The Three: August Edition
On Beauty, Liminal Spaces, and Re-Imagination of Collective Life
I have been doing a fair amount of reading lately, and Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval is among the more remarkable recent reads. She basically recreates Black American life in the early twentieth century in a way that is thoughtful, painstakingly detailed, and with moving creative imagination. More specifically, she uses materials like photography and case files of the time to show how people tried — and often failed — to make a life in the punishing racial oppression and lack of opportunity that marked the time.
One of the things this book does so well is to take conventional notions of “waywardness” and “beauty” and hold them to the light. She tells of how Black Americans moved from southern American states to places like Philadelphia and New York in search of more freedom, and how instead they were met with punishing restrictions and a state that thought nothing of inflicting wanton, brutal violence. And yet, somehow, people still created new lives. I like the idea of “beauty” this book introduces: not something that is aesthetically pleasing, but the inevitable end result of the work of carving out space to live and love; especially when done creatively, making it up as you go along because the world was not built for the likes of you to thrive. “Waywardness”, then, becomes how these attempts of carving out a life are (mis)understood by those in power — here, that’s police or other white people in some position of power. These definitions, I find, are more democratic than how they are typically used, because they shift the terms in which one engages with these people’s lives away from the question of morality, and towards an appreciation of the shifting societal spaces these people existed in, and the work required for the achievement of the freedoms we enjoy today.
The style with which she writes this book — at once matter-of-fact and lyrical, while taking some poetic license — was a bit hard to get into at first, but it eventually draws you in. She zooms in and out, taking in both the micro-level details like the smallness of the hallways and the state of their clothing, to the political dynamics that undergirded everything from how black people found housing and work, and even formed community.
In an April 2018 interview in The Creative Independent, Saidiya Hartman says of the time period between 1893 and 1930 which this book depicts:
“In 1896, W.E.B. DuBois arrives in Philadelphia. For a year and a half he lives in the heart of the black slum and then produces a monograph, which is The Philadelphia Negro. It is the first study of the black slum, or what we will later call the ghetto. So much of the discourse on black pathology, on the forms of black intimacy, sexuality, kinship and affiliation that deviate from bourgeois heterosexual norms start with that monograph. It’s a way of thinking about black life as a particular kind of problem, and a problem of its deviation from bourgeois family norms and hetero-patriarchy. As if the restoration of the black patriarchy can remedy the ravages of slavery, dispossession, capitalism and white supremacy.
It is this moment of transition to a new century. Rather than deviance and pathology, what I saw was the way in which the particular formation of black social life yielded radically different forms of intimacy and kinship and association, and I thought, “Wow. There’s so much to be valued there. There’s so much there.” Partly it’s about thinking about subsistence as a radical process of collective survival and thinking about the wayward and queer resources of black survival.”
I wonder if beauty, then, is an inevitable result of a people reaching for freedom. As I write this, foreign media has been reporting about on the tenth year of the insurgency in Nigeria’s northeast, so perhaps it is for that reason that I am thinking of the liminal spaces many Nigerians are living in today in states like Yobe and Borno. In these places, many communities of people are still rippling with the effects of the violence they have endured that has reshaped their families and continues to even today.
Hartman’s work in documentation of ordinary Americans’ experiences made me think: what is the space of archive in a political space that is still shifting? Between 2014 and 2017, I worked to create and populate the Testimonial Archive Project (TAP) by conducting interviews of people whose lives have been shaped by insurgency violence in the northeast. My friend Chitra Nagarajan, who has been living in Maiduguri and researching how conflict is shaping affected northeastern states, and I have had long-running conversations about the ground-level changes we’ve seen by virtue of our work and our travels in the northeastern part of the country. I even recorded one of those conversations for the TAP. People in these conflict-torn communities have seen their traditional leaders, hitherto untouchable authorities, driven from their palaces like thieves. Men have fled insurgent-controlled towns to settle down elsewhere. Women, hitherto financially sidelined and often disempowered, find themselves single mothers who have to take care of their families. Women and men, girls and boys, share stories of having trekked entire days in search of safety. These people’s lives have changed, but the rules that govern their society have not changed along with them. Being a single mother is still something to be frowned at. A man is still the rightful head of a home. A child out of wedlock is still taboo. As I read Hartman’s book, I thought of the people whose stories I’d collected and how for them, too, there is grimness, but there is also the inevitable beauty of hands carving out a space to make a life.
One thing I learned from my archiving experience was that bearing witness itself is not enough. If Martin Luther King Jr. was right about the arc bending towards justice, then our efforts to bear witness must be that force of gravity that pulls that arc towards justice, in however small a way. As Nanjala Nyabola writes in a passage in her book Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics: How the Internet Era Is Transforming Politics in Kenya where she considers the role of the archive and its relationship to collective memory with regards data collection projects that sprang up during Kenya’s post-election violence in 2007:
“The process of archiving tells us who we are and how we came to be, and if the person who controls the archive editorializes it to such an extent that it no longer represents who people see themselves or the journey that led them to their current moment, then that archive essentially writes its own obsolescence.”
