Racial Violence and Representation

Faya Ston no Bron mi so (Surinamese Folk song)

Faya Ston no Bron mi so is a traditional children’s song taught to and sung by virtually every child growing up in Suriname, often while playing a game called faya ston. Containing just two lines, this happily-sounding song does not seem very impressive at first glance. Unravelling its historical origins, however, reveals depths in it initially unseen.

As might have become clear already from the fact that the two sources referenced thus far were Youtube videos, there is very little written documentation of the experience of slavery in Suriname from the per- spective of slaves. Slaves were never taught to read and write, and, even after the abolition of slavery there, the colonial rulers did not allow any room for them to freely speak about (the traumas of) slavery. The knowledge that remains, therefore, consists of what has been preserved within the oral tradition of the descendants of slaves (C. McLeod 2019)

The meaning of the text, however, is more gruesome than one would initially expect. The first line literally translates to “fire stone do not burn me so [much].” What is referred to as a fire stone, however, is the stamp using which slaves were branded with the initials of their owner (C. McLeod 2019). The first line is thus to be understood as the cry by a slave, being branded as the property of his new master. The second line translates to “again master Jantje is killing someone’s child”. The killing here, is not to be understood literally, but has a twofold meaning: on the one hand, it can be read as expressing the loss of subjectivity, of freedom that is instated by the branding, the formal completion of the slave’s reduction to property. Secondly, it is used in a dramatic effort to express the excruciating pain of the victim, while also putting the pain at or even beyond the limits of rational and empathetic understanding — much like how one can never truly understand what it is like to be murdered, one can also never truly understand what it is like to be marked.

Having understood the meaning of the second line, another avenue within the first line opens up. The opposition between the third person in the second line (“someone’s child”) and the first person (“me”) that is suffering in the first line, expresses a reliving of the horror of having been marked, of that trauma, by slaves during the marking of another, a new slave.

The repetition of the two lines also produces meaning. The raw screams of the slaves, much like the screams of Aunt Hester (Douglass 2009), are reproduced through repetition of the first line: the emphasis placed on the assonance in “no bron mi so” frees up the o-sound from its mere linguistic function and turning it into a stage for expression. This can be read along the lines of Moten’s analysis of the “irre- ducibility of sound” (Moten 2003, p.1), joined together with Butler’s theory of performativity in saying that performance, in particular its phonic nature, provides a means of (re)producing ourselves (Moten 2003, p.4, 6–7). Similarly, the repetition of the second line expresses at the same time the mechanical nature of branding (again someone’s child is killed, again, again,…) as well as the abundance of death and violence in the lives of slaves.
The melodic, carefree form of the song contrasts greatly with its contents, because of the prohibition on explicit discussion of one’s suffering endured in slavery. The song, sung and resung by slaves and their descendants, allowed them to verbalise their suffering and traumata, to retell the story of slavery within the bounds set by the colonial rulers, precisely by sterilising the contents through the aestheticisation of the form. Siding with Moten, this is an exemplar of Black performance as black production, as a means of (re)producing one’s black identity over and against any prohibition to do so.

Stephan Loor

Racial Violence and Representation

Funkadelic: Maggot Brain

How could the cover of the mythical album not remind us of Aunt Hester’s scream, Douglass’ “original generative act” (Hartman, 1997)? The head of a black woman seemingly buried from the neck down as she screams her lungs out, eyes shut in pain. Pain and sorrow are the theme of the most famous song of the album from which it takes its name, Maggot Brain. In this moving masterpiece of psychedelic guitar, Eddie Hazel gives us a new insight into the spectacle of violence and pain, hinting towards their transcendence into healing.

The context of the song sheds light on its ‘genesis’. While very high on LSD Eddie Hazel was asked by the band leader, Georges Clinton, to perform as if his mother had just died (Clinton, 2014). Already this quick contextualisation gives us a lot to uncover. Firstly, LSD is a powerful psychedelic substance, which is to say a hallucinogenic drug. The etymology of the word psychedelic, comes from the Greek Psyche, understood as mind or spirit and delos which means “to manifest” (Osmond, 1956), and therefore can be understood as the transcendence of the mind, manifesting into new sensory realms. It is easy to understand, under such influences, how the music produced by Hazel brought forward a new paradigm in feeling emotions through sound. Secondly, the inspiration from the loss of the mother echoes what Moten points out as “the materiality of a maternal substitution” (2003). In Douglass’ context, the screams of Aunt Hester represent his birth into a world of violence, for Hazel the deathly thought experiment on hallucinogens permits a transcendental shift of his pain into sound. Ironically, adding to the already legendary lore around this mystical masterpiece, Eddie Hazel’s mom asked for Maggot Brain to be played at his funeral, after he died of liver failure at age 55 after a long struggle with addiction (Thompson, 2001).

