Friday, February 20, 2015

Slinging Mud & Kicking in Teeth: MOPDtK & When Irony Becomes Racism

[UPDATE 2/22/15: The following piece was written two days ago, in response to the promotion of the band's performance in Philadelphia. After writing this, I got more context about & from the bandleader. One thing I learned in particular is the bandleader's sincere reverence for the music he parodies. But such sincerity neither appears in the way the band is promoted, nor the way the music is presented. Some of this is in the band's control, some of it perhaps less so. At any rate I have changed the title & some of the language of the original text to reflect the conversations I have had in the last few days. I still think the problem discussed herein exists. I hope that the conversation this has instigated encourages the band, & those who promote them, to demonstrate respect toward the culture to which they are indebted for the content of their music.]

I need to talk about a band from New York City that I am loathe to name because they don't deserve any more attention. Yet I know that it does no good to address racism without naming its perpetrators. This band is called "Mostly Other People Do The Killing." They credit themselves with making "terrorist be-bop" and their m.o. is churning out frenzied, ironic pap that mocks jazz idioms and jazz history. The bandleader, Moppa Elliott, is a conservatory-trained bassist and music educator. They are probably best known for their note-for-note rendition of the Miles Davis album Kind of Blue, which created some controversy for a few people. They have been on the scene for more than a decade. None of the band members are African American.

A relevant excerpt from the promotional text for their concert in Philadelphia tonight:
"MOPDtK formed in 2003, although founding members Elliott and trumpeter Peter Evans began playing together in 1998 as students at Oberlin Conservatory. In the liner notes to the band’s 2004 self-titled debut, Elliott states the band’s philosophy: “I would rather make music that uses jazz’s identity crisis against it, piling as many nonsensical musical associations together as possible to create music that is aware of its own inconsistencies, ironies and contradictions and likes it that way”. Elliott makes it clear he is avoiding the idea of “jazz as repertory” - “I like my jazz with some dirt on it,” he says before adding, “Bring out the mud. Standing on the shoulders of giants makes it easier to kick them in the teeth.”

To which I want to respond: black lives matter. Black cultural legacies matter and jazz is a black cultural legacy. Here is a white musician making light of centuries of cultural appropriation and theft under the cover of "irony." Here he is claiming to stand on the shoulders of giants, the easier to "kick them in the teeth." Here he is slinging mud - mud, y'all - at black cultural history.

This is the language of racism. It doesn't matter if it's an ironic gesture, such language engenders real violence perpetrated by white supremacist culture against black people. To state it another way, real violence is founded on language that often seems (to white people) to be innocuous. I don't know this person. I don't know what he's like in other areas of his life. But in the text above his own appraisal of the band's work is in conflict with the notion that black lives matter. To kick black culture in the teeth is to say black culture doesn't matter. It is to say black people, thus, do not matter.

Who are these giants at whom he's slinging mud? They are Armstrong and Ellington, Mingus and Monk, Parker and Coltrane. They are the elders of the music, the grandfathers, the ancients. They are the inheritors and carriers of what W.E.B. Dubois called the Sorrow Songs, the music that gave a people - against whom an attempted genocide has been perpetrated for centuries - their life. Cultural forebears such as these are meaningful in ways that many white folks cannot understand. Yes, some of us lost our family trees escaping persecution in Europe, but we don't continue to face persecution walking to the store.

For a people whose family histories are twisted and lost amidst white violence - kidnapping, enslavement, enforced poverty, mass incarceration, cultural appropriation - playing ironically with their legacy is deeply offensive. It is menacing, threatening. It is unconscionable. It is also not new or novel, and black people in America have continually created globally significant cultural currents despite this legacy of white violence.

The giants whose shoulders Elliott claims to stand on are musicians who reinvented and advanced the music not by slandering and dishonoring their forebears, but rather by respecting and building on their heritage. Folks with a deeper knowledge of jazz and its repertoire will understand that Cecil Taylor's music is not a kick in Ellington's teeth; Albert Ayler's music was not a kick in Lester Young's teeth; William Parker's music is not a kick in Mingus' teeth; Matana Roberts' music is not a kick in Charlie Parker's teeth.

I recently read something that author Junot Diaz had to say about Toni Morrison, who just celebrated her 84th birthday. He said that the best writer in the world is of African descent. He said that despite the ills of the world, this fact allows him to sleep well at night. (Let's add: the world's finest living author is also a woman.) Now: imagine Diaz writing "standing on the shoulders of giants makes it easier to kick them in the teeth." You dig?

To my ears, Elliott's music does not have the stature or quality of Diaz's writing. But the point I want to make is a question of degree, of reach. If someone were to come into my home and talk about kicking black culture in the teeth, such racist speech wouldn't become excusable - or ironic - simply because it is said behind closed doors. Or simply because the speaker doesn't intend to act physically. I'd call the motherfucker out on it, and show him the door.

People of conscience, people who want to challenge the power dynamic that maintains white supremacy and all of the physical, cultural, and emotional violence it brings with it, have to prevent racism from reverberating throughout the culture. I note with continual disappointment the lack of commitment from my peers to challenging oppressive power structures. If the band and its members don't intend to maintain a stance of violence toward black culture and, thus, black people, the language that is used to speak about their work ought to reflect that. Otherwise, the language (and thus the notes) reverberate racism. And if that's the case, I propose to turn it off, shut it down, and call them out on it.

Philadephia 2/20/15

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