…SPITE DA MAN

image

Second Childhood… Tangled Webs
c. 2011 66x51 in Acrylic and oil stick on canvas

Tangled Webs is an observation on the complicated, multilayered, intersecting, sometimes liberating, sometimes tragic social scripts that inform contemporary Black American masculinity.

Images of Black male success, mobility and agency are often tied to representations of Black men within hip-hop culture, most of whom are children themselves, between the ages of 18-25. These young men struggle with their own yet developing identities while becoming the measure of manhood for men across a broad range of age, class, and economic strata.

As iconic representations of manhood, they begin to embody a multitude of contradictions and complex intersections which are generally glossed over in conversations about young hip-hop artists’ wealth and success. This fragile developmental stage plays out publicly as these young men often struggle with legal, financial, social, cultural and personal obligations which move at a rate of speed that at times, far exceeds their own psycho-social development. The end result often comes at great expense to their own brief lives but is often used as validation or further justification for the social injustices leveraged against Black men. 

Tangled Webs taunts the influence of infantilized aesthetics in ‘spite da man’ who is or is yet becoming. 

COCK.AIM.SHOOT.

Often, images of Black men in popular culture are hyper-sexualized and/or imply the threat of violence. In COCK.AIM.SHOOT., a series of intimate paintings I created in 2010, I sought to engage with popular images of Black men, specifically as they communicate notions of sex and violence.

At a time when Black boys continue to be written off as dangerous, degenerate and sexually deviant, the series offers a different interpretive framework for understanding Black male comportment and questions how controlling images influence successive generations of Black boys to think about their own developing sexuality.

Psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan did exhaustive work on what he termed "the mirror stage" in childhood development. According to Lacan, at about 6 months of age, an infant begins to recognize her/himself in the mirror — this can be a literal or symbolic reflection. His research showed that a person’s psychological frame of reference for their own physical being and sense of self is not fully conceived until they see a reflected version of them self. Even more significant is that this reflected version is actually perceived to be the ideal!! The reflected image appears more perfect to the developing mind and becomes the version of self the child will actively strive towards.

If we apply Lacan’s findings to the psycho-social development of Black boys today, the mirror image is precarious to say the least. As mentioned before, the mirror is not always necessarily a literal mirror. This “mirror” can be — and often is — based on the stylized images we see in the media (magazines, television, etc.). As the hyper-sexed, hyper-violent Black male image becomes the standard-bear for millions, distorted concepts of power and sexuality appearing as authentic social and cultural behaviors influence the way young boys begin to construct their individual identities. 

Cock.Aim.Shoot. takes a sardonic look at this phenomenon using guns as both literal and metaphoric symbols of violence and sex. These works perform a critical interjection into conversations that gloss over the social, cultural and psychological factors that affect Black male development.

In 2013 I opened an exhibition in Paris called NEGUS in Paris. The title is a derivation on the controversial track “Niggas in Paris” from Jay-Z and Kanye West’s Watch the Throne LP. The work in the exhibit featured a mash-up of lyrics from “Niggas…” along with poetry and writing from the Negritude movement. 

Negritude is a French literary and art movement from the 1930s. Popularized through the writings of Black thinkers from the Francophone diaspora such as Aimé Césaire and Leopold Senghor among others, Negritude sought to instill Black pride while rejecting French colonialism and racist oppression. Negre was used as a derogatory term, much like nigger, to demean and insult Black people. Coming from the term negre - French for Black or blackness, Negritude sought to reverse the negative connotations of the term and take ownership of Blackness, to claim it as a site of power and beauty.

Sometimes we can gain new insights and new interpretations of words and ideas by simply the context. Combining Negritude and hip-hop might give us a new vocabulary for engaging the ideas and thoughts expressed within each movement. Here are a few of the drawings from the collection including a couple new ones which continue to reinterpret Negritude through a hip-hop lens.

"Lights" - Kanye West ft/ Frantz Fanon

©2014 Fahamu Pecou

It is through self-consciousness and renunciation, through a permanent tension of his freedom, that man can create the ideal conditions of existence for a human world. - Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks

Frantz Fanon is a pivotal figure in the world of cultural studies, critical race theory and psychology. His two most famous texts, Wretched of the Earth and Black Skin, White Masks are often used by scholars and academics to frame observations about the psyche of Black men in Western (White)-dominated society. 

image

Recently, blogger Jessica Ann Mitchell used Fanon to critique Kanye West in an article provocatively titled "Kanye’s Fanon Complex". The piece elaborates on a previous article she’d written about Jay-Z and Harry Belafonte[1] that went viral. In that piece she raised some eyebrows with the line, “Kanye West…often laments about racism but strives to uphold the same materialistic values that help drive economic disparities”. Mitchell suggests that Kanye West is only interested in addressing racist constructs for his own personal gain. She is of the opinion that his recent critiques of the fashion industry and corporatized, commercial music industry are based on his own personal frustrations at not being allowed “a seat at the table” and that his “internal conflict” is merely sensationalism at the expense of legitimate complaints about or resistance to the racial hierarchies still at play in our society.

Whoa!