The guitar solo, in a minor scale, evokes sorrowful cries while the backing guitar loops in arpeggio emulates the constant passing of time. The intensity of sound brought up and down along a powerfully melancholic tune could be interpreted as mimicking the various phases of mourning, may it be the passing of a maternal figure or the end of innocence, the awakening to a world of pain. Elongated notes, using various echo effects and pedals, give the impression of distorted shrieks while more rapid progressions along the pentatonic scale, illustrate grief in the form of sobbing. In the making of the song, Clinton felt the power of that guitar solo and faded out the other instruments present in the initial recording, giving it its due space. He also delayed it “back on itself three or four times” giving it an “eerie feel” (Clinton, 2014), adding a supernatural, almost magical, aspect to the pain.

Moten argues that: “The broken circle demands a new analytic (way of listening to the music).” (2003) I believe this song gives us the key to this new way of listening to music: as a tool for healing. Recent research into psychedelic assisted therapy have highlighted the centrality of the interaction between music and psychedelic substances in the evocation of emotions both pleasant and unpleasant, (Kaelen & Al, 2018) moving from Moten’s “cathexis” (2003) into catharsis, release of emotions and purification. Emotional breakthrough is fundamental to the long term effects of psychedelic therapy (Roseman & Al. 2019) and openness to music during therapy sessions has been shown to be significantly predictive of reduction in depressions. (Kaelen & Al, 2018) While psychedelic research has been mostly white dominated, there has recently been promising research looking into the power of psychedelic therapy in potentially healing racial trauma (Williams & Al, 2020). Drawing from the conclusions of those various papers, I would like to paint the idea that musical representation of pain and suffering can be in certain context cathartic and play an important role in healing from this pain and trauma, transcending the cycles of representation of violence towards an instrumentalization for peacefulness, not solely of the mind.

Julien Djenidi


Dave Thompson, Eddie Hazel in Funk, Backbeat Books, 2001
Fred Moten, “Resistance of the Object: Aunt Hester’s Scream”, In the Break. The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis 2003
Saidiya Hartman, Scenes of Subjection. Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America, Oxford University Press, “Introduction”, Oxford 2007
Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself, Harvard University Press, chapter 1, Cambridge 2009
Humphry Osmond, Letter to Timothy Leary from 1956, published in Cynthia Carson Bisbee, et Al. Psychedelic Prophets : The Letters of Aldous Huxley and Humphry Osmond. McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2018.
Mendel Kaelen & Al, “The hidden therapist: evidence for a central role of music in psychedelic therapy”, in Psychopharmacology 235, 2018
Roseman, Leor et Al. “Emotional Breakthrough and Psychedelics: Validation of the Emotional Breakthrough Inventory.” in Journal of psychopharmacology Oxford 2019
Williams, Monnica & Al. “People of color in North America report improvements in racial trauma and mental health symptoms following psychedelic experiences”. in Drugs: Education Prevention and Policy. 28. 2020

Racial Violence and Representation

Sons of Kemet ft. Joshua Idehen: Field Negus

For the theme of racialised violence, I chose the song ‘Field Negus’ by Sons of Kemet (ft. Joshua Idehen). I must admit that I found it very difficult to write this contribution for the mixtape. Not only because the readings were difficult, but because the song I have chosen screams difficulty. It screams at the position of me, the specific author of this text, who has chosen this song. What is my position? My position is that of a white man writing about ”Blackness – the extended movement of a specific upheaval, an ongoing irruption that anarranges every line” (Moten 2003, 1). As I am writing this text, I am in a city built on slavery, doing my readings in one of the former buildings of the Dutch East India Company. This is the company that was one of the main actors in the Dutch slave trade. Given that the song concerns slavery and racism, in many ways, I am occupying the position of the ’you’ addressed in this song. Joshua Idehen sings with distorted affect accompanied by noisy horns and percussion that have no clear structure, no clear rhythm:

Thank you for refusing me that inch
Because now I do now recognise your yardstick
The scales have toppled
The curtains have collapsed
The blonde baboon’s arse is bare in the open
And I am a field n* now
I do not want your equality
It was never yours to give me
And even then it was too minor, too little, too late (Sons of Kemet and Idehen 2021)

This song does not only concern an abolishment of slavery, it also concerns an abolishment of that against which freedom and slavery is measured and defined in the first place. This is the ‘yardstick’ and the ‘scales’ that Idehen sings about. The lyrics also concern the positionality of the ‘you’ that defines an ‘equality’ that ‘was never yours to give me’. Thus, the song critiques both the measurement of freedom and the position of the ‘you’ who sets the conditions for emancipation. These critiques resonate with Saidiya Hartman’s problematization of any clear, simple annulment of slavery. Any actual freedoms after the 13th amendment did not neatly follow from an increase in legal (white Western man’s) freedoms. Slavery instead transformed and took on new forms (Hartman 1997, 10). As Hartman also contends, the very meaning of emancipation must thus be reconsidered, the “yardstick” of this freedom recognised, and its “curtains” collapsed.

