b.O.s. 6.3/ Black Messiah / Tiffany E. Barber

Details, left to right: Image from Diamonds are Forever, 1971; image from Atlantic is a Sea of Bones, 2017; album cover from D’Angelo’s Black Messiah, 2014;  and Odell Beckham Jr. doing the Challenge, 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 sixth transmission (8.13.18) features Lisa Uddin on Thumper’s Descent in Diamonds are Forever, Tavia Nyong’o on Tourmaline’s Atlantic is a Sea of Bones, Tiffany E. Barber on D’Angelo’s Black Messiah, and Jasmine Elizabeth Johnson on the #inmyfeelings challenge. 

– Michael Boyce Gillespie and Lisa Uddin (Editors)

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In December 2014, D’Angelo rush-released his third album, Black Messiah, in response to extrajudicial police killings of unarmed black men and women. A black-and-white image featuring a crowd of raised palms and fists comprises the album’s face and channels both U.S. civil rights protest imagery and “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot,” a phrase inextricably linked to the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Because of this urgent engagement with anti-black violence in the past and present, some saw Black Messiah as a form of restorative justice in “a media landscape in which [black] humanity is regularly assaulted,” as popular music scholar Mark Anthony Neal puts it.1

D’Angelo first rose to fame with his debut album, Brown Sugar (1995), and Voodoo (2000) solidified the singer-songwriter’s mainstream popularity. To his discontent, the video for “Untitled (How Does It Feel?),” the Grammy-award winning single from Voodoo, turned the crooner into a sex symbol and he ceased touring and releasing music for fourteen years.2 This hiatus makes the word play in Black Messiah all the more poignant. The redemptive overtones of the album’s title and cover art foreshadow salvation as well as the promise of one’s freedom vis-à-vis superior leadership and collective protest. But the melancholic lyrics, distorted bass lines, droning organ chords, and dense clusters of sound that rise and fall between frenetic guitar riffs and smooth, albeit strange, harmonies eschew the album’s reparative, liberatory ethos. In so doing, Black Messiah departs from the neo-soul contours of D’Angelo’s early years to offer a non-conforming sonic vision of black life.3 Notably, fans demanded refunds because of the album’s apparent sonic incoherence.4

Indeed, the songs on Black Messiah are discordant and dark. Even the most palatable songs, such as “Back to the Future (Part 1)” and “Another Life,” which follow a verse-refrain structure, defy aesthetic norms.5 “Back to the Future (Part 1),” according to Craig Jenkins, “looks for solace in memories ostensibly because the present is discouraging,” and the song’s title and melody seem to cue a wistful affection for the past.6 For Mark Anthony Neal, “Another Life” and Black Messiah more broadly evince an “unconditional,” “ethical” practice of “Loving Black.” D’Angelo’s soulful sounds, he describes, are “open arms,” “sweet nothin’s in our collective ears” that entreat us to “come a little closer” (emphasis in original).7 From this perspective, D’Angelo’s art functions as an alternative mode of “corporate media production” “as only Black can love itself, in a world where Black is so often perceived as absence, deficit and pathology.”8

D’Angelo’s sonic and visual world, however, does not express the hope of deliverance from racial terror, ruin, or loss; it is full of impossibilities and unrealized desires. Richmond, Virginia, the artist’s birthplace, “ain’t changed a bit,” he sings in “Back to the Future (Part 1).” Despite “traveling at the speed of light,” the singer remains “in the same spot.” Stagnation supersedes movement and change; acrimony and hopelessness succeed transcendence and redemption. In fact, “seasons may come and your luck just may run out.” Sentimentalizing the past, or “reminiscing over what you’ve been missing,” is therefore forbidden and futile, “taboo” as he puts it. Consequently, “Back to the Future” runs closer to a rejection or a refusal, a turning of one’s back to the future that is analogous to when a person shuns something or someone out of disappointment or despair.

“Another Life” is a similar tale of missed opportunities and dreams deferred that ultimately rejects the promise of heteronormative coupling:

It’s another reason for the season
I don’t wanna break your heart
Oh, in another life, I bet you were my girl, Oh!

The singer laments his present and imagines an alternate lifetime when he and his beloved might end up together. But there is little room for hope here. No intimate exchange occurs, and the singer refuses his imagined lover, driving them farther apart by retreating to solitude. His repulsion flouts the expectations of (black) social relations to avoid inflicting the harm—the heartache—he sees as inevitable.

This refusal, to use Leo Bersani’s words, “takes on the value of a break or seismic shift in a culture’s episteme: the injunction to find ourselves, and each other, in [the social and] the sexual is silenced” (emphasis in original).9 Pairing “Back to the Future” with “Another Life” in this way, then, presents another scenario. Instead of open arms, or a welcome embrace of community, coupling, and love, D’Angelo performs a deliberate betrayal of social norms spurred by disenchantment with how places of origin, the entertainment industry, and the sexualized body can overdetermine black being. Unlike the reparative triumph prefigured by the album’s eponymous messiah, the atypical harmonies, low tonal registers, and woeful words of “Back to the Future” and “Another Life” turn away from the value of sublimating suffering and forging ahead, of procreation, of futurity. The model of salvation put forth in “Another Life” especially refuses respectable instantiations of togetherness—sexual, racial, or otherwise. Sociality in this context derives not from mutual benefit and belonging, but from an anti-relational way of being (black) in the world. That is, the singer pursues isolation and self-exile in order to be alone, thereby declining to participate in the determined mechanisms of cooperative blackness. He is left only with his imagination of the impossible.

