This is a sweet little video that MIA (Mathangi Maya Arulpragasm) posted on her twitter page and which I would like to share with you. She has recently released an art book covering the years she spent making the three albums Arular, Kala and Maya. The book is published by RIzzoli, New york and you can check it at http://www.rizzoliusa.com/book.php?isbn=9780847839179
I have been doing illustrations of paparazzi shots of celebrities. Good subject matter for a quick drawing of an evening.
I am currently writing a PhD with a focus on the work of Zadie Smith. I am interested in voice; how our voices change, our we perceive voices, what our voices can mean. Lots of things to do with voice. Anyway, it is really freakin hard to write a PhD and as a way of helping myself I write little ‘pieces’, mini essays that help me resolve an argument in my head. The actual piece is MUCH longer but I left it where I did cos it gets kind of boring for everyone else but me, beyond that point.
But any feedback would be really appreciated. Not so much on my writing, as this is pretty well unedited, but more on voice in general and any thoughts my lil ol’ essay may bring up for you.
Recently Zadie Smith interviewed the rapper Jay-Z. In the article she asked the question:
‘But can’t a rapper insist, like other artists, on a fictional reality, in which he is somehow still on the corner, despite occupying the penthouse suite? Can’t he still rep his block?’
Questions of voice and authenticity are central to the genre of rap music and hip-hop culture in general. To be part of the culture you must ‘keep it real’. It seems no matter how much the music itself evolves, it is always first critiqued through the lens of authenticity, it must pass an initial ‘realness’ test before it can be analysed from other points of view. The case of Rick Ross, the American rapper who was ‘forced to admit to’ and ‘own up to’ his previous occupation as a prison guard, is both humorous and interesting. In articles that reported the ‘controversy’ the language used implied that Ross had somehow done something wrong, committed a crime of some sort. And perhaps in the eyes of the hip hop community he had committed a crime, a moral crime. He hadn’t ‘kept it real’. There he is in a ‘leaked’ photograph on the Internet in his prison guard uniform, his hair trimmed and his expression benign. He is just like any other person, at work, doing their job. Now look at Ross (or ‘Officer Ricky’ as 50 Cent condescendingly refers to him), all pimped out in gold chains and baggy designer jeans that no doubt cost more than what he earned in a month as a prison guard. His head is shaved, his beard is long and thick, black and glossy, noble in the way a Taliban fighter’s beard can somehow seem noble, if not also completely intimidating. Ross has built an image based on intimidation, fictional as it may be.He is often referred to as the ‘Boss’ but he can also do ‘boss’, that verb now having evolved to imply a kind of entrepreneurial gangsta spirit. He is always in sunglasses, his arms and chest are covered in tattoos and he is never smiling, only grimacing or more accurately, ‘bawsing’ (in one particular Twitter pic he looks like what Chopper Reid would had he been an African-American prison guard turned rapper named Rick Ross) his fat fingers shimmer with gold and diamonds, like rows of sausages adorned with Bulgari jewels. He looks like an advertisement and in many ways that’s what he is.
Ross told XXL that his credibility cannot be fazed and the drug-dealing stories in his songs are authentic.
“The stuff I talk about is real. The dope is real,” he insisted. “The gun talk is official. Look up [notorious Miami gang member] Kenneth ‘Boobie’ Williams. Look where he’s from. That’s not nothing to be proud of. I wish that on no man. But, just to let you know, that’s what I witnessed. It’s a reality. I cannot discuss certain people that’s still in the streets, and I will not. I took a street oath, and I’mma live by that, and I’mma die by that. And it’s not about a music career, ’cause that sh–, I’m good. It’s about me and being in the streets.”
“50 Cent made a statement that he’ll ruin somebody’s life,” Ross snarled. “Where I come from, it takes a AK-47 to do that. Cartoons, we laugh — funny. You put on a wig, come out the closet — funny. At the end of the day, we in the streets finna drop another #1 album, we pressing on.”
