In 2009, The Bloody Beetroots and Steve Aoki changed the course of dance music forever with “Warp 1.9.” Through three minutes and twenty-four seconds of raw, unparalleled punk rock energy, the pair ushered in the next wave of youth culture, inspiring kids to trade in their guitars for Serato and turntables along the way. Aoki’s
Even when just casually seeking out cultural criticism, you will likely read pieces on what a creation supposedly means for “our current moment.” This approach is oftentimes used as a conduit to lazily discuss hot-button issues — Trump, Brexit, Game of Thrones, you name it. It’s a fixation on the modern landscape that leads to a kind of regression, one that yields to what has been previously stated or taken for granted. In short, honing in on Twitter topics gives your analysis an expiration date, one that hardly warrants coming back to.
This is why Flying Lotus feels so vital (pardon the Mic.com speak). He seems to have no interest in what anyone else is doing. And like so many visionaries before him, Steven Ellison takes cues from the cosmic consortium, basking in the glow of spaces undefined, places unreachable. His jazz née hip-hop swirly disregards the takeology complex, concerned instead with the grander landscape at hand. OK, the world is burning and fascist leaders are at power all over, but there’s more to existence than corporeal matters, y’know?
FlyLo draws on many of the cosmic jazz greats here. Shades of Sun Ra, Alice Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders — even George Clinton. His arrangements stay wondrous as usual, carrying a gravitas that hasn’t been present in his recent creative (see: non-musical) work. The man is far more interested in probing deeper truths than merely addressing a topic at a time. His operatic nature suits Flamagra immensely; one could see a theater company performing the album live, complete with flamboyant production and bizarre costumes.
Flamagra is also by far FlyLo’s most guest star-laden album. Ellison loves to curate talents who are just as weird as he. Tierra Whack comes through with predictably wacky lyricism, finding the essence of the song and infusing it wholeheartedly. Denzel Curry brings the opposite: a teeth-gnashing, Illmatic-esque boom-bap tune that reverses the mood and shows how unconcerned Flamagra is with comfort and permanence. On the back half of the album, Solange shows up with a wholly pertinent turn: her song “Land of Honey” draws on When I Get Home, hitting languid grooves and showing how well the two can work in tandem, straining the limits of this jazzy permutation.
If there is one major flaw in Flamagra, it’s that Flying Lotus didn’t think any songs needed to be cut. That’s OK, of course. It’s rare nowadays to see a true double album, an ambitious effort that’s not reliant on singles or gaming streaming platforms in order to boost profits. Maybe it’s just that I’m impatient, but with this record jam-packed with goodies to dig into, we can forgive Ellison for being greedy with his spoils. Why not, right? If the earth is crumbling and we are all passively doomed to a life of servitude by way of late-stage capitalism, Flamagra understands that there needs to be an astronomic aspiration to counteract this disparity. So take it in. Bathe in the lush, singular visions conjured by Flying Lotus. Refresh yourself and begin anew.
Last year, the experimental pop musician Lafawndah posted a series of pictures to Instagram of iconic women artists with the caption “MOTHER.” As an exercise in mood-boarding, it was unimpeachable, a lineup of avant-queens, perfectly calibrated to make a certain subset of artsy, clubby people go “yassss.” But the photos themselves also spoke to her sense of origin and ambition, encompassing foremothers of Persian folk (Sima Bina), first ladies of hip-hop (Lauryn Hill), legendary composers (Meredith Monk, Midori Takada), and filmmakers both in front and behind the camera (Forough Farrokhzad, Gena Rowlands, Lucrecia Martel).
It’s obnoxious to perform augury on someone’s social media (apologies queen), but a hallmark (and a hindrance) of Lafawndah’s music has always been her considerable style and intellect. Among the acts that emerged in the early 2010s that warped regional club sounds into borderless post-global pop, Lafawndah emerged as a star in waiting. Her potential was obvious in an early performance as “Yasmine” on the reboot of Glenn O’Brien’s TV Party. Feeling herself in a deconstructed top with a bleach side-ponytail, she collapsed the distance between electroclash and the radical club missives of Nguzunguzu and Total Freedom with sexiness, grace, and humor.
But what has become clear over the course of her career is that the idiom of pummeling club music she first pursued on earlier releases is somewhat incompatible with her wider ambitions as an artist. The libidinal charge that snakes through her work can fizzle out, as new ideas bubble to the fore. It’s a problem that friend and Warp label mate Kelela has largely avoided in her own “intellectual sexual” work through sheer emotional precision, what Björk would call finding the “mutual coordinates” between one’s self and a deeper human truth.
With her debut album, Ancestor Boy, Lafawndah locates herself beautifully, with a musical vocabulary that sounds closer to Lizzi Bougatsos (Gang Gang Dance) than M.I.A. and closer to Fairuz than either of them. On tracks like “Daddy,” she nails the drama and sensuality of R&B as she sings pleadingly across generations — it is the most engaging song about intergenerational trauma that I’ve ever heard. Ditto “Parallel,” a woozy pop ballad made expansive with droning oud. Elsewhere, the influence of her collaboration with “MOTHER” Midori Takada on Le Renard Bleu is on full display at the beginning of “Tourist” before the drums fade out and the song explodes into digital dancehall-dabke-pop.
“Substancia” is a return to the more club-heavy Lafawndah of old and is a showcase for her formidable production. As she snaps into the chorus, her voice ascends into a squall of processing, elevating the song’s fierce, all-consuming passion. But the track is more interesting as a dispatch from an auteur than a songwriter — the lyrics throughout the record leave something to be desired. The sample of tango piano that grounds “Substancia” is as key to its mood as the use of filters. Same goes with its music video, which features a riff on an iconic Faye Dunaway commercial and an homage to the “ramen western” Tampopo, as Lafawndah and the dominatrix/intellectual Reba Maybury pass an egg yolk between each other’s lips.
