Racial Politics and Represenation in, THE BEAST

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?
Me: ..

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).

scifiblack.png

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:

after.jpg

scifiblack1.jpg

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!!!

12 Comments to ‘Racial Politics and Represenation in, THE BEAST’:

  1. Lorrie Guess on 5 Oct 2009 at 1:33 pm: 1

    In response to “Racial Politics and Representation in The Beast”:
    I’m not sure the CD cover art and fliers say anything about the internalization of white supremacy on the part of Pierce or The Beast as much as they imply covertly or overly that white people are the source of the fiction in need of silencing, as well as the unquestioning recipients of that fiction.

    I didn’t necessarily think the person on the album cover was White, but I did think s/he was not, could not, be Black judging by the default indicator, skin color. (The person is too pale for me to assume blackness.) Though my own conclusion on was that the artist was intending to present racial ambiguity, I admit to being torn at first glance. However, to suggest that people who view the portrayal as white rather than race neutral may be because whiteness is put forth as “the American ‘standard’” or due to “internalized racism” is to make an end run around the obvious: the CD cover art heavily references The Matrix.

    If we are to discuss the part our cultural subconscious plays in how we perceive the CD cover art, (e.g. “some subconscious internalization of white supremacy”), I think we’d be remiss if we ignored the fact that a decade on, The Matrix is now firmly established in our visual and cultural vocabulary.

    Eng-Goetz’s art does reference The Matrix, intentionally or not. Specifically, it references a moment of revelation in which the main character, Neo, finally wakes up from his stupor- bald, covered in plugs connecting him to the ‘machine’ and finally fully conscious of the systematic forces working to keep all people oppressed. Eng-Goetz references Neo’s (and our) horror at the great reveal, but deprives us of the relief that comes with the character’s awareness. In Eng-Goetz’ version, though the eyes are open, the person is still not conscious of her/his own oppression. They (we) see without seeing.

    Film is a visual medium that (for better or worse) imprints a definitive face on a character more than perhaps any other form of storytelling. Unlike oral storytelling, live theatre and novels in which characters and stories shift and evolve with time, and with the teller and the receiver, film does not change from night to night, or let you imagine a character differently. Because of The Matrix’s impact of our subconscious visual vocabulary, viewers may use this visual shorthand without even realizing it, assuming by association that since Neo was white (though Keanu Reaves is multi-ethnic), then the person in the image that alludes to Neo must also be white, in absence of strong indicators to the contrary. More than anything, the link we make between the two indicates how much we have accepted film as our culture’s dominant form of storytelling, and its seminal characters as our modern archetypes.

    (This observation isn’t to divorce the critique from the conversation of race and cultural subconscious, but to further inform it. Along those lines, I have to wonder how well Black and African American audiences would receive the image if it were instead an unambiguously Black face plugged into ear phones, and covered in plugs that steal away even more of his/her humanity on the cover of a predominantly White hip hop band’s CD cover. My guess is… not well, and to my mind that would have more to do with “some subconscious internalization of white supremacy”, and a visceral reaction against the perception of it.)

    But, I digress. We’ve established that they aren’t all White people, (and explained why we might think they were) but that still doesn’t change the fact that there aren’t any Black people. My response is to this critique is simply, “yet”.

    I understand the legacy behind the hyper vigilance, the necessity for the critical eye. We are surrounded (even bombarded) by images of whiteness from the media. Even recently, the work of African Americans has been whitewashed to be more palatable to White America. Science fiction author, Octavia E. Butler, a winner of the Hugo Award and recipient of the MacArthur “Genius” Grant, was not only a visionary writer, but also the first female African American science fiction author in an extremely White male dominated industry. Her science fiction work did not just have main characters that were black, it used the genre of science fiction to explore in depth the impact and future implications of racial tensions and class inequity in American society. Despite this, her early work was published with cover art that depicted White versions of her characters or aliens rather than risk showing any brown faces. (If you look, it’s not hard to run across these old copies at libraries or used book stores, though her novels have been published with beautiful, accurate illustrations of her characters on the covers for a few decades now.)

    All that is to say, the reason for concern is real. However, as a result of our past (and current) under- and mis-representation, African American creatives are, and I think a little unfairly, not given much slack in their rope. We need to have just a little more faith in each other and in the breadth of our creative expression. Silence The Fiction has two fliers and one cover. That’s it.

    Two fliers and one cover.

    Is that enough slack? If I thought this was the sum of your run, Pierce, I might agree with Maya’s criticism. But I expect more to come from The Beast both musically and visually. So, I believe it’d be more accurate to say, “You didn’t put a ‘brother, brother’ on the flier…yet.”

    Yet is a word that acknowledges limitless potential. In this case, I cannot think of a word more fitting.

  2. Pierce on 5 Oct 2009 at 10:46 pm: 2

    thanks for the feedback. you’re very correct about the matrix reference (which happens to be my favorite film of all time). I really love your analysis of Eng-Goetz’ conscious or unconscious creative decision-making in developing a visual concept that matched the idea of “silencing fiction”.

    And I also (obviously) agree that my intention was simply to create a flier, not to racialize the band’s brand. However, my decisions, like Eng-Goetz’ – whether they be conscious or unconscious still have certain implications.

    Thanks for sinking your teeth into this one.

  3. Pierce on 5 Oct 2009 at 10:47 pm: 3

    Can’t wait to hear Maya’s response!

