Everything I like is like that man who first thought to take that picture of that starving black child waited for by that black vulture in that Sudan. I like what I write. I am hurting myself by liking things. My words are maybe taking pictures of myself starving me. I tell myself stories in order to clutch my throat. My throat is clutched. Please make me pretty, I don’t want to die. I want to sleep now. I know I am holding this so tightly with sleep. I know I am screaming towards this with my sleeping. What should we ask of in a world whose only word is “Work”? People are not asking of us because they are busy. I am not asking of us because I am simulating being busy. This is the best deal. This is the unasked-for gift. If I saw a starving black child my first thought would not be to take this picture of myself. Or wake. Everyone is dying. There are such pretty words for this.
Photograph by Michelle Agins, “James Baldwin in Chicago”, 1983
This piece is in response to my overconsumption of media and how it has both exhausted and angered me. The lyrics are lines from Kanye West’s (problematic, I know), “Black Skinhead” and the South African anti-apartheid song, “Senzenina”. The latter encapsulates my exhaustion at the attack of black bodies, how “our crime is that we are Black”. Black Skinhead captures my rage and a defiant pride in my race and skin. Black women are centered in this piece; we started the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and we support Black men and our community as a whole. I’m sick and tired of the dehumanization of Black people and the exertion of control placed on our bodies. Our skin is ours, and our bodies are our own. We are not a vessel for your hatred and insecurity. Phumakim’! (Leave me alone!)
Simone Hadebe is a graphic designer and artist with a BSc in Studio Art from Skidmore College.
The map of Houston, Texas looks like a star break on a windshield. When the glass has been pierced by a sharp point, leaving a spiral of injury. Perhaps, due to a stone. A bullet. On the fourth track of Solange Knowles’ new album When I Get Home, there are gunshots. You could almost miss it; the clocking of the gun, interspersed with its firing, is so effortlessly melded into the melody. Much like news of recent deaths often sink beneath the frantic newness of news.
Unlike this album’s predecessor, the magnificent A Seat at the Table, When I Get Home is less construction than map, a route along the roots of a steady, reflective driver: Solange. She is credited as a writer on every track. But it’s important to acknowledge that this is not her story – “I realize how much wider, figuratively and literally, my work could be if I took myself away as subject” – but stories, plural, that are narrated by her. Here, Solange creates conceptual cartography: of her Southern roots, of black empowerment, black women, and their intersections with their own personal and collective histories, and their love, spirituality, emotions, and power.
There are numerous, predominantly black, collaborators on this album, all in various capacities, ranging from features, production to writing. The lineup includes such names as Tyler, the Creator, The Dream, Metro Boomin’, Pharrell, The Dream, Cassie, Earl Sweatshirt, Gucci Mane, Raphael Saadiq, Abra, and Playboi Carti. The most interesting “collaborations” however are the interludes featuring a variety of black female voices, including the artist’s. One interlude is titled “Can I Hold the Mic” which choppily samples a video of crunk group Crime Mob’s female rappers Diamond and Princess faux-interviewing each other – “Uh, bitch, can I hold the mic?” This leads into a spoken-word section by Solange herself:
“I can’t be a singular expression of myself, there’s too many parts, too many spaces, too many manifestations, too many lines, too many curves, too many troubles, too many journeys, too many mountains, too many rivers, so many – “
This instability of identity, of the failure to contain and distill Solange’s specific experience as a black woman, perhaps explains her decision to produce a sonic map instead, one that stops focusing on an inconstant, non-singular self, but instead actually charts out the terrain of self, exploring those many “mountains” and “rivers” that make up her emotional-historical-cultural-political being and existence. Part of this is paying a nod to those that came before her; on S McGregor, Solange includes a recording of Houston-born women Debbie Allen and Phylicia Rashad reciting a poem by their prolific mother Vivian Ayers: “I boarded a train/Kissed all goodbye.” The track comes very early in the album, right after the repetitive, one-liner opener Things I Imagined, as if to foreshadow the movement, both literal and figurative, and the endings or goodbyes that Solange has undertaken to realize her visions. When she asks Can I Hold the Mic, it is not to profess a personal declaration, not to ask to be accepted as one self, or embodiment of self, not even to ask for a seat at the table, but instead, to ask us, to invite the world, along with her as she moves and retraces the “lines” and “curves” of her map of being.
