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The Out of the Woods Mixtape

ECOLOGIES | Essays  }

Out of the Woods / October 16, 2021
The Out of the Woods collective share some of their favourite music, with an accompanying essay exploring how these tracks relate to and shape our politics. 7354 words / 29 min read

Photo: Salton Sea abandoned bait shop by Kit Conn


Content note: there is mention of racialized, carceral violence and suicide in this essay.

A few years back, members of Out of the Woods began sharing works that grapple with our animating concerns: this world’s ongoing ecological crisis, and the kinds of struggle and organisation oriented through and beyond it. As we sent music back and forth we decided to put together a mixtape of some of our favourites, with an accompanying essay to interrogate how these tracks relate to and shape our politics. Though we’re critical of the politics which inform or arise from some of these works, elements of us enjoy elements of all of them, and where we’re critical, we’re often interrogating our enjoyment as much as the tracks themselves.

NB: Not every track sampled on the mixtape features below. Timings are approximate.

Part One: Escaping the Misanthropic Sublime

Loscil - Anthropocene (0:45-4:30)

“Anthropocene” is taken from Loscil’s 2016 album Monument Builders, a work concerned with the relationship between technology, the human, and environmental degradation—issues that are at the heart of our work as Out of the Woods. It’s a beautiful, moving track, but we are not comfortable with how it moves us. Beauty, after all, is always political, and musical engagements with the “anthropocene” are not automatically positive.

To explore our unease, we’ll detour through two works Loscil has cited as key influences on Monument Builders: Godfrey Reggio’s 1982 film Koyaanisqatsi and John Gray’s 2002 book Straw Dogs. “Anthropocene”’s rushing bass arpeggios and plaintive brass show a clear debt to Philip Glass’ soundtrack to the former, an enduringly popular experimental work which consists solely of slow motion, tracking and time-lapsed shots of stunning “natural” landscapes, violent resource extraction, and life in the megalopolis.

‘Koyaanisqatsi’ is a Hopi word that can be translated as ‘crazy life’, ‘life in turmoil’, ‘life disintegrating’, ‘life out of balance’ or ‘a state of life that calls for another way of being’. It was chosen as the film’s title to reflect Reggio’s belief that Western languages are no longer up to the task of describing the world. If we were being too generous, we might say that the use of this term points to the important role that Indigenous knowledge must play in formulating a politics within, against and beyond ecological crisis. If we are being honest, however, we must acknowledge that as this track lacks any engagement with actually-existing Indigenous struggles, it merely replicates the destructive politics of colonial extraction it occasionally critiques. Hopi ways of living and knowing are abstracted and hollowed out to create a fluffy epithet for a supposedly concerned audience.

We should also be wary of the technological narrative that Reggio posits through Koyaanisqatsi. He intends it to depict technology as “our new nature”; a seductive trap leading us to a “collapse, dysfunction and disintegration”. Humanity, he fears, is lost as we become cyborged; collapse “could be a blessing in disguise.” Such technophobia is perhaps understandable in a world where ‘technology’ is so frequently conflated with particular forms of capitalist technology, but falls short of the expansively ecological understanding of technology as “how a society copes with physical reality”; and ignores the radical ecological potentials of the figure of the cyborg.

The blaming of an abstract, homogenous ‘humanity’ and the fatalistic welcoming of collapse, meanwhile, reflects the antihuman anti-utopianism of Straw Dogs. Like Adrian Mole overdosing on Schopenhauer, Gray’s book consists of a series of bitesize banalities to argue that humanity has substantially overrated itself: faith in morality, progress, freedom and the self can lead only to destruction and tyranny. As Terry Eagleton notes, for Gray “even nihilism implies too much hope” as it “suggests the world needs to be redeemed from meaninglessness, a claim he regards as meaningless.” Such an approach is shared by Loscil, who finds solace in Straw Dogs’ confirmation of his belief that “we humans don’t have much say in how it all turns out.”

We need to recognise this privileged fatalism for what it is. Whilst Gray claims to be befuddled by Straw Dogs’s success, the comforting political quietism it encourages goes a long way towards explaining its appeal. Its vicious antihumanism paradoxically empowers the all-too-human reader by assuring them there’s really not much they can do. “We humans” have so much say, it seems, that we have ushered in a new geologic epoch, but at the same time, not enough of a say to struggle against the effects of this change. The best “we humans” can do is aestheticise it through pleasing cinematography and lovely ambient music. Such fetishism of collapse vanishes its differentiated destruction, and only provides comfort for the privileged few who can watch it play out from a safe distance.

Rafael Anton Irisarri - Her Rituals (3:45-7:30)

This aestheticisation continues with “Her Rituals,” a track from Rafael Anton Irisarri’s 2013 album The Unintentional Sea. The reference here is to the Salton Sea—California’s largest lake—a man-made pseudo-‘sea’ with a strange history.

