A black man wrote me the following E mail, which he entitled 'The Empire Strikes Back, or Can The Negro Listen To Momus?' It got me thinking about the whole fascinating subject. Here's his mail and my reply.
Momus, dare I call you Nick - I am not sure which is which at this point, I
take issue with your deeming entire cultures your current 'fave' under your
sensibilities column, a little bit colonialist don't you think (then again it might be cultural jealousy on my part as my own swarthy West Indian culture did not warrant even an honourable mention - and 'hey you with the Negro
face...' - what's up with that bro)?
Nonetheless, I listen to Momus... quite a lot actually; an uncomfortable fit
on my CD rack between Joni Mitchell with her poetic overbite and Theolonius
Monk who's admittedly better in theory than on my headphones. When I tire of
Don Cherry equivocating Klezmer or Kronos Quartet winking while they 'go
African', there is Momus. Pop without the banality of the popular (and from
all accounts without popularity - most likely not an added benefit for you
But can the Negro listen to Momus without feeling a sense of betrayal to the
African Diaspora? Who did black folk listen to back in the day, Little
Richard or Pat Boone's version of Little Richard, or of more recent vintage
Eric Clapton or Bob Marley? This would not have been an issue had I
discovered Momus Music when you were just another misanthropic poet-singer
with an acoustic guitar and literary aspirations - my CD collection is full
of those: Brenda Kahn, the old Leonard Cohen and all that; I can listen to
that stuff through the veil of irony (let's see what the over-educated upper
middle-class white folk are into this year, is it post-post-structural-recombinant-whining) but no..you had to go mess with the signifying dub and hip hop beats. Shit, what is 'Sadness of Things' but an allusion heavy, Latin quoting doppelganger of any PM Dawn speechsong, but I can't deal with too much PM Dawn - the God/Spirituality thing gets annoying and I swear if another hip-hopper takes off his Kangol (OK so Kangol ain't
DOWN no more) to Islam I'm going to convert to become the first Black West
Indian Orthodox Jew out of spite.
What exactly does this West Indian NEGRO get out of Momus Music? Let's look at the musical alternatives provided in the West Indies: there are basically three categories of West Indian music
1. Frivolous Happy Shit
(Soca, Dancehall, Zouk etc.)
2. Slightly less Frivolous Social / Political Shit
(trad. Calypso, straight-up reggae etc.)
3. Heavy (but usually herbal) Shit
(Dub, Dub, Dub and the occasional Dub/blank hybrid)
One and Two are perfectly useless unless one is enamoured of rhymes like 'Carnival / Bacchanal / Festival' being repeated in every possible permutation over increasingly monotonous 4/4 beats.
Three is all right, but I suspect that pure dub was created with the blanks filled in by herbal mirages, which given my aversion to substances (it has been
said that West Indian Middle Class Puritanism is even more extreme than the
British version which engendered it), I'll never see.
Enter Momus (OK and Massive Attack and Tricky and Laika and... but especially Momus) and it all made perfect sense: the books I was reading (or used to read really...more work these days..less engaging play) coupled with the version of dub I heard in my head (not dub dub mind you, I just mean spacey sounding music my
sensibility can cling to); but that's not true because the non dubby electronica type stuff works just as well for me (but what is that 'Saved' shit, leave that to the cock-rockers from American towns w/OuT black people... if you must listen to and ape geeetar rock, at least let it be of the New York variety - I'm paying $25.00 bucks a pop for your CDs on import here, if I wanted Big Black I could buy them on sale at Best Buy for $7.99 - really
lengthy parenthesis here, sorry)...anyway the Momus thing is happening for
Holbein/Wittgenstein, I'm impressed, most people in your line of work don't
get further than Coleridge's wedding guest (although you had to mention him
in that same damn song didn't you). So what if you gave your audience Lee
Scratch Perry instead of Frantz Fanon, at least you somehow managed to find
a Lee Perry-Wallace Stevens nexus. But I suppose you are quite the literary
sort, I assume that's what you matriculated in. I do quite enjoy tripping over the allusions of 'thinking' Pop musicians; did David Sylvian actually read Walt Benjamin's
'Theses On The Philosophy of History, IX' or did he just hear about the Angel
of History from Laurie Anderson? These are things over which I mull.
