Black Lives Matter

Black lives matter: fits of rage consumed any semblance of white guilt I felt to begin the year, as increasingly heartbreaking incidents of racist murder and terrorism continued. Rage, at my own comfort (hailing from the comfortable spaces of do-nothing middle class hanging on for dear life for any table scraps) and the utter culpability of the State in this violence.

Two confrontations founded this personal rage, wavering from the raw potential for political action to utter disbelief at the fantasies of violence that adorn American politics.

First, a group of black lives matter activists took the stage during a Social Security speech by Presidential-candidate Bernie Sanders, which triggered one of my most important learning moments: the rage I felt upon seeing the most progressive presidential hopeful interrupted and handed his first set of negative press immediately tuned me to my own blindspots, both to the horizontal politics of constellations like black lives matter, and to the very comfort of my own electoral process (i.e., that electoral politics matter). Throughout the year, I have learned that, first and foremost, when black lives matter must interrupt daily commutes and public events to broadcast “black lives matter,” it is not my turn to speak, but rather my turn to listen. The inconvenience I felt, that my preferred candidate may have to encounter a rough press cycle, or explain his lacking racial justice record, are hardly a grain of sand compared to the inconveniences felt for generations by a group of people systematically disconnected from means to wealth and decent standards of living (let alone substantive and procedural freedoms / rights).

So I stopped and learned: I repeated: black lives matter.

More recently, another Presidential hopeful, Ben Carson, spoke to the potential threat Jews in Germany might have posed, had they only been armed preceding/during the Holocaust. Of course, the comment followed one of the recent mass shootings in the USA; the comment had to be historically inaccurate by design. No, the mass shooting was not the one that week where a gangbanger’s stray bullets struck innocent family members ranging from infancy to elder representatives; it was a different mass shooting, one that spoke to structural violence in a different direction (White Male Rage, rather than the War on Drugs). Of course the shooting obviously reopened America’s utterly fucking tone deaf and incompetent gun control debate, where mass shootings are not a problem that can be solved (especially not when they are War on Drugs ambushes or drive-bys), but a mirage that glistens somewhere between the “them’s the breaks” realness of imaginary life and fantasies of revolutionary violence that adorn the “Second Amendment Gun Rights.”

Here the images of Jews using clandestine weapons to attack Nazis is nearly pornographic: it is an historically impossible fantasy that adds an astonishing element of “what if?” / “if only?” imagery to the oblivion of America’s own genocide and systematic violence. “If only an intruder were to enter my house,” if only I could prove myself is much more politically mouthwatering for the Gun Rights extremists than black lives matter. Nevermind that generations of Good Guys with Guns stood idly by during (or indeed perpetuated) America’s previous and ongoing genocides, or that perfectly well-armed blacks have seen their rights systematically denied despite their gun ownership (Black Panthers as armed citizens opposing a terrorist state is obviously too close to home for Gun Rights extremists to entertain and fantasize). There are no righteous violent fantasies to be played out in your mind when you’re reminded that a startling percentage of minorities that received subprime loans — regardless of their right to arms or the availability of guns to stop such a practice — prior to the financial crisis qualified for conventional mortgages (but simply did not have access to such loans, or were steered away from such reasonable financial instruments): it’s easier to imagine millions of Jews rising against the evil fascist that is almost so thoroughly invoked that his claim to evil is either a mundane foregone conclusion or the culmination of every terrible online debate.

One can imagine how “everyday Americans” and Gun Rights extremists could imagine groups of oppressed blacks arming themselves in banks to respond to bullshit exploitative loan offers. “Thems the breaks”: if you don’t like the loan, don’t buy the house! (Who needs wealth?)

So I stopped and learned: I repeated: black lives matter.