The tension between the instrumentation and Idehen’s singing/shouting/chanting screams the difficulty of the process of ’writing about’ from a specific perspective before I even started typing these words. It thus functions as the sort of irruption that Fred Moten writes about, that is “an irruption of phonic substance that cuts and augments meaning with a phonographic, rematerializing inscription.” (Moten 2003, 14) It irrupts the meaning of ’itself as analyzable’ by virtue of how it unsettles the non-innocent position of the analyser. This makes this analysis of what the song might be about necessarily parenthetic to the forceful, tense unsettling of the song (this to such an extent that I had initially written half this part of the mixtape in parentheses, something I only altered when I realized how difficult it makes the reading experience).

The ‘Negus’ in the song’s title is an Ethiopian term for a monarch. The song could then be seen as a process of recontextualizing the Negus’ ’Field’ as that which is no longer defined on the terms of the ’you’ addressed in the song, but instead ruled over by the regent ’we’ of the song. However, this position that is being rematerialized upon hearing the audio of the song, is not a position that is mine to define. I believe that the song performs a scream to us as academics and makes analysis parenthetic to the act of stepping away, an act that questions our positions. This is what Moten means by the appositional encounter; that the sound questions positionality by forcing us to step away from our positions (Moten 2003, 21). Where does this encounter take us? I will end this part of the mixtape with a quote from Moten. The appositional encountering is

a nondetermining invitation to the new and continually unprecedented performative, historical, philosophical, democratic, communist arrangements that are the only authentic ones. (Moten 2003, 22)

Lukas Hjulmann Seidler

Racial Violence and Representation

Ella Fitzgerald: Mack the Knife

Arguably the best example of the power of music is the role jazz has played in the civil rights movement in the United States. As María Diego Vicente (2022) argues, jazz has had a trifold purpose in the civil rights movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s: catharsis, self-identification, and emancipation (12-17). However, the importance of ‘black music’ has not been left undisputed. Frantz Fanon – a famous critic of jazz – argues that jazz music reduces black identity to an essential sameness. Fanon poses that it disregards particular lived experiences. My aim is to amend this problem through the lens of Fred Moten’s theory on black performance. In what follows, I will explore how improvisational jazz – exemplified by Ella Fitzgerald’s performance of Mack the Knife – plays a crucial role in identity formation and emancipation, thereby being an aid rather than a hindrance to social movements.    

To grasp Frantz Fanon’s critique on jazz, one must first understand his hostility to Leopold Senghor’s negritude movement. In an attempt to battle colonialism and its inherent racism, the negritude movement attempts to establish a collective black identity. As Senghor (1974) puts it, ‘the word negritude expresses the same for the whole range of values of civilisation of all black peoples in the world’ (270). As such, it is a metaphor that refers to a common ‘rhythm’ of blackness, which is expressed in art, literature, and (jazz) music (Ibid., 270-271).

Fanon, however, starkly opposes such a theory. By reducing black identity to a collective rhythmic sensibility, grounded in a mythical shared past, one wholly neglects the particularity of specific cultures, or even individuals. As Fanon declares, black people “of Chicago only resemble the Nigerians or the Tanganyikans in so far as they were all defined in relation to the whites” (Fanon 2001, 173-174). By subscribing to the notion of a shared sense of negritude, one negates the lived experience of the black person. This is precisely what he accuses jazz of as well. Fanon seeks to challenge the romantic idea of a fundamental black identity that is so prominent in jazz music. Ultimately, he poses that the performance of jazz only serves to reproduce the inferiority of the black/colonial subject. By lamenting on “the curse of his race, and the racial hatred of the white men”, the jazz musician only reproduces the colonial power dynamic (Ibid., 195-196).

While Fanon’s critique seems to be unambiguous, Jeremy Lane (2012) has argued that Fanon’s feud is not with jazz, but rather with its connection to the negritude movement. What is needed, then, is an uncoupling of jazz and the conception of a shared blackness. I propose that such an uncoupling is provided by Fred Moten’s theory of black performance, and in particular the importance he ascribes to improvisational jazz. Echoing Judith Butler’s theory of performativity, Moten poses that identity is performatively constructed and reconstructed. Moreover, he attributes such productive power in particular to ‘phonic matter’ – i.e., voice, music, sound (Moten 2003, 6-7). Such phonic substance contains the productive and disruptive power to radically (re)articulate black identity. This is especially the case in improvisational jazz, for it is ‘a highly localized movement of syncopation, a Village disruption of the spacetime continuum’, which ‘marks the assertion, rather than negation, of radical blackness on the one hand, and totality on the other’ (Ibid., 153). Of such a case, I take Ella Fitzgerald’s (1960) rendition of Mack the Knife to be a prime example.

