Like Deleuze, I believe in the world and want to be in it. I want to be in it all the way to the end of it because I believe in another world in the world and I want to be in that. And I plan to stay a believer, like Curtis Mayfield. But that’s beyond me, and even beyond me and Stefano, and out into the world, the other thing, the other world, the joyful noise of the scattered, scatted eschaton, the undercommon refusal of the academy of misery.
— Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study, 2013
This summer I found myself hurting. When I hurt I try to identify the source: is it coming from my core, or is it the outside circumstances that are raining down on me? The world felt darker than usual, yet I couldn’t really believe that. It had always been this bad. I tried to resist provocations of the newness of our generation, the new intensity of our conflicts, the new deaths of the dead. Maybe the news is just darker, I thought. Maybe it’s because of Twitter. There were Gaza and Debates About Gaza and there were planes crashing, all the time, crashing. There were mass deportations and ISIS and Ferguson and Rob Ford and Eric Garner and lost planes and is this the Coldest War ever?
This summer I felt like I was trying to make sense of a senseless place. Most of the time I wanted to shout, “People are dying! People are dead!” but I was alive so I felt somehow indebted to a sort of logic of tempered feelings, which isn’t so much about being alive but about being dead and breathing. So I didn’t shout. Instead I enveloped myself in the work of two very different creative producers, the poet Fanny Howe and the hip-hop group Shabazz Palaces. This summer I believed in them, at a particular moment when I felt very much like not being in the world at all.
* * *
My friend in another city texted me:
Her: did it rain like crazy in ny?
Me: not that I’m aware of
Her: The thunder was so loud it seemed like it was the end of the world.
Me: That would be nice
Her: I was secretly hoping the same
That was the morning I first listened to Shabazz Palaces’ newest album, Lese Majesty.
The music of hip-hop superior group Shabazz Palaces, fronted by Ishmael Butler, is often called “otherworldly” by critics and fans. If otherworldly is a term that means something is amazing, good, important, can be felt, because it is not of this world, they couldn’t be more wrong. The cosmic reference is obviously also a nod to the Black Constellation — a group which includes Shabazz Palaces and other musicians such as THEESatisfaction as well as visual artists and designers — but still, there is something worldly about Shabazz Palaces. I wanted to escape the world, but when I listened to Lese Majesty, somehow I believed in the world and wanted to be in it. I believed in those who believe in the world. Shabazz Palaces are believers.
Another unlikely believer is Fanny Howe. Later in the summer, in a wild frenzy hotter than the weather, I read a couple of her more recent works, The Winter Sun: Notes on a Vocation (2009) and Lives of the Spirit/Glasstown: Where Something Got Broken (2005). Butler and Howe’s shared orientation crystallized as a set of questions for me. “What does it take to wake up in the morning?” is close but not exactly right, because opening your eyes, after sleep, happens before you know it. It’s a drift of unknowing. What it takes is to stay awake, alive. Getting out of bed comes later, if at all.
Rather than otherworldly, Howe’s work, which is prolific and varied, is often described as an exegesis of the everyday. On the one hand, when people say “otherworldly,” sometimes they mean they’re unable to understand or relate. On the other hand, “the everyday” implies some sort of banality that crosses lines of difference. If Shabazz Palaces bring the otherworldly down to earth, then Howe makes the quotidian seem like flying: “I am all nerve and skin, my brain stem quivers . . . My value is entirely in my aura, not in my muscles.”
Fanny Howe and Shabazz Palaces evoke abstract, effervescent qualities (the result of unpretentious experimentation) while at the same time assuring me that I’m here, present, not dead yet. I say these two are unlikely believers because this kind of belief is not of the high-and-mighty kind, the kind of belief that requires blinders. It’s not a turning away from the world. It’s engagement with some of the world’s biggest problems — race, war, capitalism — and the interconnections between them. Or maybe engagement is too strong a word; it sounds like politician-speak. Their kind of belief-cum-engagement is more of a necessity — it’s an aesthetic drive, maybe what Toni Morrison meant when she said in an interview with The Paris Review in 1993, “I do know that I don’t like it here if I don’t have something to write.”
* * *
When I’m sad and especially when I can’t get out of bed, I like to read or listen to music. That’s a thing that’s not at all unique to me. I choose a book or a song based on where it’s going to take me. Will it take me away? Or will it help me understand the here and now more fully, more deeply?
“In these times, there are plenty of establishments that could do with a bit of treason,” Butler said in an interview about the title of the new album, which comes from lèse-majesté, a French word meaning crime against majesty. “These times” is a vague platitude — every generation mumbles it. But with Shabazz Palaces spilling for the first time out of my shitty laptop speakers, I thought, what’s the meaning and substance of black life consigned to lèse-majestés? What does it mean to cry during the morning news? And should I be worried when I don’t?
