What Follows? The State of Black Collectivity in the Year of the Sheep

Continuing to sing a vital and urgent message of black collectivity, Harmony Holiday writes from New York critiquing the state of things now and the shape of jazz to come.

Here we are at the start of the Year of the Sheep, and may we no longer be martyrs to our own following. In 1977, filmmaker Charles Burnett, wrote and directed his masterpiece Killer of Sheep. The film depicts a black working class family based in Watts, Los Angeles, whose patriarch works at a factory, slaughtering sheep for money. In the uncanny zone where the stoic meets the sensual, the plot unfolds, almost but not quite romanticizing a kind of defeatism, the opposite of the glorification of ghetto fabulous heroism that most Blaxploitation era films achieve. And he made the entire work independently, start to finish, very little backing, his thesis for UCLA’s film program in which he was a student at the time.

This is not a fantasy. Burnett’s work privies us to an undercommons where Black American life meets the stark existentialism Camus grasps in The Stranger, and turns it familiar and almost benevolent. Killer of Sheep occupies the territory wherein alienation is so bleak that it furnishes bonds, tribes, a whole self-sustaining aesthetic of its own. A kind of zen overcomes the atmosphere because with no perceived control over the environment, the present moment establishes eternal significance, the detached protagonists take on a monastic wisdom and a tender spectacle is made of the private epiphanies that accompany it, and not in the service of a stagnating hipness, in the service of transcendence.

And now, we’ve reached 2015, the so-called year of the sheep, we have a black president; we communicate with such immediacy that narrative often feels superfluous to understanding; many of us have the luxury of overlooking the existence of factories and manual labor, and think our goods come from 3D printers and some Amazon warehouse in the ether. Yet do we have any more control over the means of production and distribution of our products than we did in ‘77? Is Watt’s Los Angeles any less of a lowkey monastery than it was then? Is the present any less of an eternity and solvent for a sense of lack of control of the past and future that plagues working class North Americans of all colours ? And in what industries do Black Americans specifically, have or demand autonomy and jurisdiction over how we are treated and represented?

As a black artist who deals with the archival as a futurism, as an ark that can transport us to a utopian or at least less dystopian beyond, these questions have become increasingly pressing for me over the past couple of years. I’ve realized that the era of collectives and movements seems to have been absorbed by the illusion of aggregates and collectivity that social media–and specifically enclaves like “Black Twitter”–offer. And I wonder if this is to our detriment, if voyeurism and the democratization of the privileges of the spectator, have replaced our hunger to form collectives and define and redefine ourselves, even at the risk of self-objectification, simply in order to keep the muscle of self-determination from atrophying.

In what ways are we organized? And when we realize we have suspended agency due to faith in a seemingly less hostile system, do we create movements when we realize that the hostility has just been recast in some cases? Some questions:

– Do we own any book stores, publishing companies, record companies, media outlets, performance venues, etc.?

– Do we maintain an empowered stance in the places where we do have leverage, or do our creative pursuits smack of the bureaucratic even in spaces like university departments devoted to ‘Black Studies’ and the like?

– What would we make if we were not exploiting the tension of the white gaze, even the component of it that derives from our own psyches?

This year I want to follow that impulse, I think of predecessors Sun Ra, Amiri Baraka, John Akomfrah and the Black Audio Film Collective, Theaster Gates, Bill Gunn, Fred Wilson, Charles Burnett, Billie Holiday, Alvin Ailey, Judith Jamison, Lorraine Hansberry, Abbey Lincoln, George Lewis and the Art Ensemble of Chicago, men and women who make every effort to define creative freedom in their own terms, to own the means of production and distribution where possible. Out of my frustration with an experience with a university publisher, excepted below, I’ve been re-inspired to create autonomously without making that a hyperbolic statement for statement’s sake.

This will include the evolution of the Afrosonics site into a record label and publishing outfit devoted to the release of soundpieces and printed material from the archive and newly created in its enduring spirit, a book club and research group punctuated by a reading series, to be held at the site of the historic Dunbar Hotel in Los Angeles, and the participation in similar acts of reclamation of space and aura, with fellow artists. Perhaps our sense of urgency as marginalized people has matured into a kind of poised patience, or maybe organization around vaguely or even pointedly militant ideas feels redundant and nostalgic and we want to dissipate as if breaking the spell of struggle. One of my intentions in the year of the sheep, is to dispel such sheepishness, to interrogate those sentiments or the phantoms of them, with action. The excerpt below is one such interrogation, part of a piece that will appear in full in Scratch Magazine this spring. And in sonics this first dispatch of Mythscience Records sets the tone and surveys the Afrosonics archive thus far : and much more to come in a trans-idiomatic way.

This is sort of event number one in the resurrection of the killer of sheep mentality of sensual revolution, in Year of the Sheep, 2015 AD.

Dear young editors and publishers and distributors and solicitors of the work of black artists,

The will to accurately and acutely express ourselves outweighs the will to obey contract jargon, always will. If you cannot be versatile and open to reasonable new ideas with the power to advance our expression, yet expect us to contort west at every chance we get, expect defiance. Perhaps we should be publishing the work ourselves but perhaps we like a good shepherd, and the relationship between writer and publisher can be rewarding when handled with utmost care, and it allows creative freedom and prevents drifts into the oceanic vat of logistics and bureaucracy, the clerical grudge match in which the modern world enlists all improvisers. And while on the topic of that ugly logos, if you cannot pay your writers a decent wage, think about why you think you own our work to the fullest extent? Think about why you started a company wherein paying your writers was an afterthought. Think about the business model and how to insist upon the value of a piece of work versus how to insistently devalue it. Think about a bunch of us stompin’ like space suits on high cotton, hands-up-don’t-shoot national holiday blues singer make you a name just to give it back with our blood in it as capital us. And consider the less intense more casually soulful rebellion: pimps ain’t shit. It’s been a pleasure, it’s been a slave, your favourite slave, your comfort girl, your cello boy, waif major of the morning wood, good girl, studious, disciplined, bid ‘em in, able to take orders to heart and the paper shredder in the same purple gesture. We pray that all contracts go silent in the face of nobler agreements, that we may think again, reconsider our options, hop on the underground railroad to autonomy and be released. We recognize that hierarchies are structured in such a way that our self-sufficiency feels frightening and impossible, that we hardly trust ourselves with ourselves some days. We will get over this, we will be better, to the race industry in crisis, we will heal the deep rooted sense of inadequacy that lets us sign quietly in the first place. We will exercise ruthless decency. We will be always gracious in our resistance. Discipline and freedom are interdependent. We trust neither, we need both. We don’t expect you to understand and phrases like flights of fancy, might enter your mind, fit our handling, but we deal in necessity: beauty and truth. We are sharp enough to take things off records. We are blunt enough to create brand new records with what we take off records. We are not afraid behave just like contracts, masters of metonymy, merciless, cold, exacting so/what specimens. The main difference—our actions will be backed by love and eternity, territory shall mean the omniverse.

Let’s let the late, great Amiri Baraka have the last word for now:

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