Making the Unmade
“Collective practices of creativity and reflection shape new visions of safety, animating complex landscapes that shape abolition feminism…to look both inward and outward, to meet both immediate demands and confront broad systems of injustice…to think in complicated and layered ways about abolition represents a feminist approach to change. Abolition feminism is a praxis – a politically informed practice – that demands intentional movement and insightful responses to the violence of systemic oppression. We build different ways of living.”
--Dr. Angela Y. Davis
Abolition. Feminism. Now.
As a contemporary musician weaned on popular music, I still marvel, am ever and increasingly grateful, and remain in awe of both the deeply influential elements and approaches of Black American music that have instilled themselves in me, and the willfully creative and liberatory mindset within the Black American cultural tradition that has repeatedly created new ways of living, surviving, and thriving in the world through art.
Informed by a steady diet of Rock and Roll while growing up, playing Jazz, Blues, Funk, Hip Hop, Reggae (not a U.S. product, but present), I witnessed the birth and spread of Hip Hop writ large – even from within the little white suburban enclave of Prospect, CT, which itself produced telling phenomena - it was there that I noted the racism, prejudice, and hate that can spring from cross-cultural infusions. (More on that later). But one thing was certain: I was inspired, as if for the first time, while the music I loved – and new music I was just meeting - stood tall, together, with validation. I had a tool in musicking and writing for not only refuge, but homebuilding. And in this relatively stationary, but not static, act of simultaneous refuge and homebuilding lay the essential act of abolitionism of particular, but not anecdotal, “multiple layers of jeopardy” (Davis) which infected the external and internal worlds I found myself in, as many do. Upon awakening to the epic fact of biblical proportions that Black American music is, I began to understand, more fully, but with a long way to go (and still farther to travel) the manifold and multifold rooms, roads, and railways of the world around me.
To trace the history of Black American musical invention in the United States is, in part, to trace the history of both poignant and pointed reflections of the socio-economic political systems of living and dying that are in place at a given time - a natural reflexivity (an impulse discussed in previous Blogs) reaffirming the reality of one’s existence and a grounded, orienting identity of meaning and value - what is for me the exemplification of the transference of imagination into a physical form that provides provisions and resources for surviving and thriving, while also celebrating future forward internal and external motions. Most impressive, to me, is the radical reinvention of cherished and ever-honored creative traditions into completely fresh, completely unforeseen, and completely needed new realities of living. These realities necessarily involved the individual practitioner, as well as every member of the community from and for whom the reflective and reflexive inventions arose.
In this blog, I’d like to take a top-level focus on rhythm, composition, and studio production originating from within the Black American community at particular times in the United States post-1950 that, for me, best illustrate an effort of perfect genius in redefining one’s own individual and community habitus – often using formerly punitive, systemized, structures and conditions – to illicit longer happier life. More particularly, these efforts also elicit abolition feminism completely. Reflecting upon these efforts, some of which I’ll note here, is a never-ending source of inspiration and hope for me. I am grateful and gratefully humbled by its history and ongoing praxis. In that, I am reassured of humanity’s capacity and capabilities, an instinctive effort to live fully that can rise as daily as the sun – a predilection that can never go away completely, no matter how dark the night.
A quick run through time of essential history to bring us to the celebrated at hand.
Stemming from the gift of African music (here I’m thinking of Mali, but my comments and references should not be considered either ethno-musicologically limited in offshoots, nor comprehensive in scope), both the “Blues Scale” and repetitive, “swung” rhythms (think Blues and traditional Jazz rhythms) combined with the ubiquitous I-IV-V7 classical music harmonic cadences from Western Europe to eventually produce the 1-4-5 Blues chord and rhythm progression. Of course, with events like “The Great Migration”, the Blues form took on different forms over time – Chicago Blues, Memphis Blues, Delta Blues, etc. Still, the core ethic of a delicate melodic and lyrical poignancy within an improvisatory and entrancing context was couched importantly within the physical rhythms witnessed from human and machine – labor, sex, dance, travel, etc. - remained.