The most interesting directional shift Lafawndah has taken is her pivot to the theatrical. The ghosts of Arab and Persian divas haunt the record, as Lafawndah leans into the drama and power of her voice in moments that would make a less committed, more conventionally Western singer blush. Throughout, she evokes the memory of singers like Umm Kulthum, whose lush, dense songs weren’t bound by the severity of English pop song structure but hovered for upwards of a half hour before swooping and climaxing into rapture.
Lafawndah achieved a similar feat with Midori Takada on Le Renard Bleu, serving as an interesting contrast to her solo debut. Ancestor Boy is a fascinating album, a showcase for Lafawndah’s vast ambition and considerable wells of talent, but it also reveals the challenge she has set for herself if she continues on the path of a pop star. Marrying the weight of her subject matter and boundless ideas into such a light and airy form can sometimes yield lopsided results. But given enough space, Lafawndah can truly soar.
Kelly Moran has unearthed new music: Origin, an EP available May 17 on Warp, is a compendium to last year’s Ultraviolet, featuring demos and unreleased material from that album. According to Moran, “These recordings show firsthand my musical discoveries in real-time for when I was having my major creative breakthrough.”
Among the new prepared piano tracks is “Helix II,” a kind of supplement to the original. There’s also “Water Music,” “Reflexive Music,” and “Halogen,” which illustrate how the finished Ultraviolet pieces developed. Most curious is “Love Birds, Night Birds, Devil-Birds,” which began in collaboration with visual artist Cassie McQuaters for a three-channel video installation for the Frieze Los Angeles Art Fair; McQuaters has since been providing visuals for Moran’s recent live performances.
There are seven songs in all. Here one of them, “Night Music,” here, and then pre-order the EP before its May 17 release.
You can also hear the mechanical beauty of the prepared piano in person, as Kelly Moran will be performing live throughout the summer. Check out the dates here:
04.27.19 – Durham, NC – Moogfest @ Carolina Theatre – Fletcher Hall
05.03.19 – San Francisco, CA – MUTEK SF @ Herbst Theater
05.11.19 – Charlotte, NC – END-to-END @ Camp North End
05.20.19 – Brooklyn, NY – Roulette
05.30.19 – Halifax, Canada – OBEY Convention
06.06.19 – Paris, France – Villette Sonique
07.20.19 – Barcelona, Spain – Sónar (Grand Piano A/V Live)
08.29.19 – 09.01.19 – Dorset, UK – End of the Road Fest
Origin EP tracklist:
01. Reflexive Music (Autowave)
02. Helix II
03. Halogen (Una Corda)
04. Love Birds, Night Birds, Devil-Birds
05. Water Music (Piano Solo)
06. Helix (Piano Solo)
07. Night Music
Surprise! You’re no longer dead! Nor you, nor you, nor even me! And you already know why: Flying Lotus has resurrected us all so that we can serve as an audience for his first new album in five years like some kind of maniacal, musical Frankenstein! The new LP is called Flamagra, and it’s out May 24 through Warp.
What’s a new Flying Lotus album without a guestlist, you ask annoyingly? Well, Flamagra is set to feature perennial FlyLo collaborators like George Clinton and Thundercat alongside new faces like Solange, Little Dragon, Tierra Whack, and Shabazz Palaces. FlyLo explains the concept behind the album thusly:
I’d been working on stuff for the past five years, but it was always all over the place. I’d always had this thematic idea in mind — a lingering concept about fire, an eternal flame sitting on a hill. Some people love it, some people hate it. Some people would go on dates there and some people would burn love letters in the fire.
Man, that description sure reminds me of someone else — another L.A.-based, TMT-approved artist who loves fire and duality and shit…Oh well, I’m sure it’ll come to me eventually.
In the meantime, Flying Lotus shared a new video featuring David Lynch for the album track “Fire Is Coming!” That’s right: in the Mount Olympus of arts and entertainment that is the Los Angeles metropolitan area, a team-up between the god of beat music/ferryman of the dead and the god of dreams and Kyle MacLachlan performances is surprisingly possible! Watch it below, and revel in all it’s Kuso-adjacent-ness.
So, can you pre-order the album? Yes, right here! Can you view a tracklisting? Yes, down below! Can you believe I once played Overwatch with Flying Lotus? Yes! (He played Zenyatta and he was decidedly okay!)
Flamagra tracklisting (buckle in):
02. Post Requisite
03. Heroes In A Half Shell
04. More ft. Anderson .Paak
06. Burning Down The House ft. George Clinton
07. Spontaneous ft. Little Dragon
09. Pilgrim Side Eye
10. All Spies
11. Yellow Belly ft. Tierra Whack
12. Black Balloons Reprise ft. Denzel Curry
13. Fire Is Coming ft. David Lynch
14. Inside Your Home
15. Actually Virtual ft. Shabazz Palaces
17. Remind U
18. Say Something
19. Debbie Is Depressed
20. Find Your Own Way Home
21. The Climb ft. Thundercat
23. 9 Carrots ft. Toro y Moi
25. Land Of Honey ft. Solange
26. Thank U Malcolm
27. Hot Oct.
Prepared pianist Kelly Moran has released a new live video for “Halogen” off her kaleidoscopic 2018 release Ultraviolet via Warp Records.
Covered in evolving projection lights, Moran’s bewitching style, which won us over last year,is amplified into a gorgeous audio-visual production. The projected patterns move organically toward and away from the artist’s specially altered piano as if her music was the source of their creation.
Check out the video for “Halogen” below and click here to listen to Ultraviolet in full.
als, the pia-
tions, were chosen
as one chooses
shells while walking
along a beach.
