Where is romance in remembrances of the Black Atlantic?
I am no literary critic or theorist, I am merely a gracious and humble consumer of those fine art forms that are capable of relaying the deep emotional preoccupations embedded in historical narrative. Derek Walcott’s alloy of literary traditions in Omeros, which offers within the structure of a revitalized form of epic poem an interiority of the narrative’s protagonists that is characteristic of its successor, the novel form, opened, for me, new intellectual possibilities proffered by a Black Atlantic past.
It is tempting and seems almost requisite to emphasize the painful and violent legacy of the Middle Passage and its lasting consequences for a Black Atlantic diaspora. Walcott’s Omeros seems aligned with but also liberated from this obligatory mourning. Beauty, romance, and even nostalgia are available for readers to experience through Walcott’s narrative and use of language.
This led to me consider where else I might find similar representations or remembrances, and whether there might be a politics of romanticizing the Black Atlantic past.
I was watching some performances of poet/activist Aja Monet, who recently performed during Duke University’s MLK commemoration, and I began to think more about the references in her work to the Black Atlantic and the Middle Passage. Monet is of Cuban-Jamaican heritage and was born in Brooklyn, NY. Her poetry draws on a range of experiences, memory, and emotion but a recurring theme in her poetry is identity and her sense of culture and heritage. In these moments of reflection and expression, she references the Middle Passage in literary context that is interestingly not explicitly painful or sorrowful. In her poem, “Is that All You Got,” for example, she describes the black female’s ability to love as a direct result of the slave experience [2:58]:
…she knows how to love like
we survived slave ships like
thrown overboard babies…
In another poem, included below, she expresses “fascination” with the Mid-Atlantic slave trade, and remembers fantasizing about Ghoree Island.
A clearer example of this kind of turn from tragedy or mourning to peace or contentedness in Walcott’s poetry can be read in Sea Canes:
Half my friends are dead. I will make you new ones, said earth. No, give me them back, as they were, instead, with faults and all, I cried.
Tonight I can snatch their talk from the faint surf’s drone through the canes, but I cannot walk
on the moonlit leaves of ocean down that white road alone, or float with the dreaming motion
of owls leaving earth’s load. O earth, the number of friends you keep exceeds those left to be loved.
The sea canes by the cliff flash green and silver; they were the seraph lances of my faith, but out of what is lost grows something stronger
that has the rational radiance of stone, enduring moonlight, further than despair, strong as the wind, that through dividing canes
brings those we love before us, as they were, with faults and all, not nobler, just there.
I included the above for explanatory purposes, to demonstrate what I consider to be distinct about Monet’s engagement with the Black Atlantic as historical narrative. Like Walcott’s renewed strength after losing loved ones, “something stronger” comes of tragedy for Monet, something to be valued and cherished, and not simply mourned.
Monet embodies certain tropes of a Black Atlantic legacy in that she exudes a creole sensibility–she is both an awe-ful observer of her own past and the human vestige of mixed bloodlines. In her poem “What I’ve Learned” she traces what seems to be her personal heritage merged with the equally formative cultural knowledge and practices she bears witness to in her hometown [3:55]:
…I know there are guardians protecting me
I am certain one of them is Native American
I know santeras clean people from negative energy
And light tall glass cylinder candles they buy from botanicas or Ctown or Trade Fair or Met Foods
as an offering to the saints
I know La Caridad…
Having recently watched the The Stuart Hall Project (2013) and also the documentary on Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks (1996), I was interested in how Monet constructed and articulated her identity through her poetry. Both Fanon and Hall individually forged landscapes of the Black Atlantic at different historical moments, and their experiences of encounter with the colonial metropole had extreme consequences in the shaping of their racial identities, their political lives, and their scholarship.
Similarly, although a few generations removed from a colonial past and with the US as her pivot point, Monet’s encounter with Europe is formative for both her identity and artistic expression. I think her poetry expands the concept of “multiple Atlantics” that is also present in Walcott’s Omeros in the sense that she represents a specific Atlantic racial heritage, and also acknowledges, engages with, and claims what could be considered a more contemporary Black Atlantic literary tradition.
After Monet graduated from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, she traveled to Paris to live and work with the poet Saul Williams. In an interview with the creators if IDontCamouflage.com, she explains that her decision to move to Paris was inspired in part by her knowledge of James Baldwin’s sojourn to France in 1948 at the age of 23.
She describes her experience as emancipatory in the sense that she was not bound by the demands of an American work ethic, which encourages production and is in many ways stifling to creativity. She drew, then, on a new Black Atlantic landscape that had been shaped by those Black American artists and poets.
