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Imma Be The Upgraded New Negro: The Politics of Black Eyed Peas So-Called Party Bangers
Aida Amoako , March 14th, 2018 10:45

Black Eyed Peas have been praised for a supposed return to their "political roots" away from the "party bangers" of now-ten-year-old The E.N.D. But, argues Aida Amoako, the group have always had a politicised Afrofuturism at the heart of what they do.

When Black Eyed Peas returned earlier this year with 'Street Livin', critics and fans alike saw it as a sign the group were returning to their more socially conscious roots. The track touches explicitly on issues ranging from police brutality and the school to prison pipeline to DAPL and the Dreamers. Headlines proclaimed, with a collective sigh of nostalgia and relief that the Peas had left behind "party bangers" for "music with a purpose" and traded "pop for politics". The E.N.D., released in 2009, marked a great change in the Peas' sound. It became more electronic and dance-oriented and while partying did feature a whole lot in this album, to say Black Eyed Peas have now traded pop for politics ignores how this 'party banger' album was subtly political. It may not have been as explicit as didactic protest anthems like 'Where Is The Love' and 'Street Livin'', but The E.N.D with its Afrofuturistic aesthetic, subtle cyborg politics and electronic sound, presented a work that considered the influence of music in the actualisation of a future self.

The E.N.D's preoccupation with the future revealed itself in everything from the album artwork, a digital rendering of the combined faces of the band, to the lyrics in the album's lead track 'Boom Boom Pow': "I got that future flow", "that digital spit", and the infamous "I'm so three thousand and eight / You so two thousand and late". I'm not going to sit here and pretend there weren't some completely cringe-worthy moments ("Myspace, your space, Facebook is a new place" have to be some of the worst lyrics ever) but running alongside the party theme was an unfettered utopian this is nowhere more embodied than in 'Imma Be'.

'Imma Be' exemplifies the tension between the old and the new, the so-called authentic and the manufactured, in its exploration of future self-actualisation. In the video Taboo shows Fergie photos from “back in the day” just before Will.i.am introduces a new machine that will produce future Black Eyed Peas albums. He tells them “I just type in the lyrics and then this thing sings it, says, it raps it, talks it." But Fergie, echoing the album's critics, is disgusted: "It takes the soul out of it. It's not real. We're not robots." She storms out but Will.i.am responds "You can't say futuristic and then be afraid of the future."

Will.i.am declares he's going to be the future, an “Upgraded new Negro”. Will.i.am speaks his braggadocious lines about being "brilliant with millions" and rocking "the whole globe" with his now- characteristic futuristic focus but the idea of the New Negro dates back to the early 20th century movement, the Harlem Renaissance. Alain Locke, the philosophy professor who popularised the term, imagined the New Negro as a figure whose cultural production would serve as a corrective to the images and literature that as Locke put it "obscured the actual individual and resulted in familiarity with the 'Negro Problem' rather than the Negro." It may seem like as stretch to place The E.N.D in this tradition, but the futuristic aesthetic is a subtle nod to these ideas. In the late 90s, scholar Alondra Nelson led conversations about Afrofuturism on an online forum, some of which included the concept of the "digital divide". The digital divide suggested there was a gap in technological access and computer literacy that could be understood through the prisms of race, gender, age, class but was often reduced to simply to the divide in race, resulting in the idea of a "black technical handicap" and the impression that "African Americans in particular cannot keep pace with our high tech society..."

Will.i.am, with his deep interest and investment in the advancement of technology (particularly A.I.) counters that digital divide narrative. His achievements include writing 'Reach For The Stars', the first song to be broadcasted to Earth from another planet, and being the Director of Creative Innovation for Intel. This supposedly newfound obsession with futuristic technology only really became obvious when it was coupled with the release of The E.N.D. In this project Black Eyed Peas, a band where three out of the four members are people of colour, were portrayed not only as technologically literate, not only even as ahead of the game ("Y'all stuck on super 8 shit / that lo-fi stupid 8-bit") but as one with technology, as cyborgs.