When I listened to the first track on Lese Majesty, “Dawn in Luxor,” I gravitated to the Wikipedia entry on Luxor, a place I had been to before the Arab Spring. Wikipedia calls Luxor “the world’s greatest open-air museum.” This was during a time when Palestine was, more and more, called the largest open-air prison in the world. The connections between culture and “real life,” art and politics, have long been theorized, but my associative leaps were less about whether or not art for art’s sake is a possibility or whether the Black Arts Movement got it right, and more about that feeling I get when I’m both engaged in culture and actively disappointed with the world.
* * *
Fanny Howe and Shabazz Palaces are both considered on the more highbrow end of the culture spectrum. White dudes in Brooklyn love Shabazz Palaces because they’re complex, full of allusions, easily understood as smart, complex, and experimental. Butler has said, however, that there’s no secret key to understanding their music. There is no one listening experience, no one authoritative reading.
In a 2004 interview published in The Kenyon Review, Howe had her own hopes for her audience. “If someone is alone reading my poems, I hope it would be like reading someone’s notebook,” she said. “A record. Of a place, beauty, difficulty. A familiar daily struggle.” In BOMB Magazine, former student and collaborator Kim Jensen wrote, “In an age when many American artists and writers seem focused on projecting an aura of glib certitude, Fanny embraces radical indeterminacy.”
Howe’s work is about practice, not products. If Howe’s poems are like notebooks, they could be a preparation or an end in itself. A notebook is never completely finished. I know this. I have several with different purposes. I have some that are tattered to shreds, cheap ones with the cover torn off, a Moleskin that I haven’t written in since 2011. For anyone who has aspired to write a diaristic account faithful to the brightest vision of herself, Howe as an imaginary peer is fuel for the fire.
And there is a politics to her writing, even when no context is given, because there is a politics to/in everything. This is a politics of interconnectivity. Howe in The Lives of the Spirit/Glasstown: Where Something Got Broken writes that “All attitudes and events are interconnected.” She continues:
In the office of the President, they are wondering:
Why not kill everyone? Why not destroy the world? Why wait for the inevitable end? Why suffer through it all? Why work for minimum wage? Why not let the winners make all the decisions? Why worry about someone you don’t know? Why have children? Why study and produce? Why not imprison or shoot all social failures?
In “The Portions of the Poor,” if it is all a dense dance of textures and colors and sound, it is all right:
She chewed her braid and waited for her mother. Snow bulged over the feet of the bench and patches of blond and blue-eyed fluff were flung like glamorous furs across the walls. Work-bound women walked awkwardly toward the trolley tracks. Skimpy boots, bright-colored coats, and in their round faces, a look to say: It’s more than worse; it’s better!
With a rush of rubber on asphalt, accidents erupted on streets nearby. And near where she sat, a sidewalk tool turned up a smell of porridge. From that vat of boiling tar the smell ran and entered those two small nostrils, filling her entire sensory body with longing. The years, whatever they are, had worked this transformation.
As the book moves along, and if we read it as a whole and not necessarily as two entirely separate texts separated by a slash in the title, it gets crazier and crazier. There are more bumps in the road that jolt me, make me taste again what I had for lunch. Take “Cathedral Without Wheels”: “Until this hour the conditions of being in the world, no matter how strange or painful, were acceptable.” The conditions differ. Sometimes it’s a hot tea, a cold lover, one foot sticking out from under the duvet, a deep-down hurricane of dread.
In a different way, the aural fullness and density to Shabazz Palaces make the music seem very sure of itself. But in “They Come in Gold,” there is a beat that sounds almost like a mocking “oink,” an undercurrent of boisterousness underneath all the severity and seriousness. This is the same track where capital is envisioned as a rising sound.
On “Noetic Noiromantics,” the sound indeed rises. Ishmael Butler raps, “I love you so much, yeah, I’m just like you,” and it feels like the first time I’ve heard “I love you” even if it doesn’t at all feel as though he’s saying it to me. It’s just floating somewhere out there.
This kind of density is unlike a baked good that sticks to the roof of your mouth; it’s a swirling about and around and through rhythm and movement. It engenders a sense that carving out space for yourself is like carving your name in your lover’s skin. It can heal but it hardly disappears. At least not without expensive technologies.
And these kinds of technological tricks are not tricks at all but, again, a question, a request for openness and nuance. A demand to be present within the story’s own story. There’s a timid little ghost asking you about your shit. “And why am I where I am today?” When I read that in Howe, I had to close the book.