In February 1960, Ella Fitzgerald went on to put on a live performance that would remain forever enshrined in the history of music, and jazz in particular. Declaring that she would be the first woman to sing it, she commences her version of Mack the Knife. Comfortably, Fitzgerald works her way through the first two verses. Around the third verse, the music speeds up, and she starts to mix in some ad-libs. But it is only when the fourth verse arrives that Fitzgerald – effortlessly, it may be added – sings to us: “Oh what’s the next chorus, to this song, now. This is the one, now I don’t know” (Fitzgerald 1960). From this point onward, the song is entirely improvised. It is in this moment, as Moten would have it, that Fitzgerald radically asserts her own identity through the performance. Her acknowledgement that “We’re making a wreck, what a wreck of Mack the Knife” only serves to accentuate this by emphasising the authenticity of her performance. This is further illustrated once we reach the antepenultimate verse, in which Fitzgerald opens one of her famous scat choruses. Bringing the point home, she declares: “You won’t recognize it, it’s a surprise hit. This tune, called Mack the Knife. And so, we leave you, in Berlin town. Yes, we’ve swung old Mack, we’ve swung old Mack in town.” (Fitzgerald 1960).

Ultimately, Fitzgerald’s performance serves as the perfect counter-example to Fanon’s claim that jazz is reductionistic and defeatist. Improvisational jazz performances such as these showcase the individuality, as well as the liberatory capacity jazz can have. In particular, the fact that Fitzgerald covers an old song, but transforms it beyond recognition, illustrates the emancipatory capability of improvisational performance. In no way does Fitzgerald resemble the desperate and beat-down jazz musician Fanon so despises. Quite the opposite. Fitzgerald’s performance radiates joy and freedom throughout.

In this short essay, I have explored the role of jazz in emancipatory movements. Frantz Fanon has criticised jazz for being an expression of negritude, thereby negating the manifold of particularities that black experiences carry with them, as well as reinforcing colonial power dynamics. I have attempted to show, drawing from Fred Moten, how improvisational jazz escapes this problem. Phonic matter, such as music, contains the capacity to radically disrupt and create identities anew. I have proposed Ella Fitzgerald’s famous rendition of Mack the Knife to be exemplary of such a case.

Giovanni Prins


Diego Vicente, María. 2022. “Black Music In African-American Fiction: Catharsis, Identity And Emancipation.” Master thesis., Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia
Fanon, Frantz. 2001. The Wretched of the Earth. Translated by Constance Farrington. London: Penguin Books.
Lane, Jeremy F. 2012. “Leaving the South: Frantz Fanon, Modern Jazz and the Rejection of Négritude.” In American Creoles: The Francophone Caribbean and the American South, edited by Martin Munro and Celia Britton, 129-146. Liverpool University Press.
Moten, Fred. 2003. In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Senghor, Léopold S. 1974. “Negritude.” Indian Literature 17, no. 1/2: 269-273.

Racial Violence and Representation

Childish Gambino: This Is America

How can the experience of African American people be represented? How does one approach that kind of task without trivializing the violence and suffering? Hartman’s answer is to abstain from representation altogether, as in her opinion, it has the risk of turning into a morbid spectacle for curious voyeurs. Moten, instead, believes that sound has the power to successfully convey such a message. In his book In the Break, he brings the example of the free jazz performance titled Protest, from Abbey Lincoln, Max Roach, and Oscar Brown Jr., that through the use of screams and manic drumming, moves <<in a trajectory and toward a location that is remote from – if not in excess of or inaccessible to – words>>.

The song This Is America, by Childish Gambino – as the title may suggest – is a musical representation of the United States. In just four minutes it manages to delve into themes of discrimination, gun violence, social turmoil, consumerism, police brutality, and much more. However, maybe even more interesting than the themes themselves, is how Gambino manages to portray them so accurately.

Looking at how the song’s sections are divided, we start to notice that it doesn’t really follow an orthodox structure. Instead, two very different sections alternate between themselves. The first one is a sort of gospel inspired choir. The second one, instead, is a very grimy hip-hop/trap beat. Also, there isn’t really any transition between the two, creating a very jarring switch every time they alternate – almost sounding like someone abruptly stopped the song you were listening to, just to play something from a completely different genre. This bold composition choice would normally create an unpleasant listening experience (and might also be considered a result of poor songwriting), but here, instead, it manages to strengthen Gambino’s message. The sudden change from the upbeat-gospel section to the abrasive hip-hop one perfectly portrays the erratic nature of violence in the U.S., where tragedy can strike at any time.

An analysis of this song wouldn’t be complete, however, without mentioning its official video. The audio and video are so synergistic to each other that calling This Is America a song may not do it justice. It is equal parts a visual and musical performance. Gambino dances, acts, kills, mocks. The different sections are accompanied by complex choreographies and stunts, and each time the song switches between them the visual component matches the brutality implied in the music and lyrics, creating a captivating and yet eerie multimedial experience for the viewers.

Where Moten sees African American music as a vessel for the representation of blackness, Childish Gambino takes it a step further, using two very different types of music – both originated from black culture – to represent something that is maybe even more elusive: the zeitgeist of a nation. Whether this attempt was successful, is beyond the scope of this short essay. What cannot be denied, however, is the success and positive reception that the song received, which at the least demonstrates that its message resonated with people. That is not a bad result, for a song that was literally designed to be unpleasant to listen to.

