The mise-en-scène and choreography of the live performance re-spatializes a historical site and sight of horror. West alters the terrain and stillness of the projected image with his animated superimposition. He jumps around the elevated platform with fugitive abandon. Sometimes he hunches over in resignation. In other moments, his erratic arm movement resembles a noose around his neck. The silhouetted audience beneath him bears semblance to a lynching mob as West’s body swings from the bough of the tree. His form overlays with the central tree in the photograph’s foliage, almost thickening the tree trunk itself, and emerges as a void in the visual field. The layering extends the depth of the still image, though West takes over its tentative spotlight in framing that creates a vignette. This antagonistic performance contributes to the contradictions of the hip hop star’s celebrity at the intersection of race, exposure, and notoriety, exemplifying the dark side of publicity.
Before the limelight tore ya / before the limelight stole ya…
West tends to bear a “burden of liveness” in the way that Sasha Torres (expanding Jose Muñoz’s concept) describes the Black subject on television, a medium ontologically understood by its immediacy and sense of aliveness.3 The liveness of blackness produced by television transmission provokes spectatorial captivation or, what we might define as black entertainment.4 Television’s “phenomenonal affinity” for “moments of black male crisis” in particular and West’s performative errantry generates a captive presence on live television.5
The rapper’s burden of liveness in this moment stands in contrast to lynching as a gratuitous apparatus of death. Sandy Alexandre argues that attention be paid to lynching not only as a civic amusement but also as a violent practice of African American dispossession.6 White anxieties surrounding property and property ownership manifest through the hanging of the Black subject from a tree, attesting to and enacting Black landlessness through a removal from the land that is either above it (hanging) or below it (burial), but never of it. In his televisual entanglement with the land on screen, West creates an aestheticized approximation of “a scene of subjection,” a scene of transient resistance amidst abject subjugation.7 But the cultural icon’s safe remove from danger on a star-studded stage at an awards show is an unconvincing subversive commentary on racial violence. The live performance’s hypervisibility of blackness appears here as a strange transmutation into West’s own construction of an incorporated and commodified “new slave.”8
Another instantiation of this aestheticization of resisting subjection as a new slave is exhibited through the rapper’s sampling of Nina Simone. Once describing his music as “sonic paintings,” West emphasizes the centrality of visuality to the development of his sound.9 “Blood on the Leaves” showcases his unruly artistic strokes by sampling Simone’s rendition of the anti-lynching anthem “Strange Fruit,” which is positioned within her own radical musical oeuvre that features what Daphne Brooks terms “formal disturbances.”10 On the studio recording of “Blood on the Leaves,” West and Simone’s vocal intermixing is likewise disturbing; their voices are heard moaning and groaning, distorted and technologically manipulated beyond their limits. Yet in West’s live TV performance, Simone’s politically rebellious virtuosity is muffled by West’s abrasive shouting that narrates romantic conflict and ruin spurred by the excesses of fame.11 There is a misequivalence between the death by lynching and the price of stardom, showcased by their incongruous juxtaposition on the audio track and the obscuring of Simone’s voice on stage.
We coulda been somebody…
A lament. Breaking up is hard to do. West wails, “We coulda been somebody.” His use of the subjunctive points to a past potential that has been foreclosed due to the public scrutiny of celebrity. The lyrics and vocals to “Blood on the Leaves” are formally tied to Simone in the sample, yet there is substantial sonic dissonance between West’s grief over stardom’s perils and Simone’s tirade against white supremacy. Her song punctuates the primacy of the Black body swinging in its violent lynching. His song exploits such violence in the service of documenting the negative effects of the lifestyles of the rich and famous. The differential meanings of lynching deployed in the songs are incommensurable and, as an extension of the song, West’s musical act on MTV visualizes an obscene fantasy.
I return to this jarring performance, at the level of image and sound, as a way to register my own spectatorial ambivalence in suspension between Old Kanye and New Kanye. Indeed, to watch Ye now is to mourn creative potential that has been lost due to ego, mental illness, and the desire for (white) recognition. Another form of madness to be sure. Upon seeing West in concert, McQueen remembers remarking: “This guy is gonna die on stage.”12 What is it for an African American star to entertain at the brink of mortality? Far removed from the material experience and spectacle of lynching, it is the oscillation between life and death, self-possession and dispossession, that demonstrates the paradoxical condition of Black celebrity as a strange fruit that is all too ripe for easy enjoyment.
This is one of four essays from the eighteenth transmission of b.O.s. (Black One Shot). Read the other essays from this transmission here:
Lisa Uddin and Michael Boyce Gillespie have been collaborating since 2017 come hell or high water. Lisa is Associate Professor of Art History at Whitman College and wrote Zoo Renewal: White Flight and the Animal Ghetto (2015) and most recently, “Unknowing Wastelands in Noah Purifoy’s Desert Art Museum.” Michael will start in the fall of 2022 as Associate Professor of Cinema Studies at New York University. He is author of Film Blackness: American Cinema and the Idea of Black Film (2016) and most recently, consulting producer for the Criterion Collection release of Shaft.
- Lyrics to Kanye West’s “Blood on the Leaves” (2013) appear in italics throughout this piece, which is dedicated to my strained fandom of an artist who I once loved.
- McQueen’s photograph was specifically produced for an exhibition at the Schaulager Museum in Switzerland and operated as an ominous promotion for his film 12 Years a Slave released in October 2013.
- Sasha Torres, Black, White, and in Color: Television and Black Civil Rights (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003), 14.
- Here, I am conceptualizing black entertainment as a form of captivation – indeed, the etymology of the word entertainment means to “hold among” – in which the black entertainer simultaneously captivates and is held captive in the service of racialized amusement for an audience.
- Stephen Michael Best, “Game Theory: Racial Embodiment and Media Crisis” in Living Color: Race and Television in the United States, ed. Sasha Torres (Durham: Duke University Press, 1998), 223. West’s live TV scandals include his infamous “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” statement at NBC’s “Concert for Hurricane Relief” on September 2, 2005 and his interruption of Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech at a previous MTV VMA show on September 13, 2009.
- Sandy Alexandre, The Properties of Violence: Claims to Ownership in Representations of Lynching (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2012).
- Saidiya Hartman. Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth Century America (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1997).
- “New Slave” is the title of another song on West’s 2013 album Yeezus.
- Steve McQueen, “What’s There Left to Say About Kanye West?” Interview Magazine online (January 14, 2014): www.interviewmagazine.com/music/kanye-west.
- Daphne A. Brooks, “Nina Simone’s Triple Play,” Callaloo 34, no. 1 (Winter 2011): 179. Enacting her own version of Brechtian distanciation, the signature “imperfections” in Simone’s voice produce what Brooks suggests is a “performative agitation” in her articulation of protest in black feminist musicking.
- Salamishah Tillet, “Strange Sampling: Nina Simone and Her Hip-Hop Children,” American Quarterly 66, no. 1 (March 2014): 131. Tillet argues that West’s technological manipulation of Simone’s song and her voice empties his track of insurgency. For Tillet, the egregious display of sexism and misogyny in the rapper’s lyrics trumps (ironic) what could be the radical force of the track.
- McQueen, “What’s There Left to Say About Kanye West?”