  4. Olokun Olugbala on 6 Oct 2009 at 5:42 am: 4

    DAMN!!!! This is a great dialogue in progress…

    First, I would have to acknowledge and thank the bold love of sister Maya to challenge Pierce concerning the implications of the visual art that runs in conjunction with the racial makeup and the political commentary of The Beast. All of these things together further complicate an already complex artistic entity. These murky waters will augment discursive discourses (like the one in progress) that will only aid in deeper, richer understandings of ourselves and our environments… and all the “others” that happen to live amongst us.

    Pierce, I really appreciate how you took yourself to task and really examined the “significance” of the symbols and/or “visual shorthand” (I like that Lorrie!) that The Beast employed to promote its music and politics. I must admit, I stared a long time at the flier you gave me Sunday once I got home from the workshop… searching for the full range of meanings and significance in the artwork. Actually, my final conclusion mirrors Lorrie’s when she advanced “that white people are the source of the fiction in need of silencing, as well as the unquestioning recipients of that fiction.” That said, I looked at the flier a little more and said to myself, “It works.”

    Pierce, as I read your post and thought about the questions and tensions that Maya presented (and your attempt to answer these questions and reconcile these tensions), it made me think about a lecture I heard from John L. Jackson, author of Racial Paranoia: The Unintended Consequences of Political Correctness, concerning the subtle ways that race affects and sometimes consumes our daily expressions and modes of thought. One must wonder if this is not the intended function of white supremacy. While we obsess over the symbols of fliers and album covers, or are detractors to Obama’s healthcare agenda racist, etc., we spend less time plotting ways on how to combat the vicious political economy of capitalism and all the dehumanizing social injustices inherent within it.

    While I really value this dialogue, I believe it is imperative that we don’t stay fixated on the symbols of the symptoms. But in all fairness, I feel confident in saying that I know we just haven’t arrived at that part of the conversation “yet”…

  5. Olokun Olugbala on 6 Oct 2009 at 5:43 am: 5

    And without a doubt, I will be in Durham on the 10/16, rocking with The Beast…

  6. Maya Freelon Asante on 6 Oct 2009 at 7:42 am: 6

    I knew there was significance in your promo material choices. I initially wondered who created the images. I didn’t even think you designed them, no offense, but you got graphic design skills! So I thought someone else was interpreting your work/ music that way, which makes the choices all the more interesting. Although I don’t think it’s because of white supremacy that you chose the images, if there was an ill black comic with the same title, I’m sure you’d be drawn to it. Also, the digital divide does have us underrepresented on the web in terms of positive images. And I don’t think it’s all about race, but I am sensitive to your selection because we all make assumptions about visual subjects and people we meet everyday. Snap judgments, although can be way off, are the way the world works. Only because I know you I could inquire, but most people won’t get the chance. As an artist and a Black woman, I am hyper aware, sometimes to a fault, to images and assumptions. And I can sometimes fall into the dreaded ‘ass-u-me’ zone, which is sounds like some of your pre-fans have done. Like your wonderful song, can’t remember the name but “When you look at me do I look like a dope-man, no siree?” I think?? Please correct me and post a link because it rings so true to this very subject!
    It comes down to this, I want everyone to know how great the Beast is! I want people to see you and be proud of your accomplishments. We, Blackademics, should jump at every opportunity put forth a new positive Black image. We are surrounded by so much negative and lack of representation on the web and elsewhere. When I think of The Beast/ Silence Fiction I think of Energy, Light, Passion, Skills, Enlightenment & Edutainment NOT Hootie. Your music speaks for itself, we just gotta make sure everyone makes it to the concert!
    PS: I love you!

  7. Sundiata Salaam on 6 Oct 2009 at 8:59 am: 7

    Pierce,

    I want to commend you for your deeper reflection. Too often, we(including myself) respond to criticism scathingly, seeking to appease our ego which tells us, “how dare they say that about US!” When you see someone who is an avid responder to white supremecy and social injustice look upon themselves in order to find truth,(a la Malcolm X) it is a model of excellence for us all. Thank you dear brother.

    Peace

  8. Z on 6 Oct 2009 at 5:10 pm: 8

    Really ineresting topic and ensueing discussion.

    I don’t have much to add related directly to the topic. However I did want to weigh in on what the Beast means to me. I have made comments on this blog for quite sometime now. My comments have often been related to the relationship between the African-American and Caucasian populations. To me, the Beast represents an amazing confluence of talent among 4 individuals who happen to not share the same race. The Beast’s message is sent via Pierce’s words which in my opinion, are not solely for African Americans, but for all people. It’s a message of social, political and cultural awareness that we in the human race are all in need of. Thank you Pierce.

    I hope anyone reading this can make it out on the 16th to see some inspiring music.

  9. Lorrie on 7 Oct 2009 at 9:28 am: 9

    I have loved, respected & thoroughly enjoyed each of the great perspectives in the discussion.

    (I know mine was an uncommonly long comment. Thanks to Pierce and everyone else who took the time to read it!)

    Z, I could not agree with you more.

    And of course, I will absolutely be there for the show!

  10. Neil on 8 Oct 2009 at 12:13 pm: 10

    Excellent article. The image reminds me more of H.R. Giger, and his propensity to create art which blurs the line between life and machine, albeit with heavy sexual overtones.

    When I look at the image, I see a female of unknown race. We may see what our life, influences and prejudices inform within us.

    I am intrigued to hear the music now!

  11. Kacey Barcliff on 20 Oct 2009 at 3:38 pm: 11

    “all i know” is that pierce is the bomb! He is very talented. I had the pleasure of working with him on two different occassions when he performed at the elected officials youth summit. He is great!

  12. 2012atl.com on 2 Nov 2009 at 7:51 pm: 12

    http://www.2012atl.com
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Published on October 4, 2009 at 1:24 pm. 12 Comments.
Filed under Hip-Hip,music,racial rhetoric.