Over time and for a variety of reasons (personal exposure due to travel and consumer practices, recording technology, church, minstrelsy, etc.), practitioners gave birth to Rhythm and Blues, Gospel, and Jazz. All reflected increasing genre development, exposure to different compositional cultures, and the improved resource access to publicly self-determine and proliferate modes of expression, and reaffirm presence and identity, while deepening and broadening community – though still egregiously threatened and oppressed. The blossoming harmonic content of Gospel and Jazz, in particular, resonates for me as the flowering of communities of color into the growing and defining catalyst of the overarching cultural lexicons of the modern era. I’m reminded here, in particular, of the Harlem Renaissance, for instance, but also of key performance events (Jazz Festivals, Blues Festivals, Musical Theater) as just some pivotal examples.
Below, as in prior and subsequent examples, I’ll be brief in noting a few key elements that resonate for me as profound artistic and public achievements and how they are ultimately figuring into compositional mores for the Free the Body project.
A nexus point for me in these reflective and reflexive moments of telling recontextualization and broader public acceptance is the pianist, vocalist, and band leader Fats Domino. Much of Mr. Domino’s repertoire involved the left-hand – the low toned “bass” hand on the piano – playing melodic “hooks” (infectious, notable musical lines) with the traditional “swung groove” of Black American culture. These bass lines were doubled by both Mr. Domino’s bassist and his guitarist, a traditionally lead melody instrument due to its higher tonality. These foundational harmonic and rhythmic lines of the music, to me, reflect the foundational nature of Africa-informed Black American music. Further, the swung line reflects a looseness that sages from across the ages note as necessary for survival in an often unkind world. And the pulse tells you that you should dance.
However, Mr. Domino: a) wanted a broad commercial audience; and b) knew who he was speaking to and the general condition of living and working in 1950’s U.S.A. As such, Mr. Domino’s right hand played straight-eighth notes. There was no swing to be found here. It was the unrelenting tick of the factory clock, the movement of the machine, and – given its high timbre on the piano and the fisted right hand it is played with – a terse, persistent, de facto frustration. But anyone – and, yes, he was speaking to you, white people – could dance to it. Fats Domino married the soul of the Black American musical tradition to the Cold War age.
And Little Richard took things one step further.
On the same instrument – a piano – an instrument played with hammers, Little Richard completely threw away the swung groove. While every development in Black American music prior to Little Richard had generally included the swung eighth-note groove, he composed in a fashion that, to use the parlance, “squared the beat”. This was about as huge a break in tradition as you could get, yet he recognized the deeper tradition of environmental reflection. That is, on the piano, all rhythm is pumped out evenly. Whereas Blues music reflected a different kind of physical workflow and older conditions of manual labor, this music clarified the new slavery, the wage slave of the factory. This split the genre of Rock and Roll into two paths: one which still resembled Rhythm and Blues (Ruth Brown, etc.) and would for a while; and one which tapped into both the Western European rhythmic lexicon and the growing misgivings of the new “middle class” created by economic boom and increased labor force – more women were now working outside the house and had their own money because of it - during World War II. The consumer base had grown, but the greedy capitalists were still angling for ownership of the masses as functionaries for their wealth. So, while post-war, trauma induced conservatism rose in a “Leave It to Beaver” televised world, things got tighter. Including racial strife which was reified and highlighted in the Brown v. Board of Education era. Mr. Richard’s piano and songs were both a direct challenge to such ownership and divisions, even as it bore witness, as well as a celebration of a completely new living cultural space for everyone. Everybody loved this guy. And young musicians? Well, they were all about him.
And then, as before in similar circumstances, you started to hear it:
“What’s the matter with you, kid? You wanna be black?”
Moving forward, Berry Gordy’s Motown similarly dominated popular music culture for decades by highlighting female artists, touting the best songwriters, combining classical string quartets with jazz chord progressions and R&B rhythm sections, and revolutionizing recording production on practically every track as he married the electronic (Moog synthesizers, etc.) to the natural world (congas, drum kit, etc.), along with countless other studio developments. His stable of creativity wasn’t so much a bricolage as it was transdisciplinary. That jazz chord makes that color, so why not use it here.
Around the same time, James Brown (not a feminist, but still important in the manner described above) instructed his band to think of everything as a percussion instrument. Whether intentionally or not, this directly cites the African drum group as an orchestral entity. As an aside, if you ever listen to James Brown, Bob Marley, Sarah Vaughn, Nina Simone, or Sly and the Family Stone, for instance, note the placement and role of each instrument. It inhabits a composed place in the whole. And Brown was doing all of this with the straight-eighth note approach Little Richard pioneered.
