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Dean Blunt & Inga Copeland
Black Is Beautiful Ryan Alexander Diduck , April 16th, 2012 08:36

There's something inherently pretentious in writing about art that the artists themselves are reluctant to discuss. Not that it makes things any easier when they provide lengthy statements explaining what it's all supposed to mean. That stuff is often more dreary and awkward than enlightening. At least when Dean Blunt and Inga Copeland resist discussing these things, their responses seem solely designed to further inveigle their audiences, fueling hyperactive speculation and endless online commentary. In a recent interview with The Guardian, the duo railed against constant questions about meaning in their music, saying blankly that it destroys the inarticulable significance that becomes and dissolves in the moment of experience: bluntly, "that 'thing' in the world." The problem is, that's the 'thing' that people like me are after, and the last thing we want to destroy. Don't fret. We'll never completely pin it down anyway.

There's another problem too, following from the ways in which music media - particularly online - tend to report on the same things, reciting the same stories in slightly different words, reviewing the same records while employing only vaguely variant hyperbole. In her incisive New York Times Magazine column, Alexandra Molotkow engages with this recurring theme, lamenting the loss of old-fashioned gatekeeping, resulting from the growing collective resources of online cultural capital, and the disappearance of qualified "knowledge guardians." Criticism, in turn, has become a field fraught with the dangers of rote reportage, the stale shill, or worst of all, haughty impenetrability. I presume that most people who want to know that Blunt and Copeland have a new album out, already do. Given that, what is there to say about something that everyone already knows, and the band won't talk about? Well, just because the artists defy making meaning doesn't mean their listeners do too.

Inga Copeland - 'Trample' [taken from Inga Copeland's self-titled 12" on Rush Hour]

In my last column for the Quietus, I got slammed by a few anonymous commentators for suggesting that meaning is cultivated over time, in the intersubjective realm. So I decided to do something different here: to put theory into practice, take about a month to listen closely, and really think about what it even means to make meaning. And the only nuggets of truth I can offer with confidence are some of the things Black Is Beautiful put to my mind, a smattering of parallel texts that it prompted me to investigate or rediscover, and why I find it interesting and important. If you want to read words like 'hazy' and 'hypnagogic' again, this isn't the review you're looking for. It's an experiment, stick with me.

The earliest Hype Williams recording I recall hearing was Junt / Deez Ruins You See, a cassette released on Montréal tape label Hobo Cult Records. What I found immediately moving was how vividly it rendered the modern urban experience through complex curating and recombination of sounds and styles associated with the city. Cities are places of concurrent creation and accumulation. And Black Is Beautiful is a still more refined musical iteration of displaced and replaced citizens: slow sirens and distant voices, as if urgently broadcast in foreign languages over distorted subway intercoms, soundtracked by free jazz and hip-hop, lover's rock and electro, j-pop and dub - themselves diasporic, oppidan genres. In her article Sounding out the City, scholar Sara Cohen makes a connection between music and the subjective production of urban places. She talks about the ways in which music "moves bodies," "creates its own time, space, and motion," and "fills and structures space within us and around us."

Blunt and Copeland's work is like hearing rival stereos from adjacent apartments, thumping cars and treble-heavy earbuds, while finding our way within the labyrinthine metropolitan maze. Its erratic rhythmic and harmonic arrangements are akin to the upheaving asphalt that city folk walk on, through diversely inhabited neighbourhoods, over cobblestone streets, between graffitied walls of concrete and brick, around crumbling cloverleaf overpasses and into dead ends, above crooked rooftops, down diagonal fire escapes and spiral staircases, piloting the cleaved strata of competing and contested histories. Like those urban navigations, Black Is Beautiful summons ideas of contingent performance in indeterminate motion.

Charles Mingus - 'Freedom'

It's true that this record contains an array of improvisatory elements, and radically bucks conventions of digital, maximal, densely layered, and meticulously quantized electronic music. While so much contemporary work is awash in those pretty-good prosumer production values, Blunt and Copeland are happy to leave things a bit dirty and frayed around the edges. On sister-jams 3, 7, and 14 for instance, acrid synth lines meander over dubby delays that stutter off-kilter, becoming progressively messier in each successive variation. In his essay Negotiating Freedom, David Borgo reviews the different ways that improvisational music asserts an impetus for the exemption from established power structures. He traces links between "varying degrees of liberation from functional harmony, metered time, and traditionally accepted performance roles and playing techniques," and "the music's place within the context of an emerging postcolonial world." For author Matthew Sanson, who writes in his article Imaging Music, improvisation conveys the "aspiration to live beyond forms of stifling institutionalized order." Despite appearances, I think there are methods to Blunt and Copeland's madness, and their expressionistic articulations become particularly relevant to what I believe is the fairly blatant political project that drives this record: Black is beautiful.

’Black will make you …’
’Black …’
’… or black will un-make you.’
’Ain’t it the truth, Lawd?’”
Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952)

Ralph Ellison's 1952 novel Invisible Man chronicles an unnamed black protagonist who narrates the reader through his encounters with grotesque racism in mid-20th century America. One of the primary things the character explains is how 'invisibility' (his metaphor for the African American experience, and for oppression, more broadly) "gives one a slightly different sense of time, you're never quite on the beat. Sometimes you're ahead and sometimes behind." At the beginning of the story, the hero describes an evening spent accidentally getting stoned and listening to Louis Armstrong. Under the influence of the reefer, Ellison writes: "Instead of the swift and imperceptible flowing of time, you are aware of its nodes, those points where time stands still or from which it leaps ahead. And you slip into the breaks and look around."

In his 2005 book Phonographies, Alexander G. Weheliye, assistant professor of African American Studies at Northwestern University, argues that these chronological ruptures in music enable "a more nuanced theory of temporality … that takes notice of the complex relations of domination and subordination linked to the inscription of history as it pertains to black people in the United States and the oppressed, in general." To be removed from the prescribed tempo of life initially gives one the impression of being excluded and omitted from history. Still, the ability to step inside and outside empirical time through the combination of invisibility, music, and drugs is construed here paradoxically as a kind of unlikely superpower of the outsider.

One night while writing this piece, I invited a friend over to listen to the album, and to bounce some ideas around. I ended up eating a handful of mushrooms, and by about track 10, experienced something very similar to Ellison's invisible character. All of a sudden, I had no idea how long we'd been sitting there on the couch, listening. My pal receded from view, as I became one with my chesterfield. The surroundings winked out of existence, and other sounds and images set my lobes humming. Like Ellison's imaginary sermon quoted in the epigram, in my mind's ear I heard the voice of Richard Pryor, for some reason.

After my friend left to catch the last train home, I compulsively watched Pryor's routines one after another, drawing tenuous connections between his acerbic commentary and Blunt and Copeland's brand of absurdity. In Pryor's 1971 film Live and Smokin', he says: "I remember when black wasn't beautiful. Men would come around my neighbourhood: 'Black is beautiful! Africa is your home! Beware the Black Man! Be proud to be Black!' And my parents go: 'That nigger crazy! Better get your ass away from here with that shit! Don't start no trouble around here!'" Hallucinating amidst the echoes of the 2011 riots in the UK, and the recent murder of Trayvon Martin in Florida, with my astral antlers fully extended and psychic nerves completely exposed, I laughed and cried simultaneously at how hilarious Pryor's uncomfortable performances were, and how unfortunately relevant they still are, decades later. Black Is Beautiful is at times uncomfortable, too, but it's in these moments of discomfort that its truth is located.

Richard Pryor - Gun Shop

After about 50 or so listens, some time, a few drifting conversations, some heavy reading, some light drugs, and some synchronicity, I found Black Is Beautiful both interesting in its aesthetics, and important in its overlapping politics. It inconclusively combines sonic and structural elements of the past, across networked urban cultures, and moulds them into possible futures not yet realized. In the Guardian interview noted above, Dean Blunt maintained that he's "not smart enough to have a philosophy." I don't believe that for a moment. Likewise, the apocrypha that accompanied the album - Blunt's robbing spree of stuffed raccoons ('coons being an antiquated derogatory term for people of African descent; theft as an act of liberation), and his subsequent conversion to the Nation of Islam - I doubt was a meaningless gesture.

The real power of this record lies in its superficial ignorance, concealing all the working, waiting, learning, and planning that lurks beneath. In the 1990s, postmodern theorist Paul Mann wrote that paying close attention to what he called 'stupid undergrounds' requires an "extra-cartographic reach" to "expose to criticism its own stupidity, its impossibility, its abject necessity." Beastly stupidity gets pretty close to that 'thing' in the world, the thing that good art has and is able to communicate, to make known and be understood, without words. And Black Is Beautiful isn't just smart; it's stupid smart.