Socrates, upon finding a seashell:
Yes. A paltry object, just something I found as I was walking [on the very edge of the sea. I was following an endless shore. This is not a dream I am telling you.] It was the origin of a thought divided, of itself, between constructing and knowing.
(to get yourself in such a state of confusion that you think that a sound is not
something to hear but rather something to look at).
Ultraviolet, is then, the preparing, of, the pianissimo, the unprepared sounds, the what escapes us. The seashell’s dream of sea-shorn ecstasy. The metallic shimmering of what obstructs the strings — screws, bolts, un coup de dés jamais n’abolira… — reveals a sheen we cannot perceive, the very ambivalence of matter, the throbbing desire of the almost, the not yet, the not, the yet there escapes. Kelly Moran resurrects this trace, this voluptuous violence inscribed into form itself. A leaping beyond itself of a sound that would always withdraw into the security of sight. (We can’t see this color, but can we hear it? It lingers there in the periphery, a humming intimation of presence, a surge, a weight, a rush of blood.)
Imagine, for instance, the froth of seafoam flung to iridescent heights. It is a strange softness that contains all in a luminescence that exceeds it. The spark is diaphanous in the weight of the invisibility it offers. Imagine, for instance, moths gathered at the remembrance of a flame, their shed sheen resuscitating light loss. A shiver? Shaken to? Perhaps that blurs borders. Effervescence? In arpeggiating coruscations, like the fringe of flower leaf, an aura. A plenitude of presence, as if space withdraws from its weight. All horizons seep from its “containing nothing but itself,” its transformation of the evening earth, as Rilke, “into a handful of inwardness,” an aural dance, a longing, a song.
I wonder if Kelly Moran learned the mysteries of matter from her flower-psalms of Bloodroot, where her pointillistic found-sounds — prepared, arranged, then blown from palms like petals — reenact a flower casting off its form. Nudity clothes itself around the flower stuff that just might spill out into a blinding light, that perilous moment between heartbeat meets heartbreak. So, this gesture that undoes itself while itself dispersing, gathering itself is a living presence in which all horizons merge. Suspended in its grace, we fall to the second degree, weightlessly rising, spiraling though severed through substance. Each element a reflection of another, we spiral kaleidoscopically, vertiginous, in a vertigo to this center, eccentric, that is the very weight of light, a whisper, a shiver, a conspiracy of time that solidifies space.
Like one’s arms in arabesque, how in this gesture one gathers oneself into the reaching beyond oneself, and what flutters in intimate intimation condenses space and time into presence, twilit is the trembling of Kelly Moran’s tones, half gamelan half sea-foam and splendor. Or the sparkle of wind seething through metal hung monumental from a tree.
All the while, Daniel Lopatin’s synthesis of pure duration haunts the fragmentation of this diamond, jeweled world. I have no other word to describe this shimmering than as an “aura,” partly because its semblance is only aural, but, also is a breath, a soft wind, the weight of this absence of all that has surged through you, will search through you for its longing, the weight of all of your ghosts.
an ear alone / is not a being; music is one / part of theatre.
Because this weight is the gravity of a dance, gathering all of the possibilities of motion that waver silently around you into a gesture that embodies them, collapsing them into a living present. A falling, but the ground does not rise, and walking is falling to the horizon, so there is no ground, just a being submerged in, and listening, too, is a kind of falling, a submergence into the shimmering ultraviolet waves, a kind of falling gracefully into the waves that will receive you.
The first descriptor that Kelly Moran uses to describe herself in her bio is “composer.” The New York-based artist is also a performer — a pianist whose work fits neatly into that cozy space where contemporary classical and electronic music frequently consort — but on albums like 2016’s The Optimist and 2010’s Microcosms, the music was meticulously created, notated, and, sometimes, deconstructed.
For her new album Ultraviolet, Moran slipped into a new mode of creation. While she was still utilizing the prepared piano that helped form the material for 2017’s Bloodroot, with various sizes of bolts and screws stuck in between the strings to change its sound, Moran spent a day recording free-flowing improvisations, unsure if they would yield anything worthwhile. She just wanted to play.
When she listened back to those recordings, Moran realized that she had something to work with, raw material that she could shape into, for lack of a better word, songs. Adding layers of electronics and with a little assistance from Daniel Lopatin (Oneohtrix Point Never) on three tracks, she came away with some of her most thrilling material to date. Even as the normal tones of the piano comes flowing through the mix, it’s dominated by the clanging, pinging of the prepared strings — a sound that finds a midpoint between the percussive beauty of a gamelan or hammered dulcimer, and the hypnotic thrum of a harpsichord. It’s already hypnotizing before the gentle purrs of synths come floating over the horizon.
We caught up with Moran during her trip to Los Angeles recently to talk about the inspiration behind Ultraviolet, the impressive amount of work that went into crafting the material for mass consumption, and signing with Warp Records.
Ultraviolet isn’t your first foray into using prepared piano. What made you want to come back to this method of playing and composing?
It’s funny you say that, because after I made Bloodroot, it wasn’t in my mind to make another record of prepared piano, just because I actually ran into quite a bit of difficulty when it came to performing that material live. There were a lot of venues in New York that wouldn’t let me prepare the pianos. I realized, “Hmm, this is kind of the most difficult thing I could have chosen to tour and try and promote.” It’s a very niche thing. I thought I was going to go in a different direction. It really, truly happened by accident. Bloodroot was a very deliberate exploration of prepared piano, because it was my first time writing for it. I was really trying to work with all these different ways of generating sound from a piano.
It just happened that way this time, because last summer, I was working on a couple of commissions for people that included prepared piano. My piano pretty much stayed prepared for the entire summer. I talk about this experience a lot, where basically all the material for the record was generated during this big improv session I had. I recorded it, and when I listened back, I was like, “Oh fuck, this is my next record!”
