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


Sublime: April 29, 1992 (Miami)

‘this fucked up situation, and these fucked up police’
– Sublime (1996)

The police brutality against the African American man Rodney King led to several protest songs. Such as Rodney K. by Willie D., Cop Killer by Body Count, and Rodney King Song by Bob Rivers. With lyrics such as ‘fuck police brutality’, or ‘fuck Rodney King in his ass’ (meant sarcastically), the protest songs are typically against police and condemn their actions against Rodney King. In her Article ‘What a body can do’ the philosopher Elsa Dorlin addresses Rodney King and the existing paradox of self-defence: the more Rodney King defended himself, the more he became an agent of violence and the more he was beaten (Dorlin 2019, 6). However, Dorlin’s politics of self-defence, doesn’t focus on the aftermath of violence.

Instead, I want to focus on the song April 29, 1992 (Miami) of the reggae rock band Sublime, that doesn’t simply criticize the police brutality conflicted on Rodney King, but also address the inequality of black people as a systematic problem. The song describes the band members taken part in the Los Angeles riots of April 29 1992. The band points out that rioting people would not only steal liquor and TV-gear, but also essential needs such as Pampers. Although the band does acknowledge the frustration of poor black people, with lyrics such as:

Cause everybody in the hood has had it up to here It’s getting harder, and harder and harder, each and every year

They also stress that this problem is far more broad and systematic:

But if you look at the street, it wasn’t about Rodney King. And this fucked up situation, and these fucked up police. It’s about coming up and staying on top

The real issue was not about this isolated incident of Rodney King, but police brutality and gap between rich and poor. Sublime’s song evokes the question whether the riots were justified at all.

In her paper ‘Envisioning Abolition Democracy’ Allegra McLeod argues that abolitionist justice challenges existing ideas of legal justice (2019). Abolitionist justice does not focus on individual punishment and remuneration, but rather reparation and reconciliation of the harm done to victims and trying to change ‘the systemic bases of inequality, poverty, and violence’ (McLeod 2019, 1616). This kind of transformative justice focuses on the needs of victims and tries to minimize future harm (McLeod 2019, 1646). In the case of Rodney King, transformative justice is helpful to analyse the context of his experienced harm and provide a way in which this harm can be prevented (McLeod 2019, 1630). This abolitionist approach condemns rioting as a means to ‘justify’ police brutality and would also disapprove of the band members of Sublime partaking in looting.

On the other hand, Sublime’s song can also be seen as an approval of looting to fight the ‘fucked up situation’ that black people are in. In her book In Defense of Looting Vicky Osterweil argues that looting is an effective tool to make a positive change within society. Looting is a way to redistribute property and wealth and an ‘essential tactics in fighting racial capitalism’. (Osterweil 2020, 93). Stealing property is an effective strategy for marginalized groups to get essential needs for life, as well as making a political statement. The BLM supporter Kimberley Jones also supports looting, saying that ‘when the riots happen and if they present an opportunity of looting, that’s their only opportunity to get it.’ (CARJAM TV 2020, 2:10). Thus, looting is a powerful weapon to disrupt the status quo and to elevate the poor and marginalized.

While McLeod reminds us that transformative justice is an interesting abolitionist approach to fight inequality, Osterweil stresses looting as an accessible weapon of marginalized people to fight inequality, which are both possible solutions to the systematic problems Sublime address in their music.

Brenno Mulder


CARJAM TV. ‘#BLM How Can We Win? Kimberly Jones Powerful Speech Video Full Length Black Lives\  Matter #BLM 2020,’ Youtube video, 6:46. June 9, 2020,
Dorlin, Elsa. 2019. ‘What a body can do.’ Translated by Kieran Aarons, Radical Philosophy 205 (Autumn): 3–9.
McLeod, Allegra M. 2019. ‘Envisioning Abolition Democracy.’ Harvard Law Review 132 (Spring): 1613–1649.
Osterweil, Vicky. 2020. In Defense of Looting: A Riotous History of Uncivil Action. New York: Bold Type Books.


