Nina Simone once said that it is “the artist’s duty to reflect the times in which we live.” Ms. Simone was many things all at once: an enigma – an undisputed musical genius whose unpredictable mood swings made her a polarizing figure. These elements were often a volatile recipe for calamity in her personal life; but they were also responsible for the creation and unleashing a melodic hurricane that spoke of the anger and frustration of a generation. With provocative and haunting performances like ‘Strange Fruit’ and ‘Mississippi God Damn’ in the days of fire bombings, lynchings, and acquittals by all white juries, Ms. Simone indeed “reflected the times and the situations” in which she – and thousands of people of color all over the nation – found themselves in. There was a general sense of prevailing injustice where Black lives were concerned in America. I wonder if it would grieve Nina Simone to know that 50+ years on how relevant her music still is today for the very same reasons.
Music has always played a crucial role in story telling and the preservation of our history. We have long looked to musicians to play both comforter and chronicler of our pains and joys. Acts like Marvin Gaye, Nina Simone, Bob Dylan and Creedence Clearwater Revival wrote the soundtrack of the protest era of the 1960s. When my generation saw a resurgence of social apathy, corporate greed and police brutality we had no musicians cum socio-political stalwarts to look to. Ours is a generation that values profit over protest, and so it was with gratitude that we eagerly embraced D’Angelo’s ‘Black Messiah’ at the end of a tumultuous 2014, while the Black Eye Peas have been compelled to re-release ‘Where is the love’ (2009) because the world is so jacked up.
It is seldom that we turn to visual art as a political provocateur, as the most visible depictions of Black bodies in art are often seen oscillating between positions of contentment or suffering. As a tool for the purpose of protest, Black bodies in visual art have been employed to appeal to the soul and consciousness of the white mind, pleading for mercy and ascribing camaraderie where none generally exists.
Josiah Wedgewood, an English potter and abolitionist, commissioned one of the most recognized images in contemporary art history. The seal of the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade was the most famous image of a black person in all of 18th-century art. The art is framed around the narrative that one must do unto others what you would have them do unto you. After all, are we not all human? It would set the tone for future depictions of our bodies in art, a desperate attempt to humanize us to a group who has long seen people of African descent as pitiable, exploitable or little more than a curiosity. The art always in the service of the white gaze.
In recent years, there has been a dynamic shift from that approach, and this is where T.I. “Tip” Harris makes his mark and joins a peculiar set of artists who have disrupted this old narrative. Using ‘sacred’ American symbols and white bodies, these artists are no longer asking mainstream America to look inward for compassion. Rather, they have forced that gaze onto a mirror to see themselves in an alternate reality where white privilege no longer exists.
The first time I saw this done was in a movie called White Man’s Burden starring John Travolta and Harry Belafonte. Released in 1995 and 89 minutes long, it makes for very uncomfortable watching and would therefore not be surprised if you haven’t heard of it. Naturally, reviewers rated it very low. It unflinchingly shows a complete role reversal, where white people are ignoble savages, predisposed to committing crime and utterly unsalvageable as far as the Black elite are concerned. Think “If he had only followed the officer’s orders, he might have lived” from callous, unsympathetic Black lips munching on green bean casserole in response to watching an 11 year old white kid lies dying in the street.
Laurie Cooper, Black Man in America.
Cooper is a Philly based artist whose work showcases the special qualities of Black features. The image of an unmistakably Black man being strangled by the American flag makes a salient point: To be a Black man in America is to slowly have the life drained from you by a system and entity that has identified itself as a paragon of freedom, liberty and life. The juxtaposition is arresting, and if it looks familiar, it’s because Nate Parker borrowed the concept for his marquee art for Birth of a Nation.
Tyler Shields’ photo series ‘Historical Fiction’ (2015)
When Tyler Shields began to share the controversial photo of a naked black man hanging a white Klansman from a tree branch, his friends expressed dismay. It was “too much”. Indeed, it is a lot to process. Harkening back to a time when men in white robes could and did execute Black men, women and children without fear of repercussion, to see a Black man refuse to conceal his identity behind sheets like a coward in order to execute the same murderous treatment undoes everything we have been indoctrinated with about race and power. ‘Historical Fiction’ walks viewers through the daily injustices that African Americans face with white bodies on the receiving end.
Think pieces have been written in abundance about the song and the video that police unions have denounced as “anti-cop”. At the conclusion of this video Queen Bey drowns a cop car with her body, calling to mind the ultimate sacrifices that Black women have made throughout history in the fight against oppression. But perhaps the most pivotal moment in the video is when a carefree Black boy in a hoodie – a garment that Geraldo and his gaggle of co-horts on Fox & Friends believe renders the wearer worthy of street execution – dances in front of a row of police officers in riot gear lifts his arms and compels them to do the same in surrender. Folk did not like that at all. And by folk, I mean Bill O’Reilly n’ dem.
“The new racism is to deny racism exist”. In a brilliant response to the insipidness that is the ‘All Lives Matter’ mantra, T.I. uncorked his bottle of dambs and poured out every last one of them. The man responsible for bestrewing the tragedy that is Iggy Azalea on the world of hip-hop and the world at large has re-earned my respect with this offering. I have to admit, I was concerned for Tip for a moment.
There’s a lot to say about ‘Warzone’, but I won’t spoil it for you if you haven’t already seen/heard it. Viewer discretion is advised.
*Are you comfortable with witnessing white bodies experience Black pain? Discuss.