The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

Tome On The Range

The Realness: Dhanveer Singh Brar On Dean Blunt’s Black Avant-Garde
Nicholas Burman , September 26th, 2020 08:34

In a new book for recently launched London-based small publisher The 87 Press, Goldsmiths lecturer Dhanveer Singh Brar analyses Babyfather’s album “BBF” Hosted by DJ Escrow

Dhanveer Singh Brar’s book-essay Beefy’s Tune (Dean Blunt Edit) is an analysis that draws a philosophy and alternative British history out of Dean Blunt’s Babyfather album “BBF” Hosted by DJ Escrow. Brar provides an essential contemporary history of (Black) British culture employing a prose that while brief is not short on insightful analysis.

Dean Blunt is a prolific artist in whose music there’s always something as yet unheard to find: some sound, aspect, attitude, insight, or interest of his can be found in his glistening, lo-fi, and London (more specifically: Hackney) inspired sound. Blunt’s work is partially defined by Brar as producing contradictory results: “evasion and mystification, [and] the generation and disruption of fantasy”. The importance of Blunt’s locale in his music provides a hurdle, however, for the listener/analyst. After all, how could a listener like I, from the suburban English west country, only ever living in London for a handful of years (never in its east), and never experiencing life as a black person in the UK, ever really understand Blunt’s music?

These frustrations have been raised in relation to Blunt’s career before. The artist himself talked in his 2014 cover interview for The Wire of the “sexless white men” who seemed to form the majority of the audience at his live shows. I, like them, am a spectator who is, in relation to “BBF”, on “the outside of a tragi-comedy looking in,” rather than “trapped inside it, desperate to get out”, as Brar summarises the two types of “BBF” listeners. With Brar’s text as guidebook/accompaniment, the gap between the two is perhaps somewhat reduced.

Brar first takes to task the common idea that Blunt is an art prankster. This wrongheaded conclusion has been made (including, shamefully, by myself, I believe) primarily due to his love of repetition and his nonchalant vocal delivery. The dreamy, melancholic textures in his music are drawn from a musical world exemplified by AR Kane – a connection Blunt has made himself and which Brar utilises in the final moments of his argument. Brar insists on recognising Blunt’s sometimes obtuse sonic output as an “ideological intervention” rather than mere performative gesture.

The Franco Rosso directed 1981 film Babylon, described on Wikipedia as “an incendiary portrait of racial tension and police brutality set in Brixton”, about a group of friends who form the Ital Lion sound system, is offered by Brar as a British cultural artefact which works as a line in the sand, one denoting a moment at which an anti-Imperial Black voice made itself heard amongst the postwar drudgery of the metropole. Specifically, Brar highlights the famous, mid-film lecture delivered by one of the characters, Beefy (played by Trevor Laird). This takes place after the Ital Lion crew are confronted by a white woman who tells them to “fuck off back to your own countries”. Beefy replies: “This is my fucking country lady! And it’s never been fucking lovely! It’s always been a fucking tip! For as long as I can remember! So don’t you fucking tell me right!”

Brar analyses how Beefy’s voice changes in this moment, demonstrating an ability to code switch from Caribbean patois to a (white) working class South London accent. He also sees this lecture as the unacknowledged origin of a tradition of postcolonial critiques, including those provided by headline intellectuals such as Homi Bhabha, Avtar Brah and Sara Ahmed. However, Beefy’s is critical work from outside of the academy. His is an organically generated critical understanding of the world born from experience and oral histories. In Brar’s essay, Beefy’s knowledge of and from the world starts a lineage of organic intellectualism that Brar makes Blunt part of, a lineage that also includes Linton Kwesi Johnson, Smiley Culture, and AR Kane.

The reason to make this link, between Babylon and “BBF”, is because, according to Brar, Blunt “recognises that the historical distance between 1980 and 2016 has been mistaken for progress.” To see “BBF” as a joke is to think that it is now safe to make a noise (and some of the record is pretty “noisy”) as a Black person in Britain. Instead, Brar situates “BBF” as part of the dub tradition: the low frequency rebellion against authority. A provocation, but also a method of expression and community formation. It reminded me of Steve Goodman’s definition of a sound system as consisting “of bodies, technologies, and acoustic vibrations, all in rhythmic sympathy”. The dub tradition can be heard as transgenerational rhythmic sympathy, one that Blunt is in tune with.

Brar sees Blunt’s ideological intervention, part of the lineage started by Babylon’s Beefy, and given form through the particularities of Blunt’s sonic aesthetic, as being personified by “BBF”’s DJ Escrow. Escrow is the pirate radio show host (voiced by poet James Massiah) who guides the listener through the “mixtape”. It had been a long time since I’d listened to “BBF”, but returning to it while reading Brar’s text, I found the record a lot more cohesive and coherent than I remember it being – even as it journeys through various sonic palettes. This is partly, I think, because Escrow has taken on a new shape in my mind thanks to Brar’s text. Brar demands for audiences to “be sincere.” Strict adherence to that imperative would sort out a lot of the world’s problems.

Aside from reconfiguring how a distant listener should approach Babyfather’s music, Brar revives the debate about whether Black British Arts should ever be concerned for formalism, or should rather stick to realism in order to be more politically potent. Brar picks up the conversation about the unconscious racial bias inherent to the avant-garde. It’s worth quoting him at length:

“There is a way in which the process of constructing a musical category according to relative degrees of ‘freedom’ can very quickly shift into thinking a music as definitive of a culture, and thus qualitatively reflective of a people, all of which lends itself to an unscripted but undeniably persistent notion that a particular musical freedom has a ‘home’ adequate to its (racial) sensibilities.”

Brar thus brings “BBF” into a wider, historical discussion about such a thing as a Black avant-garde. He resurrects the disagreement between theorists Paul Gilroy and Kobena Mercer which arose around discussions about the UK based New Black Cinema movement of the 1980s. This argument boils down to Gilroy supporting so-called popular and vernacular Black art, citing Lenny Henry’s Delbert Wilkins character, and Mercer finding something essential in, for example, the New Black Film Collective’s montage documentary films.

Brar falls in line with Mercer. Ultimately, he takes Blunt’s discography away from the criticism that it’s all merely a joke by making clear that this criticism is generated from an (unconscious) presumption that a Black artist (or a Black pirate radio host) could not possibly be knowingly avant-garde. Anyone interested in contemporary alternative music and wishing to improve their critical listening, or Blunt stans who are keen to get further involved in the artist’s work and cultural family tree, should read this essay.

Beefy’s Tune (Dean Blunt Edit) comes out via The 87 Press, a two-year-old London-based publishing venture, in collaboration with open source academic journal darkmatter. This release is the first instalment of their ongoing efforts to put out critical theory in accessible and affordable formats. The internet, even those parts dominated by good “content”, is always a little too noisy (in the bad sense), and work like Brar’s deserves time and space. I’m personally more of a fan of folded and stapled books, like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists paperback, which is around the same word count as Beefy’s Tune, and a little cheaper (though Penguin obviously benefits from economies of scale), than small perfect bound books. But no matter: open minded readers will do worse than to stumble across this at the check out desk of their local book shop, or give some essential scholarship support for a mere £10 during an online shopping spree. If thinking like Brar’s gains more popular traction maybe we will all eventually be able, like Craig David on “BBF”’s opening track, to find some pride in being British.

Beefy’s Tune (Dean Blunt Edit) by Dhanveer Singh Brar is published by The 87 Press