The Blaze: Territory

How might an abolitionist approach ‘territory’? At first glance, the word’s association with “governmental authority” (“Territory” n.d.) suggests that territory is that which an abolitionist democracy seeks to expose and transform, namely, the “oppressive institutions” (McLeod 2019, 1617) – the territory of the prison, the territory of the segregated, the territory of the marginalized, and so on. While this may be true, by analysing the song “Territory” by The Blaze (2017) and its music video, I wish to think differently about ‘territory’ in ways that help reimagine what role territory plays in relation to some communities.

The song’s sound is characterized by its play with space. This not only happens through its heavy use of reverb and delay, but also in the minimal instrumentation and the linear structure of the song. For instance, consider how the song starts softly with a spacious pad synthesizer, accompanied by a reverberating melodic drum, and then how it slowly brings in new sound elements. A different example is the main hook of the song, the percussive melody that kicks in at 2:53. This melody is drenched in reverb and is only joined by a kick drum and synth bass. This play with space creates an abstract, almost transcendent[1] atmosphere.

At the same time, the music video gives the song an intimate character. Much of the beginning of the video depicts the main character coming home to his family in an intense, long hug. This transitions to communal scenes of sleeping and praying, dancing and playing. In this way, the video emphasizes the intimacies of everyday community life in the wake of the main character’s homecoming. Thus, the song depicts intimate community life while presenting it sonically in a transcendent way. A dialectic between the transcendent and the intimate is also reflected by how the lyrics jump between metaphors and sensations. The metaphors carry a transcendent character, that is, I exceed beyond myself, “I’m shining like the moon, I’m feeling like a bloom in the black sun” (The Blaze 2017). The sensations depict the homecoming through the intimate sense of taste: “I remember when I was young; The flavor is so strong; I’ve missed it so long” (The Blaze 2017). These lyrics are sung by both Guillame and Jonathan Alric, the duo behind the Blaze, but their voices are barely distinguishable from one another. This has the effect of creating ‘the voice of the community’ rather than any singular, clearly distinguishable person. However, it nevertheless sounds like a voice and thus anchors the voice of the bigger community in the local. The concept of community performed here is thus intimate and localized while simultaneously opening up beyond its own intimacies. If this opening-up is interpreted as a way for concrete communities to open up to positive transformation, then it seems to resonate with McLeod and how “justice for abolitionists is grounded in lived experience and positive transformation” (McLeod 2019, 1623).

Since “Territory” is the title of the song, the concept of community outlined above emerges under the heading of and in relation to ‘territory’. This can take many forms, the territory of the community, the territory that contains the community, the territory that is denied the community, and so on. In the case of the song, the beginning of the music video shows the wakes of a ferry, a symbol of moving between territories. By depicting the territory of homecoming, it is not only a pre-existing territory that the main character comes home to, but it transforms itself and opens in a literal, communal hug. While the territory follows from a lived history, it is also a form of becoming, a becoming-home. Territory in this sense helps us imagine how home-territories might be transformed in response to homecomings.

Perhaps, this song might lead one to add an active concept of ‘becoming-territory’ to the arsenal of abolitionism’s practices of transformation. Still, although the song provides a way that the territory of the homecoming may open up and transform itself, this is only one example of the becoming-territory of the homecoming. That is, one should still be wary of not reproducing the exclusionary territoriality of the nation state. Thinking through and incorporating ‘the wakes’ of the ship in the music video’s homecoming into the territory of abolitionist homecoming could be a way of combating this exclusionary territoriality. This is something that could be combined with similar attempts such as Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s (2017) considerations of indogeneity and territoriality. These reflections should at the very least problematize any inherent opposition between abolition democracy and the concept of territory.

Lukas Hjulmann Seidler


[1] Used here in the colloquial sense as that which is ”greater, better, more important, or going past or above all others” (“Transcendent” n.d.)

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

Gendered Violence

Ibeyi: Deathless

With this anthem for life, the french twins of cuban origins deliver a powerful chant of strength, unity and hope against state violence.

The opening verse tells the story of a stop-and-search by a police officer. This is a true story about an event that Lisa-Kaindé, who sings the song, lived in the Paris metro when she was younger. (Sound Exploder, 2017) The traumatic encounter echoes the writings of Françoise Verges who writes about “those children who the police […] apprehends as adults”  (Vergès, 2020) in the same context of current day France. These brutal forms of state violence are plagued with racial bias. (HRW, 2021) While often promoted as means of security and protection, the artist suggests otherwise as she was personally left “shaken” and “frozen with fear” (Sound Exploder, 2017) while many were left “for dead in the streets” (Ibeyi, 2017).