That no Good Guys with Guns — or alarmingly few of them, anyway — swept in to fight alongside blacks in their struggle for power, alongside well-formed (and sometimes even well-armed) Black Power or Black Militant or Black Nationalist groups is a brutally depressing and paralyzing reality that overwhelms my open ears. As America consistently creates violent fantasies in politics that are in turn used to justify genocide (at worst) or the systematic denial of rights and reasonable means to wealth (at best), a group of contemporary artists are making some of the most important music to contrast this injustice by completely inverting violent imagery and re-appropriating it for their own artistic purposes. This is a powerful correlative movement to black lives matter (outside art matters!), and these artists are necessarily subversive, regardless of the size and strength of their distributive networks (for the purposes of this article, Obnox and ONO might not have the same distributive reach as Algiers, in terms of press and records, but the politics are largely parallel in crucial ways).

On ONO’s forthcoming Spooks, Travis welcomes the listener deeper into the lair in the middle of the album, “Greetings from Chicago South Side,” over a harsh backbeat of gun shots. The song is brutally real, and the band has included the song in live sets for some time: the gunshots are a wicked beat for anyone ever awoken by drive-bys at 3am, or interrupted during dinner at 6pm (or, in the back alley at 4pm, for that matter). The weaponry is a greeting, an invocation, and following this path, opening your ears, will hopefully give you the chance to commune in a horizontal, independent vision that serves as an empowered response to the violence. May one historically grounded confrontation to violence answer the brutal and all-too prevalent fantasies of violence.

If this seems longwinded and unnecessary, I apologize, but it truly is the lesson, the struggle to listen, the reality of listening, the reality of understanding that it is not my turn to speak that correlates to a perfect trio of radical black experimental musicians. And anyway, I have had all of this in mind since I first heard OBNOX’s version of “Ohio” repurposed for Tamir Rice and Michael Brown and Freddie Gray and countless communities and countless others not broadcast onto the mainstream news; I have had it in mind while listening to Algiers’ self-titled debut; I have had it in mind watching ONO and preparing for their latest, Spooks; I simply have not been able to articulate it until now.

[An aside: This isn’t to say that all great black music is limited to three acts, but that this is the trio that has defined my obsessions anyway (and since I am still waiting for those table scraps anyway, class solidarity still devolves into the unfortunate inability to buy as many records and support as many artists as I would like. So, I guess I stick with my obsessions and let them seeth, with my own rage, open ears, and mantra: black lives matter).]

OBNOX himself is releasing an unheralded series of records, even judged by the demands of his own catalog, and his uncanny blend of funk, punk, soul, and rap is now tuned with a sharper and more overt political imagery. Lamont Thomas writes the best thank you notes on his OBNOX records, as they are often encoded to the experimental/outsider houses, bars, radio stations, label heads, and supporters that criss-cross the USA. They are robust documents of scene solidarity spread across the continent, and on his latest effort, Thomas replaces the notes with a simple and powerful dedication to Tamir Rice. He openly demands reparations on Know America, after “merely” needing “a little money for a nice vacation” on Louder Spaces. OBNOX hits the pulse in a poetic voice, and his punk rock sludge is simultaneously being honed into some of his catchiest, most-skewed, offbeat funk that he has yet to produce. My most immediate comparison is something like Sly & the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On, where the fires of political consciousness seep in through hazy tape exercises; sonically, OBNOX is working with different angles, but his foundation is the same.

I have stopped, and I have listened: I repeated: black lives matter.

At the Empty Bottle in Chicago, on October 6, 2015, fierce cosmopolitan “newcomers” Algiers played their second show in Chicago, and it was their second with legendary Chicago experimental artists, ONO. The last time these two artists played together was almost absurdly Apocalyptic, as either severe flooding throughout the city or the Chicago Blackhawks dynasty Championship victory (or both) barred the generational combination of Algiers & ONO from public visibility. This time, it felt like the grind of Chicago, the grind of the tour, the Western bus crawling through traffic, and the sense of the mundane played quite a foil to the ingenious theatrics of both groups.