When you first started messing around with prepared piano, was there a lot of trial and error to figure out what objects worked best for the sound you were looking for, and to figure out exactly where to put the bolts and screws that you use?
Definitely. The first time I did it, I was at my parents’ house during a snowstorm, and I scavenged through their toolboxes. I had a box of preparations that I had bought in college. I had my own little toolkit, but I wanted to play around with some different sounds and some different screws and bolts. I remember the first time I prepared my piano at home, I did spend a lot of time picking out exactly what screws sounded the best and how a screw sounds way more percussive to me than a bolt does.
So, I spent a lot of time putting every different preparation in and figuring out which ones I liked. Now the way I do it is I have three little baggies that I use every time. I have a bag of screws and bolts that’s for the lower octaves, then a bag of slightly bigger screws for the middle and for the high octaves. So I always use the same ones, but sometimes they go on slightly different notes.
Listening to this album and Bloodroot, and other prepared piano work, it always feels like there’s a balance that you have to strike between the “unusual” sounds that you can create with these objects and trying to maintain the more natural tones of the piano. Is that something that you keep in mind when you are writing for this instrument?
It feels like a completely different beast to me. It really changes the piano so much that I’m not really concerned with making it sound like a piano. I’m actually trying to get it to sound completely different. One thing I really love is when people completely guess the wrong instrument I’m playing. “Oh, it sounds like she’s playing percussion or gamelan.” I work online a lot, so I read comments of people speculating what I’m doing, and I get really happy when people guess wrong, because I am trying to obfuscate exactly what the piano sounds like. The whole point is to make it sound different. So I take a lot of joy in that.
What can you tell me then about the post-production process? You’ve got these long improvisations that you recorded for this. How do you winnow them down to sections or “songs”?
The weird thing about it is I don’t consider myself an amazing improviser. I went to school with actual jazz prodigies and people who do that for a living. I have a lot of fun improvising, but I don’t think I’ve ever sat down to improvise something and walked away feeling like, “Wow, that sounds like a piece I wrote.” Until this day that happened. I think because of my mindset that day, something happened where I was organizing musical ideas in a different way. I was paying attention to how I was developing them. When I listen to the recordings, I actually thought that my structure for my improvisation felt very compositional and very planned, even though it wasn’t.
I spent about two months just obsessively transcribing all of my improvisation. It was a long, long process, but a rewarding one because it had been a really long time since I had tried to decode an improvisation. The last time I did something like that was for a homework assignment in college. It was really illuminating to look at the music and see what kinds of patterns emerge and what kinds of melodies I make when I’m not thinking about structure or harmony or any of those things that you think about when you’re deliberately writing a piece of music. It was really fun.
What did you do after you had decoded this material and edited it down? What did you do and add to it?
After I had that experience, it was kind of like fate where I had made all this music, and then two days later, I got an offer to do a show at a classical music venue in New York. They asked me if I had new material. Suddenly, I had a deadline. I just went to work. I transcribed all of the pieces, and I played most of them pretty faithfully at that concert. I was pretty faithful to the exact structures of the piece, because I think I was trying to replicate what I had done that day.
After that concert, I had spent two months playing this music and getting a feel for it. It felt really, really good to play. So I didn’t end up changing too much of the structure. I will say the biggest structural change came when I started incorporating electronics into it. I really wanted this to be a record for piano and synth. I really felt like the songs really lent themselves well to other soundworlds. It’s something I really enjoy doing, coming up with these different timbral soundworlds to envelop it. So once I was done recording all the piano material, I started messing with a little bit more by recording synth overdubs and bringing all these other elements into the recordings. I think that really had the biggest impact on shaping the material, as a whole.
I wanted to ask at least one question about Daniel Lopatin’s contributions to the record. I know he only played a small part in the process, but was this an instance where you felt you needed another set of ears and hands to help finish those songs?
Dan got involved with producing the record literally the first day that I met him in person. We had been in contact about me doing some performances for his live shows, for the Age Of live arrangements. He invited me to his studio to show me the record and talk about it. We ended up hanging out for a while and talking about music, and he asked me what I had been working on. I started telling him about my record. And I did volunteer the information that I felt like this was the first time where I started to feel like I needed a little bit of help because it was getting so ambitious. Even though I had studied recording and production, I felt, for once, that I could really benefit from having someone else come in and help me shape the material a little bit. Everything was mostly finished. I just needed a little refinement to everything.
As soon as Dan heard it, he got really excited and was, like, “Who’s putting this out? Who’s helping you produce this?” I told him I didn’t have a producer, but I kind of feel like I need a little help. He said, “I would love to help you produce this, since you’re helping me do so much stuff.” At that moment, my soul just kind of left my body. I was so happy I could not believe it was happening, because Dan is one of my all-time favorite producers. It really was like a dream for him to offer to be involved. I was curious to see what he would do with it, because something I joke about with him sometimes is that I’m always trying to get him to expand things and add more repeats and just let certain sections go on a bit longer. He’s always trying to get me to be a little bit more concise. We kind of meet in the middle. I really love everything he did with the material.
What does it mean to you to be working with Warp Records for this album?
It’s going to sound so cheesy but it really means so much to me. So many of the artists on Warp have had a huge impact in my development as a musician and my interest in electronic music. When I first started listening to electronic music, it was all about Aphex Twin and Boards of Canada and Autechre and Squarepusher. So to be on the same label as them is a very surreal thing for me.
When I was shopping around Bloodroot, I got so many rejections from labels who were really blunt in their criticism, saying prepared piano was not cool enough for the label or they didn’t think it was appealing enough or it was too different. I got all these rejections that were very much related to me not fitting in. So to have such an amazing label interested in me because of my uniqueness was a really validating experience for me.
You’ve talked in other interviews about your Roman-Catholic upbringing and growing up in the church. What impact do you think that had, if any, on the music you make today?
I have to say probably none, because I was really never a regular churchgoer. I had a phase in 7th grade where I was really into praying and I got quickly disillusioned. By the time I was in eighth grade and I made my catechism, I was pretty much agnostic. I enjoy liturgical music, and I love sacred music, but I wouldn’t say that that actually impacts me musically. It did give me a lot of shame as an adult. I still carry that!
I know you are likely going to be in the swell of promotion for Ultraviolet, but are you already thinking ahead to a new album or a new project to work on?
I haven’t actually. I feel like the label might be expecting that since I had a pretty quick turnover with the past couple of records, but I was still working on Ultraviolet this summer. We spent quite a bit of time mixing and mastering it. It was just finished a couple of months ago. And I’ve been really busy touring with OPN in the meantime. A lot of my time has been spent figuring out how to perform this record live. I’ve been working on new material sporadically, but nothing has really coalesced in a major way. I feel like I’m probably going to hole up somewhere in early 2019 and make the next one.
I’ve been spending a lot of time working out how I’m going to do the live presentation for this album. A problem that I have had as a composer is that I’ve written a lot of music that is not performable for me. It’s not what I’m thinking about. If you listen to Optimist, I’m making these pieces that have so many keyboard lines and so much electronics that it would either take several performers to do it or it would involve really complex live processes, dubbing out loops and all of that.
So, I haven’t done a lot of solo performances of my past material. But this is the first time that I’ve made an album that feels like a performance album from top to bottom. This summer, I had a fellowship and I basically spent the entire summer figuring out how I’m going to play the piano with the electronics in the backing tracks and crafting a live show. There will be touring, but I think I’m going to wait until 2019 so that the record has had a chance to make its way around the world. I want people to hear it and let it digest.
“If your main squeeze has just decided to walk out on you, booze and Vasopressin are the ultimate in masochistic pharmacology; the juice makes you maudlin and the Vasopressin makes you remember, I mean really remember. Clinically they use the stuff to counter senile amnesia, but the street finds its own uses for things.”
– William Gibson, “Burning Chrome” (1982)
PART I: A FUTURE THAT’S WHITE FOR YOU
Where’s the subaltern in science fiction? Where are the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free? Often, in obscurity. It’s no coincidence that speculative discourse in Euro-America doesn’t challenge but instead reproduces contemporary — and sometimes ancient — socioeconomic, ethnoracial, and geopolitical inequalities, because the past and the future are written to favor the winners of history. Consequently, despite the realities of diaspora and migration, the demographic consequences of colony and empire, and the internal heterogeneity of “culture” that results from these processes, Euro-American constructions the future are pregnant with Asimovian fixations toward space colonies, planetary fiefdoms, and galactic empires sustained by the hard power of rayguns, laserbeams, and toxic masculinity. Unsurprisingly, the serfs of the space age — the denizens of imperialistic futures — feature not.
For its apparent rejection of these sociopolitical reductions, though, the cyberpunk movement has been celebrated since its inception in the 1980s. As Sam Delany points out when he asks “Is Cyberpunk a Good Thing or a Bad Thing?” the movement emphasized “working class heroes [and] the streetwise cynicism of its major and minor characters,” which posited “new, possible relations between science fiction and the world.” Despite that cyberpunk emerged better equipped to address the paranoia of disaffection underpinning the rapid emergence of new technologies in the 1980s, even the prescient hedonism of, say, Philip K. Dick’s narco-securocracies was often conveyed through the eyes of the police, not the policed (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?), through culture producers, not culture consumers (Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said). So even as the Gibsonian multinational became the contested zone of vicious anti-globalization skepticism, the cyberpunk movement’s characters, subjects, and themes — the alienation of the white, heterosexual “everyman” — was broadly indifferent toward those most exploited and affected by global capitalism, the true deviants of today’s gritty dystopia: the female, the colored, the migrant, and the queer.
In contrast to cyberpunk’s indifference, the Afrofuturism movement — which simmered in the second half of the 20th century and bubbled up in the 90s — take us further into the margins, subversively interpreting the Black experience as a matrix of technological innovation and, concurrently, appraising technology as the instrument of personal reinvention and the rearticulation of ancestral histories that transcend the self. Indeed, in “Black to the Future,” the essay that coined the movement’s name, cultural critic Mark Dery asks: “Can a community whose past has been deliberately rubbed out… imagine possible futures?” No — if the past is never reclaimed.
But Afrofuturism is concerned with not only the future and the past, but also the future through the past. Although Dery’s original concern was Afrofuturism’s written materials, these dynamics are more salient in the music and visual arts that simultaneously and subsequently emerged. Recognizing that Black bodies have long been the subjects of technology (e.g., the burglary of Henrietta Lacks’s DNA, the Tuskegee syphilis experiment), Afrofuturism’s multimedia narratives transform these bodies into agents in control thereof. Therefore, Dery writes, hip-hop emerges from the “misuse” of turntables, the music paired with moves that are “funky and mechanical at the same time.” And precisely this symbiosis of organic and synthetic motifs captures the Hegelian dialectic embedded in Afrofuturist discourse, where the future corresponds to the synthesis of the unspoiled pre-abduction past (the thesis) and the gruesome post-emancipation present (the antithesis). Hence, Afrika Bambaataa’s Universal Zulu Nation hip-hop awareness group — whose name reclaims the past to denote a utopian pan-African ethos — and the eclectic, futuristic-cum-traditional costumes he and his co-performers donned at shows.
