Music Monday: Sons of Kemet, Sounds of Liberation, and New Forms of History

This weekend gave me some time with Graham Lock’s classic Blutopia: Visions fo the Future and Revisions of the Past in the Work of Sun Ra, Duke Ellington, and Anthony Braxton (1999) and with some new and some old music.

First, I hung out with Shabaka Hutchings project Sons of Kemet’s new album Black to the Future. Sons of Kemet has obvious ties to early 20th century Afrocentric discourses — Kemet is an Anglicized form of the Egyptian word for the Nile valley — the music itself sits comfortably in the expansive post-bop world. Theon Cross’s tuba and Tom Skinner’s beats anchors a funk inflected rhythm section and Shabaka Hutchings’s tenor and an impressive slate of vocalists tell stories in the same spirit of 2018 release Your Queen is a Reptile. In other words, they blend hiphop, Reggae, straight ahead post-bop jazz, and rock in a poppy way that will likely attract cross-over audiences, and it speaks to a good bit of what’s going on with the vibrant London jazz scene these days.

For Hutchings, Sons of Kemet represents the “sound of the present” in his trilogy of projects with Shabaka and the Ancestors representing his most conventional jazz (that looks back toward improvisational sounds of the 1970s) and his work with The Comet as Coming looking forward. Evidently Hutchings play with the Sun Ra Arkestra at some point in his past, so the blend of apocalyptic, Afrocentric, and futuristic imagery in his music and concepts show that efforts to carve out distinctive pasts and imagine new futures remains alive and well in jazz.

The other album that I keep rediscovering in my collection is the Sounds of Liberation whose 1972 album New Horizons is absolutely fantastic. They were based in Germantown in Philadelphia (and likely neighbors to Sun Ra’s headquarters at Marshall Allen’s house in the same neighborhood). It blends free, spiritual, and soul jazz in a pretty potent blend that feels (to me) like summertime. Byard Lancaster’s Alto is, to my mind, the star of the show and it soars, dances, and occasionally squeals and even squawks in the best tradition of post-Coltrane saxophone. The album has drive and confidence and the rhythms are complex and dense. Vibe player Khan Jamal is particularly compelling (and his overlap with Sunny Murray makes me even more excited to dig into his stuff more seriously). 

According to the Wikipedias, the cover art was by Leroy Butler who also produced cover art for Sun Ra

Finally, I’ve been thinking more and more about the destruction of Confederate (and other monuments) during the George Floyd protests. I argued that the defacing of these monuments represented an efforts by the Black and African American community to reclaim public urban space by removing monuments to a painful past. I still suspect that this is the case.

Reading Lock’s Blutopia and a bunch of other works on Sun Ra and certain strains of utopian and Afrocentrist practice, however, I started to wonder whether the defacing of monuments in urban space has more to do with making manifest the painful disjunction between the Black present and the past. The Middle Passage which transported enslaved Black people from their homes in Africa to the North America, South America and the Caribbean also created a sense of historical displacement. If white Americans often go to great lengths to cultivate some relationship to (sometimes fictive) past with heroic ancestors, national identities, and ritualized activities designed to celebrate this or that ethnic holiday, Black Americans were stripped of similar ethnic pasts by slavery, Christianization, and colonization of Africa.

By defacing statues erected to reinforce distinctly white historic and ethnic pasts, African Americans created a new form of anti-historical monuments that recognized the discontinuity present in Black history. This discontinuity is not simply a specific historical situation produced by being physically rent from their home and their culture actively suppressed, but also a resulting ambivalence toward the claims of history which have all too often celebrated identities and a past denied by white violence to Black people.

The forms of history written by Afrocentrist authors or manifest in the claiming of new names by Blacks likewise represent efforts to define new relationships to their past and present that function according to rules and methods useful to the Black community. These often contrast with approaches favored by white European historians and designed to reinforce temporary and historical continuity with the past (and the authority and cultural privileges associated with this continuity). In this context, the defacing of monuments during the George Floyd protests parallels the adoption of new names by figures as diverse as, Prince, Sun Ra and Mohammed Ali. The new names reveal new pasts that recognize both historical discontinuity and make claims of new forms of temporal relationships with the past. 

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