ONO set up their instruments and their members throughout the Empty Bottle, grabbing every inch of space and catapulting their charged historical and revolutionary explorations from Spooks into several dimensions. Vocalist Travis gave witness from the back of the club, upstairs, commanding the audience to split their attention between the tight and well-polished players on-stage (DaWei on guitar, Ben on drums, Rebecca on keys, Brett on synth, and Shannon Rose Riley joined as well!), P.Michael (and Connor?) running electronics on the floor stage-left. There was this presence that I had never experienced during any previous ONO show, an instant comprehension of the artful, living theater that pulses through their work: expanding ONO throughout the venue heightened the feeling of collective, emphasized this almost anarchist connection that defines their collaboration, and demanded the space to be radicalized. I wish their was simply one word for this; it was salient, yes, but it was more; it was horizontal, it was spontaneous, it challenged vertical power, it reveled in the terms of emancipation.

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ONO

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“We will live again” are the words from ONO’s Diegesis that will forever stick with me, but their latest album turns that redemption in the other direction, investigating the spirits hiding in plain sight. This is what the spread spaces of the Empty Bottle allowed the group to convey, and it was undoubtedly one of the most triumphant ONO shows I have ever witnessed.

Algiers buttressed their powerful, layered industrial sound with a new set of samples, brief glimpses, interludes that undoubtedly matched the rawness of the road at this point in the tour. The band played “found sound” media snippets, spoken word that directly bridged images of violence and religiosity, and they also added wicked repetitive hip hop beats that left the audience wanting for a descent further into that genre. That punk energy, manipulated guitars and keys, and soulful vocals continued to serve as the mainstays of the group’s performance, after all, but the new snippets and sounds allowed the edges to be rougher, more stark (playing an excellent contrast to the impeccable production of the debut album).

Vocalist Franklin James Fisher howled to the deepest capacity of his lungs, and if his presence onstage seemed to be no interruption, no unwelcome horizontal advance, the group used plenty of shifts between noise and melody to insert interruptions into their performance. As a result, there is no question that Algiers communicate their radical politics on stage, embracing (in one sense) the impossibility of their demands and (on the other) the truth and necessity of their message. I often imagine Algiers playing to gigantic, enthusiastic crowds in the USA, but that has not materialized in Chicago. This is absurdity and depressingly fitting: those speaking this message in Chicago, going on hunger strike to save community schools, fighting the Mayor’s agenda of privatization (and probably the most racist Democratic Party agenda in the Continental states), and of course, asserting the power of the everyday over that of the Machine Boss. Few fully turn their ears in Chicago, tuning to the demands of well-organized, radical, salient, yet horizontal communities, for the vertical structures are deafening silence.

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In one final, immensely powerful gesture, Franklin sought the floor of the Empty Bottle during the closing “Blood,” and grabbed ONO’s Travis onto stage. Travis took the song’s lyrics perfectly in stride, with his deep vocal timbre, and instantly the generational vision of Gospel, noise, and industrial music, of theater, music, and politics, converged for good. It will remain an unforgettable moment. With confrontational ensembles of noise and experimentation, Algiers and ONO commandeer fantasies of violence, first by re-grounding violence in history, and then by dispersing it across wide horizontal landscapes that are able to empower everyday people willing to listen.

Algiers – “Blood” from Algiers on Vimeo.

I stopped and I listened: we must be careful not to romanticize horizontal action, so that we may understand it when it stares us in the eye. By listening carefully to the interruptions to your own comfortable life, you will find the value in challenging or eschewing that comfort. For in our collective discomfort, we may accomplish our inherent emancipation. At the very least, we may stop our damn fantasies of violence and reap the rewards of such a feat.

Albums Cited:
Algiers, Algiers is available from Matador Records.
Obnox, Louder Space & Boogalou Reed are available from 12XU; Wiglet & Know America are available from Ever/Never.
ONO, Diegesis & Spooks (forthcoming) are available from Moniker Records