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Sonic Intimacies: On Djing Better Futures

March 25, 2015

by Mark V. Campbell

Recently I was invited to DJ the afterparty of a symposium at Queen’s University, called Colonial Intimacies: Remapping the Relationships between Black and Indigenous Communities. A boldly conceived and welcomed conversation, the Better Futures Collective developed a symposium to address the “academic, activist, and creative conversations surrounding anti-blackness, indigeneity, settler colonialism and decolonization.”

Rather than simply providing the ‘entertainment’ to get asses moving, I sought to carefully curate a mix that might get the mind moving too. In my Sonic Intimacies mix the intention was to bring together the relational poetics of hip hop music and its related sonic progeny. For many successful DJs, their introduction to the art form lay in hip hop djing, such that mixing, scratching and cutting are well-known techniques by DJs. We can confidently add folks like David Guetta, DJ Atrak and Dr. Jay De Soca Prince to this list, although they are today known more for other musical genres. Hip Hop djing is a lingua franca, a common grammar in djing culture (at least since the 1980s) that help DJs learn and engage a diversity of musical genres. In the cutting and scratching sessions that make Turntablists so unique, one can find cartoon samples, interspersed with political speeches and enhanced using mixing techniques developed within the analogue histories of vinyl DJs. What if the DJ’s role in our lives could be one that brought together, into new relationships, those things we previous imagined to be separate? Reflecting on the themes of Colonial Intimacies provided me with an occasion to creatively imagine a decolonized relationship between Black and Indigenous worlds, a creative imagining indebted to hip hop and adamantly disregarding the market orientated notions of genre.

The uniqueness and importance of providing a sonic experience to the symposium, was to break down some of the barriers and silos that force us to think Indigenous life and Black life as mutually exclusive and unrelatable spheres of Western society. Like the oral cultures that vibrantly document and aurally punctuate Black and Indigenous cultures, I turned to the sonic to destablize our socially constructed boundaries between cultures. It is a curious affair in which Indigenous hip hop can flourish in Canada and remain somewhat discursively isolated from other hip hop cultures, mainly Black cultural expressions. The Aboriginal Peoples Choice Music Awards, a necessary tool to instill Native pride in Canada, is one of the reasons why mainstream exposure for many Indigenous hip hop artists remains elusive. There are many other reasons such as the slow and painful death of MuchMusic and the Canadian music industry’s blatant disregard for hip hop music until about 1998, when hip hop became the United States number one selling genre of music dethroning country music

No sustained and meaningful conversations occur between or across Indigenous and Black hip hop cultures. When Maestro briefly mentioned the Oka crisis in “Nothing at All” in 1991, this was the first time on record we can find even the slightest intersecting conversation between Black and Indigenous life in Canada. Recently, when Shad spoke about his experience with Idle No More in Vancouver, the conversation made headlines; it highlighted both the importance of the subject matter but also the dearth of intersectional conversations in the public sphere. If we look at the recent Indian Summer album by Dreezus, a veteran in the industry since his days with Rez Official, we are hard pressed to find collaborations with Black Canadian hip hop artists, despite his cross Canada tour. Although Dreezus speaks to truth to power, there remain few openly discussed intersections with Black Canadian struggles within the on-going coloniality of Canadian culture.

In addition to reading Alberta’s legendary War Party and Public Enemy as distinct musical groups, sonically and lyrically we need to also understand them as both speaking truth to power, both fighting against Eurocentrism, operating in a certain relation to one another. The dismal rate at which we see Indigenous hip hop speaking with African American or African Canadian hip hop against structural oppression is both mystifying and sad. It is one of the reasons that motivated the Sonic Intimacies mix.

What might be at stake here and what are the necessary conditions to initiate a relational praxis, one that can read Indigenous life alongside and simultaneously with Black life? At minimum two conditions are necessary, the first being a move away from imagining Black creative life as solely entertainment. Yes, the majority of hip hop musics are market orientated but a decolonized hip hop aesthetic refuses to fetishize the market and thinks beyond consumption. When we remember “Roll Jordan Roll” or “Wade in the Water”, it becomes easier to see how unnatural the ‘market’ is and how our ancestors creatively resisted before we today creatively consume.