Robotic, even. And that’s not a coincidence. We see this motif of organic and synthetic symbiosis repeatedly, both in Rammellzee’s meticulous quasi-mechanistic costume sculptures from the 90s and, more recently, in Janelle Monaé’s Metropolis concept series. For Afrofuturism, the humanoid non-human — the android — posits a future Other against which to examine the past and the present experience of the Black diaspora, drawing a parallel between the slave body subjugated and exploited by colonialism, and the bionic body subjugated and exploited by capitalism. Similarly, just as the android is the subject of empirical knowledge that permits objective deconstruction of its pre-programmed behavior, so the colonial project developed entire scientific disciplines (phrenology, eugenics) and co-opted others (early anthropology) to produce tautological ways of “knowing” the humanoid non-human (i.e., non-White) Other, thereby producing the Foucauldian subject of power that reifies stereotypes and naturalizes the subjugation of peoples.
Working against essentialist discourse about the Black body that proffers its “primitivism” (e.g., racist pseudoscience, sexual objectification, etc.), Afrofuturism seizes, occupies, and transforms hegemonic futures to accentuate the Afrodiasporic subject’s fundamental role in constructing modernity, “recovering the histories of counter-futures” — writes British-Ghanaian critic Kodwo Eshun — “created in a century hostile to Afrodiasporic projection.” Drexciya, for example, uses Detroit techno to narrate the duo’s vision of the eponymous underwater metropolis founded by the mutated descendants of slaves thrown overboard throughout the Atlantic slave trade, most notably the Zong massacre. Drexciya synthesizes the future by reconstituting the past, which is disrupted, disturbed, and distorted by the antithetical present. By reclaiming the diaspora’s “rubbed out” past, Afrofuturism more broadly exemplifies how the Hegelian dialectic frames the development of subaltern futurologies in general: our visions of the future, emerging from the continuous opposition between the past and the present — the future of the past — can’t exist when the past itself remains smothered.
PART II: C.P. TIME PARADOX
Yet even the Afrofuturism movement itself can reproduce entirely new permutations of essentialist discourse about the Black primitive, namely when it doesn’t account for the forking histories of Africa and the African diaspora in Euro-America — a vital distinction, given the importance of the past in constructing the future. Naturally, this is largely because the movement has been strongly rooted in the diasporic experience of African-American and Black British populations. Sure, these groups are rearticulating generationally-retained ontologies to grapple with a history of exploitation similar to that of colonized Africa. (Besides, the African diaspora in the Anglosphere includes significant post-emancipation migrant presence.) Nonetheless — or perhaps consequently — the African continent functions in many Afrofuturist materials as the indexical object of its themes and motifs, summoned and operationalized against hegemonic constructions of the future that emerge in Euro-America even though, crucially, Afrofuturist materials themselves historically emerge in Euro-America. In other words, Afrofuturism itself develops and deploys its own exogenous constructions of Africa; as expected from the condition of its producers, these frame the continent firmly in the past, as the once-was, no-longer.
Consequently, although subaltern constructions of the future reject conformity with the historical trajectory of Karl Marx’s dialectical materialism — which proposes the “end of history,” or the end of the future — many of these counter-futures perpetuate Marxist interpretations of classical social evolution, as they remain embedded within normative constructions of how “the future” — and thereby the past and the present — must look: a world of post-industrial cityscapes in which empirical science is the primary method of knowledge production and “technology” is uniquely derived therefrom, and thus synonymous with electronics, material commodities, economic wealth, and ultimately power.
Which is consequential. Returning to early science fiction, hegemonic constructions of the future are distinguished not via the fundamental restructuring of sociopolitical hierarchies, but via the development of increasingly complex technologies operated toward maintaining those inequalities. Afrofuturism offers a multiplicity of heterogenous spaces to excavate and interrogate these inequalities toward transforming discourse about the future. Ta-Nehisi Coates’s graphic novel Black Panther (2016) suggests, for example, that contemporary issues as police brutality — in its recognizably American form — aren’t impossible even in the African utopia of Wakanda. But crucially, the historico-geographically specific themes relating to the diaspora in Euro-America that permeate many notable Afrofuturist materials is a double-edged sword, because the indexical relationship toward Africa (i.e. the continent’s function as passive symbolic object rather than active generative agent) jeopardizes the movement’s capacity to usefully comment on the future of African peoples themselves versus that of the diaspora uniquely.
Therefore, one must understand Afrofuturism as a per se diasporic futurology. Euro-America can’t become the generative setting of subaltern futurologies about the African continent itself, because the diasporic past and the native past — opposed to the diasporic present and the native present — produce different visions of the future. And these differences are important. Ignoring them distorts the empowering movement into a Spivakian obfuscation — even appropriation — of subaltern voices, because African futurologies intrinsically reject “Africa” as a homogenizing construct and embrace the historico-geographic hyper-specificities from which their materials emerge and against which they are mobilized. Indeed, the category of “African” futurologies is merely a heterogenous convention, as futurologies that emerge in Africa are similar to each other precisely in that they are distinct; similar themes notwithstanding, there are distinct Tanzanian futurologies (e.g., singeli), Cameroonian futurologies (e.g., makossa), Ethiopian futurologies (e.g., Ethiopiyawi), and so forth.
And that’s precisely because these futurologies — specifically as articulated through music — leverage native ontologies to challenge situated post-colonial inequalities domestically and, by extension, subvert essentialist discourse internationally. Unfortunately, these counter-hegemonic futures remain uninteresting to and misunderstood by most outside listeners precisely because they torpedo exogenous constructions of Africa and Euro-American expectations of what Africa’s future could, would, and should become. Kodwo Eshun captures the nature of this rejection during an interview with Hampshire College’s Christopher Cox:
As soon as the work throws up a dimension of optical fugitivity, in other words, as soon as the work cannot immediately be read as belonging to what people recognize is African-American legibility, then suddenly it disappears, whereas actually it is exactly that work that is most compelling precisely because it blocks legibility so you can’t easily read it in terms of the identity of the person who is making it. [Emphasis mine.]