“My freestyles as you could hear them, ‘Kiss My Pinky Ring,’ I do them in 20 minutes and put them out there,” he said. “Those crumble empires.”
Ross is selling the ‘gangsta’ life, he’s ‘bossing’, he’s the ‘bawse’. And perhaps the stuff he talks about is real, certainly we know it is true that the ghettos of America, the so-called ‘streets’ are riddled with guns and drugs and violence and probably Ross did witness it. Although I doubt he is dodging Ak-47’s when he pops down the street to get milk and bread. Yet haven’t all of us who live in contemporary, urban cities (so basically all of us) witnessed at some point some kind of event, some evidence of what it must be like to be in the streets for real? (Whatever that means??) Perhaps the choice of words was a conscious one: he says ‘It’s a reality.’ Whether or not it is or was his reality is inconsequential isn’t it?
At the end of the day he is making a particular style of music that might not exactly ‘crumble empires’ but does make him millions and millions of dollars. And if he can ‘finna drop another #1 album’ by writing songs that only take him 20 minutes to do so, why shouldn’t he? Why are critics of hip-hop music so obsessed by the link in hip hop between material riches and true freedom? As Smith writes in her interview with Jay-Z,
But asking why rappers always talk about their stuff is like asking why Milton is forever listing the attributes of heavenly armies. Because boasting is a formal condition of the epic form. And those taught that they deserve nothing rightly enjoy it when they succeed in terms the culture understands.
In hip-hop, the political content, the material conditions of its production, the sociological issues that grounded its inception as a cultural expression, all these things are as important, if not more important, than the actual music as a simple act of creative production. When we listen to rap music there is an inherent expectation that it should be politically active, should be in the service of an oppressed people, that it should somehow be a tool to incite change. But capitalism taught us that wealth and success can be had by all. And those taught that they deserve nothing rightly enjoy it when they succeed in terms the culture understands. That’s what Jay-Z and Kanye West are talking about in their song Niggas in Paris.
Why are we so bothered if a rapper writes a whole album dedicated to his Maybach collection or how much money he spends a month on weed and champagne? Or if he really did pop those niggas and blow those Os. I’m not defending the morality of the content or the lifestyle and attitude that it promotes. But I defend the right to write it and I don’t see the point in restricting hip hop’s evolution by expecting it to be necessarily political or necessarily anything. As a thirty-one year old, white, middle-class female, I defend my right to listen to it and enjoy it, free from any ideological restrictions. The lyrics to Wiz Khalifa’s song ‘The Kid Frankie’ inspire me, they lift me up and when I am singing along to that song, the words I live life sucker free/That’s why the niggas u be with talk down/ Like they don’t fuck wit’ me come out of my mouth without any irony. The context for Wiz, when he wrote those words, was probably worlds away from how I contextualise those words. Or perhaps not. I think most people would say they want to live life sucker free, they probably just would say it differently but ‘I live life free from sycophants, free from the hangers-on in the world’ just doesn’t sound as good.
So yeah, it’s the message that I like but it’s also the form that the message is delivered in. And whilst I wouldn’t express myself in language like this normally in my day-to-day life, I have no issue with adopting the voice of a black male rapper from Pittsburgh ‘Pistolvania’ to inspire myself and instil in me a positive mood for the duration of the song. The political conditions surrounding my listening to this music do not overly concern me. They are interesting to me and I would be lying if I said I had not thought about them when listening to the music. But they do not dictate to the listening choices I make. Just as I am not concerned by women’s liberation or the politics of confessional poetry when I read Admonitions To A Special Person for the forty-fourth millionth time or just how much of that great writing is truly Raymond Carver and how much of it is the greatness of Gordon Lish’s editorial skills. I like the music and the poetry, and especially the short story The Train because I think they are well made, they make me happy and allow me to feel particular emotions and pleasures. I appreciate the artistry of their craft, the lyrical game-playing, the creative flamboyance. Even more than that, they are tutorials, for the artist me. I learn from these artists the way an apprentice mechanic learns his trade in a garage, from a mechanic more experienced.