The cartography begins, as Solange’s life itself did, in Texas. If the map of Houston, her city, is a fractured spiral, then it revolves around its blackness. Houston Third Ward, where Solange grew up, is known for its black community. It was a civil rights epicenter in the sixties and had the first nonprofit hospital for black patients in the thick of the Jim Crow era. A profile by The New York Times Style Magazine states that “[Solange’s] output is infused by a fundamental orientation – culturally, politically, psychically – to blackness.” And this is her central spin throughout. Solange frequently incorporates the chopped n screwed hip-hop style in her core jazz and hip-hop music, inflecting her work with black musical forms that specifically nod to her city. A song celebrating black and brown things – “Black baes, black days”‘ – is named Almeda, an area in south-west Houston. S McGregor is for S MacGregor Way, where the aforementioned sisters Debbie Allen and Phylicia Rashad grew up. Way to the Show’s “candy paint” lyric pays homage to Houston’s staple slab scene, where cars are painted to look candy-coated. Meanwhile, Beltway refers to the road looping around Houston, which, on the tracklist, is cleverly followed by Exit Scott, a real exit off the Beltway 8 in southern Houston. In visuals for the album, Solange prominently features a ranch, with horses and dancers in modern cowboy outfits. “Hundreds and hundreds of people every weekend are getting on horses and trail-riding from Texas to Louisiana,” Solange told Billboard. “It’s a part of black history you don’t hear about.” It is clear the geography serves as scaffolding for the album, propping up every vision executed by the artist.
It is in Exit Scott (interlude) where Solange showcases the poetry of Pat Parker, a lesbian black woman from Houston itself. The poem is about love. In the intermission, We Deal With the Freak’n, Solange includes audio of Alexyss Tylor from her show Sperm Power 2: “We are not only sexual beings, we are the walking embodiment of god consciousness”, a track that is preceded by the Gucci Mane feature My Skin My Logo, which contains an outro resembling sexual climax. Solange explores the nuances and spaces of black love and sexuality through the lens of actual black women, from Parker to Tylor, each exercising agency and ownership of their sexual and romantic narratives.
These also expand to the topic of spirituality. In ‘Nothing Without Intention’, Solange cites the black beauty blogger Goddess Lula Belle’s video on Florida water, an item Solange carried with her to the Met Gala in 2018. Florida water is a unisex cologne made with alcohol and essential oils, used for purification, spells and spiritual cleansing. It is also a prominent part of Afro-American spiritual culture. In the track Almeda, there is a lyric that declares “Black faith still can’t be washed away/ Not even in that Florida water.” Solange simultaneously celebrates black spirituality while asserting the resilience and strength of black faith as transcending every hope symbolized by any spiritual object; black faith is stronger than any spell. On top of that, the refrain “nothing without intention” is a call to the listener, perhaps, to examine Solange’s full cartography as painstakingly and thoroughly mapped. As in an exquisitely made poem, every element is cherry-picked for maximum fruition. But invoking intention is also a rallying cry to her community, to the black community, to the black women before, with, and after her, to know and find and search for their beauty and being.
The title My Skin My Logo is a reclamation of the idea of using blackness as a brand (re: blaxploitation) and exacting power over it. Binz offers a similar celebration of wealth in this lens – “Dollars never come on CP time/ Wish I could wake up on CP time” – where CP time is ‘colored people time’, a historically derogatory phrase used to imply that black people were lazy and tardy. Solange basks in her wealth and power, spinning the narrative that has historically held people like her down for their success.
Pride, having pride in an inconstant state of self and history, and comfort with this pride, are key factors of When I Get Home. A lyric in My Skin My Logo states to “blackberry the masses”, a gorgeous play on words that recalls the saying “The darker the berry, the sweeter the juice”, which elevates dark skin. At the same time, there is the darker double meaning in “bury the masses.” It’s an invocation, to and for the black community, that is sweet-bitter; like the Houston cars lacquered to look like candy, this lyric draws on both the pain and beauty of blackness in a political world, invoking, above all, hope, the sweetness and necessity of it.
