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.

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