Another song of the album, “No man is big enough for my arms”, samples a speech by Michelle Obama stating that “the measure of any society is how it treats its women and girls”. For Ibeyi, this speech was both poetic and empowering (Samway, 2017). It is only fair to say that their sound has similar properties.

The powerful hook then follows:

Whatever happens, Whatever happened,
We are deathless! We are deathless!

Sang by many voices, it rings like a war chant and fills the listener with power. The message was inspired by “the dark times for the world” when the album was written as Lisa discussed in an interview with Fader, referencing the election of Donald Trump (Mistry, 2017). She goes on to explain her desire for “humans being together and loving each other no matter what.” a desire for sorority and general unity. The word ‘deathless’ takes a deeper meaning beyond everlasting and immortal when looking at the video clip for the song which pictures the two twins dying and giving birth to each other again and again. Life itself coming from the womb, through fertility, the twins are able to transcend death. It is fertility that gives them power to continue the struggle, their body becoming a war machine. This can be linked to Gago’s idea of a war on women’s bodies who states that both feminised bodies and land or territories are seen as “surfaces of colonisation, conquest, and domination”. (Gago, 2020) The twins are through this imagery reclaiming the right to their bodies and also actively taking part in the feminist struggle against such domination.

The second verse tells the rest of the stop and search, with the policeman’s racist comment. This highlights how women of colour can be discriminated against in specific ways, at the intersection of patriarchy and racism. She sings about her “funny look, with her books”, which she suggests in the interview might be the reason for the officer leaving her alone: He saw she had a big book, a partition, he froze and “thought She might have a little bit of intelligence” stopped and left. (Song Exploder, 2017). She concludes the verse by stating how she was “Left for dead in the streets”

The hook comes around like a resurrection, opposing that last statement: “We are deathless!”

Kamasi Washington then takes us away with a beautiful saxophone solo, infusing sorrowful tones into the melody carried by rhythmic traditional drums, a massive part of the cultural and spiritual heritage of Ibeyi. Drums of war, drums of life, the Cuban percussions give a thrilling tempo that only amplifies the empowering capacity of the song.

 Julien Djenidi


B. Jeannerod & J. Sunderland, 2021, Time to Stop Ethnic Profiling in France: Organizations Initiate Procedure to Push for Reforms to End Widespread Abuses, Human Rights Watch.
Sound Exploder, 2017, Episode 116: Ibeyi-Deathless.
A. Mistry, 2017, Ibeyi’s Home, Fader.
F. Vergès, 2020, A Feminist Theory of Violence; A Decolonial Perspective, Pluto Press.
V. Gago, 2020. Feminist International: How to Change Everything. Translated by Liz
G. Samways, 2017, Ibeyi // Interview, London in Stereo.

Violence and Nonviolence

clipping.: Nothing Is Safe

Nothing Is Safe, from “clipping.” is a song that deals with themes of life, death, and marginalized existence. The track comes from their fourth album, “There Existed an Addiction to Blood”, and, just like the rest of the tracks, delivers a horror-tinted exploration of life at the borders of society. The lyrics of the song, while not exactly clear – due to their cryptic nature – suggest a story about some people involved in criminal activities that get raided by the police.

The first lines of the song are:

Everyone safe and sound, this how family do
Only homies around, everyone here is crew

These words already establish a pretty clear framing for the story, one where the characters have taken their safety in their own hands. However, as Elsa Dorlin points out in Self-defense: A Philosophy of Violence, this kind of “active” protection might already be fatal for the characters. This becomes apparent in the following lines,

Somethin’ foul in the air, somethin’ feelin’ askew
Wind is in the pipes, is that whistle callin’ for you

Where a possible threat to the safety of the group starts to reveal itself, and then becomes manifest through the gunning down of one of the characters shortly thereafter.