Monet also places herself in opposition to Europe by identifying herself as American, more specifically a New Yorker. She explains that her trip abroad was additionally significant in the sense that her bloodline had never been to Europe: “There is something unique about bringing my bloodline places they had never been before;” Monet, in this contemporary moment, then, is also generating a new, deeply personal Black Atlantic landscape and heritage.
Overall Monet’s poetry, like Walcott’s Omeros in some cases, locates beauty, power, and possibility in the Black Atlantic past and I remain curious about its latent political potential. The very tangible and enduring political implications of this past, though, are not lost on Monet. She has used her poetry to raise thousands of dollars for victims of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and is committed to educating a new, politically engaged generation of poets.
Now here’s a little truth, open up your eyes While you’re checking out the boom-bap, check the exercise Take the word “overseer,” like a sample Repeat it very quickly in a crude voice sample Overseer, overseer, overseer, overseer Officer, officer, officer, officer Yeah, officer from overseer You need a little clarity, check the similarity The overseer rode around the plantation The officer is off, patrolling all the nation The overseer could stop you what you’re doing The officer will pull you over just when he’s pursuing The overseer had the right to get ill And if you fought back, the overseer had the right to kill The officer has the right to arrest And if you fight back they put a hole in your chest (Woop) They both ride horses After 400 years, I’ve got no choices The police them have a little gun So when I’m on the streets, I walk around with a bigger one
–KRS-One “Sound of da Police”
As Alisha and Andy have pointed out previously, a discussion the traumas of the Middle Passage and legacy of slavery resides in many genres of music on both sides of the Atlantic. “Sound of da Police,” one of Bronx-born rapper KRS-One’s (b. Lawrence Krisna Parker) most famous tracks, articulates the shared plight of African slaves and modern black youth by drawing a continuous line to the past, connecting the violent methods of control utilized on the plantation to that of the police in modern urban spaces. The past here is not a foreign country, but a place where people of color exist every day in a world in which police brutality is an everyday experience. Drawing comparisons between nineteenth century slavery and modern police brutality illustrate the history of African American poverty and oppression. While the forms are different, the results are the same.
Lyrics, however, are not the only connection that music draws with the past. Hip-hop as a musical form provides a unique sonic archive because it is constructed from pre-existing musical samples. The preference for soul, funk, and R&B records in the construction of hip-hop tracks, mostly from the 1950s through the 1970s, is due in part because of trend in those genres to feature songs which contain musical breaks. In mid-century music, the “break” was when a bass or drum-driven rhythm was repeated for several bars without overlaid vocals. This allowed that segment to be isolated and, with the right equipment, to be repeated. That repetition of the break through a mixing unit, functioned to create a new rhythm from the old. When paired with new lyrics or other samples, the finished result emerges as a unique, and new, work of music. This process forms the basis for the earliest examples of modern hip-hop, originating in the Bronx.
(A photo of an early sound system party DJed by one of the founders of hip-hop, Kool Herc)
The appropriation of earlier musical forms through the process of sampling also serves to create new sonic archive that resides on a register distinct from the lyrical. “Sound of da Police,” for instance, is constructed from a break in a song by legendary funk and soul group, Sly & the Family Stone. “Sing a Simple Song,” the B-side to the group’s famous track “Everyday People,” was released in 1968, arguably at the height of the band’s fame. As a song, it would have a great deal of resonance to those of KRS-One’s generation, something that they would have listened to during their childhood or that would have been playing at neighborhood sound system parties. While many casual listeners of the song might not pick up on the sample, other musicians and DJs would notice and mark it. The choice of a guitarist to utilize steel strings or electric pickups, as opposed to vinyl or acoustic, is an artistic decision which affects the construction of the song produced. The choice of sample serves the same purpose.
(Promo shot of Sly & the Family Stone c.1968)
As Russell A. Potter points out, “hip-hop’s continual citation of the sonic and verbal archives of rhythm and blues, jazz, and funk forms and re-forms the traditions it draws upon.” KRS-One’s choice of Sly & the Family Stone was both a recognition of the band’s influence and a testament to its familiarity, but arguably a reference to its politics and philosophy. In its heyday of the late 1960s, the band was politically and socially on the cutting edge. Their songs featured impassioned please for love, peace, acceptance of difference, and understanding among different peoples. Sly Stone consciously and publicly integrated his band at a time which integrated bands were still rare. Similarly, the female members not only sang backing vocals, but played instruments on stage, another rarity in a time in which most female band members were there for stage presence and backing vocals only. KRS-One’s choice of Sly & the Family Stone suggests both his political leanings and illustrates this continual revival and appropriation of past musical forms, based on their perceived value, familiarity, and utility. Early hip-hop was quite literally constructed from the soul, funk, and R&B from the 1950s and 1960s, by a generation who had listened to those records and those artists growing up. The crates of second-hand records became the DJ’s sonic archive, both a way to reference the old and create the new.