I have this vague suspicion that you not only read from your vast catalogue of
references but actually enjoyed a substantial portion of the works. Quite
refreshing, at least more so than another Beat Poetry reference from a
misunderstood Midwestern twentysomething in jeans and with an oh-so-sincere
IT MOVES (When it needs to)
Believe it or not, I was actually able to stick Ventriloquists and Dolls and
Madness of Lee Scratch Perry onto a dance mix-tape I did for my quite hip
teenage nephew, poor guy didn't even know the difference.
I moved to Japan after college for a year because at the time I felt like it.
While the hordes of Gaijin that I met there threw themselves into Japanese
Kitsch, I grew to love Japanese photography and then more importantly
literature. I'll say this, however, Mishima is good enough reading but
Kawabata, there is a subterranean sickness there that people tend to miss.
I do keyword searches on the Net on asshole, not because I have a particular interest in assholes but because...I will not pierce my anus however
Not very often does one come across what my brother refers to as limp wristed writerly arty farties who are not complete Luddites. I find in your embracing of technology, for one who formerly brandished only an acoustic guitar, a sign of hope for the airwaves, for the
work place and for human sexuality (I will not explain)
I have digressed and must now return to answer the question posed a number of paragraphs back; can the Negro listen to Momus?
Yes he can.
The last couple of days brought two of the most interesting pieces of E mail I've had in ages. One was from a woman who said that it had occurred to her that she had come more times listening to my music than she had with any partner, male or female, and that, for her, my music is all about masturbation and the feeling of orgasm.
And I thought, YES, of course, that's what my work has been about for years: just trying to find the musical equivalent of orgasm. But solitary orgasm, because my songs come from a solitary place in the soul, and seek response from a similarily deep and private area in the listener's mind.
Yours was, of course, the other message.
When my work isn't about orgasm, it's about stereotypes and archetypes, avatars and inauthenticity.
Did you read the 'Pop Stars? Nein Danke!' essay on my site? It's got a bit about pluralism and playing with masks which says a lot about how I feel about this business of cultural roots.
Basically, my position is this. Denying differences, saying we're all one world, leads to a bland, undifferentiated, politically correct, wishful thinking Pepsi World (or, as Benjamin Barber puts it in his book 'McWorld Versus Jihad', McWorld).
You say I'm being colonialist in saying I have favourite cultures, but cultures ARE different and there shouldn't be a problem saying you have affinities (this week) with one or the other.
But you're right to be a little uneasy, because emphasising the differences between cultures leads to nationalism, xenophobia, war...
My solution is the Avatar. (Sorry, concept stolen from Sherry Turkle).
We should have people (artists, critics, journalists, cultural historians) always at work defining and redefining what it means to be black, Japanese, Scottish etc. But these cultural identities (brands, if you like) should be available to everyone. In other words, I can 'buy into' negritude and make a Last Poets-type record, and, most importantly, I should be allowed to do that without being told that I am being 'inauthentic', 'patronising', a 'sell-out' etc.
In the future, we will all be cultural tourists.
We will wear masks and change them often. An offshoot of this roleplay will be that skin itself will be seen more as an arbitrary mask than an inevitable determiner of social destiny.
>Kronos Quartet winking while they 'go African'
Yes! That's what I'm talking about. The freedom to 'go African'... (then go Aboriginal two albums later).
So then the question you might ask is, has Momus ever wanted to 'go African', and if not, why not?
One reason I may have steered clear of black influence is that it's not rare enough. Pop music has always been full of white people copying black styles, in a way it's built into the definition of the genre. (Although of course it was the collision of African polyrhythms with the hymns the Scottish missionaries took to Africa that really started it all!)
But, wary of the over-exposed, I went a different way and brought more European music into the Momus pop specification than was normal. Polish and German cabaret, French chanson, Italian cantautore. It always astounded me that this continent, so close to Britain, was so unknown to the British.
That, I suppose, is what's NOT African Diasporan about the music. But, as you rightly point out, there is a lot that DOES mess with those signifiers.