Drop the lights, so drop low, something shot from the trees
Went straight through the front door, homie drop to his knees
Blood seepin’ from his neck, as he struggle to breathe

The narrator, witnessing the death of one of his friends, has to come to terms with the reality of death (this takes place in the chorus of the song). The line <<Nothing is safe>> can be interpreted as both a commentary on the life of marginalized individuals, who are condemned to a life of persecution from the same institutions which should protect them, and a broader statement on the human condition, as no one is safe from death.

But it creepin’ on a come up, now it’s right up in your face
Face it, let it resonate up in your bone a minute when
You shiver, make a sliver big enough for it to have a space
Ripped life slipping away
Maybe you can make it out with just a little bit of grace
But it truly doesn’t give a fuck about the fear you
Feelin’, it is here to make you understand that nothing is safe

The story then progresses with the characters barricading themselves inside a building, waiting for the next move from the police. The agents proceed to open fire on the building, and we the listeners get a very cinematic description of the action, where the narrator realizes that his time might have come.

The air rushes in, it’s cold as fuck
Bullets slappin’ like hail, more homies struck down
The mission has failed, the wood is split
Splintered chandelier falls and smashes hard
Glass and steel everywhere in every throat, screams in protest
You all are dyin’ and really will anyone care?
Truth, like death, comes for everyone

This realization from the narrator echoes what Judith Butler says about grievability in The Force of Nonviolence, especially the idea that “lives that do not count as potentially grievable stand very little chance of being safeguarded”. The characters in the song lived at the outer bounds of society, forced to protect and provide for themselves through illegal means, and were thus punished by the law enforcement. They became, just like Rodney King and Millet de la Girardière, defenseless and indefensible.

Edoardo Chen


Butler, Judith. 2020. The Force of Nonviolence. Brooklyn: Verso books.
Dorlin, Elsa. 2022. Self-defense: A Philosophy of Violence. London: Verso books.

Violence and Nonviolence

Damian Marley, NAS: Road to Zion

The song “Road to Zion” by Damian Marley and NAS illustrates arguments from both Judith Butler’s text “The Ethics and Politics of Nonviolence” and of Elsa Dorlin’s text “What a body can do”, and it transcends both texts by providing a glimpse into a feeling of alienation towards the world that can be evoked in an individual when a group they identify with is ‘phantasmised’.

In their song “Road to Zion” Damian Marley and NAS sing and rap about how “We should keep on walking; On the road to Zion”, and how we “need some charity, […] love and prosperity”. These are the phrases that are repeated most throughout the song and can therefore be regarded as an important to the message of the song. “Zion”, here, can be taken to mean as a utopia.[7] Marley thus seems to sing about how we should keep moving in the direction of a nonviolent and equal world if we put the song in the context of Butler’s argument, which holds that nonviolence is not a question of not killing each other, but of how we should preserve life.[8]

However, Marley also sings about how the “Road to Zion” towards charity, love and prosperity should be walked and approached “By any plan and any means and strategy”.[9] Here, his message is different from that of Butler, who is an advocate of nonviolent resistance against inequality and discrimination.[10] Marley’s message here resonates more with Dorlin’s argument, especially since he expresses that he sometimes “can’t help but feel helpless”.[11] Dorlin writes about how people can enter a paradox of self-defence: the more one defends themselves, the more violence they will experience. We can assume that this would evoke a feeling of defencelessness and helplessness in most people. Also, Dorlin argues in favour of a “martial ethics of the self”, which means that violent self-defence is the only way for oppressed people to survive and create sustainable living conditions.[12] This view on resistance seems closer to Marley’s “By any plan and means and strategy” than Butler’s nonviolent approach of resistance, because it does leave room for committing violence.

Marley also addresses how reality with all its inequality sometimes feels like a bad dream when he sings “I’m havin’ daymares in daytime; Wide awake try to relate; This can’t be happenin’ like I’m in a dream while I’m walkin’”.[13] This resonates with the racial phantasms that Butler addresses, which are not only violent in the wat that they bolster the ‘ungrievability’ of black people and generate inequality that has violence against black people as a consequence.[14] These phantasms are also violent in the way that many black people are forced to relate to these phantasms in their daily experience of life. Black people are racially ‘phantasmised’, which means that part of their identity is ‘phantasmised’. Even though racism is an everyday reality for black people, the ‘phantasmisation’ of part of their identity can have an alienating effect on how they experience the world, because the illusions that are put on them do have many violent real-life consequences. The “daymares in daytime” that Marley sings about can be interpreted as referring to such feeling of alienation regarding the world around him.  

