Indestructible beat of Soweto rock, WTF is Afropunk and ‘Jungle’ seizures

Bongani Madondo: Greg, it’s always an illuminating trip sitting in your company listening to you dropping science on just about everything. Thank you specifically for agreeing to talk on a topic — music and culture — we both have deep time for but hardly ever wrestle with.

Greg Tate: With you, one never knows where it can gallop to. But wait, I thought you long exiled yourself from jazz?                                                                                                                               Jazz discussions between brothers are historically and extensively documented, rock music less so. Doesn’t the self-fulfilling assertion that rock ’n rock is Black exhausts you? I mean, so what?

Well, it doesn’t exhaust if you do something about it. First of all, rock ’n roll is not Black. Cultural critic: The late Greg Tate viewed punk as a lifestyle choice rather than a musical genreRock ’n roll is a billion-dollar commercial culture that almost has nothing to do with what working musicians have to deal with.

You mean like how Black innovation has been commercialised to feed the pop cultural system within which they remain endangered, which you summed up neatly in your anthology, Everything but the Burden: What White People Are Taking from Black Culture. 

Yes. And you know I had imagined that Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley’s careers — Ike Turner too — that their careers and their behaviour, dealt with retrospectively, long solved this question.  

Raw-kin-Roll’s Original Bad Boys (‘Eat your cake, Anne Mae!’)

But let’s tango-up a bit with the issue of cultural commodity at stake here: the building blocks of rock music are indeed African American. Just ask [Mick] Jagger, [Thom] Yorke or [David] Bowie or whoever walked the path to southern, electric Negroland. It is electric blue

I am fascinated that you acknowledged ‘gospel’ and ‘negro spirituals’ in all the things that rock and roll can be. I’m referring to rock ’n roll here, purposefully in its rounded historical dimension, to incorporate its vaudevillian, performance roots, at least around all geocultural Congo Squares in, and out, of Africa. 

But I’m also reminded of Kodwo’s Rock My Religion. It is an excellent, meta-fantastical refutation of Negro culture as the originating premise of rock, using the artist Dan Graham’s experimental video of the same title.  

But what we have all known since the day before we were born is that rock is       the hymnody: think of the Pentecostal adherents, and rock ’n roll is the church! 

The irony though is that beyond the Black hipster cultural domain, the music is still, stubbornly equated to pop noise by white boys and girls, truly more of a boys thing — stove-pipe denims and biker jackets and all — still rebelling against mommy and dad.

The thing though is what does the end process mean to African people all over the world including in America: Do we have an ancient history entombing our art in museums, kept for a select few?

Are we bricks and mortar institution builders, not that bricks and mortar can ever be a substitute for our conceptual gifts: I realised a while ago that the gifts of Black genius and its undoing is our tradition of innovating something original, but once everyone gets into it we are off to innovating something new. Therefore, this  — rock — now is the music of the world.

I’m coming from the third-perspective discourse that situates rock music, almost in its entire musicological and theatrical formulation, within both African antiquity and postmodernist condition.        
                                                                                                                            Louis Jordan — one of jazz and boogie-woogie’s prime innovators — was correct in saying, ‘We arrived in the not-so New World fully fledged. Our music and all.’ I locate rock within the African healing systems.

Uh, uh, yeah. I’ve heard of your theory and let me surprise you: you are correct in that all kinds of modern music originates from Africa. But — and there’s no contradiction here, just historical chronology — the back beat of all popular music on the radio today is Negro. 

Greg Tate in New York. (Photo: Vitctor Dlamini)

Or 20th century Africans involuntary conscripts to American capitalism and its omnivorous talons across all ways of life, as it were.

You know, a friend of mine once joked that Michael Jackson was probably a Black radical under that Elizabeth Taylor mask, out to avenge all the sins against his enslaved ancestors. I see rock then as the music of both revenge and pleasure by Africans rising, 320 years after the first ships landed in Virginia. It’s the belated sound of the Amistad and other European gangstah ferries.

Ha? But Greg, let’s bring it all back home then. When did you first notice the Blk Jks?

First time I experienced Blk Jks as a band was when they came to see our band Burnt Sugar, the Arkestra play with our friend Vernon Reid from Living Color. I remember it was at the Blue Note in New York. I remember them sitting in the front row, agape at how Vernon’s fingers went up and down the fretboard.

How did their debut full album After Robots resonate with you?

It struck me as a singular meeting between King Crimson and a highlife band.

For you, what makes the Blk Jks sound African and/or Black?