Blame it on the Thin White Duke, who is my oldest influence and progenitor and who decided to become, in 1974-5, a young BLACK American, make Plastic Soul and be the first white artist to appear on Soul Train. The inauthenticity of that choice fascinated me.
Okay, now let me corral the few but interesting moments of blackness in Momus.
Did you know the 'Don't Stop The Night' album was originally going to be called 'The Negro'?
A lot of people, seeing my photo on the back of the 'Murderers, The Hope Of Women' EP, actually think I AM black (close-cropped hair, fat lips).
The whole 'Voyager' album (rather than 'Sadness Of Things', which to me is in the white-yellow colourings of Sylvian and Sakamoto) was trying to be PM Dawn. I was also fascinated with MC Solaar at the time.
Songs like 'Ice King' play on the cold/hot contrast of black/white stereotypes, in the same way that David Bowie's 'Young Americans' album put ultra-white lyrics against soul music.
Bowie was originally going to call that album 'The Gouster' (a black street dandy) and the personality of the black dandy haunts me. As someone aspiring to 'the elegance of negroes', I often adopt a tone of tongue-in-cheek, hipper-than-thou Gousterdom (on songs like 'It's Important To Be Trendy').
Ah, I was forgetting Barry White, a huge influence on songs like 'Closer To You' (which also strays a little into LL Cool J territory). And Sylvester, who I sample outrageously on 'Don't Stop The Night'.
Actually, the records I've bought most consistently in the 90s have been by people like Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Earthling, Digable Planets. The post Daisy Age rappers. I even have a stack of Public Enemy tapes. I've sampled all these records heavily, and got my ideas about production from them. This, for me, is the laboratory where the important musical discoveries are being made.
And I love the upward mobility I hear in these records, the respect for learning. It's as if you hear a new middle class coming into being, or a new intelligensia being formed (with, it's true, its own conformism and its own pretension). I find that so much more refreshing than hearing my own class of white bourgeois Britons ironically appropriating white working class styles.
Okay, so there's been a lot of black influence in my work. Why hasn't there been more? Why do I not check Afro-Carribean culture as one of my favourites on my Sensibility page? How come I've never been to Africa? Never gone out with a woman of African origin?
(Here I enter dangerous territory, and look at stuff I haven't even examined myself very closely. So thanks for raising it! I'm enjoying myself).
I think that my fascination with black culture is about what Shazna (my Bangladeshi wife) would call 'coconuts', black people who are white inside. All those rap bands I mentioned are what gansta rappers would call 'coconut rappers'. British rapper Earthling sums up the genre, his songs skip feyly through allusions to Shostakovitch and Frantz Fanon. He's culturally both black and white, splendidly free and adrift in culture, a vacuum cleaner of influences.
Some of those other bands (De La Soul, Digable Planets) got politicised after they found it embarrassing to be the rap music white folks liked. As you say, they converted to Islam (I did that too, but for different reasons) and got harder and preachier. To me that was boring. I'm actually much more interested in the Michael Jackson option, which is about an utterly schizoid, narcissitic abandonment of racial origin.
That word 'schizoid' reminds me of another thing that interests me: the relatively higher incidence of schizophrenia in the black community. Which is what 'The Madness Of Lee Scratch Perry' is all about.
I have a schizoid personality, and I think a lot of the sheer oddity of black musical and sartorial creativity is down to the eccentricity that schizoid tendencies can foster. The skinny gouster of 70s myth is a schizoid figure, a dandy lizard. The utterly bizarre, disturbing sound of Jungle and Drum and Bass music is like listening to a mad person's thoughts (which is why it's the black music that Bowie has come back to with most enthusiasm).
But really what I'm most fascinated by is the first glimpse of freedom in the mind of an unfree person. Hence my interest in black music that tries to be white (Daisy Age) or white music that tries to be black (Plastic Soul). I'm interested in attempts to transcend or escape destiny, not attempts to embrace roots and solidify community.
I'm interested in fucked-up, repressed people who realise that, at a certain moment in their development, they can shrug off the weight of their (as Reich would have put it) Character Armour and experience orgasm. I'm interested in the evanescence, the fleetingness, of that moment too. Children who pass into adulthood. Westerners who discover the East. The Balinese resisting (and then embracing) the Dutch. The Chinese resisting (and then embracing) capitalism.
