Black Music Videos and the Popular to Come

Curator's Note

In our In Focus dossier for the Journal of Cinema and Media Studies we claim that the contemporary music video is one of the black arts. That is, we foreground the way some filmmakers from the Black Diaspora build on the connections between music video and more esteemed categories like fine art and the essay film by working between high and popular forms of black expressive culture--especially music--to claim a more capacious, and strategically unpredictable, archive. Through these connections they practice the expansiveness of blackness.

In Rebirth is Necessary (2017) Jenn Nkiru uses a plastic and constantly reproducing archive to create a new black cinematic language grounded in “cosmic archeology.” The film relies on process, both the artist’s way of making and her sampling of already “processed” materials, such as Ben Russel’s ethno-surrealist film River Rites, a long steadicam take, projected in reverse. Rebirth plunges into the archives of the blues, police brutality, the myth of the flying Africans and Afro-futurist visual and sonic arts; it revels in the choreography of women from the Nation of Islam and the ecstasies of popular forms of spirituality by sampling experimental and ethnographic images from religious practices in Haiti, Congo, and Nigeria. Unleashed in Nkiru’s work, this material moves and sounds differently: a clip from Steve Reich’s Come Out is remixed with the voice of Fred Moten reading the poem “James Baldwin” from his book B Jenkins; street dancers in South London move backwards in space, but the footage is rewound. Studio portraits of black youth in high-art-inspired fashion blast open the film frame, offering queerness as archival practice and time travel. Further, the film that began as an art object, commissioned by NOWNESS and celebrated at international film festivals, was made available online after its initial run. Thus, as Jenny Gunn explains in her In Focus piece on Rebirth, Nkiru’s open archive further extends the possible space for black creative processing as a form of intergenerational pedagogy. 

Re-mixing already mixed and post-synched materials and subjecting original footage to the same processesforegrounds the depth, materiality, multiple temporalities, and multidimensionality of black visual and sonic archives. It emphasizes movement as a type of sound and sound as a type of movement so that, together, they produce energy with a cosmic capacity that cannot be contained by any one genre or category of black cultural production. This “reaching back” in order to “reach forward” is central to hip-hop style and Nkiru’s politics of form. Through it, her seemingly “art film” gestures towards an “unaccounted” popular in the past, and a wider, richer, and more expansive “popular to come.” 



Alessandra and Lauren,

As one of your collaborators on the In Focus dossier, I too explore how the music video form somehow manages to index what you describe here as an “unaccounted popular in the past” and to come; that is, noting how the popular circulates and intersects with form/aesthetics, memory and performance. Perhaps one of you can say more about how the “popular” emerges and is codified in the complex, somewhat obscure set of influences that Jenn Nkiru references and remixes. Or perhaps, what is the “popular” in Nkiru’s use of form? And is it informed, in some way, by her British-Nigerian ancestry (here, of course, I’m borrowing the phrasing of Stuart Hall and also reflecting on his British-Jamaican ancestry)?

Thank you for your question, Michele, which allows me to elaborate on an important point: Nkiru’s set of references might appear obscure for a variety of reasons. They are 3 or 5-second clips of archival materials; they are drawn from a Pan-African archive of popular religious practices in Congo, Nigeria, Haiti whose sources might not be directly known to the viewer; from documentaries of popular political/cultural movements (such as Agnès Varda’s Black Panthers or Mel Stuart’s Wattstax); commercials for popular products (Afro Sheen), and archival materials that explore the meaning of the blues, which, as a philosophy of aesthetics can be consider the black popular par excellence). Even when Nkiru is drawing from avant-garde cinema, music, or sound art (Maya Deren, Sun Ra and Alice Coltrane, Steve Reich and Fred Moten, for example), she is sampling pieces that have a distinct commitment to popular practices (Deren’s Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti) or black sociality (the Reich-Moten-Baldwin sound mix). In turn, these clips are woven together through an array of samples from popular music, such as R&B (The Maze anthem Joy & Pain, the psychedelic Soul of Rotary Connection, the early Soul-inflected hip-hop of Shafiq Husayn’s Le’Star and even work songs such as “Take This Hammer,” among others). This is, to be sure, an erudite form of engagement with a very expansive Pan-African “popular,” but it takes place in a way that mimics hip hop sound practices of sampling, re-mixing, riffing etc., which, as both you and Chip Linscott explain in your In Focus essays, can perform as “unauthorized” (my term), secret, submerged modes of historiography, or what Nkiru calls “cosmic archeology.” They activate modes of remembrance and interconnection and belonging. In this way, I see Rebirth is Necessary as directly continuous with Larry Clark’s opening image in Passing Through: his dedication of the film to musicians known and unknown. The popular that was; the popular that is constituted each time the ensemble comes together and, unavoidably, also the popular that is "being sent" through these practices: the popular to come.

I would only add on to Alessandra's excellent summation that Nkiru also breathes a new popularity into these at times esoteric or avant-garde sources by combining them in an accessible music video format and distributing them on digital streaming platforms that are globally accessible. The visibility of this type of work then pushes forward the political and aesthetic engagement of more straightforward commerical music videos.

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