So, the song “Road to Zion” moves beyond both Butler’s and Dorlin’s texts in the way that it contains arguments of both of them, and in the way that it provides the listener with a glimpse into, or the recognition of, a feeling of alienation towards the world that can be evoked in an individual when a group they identify with is ‘phantasmised’.

Doortje Kok

[7] Damian Marley and NAS, “Road to Zion”, album: Welcome to Jamrock (2005).
[8] Judith Butler “Ethics and Politics of Nonviolence”, The Force of Nonviolence: An Ethico-Political Bind (Verso, 2020), pp. 103-150, p. 104.
[9] Marley and NAS, “Road to Zion”.
[10] Butler, “Ethics and Politics of Nonviolence”, p. 128.
[11] Marley and NAS, “Road to Zion”.
[12] Elsa Dorlin, “What a body can do”, translated by Kieran Aarons, Radical Philosophy 2.05 (Autumn, 2019), pp. 3-9, p. 7-8.
[13] Marley and NAS, “Road to Zion”.
[14] Butler, “Ethics and Politics of Nonviolence”, pp. 131-132.

Violence and Nonviolence

Robin Thicke: Blurred Lines

What causes racist violence? Judith Butler (2020) and Elsa Dorlin (2019) offer an interesting perspective on this, namely that it is linked to perception. Both authors give poignant examples of racist violence from the recent past to clarify this. Consider, for example, the famous Rodney King incident in 1991. It seems evident from the video footage that an unarmed black man is the victim of an outburst of excessive violence by a gang of white cops.[1] Nevertheless, the officers pleaded that they had acted correctly, as King would have posed a great danger. The (largely white) jury went along with this: the officers were acquitted. Did the police and the jury knowingly distort the facts so clearly revealed in the footage? No, argues Dorlin. Indeed, she thinks King really was perceived as an aggressor, wherefore this amount of force was actually felt to be legitimate and necessary (Dorlin 2019, 5-6). This is an excellent illustration of what Butler would call a ‘phantasmagoric inversion’ (Butler 2020, 114). These phantasmagoria are capable of imaginatively inverting fleeing black persons, depicting them as a threat instead. Thus, this twisted perception causes and provides the justification for one’s own aggression, or, seen from this fantastical perspective, self-defence (Butler 2020, 112).

Butler and Dorlin are mindful that this twisted perception is not a homogeneous phenomenon. For instance, black men and black women are twisted differently (Butler 2020, 112-113). This diverse manifestation raises the question whether twisted perceptions also play a role in other forms of systematic violence against oppressed groups. The top hit ‘Blurred Lines’ provides an indication that this may indeed be the case with sexual violence towards women (Thicke 2013).

In their catchy song from 2013, artists Robin Thicke, T.I. and Pharrell take the first-person perspective of a man with sexual interest in a woman, presumably at the club. In the lyrics, the man articulates the discrepancy between what the woman expresses what she wants and what she actually wants. For example, the chorus consists of the repeated phrase ‘I know you want it’. In other words, the woman doesn’t show it directly, but the man knows what she desires, namely, him. She is urged to stop hiding these sexual intentions: Thicke calls for ‘no more pretending’ and sings that he hates her ambiguous ‘blurred lines’. The capability of the male gaze to see through the facade of unwillingness to uncover the craving essence of the woman is reaffirmed with the following line: ‘But you’re an animal. Baby, it’s in your nature.’

It’s insightful to consider the accompanying video as well.[2] Whereas in the real world, the singer finds himself in a club with a woman who doesn’t respond to his advances, the video shows what the situation actually is like, according to the man. In the uncensored version, the three performers are paired with three models. The performers wear suits and sunglasses, the women just panties. These almost naked women dance sensually around the centrally positioned men, who move in a more modest way. Thus, in this twisted perspective, the roles are completely reversed: the cool man is now seduced into sex by desirous female “animals”.

