‘Message in a Hammer’ by Obongjayar starts off with a beat that drives the listener forward, with a kick to it that gives the composition an insisting ‘HEAR ME NOW’. The pace of the beat persists through most of the song. It embodies the title. The beat strikes constantly, hammering a message through. I interpret the sender of this message as the migrant trying to get to Europe. From this starting point, I sketch out two aspects of the migrant’s lived experience that are part of ‘the message’ in a hammer.
After the beat gets going, synths kick in and Obongjayar starts singing with a deep, growling, and torn voice: “Born in troubled water, every stroke is war, they drowned the ones before us, but we’ll make it to the shore” (Obongjayar 2021). These initial words set the stage for the song. At stake is the severity of the violence that is being wrought upon migrants traversing the Mediterranean Sea. The migrants are being drowned. And in the song, this drowning does not happen passively. It is done by ‘them’. Who are ‘they’? In this song, they are the figures of authority, as is repeatedly shouted in the middle section of the song: “President (THIEF), governor (THIEF), senator (THIEF), commissioner (THIEF), ambassador (THIEF), minister (THIEF) (…) All of dem murderers” (Obongjayar 2021). This active perpetration of violence is also attested to by Harsha Walia in ‘Fortress Europe’ (2021). Here, Walia writes about how Fortress Europe’s “doctrine of deterrence requires mass border deaths”, in contrast to the passive, statistical way ‘border deaths’ is usually used (Walia 2021).
The beginning sentence of the song is also about a drive ‘to get there’, about making it to the shore. However, this drive is not one that consists of dreams or hopes, at least not of the naïve kind. It is a drive to get out of the conditions that the authorities have placed the migrant in. The migrant is from the onset ‘born in troubled waters’, thus defining the existential conditions of the migrant. The drive ‘to get there’ is about keeping your head above water while pushing towards the shore – not being born on one shore, feet on the ground, and then from the safety of this, choosing to embark across the sea. The existence of the migrant is not merely circumscribed by a general Heideggerian sense of ‘thrownness’, but more specifically by being thrown into the sea, often with lethal consequences. As SA Smythe points out, this Black Mediterranean is not limited by land (Smythe 2018, 7). Consequently, the lethality of the Sea does not stop there either. Donatella Di Cesare writes that the “migrant is atopos – without a place, out-of place” (Di Cesare 2020, 16). In this context, atopos means that the migrant is always already ‘born in troubled waters’ and the lack of place is a lack of ground, caused by Fortress Europe.
To me, the song embodies a sense of fury that is instigated through border violence. While the cause of this fury is horrible, the way the song embodies it can also be seen as a move towards a solution. The fury is not only reactive. It is also a song, full of power to change the listener’s perspective and move them along to its rhythm. Since it takes the shape of a song, one might speculate that the song’s ‘hammering of a message’ is a form of violence without any lethality. While it is directed at authoritarian violence, it does not point to any new beginning, any new set of laws or authorities. It points to “a new day, new dawn” (Obongjayar 2021). Thereby, this could provide a sketch for a form of divine violence, a violence that “is law-annihilating” and non-lethal (Benjamin 2021, 57). The space left open by this annihilation might then provide a new beginning for defining where the Sea stops and land starts; for unsettling the space in which ‘they’ are migrants and in which ‘we’ take it for granted to hold the power to define ‘them’ as such.
Lukas Hjulmann Seidler