Hip hop music, like literature, serves particular and important functions in my life and were I to restrict my musical tastes based on questions of authenticity and political and social realities, of whose voice is best, of what I myself can do with my own voice, I would be denying the actual fact of what the music (or the literature) is. After all, art is made by real people, to be read and listened to by real people who use this art for various functions in their own real-life situations. I do not believe Edward Said was being overly simplistic when he wrote ‘it does not finally matter who wrote what, rather how a work is written and how it is read. The idea that because Plato and Aristotle are male and the products of a slave society they should be disqualified from receiving contemporary attention is as limited an idea as suggesting that only their work, because it was addressed to and about elites, should be read today.’ (p.31)
Yet still we argue about the authenticity of the artist’s voice, the point-of-view the critic should take, what we can and can’t say, what we can and can’t purport to experience. Even with what we can and can’t wear. Question posed by the reporter Sowmya Krishnamurthy to rapper Wiz Khalifa: Lil Wayne’s leopard-print skinny jeans at the MTV Video Music Awards this year: a sartorial risk that helped or hurt hip-hop and men’s fashion?
We are obsessed with ‘keepin’ it real’ not just when it comes to popular culture but also when it comes to the highest forms of literature. Interviewed about her most recent novel, NW, Zadie Smith was asked the following question.
BOLLEN: How did you decide the races for your characters? Leah is white, Keisha is black. Certainly, diversifying the lives that came out of Caldwell was important to you.
The question is a loaded one but Smith’s answer is simple and logical.
SMITH: My life looks like that. My life is black and white and mixed. My mother’s a Rastafarian, my dad was a short white guy—it’s not an affectation. It’s also the lives of millions of people throughout the world. But there is this pocket of people who read books, who struggle to name a black friend, so to them it’s unusual or exotic in some sense. But to me, it’s not.
The question is political and suggests a reading of those characters as representations of white and black people rather than simply characters which happen to be white or happen to be black. It denies the very basic fact of our contemporary world which is that wherever you go there is a variety of people, of colours, of cultures. It is not necessarily exotic nor intentionally political to represent this reality in a book, surely not in 2013, is it? Smith doesn’t include black characters in her novels because she is concerned with authenticity per se, authenticity as we understand it in an academic sense but because it is authentic to her. She wasn’t writing about Caldwell with the intention of ‘diversifying the lives’ of the people who live there because she doesn’t need to; they are already and always diversified whether or not Zadie Smith writes about them.
I am a Hittite in love with a horse
I don’t know what blood’s
in me I feel like an African prince I am a girl walking downstairs
in a red pleated dress with heels I am a champion taking a fall
I am a jockey with a sprained ass-hole I am the light mist
in which a face appears
and it is another face of blonde I am a baboon eating a banana
I am a dictator looking at his wife I am a doctor eating a child
and the child’s mother smiling I am a Chinaman climbing a mountain
I am a child smelling his father’s underwear I am an Indian
sleeping on a scalp
and my pony is stamping in
and I’ve just caught sight of the
Niña, the Pinta and the Santa
What land is this, so free?
By Frank O’Hara
I ask myself first of all ‘why?’ What is the purpose of writing this, to what end will the collation of my thoughts, a collaboration between rampant spirit and critical thinking, be useful? Worthwhile? I don’t know but a compulsion remains to articulate perhaps for myself but also to the pairs of ghosts that hover about the heads of those I love but who are erased at this moment, smudges of charcoal and lead left over from drawings I start but can’t complete. And I want to write about my mental health/illness because perhaps now is the first time it has been possible to do so. Particular circumstances have made it feasible for me to explain myself even if I can’t really explain myself. At times it is best to leave that to others, to Anne Sexton mainly in my case. Reading her words is like looking in a mirror and seeing my face clearly for the first time and the beauty is that as my vision is cleared I see that I am not all that ugly, my eyes are not so lopsided, my nose not so grotesque. In fact it is an image one could live with if they wanted to.