Of course, Eshun is discussing Afrodiasporic works, yet the same can be said of native African works. Not unlike Edward Said’s Orient, the “Africa” that Euro-America constructs is necessarily a continent stuck in the past — even outside of time — that emerges when Euro-America maps its own history onto the Other, fixating on African expressions of the Euro-American past (e.g., hunger, poverty, disease) and prescribing African implementation of the Euro-American future (e.g., electronics, urbanization, capitalism). Naturally, both of these tendencies presuppose that “technology” — the ostensibly Euro-American innovation — is both antonymous with the past and synonymous with the future, a narrow interpretation that exposes an imperialist discomfort: Because the Africa of the Euro-American imagination essentially declares independence when it develops subaltern constructions of the future in which the native is the agent that constructs modernity, Euro-America in turn re-colonizes Africa’s future with hegemonic constructions that produce the native subject of modernity, which ends with the passive adoption of technologies that increasingly render the continent structurally Euro-American. By thus colonizing Africa’s future, Euro-America neutralizes the agency of the Other and mitigates the threat of its Otherness itself.
Such discourse produces an antithetical relationship between Africa and modernity. Justifying his antipathy toward computers during an interview with Wired, for example, Brian Eno famously opined that “the problem with computers is that there is not enough Africa in them.” Eno’s characterization results from the negation of African settings as matrices of technological generativity, underscoring the “optical fugitivity” of technology that doesn’t emerge in Euro-America. Ironically, it’s taken decades of American and British researchers, particularly under mathematician Ron Eglash, to excavate technologies that their empires themselves had buried: to demonstrate that geomancy functions as binary code, which became Boolean algebra, which became the digital computer; or that various settlement types across Africa are organized in complex fractal patterns; or that corn-rows are programmable recursive patterns (i.e., fractals) that can function as pedagogical tools in STEM fields. Eshun’s optical fugitivity refers to Afrofuturist materials that block identification and demonstrate complexity, and consequently aren’t understood as Black. But the optical fugitivity of these technologies — and African futurologies more broadly — operates in reverse: they’re identifiable as African, and therefore not as complex, technological, or futuristic.
Nonetheless, many African futurologies reject the sociocultural sterility of hegemonic futures and accentuate rather than obscure the ethnic hyper-specificities out of which they emerge.
PART III: ENTER THE GHETTO MATRIX
Take kuduro. Originally a marginal genre, kuduro emerges in urban Angola during a period of radical sociopolitical transformations. It’s Luanda in the 1980s, and the Angolan Civil War ravages the country not long after independence from Portugal ousted some of the continent’s last invaders. Naturally, the violence causes many Angolans to flee the country, seeking asylum in Portugal. Among those who stay, physical wounds tattoo the urban tissue with infirmities that recall the conflict; if not you, someone you know. Of course, this complicates dancing.
Although genealogically rooted in Angolan semba, kizomba, and tarraxinha, kuduro traditionally samples the Caribbean genres of zouk and soca, plotting them on a hyperactive 4/4 beat that rejects the four-on-the-floor conventions of the house music to which it’s commonly compared. Indeed, the distinctive choreography that emerges alongside kuduro is entirely unlike anything Rust Belt clubs ever produced. Surely that’s due to kuduro’s fast pace and oblique rhythms, but these choreographies aren’t sociopolitically insignificant; they chart the topography of violence on the body itself with spasmodic movements that embody the frailty of a war-torn, incapacitated society.
By deconstructing and reconfiguring the music of the past, which is then operated to subvert contemporary discourse of the body through the body, music producers synthesize subaltern constructions of the future through the past-present dialectic and therefore exact agency from the urban margins through kuduro — a distinctly Angolan futurology. Even with the genre’s dash into the regional mainstream in the 2000s — and confident steps into the global — various aspects of its original marginality remain important today, as they preserve spaces that foster subversive discourse in otherwise authoritarian contexts. Indeed, one of the genre’s most prominent figures is Titica, a chart-topping transgender woman whose uncompromising, transgressive aesthetic unsettles normative sexuality in a country where homosexual behavior is punishable with hard labor.
Perhaps it’s only fitting, then, that new articulations of kuduro are transforming space itself — outside of Angola. Within a dozen years of the war’s end, migrant communities deep within Lisbon’s bairros sociais — ghettos now populated with many second-generation Angolans — have established an exclave of calor humano that isn’t just about hospitality but circulates the heat of the body in movement. What’s surfaced in the shantytown clubs, the block parties, and the reverb in the alleys that cut between knolls of squatter housing doesn’t have a name. Lately, some know it as batida; for many, it’s forever been kuduro. Only its acoustic instability is certain, as “ghetto kuduro” emerges from the hyper-specific context of Angolan migration and reflects the precarity of its creators, who reverse the pathways of European colonialism by rejecting assimilation, mobilizing identities, and occupying the Portuguese metropole with sounds that aren’t just conventionally Angolan, but fundamentally modern.
If the word “ghetto” here seems coarse, the scene’s frequent use of the term self-consciously indexes Black African identities, subverting the term’s negative connotation by transforming these identities themselves into sources of pride rather than sociopolitical stigmata. Hence the movement’s founding document: the DJ’s Do Guetto (“DJs of the Ghetto”) mixtape, which the eponymous crew released in 2006. By unambiguously situating the aesthetic in the ghetto, these producers conjure kuduro’s marginal origins and salvage subaltern Black spaces as matrices of technological generativity, reimagining modernity itself as the receptacle of African identity and thereby negating the antithetical relationship thereof, produced by Euro-American futurist discourse. Accordingly, some DJs have referred explicitly to kuduro aurality as a venue of transnational placemaking. In his debut record’s liner notes, former crew member DJ N.K. says of producing DJ Do Guetto (2016), “I try to transport myself to the desert through my music so I can feel my tribal roots through my veins.” Noticeably, the forebears’ motherland (the thesis) and the migrants’ ghetto (the antithesis) coexist — are synthesized — in the liminal futures that kuduro constructs.