Historians generally bristle at the over-simplified idea that the past repeats itself. The distinct context of each moment means that nothing ever truly happens twice, but there can be no denying that similarities resonate from past to present. The past of African-American music is not simply the repetition of older forms, but their re-appropriation, revision, and reconstitution such that they are able to serve the needs of people in the time of their creation. In doing so, artists, producers, and DJs leave a sonic archival trail of the musical forms and ideas that they chose to utilize. Tracing this trail backwards not only leads historians on a chronological path, but it also leads those who look on a path that moves in and out of space. “Sound of da Police” as a musical archive originates in San Francisco with Sly & the Family Stone and ends up in the Bronx with KRS-One’s appropriation of the sample, but the trail does not stop there. According to the website WhoSampled?, “Sound of da Police” has been sampled over 88 times in the nearly three decades since it was released. Those samples are mostly from other American hip-hop artists, but the influence of hip-hop world-wide meant that the song moved far afield from its origins in the United States. Crossing the Atlantic, it became a part of the burgeoning French hip-hop scene through its appropriation by French DJ Cut Killer in his track for the 1995 movie “La Haine.”
Cut Killer (b. 1971 as Anouar Hajoui) builds his track from a variety of samples, beginning with KRS-One’s infamous opening “Woop!”. The track also includes a distorted rendition of Edith Piaf’s famous “Non, je ne regrette rien” which the singer famously dedicated to the French Foreign Legion fighting to maintain France’s crumbling colonial empire in North Africa. Piaf’s distant, thin vocals are overlaid by short bursts of angry lyrics from the French hip-hop group, Suprême NTM. NTM, as they are also known, was a product of the Paris banlieues that encircle the city, emerging from Seine-Saint-Denis département. Seine-Saint-Denis, one of the smallest départements at 236 sq. km, also has one of the highest populations (1.5 million), 21.7% are immigrants. [edited to correct earlier mistake citing Suprême NTM as originating from Marseilles]
In addition to the sample from KRS-One and NTM, Cut Killer also includes other samples from American gangsta rappers on the American West coast (N.W.A.’s “Fuck tha Police”) and East coast (Notorious B.I.G.’s “Machine Gun Funk.”) The resulting track lacks a lyrical, linear narrative, but instead of resulting in cacophony, it emerges as pastiche, explicitly referencing the experience of the black Atlantic in the “West” through the interpolation and appropriation of sonic forms and directly connecting them to the experience of blackness in France. The violence that characterizes that relationship and the frustration that generations of young people have articulated at the system in which they live is rendered in sonic form. While many of the tracks that make up “La Haine” have lyrics, they are deliberately distorted and layered atop one another, rendering them less important than the track as a whole.
That this track was made for the 1995 French film of the same title thus seems rather fitting. “La Haine” tells the story of three young men from the banlieue, an impoverished suburb of Paris where immigrants from former French African colonies now live, and their struggle with hate, violence, and the dehumanizing, destabilizing nature of poverty. Their encounters with the authorities result in dislocation, pain, suffering, and death and their recognition that their situation is related to the French colonial past is referenced continuously throughout the film. The film, a commercial and critical success, helped bring more attention to both French hip-hop and the suffering in the banlieues, though the uprisings in 2005 suggest that attention has not been enough to improve conditions in which so many people live.
(Promo shot from “La Haine”)
The legacy of Cut Killer’s track as a pastiche of European and American forms should rather be considered a collaboration across the African diaspora. Hip-hop’s sonic archive offers a way to literally listen to the movement of ideas and shared expeeriences back and forth across the Atlantic. It is both past and present, piled up atop the legacy of the Middle Passage and colonialism, and continuously recognizing the oppression of the marginalized. The present, like the past from which it is contracted, articulates forms of resistance and testimonies of violence, the sonic archive of the black Atlantic is as rich as that of the written.
Nos rapports avec Haïti sont plus délicats, émotifs et rétractiles parce qu’en clair-obscur, ils mettent en jeu les rapports de la France avec elle-même. (Régis Debray and Comité Indépendant de réflexion et de propositions sur les relations Franco-Haitiennes, 2004)
(Our relations with Haiti are delicate, emotional and subjected to mutual discontents because of their shadowy nature, they say something about the relation of France with itself)
In 2004, the publication of an official diplomatic report on French Haitian relations marked a turning point for the two countries. After almost two centuries of near abandon, the French government decided to survey diplomatic relations between the two countries as the Caribbean state celebrated the bicentennial of its independence.
