M. Lamar’s musical performances posses an otherworldly quality, a dark opulence that is simultaneously stunning in its beauty as well as tortured in its despair. Lamar is a countertenor, pianist, and composer whose work intervenes directly with discourses of race in America, with a significant potion of his oeuvre focusing specifically on racist histories of the West such as the trans-Atlantic slave trade and violence against black bodies in America that followed—violence that still persists today in different forms, the endurance of which is often realized through, and maintained by, such ideological and material forces as neoliberal capitalism in its rush to disavow the relevance histories of violent racism in so-called post-racial, contemporary globalized societies.
Following Fred Moten’s proposition of a paraontological distinction between black being, or blackness, and black beings in some bio-scientific sense, I would like to take seriously his suggestion that “[e]veryone whom blackness claims, which is to say everyone, can claim blackness” 1 in order to think through M. Lamar’s music as a way of claiming, and allowing others to claim, an aesthetic blackness, which is to say blackness. More specifically, this aesthetic blackness is rendered affective through a sonic and textual abjection where Lamar intermingles word play that elides blackness in his lyrics about slave trade and other racist histories of the United States with the unthinkability of the black body, the black body as inhuman, as shit, the abject. Musically, interacting with his lyrics are sounds from his piano and other musical interlocutors which blend dissonance of the avant-garde with the gospel tradition, amongst other styles, in such a manner that create a sense of movement, but not in the traditional teleological manner standard for Western art music. Rather, Lamar presents a sonic landscape that often repeats without much harmonic change, which creates a sonic stillness as a form of temporal and sonic dissonance allowing for what Moten might refer to as musical fugitivity, an escape.
I also suggest that, following Darieck Scott’s discussion of blackness and abjection, that Lamar’s music produces a space not only of potentially claiming blackness, but an affective realm of sonic abjection as the claim to blackness. Utilizing Kristeva’s understanding of abjection, I show how Lamar’s lyrics and sonic material work together to bring forth both of the ontologies of blackness that Moten theorizes, textual black beings in abjection and the space for black being through sonic abjection. Finally, I suggest that Lamar’s work might provide a space for political work as a communal understanding of affective black sonic abjection—a space where one can feel the histories of blackness and abjection, as well as find a potentiality for radical futures by claiming the space of abjection.
In order to help think through these frameworks of blackness and sonic abjection, I look toward a song by M. Lamar that is part of his performances concerning race and the dark history of America: “In the Belly of the Ship.”
Segments, Repetitions, and Unsettling
Lamar’s song “In the Belly of the Ship” opens with the ghostly sounds of a non-pitched field of noise somewhere between the sound of gusting wind and white noise. This brief opening soundscape is followed by a short, forceful ostinato motif played by the piano, accompanied by long tones on the cello, repeated twice and left to dissipate as the piano plays a repeating single tone which leads into the opening lyric “In the belly of the ship, lie human waste next to human flesh.” This phrase is accompanied by a simple, softly played chord progression which once again reveals the presence of the static background noise introduced as the first audible sonic material, which was overcome by the piano and cello’s entrance. However, this small chord progression is quickly interrupted twice by the jarring ostinato motif heard in the opening material, once between the two halves of the first line of text and once following the completion of the line. This violent sonic interruption perhaps serves as a reminder that complacency is not an option for the audience while listening to M. Lamar’s music. The short segments of motivic material (the ostinato pattern and the miniature chord progression) create a tension through constant oscillation between and repetition of musical dynamic, articulation, and accentuation. The abruptness of the sonic shifts, juxtaposed against the relative stasis in sonic tonality and melodic material lend to a feeling of being unsettled, incomplete. In musical terms: unresolved.