While the aforementioned artists were implicitly political, Nina Simone highlighted an overtly political agenda and approach to her music, demonstrating that we can hold the tough stuff in our hands – and handle it – with a song. From misogyny to racism, Ms. Simone applied her formidable, formally trained piano chops to a voice stretching the promised land into today. Revolutionaries – especially those that practice in the fashion of Ms. Simone – aren’t revolutionary simply because they disrupt. They’re also revolutionary because they revolve us back to the radical – that is, true – nature of something, and show us that we must live at the essential beginning of things in order to move forward with health in the present day. Ms. Simone also, as others, redefined songs – wonderful songs – from white artists, such as Britain’s The Animals, whose “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” she took out of one club and put it right into the 2am plea of a desperate lover. Or any person of color in America. Or any person desperate for a life affirming medical procedure that is being denied them. And after she recorded “Strange Fruit”, well, it was all on after that. Nobody had turned up the heat that hot or the light that bright before. There was no going back.
While there is so much ground to cover – and I don’t mean any disrespect by not delving into the absolutely tectonic, standard shifting use of instrumentation and technology in soul, funk (Parliament Funkadelic), and disco (Earth, Wind, and Fire) that still permeates pop music today with rich harmonic content, sheets of sound, and light-changing audio filters – it is necessary for myriad reasons to bring Hip-Hop to the forefront of the discussion.
Again, this won’t be an exhaustive deconstruction on everything that makes Hip-Hop amazing and important, but I would like to focus in on two elements it has offered the world (and by that, I mean the world – I’ve been to Hip-Hop shows in Cape Verde, Africa and Paris – spectacular): Hip-Hop’s reversal of, recontextualization within, and liberation through technology; the nod to orchestrating African, Latino, Caribbean, etc. rhythms when renegotiating them within the technological habitus; and Hip-Hop taking up the task of being the sole torch bearer of revolution and evolution from its once and future partner-for-a-while, Rock and Roll.
Again, abolitionism feminism. Hip-Hop inventors – arising in the Bronx at the same time as the Punk Scene in the Lower East Side of Manhattan – grabbed old disco records, located beats within the songs, and used that audio to redefine itself in order to live a different way. Their percussion instruments were – and remain, in an analogous sort of way - the turntable and the microphone. Whether beatboxing on a mic, or spurring Auto-Tune rhythms, the voice meets the beat with a beat – another percussion instrument. Everything’s a melodic flow. Everything’s a rhythmic flow. And whether I’m listening to Cold Crush Crew, MC Lyte, Big Daddy Kane, Public Enemy, Missy Elliot, Kanye, or J. Cole, the beats are placed. They don’t just appear. Whereas Punk, in part, displayed the privileged frustration of the white middle class, Hip-Hop production – building on legacies set by Barry Gordy and others – bore witness to living in the electronic age and living within the electronics, themselves. Technology – however scant – was embraced gratefully and used with treacherous accuracy to bolster individual and community life, identity, and reach in a borough of New York that had been forgotten by its own city.
And you danced.
So, its 1982-83 and I’m riding the bus to my Middle School. The kid with the boombox on our bus (every bus had one) is pumping Run DMC. I hear the kick drum. I hear the snare drum. I hear the 808 high hat. I hear the overall punch. Tonally, it reminds me of the strength of Rock and Roll. Big bass kick. (I would find out later that Rick Rubin felt the same way.) Socially, it is quickly becoming an inveterate part of the landscape. Beastie Boys are up next. The Sugarhill Gang.
But kids are laughing. At it. But with it, too. Like, at the same time. There’s an ostensible snarkiness to their snicker, but there’s a deeper joy to their giggle. And they were memorizing the lyrics. Proudly.
Oh, I thought. We’re not listening to Van Halen, anymore, in the ‘burbs. We’re listening to “Peter Piper”.
This is the Rock and Roll Revolution, I thought, begun by Black America, soon to conquer and be exploited by White America, all over again. Rock is out as the revolutionary voice (as I knew it, anyways). Accountants and Market Analysts had ensured that.