The Salton Sea was accidentally created in 1905 when floodwater from the Colorado River breached an irrigation canal under construction. In its early years it was used for commercial mullet fishing, as well as being the site where the US air force honed atomic bomb runs in the build-up to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the 1950s a holiday resort—Salton City—was built on its shores, and it flourished for several years, until increased water salinity, pollution, and flooding—all the results of commercial activities—led to its desertion by the 1970s. Hundreds of millions of fish and birds died due to the poor water quality, and attempts to revive the sea’s ecosystem have met with only limited success. Developers have also extensively ‘regenerated’ Salton City in recent years due to the low cost of land, and a casino now operates there. The sea has shrunk rapidly, something which continues to cause horrific health problems for local inhabitants.

There are, clearly, important stories to tell here, and the history of the Salton Sea serves to warn of the dangers of Promethean infrastructural projects. It makes sense to want to make art about the “unintentional” Californian sea and its improbable, densely symptomatic biography. Yet “Her Rituals”, like “Anthropocene,” ultimately repurposes catastrophe as a source of sublime enjoyment; bringing the listener to visit environmental destruction as an opportunity for aesthetic contemplation. This is particularly troubling when the listener is the bourgeois white male (as is usually the case for such music), because, in short, he gets to holiday in the misery that he, as a historic category, has benefited from more and suffered from less than anyone else on the planet.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Mya Gomez - Ex-Narcissist (7:15-10:35)

In September 2016, activists from Black Lives Matter UK drew attention to the intersections between race and capital driving ecological crisis. They shut down London’s City Airport, arguing that ‘Climate Crisis is a Racist Crisis’. And they noted that “communities in the global south … bear the brunt of the consequences of climate change, whether physical – floods, desertification, increased water scarcity and tornadoes – or political: conflict and racist borders.” They are right: climate change (and conflicts linked to climate change) are enormous, and growing, drivers of migration. Accordingly, climate change brings hundreds of thousands of people into contact with racist border regimes across the globe.

Perhaps the term “anthropocene” is sometimes used with good intentions, but it is all too often compatible with - and becomes indistinguishable from - the deracialized, class-denying anti-humanism of filmmakers like Reggio and writers like Gray. We do not live in the anthropocene, but in a racialised capitalocene, in which white supremacist colonial capitalism has wrought environmental destruction that disproportionately affects people of colour and Indigenous peoples. Moving away from an abstracted notion of “we humans” as “the problem” causing our ecological crisis allows for a more nuanced understanding of differences in who this crisis is caused by, and who it affects.

“Ex-Narcissist,” is taken from Mya Gomez’s EP Inmate. It is a “personal exploration of carceral oppression that draws on her time imprisoned in Colnbrooke and Yarl’s Wood, two English detention centres.

In a testimony from inside Yarl’s Wood published on the Detained Voices blog, one anonymous inmate writes:

When you look in Yarl’s Wood there is no white person in here, we are all Indian, Chinese and African. It is racism… It really reminds us of the history you read about slaves. When they used to take people and put them in the ships, to take them and go and sell them. Now, they are doing this here. Yarl’s Wood is a slave ship. They take you from here and put you on a charter flight. The G4S, the owners of this place, they get a lot of money when they deport people out of the country.

If, “the environment” and “the human” should not be understood separately but rather linked through an expanded understanding of ecology, then the violence of the Detention Centre, is in part the result of the racialised capitalocene (or, perhaps, the ‘plantationocene’).

“Ex-Narcissist” is not, however, a solely personal reflection on racialized incarceration, but on resistance, hope, solidarity. For Gomez, it extrapolates from a time:

…when my eyes started to open overseas with all the girls I was detained with, most of whom were asylum seekers and ex-convicts from all around the world. We were all scared and… but still in solidarity with each other, not letting each other cry alone. It led to a revelation of… how silly it really is to have an individualistic approach to engaging with society.

Even as (and indeed because) it is grounded in the spatiality of this gendered, racialized oppression, “Ex-Narcissist” travels beyond its circumstance, combining across time and space in a shrill cacophony of hope with Anna Marly’s 1943 recordings of the French Resistance songs “Chant de Partisans”_ _and “La Complainte du Partisan”, which contained whistles intended to cut through the static that Nazis used to jam radio frequencies. Or perhaps with the “tune which was whistled at night” in Louis Aragon’s poem “Santa Espina”, which, according to the historians of whistling (!) John Lucas and Allan Chatburn, “offered an eloquent symbol of resistance to all kinds of suffering”, evoking the whistling of peoples who, “for all the repression and injustice they endure, refuse to abandon the spirit of resistance and their vision of freedom.”1 We can also hear Mya Gomez’s whistling in “Ex-Narcissist” as analogous to the caged bird of Maya Angelou’s famous poem:

The caged bird sings with a fearful trill
Of things unknown but longed for still
And his tune is heard on the distant hill for
The caged bird sings of freedom.

With “Ex-Narcissist,” we are far from an aestheticised anthropocene that has nothing to tell us about oppression and freedom, or one that simply provides contemplative solace for those who benefit from its causes.