This is why it was so important that Hartman zoomed in and out, giving context to the struggle, rationale to the actions of those often cast in a dehumanizing light, and homage to the many whose names were never recorded. It is what we must do in order to not forget. May we always remember.
Burna Boy and Mr. Eazi are my favorite artists to watch because neither of them are throwing spaghetti on the wall to see what sticks. This is clear in the way they present themselves. I’m a bit of a branding and design nerd, and over the past year or two I’ve been geeking out at how Burna Boy and Mr. Eazi have been handling their design. Beyond just using similar fonts on all graphics related to his latest album, Mr. Eazi incorporated storytelling in his social media posts, giving fans a behind-the-scenes look at the ideas that formed the songs on “Lagos to London”. He used the color yellow so well to convey playfulness in the cartoons his team used for promotional purposes. Burna Boy has been doing the same, using the gorilla emoji consistently in his Instagram posts on African Giant, similar filters and orange frame on promotional content, and similar fonts in the graphics to announce upcoming shows. Even when he dropped Steel & Copper, his team made sure to brand that differently, and the moody lighting on the videos conveyed the mood of the record so well. Both Burna and Mr. Eazi are also making excellent use of tech companies’ flirtation with Nigeria, with Burna doing mini-documentaries on YouTube Music that got featured in Times Square and Mr. Eazi collaborating with Google and YouTube to provide platforms for up-and-coming artists. This understanding and care of how they present themselves speaks to a certain seriousness in approach, a deliberateness that not enough Nigerian artists have. Other artists need to catch up, though — if there is anything to learn from these guys’ recent strides, it is the fact that the streets (i.e., the world) is watching and everyone needs to best foot forward.
Their approaches may have similarities, but as artists they are obviously very different in terms of their trajectories. While Burna Boy’s sound itself has evolved and gotten more refined over time, I don’t think it has actually completely changed anything. Nothing he did on African Giant is entirely a surprise if you see the musical decisions he has made in previous records like L.I.F.E and On a Spaceship. You could argue that he has very much on the same trajectory and is just becoming a better version of himself.
Mr. Eazi, on the other hand, is more calculating because he has had to be. He was an artist based in Ghana who needed to make it into the Nigerian mainstream. He has had to play both sides in a way, I once saw a TV interview where he says he actually focus-groups his singles before he releases them. He switches it up more, as likely to veer into house-inspired dance songs like “Akwaaba” as he is to collaborate a Grime MC as in “London Town” or give you upbeat pop like with Simi in “Surrender.”
Oluwamayowa Idowu on Culture Custodian did a great job in this article on evaluating the ways in which both Burna and Mr. Eazi are shaping the current Nigerian music scene. I hate to compare, but it is true that their forays in the international scene have been more successful than Davido and Wizkid’s have been. There is more than enough space in the sky for all the birds to fly, but it all makes me wonder what this all does for Wizkid and Davido’s dominance of the scene for the next year or two.
If you follow me on Twitter, you likely know that I love Burna Boy very much. His new album somehow made this love even stronger. The album revolves around themes he typically circles, like respect (he’s so obsessed you’d think he were an old Yoruba man), wealth, relationships and striving for success with his trademark defiance and heart.
The record is, among other things, a celebration of the black diaspora, so it is fitting that some of the highest points were the more politically-conscious tracks. On “Another Story”, Burna starts with a history lesson about Nigeria and invites M.anifest to tie in the Ghanaian experience. Burna’s track “Different” with Damian Marley and Angelique Kidjo is such a confident song; it has no hook, and while Marley and Burna’s verses intertwine, Kidjo’s departs and propels the song forward as it melts into “Gbona”. He also features the British singer Jorja Smith and American artists like Jeremih, YG and Future. I don’t love all the features, but they do show one of my favorite things about Burna Boy — how he never seems out of place, whether he’s on a zanku track with Zlatan, plugged into an R’n’B situation, or trading verses with rappers.
I was a bit worried about the number of fillers that would populate a 19-track album, but I’m happy to report that I needn’t have worried. That is not to say it is not entirely fillerless, though; Songs like “Omo” and “Wetin Man Go Do” are very much in his trademark style but really were not quite as strong as the rest of the offerings. There’s a nine-track run from “Collateral Damage” to “On the Low” where the songs flit from politically consciousness to levity with ease, and the features as well as the ones he handles solo are equally brilliant. If the album was only that nine-track run, though, we would not have “Pull Up” (which I love), “African Giant”, “Dangote,” “Anybody,” “Secret,” and “Killin Dem”. Of the features, I was least impressed by “Gum Body” with Jorja Smith and Future messed up what should have been a great song with “Show & Tell”. It is probably a great thing that the album left me wanting more Burna, and less of anyone else.
Haven’t listened to it yet? Have it at.
Until next time.