The Case of Ms. Hill

 

On the eve of her release from federal prison, Ms. Lauryn Hill released “Consumerism,” alongside a brief statement, quoted below in its entirety. A few months before she went in, Ms. Hill had released an unfinished version of another new song, titled “Neurotic Society (Compulsory Mix).” These two songs, along with the more recent “I’ve Got Life,” comprise the only rap songs officially released since her debut album in 1998, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. She has informally referred to these songs as part of a larger project titled, Letters From Exile, which is yet to be released and could very well be abandoned.

 

Consumerism is part of some material I was trying to finish before I had to come in. We did our best to eek out a mix via verbal and emailed direction, thanks to the crew of surrogate ears on the other side. Letters From Exile is material written from a certain space, in a certain place. I felt the need to discuss the underlying socio-political, cultural paradigm as I saw it. I haven’t been able to watch the news too much recently, so I’m not hip on everything going on. But inspiration of this sort is a kind of news in and of itself, and often times contains an urgency that precedes what happens. I couldn’t imagine it not being relevant. Messages like these I imagine find their audience, or their audience finds them, like water seeking its level.
                                                                                                           

Of the three songs, “Consumerism” unfolds as a world unto itself. Pan flute synths, drum sticks clomping along like horses off at the race track, and noodling guitar parts crescendo like a chorus of rebooting dial-up modems. Ms. Hill eschews the traditional 16-bar-per-verse orthodoxy of rap. The 11 or 12 stanzas are densely packed with multi-syllabic bars, replete with compound internal rhyme schemes. At times, you can hear a burst of syllables getting packed in before the closing of the 4/4 beat, falling sometimes right before or after it. The chorus comes in as a catchy, yet ominous, sing-song respite to the lyrical barrage of the verses: "He is, he is/set to, set to/self-destruct, self-destruct/he is, he is/too cool, too cool/to be true.”

Not including the chorus, which samples the ska punk rock band The Slit’s 1979 “Instant Hit,” “Consumerism” contains around 256 words ending in "-ism" out of a total 606. It has, to a degree, evolved from techniques Ms. Hill used in previous works, most notably the repetition of "-tion" in “Lost Ones”: “My emancipation don’t fit your equation/I was on the humble—you on every station.” But here, isms are strung together like a web over the abyss of modernism, each only in relation to the other, offering little in terms of a readily available narrative or message one can walk away with. Isms are not tout court bad. They are how entire classes of social, material, and historical phenomenon emerge under our language and the games language plays with the reality it tries to capture.

The isms that dominate the superficial landscape of think-pieces, like “ageism, racism, sexism,” are mentioned almost perfunctorily at the beginning before moving on to “neo-McCarthyisms” and “new colonialisms.” The rapid succession of these isms, which connote specific historical circumstances, are stacked side by side by side: “cataclysm, Darwinism, barbarism, formalism, (rationalism).” Sometimes Ms. Hill posits a context for a string of isms, like “European fetishisms” for the above—some lend themselves to others almost inseparably, while others operate in entirely different conceptual registers. In this vacuum, the listener is left to transpose whatever narrative they can over the ways she groups and critiques these isms. Toward the end, this gesture of hope reappears:

 

Recognition, they need decisions from a purer prism

Magnetism, pragmatism, altruism, actionism

Idealism, pacifism, rehabilitationism    

 

 

 

 

The music video for “Consumerism,” which Ms. Hill directed with Jon Casey, superimposes lyrics over both found and filmed footage, the latter comprising hyper-stylized and contemporary images of material excess, homelessness, and drug use (among others). Clips of early animation depict everything from bomber jets moving through the sky, to a cartoonish portrayal of smoking marijuana and getting high. Archival images of old timey European and American gentry are interspersed with images of impoverished third-world villages and refugee camps. Black bodies are shown swinging; a little girl in an orange dress poses on a stool with no hands to rest on her lap; rocket launchers march through the jungle on the shoulders of men. A map of Africa lists its nations’ valuable minerals and natural resources in lieu of the respective name of each country. The stitching together of footage reaffirms the overwhelming chaos of modernism, as its grand narratives are descended upon by hordes of particular and hyper-localized images.