But they are her words and even as I read them with pleasure I also have a guilt-bidden jealousy to snatch them from the page and swallow them so that I may repeat them, again and again and again until they are my own. Because if I could enunciate better, if I could explain with more clarity what I am then that would solve the puzzle, wouldn’t it? At least for some other, perhaps as I am the Other to Anne’s words. Her words didn’t soothe her soul enough to stop her going completely mad so who is to say that mine will do anything for me. Especially given the ratio of inferiority of my own words to hers. So in the end it is just this compulsion which must be fulfilled, without any expectation of self-fulfillment because in the end I won’t believe a word of what I have written here. I will read it back tomorrow and cringe, I will shudder to the point of nausea and go on a mad goose chase to erase all traces of these words from the cyber world. Knowing this, as I do, is irrelevant right now though because I really just want to remove from my brain a snapshot of this moment of its existence.
I talk about my brain as though it were separate from me. I have done this more and more since I was given the bipolar diagnosis. I think this is because many of my own suspicions have been verified, many of the apparent weaknesses have now been given a name, a category, terms by which I can compare and define. I can hold my mind in my hand and see it for what it is; a God, a traitor, a jealous lying thief that nonetheless maintains a purity of spirit that draws people to me. I am no longer suspicious of my mind because I accept now that it can betray me, that the illness I have is inconsistent and unpredictable, it rides its own wave and all I can do is try my best to maintain, maintain, maintain. Even the smallest of things can appear life-threatening: a phone call, a basket of dirty clothes. They rise like mountains in my head, behind my eyes, devilish peaks that obscure my view and common sense. I cannot simply get up and make the call or put the washing in the machine because the task itself is now beset by many other questions and thoughts that have untethered in my brain and I can’t remember at all what I was thinking just thirty seconds ago. You might ask me to do something simple, like walk to the kitchen and get you a glass of water. If I haven’t returned after a minute you can be assured that something else has taken my attention or I have stumbled into another black hole of thought. How quickly I can fall into them and sometimes they open up into whole other worlds and I am not even confused if this is reality or not because I don’t even stop to question it. I think that is how I ended up getting married to someone I had only known six weeks. I just fell down a hole in my brain and ended up in a place I didn’t need to be and which I didn’t have directions for. Took me a fuck long time to find my way out of that place.
But where I am now, I didn’t get here by falling down a hole in my brain. Actually, although it looks from the outside like I fell down the biggest hole out there, I actually think I’ve come up the other way, like I’ve managed to climb out of all those holes in my brain. If the holes had names they’d be called friends, family, expectations of myself and others, regret, resentment. Maybe my holes are more dangerous because I have this mental health issue because it appears to me like most of the people I know don’t fall into the same holes as me or when they do it just isn’t the same. At its worst my whole brain becomes a hole and twice now I have fallen far further than I ever wish to fall again. I would rather live my life up on the surface where the dangers are around but at least I can see them, or name them. I can tell when my mind is playing tricks on me and if I’m having a particularly bad day I can ride out the shaking and nausea. You see what happens in my mind is usually repeated in my body. My hands shake, my limbs feel as though they are hollow, my chest feels like it has been stuffed with bricks, like my lungs and heart have been entombed. Now when those things happen I can let them happen because I know they don’t happen forever. They happen again and again but they don’t happen forever. They make me feel like shit and they generally eradicate any possibility of experiencing pleasure or happiness when they happen but I know I will feel better, eventually, and that is enough. I suppose this is one of the reasons why I have never had many friends, except for in my twenties when I tried to have friends but could never get the hang of it. Having too many friends means having too many people around to compare yourself to and it is just easier to get through the tough times in solitude. I don’t mean tough times like breaking up with your boyfriend or losing your job. I mean tough times like when your anxiety levels reach new heights and you start making random phone calls to people you don’t know but whom you suspect know something you should know but who for some really fucked up reason are punishing you by not telling you what you know you need to know. Those tough times. Not many people have those kinds of tough times so if you don’t have a friend that knows what that’s like, you don’t really have a friend for those tough times and you’re better off just going it alone.
