Beat me, hate me, you can never break me/ All I wanna say is that they don't really care about us. Michael Jackson's taut, furious voice writhes against a barrage of claustrophobic violence in Richmond artist Chino Amobi's remix of "They Don't Care About Us." Amid the chaos—alarms, gasps in pain, gasps for breath—the song remains firm and rhythmic, its resolution underscored by a sublime drone during the third and final verse.
Back in December, angry New Yorkers gathered to sing "They Don't Care About Us" following the decision not to indict Eric Garner's killer, a police officer. The song's lyrics were written on a placard during a protest against the Ferguson police department in the wake of their fatal shooting of Michael Brown. It also provided the soundtrack to the Baltimore protests in response to the death of Freddie Gray in police custody, danced to by a Jackson impersonator amidst the chaos of helicopters and sirens. The song, which addresses racism, police brutality and the media, was written in response to the 1992 acquittals of the police officers who assaulted L.A. taxi driver Rodney King, and to a strip search by the LAPD on Jackson himself. The song has recently found new layers of meaning and urgency in the context of the continuing struggle against racist police violence, now taken up by the Black Lives Matter movement. As their website states, the movement is about even more than the assault and murder of countless black men and women: "When we say Black Lives Matter, we are broadening the conversation around state violence to include all of the ways in which Black people are intentionally left powerless at the hands of the state. We are talking about the ways in which Black lives are deprived of our basic human rights and dignity."
It's against this backdrop that Amobi's remix sounds out. It was released through a new collective, NON Records, which is dedicated to artists from Africa and of the African diaspora. They're not the only element in recent underground music to consciously focus on African, Afrodiasporic, and/or African-American artists and the issues facing them—an upcoming compilation on Mykki Blanco’s new label Dogfood Music Group, and Philadelphia art and sound duo SCRAAATCH do so as well, in different ways. As a white writer, I can’t speak from experience about how each of these artist's music expresses that subjectivity (if indeed that's what the many musicians and listeners involved, each of them in their different ways, regard it as doing at all). But it's abundantly clear that African and Afrodiasporic musicians are behind huge swathes of inventiveness in both underground music and music as a whole, disproportionately so in terms of demographics, and their role is regularly underestimated in music histories and journalistic coverage.
It's no wonder that African and Afrodiasporic artists are choosing to disseminate music in solidarity. In many cases, this creative decision is a strategy for dealing with the alienation that is so often a part of Afrodiasporic experience. As the London-based writer Kodwo Eshun puts it in his 2003 essay Further Considerations on Afrofuturism: “the condition of alienation, understood in its most general sense, is a psychosocial inevitability that all Afrodiasporic art uses to its own advantage by creating contexts that encourage a process of disalienation.” And yet in the continuing environment of white supremacy, this creativity is routinely either erased, appropriated, or confined to narrow and fetishized aesthetic areas. The music in this article—which is all linked by the multifarious connective tissues of underground culture (labels, releases, mixes, remixes, songs etc)—is not necessarily of the same belief or aesthetic, but can all be seen as resisting the supremacist paradigm in its many different ways and contexts. Often, it can be seen as exploring the way in which race intersects with gender, sexuality and/or queerness too.
"In no uncertain terms, the Intent of NON is to run counter to current Western hyper-capitalist modes of representation and function, exorcising the language of domination through the United Resistance of policed and exotified colored bodies."—NON Records
In an email, a representative for NON Records explained to me that they are "a sovereign nation state divided into three united territories. NON citizens reside in villages, towns, and cities across the globe. Each citizen has distinct social as well as geopolitical agency with our nation's infrastructure." To date, those citizens are: Angel-Ho, based in Cape Town, South Africa; Nkisi, based in London; and Chino Amobi, based in Richmond, Virginia. Through their Facebook page, they also draw attention to tracks by other artists, such as American artist Jónó Mí Ló's dystopian panorama, “Daniel 9:25 - Dawn Of The New Ugly.” “In no uncertain terms, the Intent of NON is to run counter to current Western hyper-capitalist modes of representation and function, exorcising the language of domination through the United Resistance of policed and exotified colored bodies,” NON’s email continued. “At a time when national (market) state financial and political systems are tested as never before, NON shall remain committed to the militant realities and potentials of ‘The NON State.’ NON came into existence through the Pan-African desire for representation on our own terms.” As stated on their Soundcloud page, NON artists are "using sound as their primary media, to articulate the visible and invisible structures that create binaries in society, and in turn distribute power." They elaborated on that over email, using the terminology of 20th century French philosophers Deleuze and Guattari: "NON uses sound as a weapon to destabilize and deterritorialize our audience, and through this process of sonic reclamation and reterritorialization, we redirect the listeners' attention to our message." Put another way, in the words of American writer James Baldwin, "Artists are here to disturb the peace."
