The Three: June Edition

Every month, I write about three things that caught my eye in the culture universe. Previous editions here and here. This is lucky no. 6.

A Sense of Place

I was addicted to Salt, Fat, Acid and Heat for awhile, and a big part of why is how much I enjoyed watching chef/writer/host Samin Nosrat dissolves, salt-like, into every setting she’s in. In Mexico, Japan, Italy and in the US, she does not take us around. Rather than marvel at the “otherness” of any of these places, she holds up instead how people in these places truly live. She speaks the local language when she understands it, talks to people like grandmothers and other locals rooted in these places who don’t usually get airtime on travel and food shows, and spends time in actual homes. It shows a way of moving through the world, how — like salt in any bowl of water — the best travelers bring their curious, self-aware presence to places they go, and a willingness to be changed by these places.

A recent conversation on Twitter on the alte music scene and the lack of sense of place reminded me of this sensibility. It was about Santi’s latest album and how, even with its standouts, it mostly did not quite hit the spot as a cohesive unit. There was a Pitchfork review on the album that said that “that [the music sounds] like everywhere and nowhere”:

“Santi makes sure to interpolate Nigerian music alongside American hits, but the album never really feels local to anywhere. The songs are uprooted, placeless, all the more so when they refer explicitly to places. “Morocco” isn’t about anything, North African or otherwise. (Though Santi told ID it was about “a man who stumbles upon a land filled with women who appear to have mysterious powers.”) On “Monte Claire,” Santi mentions a big night in Sweden, and the only explanation for his choice of country is either that “Sweden” kind of rhymes with “leavin’” or that Santi’s been listening to Yung Lean. These songs are the sonic equivalents of screen savers, soothing in their artificiality, but disappearing the moment you focus on them.”

The review ends by borrowing a lyric from the song “Raw Dinner”, saying the album doesn’t sound like anything. Ouch.

There is a question of if a lot of these alte acts, because they are often upper/middle-income kids who have lived elsewhere, are not able to be truly “Nigerian” — whatever that means. I don’t think that is necessarily true. Literature is full of examples of why this is not true, but in music a good example is Burna Boy, who grew up in Nigeria and the UK, and is rooted in both Lagos and Port Harcourt. His experiences outside the country do not remove from his sense of place. When he’s doing the London ting, he dissolves into it as easily as he does when he makes more recognizably Nigerian songs. The videos for “Heaven’s Gate” and “Killin’ Dem” see him perfectly at ease in both a working-class London setting and a working-class Lagos setting.

I admittedly don’t listen to too much alte music, but I resist the idea that all that is required for a song to have a sense of place is for the production to be more “afrobeats”, or for someone to merely use more Naija slang in their music. Here, I am thinking of how Mode 9 never rapped in pidgin or a native language, but still made songs like “Cry” and “Nigerian Girls” that are undeniably Nigerian, and Asa’s “Eyo” which is sung in English but very much steeped in Lagos. Whether they speak any local languages or use a recognizable afrobeat production is immaterial in these cases; they tell stories of people from these places, and used the context without being constrained to it.

Santi’s music does often sound deliberately non-descript in sense of style and location, and one can accept that and even argue that is not the same as saying the music is not “good”. A sense of place does not guarantee the quality of the work — since most of Nigerian music is unmistakably Nigerian, but at least mediocre. What it does do it give context, and context is either a trampoline that launches you or canvas onto which you add brilliant color.

She (Don’t) Gotta Have It

I watched the second season of She Gotta Have It, even though the first made me roll my eyes a lot. Nola Darling as a character is essentially an empty barrel that hints at a depth she does not quite have, which makes one sympathize with the other people she comes across who project same onto her. A show with stronger, less moralistic writing might do better job at holding its flawed, infuriating and often incoherent lead character to the light, and tap on her for us to hear what she’s actually made of. DeWanda Wise, who plays Nola Darling, certainly would have been up to the task if it were.

In spite of the heartwarming Prince nod, the always-brilliant soundtrack and seeing Carrie Mae-Weems (who I adore) on screen, I couldn’t finish watching the season because I found so much of it overdone and unnecessary. The three men Nola was juggling in season one made sense to have in the first season because it was true to the original film, but Greer and Overstreet stuck out like sore thumbs in the second season, and the show did not seem to know what to do with Mars. The show did not seem to know what to do with Shemeka, Nola’s friend whose ass literally exploded in the previous season, either. In addition to all the extra tyres from the previous season, there was also the lazy representation of the Nigerian-Brit artist and the ignorant-as-fuck conversation that transpired between him and Nola, which was only slightly less irritating that the representation of the white art patron with gold teeth.

The lack of care in creating the Nigerian-Brit character (a Yoruba man referring to his people as nomadic? really??) is no different from the representation of the problematic white art patron in that both feature as figures of scorn made only to be knocked down like chess pieces. In his anger at supposed Black British interlopers in Hollywood, he did not engage with the broader reality that made Black British actors leave the UK for work. He did not engage with the history of Blacks in the UK. He did not ask questions, because the entire point was neither engagement nor truth, but outlet for his anger. It typified a recurrent problem with Spike’s work — too often, he does not care about character development and the mechanics of a good story more than he cares about projecting a certain view of the world. The problem with disguising creed as story is that in the fever to make your point you can forget to make a story that actually works.

Aside: Black Brits in Hollywood

The whole conversation about Black Brits in Hollywood films isn’t a new one. Samuel L. Jackson once went on Hot 97 and questioned the choice of Daniel Kaluuya for Get Out and, in a later interview, the wider issue of Black Brit actors in Hollywood. Jordan Peele also spoke about a Guardian interview after that. Hollywood is the main center for cinema in the Western world so Black British actors finding work there likely won’t be as big a deal if there were more roles for black people as a general matter in the first place.

A Belated Appreciation of Angelique Kidjo’s Talking Heads Cover Album ‘Remain in Light’.

Don’t ask why it’s taken me this long to finally check this album out. For someone who loves music and DJs late into the night when she’s bored, I can be very slow about adopting new music. I’m here now, though.

I thought Kidjo’s choice of Talking Heads’ 1980 album “Remain in the Light” was a strange choice, until I realized that perhaps it was not. It was an album inspired from Fela Kuti’s 1973 Afrodisiac album, which producer Brian Eno played for Talking Heads frontman David Bryne in 1977. When Kidjo first heard this album in 1983, she didn’t know this background, but she could hear that influence immediately.

“I remember vividly every time the music came in, I said, ‘There’s something African to it,’” Kidjo says, amazement still in her voice. “Some of my peers [at jazz school] said, ‘Aw, come on. Shut up. This is not African. It’s too sophisticated for you.’ I’m like, ‘OK, whatever you say.’” She laughs. “‘It might be rock & roll, but there’s something African to it.’ I’m a very rhythmic person. Music is part of my heartbeat and every part of my body. This had an African touch to it.

If you got here before I did, congratufrickinglations. If you’ve only just heard about this album, though, don’t dull.

Until next time.