Following this initial stanza of song text, the sonic material is repeated with a new set of lyrics—”In the belly of the ship, again night, day, night, day, again night, day”—which is almost indecipherable as words. This indecipherability comes partially from Lamar’s fluid, legato diction where syllables and sonorities bleed into one another creating a wash of sonic and phonic elements, some of which never fully register as lexical semantic elements. Additionally, the repetition of the words “night” and “day” parallel some of the musical attributes of the song where small forms are often repeated, the ostinato figure persists throughout the entire piece, and minimal harmonic movement all add to an aesthetic of stasis, which will be discussed in more detail later. After these two brief stanzas of similar sonic material are performed, the song moves to the second large section that makes up the composition. This new section, what might be considered the chorus, is marked by a modulation in harmonic center, as well as a drastic shift in the texture of the sonic material. Supporting the vocal line are fluidly and rapidly modulating overtone harmonics played lightly on a cello which create a sound that is in a constant state of almost being identifiable musical pitches, but are never fully realized—a constant becoming pitched. The piano plays a constant repetition of the two oscillating chords underpinning the section of the song as Lamar sings, “I do no not eat, and I do not drink a drop.” Just as the word “drop” is uttered, the original ostinato pattern emerges once again to return the song back to the initial musical material. Formally, the song repeats twice more with different lyrics for the verse sections, after which the line “in the belly of the ship” is repeated three times, each time growing slower, softer, and more drawn out until finally the ostinato returns to close the piece with one final interjection, only being outlasted by the wash of background noise, which presumably has been present all along, but fades in and out of the listener’s auditory awareness depending on which part of the song is being played.
“In the Belly of the Ship,” or, the Abjection of Black Beings
Before exploring the sonic elements of the performance in relation to blackness and abjection, the minimal text for the song requires unpacking, as it plays an important role in relation to the sonic in formulating the relation to blackness and sonic abjection that I am proposing. In the first verse, Lamar describes the scene of the slave ship, where in its belly “lie human waste next to human flesh.” Here Lamar constitutes the human body in the same space as that which it excretes as waste, forcing the image of their coexistence aboard the slave ship, forcing the unthinkable—shit is one of the exemplary models in Kristeva’s discussion of abjection—into existence, by forcing it into proximity with the body. On its relationship to the body, Kristeva states:
According to Kristeva, abjection is that which is expelled from the body because it causes too much terror to imagine its coexistence with the body. Lamar’s lyric makes impossible the ejection of the object that causes abjection in the body. We cannot make that which threatens abjection into the objectified other, rather we are drawn to the place where meaning collapses. Now, we must deal with the abjection. In the second half of the first verse, the lyrics point out that in confronting abjection we realize that it is a constant threat to the boundaries we have constructed in order to maintain our subjectivity — “again night, day, night, day…” Abjection is everywhere, and always threatens psychic contact.
In verse two, after Lamar tells us in the chorus that he does not eat or drink, he pushes the trope of abjection further when he sings that “those who eat,” already coexisting in abjection with their own shit, will inevitably “nasty themselves.” This line simultaneously works as an agent of illumination on a few different modes of discourse. First, it retroactively clarifies why the character being sung does not eat or drink, because if you eat or drink, you will literally add to the waste that already encroaches on your captive body. And, what’s more, as a mode of abjection, not only are you forced into coexistence with shit, but you have now become the source from which that shit emanates. The only thing worse than simply being witness to an object of abjection, is the realization that abjection is always already part and parcel of you, which is what makes it so terrifying, as well as makes it so necessary to eject from your subjective realm. Lamar’s explication of the body that is forced to come face to face not only with its own waste, but that very waste as a product of their being, a part of their body, forecloses the possibility of ignoring the body’s coterminous relationship to that which is identified as the site of abjection. Such a scene as the one presented by Lamar in this line of text forces the realization that an object that is abjected is “not me,” per se, but at the same time, it is also “not, not me.” An abjected object has a complicated relationship with the subject of which it is part, since it is comprehended as:
