Afrofuturism, Aaron Douglas, and W.E.B. Du Bois (1920s-1930s)

artstor_103_41822000904639Study for %22Aspects of Negro Life- An Idyll of the Deep South%22 (1934), tempera on paper, by Aaron DouglasAaron Douglas, Aspects of Negro Life- From Slavery to the Reconstruction, 1934. Harlem Renaissancepicture49-142E3580479301EA0AA

Lanre Bakare writes in The Guardian that “[a] new generation of artists [is] exploring afrofuturism. OutKast and Janelle Monáe take the philosophy to the mainstream, while Flying Lotus and Shabazz Palaces push jazz and hip-hop to their extremes.” He traces its musical lineage as follows:

The ’50s and ’60s were dominated by the free jazz and avant-garde work of Sun Ra and his Arkestra, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Don Cherry, and Alice Coltrane, with some psychedelic input from Jimi Hendrix and Love. The ’70s and ’80s were when George Clinton’s Parliament Funkadelic and Prince sent funk to outer space and dub innovators such as King Tubby and Lee “Scratch” Perry beamed out cosmic signals from Jamaica. The ’90s saw a renaissance and reimagining of Afrofuturism in hip-hop (OutKast, Kool Keith’s Dr Octagon alias, and RZA), neo-soul (Erykah Badu) and techno (specifically Detroit producers such as Drexciya), with all embracing the philosophy and giving it their own distinctive edge.

If Bakare’s right, things must be looking up. Though I’m by no means an afrofuturist connoisseur, I love Miles Davis, Prince, and Jimi Hendrix. Plus, Flying Lotus’ 2010 record Cosmogramma was great. As far as cinematic afrofuturism is concerned, I’m a longtime fan of John Sayles’ Brother from another Planet (1979).

Bakare devotes most of his article to an examination of music and film, so we may forgive him for neglecting to mention the great afrofuturist art that was made in the first half of the twentieth century. This post might go some way in correcting his omission.

Of all the great figures from that period, the Harlem Renaissance painter Aaron Douglas stands apart. Raymond E. Jackson and select others deserve some recognition, but no one approaches Douglas. I’d almost describe it as deco-futurism with a heavy emphasis on African symbolism and history, at least as he understood it. Douglas first began to be noticed for his illustrated covers to W.E.B. Du Bois’ “chronicle of the darker races,” The Crisis. At that time in the mid-’20s, the journal had a discernibly Marxist political bent (in keeping with Du Bois’ own views).

He also did some work for Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life. Later he was commissioned to do murals at a number of clubs and universities in Chicago and New York. These are truly stunning; they use a whole range of colors to achieve a deeply atmosphere effect. In this post you can see some of his work, or read more about his life via Wikipedia.

index (5) 9Aspiration Aaron Douglas Harriet Tubman Mural at Bennett College, Greensboro, North Carolina 1 Continue reading

An interview with Dean Whiteside on Marxian Musicology

Conducted by C. Derick Varn

Untitled.
Image: Large bust of Lenin next to
a smaller bust of Beethoven

After listening to Beethoven’s Appassionata sonata, Lenin added sadly: “I’m often unable to listen to music, it gets on my nerves. I’d like to stroke my fellow beings and whisper sweet nothings in their ears for producing such beautiful things in spite of the abominable hell they are living in. However, today one shouldn’t caress anybody — for people will only bite off your hand.” Georg Lukács, Lenin: A study in the unity of his thought (1920)
untitled2.

Originally posted on The (Dis)loyal Opposition to Modernity blog. Please follow and subscribe to it.

Dean Whiteside studies music theory as a conductor at the University of Music and Performing Arts in Vienna. He has an interest in reintegrating music theory with materialism.

C. Derick Varn: The debates on aesthetics and Marxism have often been framed in terms of visual arts and in terms of music. This, perhaps, is the legacy of Theodor Adorno. Do you see Adorno as a primary entry point to Marxist musicology?

Dean Whiteside: It is not enough to say that Adorno was partial to music. For Adorno, the mutual dependency between musical and critical thinking cuts both ways. For this reason, many of Adorno’s deepest thoughts work through the relation between music and conceptual thinking. Adorno claims that German music and philosophy constituted a single system since the time of Kant and Beethoven. Adorno has a critical take on this relationship. His method is deeply historical and sensitive to the ways in which music embodies the antagonisms of bourgeois capitalist society, especially its fissures and points of non-identity. Left at that, Adorno would be suggesting merely another way to think about the relationship between music and society. But his inquiry is deeper: he wants to interrogate the social truth content of music itself. Music does not lie outside of capital, nor does it provide a safe haven from instrumental reason, but it also isn’t reducible to them: it’s a mode of thinking about what is contradictory and unarticulated within the world. Through music we discover the possibility of thinking about thought insofar as thought finds itself sublated within musical form, often through the concepts and signs which have the most authority over us, especially basic ones like repetition and self-identity. Thought is saved from the fate of merely smashing its face repeatedly against a mirror: its redemption lies in the broken and bloody shards on the floor — music, if you will (certainly Neue Musik). Conceptual thinking then faces the burden of making sense of its own broken image. The anxiety which neue Musik causes us is that we don’t recognize ourselves in the fragments. Thought’s return to itself must overcome a moment of mis-recognition. Many listeners don’t get past the initial: “WTF, that’s not me!” Their reaction is wrong but understandable. Obversely, Adorno wants to problematize the moment of false recognition that bourgeois listeners experience while listening to Mozart or Beethoven. Adorno insists that Beethoven’s music is Hegelian philosophy in a truer form than Hegel’s philosophy itself could ever be. This is not an analogy. He maintains that although we can no longer write music like Beethoven, we should still think and act like Beethoven’s music. This amounts to an ideal of praxis which I think Adorno himself only occasionally lives up to. His failings are usually on the side of musical theory, namely a simplistic understanding of tonality and harmony. So to answer your question, yes and no. Continue reading