Hip-Hop has taken up the mantle.
Inside the school, that day, at lunch, something strange happens.
I had seen some kids popping and locking in the hallways on a lark. But now, at lunch, tables are being moved.
For the better part of the next 6 weeks, in 1983, in a stereotypical, white suburban town in Connecticut, you could find boys (who would never, typically, get out on the dance floor) and girls (who didn’t want them to) with a tiled, concrete floor as their space…spinning on their heads. Freezing in pretzel shapes. Hurtling in a vortex, legs wide, pivoting only on their shoulders. Robot dancing.
They were unabashed.
They were free.
Bless the Principal’s heart for allowing it.
And until my friend decided it would be completely boss to do a forward flip off the cafeteria stage – subsequently overshooting and face planting onto the aforementioned tiled concrete cafeteria floor with about 15mph of torque – it was a pretty amazing sight to see.
This was cultural change. The old was being abolished. A new way of being was (back) in. The Revolution. The power of the fresh, new, and freeing was on us. And it was embracing everyone. And my friend and I told his parents about this amazing phenomenon.
And that’s when I heard it.
“What do you want to do, kid? Be black?”
What had happened with kids digging on Gospel, Jazz, Fats Domino, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Ruth Brown, Motown, Soul, Funk, Disco…had just happened again. But I was in it. Now, I was in a new living space of the world. One that wasn’t free. Wasn’t safe. Wasn’t allowed. But the magic was already released. We could not unhear it. And it could not be tamped back into the bottle.
A new way was here. As is natural.
And this is what makes abolition feminism so frightening to many.
It is a new way to live the old way, and not the same way as the present way.
By definition, the praxis of abolition feminism abolishes mental constructs built to defy an awareness of ungroundedness, lack of control, and mortality. Abolition Feminism understands that we must embrace the natural effluence of existence to, in fact, exist. And to do that, we need to abolish the systems – famously capitalist, carceral, among others – that exist. In other words, it is courageous and truly free. All of the artists and musicking above, using the basic human inventions of art and culture, have shown us what frame of mind is needed and how to live a new and better way. And why we must. Even the message of the most self-aggrandizing artist is: I matter. And when you sing it, you’re reminded that you do, too. Their name is a reminder that you have a name.
For the past three weeks, I’ve been asked to infuse the soundscore of Free the Body with Hip-Hop/Funk/Social Dance beats. I’ve played and danced to these musics more times than I can remember over the years. (Full disclosure: I love to dance, but I couldn’t ever spin on my head. But I did try!) And, yet, for some reason, it took me three weeks to move progressively closer to the home-feeling that the choreographer wants. And I know, clearly, what she wants in a groove. I can see it. I can feel it. So, why have I been having such a hard time making it in my studio?
Because I wasn’t free.
In the studio – amidst all the technology and, especially, in front of and working within my computer – I became disembodied. This is strange for me, as I absolutely consider myself – and others consider me – a highly somatically aware, body-based performer. I’m an extremely physical musician who likes the dance of breathing with their instrument. And, so, with great prompting from Producer Brittany Delany, I started being more and more playful. I came across a reminder of “finger drumming” and remembered that I’m fairly adept at that. So, I fired up the Akai Drum Pads and went at it. And a little while later, some magic started to appear and take shape as it has so many times before. A knot in the wood was worked through. Yes, a normative collaborative bump, but a querulous one for me.
I had to abolish how I’d been working and embrace the feminist ideology of inter-relational play.
The thirty-second sound sample for this week is a simple clip of one of those efforts. You’ll hear acoustic drums coupled to my Drum Pads. That’s it. Believe me, a lot more music got made (tons of bass lines, a guitar session, brass, synths, filters, etc.), but this was arguably the most playful session, even if it’s not the most complete track, yet. And I’m looking forward to a lot more play in the studio! I’ll keep you posted!
(for more reading on Hip-Hop, please, please check out Dr. Tricia Rose’s work, the seminal book, Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation by Jeff Chang, and Charlie Ahearn’s movie Wild Style, centered on graffiti culture in the South Bronx. Only one actor in the movie – the rest are the real deal)
Written by Peter DiGennaro, Sound Artist/Human Rights Educator