* * *
But the book stayed with me wherever I went. And I didn’t go many places this summer. I stayed inside, on the phone or in backyards or on front porches. More than ever before, my urgency to keep going was also a lullaby, a lullaby that sounds like that tempestuous verse on “Ishmael.” Anxiety went from ruffling my edges (the surface) to shaking my core, and back and both. All of this fucked with my form.
While sad and wanting to stay sad, I watched the film version of Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation, starring my beloved Christina Ricci, to try and give me a more passive sensation. She describes depression as a black wave that engulfs her (not to be confused with “New Black Wave”). I wondered about all of the black metaphors: black magic, black sheep, black list. I paused the movie, went outside or sometimes to the bathroom and sat and ate three or more consecutive popsicles. I watched a few minutes more and then paused the movie to write.
* * *
MORRISON: I do know that I don’t like it here if I don’t have something to write.
INTERVIEWER: Here, meaning where?
MORRISON: Meaning out in the world.
* * *
Belief is a thing that has basis in something. Belief is not a cult, not a religion. Depending how I feel, the rules of belief can appear or disintegrate like sugar in water. I can taste it if I want to.
Belief is a testing, a trying. Howe writes, “Certainly it is better to take a chance than to sink in a tempest of moods. Jail can be made with the fingers over the face, if the poetry is elsewhere and poverty here. Likewise, a glittering but vacant boulevard can appear to be filled with alien faces from little lights snapping and shining alone.” I tried it out and did the gesture with my fingers over my face, and felt silly, childlike. Still I tested words outside of the page and realized that inside and outside of the text (a book, an album) is a real distinction but also unimportant. Here was a world where people notice the colors and shapes in the sky.
* * *
In The Lives of a Spirit/Glasstown: Where Something Got Broken, which includes a republishing if the 1987 now out-of-print book, The Lives of a Spirit, there are several handwritten pages by Howe. They look like drawings or mistakes or both. Most of them superimpose words on top of each other and it is like music, like the cacophony of sound throughout Lese Majesty.
Where some of the tracks on the album carry no transition at all and melt into each other, Howe leaves three blank pages in between fragments in The Lives of a Spirit. This is where continuity holds its heart.
If, as in Howe’s The Lives of a Spirit, “only repetition breaks the edges,” Shabazz Palaces “Cake,” which chants “cake” endlessly, is a breaking of everything, the seams and the inside. The “Cake” music video does not evoke a world that we think we might know. An oversized woman, darkness, the underground — it’s a themed Tumblr IRL. Yet it’s in this song where Butler raps a list of places: Seattle, Congo, Rio, Dallas, Atlanta, Neptune. Geographic names are things we hold on to in order to situate ourselves. The refrain of “eating cake” punctures the everyday amidst a more obscure sprawling of emotion and exactitudes.
Aside from the defamiliarization of the everyday, Shabazz Palaces and Fanny Howe are formally similar in the way that they’re often described as masters of transcending genres. They tell us what we think we know but refuse to accept: that genres are referential, sometimes futile, but there for the taking. The back of The Lives of a Spirit/Glasstown: Where Something Got Broken calls its composing genres “lyric essay, prose poem, philosophical fiction.” Of course music has its own difficulties when it comes to genre, especially where blackness is concerned. An easy way out is to say that these artists meld or mix genres; an easy way to not sit with the feeling. A 40-second track on Lese Majesty called “Soundview” gets at the feeling close enough. As a neologism, “soundview,” which calls to mind the look of a sound, can be read as a reenvisioning of “soundscape,” which instead suggests the environment or atmosphere of sound, a looser kind of feeling.
* * *
Fanny Howe and Shabazz Palaces carry with them the spirit of nighttime — everything I love about night, that is. All the trouble sleeping, nightmares, summer sweats, sped-up strides are gone and only the calm remains, the feeling of being indoors when it’s raining. In The New York Times, Butler said, “Hip-hop should only take place at night.” He said that when it was, as the writer pointed out, a “bright summer day” in Seattle. Nighttime is an in-between, a beginning and end.
Despite the many disjunctive chords to Howe’s The Lives of a Spirit/Glasstown: Where Something Got Broken and Shabazz Palaces’ Lese Majesty, there is something in both, or in engaging with both, that brings me closer. A slowness that is a corrosion of intellect. I feel everything, always, both barely and badly.
Even if I didn’t believe in myself, not fully, not yet, the line between being and believing in the world became more faint as the summer rolled on. Howe’s “She lived then in an aura of impression” became me. And not much else mattered.