Edoardo Chen


Moten, Fred. 2003. In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Hartman, Sadiya. 1997. Scenes of Subjection; Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth Century America. New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Racial Violence and Representation

Pharoah Sanders: You’ve Got To Have Freedom

Introducing jazz vocalist Abbey Lincoln’s self narrative, Fred Moten writes, “[w]here shriek turns speech turns song—remote from the impossible comfort of origin—lies the trace of our descent.”[1] I can’t help but think of where shriek turns speech turns song as a most apt description of the beginning of Pharoah Sanders’ You’ve Got to Have Freedom, leading me to consider the piece as an example of what Moten calls black performance.

In the first second of You’ve Got to Have Freedom, Sanders’ overblown, screaming tone stands alone [shriek]—he then repeats the initial phrase, giving a semantic structure to his performance [speech]—and then the band comes in behind him [song]. After taking a short 8-bar respite from screaming, Sanders reappears with an amazingly rich and dark tone, only to return to the overblown phrase from the beginning. The music here seems to fill in the gaps of Moten’s writing, making clear the role of the sonic in his work; after hearing Pharaoh Sanders blow, it feels more-than-obvious to conclude that his playing contains echoes of Aunt Hester’s scream. Thus, I’m more interested in the limits to Moten’s argument: as he suggests, the primal shriek echoes in the music of James Brown, and Albert Ayler, whose sound is comparable to Pharoah’s (the link between them is nontrivial, note Ayler’s oft-quoted, “Trane was the Father, Pharoah was the Son, I am the Holy Ghost”), it’s easy to make the connection between echoes of the scream and an overblown horn, and from there to other sorts of screams in black performance, but how can the echo appear in other musical textures? [2], [3]

Maybe this echo fixation misses the point, though. On You’ve Got to Have Freedom, does the rhythm section echo the scream as well? They certainly add layers of tension to the performance, giving supplemental context to Sanders’ playing, and in a way, they mediate how we hear and receive the scream. But, I think to reduce all jazz performance to echoes of Aunt Hester’s scream is to see the expression of jazz as something repressive, and to miss the ultimate goal of Moten’s project. He aims beyond representation, recreation, repression of the primal scene to ask: “is there a way to subject this unavoidable model of subjection to a radical breakdown?”[4] Thus, the screaming saxophone tone is not a mere representation, but that very breakdown. “If we return again and again to a certain passion, a passionate response to a passionate utterance, horn-voice-horn over percussion, a protest, an objection, it is because it is more than another violent scene of subjection too terrible to pass on; it is the ongoing performance, the prefigurative scene of a (re)appropriation—the deconstruction and reconstruction, the improvisational recording and revaluation—of value, of the theory of value, of the theories of value.”[5] Pharoah’s playing, obviously pure power, does not work to recreate the primal scene of subjection, but exists in the break, breaking from subjection, redirecting the excess of the scene towards something other than repression, to fight that repression. It records, rewrites over previous theories of value, as an outpouring of passion, repetition put in motion by repression that is somehow not the return of the repressed. To rephrase this paradox in Moten’s words, “[t]hat black radicalism cannot be understood within the particular context of its genesis is true; it cannot be understood outside that context either.”[6] In line with this thought, one cannot truly be free from their past, yet they aren’t permanently tethered to it either; like Sanders they can repeatedly perform in the break, for the break, iterating towards freedom.

Pat LeGates

[1] Fred Moten, In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 22.
[2] Moten, 22.
[3] Frank Kofsky, “Liner Notes to Albert Ayler’s ‘Love Cry,’” 1968,
[4] Moten, 5.
[5] Moten, 14.
[6] Moten, 24.

Racial Violence and Representation

Sam Cooke: A Change Is Gonna Come

The song “A Change is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke illustrates parts of Saidya Hartman’s interpretation of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave as she sets out in the introduction of her book Terror, Slavery, and the Self-Making in Nineteenth Century America. In the introduction, she explains difficulties in representing black suffering and the violence that comes with it. Cooke’s song shows us how black suffering can be represented in a musical context.

The first chapter of Fredrick Douglass’ book immediately made me think of Sam Cooke’s song. I was already very familiar with the song, so when I read the sentence “I was born […]” in Douglass’ book, Cooke’s voice took over the sound of the narrative in my mind.[1] Hartman interprets this sentence as an establishment of the central place of violence in the making of a slave. The making of a slave and “I was born” should both be seen as ‘original generative acts’.[2] The same can be stated about Cooke’s song: he directly sets the tone for a discussion of the immediateness of racism by starting with “I was born by the river, in a little tent”.[3] Just like in Douglass’ book the sentence represents the immediate state of being a slave. Both Cooke and Douglass were born into violence because they were black. The difference here is that Douglass was born as a slave in the Nineteenth century, and Cooke was born in a society that forbids slavery but is still segregated.

