Notes On:

DeForrest Brown Jr. at Camden Arts Centre – 10th October 2021

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DeForrest Brown Jr.’s 2020 release as Speaker Music, ‘Black Nationalist Sonic Weaponry’, thrust me into an interior space I don’t think I have occupied before or since. The music is mesmerically uncertain. Strung-out with pain, tension, and a deep-seated need to express the brutal reality of the intersecting racist and capitalist endgames that dominate our contemporary existence. Witnessing a live performance at Camden Arts Centre in early October brought me back into this space. It was vitally and necessarily inspiring. Where platform capitalism has increasingly flattened and homogenized music consumption, this was a luminescent experience in the face of our decomposing horizons.

Speaker Music is occupied by the joy, too, of a vast lineage of musical expression and development. Black music informs everything we hear today, and in Brown Jr.’s oeuvre it is compressed like a paleozoic fossil. Unfathomable experiences layered densely on top of each other under the weight both of time and societal systems which simply do not permit (or refuse to engage with) their existence. The result – as ever – is crystalline in its intent, shimmering in the darkness. Rhythms shift, stutter, and slide over each other in discordance. Ideas and connections bubble forth in networked arrays of bass and forking percussion. The music is mutable, pinned together by track titles mirroring the upfront, no-bullshit expression of early Underground Resistance EPs. A language of things that simply must be declared. And must be heard.

Courtesy Camden Art Centre. Photo: Nelta Kasparian


Super Predator


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Black Secret Technology is a Traumatically Manufactured and Exported Good Necessitated by 300 Years of Unaccounted for White Supremacist Savagery in the Founding of the United States


Techno is a Liberation Technology

Brown Jr. speaks as Speaker Music sounds. His introductory invitation into the orbit he has fashioned is an outpouring of so much information that should be understood, comprehended, taught, and grappled with – and yet routinely is forced into the background of contemporary discussion. As he runs the audience through Alvin Toffler’s Third Wave, the Belleville Three, and the origins of Black vernacular musics in syncopated brass bands in the American South he skips, like his music, between the structural pieces of the puzzle. The delivery is self-aware, interrupted by an occasional smirk as he backtracks to contextualise points on personal history and the reality of life on the North American continent. There is no way he could have possibly communicated the wealth of understanding necessary in the flimsy 30 minutes allotted to the beginning of the performance. There’s an irony in just how long it takes to educate people on the fundamental realities underpinning so much of the art that they love. Sounds that could be recognised instantly take reams of pages and a concerted effort to justly contextualise.

Courtesy Camden Art Centre. Edited Photo: Nelta Kasparian

It’s an irony only reciprocated by how cleanly the following musical performance cuts through the noise. A Gordian knot of grappling ideologies and histories of suffering can be cleft with a sword or, in this instance, a hefty dose of bassweight. Overtures of panicking stabs compliment writhing body movements, expressions of glee at the music emerging from the improvisation. There is more to be said, and more to be felt, than is possible to do with words alone. Techno is a Liberation Ideology for ideas as well as peoples here – setting free the coursing veins of discussion into pulsing airwaves. Indeed, Brown Jr.’s talk doesn’t move monodirectionally. It strives to break free of the myopic narratives that have dominated this space for so long – raging against not the dying of the light but its murder. A discussion of Mike Banks’ Native American heritage blends into family recollections, accounts of the brutal scorched-earth policies of the post-Bellum American landscape. A landscape that for Brown Jr. doesn’t, and never has existed.

America is actually four countries.

There is a vitality in the room that is testament to the way performance, art, writing, and force of will can move things forwards where hundreds of years stand in opposition. A couple sits their child down a couple of metres away from me, earplugs installed, as DeForrest paces the room and startup tones fill the silence. Interruptions by police sirens on the street outside couldn’t be more grimly attuned to the moment. The Speaker has to stop for them to pass. Thoughts suspended, life on hold.

Ex-American Blues.

In performing this selection of music live, the sound itself is wrenched from that state of self-inflicted technologism and made flesh again. Growing out of the alienation and deep trauma inflicted by plantation work, where the only available instrument was the voice, live performance and communal experience are central to the construction of Black music. To quote Nettrice Gaskins, it assumes a “radically unfinished” form, made whole by the joint present and experience of others simultaneously. It is this humanity and communality that DeForrest Brown Jr. excavates as he moves between seated audience members, sending shokk waves into the soul.

Courtesy Camden Art Centre. Edited Photo: Nelta Kasparian

A far cry from Paul Gilroy’s increasingly moralistic and pessimistic assessments of Black music, and in direct opposition to his cries of the “de-skilling” of its creation, Speaker Music is self-referentially technological, self-determinedly robotic in a vein that is deeply affecting. The introduction discusses making music that is not only technological through it’s production methods, but through deliberate and careful consideration of modes of performance. The result is resolutely inhuman in ways that we are perhaps used to – processed, garbled vocals, strainingly sharp refrains, and atonal clusters of notes which break apart like geodes underfoot. Yet it is also rendered human, whole, personal through its performance in ways that we are less accustomed to. Or at least less accustomed to considering.

A thought I underlined the other day in Dhanveer Singh Brar’s new book, Teklife/Ghettoville/Eski, drifts into view. Musical recording is framed in the discussion as “a compression device, a momentary phono-image of a ferocious and compelling production of blackness as atmosphere”. Soundsystem pressure is but another form of the squeeze, the ejection of air from your lungs as a piece of music takes a dizzying dive skyward, arching inwards and away from itself as melodies float down from below into the above. Writing now, I’m trying hard to recall precise moments of the experience but, instead, I am left alone with the atmosphere of its passing. A mineral deposit. In the zine accompanying the initial release of Black Nationalist Sonic Weaponry, Ryan Clarke writes that “to hear the Black Atlantic like a shell to our ear is to hear the drum”. I now carry the echoes.