Violence and Nonviolence

The Carters: Black Effect

Black Effect starts off with a philosophical exploration of love by L’Antoinette Stines. As a first intro- duction to the effect of blackness (i.e. the black effect), it sheds a light on the thoughtful, articulate and romantic facets of this black effect. The song transitions to an upbeat rap, with Jay-Z announcing he’s “good on any MLK boulevard”, indicating an awareness of the historical injustice suffered by black people, while also contrasting this with the status quo, i.e. the time when MLK is commemorated with a boulevard.

In a stylistically identical manner, the song proceeds:

Get your hands up high like a false arrest

Let me see ’em up high, this is not a test

Yes, put ’em up, this is not a test

Now hands where I can see them, fuck a false arrest

Interestingly, this is all sung at approximately the same pitch and following the same melodic structure, which blurs the differences between the different parts of these lines, but in doing so, in removing any musical differentiation between them, isolates and highlights the semantic differences between them: “get your hands up high”, suggesting a scene in which the artist is encouraging the listener to engage with the music, abruptly followed by “like a false arrest”, confronting the listener with an unexpected, horrifying resemblance. This, in its turn, is followed by “Let me see ’em up high, this is not a test. Yes, put ’em up, this is not a test.”. The resemblance with a false arrest is reified, the false arrest starts to take shape. “Now hands where I can see them” sets a completely different scene: the false arrest has materialised, the artist has been replaced by the police officer.

The discontinuity within the meaning of the call to put one’s hand up throughout the text, in no way foreclosed by changes in rhythm, melody, or pitch, takes the listener by surprise, instils them with fear and confusion — by dramatising the parallels between a false arrest and a concert, by oscillating in an almost continuous manner between an event of entertainment and one of police arrest, the listener is put in a bind: The entertainer and the police officer have become one, the scenes of crime and enjoyment have melted together, and the neutrality of one’s normal posture or gestures (e.g. putting with their hands in their pockets, fumbling) and the time one usually takes to process a command (like “put your hands up”) and respond to it become charged, loaded with the threat of being misperceived as indicative of hostility during an arrest, is brought into question. We cannot refrain ourselves from seeing the analogy with the countless other deadly false arrests, much like the arrest of Rodney King (Dorlin 2019). What persists, however, is the bind: how are we to deal with this facet of the black effect?

This verse is later reiterated by Beyoncé in a manner in which the musical dimension is radically altered. Her pitch is higher and the tone of her voice encouraging as she takes on the perspective of the artist (“get your hands up high (…) let me see them up high”), while her pitch becomes lower and the tone of her voice ominous and almost threatening when she takes on the perspective of the police officer (“like a false arrest, (…) this is not a test”).

This explicit splitting of the scene of the concert and the artist, and the scene of the false arrest and police officer, can be read as a response to and a resolution of the bind imposed by Jay-Z’s take on this verse. The juxtaposition of these now clearly separated situations — putting one’s hand up in a concert or during an arrest — denies any meaning to the bodily acts of black people that is always already there, and rather, shows the situational inscription of meaning occurring. In doing so, the real perpetrator is identified: it is the police officer who feels threatened by blackness, who misreads it as danger or hostility. This view ties into the works of Butler and Dorlin: for them, the black body is not in and of itself hostile or dangerous, but rather, the perception of the black body is informed by a “racialised schema” (Dorlin 2019, p.5-6), an “interpretive casing”, a lens through which the black body is “enfolded” (Butler 2020, p.10). What is responded to is therefore not merely the body, but, in fact, a “racialised phantasm”(Butler 2020, p.13) of the black body, loaded with presuppositions regarding its nature (as aggressive or dangerous), and hence, the actions of the body are instilled with these presuppositions by the perceiver.

Stephan Loor

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