Last time I saw them live in New York — I think it was either at the Meatpacking District, or somewhere in the Village — I laughed thinking of how they remind me that they are the new wave of the Indestructible Beat of Soweto. This time around, the ancestors are mad as hell. They are back to avenge what’s theirs in the form of their grandchildren. 

But you also mentioned African ancestors would be proud seeing new alternative musicians from the continent reclaiming electric music beyond the folksy acoustic vibe. 

Not only reclaiming high techno, and intense electric sound modulation as their mode of composition and performance. But also reclaiming anger as a canvass for artistic expression. You could say the blackest thang about the Jks is their rage for hybridity. 

Roots and routes. I hear you alluding to the concept of fluidity as a way of self-grounding. Flow, movement, elasticity too. Grounded enough to bloom in all directions you desire. It’s a central tenet of jazz and all improvisatory art. 

Exactly. When I first heard them, I thought of how King Suny Ade once explained Nigerian ritual funk to me. It was African as anything but as a pop expression, it was simply uncategorisable and untaggable. Fela [Kuti], too. All that jazz, all that juju, all that John Cage, all that classical music. The Jks are of course Black, but dancing in space to a transdimensional drummer.

Your previous phrasing, ‘dancing in space to a transdimensional drummer’ just evoked that scene from the Matrix Reloaded, which might have been influenced by Credo Mutwa’s futuristic artwork and Oceana Humanoids theories. Beautiful, shimmering and gyrating Black bodies in space.

Well, did you think Cornel West is the Wachowski brothers’ (creators of the Matrix films) hero by mistake? There’s so much good juju in them Matrix films, bruh. One of the ironies of this world, for instance, is that Hollywood has always survived on Black ingenuity without having room for Black geniuses.

Back to ‘untaggable’ and ‘uncategorisable’ cultures. First time I attended Afropunk at Commodore Barry Park, Fort Greene I experienced a cultural whiplash. Right on the BAM stoop I spotted a six-foot Aryan-looking woman in denim hotpants and Doc Martens reading, almost suntanning, and engrossed in Steve Biko’s I Write What I Like

Your own pirated copy of your reality movie version of Coming to America!

We arrived in the middle of a Saul Williams set. More like a village, collective, raindance of sorts. He was in his Niggy Tardust phase; topless and face painted with all kinds of African jungle white stripes high on his punk poetry while the band was playing some kind of Pink Floyd drone-y dub. It was as though we stepped right into the live set of Avatar where the Omaticaya clan (Blue Flue clan) in the gas-rich lush forest, Pandora, communes with its gods.

Welcome to the terror dome, sun! (Laughs). I’d say you were thoroughly baptised and welcomed to the People’s Republic of Brooklyn! I remember that show. It was essentially Janelle Monáe’s coming out party as a major pop machine.

Greg Tate was one of the nost important cultural critics of the 20th century. (Photo:Victor Dlamini) 

Exactly! What is this beast called Afropunk to you?

Afropunk is best defined by the subtitled subtitle to James Spooner’s film of the same name: The Rock ’n Roll Nigger Experience. This refers to the name lovingly given to all Black folk who walk around the hood looking like they’d rather be head-banging than gang-banging. Moshing in the pit rather than getting krunk in a strip club, lap dance optional. 

I see sartorial gesturing towards the ‘Afro’. But where is the ‘punk’ in the music, in the whole thing? Could it be that, as with ‘rock star’, the meaning of ‘punk’ as a defiance-organising principle has shifted to mean everything and, therefore, no threat to anyone? 

It inherently refers to a lifestyle choice rather than a musical genre. Greil Marcus once defined rock as “white people trying to play some form of Black music”. The operative word in that sentence is “white”. 

Because, sun, rock means white people playing whatever style of music they want to play and having it sold to the world as “rock ’n roll”, itself a culture and less a music form. So the real question is: Does segregation and apartheid still take place in the marketing of popular music? Abso — funking — lootley!

Notes extracted from a preparation towards an Open Book Festival event, Afro Punks in Conversation, moderated by Chimurenga’s founding editor and DJ, Ntone Edjabe, as part of Flyboy Goes South, a month-long art residency directed by Bongani Madondo and hosted by Gallery MOMO. The article reappears here as part of The Beauty of Flyboy: A North/South Call ‘n Response, a special edition  curated by Bongani Madondo

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Bongani Madondo
Bongani Madondo
Author:Sigh The Beloved Country(Picador) Essays On Photography. Joburg Review. Essays NewYorker/Aperture/S'Times.

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