Wei: So what’s up with The Beast?
Me: Yo the music is amazing I can’t wait ’till you to hear it!
Wei: Yeah, me too. So live instrumentation, huuh?
Me: Yes – piano, bass, drums and me on vocals.
Wei: Word, word.. so where they at?
Me: Right over there setting up (point to the front door).
Wei: The white boys?
Me: Yeah, that’s them. Us. The Beast.
Wei: No Brothers?
Me: Well. No brothers brothers, but..
Wei: Oh you’re “Hootie and the Blowfishing” it up, huuh?
This is an excerpt from a typical exchange between me one of my homies whose introduction to my band, The Beast was accompanied by a furrowed brow. I’ve heard it all – from DJs who, after we step into the studio exclaim, “oh shit they white!?” To other artists that we perform with like emcee Bomani Armah (of Read a book, read a book, read a mother f*cking book fame) who once kicked an entire freestyle comically critiquing the racial makeup of The Beast. It’s almost as if people have trouble wrapping their minds around the idea of a Black revolutionary such as myself joining forces with white musicians to express a progressive agenda. Eventually, the skepticism melts away as the music builds a bridge that misguided racial preconceptions can’t penetrate. The furrowed brow gives way to what first appears to be a disgusted sneer, but when put in context with the bobbing head and pumping fist is clearly the expression of someone engrossed in dope music.
Inevitably, The Beast deals with race on a daily basis as we all do. However, as my sister (visual artist and photographer Maya Freelon Asante) pointed out to me the other day, it may be effecting me more than I think. In a lovingly written email she inquired, “Why does all your album art/promotion (feature) all white folks. CD cover, Fliers, etc. Just wondering, is it significant?” Gotta love your siblings – they will not hesitate to call you out if they see something questionable (see the album cover in question below).
Her loving, but scathing critique forced me to acknowledge that first and foremost she was correct. The majority of the images representing The Beast (namely the cover of our debut album, Silence Fiction and the fliers that we’re using to promote the album release party) feature faces/people/images that appear to be “white” or of European ancestry. Once this was established I had to deal with the second, and most important, part of her question – is it significant? This is heavy. One must discard their “wtf, it’s just a flier” gut reaction for one minute and acknowledge the comprehensive and pervasive reach of white supremacy in America, in order to understand and appreciate the gravity/implication of this question.
As brother Olokun pointed out in the previous post, Code Switching & Identity Performance: The Politics of Talking Black, there are serious repercussions for us embracing our own ancestral, cultural, and spiritual sensibilities. From Black parents giving their children racially-neutral names for a second look at a resume, to Spanish-speaking American immigrants that encourage their children only to speak English; non-whites who are socialized under the “American Dream” paradigm (or what Malcolm X called the “American Nightmare”) are under enormous pressure to assimilate. Even more pervasive is the sub-conscious internalization of white supremacy epitomized in the Black children who, in 2005, still choose to play with white (nice/pure) dolls, instead of Black (dirty/bad) dolls purely based on race (see clips from Kiri Davis’ documentary Girl Like Me, here). Given this context it is not outside of the realm of possibility that my judgment (or my sister’s judgment), could have been unintentionally compromised my some of these same racist mechanisms.
Take the example of the Silence Fiction album cover. It’s interesting that Maya saw a white person’s face in the artwork. To me the face is an ageless, genderless, and raceless face which, if I had to “designate” a race, more closely resembles someone of Asian or Native American ancestry than European. That was actually the point. The artist who painted it (Gabriel Eng-Goetz) initially asked to do a portrait of my face, but I suggested that he create a face that did not specifically represent any particular ethnic, gender, sex, or age group – so that people of every race, sexuality, or generation could see a piece of themselves reflected in it. Perhaps the absence of a specific race left her with the “obvious” choice – a white person, the American “standard”. This could be evidence of a residue of the same internalized racism that compelled her to question The Beast’s branding. Consider these posters/fliers for our upcoming album release party:
Back to Maya’s question – is this significant? I’m the only brother in a majority white band, with majority white promotional materials – perhaps I should do more to make conscious decisions about branding, and deciding which images we use to represent ourselves. Could this be some subconscious internalization of white supremacy? Maybe it’s reflective of racial inequities on the internet. The majority of my google image searches (the results of which, I used as the canvas for these fliers) reared images of white people. Maybe our community doesn’t have the same access and search engine optimization. Very possible – the digital divide is a racial and socio-economic epidemic.
In my opinion, I just used the creative judgment and sensibilities that the ancestors blessed me with, to design two fliers that accurately reflected the spirit, vibe and energy of The Beast. That was my intention, at least. I pray that the ancestors are pleased with my work, and not scratching their heads wondering why I didn’t put a brother, brother on the flier. I’m just glad I have siblings that encourage me to think.
In other news, The Beast’s debut album Silence Fiction will be released at our album release party in Durham, NC on October 16th, 2009. If you’re within driving distance I expect to see you there!!!