Message to Our Folks, the wonderful exhibition of Rashid Johnson’s work currently showing at the MCA Chicago, functions in at least two ways. The first is to introduce the unknowing to Johnson’s work. The other is to aquaint visitors with Afrofuturism, a label which the MCA writeup argues Johnson’s work falls under. To do a huge disservice to a complex and somewhat fluid idea, Afrofuturism is the combination of science fiction, futuristic and dystopian elements with African (or African American or, more generally, African Diaspora) culture or experiences. And, just as the label itself is somewhat hard to pin down, so is Johnson’s work. His pieces fall between mediums (Painted sculpture? Found photography? Repurposed vinyl album artwork? All of the above and much more.) and, while clearly meaning to provoke the audience, refuse to lay out a manifesto for themselves. It’s a beguiling and, if not quite abrasive, certainly upwelling exhibit. But back to Afrofuturism.
Although I don’t know if either group would identify as such, both TV on the Radio and Subtle make songs the language and words of science fiction and dystopia and use those songs to talk about, among other things, race, so I’d say, putting them under the blanket of Afrofuturism makes sense.
TV on the Radio’s Nine Types of Light is a chaotic listen. The songs are set in places not too far removed from the New Detroit of Robocop or the LA of Blade Runner. Except, instead of following a white action star as he kick evil’s ass, the songs of Nine Types of Light gaze into the paranoid, crowded, unjust, angry lives and stories of the people in the background, mere stage dressing in such films. And while the album’s imagery is of rotting spaces, burning plastic, nuclear winters, megaquakes, sleeping with guns in bed, and government destruction, it wouldn’t take two big of a leap to attach such apocalyptic descriptions to perpetually neglected and fucked-over neighborhoods like Brownsville in Brooklyn, or to attach the exploitative actions of the anonymous authorities of these songs to things like Stop and Frisk.
Any positive future, here is a big, hulking, smothering lack. Tunde Adebimpe sneers at you to “Dance/Don’t stop/Do the no future shock” and spends the rest of the song building a world so abusive and invasive and menacing that listeners understand exactly why there is no future. The only assurance that “Keep Your Heart” can offer is “With the world all falling apart/I’m gonna keep your heart.”
“Killer Crane”, the moment (there’s only one, as far as I see) of serenity on the album, feels resigned to being temporal. It can’t last because its calm and peace relies on an impossibility- leaving. And what the album’s 11 other tracks drill into you is that you can’t escape this kind of oppression, this weighted violence. “Killer Crane” is the album’s only song to leave the city and invoke nature imagery and just as the backdrop changes, the music here is calmer, slower, more introverted. Yet, sequenced about halfway through the album, even the calming moment reinforces the bleak world of the albums other songs.
It’s easy to look at Subtle as a project instead of a band. They’re highminded and anachronistic, moreso than your standard guitar-drum-bas rock group, from the get-go. All three of their albums have chronicled the story of poet/rapper Hour Hero Yes as he makes his way through a world where culture feels like it is lost in a hedgemaze and a evil force seeks to maintain an oppresive status quo. Well that’s fine and good, but it’s also the “plot” of at least 2 Pink Floyd albums. The world that Subtle create gets much, much weirder. Here, people can change the very blood from their body in order to change their lives. This is a world of designer (if it needs to be said, caucasian) blood; the band’s most immediate song from For Hero: For Fool has the chorus “It seems so few would know just what to do as the new and improved lucky you,/to be courted and prized as someone else’s very own personal blood mine.” That’s the most accesible song. But what the dystopian elements of Subtle’s songs do is take very rigid and pretty fucking racist class structures to their absurd end; if only we could all have the blood of our WASP-y White betters, we’d all be doing ok!
The thing about the two bands is this; TV on the Radio treat Afrofuturism like it’s a summer blockbuster, while Subtle treat it like a summer blockbuster dubbed into Russian where half the projector is cut off so you can’t ever say exaclty what’s happening. Subtle don’t make it easy to get the plot, which is kind of baffling to me- why make this world, this incredible allegory, this really pertinent statement, and then present it in a convoluted, obscure way. You will not find a review of any of Subtle’s recorded material that doesn’t at some point feature an exasperated statement about how difficult it is to discern what is happening to Hour Hero Yes in any particular Subtle song. There’s an overabundance of semiotics in Subtle’s songs; paradoxically, by giving us too much information, Subtle have created the same effect as if they had given us almost none. DoseOne is a good but also blindingly fast rapper and singer; he is a pleasure to listen but difficult to follow. And so Subtle are, to fall back on an old cliche, not for everyone.
It’s an unfair thing to ask of the band- Give us a radio single! Give us an entry point!, but it’s what a form like the music blog demands. Subtle are an album band; like the prog rock groups from the 70s were album bands. So here’s an admittedly inadequate introduction. I’ll offer what I think are beautiful, dense songs from Subtle’s catalog, and hopefully you’ll be interested enough to start from the beginning and work to the end.
From Afrofuturism to, well, Africa. Malian musician Sidi Toure has a new album out, and it’s very good. It’s amazing how able-bodied every sound on this album feels.
And, why not, we could all use a summer jam or four.
Also, like I’ve said before, Mogwai are playing at the Metro tonight. They say on their website that it is their last tour “for a while”, but my gut says that might mean “forever.” They’re touring behind a really good album. Go see them, and skip the two mediocre-seeming opening acts.