I'm into flux and uncertainty and paradox and inauthenticity.
When I met Beck in December I asked him if his music was consciously pastiching black music. He said no, and that a lot of black people came to his shows. I told him about Genet's play 'The Blacks', which insists that if there is a single black person in the audience, that person should be placed in the front row and have a spotlight shone on him throughout the performance.
>I'm going to convert to become the first Black West Indian Orthodox Jew
YES! That's the confusion I'm interested in. Everyone becoming Zelig becoming everyone.
>It has been said that West Indian Middle Class Puritanism is even more extreme than the British version which engendered it
That's it, that interplay of repression and freedom. How the black man came to represent the id of the white man, and therefore could be totemised and fetishised (cultually and sexually) by people like Genet. (And, I would say, ALL OF US WITHOUT EXCEPTION).
[The 20th century. The century of the application of industrial methods to everything (particularily war). But also, culturally, the century of the Negrification of western culture, from Picasso to Stravinsky to Eliot to Elvis...]
And Tricky! Shit, I forgot him! For me, the most important innovator of the 90s. Precisely because he is wandering and confused, a 'coconut' (offensive term, I know, but convenient shorthand) who finds a part of his soul best represented by white girls like Margaret Feidler (Laika) and P.J. Harvey and Bjork, yet embodies every white person's dream stereotype of the sexually potent, delinquent, intuitive, bizarre and fragmented black personality.
But I was never into, I don't know, James Brown or Cypress Hill. Those people seemed to be expressing the mainstream black experience. All the black influences I've had have been black people with a secondary trait of something else, square pegs who don't fit into the round holes of their own culture. Barry White, a fat black man. Sylvester, a gay black man. The Daisy Age rappers, middle class black people.
Little Richard! The 'Hippopotamomus' album is haunted by Little Richard, whose biography I read at the time. The original flamboyant gouster.
Sly and Robbie. 'The Philosophy of Momus' and 'Slender Sherbet' and 'Twenty Vodka Jellies' are mostly built around Sly Dunbar rhythms (off the only sample CD I've ever bought, because I loved the sound of Chaka Demus and Pliers, but also because Sly played with Serge Gainsbourg and Grace Jones).
Actually, I just worked on four ska songs for the next Kahimi Karie EP.
Where is this going? I started by trying to explain why Afro-Carribean culture is absent in my work, then discovered it was everywhere!
I think what I'm trying to say is that when I articulate my aspirations or my true affinities, they are with highly organised cultures, wealthy cultures, experimental cultures, cold cultures, northern hemisphere cultures, aristocratic cultures, even colonising cultures. But what interests me when I get closer is not the offices and computers that make such cultures run, it's their nocturnal rendezvous with the underground Other, their sexual and cultural need for the colour and rhythm of an African (or oriental) underclass.
The world of 50s, 60s and 70s UK and USA, when the mainframe computer world collided with acid and the McLuhanite electronic energy of rock, TV, happenings...
Brian Eno, who doesn't like working in the studio with computers, said in Wired it's because the computer doesn't yet have enough Africa in it.
Computers get more African every day, as they get more intelligent and therefore learn to emulate the intuitive and not just the rational.
>I moved to Japan after college for a year because at the time I felt like it
What did you feel about the massively uptight coldness of the Japanese? Their immense inwardness, their lack of spontaneity, their inhibition, introversion, shyness, privacy? Aren't those things all the absolute antithesis of the Carribean model?
Or maybe you responded to them because they are so close to the Protestant Puritan thing which the north Europeans, and the Scots in particular (I like to think) imposed on some Africans, and which turned into that bizarre dialectic of the caged and the uncaged which we call, in music, 'Negro Spiritual' or 'Evangelical'.
Like water in a hosepipe, energy reaching for freedom needs to be bounded and chanelled by unfreedom. 'In the end, soul itself is the longing of the soul-less for redemption', as Adorno put it.
And the irony is that the channelling, boundary-imposing agent is changed utterly by the energy it conduits. And western culture has been changed utterly by black energy.
Momus, London, March 1997
On The Couch
On The ROM