However, Cooke’s and Douglass’ representations of black suffering also differ a lot from each other, especially when we consider Hartman’s argument about the ethics of representing black suffering: she states that the line between witness and spectator is vague in the case of representations of black suffering. By ‘witnesses’ she means those who “confirm the truth of what happened in the face of the world-destroying capacities of pain, the distortions of torture, the sheer unrepresentability of terror, and the repression of the dominant accounts”. By ‘spectators’ she means “voyeurs fascinated with and repelled by exhibitions of terror and sufferance”. She argues that we should therefore refrain from representing black suffering.[4]  

While describing forms of violence that are perpetrated against black people, Cooke keeps repeating that “a change is gonna come”. With this he points towards a current state of affairs in society that is violent towards black people, and this should and will change. He does not give a description of bodily harm inflicted on black people, but rather gives examples of other types of aggression, such as segregation. For example, he does not sing about police violence, but about doing the same activities as a white man but being treated as less when he sings “I go to the movie; And I go downtown; Somebody keep telling me; Don’t hang around”.[5] With this, Cooke also addresses the discrepancy of the captive being both property and a person that Hartman is interested in without explicitly describing bodily harm.[6] Cooke had the right of going to the movies, but his experience of it would still be violent and not equal to a white man’s experience. He may have briefly felt like a person with full rights when going to the movies, but he was still captive in a racist society. Cooke’s account of violence towards black people is thus less of a ‘spectacle’ than Douglass’ account, and he shows us how black suffering can be represented without spectacularising it.

It would be far-fetched to conclude from this that Cooke’s song makes a witness out of the listener, but since much of the songs power lies in its subtlety, it would be safe to state that listeners of Cooke’s song cannot be qualified as Hartman’s notion of spectators. This is also because the song is more activist and future-oriented than descriptive: the listener can imagine what needs to be changed. Cooke apparently did not feel the need to extensively describe black suffering, he merely observes a situation that needs to change, and in doing so he exposes the violence and suffering without providing a spectacular violent image that Hartman disapproves of so much.          

Doortje Kok

[1] Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself, Chapter 1 (Harvard University Press, 2009), pp. 15-20, p. 15.
[2] Saidiya Hartman, “Introduction”, Scenes of Subjection. Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (Oxford University Press, 2007), pp. 3-14, pp. 3-4.
[3] Sam Cooke, “A Change is Gonna Come”, album: Ain’t That Good News (1964).
[4] Hartman, “Introduction”, pp. 3-5.
[5] Cooke, “A Change is Gonna Come”.
[6] Hartman, “Introduction”, p. 5.

Racial Violence and Representation

Common: Letter to the Free

For this week’s song I’d like to present you with Common’s: Letter to the Free. This song was written for the 2016 Netflix documentary 13th by director Ava DuVernay. The song and the documentary attempt to draw a throughline between slavery and the modern American prison industrial complex by discussing the history from the end of slavery via the 13th amendment and how the United States transitioned towards mass incarceration of black people through the black codes and mass disenfranchisement. I believe this song, especially the first two lines of the first verse, can be used to understand the difficulty of representation of the lost voices of the enslaved. It can provide us a lens for which we can contextualize Saidiya Hartman and Fred Moten’s writings on the representation of and spectacle of black suffering. Specifically, to quote Hartman: “At issue here is the precariousness of empathy and the uncertain line between witness and spectator”.

Let’s begin with the very first two lines of the song:

Southern leaves, southern trees we hung from
Barren souls, heroic songs unsung

Common is leading with explicit imagery of the quotidian acts of violence inflicted on enslaved black peoples, following it with what might be seen as a call for recognition of the lives of the enslaved whose stories go unheard. The second lyric is of interest as I believe it ties directly to Hartman’s writings on the impossibility of slave representation. This desire for the recognition of the enslaved cuts towards the dialectical struggle between recognition and normalization of violence. It is the case, that through the repressive instruments of white supremacy and slavery, the historical record may be unable to singularly convey the barbarism of slavery and its institutions. How then do we critically interrogate the historical narrative while not inversely reinforcing its authority? How can we represent the “consciousness of the subaltern” outside of the ‘dominant representation of the elites”? From what I understand Hartman thinks this issue can’t necessarily be resolved. The conditions of the slave left them destitute, illiterate, and powerless long after their legal “emancipation”. Our historical record is necessarily laundered through the lens of those who had the capacity to speak. The closest we can get are those former slaves able to get an education and later articulate their experience. But as I understand it, the point Hartman is making is that this necessarily alters the perspective, those within slave conditions were barred from speech, robbed of their ability to tell their story outside of laundering it through a capable entity. To quote Hartman:

“Accordingly, this examination of the cultural practices of the dominate is possible only because of the accounts provided by literate black autobiographers, white amanuenses, plantation journals and documents, newspaper accounts, missionary tracts, travel writing, amateur ethnographies, government reports, et cetera. Because these documents are “not free from barbarism,” I have tried to read them against the grain in order to write a different account: of the past, while realizing the limits imposed by employing these sources, the impossibility of fully recovering the experience of the enslaved and the emancipated, and the risk of reinforcing the authority of these documents even as I try to use them for contrary purposes.”