Diplomatic relations between France and Haiti represents a critical aspect in what we could refer to as the “post-colonial world”. In January 1804, after thirteen years of tumultuous conflicts opposing it to France, the colony called Saint-Domingue became the Republic of Haiti. What started as an isolated slave revolt in 1791 against planters in the Northern Province of Haiti became a national war of liberation. Though this rather quick summary might provide a good overview of the situation, the historical fate of the newly founded Haitian Republic was everything but simple.
Indeed, Haiti’s independence was won primarily by the blood and sacrifice of former ”Bossales”—slaves recently deported from their home societies who had no blood relations in the colonies—a mass of gang labor slaves that defeated Napoleon’s brother in law Charles-Victor Leclerc and his troops, which was then the strongest military force in the world.
In the aftermath of its defeat, France devoted sustained international efforts to silence and suppress the consequences of this colonial disaster. In 1825, French King Charles X and Haitian President Jean Pierre Boyer agreed that Haiti should pay reparation amounts to French planters who had fled during the Revolution. By 1914, as the Haitian state credit interests to French banks rose to extreme proportions, the country was concentrating almost 80 percent of its national wealth to repair its debt to France. Even today, there might still be interest payments due that had been frozen by the French government (Laurent Dubois, Aftershocks, 2012, 7-8)
In the early 21th century, relations were still very precarious. As the 2004 report indicates, while two American presidents chose to visit Haiti during the 20th century, no French president or high official bothered to set foot on the island. Still, regardless of this ideological denial by France and other Western countries, the former colonial power managed to maintain strong connections with Haiti and its other colonies throughout the years. In the Haitian case, the fact that the French language was still being spoken by the great majority of the elites—as well as the growing presence of Haitian migrants in French-speaking areas—offered possibilities for a diplomatic rapprochement. In many ways, this twofold factor (language-migrations) also characterized the destiny of many African countries that achieved their independence from France in the 20th century. Still, this rather “bright” picture of a possible new future between an imperial power and its former colonies leaves us with an idyllic contemplation of the problems facing what has now come to be understood as the “Francophone” world.
In 2013, the French rapper Kery James expressed these hardening concerns in most blatant terms. The new title track of his recently released compilation “Lettre à La République” provoked outstanding reactions from public figures in the French media. The song was violently dismissed and degraded for being a model of anti-Frenchness, an insult to the nation, and almost an act of betrayal. In effect, James’s song is not moderate in any sense towards the national sentiment in France. Castigated as a remnant of colonial domination and inherent national racism, the words “France” and “Republic” are successively portrayed as engines of destruction, cultural mechanisms of superiority primarily directed at submitting French migrant population to a colonial continuum. At the height of his suffocating prose, James declares “Mon respect s’fait violer au pays dit des Droits de l’Homme. Difficile de se sentir Français sans le syndrome de Stockholm” (My respect got raped in the country of the Rights of Man. Its hard to fee French without the Stockholm Syndrome).
At first glance, one could be tempted to see these words as emanating from pure hatred and resentment. After all, a consequent segment of the French rap industry tends to produce short-minded lyrics about what is often perceived as the country’s colonial legacy. James is not this kind. Indeed, his letter opens us a diverse series of interrogations on the past, present and future of relations between France’s ex-colonial “subjects” and the former “métropole”. To some extent, his song epitomizes in a highly polemical but also poetical manner the unresolved issues of French imperial history brought back from the past by migrants from ex-colonies residing in France. In the same vein, this song is also primarily addressed to these populations. It conveys the sense that a different set of relations between these migrants and the Republic has recently emerged—one that contradicts the basic pattern of the French tradition of national assimilation.
As a resurgence from military and administrative practices in the different French colonies, the idea of national assimilation took shape in the “métropole” by the late 19th century. In order to compel the first waves of non-French migrants to follow the rule of the Republic, the theory of assimilation dominated the country’s relation to migrants without any serious alternative until the late 1980s. To put it simply, it advanced that if one wished to become a citizen of the French Republic, he had to categorically abandon all traces of his home culture to prove his willingness to learn and assimilate the superior codes of French culture. As essentially a state-controlled ideological force, national assimilation turned out to become an extremely tense subject by the late 1980s when large group of migrants from North, sub-Saharan Africa and Southeastern Asia started to flood the métropole in the aftermath of decolonization. By the late 20th century, assimilation was presented by representatives from the entire political spectrum as in a state of crisis while migrant populations – through the use of popular genres of music like rap – started to voice their concerns about the place of their cultural identities in contemporary French society.