Tempo, instrumental arrangement, harmony, and dissonance each have their own narrative shorthand, which connote sentiments, moods, and rules of engagement for the listener. Through editing together music and moving image, this aesthetic subverts an expectation of art to produce standard proclamations and grand narratives by performing and reproducing, instead, the rhythms and beats they operate along, transforming the notion of time being indexed by the particular images. Here, the images superimposed on each other mirror the imposition of the isms on each other. It is hard to separate one thing from another. The fast-paced tempo is “running through em” all like an insatiable hunger for more connections. The connections consume the things being connected. We try to latch onto a pattern before it dissipates into something else: “egotism, egotism, egotism, egotism, egotism.”

 

Cult existence, superstition,

Ritual materialisms,

Serial isms, habitual inferior vision

 

This is the balancing act Ms. Hill maintains throughout “Consumerism.” Here is a song that is both a product of consumerism and a critique of it. Ms. Hill is leveraging the platforms offered to her as a major recording artist to release the kind of art that defies its own mass consumption. Some may see this as a joyless, hypocritical dirge against the same forces that made her a famous artist. Yet underneath lies a profound faith in the possibility of artistic freedom; that art does not need to be consumed by as many people as possible; that art must defy its own consumability by capturing something that can open itself deeper alongside its audience: as “their audience finds them, like water seeks its level.” 

Art becomes self-aware through its own fight against mass consumption. The third wall between the "artistic" choices an artist makes, in formal relation to the work itself, cannot stand apart from all of the other kinds of choices made around it. What emerges are different spaces between the art work and its audience, operating on concurrent scales of reference that the audience continuously reforms in relation to each other. Space gives way to form, form gives way to to other artists and intellectuals carving out a space for the reception of their own work—outside of the prevailing narratives that try to drown out the specificity of what they have to say about their place in the world.

 

Recognition, they need decisions from a purer prism

Magnetism, pragmatism, altruism, actionism

Idealism, pacifism, rehabilitationism    

 

II. 

In the mid to late 90s, The Fugees helped expand the global market of hip-hop, both in terms of the musical landscapes they drew from and the international markets their records were charting across. When Ms. Hill released her solo debut album, she drew from classic soul, hip-hop, and reggae, helping to usher in an artistic movement—alongside other musicians such as D’angelo, Erykah Badu, and Bilal—later labeled and marketed as “Neo-Soul.” Ms. Hill, back when she was L-Boogie, worked with a number of these rappers: directing a music video with Common, touring with Talib Kweli and Mos Def, etc. Whatever you want to call it, this music profoundly overlapped with another contentiously labeled movement: Backpack or Conscious Rap. The internet opened up new forums for public debate around hip-hop music, politics, and community building through multi-media platforms like Okayplayer and Afro Punk.

For a hot, fleeting minute, this period felt like the consummation of “The New Black Aesthetic” that Trey Ellis wrote of in his 1989 essay. Except now, this new generation of Black artists who grew up in burgeoning middle class households, where both their parents attended college, didn’t hitchhike across Africa after they graduated to find themselves or settle for small scale, underground, indie, or punk rock reverence. They were signing record deals with major labels, selling their scripts to film studios, and creating clothing lines at ages so young they didn’t quite realize what they were signing away. The Black Public Sphere was becoming mainstream and globalized in an unprecedented, and ultimately unsustainable way.  

Perhaps this was the culmination of what Nelson George discussed in his 1992 Village Voice essay, “The Complete History of Post-Soul”:

 

The post-soul years [since the mid-seventies] have witnessed an unprecedented acceptance of black people in the public life of America. As political figures, advertising images, pop stars, coworkers, and classmates, the descendants of African slaves have made their presence felt and, to a remarkable degree considering this country’s brutal history, been accepted as citizens, if not always as equals.