Common’s lyric “Barren souls, heroic songs unsung” now reads less as a call for recognition, and more a lamenting of those whose song can’t ever be sung. We are left then as spectator, unable to elucidate the suffering of the slave whose voice has been robbed through centuries of violence.

To briefly cover the rest of the song, Common continues in the rest of the verse explicating the transition from chattel slavery to sharecropping and eventually to the modern prison industrial complex and convict leasing.

Forgive them Father they know this knot is undone
Tied with the rope that my grandmother died
Pride of the pilgrims affect lives of millions
Since slave days separating, fathers from children
Institution ain’t just a building
But a method, of having black and brown bodies fill them
We ain’t seen as human beings with feelings
Will the U.S. ever be us? Lord willing!
For now we know, the new Jim Crow
They stop, search and arrest our souls
Police and policies patrol philosophies of control
A cruel hand taking hold
We let go to free them so we can free us
America’s moment to come to Jesus

A clear line from slavery to the modern institutions of policing and incarceration is drawn by Common. We can see here the referenced “elusive emancipation and travestied freedom” by Hartman.

Lastly, a comment on the chorus:

Freedom (Freedom)Freedom come (Freedom come)
Hold on (Hold on)
Won’t be long (Won’t be long)

The chorus is clearly meant to emulate the tone and cadence of slave songs such as Wade in the Water (, chanting the desire for eventual emancipation from the repressive systems of white supremacy.

Daniel Lazcano

Racial Violence and Representation

Kendrick Lamar: King Kuta

Bitch where you when I was walkin’?
Now I run the game got the whole world talkin’, King Kunta
Everybody wanna cut the legs off him, Kunta
Black man taking no losses
– Kendrick Lamar (2015)

 The album To Pimp a Butterfly from the rapper Kendrick Lamar is undoubtedly one of benchmarks in rap history. With rich vocals and instrumentals and socially aware topics, Lamar pulls of an excellent narrative throughout the album. The third track King Kunta evokes a critique on rappers as well as going beyond the visual representation of the black man.

The song provides us with cartoony sound and zany background vocals, and starts off with a rant on fellow rappers. ‘King Kunta’ is a reference to the rebellious slave Kunta Kinte, who was the basis for the 1976 novel and TV series Roots, a story based on fact and fiction. In the story, after failed to escape his plantation for the fourth time, Kunta was given the choice to be castrated or have his right foot cut off. Kunta chose to have his foot cut off, which explains the line of Lamar:

King Kunta / Everybody wanna cut the legs off him

‘King Kunta’ is used by Lamar to criticise the laziness of contemporary rappers who use ghost-writers. ‘Most of y’all sharing bars like you got the bottom bunk in a two man cell.’ As Lamar raps. King Kunta is also in a paradoxical sense a dominant king and an oppressed slave. This refers to how Lamar used to be a unknown rapper from Compton, but now that he is a famous ‘king’, everyone wants to ‘cut the leg off him’; to steal his success. Leaving aside Lamar’s critique on other rappers, I would like to experiment with Lamar’s revival of Kunta Kinte. Should we even reproduce the suffering of Kunta Kinte?

The American writer Saidiya Hartman argues in Scenes of Subjection (2007) that it is impossible to get rid of the reproduction of black suffering entirely, but she still problematizes this reproduction by pointing out the nature of its circulation. On the one hand, the representation of black suffering shows the injustice of other people’s pain. On the other hand, this representation can turn the subject into a commodity, making us ‘voyeurs fascinated’ by the terror and suffering (Hartman 2007, 3). The horrific scene of the amputation of Kunta Kinte’s foot in Roots gives this entertainment a certain pleasure-component. When does this pleasure become problematic? According to Hartman, when the pleasure numbs the spectator, losing empathy towards the subject, and turning him into a passive object (Hartman 2007, 4). Overexposure of a reproduction of racial violence leads to a certain ‘casualness’ towards the violent situation. Rather than to contribute to the endless recitations, Hartman wants to focus on the violence and terror found in the mundane and quotidian.

However, Lamar’s representation of Kunta Kinte does not go into detail of the extreme violence of Kunta’s right foot being cut off. The original film and novel Roots shows explicit violence, combined with screaming and suffering. Instead of showing extreme form of racial violence and amputation, Lamar uses the reference of King Kunta to establish himself as a king that looks down on fake rappers that don’t write their own lyrics. Therefore Hartman would say that Lamar’s mundane use of Kunta Kinte is unproblematic, but the original depiction of Kunta Kinte in film Roots is not.

More interestingly, King Kunta expresses an acoustic dimension that moves beyond verbal meaning. As the poet Fred Moten argues in his book In the Break, music has the power to express the unspeakable (2003). Moten challgenges the notion that music and sound, which he refers to as ‘phonic matter’, is always reducible to verbal meaning. (2003, 6). Phonic matter not only goes beyond verbal epxression, but also asserts the identity of the performer.