It is only throughout these recent debates that James song puts on meaning. On many occasion, the rapper does not hesitate in drawing a parallel between migrants from North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa. As he says as a run-through during the song:
La République n’est innocente que dans vos songes. Et vous n’avez les mains blanches que de vos mensonges.Nous les Arabes et les Noirs on est pas là par hasard. Toute arrivée à son départ.
(The Republic is only innocent in your dreams. Your hands are filled with white lies.Us, Arabs and Blacks are not there by accident. All arrivals have their origins)
Interestingly, the words used are contemplating different levels of the French colonial and post-colonial realities. When he refers to “us”, James immediately assembles “Arabs” and “Blacks” in a single community. To some regards, this kind of counter-assimilation is very surprising at an historical level while being more sensible in terms of the present-day social conditions of migrants in France.
When the first wave of migrants from France ex-African colonies massively disembarked in the “métropole” by the late 1960s as cheap labor force for boosting the domestic economy, the rather separated entities of the French Empire in Africa (the North African regions were composed of the three Algerian departments, the protectorates of Morocco and Tunisia while the Sub-Saharan colonies stretching from Guinea to Cameroon were separated between the AEF and AOF) were forced together in the same urban and social environment. As poverty and weaker social aids started touching those areas in the outskirts of Paris by the late 1980s, the second and third generation of “Arabs” and “Blacks” tended to develop a shared sentiment of ostracism and abandonment.
James’ childhood experience in France relates directly to this historical background. Born in 1977 in Guadeloupe, James’s parents chose to move to France in the mid-1980s. His parents were both Haitians and James apparently chose never to return to Haiti even during his adult life. As he experienced distance and displacement from his native land, he started recording at a very early age with different musical acts. In one of his iconic early track “28 décembre 1977”, the then coming-of-age James powerfully demonstrated the meaning of what he saw as another form of forced migration inflicted to peoples of African descent « D’une famille plus proche d’êtres pauvre que fortune 28 décembre 77, aux Abymes j’suis né Et a une date que j’ignore un jour je partirai… » (From a poor family rather than a rich, December 28 1977 in the Abyme I was born, and at an unknown date I will leave) before insisting on the dreadful social conditions his family had to put through in France. “J’ai grandi à Orly dans les favelas de France. J’ai “fleury” dnas les maquis j’suis en guerre depuis mon enfance” (I grew up in Orly in the French favelas. I came to age in the guerilla fields, I’ve been at war since my childhood). All in all, as he relates his own experience to those of African migrants, the artist here succeeds in bringing together a continent into a unique historical condition of imperial sufferings and domination.
Twelve years after this song was recorded, James’ letter still resonates to this original separation from his home country while it meddles with his call against the ideological pressure of assimilation:
Ici, on est mieux que là-bas on le sait. Parce que décoloniser pour vous c’est déstabiliser.Et plus j’observe l’histoire beh moins je me sens redevable. Je sais ce que c’est d’être Noir depuis l’époque du cartable
(Here we are better than there. Because for you to decolonize is to destabilizeThe more I contemplate your history the less I feel proud of it.I know what it means to be black since playground times)
In a broader sense, it is extremely striking to see the effectiveness of James words if one knows a bit about the common sentiments of African migrants in France. On the one hand, it is interesting, though not surprising, to hear such radical and deeply-researched prose from James. As mentioned above, the feeling of resentment against assimilation is a common theme that runs throughout many popular rap songs in France. Nevertheless, James’ song is one of the few that successfully manages to tackle the core problem that is still at stake in debates around the French colonial past: that of the relational condition of two different versions of France since the beginning of the colonial experiment in the early 17th century. Coming from a family born in Haiti, brought up in Guadeloupe in his early childhood before being thrown into the African suburbs of Paris, James had experienced the relationship between the colonial and colonized France in many different ways when he started his musical career.
His “Letter to the Republic” acts as a highly symbolic gesture for the present day condition of migrants in France while being also closely related to a sound and significant lyrical inquiry of French imperialism. Though a bit flawed and tangling in some occasions –as when James gathers “Arabs” and “Blacks” within a supra-ethnic category of imperial sufferers- it is through the deeper roots of the artist one can find the most profound challenge contained in the letter.
As a distant son of Haiti, James does remind us of the still pervading difficulties for solving the unresolved matters of the French colonial past. Almost two centuries after the death of Haitian independence hero Toussaint Louverture, the French remains of colonial prejudice tend to portray James in the same manner as Toussaint: a hybrid other, a talented man but also a sulfurous agitator. These realities still formed a highly complex set of ideological interests. When James calls France to its historical responsibility when he repeats, “Every arrival has an origin”, the 2004 report on responds « Would we be able to seize this occasion to remember our slaveholding past and get rid of the weight that servitude imposes to the masters? »Puissions-nous saisir l’occasion de nous rappeler que nous fûmes desesclavagistes, et nous débarrasser du poids que la servitude impose auxmaîtres. »
All in all, despite all the difficulties facing France in its relations with its ex-colonies, the former “métropole” and “colonies” seem to have entered enter a new era of diplomatic relations by the early 21st century. Nevertheless, as James’ words seem to remind us, questions still remain unanswered as history’s shadows continue to weigh down on these two entities: the two versions of France.