The worst part of all this has been the effect it has on those around me. People can’t see in my head like they can see an amputated limb. When they see me shaking they might think it’s something else like I don’t eat or I have a drinking problem. When I’m manic and talking too much, when I’m super excited about every fucking glorious thing that comes my way, people may think I’m on speed or coke and they certainly don’t think about the flip side of the mania or the havoc it wrecks on your appetite. At those times I can literally eat and eat and eat and I will still lose weight and then I look like a junkie. I suppose that’s why most people think I am on drugs. I suppose it is easier to explain things to yourself that way. But I also wonder why they didn’t think that when I was eight nine ten, my whole life before now, when it wasn’t feasible that I might be on drugs and it was more likely that I was just fucked in the head. I suppose it is scary, especially in someone like me. It baffles me too. Sometimes I wonder why I am not famous, why have I not achieved, why have people not realised how talented I am. Delusions of grandeur are another part of the process I guess. But still, I can project such a front of composure and confidence that I’ve had even myself fooled all these years. Yeah I’m really smart, I got first class honors and a scholarship to do a PhD. Yeah I was good at tennis and got to play overseas, got a painting residency in China and sold paintings to heaps of people both here and overseas. I’ve had my short stories published and won awards for my writing. But it doesn’t mean shit in the end because I don’t believe in half the stuff I’ve done up to now. It was all done from the inside of those dark holes, at times when I thought I was in ‘the real world’ but when I was just hiding behind smokescreens, photoshopping everything to remove the creases and wrinkles and anything that might give away the truth. So I guess that’s why I haven’t reached those heights yet, cos I wasn’t being real. I was too afraid of letting the monster out of my head. Not that I’ve ever been afraid of the monster. I love the monster. The monster has straight up been my best friend since the beginning. I’ve indulged the monster and given the monster freedom over my mind and body to the point where I’ve become the monster to the monster. And I guess you all saw the monster too but because I kept it partially hidden, cos I kept trying to dress it up as something it wasn’t then it just seemed all the more grotesque and deformed, like schizophrenia with elephantitis or something. I was always only afraid that you’d be scared of the monster, like it would be too much to handle. There goes my ego again. The monster ain’t really all that bad. Like my psychiatrist said, ‘You’re pretty mad but you’re not running naked down the street hugging trees, are you?’
So this year I decided to let the monster out and perhaps that’s what got me above all those damned holes. But the monster and I have to work out the new terms to our agreement because all the indulging has to stop. I’m in control. Or at least I need to try to be. And it’s the small things that control the monster, like routine and balance in your life, like positive people and positive experiences, like resisting the urge to drink two bottles of wine instead of two glasses, like having the patience to consider options and make logical decisions. All the small things which come so much easier to everyone but me. I find it so difficult to adapt my brain to logical thinking sometimes and even harder to comprehend why others around me don’t see things the same way. Trust me, the world is soooooo much more fun when you see it through the eyes of the monster. But anyway, I know it’s those small things, that all important self-discipline. It’s common sense. But common sense has always done battle with the chemicals in my brains. Like my sister used to always say to me when we were kids, ‘I just don’t get it, you’re really smart but you just don’t have any common sense.’ Used to think that was so weird. Used to think she was crazy but after thirty years I can kind of see where she’s coming from. Which is not to say that I am now on a quest to acquire common sense. I am not. I can’t. Because I was born with the monster and the monster just doesn’t do common sense. So instead me and the monster just have to work together, find another way, another method of doing things which we might call common sense but which we know isn’t really. But that doesn’t matter.
I read a quote by a girl who I think might be Neil Young’s daughter. Anyway, the quote was something like, ‘I feel more normal when I remember I have mental illness.’ And this is true for me too. Not like as an excuse for anything but more like an affirmation, like a Christian might say I feel more at peace when I remember I have God in my life. It’s like that for me. I just wish it could be the same for those who say they love me.