In this view, we can see why Lamar refers to Kunta Kinte in his rap. I think that Lamar is not afraid to compare himself with an enslaved person. Lamar identifies himself with Kunta Kinte, acknowledging his history of slavery while simultaneously giving power to the slave as a ‘king’. By calling himself King Kunta, Lamar turns the pejorative connotation around slaves into something positive to be proud of. This shows us how music can sometimes be better than films and series. Hartman and Moten reminds us that the ‘phonic matter’ of Lamar’s King Kunta goes beyond the visual presentation of Roots, by strategically not contributing to overexposure, while at the same time reclaiming the identity of the black man. Images may speak a thousand words, but sound has the power to express the unspeakable.

Brenno Mulder


Hartman, Saidiya. 2007. Scenes of Subjection. Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America. Oxford University Press, “Introduction”, pp. 3-14.
Moten, Fred. 2003. In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Racial Violence and Representation

Louis Armstrong: I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead You Rascal You

The 1932 Paramount film ‘I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead You Rascal You’ starts by showing the cartoon characters Betty Boop, Bimbo and Koko moving through the jungle (Fleisher 1932).[1] This happy scene is disturbed when, all of a sudden, they are surrounded by a gigantic amount of identical looking black men. These men are scantily clad, with only some leaves around the pubic area, and decorated with bands around their ankles and wrists, and rings in their ears and noses. Furthermore, they are holding a knife and fork. There is no room for doubt: these men are depicted as cannibalistic savages. After kidnapping Betty Boop, they make sexual advances towards her, while dancing rhythmically around her, accompanied by drum music. Meanwhile, Bimbo and Koko narrowly escape death by cannibalism. The happy end consists of Bimbo and Koko managing to free Betty Boop, and their pursuing assailants getting killed by a volcanic eruption.

As if this showy racism isn’t enough already, the savages are also in a fairly direct sense equated with the musicians accompanying the animation, namely black icon Louis Armstrong and his orchestra. This is, for example, done by morphing the floating animated head of one of the savages chasing Bimbo and Koko smoothly into the filmed head of a singing Armstrong, which is changed back to the savage again before the chase ends. In this way, not only the stereotypical African savage, but by extension the entire American black community is portrayed as a homogeneous, primitive group; sexually dangerous to white women and physically dangerous to white men.

How can this painfully racist film be of value in contemporary times? One opportunity this combination of image and sound plausibly offers, is being useful as a means to rehabilitate the resistive sides of the painful history of black subjugation. The importance of this is stressed by Fred Moten (2003) in his book ‘In the Break’. Interestingly, Moten empasizes the role of sound as a medium of resistance. How can the music provided by Armstrong and his orchestra be deployed as a way to reconfigure this blatantly racist short as a testament that proves that black persons treated as objects ‘can and do resist’ (Moten 2003, 1)?

 Armstrong and the orchestra most likely weren’t in a possition to influence the scandalous way they and black people in general were portrayed in the film. Still, they had some freedom of movement in the domain of sound. Indeed, the song they play, in which the suggestive title ‘I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead, You Rascal You’ is repeated over and over again, is ‘a formula for offering resistance to white authority, cloaking insult with flattery’ (Raeburn 2013-2014, 65). This became clear to Armstrong a year earlier in Memphis. After he and his band were detained by the police for being on a bus that was ‘too nice’ for them, he had to do a free performance in return for their release. During this performance, he dedicated this particular song to the police who had imprisoned him on racist grounds. Much to the band’s surprise, this dangerous move did not lead to white violence; instead, the police responded positively to the dedication. White Americans did not recognise the insult; however, many African-Americans who heard the performance over the radio did (Raeburn 2013-2014, 63-65). With Paramount, Armstrong repeated this subversive tactic, reaching an even larger audience.

This way, it’s possible to reconfigure the film as a testament of resistance. Nevertheless, the question could be raised to what extent this view would overly glorify Armstrong’s role. Eventhough he was able to express a subversive message, the question remains if his participation didn’t contribute to the legitimation of the racism of the film, and if this possible negative contribution doesn’t outway the positive subversive side. Wouldn’t it be better if he hadn’t participated at all? On the other hand, it could be said that he was forced to comply with the violent white culture in some way, since his career and life as an artist were at least partly dependent of a white dominated industry.

In conclusion, Paramount’s ‘I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead You Rascal You’ can be reconfigured as a testament of black resistance, relying on the subversive music accompanying the racist pictures. This case is even more interesting as it simultaneously highlights the difficulties in constituting such testaments. It points to the nasty way a oppressive white world forces suppressed black people towards the difficult path of negotiation between, and combination of, compliance and subversion.

Mees Wolffs


Fleischer, Dave. 1932. I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead You Rascal You. Fleischer Studios.

Moten, Fred. 2003. In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Raeburn, Bruce Boyd. 2013-2014.  ““I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead”: Louis Armstrong’s Smack Down with White Authority and his First Films, 1930-1932.” Southern Quarterly 51(1-2): 58-72.