We need a politics that acknowledges but does not aestheticise ecological destruction; a politics of hope grounded in the materialities of oppression; a politics that connects struggles against incarceration with environmental contexts. We do have a say in how it all turns out, and this can be for the better if we realize we do not have the only say.

We need a politics that acknowledges but does not aestheticise ecological destruction; a politics of hope grounded in the materialities of oppression and that connects struggles against incarceration with environmental contexts.

Part Two: Ecology, Colonialism, Struggle

Fela Kuti - Water No Get Enemy (10:20-20:12)

In the face of colonial capitalism the simplest premise can transcend the banal, acquiring an air of profound defiance. Statements of fact become statements of resistance. (“There is tenderness only in the coarsest demand: that no-one shall go hungry any more.”2)

In our fourth pick, taken from Fela Kuti & Africa ‘70’s 1975 album Expensive Shit, Kuti and the group riff around this insight. As is typical of much of Kuti’s music, “Water No Get Enemy” blends English and Yoruba. Repeated, over and over, we hear the band announcing - almost protesting too much - that water attracts no enemies, because there is “nothing without water.” Writes Tavia Nyong’o: the statement “means something like “nobody hates something as useful as water. Make yourself as indispensable as this…and any detractors you gain will just look silly.” True enough, the reasoning Kuti provides cannot be argued with:

T’o ba fe lo we omi l’o ma’lo. (If you need to go [i.e. to the toilet] you can use water)
If you wan’ go wash, na water you go use.
T’o ba fe se’be omi l’o ma’lo. (If you want to make water, you have to use it)
If you want cook soup, na water you go use.

Today, the lyrics immediately recall a Lakota iteration of a very similar claim, rendered famous as the rallying-cry of the Dakota Access Pipeline protests at Standing Rock Reservation in 2016, namely: “mni wiconi” (water is life).

“Nothing Without Water!” “Mni Wiconi!” But - then as now - why make this claim if it’s self-evident? Why the need to so powerfully assert that water is indispensable? Who might these enemies be? And why is asserting water’s vitality a case of “Black man Power”, as Kuti insists?

Kuti is right: the enemies of the planetary water-commons are, broadly speaking, Black humanity’s enemies. But it is crucial, in our opinion, to understand that “water no get enemy” is not the same as saying that water is good.’ As midwives at Standing Rock vouchsafed, _mni wiconi _is not to be understood in romantic terms: true, as foetuses we are manufactured underwater, or, in other words, “water is our first medicine.” But the cure can just as easily kill us as make us. Water is by far the greater part of us, yet with just the slightest change of proportion it will drown us. As one of our members has written elsewhere, “The cause for ‘water protection’ holds not because liquid is benign and romantic but, actually, precisely because it is a kind of frenemy within.” Water, in the song, notice, is central to both death and birth:

If water kill your child, na water you go use
T’omi ba p’omo e o omi na lo ma’lo (if you have a baby, you use water)

The enemies of the planetary water-commons are, broadly speaking, Black humanity’s enemies. But it is crucial, in our opinion, to understand that “water no get enemy” is not the same as saying that 'water is good.’

Water itself is sublimely indifferent and will always (in a sense) win the day, no matter how irreversibly polluted it gets. All living things are made of water, and living things certainly do have enemies. The web of life in all its diversity has a formidable enemy: racial, colonial capitalism. These oppressive social relations may not constitute an enemy of water per se, but, being _our _enemy, they shape our (already complex) relationship with and to it.

Billions of human beings’ access to water is compromised by the for-profit fossil fuel complex. On a planetary scale, water is systematically poisoned, withheld from, and weaponised against the dispossessed and the exploited. As Andreas Malm shows in Fossil Capital, it has been shunned as a power source for the simple reason that utilising it requires cooperation, not competition. Colonial powers struggle for control of maritime trading routes. Seas are turned into racialised borders hundreds of times more deadly than the Berlin Wall, even as migrants are themselves associated with water. Rivers are poisoned by pollution. The floods caused by hurricanes are allowed to drown entire Black neighborhoods (as with Katrina in 2005). Indigenous waters are threatened by infrastructural developments. In short, from Ireland to Standing Rock to the Bolivian Jungle, the tender, self-evident and utterly banal political demand - free access to clean water for all - becomes the coarse cry of radical political struggle.