Angel-Ho was involved in #RhodesMustFall, a recent—and successful—campaign to remove a statue of the British colonizer Cecil Rhodes from the University of Cape Town, which also highlighted inequality in education in South African universities and beyond. He discusses race, South Africa, NON and LGBTQ music extensively in Ruth Saxelby's recent interview with him for The FADER (it includes a new mix too). His mix "Death Drop From Heaven" was one of the first tracks to appear on NON's Soundcloud page, setting the tone for some stark, energetic club constructions. Soon after, NON posted Angel-Ho's "Credit Card Mix" of Gwen Stefani's "Luxurious," surrounding Stefani's voice with cascading kick drums and the sound of cash registers and revving engines. Next came a remix of Timbaland & Magoo's "Drop" (featuring Fatman Scoop) that resculpts it as a ballroom whirlwind. "Miss Kitty," an original track, is more disorienting still, sampling Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman in Batman Returns and sequencing unfathomable sound effects in an enormous reverberating space. Angel-Ho has just released an EP, Ascension, on Tri Angle producer Rabit's Halcyon Veil label. Mastered by avant-club star Arca, it's the ideal distillation of the Angel-Ho sound: insistent, inventive, inflammatory, carving out the most dynamic of grooves from every kind of adrenaline-raising stimulus.
Fellow NON founder Nkisi's Soundcloud avatar is a detail from a painting: a golden object in the hand of the subject of African Slave Woman, probably painted in the 1580s. The title of one recent Nkisi track (listen below) includes the URL of the Legacies of British Slave Ownership research projects at University College London. Nkisi's music sounds like it’s freely combining a number of global dance styles—often uptempo, it roams organically from one hook to another with little regard for club music conventions, often with eerily dissonant results. The tracks seem to convey several moods simultaneously—euphoria, exultation and graceful beauty combines with a sense of danger or the supernatural. "Noir" (listen below) is both mournful and athletic as it zips forward through its coding. An ethereal looping voice appears in the middle of "Stomp" as the layering of elements reaches a climax, both attached and dissociated from the rest of the mix in its timbre and tonality. Borne forward on strings and shadowy voices, the subterranean "Et Pourtant Elle Tourne" is slower but just as rich, and features a harp-like instruments strumming outside of Western conventions of timing and tuning.
With its robotic voices, lasers, mechanized noises and general tumult, the music of Chino Amobi, formerly known as Diamond Black Hearted Boy, can be heard as a kind of auditory science fiction. As the 1996 documentary on Afrofuturist music, The Last Angel of History, shows, this has long been a tradition within Afrodiasporic music. The documentary argues that for Afrodiasporic people, the scenarios of science fiction are real, and that for them, apocalypse and dystopia have already happened. American novelist Toni Morrison explained in Black Atlantic scholar Paul Gilroy's 1993 book Small Acts that the victims of slavery were the first to have to deal with the traumatic effects of modernity. As writer and musician Greg Tate puts it in the documentary, "most science fiction tales dramatically deal with how the individual is going to contend with these alienating, dislocating societies and circumstances and that pretty much sums up the mass experiences of black people in the post-slavery 20th century." At the end of the film, Kodwo Eshun explores this alienation through the sci-fi trope of cybernetics, noting that "producers willingly take on the role of the cyborg, willingly take on that man-machine interface just to explore the mutation that's already happened to them."