The secondly necessary condition is to apply the learnings and intellectual gains from hip hop to non-hip hop spheres of life. The ethic of mixing has much to teach us, particularly around how we conceive of our relations and relationships and how we might live with social difference. The question of the vast chasm that prevents any kind of creative collaboration between Black life and Indigenous life that might form a sustained social critique, illuminates for us the intimate workings of coloniality. Specifically illuminated here is how our actions and ideas, even within the sphere of leisure, or while being entertained, work to reproduce the silos and isomorphic relations beneficial to the reproduction of Western thought and life.

I began the Sonic Intimacies mix with a Roni Size jungle remix of Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff,” and following this track with A Tribe Called Red’s “Shottas”. By mixing M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes” into “Shottas,” I continued the sonic experimentation vibe with A Tribe Called Red bringing dancehall’s often used gunshot sample and the road whistle found in Soca. In this mix, I opted for M.I.A’s “Paper Planes,” a popular commercial and club song with a political commentary from a conscientious daughter of a Tamil Tiger. The remix I mixed into the original utilizes both Annie Lennox and Biggie Smalls, looping Smalls’ baritone “I never thought hip hop would take it this far.”

I opted for Tribe Called Red’s “Burn Your Village to the Ground,” a track released in the midst of the announcement of the acquittal of Mike Brown’s murder in Ferguson, Missouri. The significance of the track’s title and the timing of its release cannot be overstated. “Burn Your Village Down” speaks eloquently of the massive protests in Ferguson while remaining unequivocally relevant to Indigenous life in Canada. The Sonic Intimacies mix is about bringing together Electric Pow Wow, Electro Soca, classic hip hop, UK Funky, Samba and Dancehall musics and helping listeners emerge from the ways in which we are made to think of Black musics and Indigenous musics as isomorphic. The set was conceived both topically and in terms of sonic aesthetic, designed to take into consideration the dancing desires of partygoers. For example, the Art of Fresh’s hip house joint “Get Free” is sonically nestled after Afrika Bambaataa & the Soul Sonic Force’s “Planet Rock” and just before the UK Funky hit “Party Hard” by Donaoe, allowing for a party vibe in the midst of this mix. Importantly, this mix provides listeners with an opportunity to hear Bob Marley, M.I.A., Tanya Tagaq, Bunji Garlin and A Tribe Called Red in relation to one another.

Initially the crowd’s reaction was a mixture of estrangement and appreciation. Bodies moved, eventually further loosening as recognizable tunes began to flow. By interspersing Electric Pow Wow throughout the mix, I provided a rotating mix of familiarity and newness, bringing into relation that which is sold to us as distinctly different, separate and unrelated. Have a listen to the mix here.

Hip Hop’s staying power is also its discursive intervention into the current truth regime of our moment. As a culture, hip hop expresses a holistic modality; it is invested in stimulating and engaging all the human senses. Just as the DJ and the B-Boy experience an inseparable relation, hip hop’s holistic modality means it is also dispersed across a number of life’s spheres. The oral, sonic, visual and physical are ways in which hip hop engages the human and operates to refute the foundational mind/body split in Eurocentric thought. The supposedly rational mind does not become valorized at the expense of bodily expression or aesthetic. The praxis to address/engage the human holistically places hip hop at odds with mainstream Eurocentric thought. The role of the cipher then in hip hop culture excellently exemplifies the centrality of spontaneity and improvisation in the use of the body’s rhythmic engagements that cannot be disconnected from the sonic, visual, emotional and competitive aspects of a cipher. The work of the DJ is especially important in bringing together and helping us experience and think through the different spheres and genres of our daily lives.

When envisioning the ideal location to initiate liberating and decolonized actions and ideologies, I think of hip hop culture; not what is market orientated and sold to us, but the participatory version of hip hop, the one that demands we enter the cipher and enter the mix. We need these tools to enhance the lives of those damned as ‘other’ and those punished, legislatively and spiritually, for refusing, for centuries now, to forget their ancestor’s knowledge and those of us who refused to be beaten down by “tom-tom drums”.

 A Banting Postdoctoral Fellow, Mark is a scholar, dj and advocate of the arts. His research interests include; Afrodiasporic theory and culture, Canadian hip-hop cultures, dj cultures, afrosonic innovations and youth community development projects. In 2010 Mark founded the online archive and co-founded a non-profit arts organization, Nia Centre for the Arts in 2008. Mark has published widely with recent work appearing in the Southern Journal of Canadian Studies, Critical Studies in Improvisation, and the CLR James Journal.

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