In the same NYT magazine profile mentioned earlier, Solange recalls being afraid of the Holy Ghost as a young girl at church. This fear, not just of that imaginary phantom, but a wide-encompassing fear, found in the pit of every artist’s chest, manifests in the intro track Things I Imagined. Solange ends this song with the lyric “Takin’ on the lie.” By the time we reach the last track, Solange no longer imagines but declares: I’m a Witness. This song transforms the old lyric into “Takin’ on the light.” There is a movement here between imagination and vision, fear and realization, off-track to grounded, intention to execution. In When I Get Home, a title itself implying a road and destination tied to self, Solange sketches for us this journey, maps out the paths that have led her to this exact moment as both artist and woman and black being. How strange, how searching, and how beautiful it all is.
It’s no breaking news that Vogue, controversially considered the world’s ultimate fashion bible, will finally have a cover shot by a black photographer for the first time in its 126-year-old existence. The magazine’s iconic September issue, the most esteemed and awaited of the year for which even a documentary film was released, has been “lent” to Beyonce this year. She apparently has free reign over the creative production in exchange for her presence on the cover, and has picked the African American photographer Tyler Mitchell to shoot it.
Trevor Noah’s reaction to the news is my favorite, because it’s both celebratory and uncomfortable, like good alcohol – “Finally a good headline with the words “black person” and “shoot” in it! This is dope!”
What is undoubtedly a cause for excitement is also a prime opportunity to examine the historically dominant whiteness of media outlets that control the circulation of images and perceptions of global trends. Who are the major puppeteers of what’s deemed “hot or not” and why are their channel-flip-fast trends so colorful yet their playing fields so colorless? Why does it take a black person, whose extreme levels of fame and global influence almost elevate her above conventional race hierarchies, being given the opportunity to temporarily control a historically white space, in order for young black, talented creatives to break out in the absolute upper echelons of their industry? One could argue that the Vogue cover, normally coordinated by the steely hands of editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, is typically reserved for highly established photographers. But why are no black photographers considered highly established, or plainly speaking, good enough? The deeper issue is that creative industries of fashion and other arts continue to be white dominated arenas where we have to constantly be questioning whether white people and people of color are being given equal opportunities and advantages.
It all boils down to: representation matters. The truth is I could’ve tweeted about this news but I chose to write this piece instead because even now, not enough people get it to take action.
So I’ll break it down here. Why does it matter so much to have a black photographer shooting the cover of Vogue?
A photograph, although static, still serves as a medium of narrative. Images tell stories and if they didn’t, we wouldn’t care so much about Instagram and how our timelines make us feel everyday. We wouldn’t pin ourselves to screens – TVs, laptops, iPhones, magazines. Our generation has simply never been more visually generated and motivated, and the effects of this reality can’t be judged with accuracy either, because we are the first generation to live this way.
A photograph on the cover of the most famous magazine in the world has the power to influence millions of people worldwide. This means its narrative is scarily pervasive around the globe. Rihanna’s recent Vogue cover, the one with her skinny drawn-on eyebrows, has thrown the world into a tizzy, questioning the entire culture of eyebrows, and spawning think pieces on the evolution of eyebrow styling and its impact on style and beauty perceptions. See what I mean by scary influence?
When we analyze the narrative of an image, we look at several factors: what/who is in the photograph, why are they there, how are they positioned and placed, and who put them there. The creator of the image is important because in their creation, we are seeing through their eyes. The image is a product of its creator’s specific bias and perspective. If the holy grail of fashion produces images that are always shown through a white lens, then we always experience a white narrative. The positioners and placers, the narrators of high fashion, are white, so our views of style morph into constantly examining high fashion through a white lens. And this, today, is simply unacceptable. No one should have to be writing a think piece about why style, image and creativity are produced equally well and thought-provokingly by all races and cultures, and that displaying their diversity not only matters, but just signifies common sense.
Tyler Mitchell is a 2017 graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. He grew up in Atlanta, becoming a photographer in his teens, taking pictures of fashion and youth culture, particularly surrounding the local skateboarding scene. In 2015, he self-published a book, El Paquete, containing photographs of skateboarding youth, architecture and fashion in Havana, Cuba.
He has come to be featured in several prolific media outlets such as Complex, i-D, Teen Vogue and Lomography. His cover for Teen Vogue featured gun control activists Emma Gonzalez, Sarah Chadwick, Nza-Ari Khepra, and Jaclyn Corin, wearing all-black in perhaps a nod to the outfit of historic freedom fighters, the Black Panthers, with the hashtag #NEVERAGAIN.