In Amobi's "Mimesis as Threat" (below), a robotic voice intones the words invisible visibility, reminiscent, among many other things, of novelist Ralph Ellison's 1952 tale The Invisible Man, which used the metaphor to reflect on African-American experience. Like his remix of "They Don't Care About Us," the track shows Amobi at his most visceral: its sounds could be those of a deadly futuristic battle. His track "Calcified (Remix)" (below) for NON features the voice of Harlem singer Serpentwithfeet, soaring beautifully over a sinister loop that feels like giant, sharp, metal machinery and that repeats with all the fatalism of any Amobi composition. As he's also a visual artist, it might be more tempting to call Amobi's work "sound art" than "music" in the most conservative senses of the word, but it is still a musical experience—one specific and structured enough to tell stories.
With its robotic voices, lasers, mechanized noises and general tumult, the music of Chino Amobi can be heard as a kind of auditory science fiction.
One of the most beguiling and exciting voices to have emerged from underground music in recent times, Serpentwithfeet also appears on another track that NON reposted on their Soundcloud. Titled "Total Freedom," it finds the singer winding himself delicately around rising and falling tones, including those of an mbira. In an interview for Dazed, he discussed his self-described “PaganGospel” creed for living and said, “I am always ready to pierce things with my black-queer cutlery. I am constantly looking for ways to make my music extra gay and extra black.” His track "Mercenary in Transit," produced by New York producer Nire, sees his spectacular R&B stylings surrounded by silvery, weightless veils. The song "Penance," featuring South African guitarist Andre Geldenhuys and produced by North Carolina artist N-Prolenta, is another great example of his exploration of flotation in low rhythmic gravity and high melodic bliss.
Chino Amobi, Serpentwithfeet, and N-Prolenta all appear on a mix by SCRAAATCH for London's NTS Radio station (listen below) that features a number of other Black artists. SCRAAATCH is an art and sound double act, originally from Washington DC and now based in Philadelphia, who often perform live. It consists of artists E. Jane and chukwumaa—read interviews with them here and here—and, along with the New Jersey born DJ Haram, they run the monthly Philly "club-not-club" night ATM. Also negotiating race, gender, queerness, mental illness, and the digital world in her artwork and photography, E. Jane makes sounds and edits under the names E_SCRAAATCH and Mhysa, typically with a glitchy, spectral take on R&B. Try their / her Soundcloud playlist I Have To Say No So Much Right Now, especially its magnificent title track. About their / her artwork, E. Jane said in a recent interview with The Offing, "I came to the conclusion that I am black and I am a woman, my body is thoroughly Black American and it is perceived as woman. Then I realized that means my body is not a 'safe' body. My body is an unprotected body. I started asking myself how we protect unprotected bodies? What if the body were code? What if the body were only a simulation? What if I could exaggerate how inhuman I feel?" Her partner in SCRAAATCH, chukwumaa, was born in Nigeria and "on a plane to the US the first week of [his] life." He also engages experimentally with pop as plus_c—the track "quadrille_club_bing" uses a Vine recording of "They Don't Care About Us" being sung during the Baltimore uprising, mixed into a distorted club beat and resonant tones like metal being brushed and played with a bow. He also made an installation consisting of twenty-one burner cellphones playing Beyoncé's "Flawless," which turned the song into a waterfall.
SCRAAATCH's gorgeous mix was part of a takeover by artist collective ALLGOLD at New York's MoMA PS1's Print Shop, broadcast on NTS. As well as featuring work by SCRAAATCH's members, it includes "tides" by Brookyn’s embaci, in which a lone voice dances so elegantly with a pure silk sounding synth. Embaci's Soundcloud page has more examples of her striking take on lo-fi dream songs, as well as improvs and an instrumental. Also appearing on SCRAAATCH's mix is a track by N-Prolenta in which angel-cybernetic voices, both human and instrumental, periodically rise from a quantum foam of distortion. On N-Prolenta’s own Soundcloud page, try "Pop Punk," whose title is a bit of a misdirection—it completely transforms itself throughout, from screaming machines to awe-inspiring chords. Switching back to the mellifluous, SCRAAATCH also selected "Portraits (evr.snc)" by Baltimore's Elon, a weird R&B number on a bed of glistening e-pianos. (More recently, Elon has released an experimental hip-hop EP with Butch Dawson, also from Baltimore.) And, not to be beholden to genres of any kind, the SCRAAATCH mix also included a track by Kayy Drizz, described on her Soundcloud page as “Jersey's first female Jersey Club Producer” (a genre which is a key root of the style I looked at in last's month's column).