Additionally, Lamar circulates the power of the object of abjection on the body as material force suggesting that the “intestinal fumes brand black bodies with funk.” Besides this scene evoking fumes, something that we do not generally recognize very easily, Lamar’s insistence on the connection between that which is unthinkable as being part of the body remains connected to, and even acting upon these captive bodies made immobile through the scene of slavery. Further, there becomes present a connection between musicality, abjection, and blackness in the language used in this line in particular, specifically in relation to the descriptive musical language of certain black vernacular genres. Here, use of the words “nasty” and “funk” take on a multiplicity of meanings in relation to the black bodies hailed by Lamar, as well as the musical context in which this hailing occurs. The words become a point of slippage in which a site of potentiality in/of abjection might be made available. While the foul smell of shit brands the slave bodies with that same smell, a funk, in a musical context funk possesses a double meaning as funk was also a musical genre associated the with black aesthetic. Additionally, funk is a genre that many understand as having a strong connection to the body, a music that, through its powerful groove, affectively calls the body to move. Further, the word “nasty” in this phrase performs an interesting semiotic role as well. While, in the narrative context of the song, to “nasty” oneself ostensibly refers to the act of self-defecation, Lamar’s structured deployment of the term–“those who eat, nasty themselves”—also calls for the possibility of the insertion of the word “are” in the middle of the line to make the sentence “those who eat are nasty themselves.” As such, this manner of figuring conjures simultaneous imaginaries of nasty, eliding the shit made by those who eat with the black bodies themselves on the slave ship. These black bodies have now been made equivalent to shit. However, this formation also resonates with a musical black aesthetic as an adjective used to describe, in genres such as funk, musical virtuosity or powerful affective performance—”that groove is nasty!” Thus, at the same point of slippage between shit and black bodies, comes an understanding of musical virtuosity often associated with the black aesthetic, in which case the nastier you are, the better. As such, this slippage might suggest that the very site of abjection can be re-contextualized as a site of musical potentiality.
In the final verse, the musical accompaniment almost entirely dissipates. All that remains is the field of background noise and the faint drone of a single pitch, as we are told that “the man shackled to me died some time ago” and “if I would drink, I could make tears.” The new stillness of the non-accompaniment summons forth an image of a person held captive, left alone and unable to cry, shackled to a corpse, surrounded by shit and decay. The corpse is perhaps the example of abjection par excellence for Kristeva, as it is the mirror of one’s unavoidable, yet unthinkable, future and past. When confronting the corpse, you are forced to realize that they were once you (a living subject), and that you are always becoming them, becoming corpse. This moment in the song also resonates with Fred Moten’s idea that “blackness has been associated with a certain sense of decay, even when that decay is invoked in the name of a certain (fetishization of) vitality.” 4 But, this vitality is a complicated one, since even though the scene described is one of decay, and musically one of a newfound stillness, the persistence of the singer’s voice drives the image of the persistence of blackness in a state of abjection forward. As long as Lamar sings, the vitality of the body persists. This particular section of the song also recalls Moten’s notion of blackness, movement, and stillness where he suggests the black “must be still, but must still be moving.” As such, one “steals away from forced movement in stillness. Meanwhile, music… must show movement in stillness.” 5 Here we find such a case in “In the Belly of the Ship,” where the lyrics provide and image of stillness, decay, deadness. Even the accompanying sonic material has become still, yet the voice continues to produce vitality from the scene of abjection, in and of the scene of abjection.
5 Fred Moten, “Taste Dissonance Flavor Escape: Preface for a solo by Miles Davis,” Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory Vol. 17, no. 2 (July 2007), 228.