This queer figuration approximates the gay outlaw who, in Bersani’s words, turns “away from the entire theater of good,” a form of trespassing that, in its violation, occurs in excess of “the field of transgressive possibility itself.”10 The figure of the gay outlaw resonates with the self-exiled black social outlaw in that they both, in their abjection, reject the telos of heterosexual coupling as constituitive of the collective good. This disruption undercuts the domesticating plots of normative social arrangements and underscores the structural logic of queerness already at play in sonic and visual constructions of blackness.11 By placing refusal and racial otherness at the center of antiblackness’s composition, Black Messiah incites a disaffection all the more necessary in times of social and political upheaval.

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

b.O.s. 6.1/Thumper’s Descent/Lisa Uddin
b.O.s. 6.2/Atlantic is a Sea of Bones/Tavia Nyong’o
b.O.s. 6.4/In My Feelings/Jasmine Elizabeth Johnson

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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.

Endnotes

  1. Mark Anthony Neal, “SELMA, BLACK MESSIAH & the Ethics of Loving Black,” February 7, 2015, Accessed April 15, 2018, http://newblackman.blogspot.com/2015/02/selma-black-messiah-ethics-of-loving.html.
  2. The video features the singer crooning about sexual pleasure and desire in close-up and medium close-up shots that slowly pan various parts of his nude body from the waist up, his chest and abdomen chiseled and glistening. Convinced that his female fans wanted his body more than his music because they catcalled and threw their panties at him onstage, D’Angelo took a fourteen-year hiatus.
  3. When singer-songwriter D’Angelo burst onto the music scene in the mid-1990s, he joined a cohort of artists loosely organized under the banner, “Neo Soul.” Marketed as an alternative to the producer-driven R&B of the time, the term described artists who, whether they accepted or rejected the category, crafted non-conforming sonic visions of black life that at once looked to the past and to an as-yet unseen future. Most significantly, neo soul artists contested narrow definitions and images of blackness in an industry devoted to constraining the sonic and visual breadth of blackness. The experimental nature of Black Messiah revealed and exceeded the moderate non-conformism of neo soul’s beginnings. For a gloss of neo soul’s marketing origins and its controversies, see Tyler Lewis, “Bilal: Airtight’s Revenge,” Pop Matters, September 27, 2010, Accessed April 15, 2018, https://www.popmatters.com/131163-bilal-airtights-revenge-2496137406.html.
  4. Neal, “SELMA, BLACK MESSIAH & the Ethics of Loving Black.” Too often, music critic Tyler Lewis declares, we “assume if music doesn’t fall neatly into a category, then it must be ‘confusing’ or ‘complex’ or ‘too deep.’” See Lewis, “Bilal: Airtight’s Revenge.”
  5. During the 1920s and 1930s, professional musicians influenced by the craze for ragtime and jazz music fused these forms with eighteenth- and nineteenth-century piano tunes, which proliferated in dance halls and public theaters, to produce a verse-refrain form. This formula became the basis for the U.S. popular music industry, bolstered by radio broadcasts of music, which began in the early 1920s, and the introduction of films with synchronized sound in the late 1920s. The verse-refrain sectional form persists today and can be found in “Another Life” with slight modifications. The first verse presents the main melody, the basic pattern of the lyrics, and a set of chord changes to support them. The refrain, or chorus, includes a melodic phrase and the song’s key lyrical line from which the song’s title is taken. The verse and chorus repeat, with slight melodic changes and new lyrics comprising the second verse, and the song ends with a tag: a three-line stanza that combines formal elements from both the verse and the refrain.
  6. Craig Jenkins, “D’Angelo / The Vanguard: Black Messiah,” Pitchfork, December 19, 2014, Accessed April 15, 2018, http://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/20078-black-messiah/.
  7. Neal, “SELMA, BLACK MESSIAH & the Ethics of Loving Black.”
  8. Ibid. For Neal, Loving Black redresses “the rancor and disparagement” that critics have directed at Black Messiah, as well as the film Selma. These two works link anti-black violence in the past with events of our time, and these re-presentations serve as forms of compensation, i.e. racial reparation. Just as D’Angelo rush-released Black Messiah in response to police killings, Selma first circulated within the independent film festival circuit before expanding into wide theatrical release two months before the fiftieth anniversary of the voting rights marches that originated in Selma, Alabama.
  9. Leo Bersani, Homos (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996), 163.
  10. Ibid.
  11. For a discussion of this logic, see Cathy Cohen’s “Death and Rebirth of a Movement: Queering Critical Ethnic Studies,” Social Justice 37, 4 (2012): 126-132. See also James Bliss’s “Hope Against Hope: Queer Negativity, Black Feminist Theorizing, and Reproduction without Futurity,” Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature 48, 1 (March 2015): 91.