Back in 2012, U.S. avant-club DJ Total Freedom gathered together a number of artists who were then working in a collage and mutant club music style for the compilation Blasting Voice. Chino Amobi appeared on it, as did cross-U.S. artist Violence, who is soon to appear on the inaugural release of a new label founded by rapper Mykki Blanco called Dogfood Music Group. Due September 18th, the release will be a compilation titled C-ORE, featuring tracks from Violence, California’s Yves Tumor, NYC rapper Psychoegyptian and Blanco himself. "We are a group of friends who have created a release that represents a slice of what we're into, our culture and what we want to show the world," Blanco has said about the collection. "People all over the world are only fed this singular image of 'African American Music' and we want to disrupt that. We all come from backgrounds outside of the black American norm, and the world deserves to see our culture as much as anything else."
C-ORE certainly disrupts things. Violence's style has changed from the more experimental edits of the past few years and coalesced on three new tracks, with ominous, augmented speech and rap over instrumentals that take what has been described as "the technological overstimulation of a proto-human archetype" to a truly symphonic level. The title of Violence’s opener, "This Is Going To Be Disgusting, Unholy and Pleasurable," could embody the whole collection's punk-like collapsing of normative standards of beauty. Blanco's tracks are as strong and unusual as ever, with "Coke White, Starlight" shifting gears halfway through into a supremely dark groove that rides in on heavy chugging synths and machine sighs. Also rapping, Psychoegyptian's work could be seen as suggesting a uniquely 21st century iteration of Afrofuturism in that it—as the press release puts it—"focuses around a black anime star called hOla zygOte who lives in 'the cyberspace of PsychoEgypt.'" Exploding with emotion and vertigo, Psychoegyptian’s extended track "Lullaby (feat. Slum Savage)" gives C-ORE its spectacular conclusion.
"People all over the world are only fed this singular image of 'African American Music' and we want to disrupt that."—Mykki Blanco
Four of C-ORE's tracks are by Yves Tumor; three of those are blooms of harsh noise, while one, "Childish," is a captivating sketch in drum machines, vocals and watery ambience. This selection encapsulates the range in the output of this artist, who toured with Blanco in 2013 and who has many aliases, including Rahel Ali and Teams. As the latter, he released OneWorld 開発 in 2013, which is full of airy yet strange club sounds, followed by Any Way Is Not My Own Nor Your Own To Judge, which explored traditional non-Western percussion as part of its unpredictable flow. He also forms half of Silkbless with a collaborator called L.R. Bedman, and in 2013 they released sb1, a criminally obscure collection of subtly alien grooves. Another one of his aliases is Berkelé Berhanu, under which he recorded a ferocious mix for Berlin club collective Janus (divided into tracks and available for purchase here). Most recently, as Yves Tumor, he released When Man Fails You (listen below), which was posted on the NON Facebook page and is possibly his best collection yet. Indescribable in terms of genre as anything except for perhaps a kind of collage, it nevertheless has a deep and subtle musical sensibility that ranges far and wide for its sources and moods, yet uses a gentle hand, even when journeying through noise and deepest feeling. Its final track has that successful dovetailing of sentimentality and the sublime matched elsewhere only by Virginia artist Elysia Crampton or London's Dean Blunt; a melancholy night sky of starry keys, uneasy memories and endless horizons.
Needless to say, the artists mentioned here aren't the only African and Afrodiasporic artists making challenging and beautiful music in the underground, just a few constellations—there are countless more voices out there. As it has been for centuries, since the traumatic dawn of modernity, finding such voices through music is not just a leisure activity, as it is marketed to many of us. It's part of the urgent and fundamental search for self and identity in a world that not only erases that identity, or appropriates it, or predetermines it, or constrains it, or renders it fragmented and ostensibly paradoxical, but that also systematically commits physical violence upon people of that identity. This is why so many artists with minority status end up in underground music—this is why they are underground music. Fortunately, the underground can form spaces and networks where identity matters, is audible, and becomes visible.