A Tribe Called Red - Burn Your Village to the Ground (Neon Nation Remix) (20:12-25:00)

Released to ‘mark’ Thanksgiving 2014, the composition of this track reflects the multiplicity and complexity of Indigenous lives and struggles across North America. On an immediate level, this is evident just in terms of the artists involved. The track is originally the work of A Tribe Called Red – consisting of members of the Cayuga, Mohawk and Ojibwe First Nations – but is remixed by Neon Natives – with members from the Cayuga, Navajo and Apache Nations. As such, this piece is already an expression of Indigenous work and solidarity that moves across and against settler-colonial borders. The complexity of the composition extends far beyond this though. The track itself is a composite of archival voices. The bridge is formed from Sacheen Littlefeather’s (the White Mountain Apache and Yaqui actor) address to the 1973 Oscars, in which she denounces Hollywood’s violent depictions of Indigenous peoples, and expresses support for the (then ongoing) occupation of Wounded Knee, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The chorus, meanwhile, is a sample from Wednesday Addams’ famous anti-Thanksgiving declamation from Addams Family Values. In the outro, snatches of speech talk of the “Indigenous women, murdered or missing in Canada,” of the fact that there is no water that “Everything’s been ruined,” that “They don’t care about people living on that land.”

Beyond their shared content, what holds these voices together is the form of the track itself. Again this is a composite, made from A Tribe Called Red’s distinctive mix of hip hop, EDM and the traditional music from Indigenous nations across North America. Black musical forms, born through block parties in the Bronx and clubs playing house in Chicago, are fundamental to the production of the track. It is a piece held together by the aesthetic and communicative generativity of Black art - of a collective improvisation that Fred Moten would argue “confounds the distinctions between objects and subjects, individual bodies and collectively experienced expressions of resistance, desire, or agony.” The track is thus indebted not just to a specific type of music or to a particular group of artists, but rather to Black social life - a complex composition of objects, subjects, individuals and collectives. This debt is partially acknowledged in the very name of the group – A Tribe Called Red is an improvised tribute to A Tribe Called Quest.

The track is itself a product of the entanglement between Blackness and Indigeneity, as it borrows from Black art to chronicle a struggle founded in everyday life. The track lays out a set of grievances organised around the loss of the land, and the violence used to maintain this dispossession. Some contemporary scholars would argue that the nature of this coercive relation demonstrates the absolute distinction between the struggles of Indigenous people and the struggles of Black people. For Frank Wilderson, the violence that “usurps Native American land and attempts to destroy the Indian’s cultural and territorial sovereignty,” is “fundamentally different” from the “violence by which Blacks are elaborated and positioned” which is to say “social death” “the violence which saturates Blackness: the violence of slavery, an ongoing pre-historical relation of violence.”

According to Wilderson, while “redemption” is at least theoretically imaginable for the Indigenous population of North America (in the form of a ‘returned’ Turtle Island and a restored sovereignty), no such possibility is open to Black people, whose only freedom from violence could come from the end of the world itself. Some may argue that this different relation to violence and the possibility of redemption could be demonstrated by the case of the Cherokee Freedmen – the descendants of Black people owned as slaves by the Cherokee nation, who became citizens of the Cherokee Nation after the civil war, but then had that citizenship voided by the Cherokee Nation in the early 1980s. Thinkers like Wilderson might use such a case to argue that even Indigenous sovereignty is still presaged on the capacity to exploit Black people’s vulnerability to ontological violence.

More recently, however, other scholars have challenged such clear distinctions between Blackness and Indigeneity. Jodi Byrd has written of the “messiness” of colonialism in the Americas, which complicates the ‘presumed exclusive affiliation of Blackness with enslavement and of Indigeneity with sovereignty and the dispossession of land.’ Cheryl Harris, in her response to Byrd’s work, has carefully examined the continuities between Indigenous enslavement - particularly prior to the arrival of Black slaves - and Black dispossession - in the context of white settler-colonialism across Africa. Without collapsing the distinct reality of Black chattel slavery, Harris argues that “dispossession and enslavement marked both Blackness and Indigeneity through evolving racial regimes in which white subjectivity was constructed. Whiteness took on the attributes of property while property itself was delineated and defined through racial hierarchy.” For Harris, both Blackness and Indigeneity are held together by the violence of the production of white property. Creating an absolute opposition denies the existence of Black Indigenous people such as the descendants of the Cherokee Freedmen, who experience is testament to the intersection of slavery, dispossession and the denial of sovereignty. There is no easy similarity or solidarity here, but a chance for complex conspiracy perhaps occluded by affirmations of inherent difference.

It is fitting then, that the fundamental rallying call of this track is the destruction of property. Contrary to Wilderson’s suggestion, the track is not held together by a call for redeemed sovereignty, but for the deconstruction of sovereign property. The call is not simply to take possession of the Pilgrims’ property, or to reform the violence of inherent to its production, but rather to “burn your village to the ground.” In this call to undo settler-colonial “civilisation,” there is the potential for project indebted to, and in solidarity with, the project Black freedom; of what Wilderson calls “the end of the world,” or what Moten describes as follows;

The work of black culture was never to civilize America—it’s about the ongoing production of the alternative. At this point it’s about the preservation of the earth. To the extent that black culture has a historic mission, and I believe that it does—its mission is to uncivilize, to de-civilize, this country. Yes, this brutal structure was built on our backs; but if that was the case, it was so that when we stood up it would crumble.

Tanya Tagaq - Retribution (24:45-32:15)

As the ecological crisis deepens on stolen lands, some settlers seek solutions in the theories and practices of the Indigenous peoples to whom the land belongs. In fields as diverse as architecture, medicine, flood management, agriculture, inter-species relations and (as we have seen) the naming of films, settlers speak of looking for “answers” in supposedly “ancient” forms of knowledge. For liberal settlers, the recent revaluing of Indigenous thought can be taken as proof of progress, of a move away from a past defined by the violent devaluation and destruction of these theories and practices. There is, however, nothing new or progressive in settlers looking for the salvation of the settler-colony in the thought of Indigenous people. As Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang note, “There is a long and bumbled history of non-Indigenous peoples making moves to alleviate the impacts of colonization,” moves which ‘attempt to reconcile settler guilt and complicity, and rescue settler futurity.”

Not content with appropriating and ruining the land, settlers seek to appropriate Indigenous modes of restoring it. This prospecting for “hidden resources” of Indigenous knowledge is merely another mode of the extractive dispossession on which settler-colonies are founded. These settler projects of incorporation run parallel to calls for ‘recognition’ and ‘reconciliation’. In Our History is the Future, Nick Estes shows how the former of these has been a double-edged sword for Indigenous struggle in Turtle Island. On the one hand, Indigenous activists have sought recognition through established political bodies as a “stepping-stone to a larger goal…the destruction of the colonial system and, above all, the restoration of treaty lands and Indigenous modes of governance.”3 But on the other, colonial power structures have frequently turned to ‘progressive’ modes of managing Indigenous populations in order to incorporate them into the setter state.

There can be no reconciliation on these terms, and the attempts of settler states to push this as an aim prior to decolonisation is a naked attempt to ward off movements for decolonisation. Discussing her 2016 album Retribution (of which this is the title track), Inuk singer Tanya Tagaq states that the “reconciliation word’s going too slow and I’ve had enough”. Retribution is the form that this impatience takes - the move to “burn your village to the ground.”

There can be no reconciliation on the terms of the settler state, and the attempts of settler states to push this as an aim prior to decolonisation is a naked attempt to ward off movements for decolonisation.

In the song, the imminent retribution is simultaneously that of a polluted earth, abused Indigenous women and colonised people, the gendered dimension coming into sharp relief when considered in its proximity to the album’s closer - a cover of Nirvana’s “Rape Me”. Its form is left unspoken (or, rather, it is not spoken in settler language); perhaps even unimaginable, but its pre-tremors are transmitted through the force of Tagaq’s astonishing vocals, grounded in the Inuk throat singing tradition katajjaq. These convey an astonishing, beautiful violence that, in every sense of the word, is unsettling.

Part Three: The Ambiguity of Utopianism

Baader Brains - New Era Hope Colony (32:15-36:20)

There isn’t a smooth transition from unsettling retribution to hope, and there’s a risk that the former is placed in the service of the latter such that its power is negated, or that its decolonial promise is all-too-quickly put to work in the service of a new colonial utopianism. So it’s with trepidation and a holding onto the contradictions that we switch to a more affirmative mode with this song from California punks Baader Brains (good name, no?). The title track from a concept EP set far in the future, it gives a furious musical account of an underground bunker beneath Antarctica (complete with fake news reportage of its discovery), where a gang of cripples, queers and cyborgs await the moment when they can re-emerge to make a new world they’ve been plotting for many years.

Such a new world is unimaginable to us right now. But what we can do - and what Baader Brains, like all the best authors of utopian fiction, have done - is to extrapolate from practices of relating, existing and creating which exist within and struggle against the present. Tentative utopian beyonds emerge from thinking through what might grow out of the social relations nurtured by movements such as NoDAPL, Black Lives Matter and No Borders struggle. It is this connection - of the within, the against and the beyond - that we call utopianism. It makes the unimaginable the everyday, and reminds us that the everyday is unimaginable.

Pauline Oliveros - This Great Fool’s Stage (36:18-

Utopianism is often associated with the top-down imposition of a known-in-advance perfection, and a Promethean mastery of nature. Against this, we insist on a utopianism which understands that to be empowered is to let go of the fantasy of control, and to see-what-happens rather than limit what-happens to the predetermined. Attempts to control nature by, for example, channelling rivers, all too often lead to disaster (think again of the Salton Sea). But by working with nature such that the distinction between “human” and “nature” becomes untenable, we can create a newly habitable world. Power, here, becomes a mutual form: the power to act in the world (and have the world act on us) comes from working with and being worked on by the world.

By working with nature so the distinction between “human” and “nature” becomes untenable, power becomes mutual: the power to act in the world (and have the world act on us) comes from working with and being worked on by the world.

This profoundly beautiful Pauline Oliveros piece is exemplary of this approach. Oliveros eschewed ‘masculine’ approaches to music-making premised on mastery over one’s instrument and control over the sonic environment, in favour of a feminist approach in which the musician explores the capacities of the instrument and attunes their music-making to the environment in which they find themself. Here, the music emerges from such a melding of capacities: Oliveros set her digital delay processors up such that she didn’t know what they would play back, or when they would play it. By giving up control over the situation, Oliveros is empowered by the opening up of myriad possibilities.

Mbongwana Star (Feat. Konono No. 1) - Malukayi (40:09-46:44)

Where Promethean utopianism is often premised on the development of new technologies and infrastructures, our version is premised on a philosophy of bricolage. Neither technophobic nor technophilic, such an approach favours “the art of making do with what is at hand”.

There are long and varied traditions of bricolage in Black musics, which frequently reconfigure musical forms and technologies of colonialism for purposes of resistance and sociality. The fife and drum bands of of the American South and Caribbean for example, or dancehall soundsystem culture in the Caribbean. Mbongwana Star, made up of Kinshasa and Paris based musicians, gives a further sonic sense of the power of this approach. Malukayi, featuring fellow Kinshasa group Konono No. 1, combines the latter’s homemade likembé (thumb pianos) with guitars straight from post-punk and the jerky rhythms of Congolese ‘rumba rock’. Its distorted, ‘broken’ sound comes from the fact that in a city where new equipment is prohibitively expensive or simply unavailable, instruments and amps have been repaired many times over. The sonics are furthered by the album art and the song’s video, which feature a character called the ‘Kinshasa Spaceman’ who wears a costume made of junk; and it’s worth noting that bar a record company mistake the album would have been titled From Kinshasa…to the Moon. This is a futurism premised not on the production of more and newer commodities, but the creative possibilities of improvisation, bricolage and repair.

Two of Mbongwana Star’s founder members had previously been in Staff Benda Bilili, a group made up of homeless, disabled musicians who lived in Kinshasa’s long closed zoo. Mbongwana Star, Staff Benda Bilili, Konono No. 1 and the broader Kinshasa creative milieu from which they arise might be seen as an artistic variation on Rebecca Solnit’s concept of the “disaster community”. Arising amidst the mutual disasters of colonialism, Civil War and homelessness, they constitute an astonishingly creative artistic scene. Yet there’s a danger of romanticism here: a tale of plucky creative entrepreneurship straight out of Richard Florida Goes to Africa. “Kinshasa reminds me of New York in the 1980s,” says Paris-based Irishman and Mbongwana Star member ‘Doctor L’ (Liam Farrell). All well and good, until you think about what happened to New York after the 1980s.

Such romanticism risks eliding the colonial relations too: to practice bricolage might mean repurposing colonial technologies, but it must not mean reproducing colonial power relations. That danger becomes all too real when taking into account the recriminatory demise of Staff Benda Bililil; Farrell’s colonial, self-aggrandising claims of discovery; and this uncomfortable interview with Mbongwana Star, in which Farrell doesn’t let the Congolese members speak. To operate within and beyond the present is not enough: we need to struggle against that present too. If we don’t, the beyond — like today’s New York — will be for the enemies of those whose labour, creativity and struggle made it possible.

To practice bricolage might mean repurposing colonial technologies, but it must not mean reproducing colonial power relations.

Ornette Coleman - The Jungle is a Skyscraper (46:44-50:34)

The ‘beyond’ of our utopianism cannot be fully imagined in advance of its coming-into-being: we do not yet know of what we are capable.

Nowhere is this truth more clear than in free improvisation in the Black Radical Tradition, which draws on the social and musical forms central to Black life within and against white supremacy to create unimaginably new musical forms that were frequently ‘beyond’ the structures and comprehension of the white world. The work of Ornette Coleman’s many ensembles is one of many examples we could have used here to illustrate this. “The Jungle is a Skyscraper” is taken from his 1971 album Science Fiction. In such free improvisation, ‘freedom’ refers not to the absence of obligations (though there is an absence of top-down obligation in the form of a score), but to the possibility of new and unforseeable forms emerging through nonhierarchical musical interaction. In this sense, freedom and power are not opposed, and neither are they zero-sum games: one musician expressing their power doesn’t diminish the power of the others but increases it by enhancing the range of possibilities. “We do not begin with a preconceived notion as to what kind of effect we will achieve”, Coleman wrote, of this process. The utopia does not determine the utopianism, but emerges from it.

In such free improvisation, ‘freedom’ refers not to the absence of obligations, but to the possibility of new and unforseeable forms emerging through nonhierarchical musical interaction.

Nicole Mitchell’s Black Earth Ensemble - Dawn of a New Life (50:15-54:56)

Nicole Mitchell’s Black Earth Ensemble’s 2008 album Xenogenesis Suite, inspired by Octavia Butler’s novel Dawn (the first of her Xenogenesis Trilogy) also explores the link between Black organising, Black musical forms and science fiction. A composer and improviser (and we should reject the opposing of ‘composition’ and ‘improvisation’) working in the Black Radical Tradition, Mitchell served as the first female President of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, an organisation dedicated to advancing what it calls “Great Black Music”, and the musicians who produce it. Its histories have been brilliantly traced in George Lewis’ book A Power Stronger Than Itself, which makes clear how important it is for music to be embedded within, and contribute to, a more-or-less explicitly politicised milieu.

Dawn is a novel heavily allegorical of the eugenecist dimensions of colonialism and slavery, with a particular focus on forced surrogacy. Yet the narrative is open to the radical transformation of life despite and because of the horrific circumstances in which this life comes to be, calling to mind the ways in which Black feminists and queers have reconfigured motherhood and the family in the face of violence that makes their dominant forms both impossible and undesirable. Those who have been and are colonised, and who continue to suffer the sharp end of ecological devastation, are also those creating the social forms to extend beyond it.

The novel tells the story of Lilith, a Black woman who is one of few survivors of a worldwide nuclear war. She is ‘rescued’ and then held captive by the Oankali - an alien race capable of manipulating genetic material - and at the end of the novel is impregnated by them, against her wishes. It is this pregnancy that, presumably, inspires “Dawn of a New Life”, which sonically and lyrically captures the dance of violence and hope. “We collide/transformation looms/memories ripped and shredded for your greature pleasure” sings vocalist Mankwe Ndosi, her voice frequently inaudible against a sonic backdrop which combines conventions from the jazz ballad with abrasive, atonal timbres to signify a dissonant collision of values.

This “greater pleasure” is the Oankali’s colonial dream, but in the trilogy’s subsequent novels (Adulthood Rites and Imago) it has been subverted by the struggles of Lilith, her offspring Akin and others - human, Oankali, and “construct” (human-Oankali hybrid) alike, as they struggle to build a new world beyond the limits of our - and their - comprehension.

Janelle Monae - Q.U.E.E.N. (feat. Erykah Badu) (54:56-60:08)

‘Experimental’ forms aren’t the only musical sites of utopian possibility, as this brilliant slice of pop makes clear (and pop can itself be a site of great experiment, of course). The acronymic title refers to ‘Queers, Untouchables, Emigrants, Excommunicated, Negroid’: subjects who are both reproduced by and suffer as a result of ecological crisis. Yet while Monae is well aware of these identities as markers of exclusion and oppression, here they’re reclaimed for joy and sensuous possibility.

Mainstream, major label pop such as this inevitably runs the risk of co-option, and Monae’s endorsement of Elizabeth Warren’s Democratic nomination campaign shows she’s not immune to such a move. Here, however, the explicit focus on the intersection of identities wards off such a move: where Pride™ wants a sanitised queerness devoid of race, invites in cops and is identity freely available to capital, Monae and Badu tacitly acknowledge the ways in which capital and the state exclude non-normative queers from mainstream spaces. Badu’s call to “rise up” and “march to the streets” comes across as a call to maximise pride through resistance rather than sell it out through recuperation.

DJ Sprinkles - Ball’r (Madonna Free Zone) (60:56-63:50)

Joy is central to utopianism. For us, this can be thought through the philosopher Gilles Deleuze who, channelling Baruch Spinoza, posits it as the feeling we experience when our capacities to be affected by the world, and our capacity to affect the world, is increased. It is possible only through collectivity: joy is a “common notion”.

This collective understanding of joy is often used to theorise the dancefloor-as-utopia, produced through an assemblage of music, motion and chemicals.

But joy can be tyrannical. Spinoza is careful not to oppose it to other affective states, and argues that joy can make us more attuned to modes usually understood as ‘negative’, and that these modes are necessary for the experience of joy. Joy isn’t a frictionless utopia. All too often this is forgotten.

A collective understanding of joy is often used to theorise the dancefloor-as-utopia, produced through an assemblage of music, motion and chemicals. But joy can be tyrannical. Joy isn’t a frictionless utopia.

But joy can be tyrannical.

Dancefloors certainly aren’t frictionless, and the celebration of their one-all-ness can easily overlook the fact that dance music, like jazz, has been a struggle of beauty and freedom emerging despite and because of oppression. It is a music of survival within and against racism, gay-bashing, transphobia, AIDs (understood as a form of state violence) and misogyny. Such histories are all too easily negated by the resurgence of those forms on and beyond dancefloors.

DJ Sprinkles is the house music moniker of Terre Thaemlitz, who has powerfully and frequently noted how the supposed utopianism of the dancefloor plays a role in reproducing the violence of the world beyond and on the dancefloor. And, as on this track, how capitalism (in the form of Madonna) subsumes its utopianism while sanitising it of its specifically queer and racial content. In this, Thaemlitz makes clear how the ‘joy’ so many unproblematically celebrate is contingent on, and sometimes complicit in, the ongoing oppression of marginalised peoples: the ‘killjoy’ par excellence.

Such ambiguity is necessary for utopianism. Killjoys, as Sara Ahmed notes, are not against joy per se, but against the ways in which it can be turned against those who articulate their unhappiness, as if those people are themselves the cause of unhappiness.

A frictionless utopia is merely a utopia that has disavowed the violence on which it depends for its existence.

Elysia Crampton (Feat. Why Be) - Irreducible Horizon (63:51-67:12)

The music of the transgender Amerindian Aymara composer and producer Elysia Crampton constitutes, in her words, “an ongoing process of becoming-with, made possible by the family-networks and communities that have inspired and sustained our survival and collective search for transformative justice.” Demon City, the album which this track opens, is dedicated to Veronica Bolina (a transgender survivor of police violence in Brazil), Bartolia Sisa (an Aymara woman raped and murdered for leading an insurrection against Spanish colonisers in what is now Bolivia), and Frederick Douglass. Acknowledging their suffering, Crampton’s music combines Indigenous instrumentation and rhythms with contemporary musical forms such as trap, creating an infusion of past, present and future heavily inspired by the queer-of-colour utopianism of José Esteban Muñoz. In this, the future and utopia (all too often ciphers for colonial desire) are repurposed: no longer terrains for settling, and into which the survival of the white world can be extended, they instead become sites for the flourishing of that which whiteness has never quite defeated.

Drexciya - Wavejumper (67:03-73.19)

The flourishing of subjects brutalised by colonialism is central to Drexciya’s worldbuilding music too. Now seen as a key player in the emergence of Afrofuturism, Drexciya helped to cultivate an aesthetic in which young Black residents of Detroit (men, largely, it has to be said), could collectively construct new identities beyond those which white supremacy and conservative models of Blackness imposed on them.

Many such artists invoked outer space as a (metaphoric) site for the expression of Black consciousness. Drexciya, however, went in a different direction: underwater. In doing so, they drew on earlier musical statements of Black aquatopianism by Parliament-Funkadelic4 and offered a further dimension to the racialised politics of water discussed in relation to Fela Kuti, above. Their music explores and evokes a world populated by the children of pregnant women thrown overboard from slave ships: Drexciya is a major metropolis in this world, while Lardossa — mentioned in Wavejumper — is another, supposedly ‘calmer’, city. Here, the modernity celebrated and sonified by European acts such as Kraftwerk is returned to those whose unfree labour provided so much of the wealth on which that modernity depends. In this imaginary, as Nettrice R. Gaskins has noted, the Roland TR-808 drum machine (prominent here) functions a tool of distance-shrinking communication in a manner analogous to the ‘talking drums’ of West Africa.

With Drexciya's music, the modernity celebrated and sonified by European acts such as Kraftwerk is returned to those whose unfree labour provided so much of the wealth on which that modernity depends.

Afrofuturist imaginaries such as Drexciya’s are often evoked in5, or in relation to, accelerationist invocations of technology as key to unlocking the future, and have been criticised for subsuming Black futures to white technologies, Euro/North American histories and imaginaries. This is an important criticism, but at the very least — and unlike accelerationism — the best Afrofuturism is grounded in an understanding of how slavery and colonialism continues to make that technology possible. And in light of Gaskins’ reading of Drexciya we can add that technologies of ‘acceleration’ are not necessarily ‘new’ or high-tech: those talking drums, for example, enabled communication across distance to be sped up.

Angel-Ho X Desire Marea - TO THE CUNT (73:19-75:56)

Let’s let the last two speak for themselves.

I wanted to make tracks that became an emancipating, unifying experience for the listener. It is for our relative black queer trans communities, it is our time to get our reparations and these tracks become collections and our reclaiming of our erased narratives. - Angel-Ho

In the song I chant the demands for money, money that belonged to ancestors who were oppressed, in the voices of the queer ancestors who had their names erased from history. - Desire Marea

Out of the Woods is distributing our share of profits from Hope Against Hope to oppressed groups active in the struggles which inspire us and from which we draw.

Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra - Birds Toss Precious Flowers/Hang on To Each Other (75:39)

Hang on to each other/Any fucking thing you love

There’s no hope (we hope we’re wrong).

Hope against hope.

For something more than hope.

Out of the Woods, 2016-2020

xx

Hope Against Hope: Writings on Ecological Crisis is published by Common Notions.


  1. John Lucas & Allan Chadburn. 2013. A Brief History of Whistling. Nottingham: Five Leaves Publications. p.127. 

  2. Theodor Adorno. [1944-47] (2005). Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life. Translated by E. F. N. Jephcott. London: Verso. p.154 

  3. Nick Estes. 2019. Our History is the Future: Standing Rock verses the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance. London: Verso. p.224. 

  4. Kodwo Eshun. 1998. More Brilliant Than the Sun: Adventures in Sonic Fiction. London: Quartet. pp. 152-153. 

  5. Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams. 2015. Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work. London: Verso, p.1 


Author:

Out of the Woods (@out_woods)

Out of the Woods is a transnational political research and theory collective, a loose grouping of decolonial, small-c communist, antiracist queer-feminist thinkers working together to think through the problem of ecological crisis.