The voice becomes the site of vitality that calls forth the scene of decay and stillness, but does so through its own material labor, a proof of vitality. You can hear the material effects, the labor, the strain, and sometimes the decay in Lamar’s vocalizations, which often include more than just melodic material. Additionally, Lamar fills the spaces between words and notes with glissandos, sighs, vibrato, and occasionally reveals the simultaneous power and fragility of the voice in growled timbral shifts or notes that break before they are expected to. The affect is stunning. Perhaps an example of what Darieck Scott means when he argues that “abjection in/of blackness endows its inheritors with a from of counterintuitive power — indeed, what we can begin to think of as black power [author’s emphasis].” 6 As a method for turning the site of abjection into a site of potential power, Scott sheds the notion of power as a singular attribute if the ego suggesting that we instead “theorize that which is not-power according to the ego-dependent, ego-centric (and masculine and white) ‘I’ definitions we have of power, but which is some kind of power if by power we mean only ability, the capacity for action and creation in one or several spheres, be they internal or external to the empowered [author’s emphasis].” 7 Now, with this purposefully vague understating of the situation of power-making we can begin to think through the modes in which these potentialities might play out, literally, in M. Lamar’s performance affectively becoming a scene of power through Scott’s theory abjection in/of blackness. And, while the lyrics of Lamar’s work offers us a way to think of the black body as the site of racialized violence and subjected to a state of abjection, we can think of the sonic material in Lamar’s work as a way to access or to claim blackness. As Moten suggests, “Everyone whom blackness claims, which is to say everyone, can claim blackness.” 8 In this light, this music begins to represent what Moten call the paraontological distinction of blackness, between black being and black beings, where the text of the songs are ontologically aligned with black beings and the abjection of black bodies, where the sonic material might offer a space for the realization od a shared black aesthetic, a black being, and in the case of M. Lamar’s music an affective becoming black abjection.
7 Ibid., 23.
8 Moten, “Black Op,”1746.
Sonic Abjection and Black Being
How does a sound become black? How is black sound abjected? As mentioned earlier, M. Lamar’s “In the Belly of the Ship” repetition and a relatively static harmony play major roles in the overall sound of the piece. The short musical segments last only for a brief duration, and they often cycle and repeat, usually attached to different text. This frequent repetition of motives and minimal harmonic motion create a feeling of movement, put not of the large form progression common to much of the music influenced, as M. Lamar’s in part is, by Western classical traditions. Regarding movement in relation to the use of musical repetition, Daniel Albright notes that music such as Lamar’s utilizes repetition in interesting and noticeable ways where the repetitions “sometimes suggest a direction, never suggest a goal. The harmony changes, but it doesn’t progress, since it creates no structure of antithesis that requires resolution.” 9 This non-teleological approach to music offers a feeling of stasis, a stuckness, which in correlation to Lamar’s texts strengthens the connection of the work to abjections, since the harmonic language doesn’t sound like it is abandoning these dark territories, or resolving the tensions—harmonic or otherwise—of abjection anytime soon. Even Kristeva has weighed in on the subject of repetition and the sonic saying:
Reminded that we cannot actually get rid of the abject, since it is in fact always already part of us, we must bring it back. I am particularly taken by Kristeva’s suggestion that abjection “harmonizes pathos, bile, warmth, and enthusiasm” as if suggesting that abjection can be a possible place for a being together, being in harmony albeit perhaps a dissonant one. Dissonance is a common characteristic in Lamar’s work, particularly small dissonances such as the dissonance created by Lamar’s rapidly oscillating vibrato, or occasionally delaying or anticipating the arrival at a certain consonant pitch following a glissando in favor of a slightly sharp or flat one. These minor but noticeable and affective dissonances may appear, as Daphne Brooks remarks, “off-key.” But, in doing so, these dissonances draw attention to the sociality involved in various histories of music making such as the racist misogyny imbedded in the histories, and presents, of numerous successful genres of music.
10 Kristeva, Powers of Horror, 28.
11 Daphne Brook, “‘All That You Can’t Leave Behind’: Black Female Soul Singing and the Politics of Surrogation in the Age of Soul Singing,” Meridians: feminism, race, transnationalism Vol. 8, no. 1 (2008),188-92.