“I depict black people and people of color in a really real and pure way,” Mitchell stated in a New York Times profile last year. “There is an honest gaze to my photos.”
Mitchell’s work is currently on display at the Aperture Foundation in New York (through August 16), in the show “2018 Aperture Summer Open: The Way We Live Now”. His vivid portraits, showcasing a refreshing tenderness, introspection and hope, of young black men, are partly inspired by 1980s street photographer Jamel Shabazz, and serve as a response to Mitchell’s own coming-of-age struggles as a young African American.
“I was always mentally placing myself in relation to others and very conscious of my blackness. There’s a form of what I can only describe as ‘racial schizophrenia’ that goes on in the mind of an adolescent boy,” wrote Mitchell in his artist’s statement for the exhibition. “I am synthesizing what I see to be a full range of expression possible for a black man in the future.”
Looking at Mitchell’s work, it seems fitting why Beyonce chose him. Although a weak song, Beyonce’s music video for “Apes**t” with husband Jay-Z also employs image as narrative in a powerful way. The couple often stand in statuesque poses in front of some of the world’s most famous paintings, including the Mona Lisa, at the Louvre Museum, what is known as a historically white space. The most famous artworks displayed at the Louvre are almost always white images and thus, white narratives, with occasional displays of people of color either as slaves, servants or savages, or depicted through a completely orientalist lens. In the video, Beyonce and Jay-Z literally place black bodies amongst the white marble floors and statues of the Louvre to assert black presence and excellence into the artistic narrative of the space they’re in. A row of black women dance in front of the painting of the coronation of Napoleon, one of history’s biggest colonizers, while Beyonce sings “I can’t believe we made it”. Jay-Z raps his verse in front of the painting “The Raft of Medusa” which depicts survivors spotting their rescue after their boat suffers from a fatal crash; the comparative slave boat narrative becomes apparent. An image of a painting where a white woman hugs a white man with a stab wound, is recreated with a black man and woman, and the stab wound morphs into a symbol of police brutality. This is emphasized further by an image of black men kneeling outside the museum, literally “taking a knee” in reference to NFL football players, led by Colin Kaepernick, kneeling at their games to protest racism and police brutality. Even the censored title becomes a symbol of erasing black presence and excellence out of global artistic, social and political narratives for centuries. And plenty more metaphors abound, too many to recount in full here.
What this video and the upcoming Vogue issue can remind us of is that there is still a lot of work to be done when it comes to diversifying the arts and its various narratives. As a society that is increasingly interconnected through media and its distribution of the arts, we need to do better when it comes to being aware of what we’re consuming and producing, and through what particular shade of lens.
iron -y heat coming down in sheets lingering naps in the sun baking our skins detonating thought patterns repetitive rotations of ceiling fans atop our necks –
a middle-aged mother wipes her brow. fingers on necklace on beads of sweat anxiously waiting for a visa to a perpetually air-conditioned somewhere in the US they fire entrance permits in a kiln and concoct embassies out of ash scattering it on the globe as if zeus lit thunder into their hands hot shock like iron
-y on the TV screens atop mama’s head showing black boy colgate teeth, a son iron -ed flat hot across his insecurities while walking on pavements gleaming he smiles out the sun, colgate bright white snow of amerrrrrica gave soil to my dreams, yes! it did while my brothers baked hot. flat on the amerrrrican concrete under iron -y sun so hot! “i can’t breathe” still waiting on an ivy degree its cream white borders framed a body on the pavement.
irony – will you be humorous or emphatic today? america night live! mama is catching this episode whether she likes it or not on the TV screens atop our heads black boys in front of her bloom out their color on home’s village soils in the summer and their potato skins, on green amerrrrican visa receipts on a country culled of weeds, on an embassy television screen, on smoke boiled out the kettle steam of a gun barrel, on a hard slab of amerrrican concrete so
iron- y hot. mama’s son smiles down at her from above like a hope like a dream like a loss like a god like a TV screen peddling air-conditioned scenes for a land sweatier, leaking faucets of ash, than this little embassy –
irony the giant elephant in the room, constructed from its own white tusks at the scene of mama’s departure from sir seretse khama airport boarding the first of the turbulent planes to the land of the free