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

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