Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Sublime Africanism

I went to a very small, very white, very alternative private high school. At the beginning of each year we would go on a camping trip, with the entire school. It was a great tradition, and unbelievably rare and expensive, but the hippies in charge insisted on it.

Although students would play lots of different artists from their stereos and Discmans (which were still, in those days, standard), there was one place of overlap. Everybody listened to the band Sublime. There was no argument there. And to this day I credit my friend Danny for getting me to listen to something other than Sublime.

I wouldn't dispute, today, that they were brilliant musicians. Yet it always seemed to me that there was a little too much hero-worship of the lead singer, Brad Nowell, who had died of a heroin overdose in 1996. Some of us had older siblings who had seen a Sublime show, who could pass on the stories of their greatness. He was a martyr, but in a strange way he seemed to be a martyr even before death, as though he died as a result of his fame. You can see this phenomenon really clearly by watching the last video taken of G.G. Allin, the notorious punk icon:
The person who uploaded it describes it this way: "Allin and his band wandering the streets of New York, being followed by a small, but vocal groups of fans. Allin's constant demands to "get high" turn this into the video equivalent of a traffic accident, and it is hard to stop watching, especially knowing Allin is shown on his way to the drug overdose that would kill him."

It is a grotesquely gripping video, and it's actually sad to see how dismayed Allin is by the way his fans act toward him. He's spent all of his time and effort over the last several years trying to convince the world that he's the messiah, and now that he's succeeded, it's getting in his way. His fans won't leave him alone: they follow him all over the place taking pictures, yelling things, stopping traffic. You can't resist the idea that this experience may have led to his overdose that night.

In a much less public fashion, we might also wonder if something similar happened to Bradley Nowell. But the fanatical devotion of his fans, I'd argue, comes from the character of his music. There was a certain sensibility in his songs which compelled legions of white youth to feel eternally grateful to him. They felt, and still feel, as if he had given them an enormous aesthetic gift. I am going to call this the "Africanism" of his music: a series of "repeated rhetorical moves," to quote Christopher L. Miller, instantiated musically.

To speak of Nowell's Africanism is not simply to say that his music has African influences, because this could be said of any music made in the U.S. Africanism, rather, could be compared to Edward Said's famous Orientalism. Miller makes this connection in his seminal book Blank Darkness: Africanist Discourse in French. He rejects the idea that Africanism is nothing more than a retention of African "speech patterns, style, or performance." Africanism emerges, in fact, in a "certain disharmony" with its more famous sibling, Orientalism.

Like Said, Miller selects certain exemplary historical figures, people who were once taken seriously and are now forgotten in the academy, because the things they said were so blatantly racist by today's standards. One such figure is a Frenchman named Gobineau, who wrote an essay called The Inequality of the Human Races. What distinguishes Gobineau's theory of the African from his theory of the Asian is that the African stands for a nullity, an empty set. Like Hegel and Kant, Gobineau argued that while the Asian may be cruel, mysterious, and despotic, the African is simply without cognition. "Gobineau and other writers seek to depict [the black African] as a 'pure human machine,' stripped of reasoning faculties and moved only by a blind sensorial desire." This phrase makes me think of Werner Herzog's brilliantly stupid description of the ontology of the grizzly bear: simply a half-bored interest in food and an endless capability for violence.

Gobineau developed his theory to argue that any notion of Black African civilization is "a contradiction in terms; any directly attributable to white blood in the veins of the population...Black Africa, like the moon, exists for Gobineau only insofar as it reflects something white."

Let me go back to Sublime. For many white youth, Sublime existed as reggae and ska, as the Afro-Caribbean musical and political sensibility. That it to say that it stood in for all reggae and ska artists, with the occasional exceptions of Bob Marley and white ska bands, in the musical repertoires. Like Elvis, they channeled a sensibility and made it extraordinarily marketable. But, in a less hopeful way, they acted as a conduit for the demand for Rastafarian or Caribbean musical tropes in white youth: in other words, listening to their music could foreclose the interests of white youth in reggae and ska. In a sense, a teenager could become less likely to listen to Yellowman or Linton Kwesi Johnson because he had already heard Sublime. In this sense, Miller's formulation ought to be repeated, or rephrased: reggae and ska existed only insofar as they were reflected by a white, martyred hero.

In "Waiting for My Ruca," Nowell taught millions of white youth how to say "buh, buh!" and to mean it.

And see the legions of fans worship him shortly before his overdose:

For more examples, check out this article.

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