 

America, and her Black artists and intellectuals, could now attempt “to absorb the victories, failures, and ambiguities” that resulted from the soul years: the Civil Rights Movement, Black Panthers, Nation of Islam, etc. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was one of the most ambitious and cohesive attempts to absorb these victories, failures, and ambiguities. In the classroom skits, a young Ras Baraka—the son of Amiri Baraka, who in “Black Art” famously disavowed love poems for “poems that kill”—facilitated a simple, yet profoundly touching discussion on love as experienced by a group of Black kids. “Doo Wop (That Thing)” repackaged the failed respectability politics from the Civil Rights era, with its reference to the Sirat-al-Mustaqim or “the straight path” in Arabic, while reassuring the listener that she has been through these same predicaments. And these two lines from “Final Hour” still speak volumes on the ambiguities of Black success that tries to balance capitalism with spirituality: “I’m a get the mozzarella like a Rockafella/ Still be in the church of Lalibella, singing hymns a capella.”

The Unplugged 2.0 performance was, in many ways, a rejection of having to constantly reflect a cogent, Black Universalist ethos through her public persona—or to stop interpreting “what the drums say” for a popular culture, to use a phrase from political science professor Adolph Reed. After an extended hiatus from performing and releasing music, Ms. Hill used touring to explore a gamut of Black musical forms through the perpetual rearrangements of her own work. A significant portion of this newer work falls within the tradition of Ellis’ New Black Aesthetic—Black punk rock musicians and poets like Bad Brains, Living Colour, and Saul Williams. The other parts draw from hybridized genres like Afrobeat, Soca, and Jazz Fusion. All of which has now coalesced into an Afrofuturist moment for Ms. Hill, as her art tries to communicate between several musical and visual forms shared throughout a larger African diaspora.

 

III.

 

 

In 2016, Ms. Hill spontaneously transformed a sold-out concert in Brooklyn into the three day art festival and exhibit: “The First Annual 'Diaspora Calling!'” She released the following statement:

 

Diaspora Calling! is a collection of works intended to celebrate the rich tapestry of artists from the African Diaspora while also illumining persistent and irrepressible themes…Even if we work independently, we are a resounding collective voice, both reconciling and embracing our relationship to history, our origins, our future and to ourselves.  

 

This is a conscious shift on her part to locate her musical genesis outside of what can become the arbitrary and rigid genres she is expected to reproduce as a Black musician and singer. The promise of a larger and more fluid African diaspora functions as a liminal space in which she can better understand herself and re-situate herself in light of the past. When colonialism and slavery is the impetus behind your place in the world, then you must grapple with this place through the prevailing structures that were forced on you: from relocation, through the Middle Passage, to the politics of urban containment.

The critique offered in “Consumerism” is thus an imminent one, using the terms of neo-liberalism that figure as the forerunner to the same Western arrangement that continues to reproduce this diaspora. This is not surprising, since Black women in particular have had to deal with these “post-modern” problems since at least the 19th century, as Toni Morrison claimed in a conversation with Paul Gilroy in Small Acts:

 

It's not simply that human life originated in Africa in anthropological terms, but that modern life begins with slavery. ...Certain kinds of dissolution, the loss of and the need to reconstruct certain kinds of stability. Certain kinds of madness, deliberately going mad in order, as one of the characters says in the book [Beloved], "in order not to lose your mind." These strategies for survival made the truly modern person. They're a response to predatory Western phenomena. You can call it an ideology and an economy, what it is is a pathology. Slavery broke the world in half, it broke it in every way. It broke Europe. It made them into something else, it made them slave masters, it made them crazy. You can't do that for hundreds of years and it not take a toll. They had to dehumanize, not just the slaves but themselves. They have had to reconstruct everything in order to make that system appear true. It made everything in World War II possible. It made World War I necessary.