But “ghetto” isn’t the only term that’s been reclaimed. If one traces the scene’s genealogy sufficiently into the past, the mythic DJ Marfox — another founding member of the crew — is undoubtedly among its earliest, most significant ancestors. Hence the homages embedded in many producer’s pseudonyms: DJ Lycox, DJ Fofuxo, DJ Lilocox and, of course, the irreverent DJ Nigga Fox.
DJ Nigga Fox is among the most prominent associates of Príncipe Discos, itself the most prominent kuduro record label out of the Lisbon ghetto; he’s released a handful of EPs and performs regularly at Noite Príncipe, the label’s trademark monthly music event, held in Lisbon proper. However, following the unexpected surge in the scene’s international popularity circa 2013, Warp Records gathered DJ Nigga Fox and other kuduro producers to release the CARGAA 1 EP (2015). Warp has since signed DJ Nigga Fox, who made his debut with the Crânio EP, released in early March.
It’s meaningless to express that the feverishly lush and intoxicating rhythms on Crânio take the scene to new, unexplored regions. Perhaps unlike other insular music scenes, the Lisbon kuduro arena involves producers with exceedingly differentiated styles, among whom DJ Nigga Fox is surely one of the most oblique. Not just that: as the haunting opener “Sinistro” suggests, the regions Crânio explores are unequivocally dark spaces, saturated with atmospheres that underscore the precarity of the contexts from which they emerge — indeed, Black spaces. In fact, if describing the sinister aesthetic as “voodoo” seems improper, the track “KRK” overtly signals the krik-krak invocation of Haitian storytelling. And the image of a red snake wrapped around a female body — evoking the fraught symbiosis of strength and menace fixed in the body in movement — may well represent Mami Wata.
On Crânio, these fraught symbioses are key, as sinister atmospheres communicate the volatile reconciliation between the Black subaltern and modernity. It’s a futuristic account precisely in that it recognizes that, as Eshun insightfully points out, “Afrodiasporic subjects live the estrangement that science-fiction writers envision.” Indeed, Crânio’s menacing undertones construct a unique dystopian vision that emerges from the hyper-specific marginality of the Angolan migrant in the Lisbon ghetto.
Príncipe Discos’s co-founder Pedro Gomes remembers the caution he exercised during the scene’s foundational years to minimize the industry’s influence — his own — upon the groundbreaking music then only beginning to emerge in the ghetto. “If the music didn’t keep its qualities intact, it would be colonized,” he told Pitchfork. He’s absolutely correct. And yet, as the scene expands, the exact opposite is perhaps now true: to seek to preserve one construction of what Lisbon kuduro is risks essentializing its agenda, ossifying its aesthetics, and stifling its development.
And that’s a major risk. DJ Nigga Fox — even the brief Crânio itself — demonstrates the inevitable heterogeneity of even the most insular scenes. At the same time, heterogeneity implies an internal variety of types, each type static, defined by a granularity of discrete traits. In other words, we can say that, sonically, as a genre, kuduro is a heterogeneous category of diverse styles. But phenomenologically, as a futurology, kuduro cannot be described in those terms; a futurology cannot be heterogeneous because static aesthetic typologies cannot properly contain a process, something that is constantly in motion. And, if nothing else, we can say that kuduro is constantly in motion.
And that’s key to what sets kuduro and other African futurologies apart from hegemonic futuristic art: there’s an inherent dialectic process of future construction that rejects — indeed challenges — the thematic rigidity of most traditional science fiction or mainstream electronic music. Unlike kuduro, these non-generative aesthetics are interested merely in upholding the present status quo and extrapolating it unto the future; they don’t undergo or initiate a process. Consequently, they are not futurologies, precisely because they are not in motion.
Naturally, then, kuduro cannot be understood on their terms — on static terms. So, sure, we can say that contemporary kuduro is a characteristically Angolan subaltern futurology rearticulated in Portugal toward the subversion of Euro-American discourse about the future of “Africa” and the paradox of Black modernity. We can say that, despite their common goals, this African futurology is distinct from mainstream Afrofuturism since the continent plays an active agent role rather than a passive object one; far more than the Africa in Afrofuturism, indeed, the Africa in Lisbon kuduro is imminent, in motion.
But when it comes to kuduro as futurology, a static declarative statement is — and can only ever be — a statement about the past, about what kuduro has been. Conversely, the present can only be understood in action — action through which the community speaks, theorizes through music: kuduro remembers the past, kuduro interprets the present, kuduro imagines the future. Which is to say: who cares about what kuduro is? What matters, ultimately, is what kuduro does.
And what it does is Crânio — and it’s pretty fucking awesome.
Here to restore the serotonin balance in your brain, Daniel Lopatin, a.k.a. Oneohtrix Point Never a.k.a. Chuck Person a.k.a. overseer of Listening Post Alpha, has announced a new EP. Titled Love In the Time of Lexapro, the four-track release includes the live favorite title track, a rework of “Last Known Image of a Song” by Ryuichi Sakamoto, “Babylon” featuring Alex G, and a new song, titled “Thank God I’m a Country Girl.”
Love In the Time of Lexapro is out November 23 on Warp. It follows The Station EP and his latest album, Age Of, both of which were released earlier this year. To improve your energy level and decrease nervousness, listen to the new EP’s title track here. Thank you.
Love In the Time of Lexapro tracklist:
01. Love in the Time of Lexapro
02. Last Known Image of a Song (Ryuichi Sakamoto rework)
03. Thank God I’m a Country Girl