In the video for 'Imma Be' pressing the logo on his Beats by Dre headphones, releases Will.i.am from suspended animation. Apl.de.ap is “activated” with a nudge to the back of the neck – no headphones this time, the technological interface is breached. The band retrieves the torso of Taboo which is then attached to his legs. Interestingly Fergie, the only woman and only white person in the group only participates in the aesthetic of the cyborg, wearing a mental glove to emulate a cyborg hand. The Upgraded New Negro is a cyborgian figure, a hybrid of metaphoric flesh and cybernetics. While Will.i.am says he's going to be the upgraded New Negro, he also promises to be the "average brother with soul" seeming to anticipate concerns like Fergie's ("it takes the soul out of it"). Before the album's release, Will.i.am described the sound as: "a lot of dance stuff, real melodic, electronic, and soulful. We call it, like, electric static funk, something like that." He didn't see electronic and soulful as oxymoronic and why would he when he's actually working within a tradition?

Black music has explored these afrofuturistic ideas with the fusion of traditional black genres and electronic music for decades, with notable examples like Sun Ra, and Parliament Funkadelic, and more recently Janelle Monae. Disco, which fuses the soulful and the electronic, was also dismissed as vapid and towards the end of the 1970s became the source of much disdain. Simon Frith in his 1978 essay 'The Infinite Spaces of Disco' which exemplified the technophobic attitude that claimed that disco with its vocoders and synths was "dehumanising…offer[ing] a glimpse of a harsh sci-fi future." Frith focused especially on disco's ability to make dancing machines of us all, "twitching limbs, glazed-eyed, mindless..." 'Rock That Body', another track from the E.N.D demands the listeners dance through its titular instruction, and in the video the Peas armed with nerf guns that blast soundwaves to make people dance, seem to give credit to those concerns about electronic party music. Perhaps, like Richard Dyer who famously defended disco, where others saw dystopia, The Black Eyed Peas saw an opportunity to "rediscover our bodies as part of […] the possibility of change".

The possibility of change is embodied in the repetitive refrain of 'Imma Be'. Each member speaks aloud their ambitions. Towards the end of that track Will.i.sm says "Oh let's make this last forever / Partying, we'll chill together / On and on and on and on and…" The thought never completes, subverting that normal utopian teleology, and therefore avoids the traps of stasis and eventual decline by making the act of dreaming (Imma be) constant. The name of the album is after all an acronym of The Energy Never Dies. The repetitive outro of 'Imma Be' suggests in its incompleteness the wealth of possibilities that could fill that gap, as well as being a self-sufficient and defiant statement in-and-of-itself of continued and thriving existence against the odds: Imma be.

But almost 10 years have passed since The E.N.D. The high profile deaths of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Mike Brown, Sandra Bland and the protests they spawned have occurred since The E.N.D. White supremacists have gunned down and mowed down people since then. The infinite dreaming of The E.N.D. seems, despite its optimism, indulgent. 'Street Livin'' by contrast is sombre with its unremitting monosyllables and mournful trumpet. Injustices and social dilemmas are explicitly stated as opposed to imaginatively alluded to. There's an urgency to 'Street Livin'' that The E.N.D. does not have. But this doesn't mean the latter was not political too. 'Street Livin'' is the product of an evolution of the concern for the futurity of humanity displayed on The E.N.D., informed by the multitude of social injustices that have caught the public's attention and made activists of many. For many marginalised communities and activists, fighting means constantly adapting the methods of resistance to oppression. In 2009, a joyful, futuristic concept and dance beats may have been the way to go but the specificity and directness of 'Street Livin'' conveys a pressing need for recognition of basic humanity. The style of music has changed as a result; however some of the Afrofuturistic aesthetic remains as seen with their Masters Of The Sun augmented reality book to which 'Street Livin'' is tied. 'Street Livin'' doesn't signal the Peas' return from some apolitical partyland. Instead it demonstrates agility in political expression from subtle to didactic, from the infinite spaces of electric static funk to determined, yet heavy-hearted jazz hip hop, from utopian future, to dystopian present.

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