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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *