Secret Histories and Visual Riffs, or, Miles Davis, Alice Coltrane, and Flying Lotus Go to the Movies

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Date: Winter 2020
Publisher: University of Michigan Press
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 2,971 words

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In a 2017 "Tate Talk," Arthur Jafa contended that Kahlil Joseph makes music videos that employ "music as a structure for a visual pattern." (1) Jafa went on to argue that these musically founded visual patterns reveal "continuities [or] secret histories" at work in Black music and Black visual culture. Jafa's insights are teeming with acute implications for the study of Black music video and Black film, and thus I want to trace the operations of these "visual riffs on [the] music" through a brief series of notable works while suggesting that such a method is more widely applicable. For now, I focus on the relationships between music and image in William Greaves's groundbreaking Symbiopsychotmciplasm (1968), with music from Miles Davis's In a Silent Way (1969); Spike Lee's music video "Tutu Medley" (1986) for four tracks from Miles Davis's album Tutu (1986); and Kahlil Joseph's short film and gallery installation Wildcat (2013), which features Alice Coltrane's music as reworked by Flying Lotus. Careful analysis of the interplay of the musical works and their visual counterparts reveals the vital imbrications of Black sociality, improvisational praxis, Black arts of remixing and sampling, and the specific difficulties and triumphs of Black cultural production. Such analysis goes beyond traditional distinctions regarding form and content, extending deeply into history, theme, theoretical and philosophical positions, and notions of Black artistic praxis and cultural memory. Along with Jafa and Joseph, I mean to ask how music seeps into and across these moving images, providing opportunities for deeper understandings of both when taken together. In analyzing the complicated interrelationships shared by these particular musical and moving-image objects, we find "secret histories" that are deeply staked into Black culture, with face-value meanings doubling, tripling, and blooming exponentially into other denotations. From signifyin' to slave songs, code switching in perpetual eras of white supremacy, and the encrypted messages of hip-hop lyricism, the "secrecy" relies on close attention to what we might call underground continuities in the artworks and their contexts.

It is important not to fetishize the secrecy of the maps and historical continuities posited byjafa, however. "Maps to follow" and "histories to uncover" do not imply the necessity for arcane exegesis performed only by rarified audiences. (2) Instead, these concepts insist on some cultural literacy and sensitivity--that is, an awareness of Blackness and appreciation of some of its innumerable creative and historical forms. Jafa is pushing for audiences to feel the undercurrents in the work, to be sensitive to the overtones and undertones that go unnoticed during surface-level, hegemonic appreciation. In short, the music provides a map for the creation of the images, but history underpins the music and the image in toto and is essential to the deep appreciation of both. What I (following Jafa) mean is that there is a fecundity in the artworks that is best understood by carefully attending to the interplay of music and images, but comprehension--reading the map, so to speak--hinges on understanding elements of Black history and Black expressive culture that often...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A615236446