Laurent Dubois, Haiti: The Aftershocks of History, Metropolitan Books, 2012.
Régis Debray and Comité Indépendant de réflexion et de propositions sur les relations Franco-Haitiennes, Rapport au Ministrèe des Affaires Etrangères, M. Dominique de Villepin, January 2004. Available : [Accessed 11 March 2014].
“Sur le détroit de Gibraltar, y’a un jeune noir qui pleure un rêve qui prendra vie, une fois passé Gibraltar.
Sur le détroit de Gibraltar, y’a un jeune noir qui se d’mande si l’histoire le retiendra comme celui qui portait le nom de cette montagne.
Sur le détroit de Gibraltar, y’a un jeune noir qui meurt sa vie bête de “gangsta rappeur” mais …
Sur le détroit de Gibraltar, y’a un jeune homme qui va naître, qui va être celui qu’les tours empêchaient d’être.
Sur le détroit de Gibraltar, y’a un jeune noir qui boit, dans ce bar où les espoirs se bousculent, une simple canette de Fanta.
Il cherche comme un chien sans collier le foyer qu’il n’a en fait jamais eu, et se dit que p’t-être, bientôt, il ne cherchera plus.
Et ça rit autour de lui, et ça pleure au fond de lui.
Faut rien dire et tout est dit, et soudain … soudain il s’fait derviche tourneur,
Il danse sur le bar, il danse, il n’a plus peur, enfin il hurle comme un fakir, de la vie devient disciple.
Sur le détroit de Gibraltar y’a un jeune noir qui prend vie, qui chante, dit enfin « je t’aime » à cette vie.
Puis les autres le sentent, le suivent, ils veulent être or puisqu’ils sont cuivre.
Comme ce soleil qui danse, ils veulent se gorger d’étoiles, et déchirer à leur tour cette peur qui les voile.
Sur le détroit de Gibraltar, y’a un jeune noir qui n’est plus esclave, qui crie comme les braves, même la mort n’est plus entrave.
Il appelle au courage celles et ceux qui n’ont plus confiance, il dit : “ramons tous à la même cadence !!!”.
Dans le bar, y’a un pianiste et le piano est sur les genoux, le jeune noir tape des mains, hurle comme un fou.
Fallait qu’elle sorte cette haine sourde qui le tenait en laisse, qui le démontait pièce par pièce.
Sur le détroit de Gibraltar, y’a un jeune noir qui enfin voit la lune le pointer du doigt et le soleil le prendre dans ses bras.
Maintenant il pleure de joie, souffle et se rassoit.
Désormais l’Amour seul, sur lui a des droits.
Sur le détroit de Gibraltar, un jeune noir prend ses valises, sort du piano bar et change ses quelques devises,
Encore gros d’émotion il regarde derrière lui et embarque sur le bateau.
Il n’est pas réellement tard, le soleil est encore haut.
Du détroit de Gibraltar, un jeune noir vogue, vogue vers le Maroc tout proche.
Vogue vers ce Maroc qui fera de lui un homme …
Sur le détroit de Gibraltar … sur le détroit de Gibraltar …
Vogue, vogue vers le merveilleux royaume du Maroc,
Sur le détroit de Gibraltar, vogue, vogue vers le merveilleux royaume du Maroc …”
In 2006, the French rapper Abd-Malik released « Gibraltar » as the first single of the eponymous album. During an interview, he described the song as a landmark in his career, an artistic gesture incarnating his spiritual and human journey :
En fait, ce Noir, c’est moi. Mais, j’ai essayé de faire en sorte que d’autres puissent s’y projeter et en faire une toute autre interprétation. C’est l’idée que le Nord a évidemment fait de moi ce que je suis. Mais ce qui m’a rendu vivant, c’est le Sud. Ce rapport particulier que j’ai avec le Maroc, avec l’Afrique, c’est ce qui fait de moi l’individu que je suis. J’ai eu envie de dire : tout le monde va dans un sens et bien moi je vais dans l’autre
After the single’s release, the young artist gained increased recognition in his home country. Leading media and newspapers and France endeavored the multiple musical traditions Abd Al Malik considered as primordial. In 2012, after publishing his third written novel Le dernier français he praised the many authors and artists which had influenced him. These names that came to define his sound, his music and his thought demonstrated its extremely large culture: Seneca, Dante, Deleuze. Aime Cesaire, Jacques Brel, Juliette Gréco and Raymond Carver.