Moten is helpful once again in thinking about movement through repetition, stillness, and dissonance. In his discussion of movement in stillness and aesthetics, Moten suggests that this movement occurs when the aesthetic act is understood as a line of flight between past, present and possible future iterations of the object, which connects the object to its historical framings as “that line moves within the history of the idealization and re-materialization” 12 of the aesthetic object. Lamar’s music performs a similar function with an audible past, opening up a line of flight between histories of subjection through the sonic performative. Affectively, these histories of subjugation now made sonic connect to one another across temporalities. Music serves as a particularly affective medium for such connectivities since music is always a temporal occurrence that is received by the body in such a way that it “consists of the organization of events so that they do not dissolve or pass away but rather coalesce into a thing that seems to suspend time precisely by bodying forth a temporal progression.” 13 Dissonance plays an important role in the movement through stillness. The occurances of stillness as it is manifested in a contemporary moment acts as a rupture in the network of sonic histories, as it is “precisely in this stillness, as this seizure, as a momentous enactment of escape, that [the aesthetic object] constitutes a dissonance in the histories to which [it] is submitted and marks the dissonance of any attempt to harmonize them. [It] is a link within and between these lines even as [it] arrests and solicits both of them.” 14 The stillness, which is itself the dissonance, simultaneously ruptures and makes more visible the connection to violent pasts that are held in these sonic realities.
13 Ibid., 236.
14 Ibid., 234.
M. Lamar’s music does this as well. Textually, and as part of a sonic history, the music refuses to leave the uncomfortable moments and discussions about race, and being racialized, in America alone. Instead, the performances linger in these moments of discomfort, violence, and abjection. As such, it creates an escape from the complacency of post-race ideology through the persistence of this musical/sonic discourse, and its repetition. In doing so, Lamar’s music opens a space of possibility for recognizing the sonic materialities of the past, and there are many. Perhaps his music becomes what Gilles Deleuze a function of remembering where memory becomes “less a function of reality than a function of remembering, of temporalization: not exactly a recollection but ‘an invitation to recollect…'” 15 In this configuration, the audible past is not a specific locale or set of stable connections, but a constellation of potential connection, a horizon of possibility in which a listener can draw numerous and different understandings from the music, thus freeing the performance from the constraints of a fixed meaning, but still affectively powerful as a possible site where the listener might be able to feel their claim to blackness in the sonic abjection produced my Lamar’s music.
Following Scott’s understanding of power through abjection, I suggest that M. Lamar’s music creates the abject space of blackness as well as the black aesthetic that brings into potentiality an affective shared blackness from which listening and feeling the sonic abject might provide the power of resistance. Or, perhaps, Lauren Berlant’s notion of “ambient citizenship” might no be useful in theorizing how Lamar’s performances could also work as a site of political collectivity where those present can affectively “encounter stories of survival tactics and of what it has meant to survive, or not. It promises the sense of being loosely held in a social world. You don’t have to do anything to belong, once you show up and listen.” 16
Albright, Daniel. Untwisting the Serpent: Modernism in Music, Literature, and Other Arts. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2000.
Berlant, Lauren. “Affect, Noise, Silence, Protest: Ambient Citizenship.” Accessed December 10, 2012. http://publicsphere.ssrc.org/berlant-affect-noise-silence-protest-ambient-citizenship/.
Brooks, Daphne. “‘All The You Can’t Leave Behind’: Black Female Soul Singing and the Politics of Surrogation in the Age of Soul Singing.” Meridians 8, no. 1 (2008): 180-204.
Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema 2: The Time-Image. Trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989.
Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.
Moten, Fred. “Black Op,” PMLA (2008): 1743-47.
Moten, Fred. “Taste Dissonance Flavor Escape.” Women & Performance 17, no. 2 (2007): 217-46.
Moten, Fred. “The Case of Blackness,” Criticism 50, no. 2 (2008): 177-218.
Scott, Darieck. Extravagant Abjection. New York: New York University Press, 2010.
SoundM. Lamar. Unreleased studio recordings from forthcoming album provided by artist. 2011-12.