 

Kudwo Eshun, in his essay “Further Considerations on Afrofuturism,” referred to Morrison’s point on slavery as the “founding trauma” of Afrofuturism. The “double consciousness” W.E.B. Du Bois wrote of in The Souls of Black Folk would set the stage for the originary mitosis of the Black self, which modernism reproduces into triple, quadruple, quintuple, ect. consciousness. Science fiction provides Afrofuturism with scenarios that rewrite the reality or trajectory of this mitosis. Eshun writes, “Looking back at the genre, it becomes apparent that science fiction was never concerned with the future, but rather with engineering feedback between its preferred future and its becoming present.”

In this sense, “Consumerism” is anti-Afrofuturist. It refuses to speculate on a “preferred future.” It does not rest its hopes on any kind of Promise Land utopianism. Africa as a monolith on which one can dump their fantasies of Black unification is abruptly shut down as “Dish-Pan-Africanism.” It shares this sobriety with Martine Syms’ “The Mundane Afrofuturist Manifesto,” which begins with the recognition that:

We did not originate in the cosmos.

The connection between Middle Passage and space travel is tenuous at best.

Out of five hundred thirty-four space travelers, fourteen have been black. An all-black crew is unlikely.

Magic interstellar travel and/or the wondrous communication grid can lead to an illusion of outer space and cyberspace as egalitarian.

This dream of utopia can encourage us to forget that outer space will not save us from injustice and that cyberspace was prefigured upon a "master/slave" relationship.

While we are often Othered, we are not aliens.

Though our ancestors were mutilated, we are not mutants.

Post-black is a misnomer.

Post-colonialism is too.

The most likely future is one in which we only have ourselves and this planet.

 

The militancy of the mundane exhibits strength in its ability to remain so cool yet so thoroughly relentless in pursuing the object of its scorn: a gravitas to squash the pretenses of modernism; a dressing down of humanism. No one is spared as Syms matter-of-factly states the overwhelming material and conceptual machinations that preclude the “becoming present” in light of the always-already we are embedded in. This forecloses the fantastical scenarios offered by the more speculative works of Afrofuturism. This is not about turning the descendants of slaves into the absolute victim of the West. It is about how victims are always-already being reproduced by certain mechanisms and yet these same mechanisms offer the possibility of reformation:

 

Recognition, they need decisions from a purer prism

Magnetism, pragmatism, altruism, actionism

Idealism, pacifism, rehabilitationism

 

Saul Williams released "MartyrLoserKing" as an allegory on how Black genius is overlooked in the contexts from which they organically emerge. A miner-turned-hacktivist from Burundi organizes a resistance movement from the reality around him. It is through the depiction of this resistance that the reality around the protagonist emerges as something imminently worth resisting. The rest of the world uses Africa as a technological dumping ground for their discarded technology, but these resistance groups take full advantage of what is around them, finding worth in what others deemed worthless. The Africans currently mining coltan and lithium may be powerless as to its final end, but the technology it ultimately produces releases a tremendous power than can open up entirely new networks, and ways to access and circulate within them, for emergeing classes of people. Technology offers a means to reintroduce themselves within these exploitative arrangements. This gap, between what technology is doing and what technology can do, is the generative rift of Afro-futurism. Art can take the tiniest of gaps and hold it up as a massive reservoir of shared history and possible futures.

 

IV.

“The future is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed.”

--William Gibson

 

In the absence of trying to spell out a praxis for navigating the gulf between art and commerce—or how to make “decisions from a purer prism”—I will end with these concluding thoughts on what it means to create/experience art that resists consumption. Artists operate in the distance between the observer and the work of art. The work of art is both the work itself—as things that are already predisposed to be received as a painting, a song, a standup routine, etc—and as the work on the part of the observer that engages with it. The observer can leave from the work of art as transformed as the space that lies in between them. But this space can only be explored if it is acknowledged as such. We, as the observers, should ask:

  1. How am I, as both a person and an observer, reproduced in my relation to the work of art?
  2. How is the work of art reproduced both (a) on the side of itself, as a particular thing that exists in the world, in particular ways, and (b) on the side of the observer and the patterns of recognition the work of art can reproduce in our experience with the work?   