The racist and the sexist perceptions seem to be similar to the extent that they both twist reality to the disadvantage of the considered group. Nevertheless, these twists manifest themselves in different ways. For instance, the racist perception as proposed by Dorlin and Butler seems to have a more fundamental character. Whereas the fleeing black man is turned around by the fantasy to become an approaching attacker, the sexist perception of Thicke and his colleagues does show an unwilling woman, but places an underlying reality behind this. Hopefully, this makes progression relatively more feasible, as men “only” need to be convinced not to fill in sexual intentions for women. In other words, to dismiss the underlying layer they perceive.

However, until that point is reached, it seems reasonable to assume that both kinds of twisted perceptions at least share their most problematic element, namely, their capability to lead to violence. Instead of shootings and beatings, this sexist perception is likely to stimulate sexual violence. This presumption is made more plausible by the (not so) remarkable fact that Thicke himself was accused of sexual assault by one of the models in the clip (Mulligan 2021).[3]

Mees Wolffs


Butler, Judith. 2020. The Force of Nonviolence. London-New York: Verso Books.
Dorlin, Elsa. 2019. “What a body can do,” translated by Kieran Aarons. Radical Philosophy 205: 3–9.
Mulligan, Euan O’Byrne. 2021, October 4. “Emily Ratajkowski accuses Robin Thicke of groping her during filming of Blurred Lines.” The Guardian.
Thicke, Robin, featuring Pharrell Williams and T.I. 2013. “Blurred Lines.” Star Trak-Interscope.

Violence and Nonviolence

MIKE: October Baby

Elsa Dorlin’s What a body can do begins with a depiction of the torture of Millet de la Girardière. Confined to an iron cage and straddling a blade, he must maintain his strength to keep his legs straight and resist injury. Per the design of this apparatus, his strength will inevitably fail and lead him to wounds that he will succumb to; unique to this mode of violence is the fact that his impulse to survive will directly contribute towards his annihilation. Importantly, Dorlin contrasts this scene with the execution of Robert-François Damiens to highlight a framework of punishment that cruelly regards the power of its subjects: unlike Damiens, we can conceive of Girardière as “capable of doing something,” even though he is still defeated in the end.[7] Dorlin reflects on the “unhappy mechanics” of physical action leading to Girardière’s demise to posit a fundamental anxiety on the relationship between self-defense and defeat, hence her poignant question: “if every effort to save myself leads to my ruin, what can I do?” [8]

Holding Dorlin’s observations close to mind, how does the relationship between self-preservation and self-destruction change if their struggle manifests as part of everyday life, outside of the determined space of the torture chamber? On October Baby, Brooklyn rapper MIKE hazily reflects on daily forms of malaise, and living in proximity to various hazards:

praying this ain’t death in my sleep
shit, I been stressing for weeks
in this world without a lesson to teach
they try to prosper while they negative, mean
and well I ain’t a doctor but they nearly deceased
I only think about revenge when I barely can eat

For MIKE, destruction isn’t crystallized so clearly in the form of a blade. Instead of facing death from a single event he is afflicted by more pervasive factors, nightmares, stress, the negativity of others in his environment, and hunger.

at the end lies the scariest beast
there’s police in this area
be careful where you carry your feet
I be scared to lose my life but be caring to leave

In these lyrics, a more looming threat comes into focus, that of the police. As opposed to the psychological and emotional threats to survival that wear MIKE down in previous lines, police here directly signify a loss of life. Unlike the event-based examples Dorlin describes, where action immediately impacts one’s defenses, MIKE’s contemplation and action take place hoping to preclude any event of violence. “Caring to leave,” he emphasizes his own freedom of movement while acting on his capacity to do something—taking care to avoid an encounter with police in the first place. Though not taking to self-defense in a typical sense, MIKE’s decision to leave embodies Dorlin’s injunction “to begin from muscle rather than law” in his priority of the physical impulse over a reasonable fear of death.[9] MIKE’s movement is not a passivity, but a fugitive act of self-preservation to avoid conflict under conditions of policing.

with the lead I really could embarrass your team
my poppa wanted peace and I inherit his dream

MIKE vocalizes a commitment to peace in spite of his awareness of the power of a weapon. Still, his outlook is not fully non-violent—in the song’s sampled outro, a computerized voice reads a list of symptoms then states, “war is not always physical, sometimes internal—” he wages an internal war with the everyway.  