Today, at the height of his musical career, Malik is widely considered as a talented musician and author. Some even called him the « last poet » in a country where the influence and commercial impact of rap music still unleashes heated intellectual disputes from time to time.
However, at the time of « Gibraltar », Malik had not experienced a significant commercial breakthrough. As he meditates on his coming of age in his largely autobiographic novel, a feeling of discomfort and bitterness animates the artist:
Il resta debout et regarda ses baskets en fredonnant le refrain du morceau 3 qui se terminait. Les cris avaient commencé dès la fin de la matinée, pendant qu’il prenait son petit déjeuner dans la cuisine. Alors, le jeune homme de 24 ans s’était enfermé dans sa chambre et n’en étant plus sorti. Ils s’engueulaient comme ça depuis toujours, son frère aîné et sa mère. Peut-être même déjà avant que le père s’en aille (Abd Al Malik, 28-29)
In a large sense, Malik’s childhood experience was typical of many young migrants from France’s ex-African colonies who left their native countries after the 1960s decolonization. Born in Paris in 1975, Abd Al Malik, Régis Fayette Mikano of his real name, moved back to Congo Brazaville with his family in 1977 where his father held a high placed position in the Congolese government. In 1981, ethnic conflicts forced him to leave his country with his family. By then, the Mikano’s family was settled near Strasbourg in the North East of France.
Isolated from his father and the rest of his family, the then Régis Fayette found a refuge in literature and street violence. During his teen years, he got involved in several cases of house break-ins and aggressions while being at the same time a model schoolboy. As he later admitted, this world of words and rage was embedded in its complex relation to literature « There’s everything in literature. Its like a fireshot ». Lacking vision and models, Malik’s adolescence was thus marked by a restless search for inner peace.
In the late 1990s, two discoveries played a decisive role in his life : Music and Islam. The spiritual questioning on his condition first emerged. In 1998, after several encounters with Hamza al Qâdiri al Boutchichi, spiritual guide of the Qadirriyya Boutchichiyya brotherhood located in Morocco, Kayette became a new convert. Close to Sufism –a branch of Islam religion focused on the internalization of its creed and close readings of the Quran- the artist described his conversion to as a turning point in his life, a way to return to a mythical African self. Then, a new found passion in music completed this spiritual journey. As he went through religious education, music found its way into Kayette’s heart. In 1996, his first musical act New African Poets released their first LP album and helped him along with his stage partners gain national attention from well-known French rappers. (Abd Al Malik, 72-77)
During his first years as a solo artist, the once lost teenager started to reflect on his past years. At the turn of the century, he decided first to change his name for a Muslim patronym. Régis Fayette Mikano thus became Abd Al Malik.
« Gibraltar » is first and foremost a remembering of these years. A manner of speaking the inner Malik faced with the remains of colonial prejudice, the distant « Africa », the lost familial bound. In a sense, it relinquishes on traditional themes of a highly symbolic exile (the African captive) faced with its modern condition (Diasporic migrations). Interestingly, Malik uses a simple melodic pattern throughout the song borrowed to Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman” thus showing the deep emotional relation with past African-American melancholic yearning and other diasporic communities : “Il cherche comme un chien sans collier le foyer qu’il n’a en fait jamais eu, et se dit que p’t-être, bientôt, il ne cherchera plus.”
In many ways, the song is also a strong vindication of a universal Islam unified with Black African culture. It considers in the most blatant terms the cultural genocide committed by Western nations against Islam in the aftermath of 9/11 : “Sur le détroit de Gibraltar, y’a un jeune homme qui va naître, qui va être celui qu’les tours empêchaient d’être.”
Throughout journeys evoked and spiritual transformations, « Gibraltar » appears as a centerpiece of many debates : the place of migrant communities in contemporary France, the renewed interest in Islam for Black communities in Europe but also the rapprochement of Diasporic communities throughout the Atlantic. But, in a larger sense, its prime interest points us towards another direction : the still infinitely complex condition of European blacks in the 21th century.
MALIK Abd Al, La Guerre des Banlieues n’aura pas lieu, Paris, Le Cherche Midi, 2010.