This is the power of the work, both in the sense of the artwork and of our work in accessing it: as a mediating point between how we experience both difference and repetition; and as the ways we reproduce our perceptions of the world; and, ultimately, as the space we can differentiate a work of art under given what surrounds it. This, in turn, provides us with the space to see ourselves in something other. The work of art, when at its most heightened, stands orthogonal to the observer, placing them and the work of art on a momentary axis with new horizons to open, new possibilities to disclose, and new ways to order this unfolding world as we experience it.

This distance, in turn, bears the most fruitful engagement between art, society and, well, everything. It is a productive distance distinguished from the underlying transparency of the status quo, which wants to reproduce the relationship between the work of art and the observer in ways which are normal, natural, and perfectly rational. This transparency between the observer and the work of art allows neither the space for self-recognition nor for the recognition of the other to occur. Which is to say that what is familiar, immediate, and sensuously pleasing may not best reproduce these kinds of self-reflective, aesthetic spaces, which operate on the logic of alienation as therapy; as opposed to the logic of consumerism qua mass consumption, which can acknowledge only what is always ready at hand and for our immediate gratification.

To interrogate oneself in relation to a work of art is therapeutic. It is the refinement of these coping mechanisms we use in the face of reality, as we try to acknowledge the most alienating aspects of it. Much is being asked of the observer, although it ultimately reduces to this: “Where do I stand?” and “On what grounds?” To even ask is a privilege, since most labor under a reality that renders them largely transparent from within the perspective of that reality. But in truth we are all working towards something—either our self-preservation or our self-destruction. Recognition is work—anything else is to labor under someone else's delusion. To quote Ms. Hill: “Work for wisdom.”

 

 

Song-isms

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Under Heavy Manners” (1980) by Robert Fripp and David Byrne

Cataphatacism: from the Greek verbs cata ("to descend") and femi ("to speak"), roughly translates "to bring God down in such a way so as to [be able to] speak of [them]"

Apophatacism: or negative theology describes God by negation, to speak of God only in certain terms and to avoid what may not be said.

Towards the end, Byrne ups the ism ante with this: “Scofistism, Kenosisism, Pneumatologism, Theandricism, Synergism, Monothelitism, Nestorianism, Sacerdotalism, Theurgism, Ecclesiasticalism, Eucharisticism, Episcopalianism, Hesychasticism”

“O Urizel”...?

“I am resplendent in divergence”

 

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“Type” (1990) by Living Colour

We are the children of concrete and steel
This is the place where the truth is concealed
This is the time when the lie is revealed
Everything is possible, but nothing is real

Corporate religion/ Televangahypnotism/ Suffer till you die

Hypothetical/Theoretical/Circumstantial evidence/Irrelevance/Don't think twice/Just roll the dice

 

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“Corporate Cannibal” (2008) by Grace Jones

I’ll consume my consumers with no sense of humor

Corporate cannibal, digital criminal/ Corporate cannibal, eat you like an animal

You’re my life support/ You’re life is my sport

 

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“Coltan as Cotton” (2015) by Saul Williams

Hack into doctrine- capitalism in relation to free labor and slavery. Hack into the history of bank. Is beating the odds a mere act of joining the winning team?

What is taught? What is felt? What is learned? What is shared?

Hack into nature. Bio-dynamics. Bio-diversity. Cycles and seasons. Hack into time. Calendars. Descartes. It’s relationship to doubt. Is it wired to fear. The notion of control. The space/time continuum. The force of gravity. Whether the opposite of gravity is freedom. Hack into freedom. Power. Responsibility. Justice. The Bill Of Rights.

 

Omar Baig is an independent scholar who splits his time between Washington, D.C. and Charlottesville, Virginia. His research interests include Ethics, Critical Animal Studies, and Speculative Realism. Baig’s areas of specialization are Post-Kantian Continental Philosophy and American and European intellectual history.