Pat LeGates

[7] Elsa Dorlin, ‘What a body can do’, trans. Kieran Aarons, Radical Philosophy 205, Autumn 2019, 3.
[8] Dorlin, 4.
[9] Dorlin, 8.

Violence and Nonviolence

Burna Boy: 20 10 20

“The more you defend yourself, the more you’ll suffer, the more certain you are to die.” (Dorlin 2019, 4).

In the first 10 seconds of Burna Boy’s 20 10 20 you hear a melodious beat; it gives you a bouncy, almost exciting feeling. However, this positive excitement slowly fades into the background once Burna Boy starts rapping. His lyrics raise awareness and emphasize that we need to listen to his song to become aware of the suffering of his fellow Nigerian people. The suffering addressed in this song first emerged when the Nigerian government created a Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) in 1992 with the task of fighting violent crimes (Amnesty 2020b). However, instead of reducing violence within Nigeria, SARS itself turned into a violent institution; reinforcing exactly what they were supposed to reduce. There are various reports on the abuse of Nigerian people by the SARS, including cases of harassment, beating, illegitimate arrests, and torture (Amnesty 2020b). These brutalities provoked a massive campaign against the SARS, which reached its peak in October 2020 when many young Nigerians gathered in the streets to raise awareness for the brutalities of the SARS and to demand both an abolishment of the institution and a prosecution for the crimes they committed. These protests refrained from any form of violence as can be seen in videos depicting groups of people harmoniously dancing and singing together (BBC Africa 2021). This peacefulness is emphasized in the bouncy beginning of Burna Boy’s song.

However, the passion and anger in Burna Boy’s voice increase throughout the song. Similarly, the violence by the Nigerian Government increased on the 20th of October 2020. The government announced a 24-hour long curfew in the morning, which was ignored by the peaceful protesters. The government’s reaction to this was brutal: without a warning, the Nigerian military and police opened fire on the crowd of protesters at Alausa and the Lekki Toll Gate in Lagos, killing at least 12 protesters (Amnesty 2020a). At the End of Burna Boy’s song, you hear live recordings of the shooting that are mixed over the bouncy beat. Gunshots, screams of fear, and a voice urging all the protesters to keep down again emphasizing that the protestors themselves did not engage in any violence. The combination of the audio recordings and the bouncy beat makes you feel the incredible unfairness and contractionary nature of innocent singing protesters being violently killed. In the very last seconds, Burna Boy sings with a hurt voice once again 20th of October; a phrase in which you hear his disappointment and pain. How can a peaceful fight against violence end in so much more violence?

I believe that the Nigerian government used both law-positing and law-preserving violence in Walter Benjamin’s (2021) terms. On the one hand, the government wants to preserve the law by setting up the SARS in the first place and by violently attacking the protestors who criticize these governmental decisions. On the other hand, the introduction of a ridiculous 24-hours curfew is a form of law-positing violence. However, for the protestors themselves, there is no room to defend themselves from this violence. The protestors are what Dorlin (2019) calls the undefendable. Despite protestors merely practising their right of free assembly and refraining from violence completely, their presence is a priori understood as violent and treated as such by the authorities (Dorlin 2019). This defencelessness is increased by the fact that the government removed cameras and cut off electricity the hours before their intervention ensuring almost no coverage of the massacre (Amnesty 2020a). The protestors are completely powerless and every attempt to resist the violence merely leads to a destruction of the self.

Vera de Wit

Reference List

Amnesty International. 2020a. “What is the #endsars movement? November 10, 2022.
Amnesty International. 2020b. Nigeria: Time to end impunity: Torture and other human rights violations by special anti-robbery squad (SARS). Abuja-FCT, Nigeria: Amnesty International.
BBC Africa. 2021. “Lekki toll gate shootings: What really happened?” Video. January 20, 2021. 07:36.
Benjamin, Walter. 2021. Toward the Critique of Violence: Critical Edition. Edited by Julia Ng and Peter Fenves. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Burna Boy. 20 10 20. 2020. Atlantic Records.
Dorlin, Elsa. 2019. ‘What a body can do.’ Translated by Kieran Aarons, Radical Philosophy 205 (Autumn): 3–9.