Outside of the history world, the word “Zong” and the event to which it refers is virtually unknown. The tragic lost of life of over one hundred and forty slaves thrown overboard during its journey to the New World is an atrocity that has escaped mention in the largely US-centered perspective of textbooks one frequently encounters in high school and even university classrooms. Its horror, its warning, its echo is left unheard to many of those outside the realm of Caribbean Studies. Why is such a crucial event in American history so often overlooked? While the answer to this question is debatable, it seems critical that keeping the story alive and continuing to reflect upon and examine its significance not only to history but also to humanity itself is paramount. M. NourbeSe Philip’s collection of poems entitled Zong!seeks to respond to this aim by emulating the thoughts and experiences of slaves aboard the ship and beginning to work through the process of understanding the event and its long-ranging ramifications.
The first poem of the first section of the collection entitled “Zong! #1” immediately strikes the reader with its unconventional physical structure and positioning of words and letters. Not only are words strewn seemingly at random across the blank page, but they are also violently torn apart. It is not even until the third line that we are able to decipher a full word—“w a w a t / er…”—the joining of which only occurs after the movement of “er” to another line. The reader’s experience of reading this poem—one of disorientation, confusion, and frustration—mirrors the experience of the recently captured slave as he or she boards their doomed vessel of the Middle Passage. Individual words slowly become perceivable, although their discovery does not offer any satisfaction at discovering their meaning. Pulling together the disassembled letters, in order, assembles words such as “water,” “was our water,” “good,” “water…oh…on one won(e) one day ah days one days wa….” before continuing, again broken, to the next page. Here, as the reader continues to search for some kind of discernible meaning, one can see an almost geometric quality to the arrangement of letters on the page. The structure slopes downward; words, and their corresponding meanings, are collapsing. “Wwww w a t e r,” water… “wa ter / of w / ant.” The lines of the poem, like the lives of those aboard the Zong, are deteriorating. In our disorientation, we are left, dissatisfied, with only the permeating image of “water” and “want”: our basic human needs, our basic will and instinct to survive.
It seems fitting that Philip emulate the absence of meaning and complete destruction of slaves’ lives as they knew them by a corresponding destruction of poetic form. The reader is offered no answers, only thrown into a world, much like the slaves, in which he or she does not have the tools to decipher the experience. However, as the collection progresses, coherence slowly begins to return, eschewing the chaos of “Zong! #1” by providing, in the very least, whole words as units of meaning. By “Zong! #3,” letters have reformed into words and the disorientation is lessened, yet cryptic language and inverted patterns of speech remain. The momentum of the sense of a fractured reality continues to be propelled by repeated enjambments: “the some of negroes / over / board / the rest in lives / drowned / exist did not / in themselves / preservation / obliged / frenzy / thirst for forty others / etc”. The word “overboard” itself is sliced in half, almost mirroring the throwing of bodies from the ship deck. A sense of panic is elicited by “frenzy,” closely followed by “thirst for forty others,” where the reader has no doubt in what has occurred. Yet, after this terrible act has been committed, we are left with one hauntingly evocative word: “etc.” The reader’s mind is ripped from the scene in front of them directly to the ship’s log where deaths of “cargo” were catalogued. We are reminded of the ship’s recorder who after the entry of several slaves who suffered the same death felt compelled to write “etc” or “ditto” in the column justifying loss of cargo. As scholars, we often caution each other to protect ourselves from the loss of empathy in examining what can be monotonous (yet still horrifying) ship records such as these. However, the poignant plantation of the simple term “etc” at the conclusion of “Zong! #3” reminds us that such a notation is anything but forgettable: three simple letters can dismiss both one life and a massacre.
When one visits M. NourbeSe Philip’s website, you are greeted by a quotation by Setaey Adamu Boateng that reads: “There is no meaning but meaning–our search from it, our fleeing from it, our longing for it, our denying it, and, finally, our embrace of it.” Reading the poems within the first section of Zong! entitled “Os” (from which the two poems above were taken), the question of meaning becomes essential. Our traditional structures of meaning (words, phrases, lines, etc.) have been disrupted; we are left to piece together what we can from what remains. Philip invites us to search through the wreckage and ultimately embrace its reality along with her.
These are but two examples of the chilling insights one can gain from the Zong! collection of poems. As an English teacher, I’m naturally pre-disposed to connecting content I learn to the lives of my students. More than often these days, teachers are faced with the ever-frustrating predicament of wanting to provide authentic academic experiences in the classroom via critical thinking and exploration of a given topic while simultaneously being required, to some extent, to “teach to the test.” However, learning about events such as the Zong Massacre and reading poetry such as this help us to examine our definition of humanity and better understand who we are today. I am rather ashamed to say that this class has been my first exposure to this material, and it has already had a profound effect upon my understanding of the slave trade and my ideas about what I would like to impart to my future students. I’m interested in developing and adapting some of this material to be taught to younger audiences as I believe that thinking through these issues can be valuable to younger students as well—this is a topic I hope to examine in future posts!