Citing Fanon she attempts to diagnose Kanye’s apparent neurosis. “The gaze that the [SLAVE] casts at the [MASTER’S] sector is a look of lust, a look of envy. Dreams of possession. Every type of possession; of sitting at the [MASTER’S] table and sleeping in his bed, preferably with his wife. The [SLAVE] man is an envious man.[2]” 

I modified Fanon’s quote here slightly for effect, referring to Kanye’s use of the term slave, but also to raise a point of contention with Mitchell’s reading of both Fanon and Kanye.

In Western society, particularly here in the United States, when we hear the word slave, we often think of it in terms of the institution of slavery, wherein millions of Africans were stolen away from their homeland and forced into the cruel and dehumanizing servitude of Europeans. However, Webster’s dictionary offers two definitions of the word slave. The first reflects conventional understanding of the term— “someone who is legally owned by another person and is forced to work for that person without pay”. The second definition reads, "a person who is strongly influenced and controlled by something". This is the definition of slave I believe Kanye is invoking and the one I would like to take up here.

image

When Kanye West declares himself and the rest of us “new slaves[3]”, he is referring to the way we’ve been socialized and conditioned to function as consumers rather than producers. What makes this realization even more absurd is that despite being aware of the ways hierarchies within society continue to manipulate and control us, we accept it as normal. We’ve become mental slaves to a system that would have us simply cooperate so as to avoid any type of personal discomfort of inconvenience. We are all aware that the glass ceiling exists. Some of us point at it. Some poke at it. In frustration, some may pound on it before simply complaining about it. But no one would dare attempt to break it. After all, we don’t know what happens on the other side — and the unknown is often scarier than what we do know.

In Black Skin, White Masks Fanon asserts, “The white world, the only decent one, was preventing me from participating. It demanded that a man behave like a man - or at least like a Negro. I hailed the world, and the world amputated my enthusiasm. I was expected to stay in line and make myself scarce.” (p 94) What Mitchell and many others seem to suggest is that Kanye West is crazy for not staying in line. Any decent man would accept his place — a place determined for him, not one of his own conviction — and be happy. When Mitchell charges that West’s anger is “steeped in envy and not reform” I am forced to ask myself how would one politely engage in reform? Would it be possible to simply ask the system to ‘do better’? When has rebellion ever been gentle? And further, who’s envious? Perhaps we are envious of Yeezy for doing what we could not? Did not? Is it simply easier to chastise West for going up to the Wiz[4] and having the audacity to question him rather than condemning the Wiz for scaring us off in the first place?

I mean, for someone who has consistently put his career and livelihood on the line to say the things we’re all afraid to say, Kanye sure gets called selfish a lot! Go figure.

West’s assault on the fashion world’s oligarchy is undoubtedly a battle on the level of David and Goliath. However, I’m of the opinion that in this case, David has no intention of actually winning, but rather, using his taunts to force the giant out into the open and to show all of us that even Goliath has weak spots. Ye is relentlessly shooting his slingshot at the center of the glass. Ultimately I see his battles as acts of selflessness. Surely his level of fame, success, popularity and wealth would be more than enough to satiate the loudest rebel amongst us, but instead he always somehow manages to use his position to rattle the hegemonic racist and classist pillars of contemporary culture. West doesn’t want a seat at the table; he questions why we’re all content to sit outside on the steps when there’s a perfectly good table in the big house! This thinking is what Fanon refers to as disalienation. His prescription for the true realization of humanity is that we surrender what we’ve come to accept as being acceptable and continuously challenge, question, rattle and break down what society has defined for us as reality. 

"As a man I undertake to risk annihilation so that two or three truths can cast their essential light on the world." - Frantz Fanon 



[1] Don’t get me started on this travesty. But suffice it to say, I’m on Belafonte’s side on this one.

[2] Fanon’s actual quote from Wretched of the Earth reads like this: “The gaze that the colonized subject casts at the colonist’s sector is a look of lust, a look of envy. Dreams of possession. Every type of possession; of sitting at the colonist’s table and sleeping in his bed, preferably with his wife. The colonized man is an envious man.”

[3] The title of the controversial lead single off of Kanye’s 6th studio album YEEZUS

[4] The Wiz (Wizard) — from the urbanized retelling of The Wizard of Oz — incites loyalty through fear in his subjects but is later revealed to be a weak and insecure man who abused his power.

When Keeping it IRONIC goes Wrong!

© 2014 Fahamu Pecou

The term irony has a few different meanings. Irony is a device often used to expose the flaws in another person’s or system’s logic. This form of irony is often called Socratic irony. It’s a device I use a great deal in my own work. It can be a POWERFUL tool when used wisely.

But irony can also work against you. As in the source of today’s rant — yes, a full on YEEZUS-level fallout!

Though I think she’s quite talented, I’ve never been a fan of Nicki Minaj. I have mostly been disturbed by the image she projects both through her music and (as suggested) in the reported physical augmentations she’s had. Rumors of her enhancements preceded her ascension in pop culture. As a result, she emerged in the spotlight not necessarily as a person, but as a physical object - albeit one who happened to rhyme. What’s ironic is that the more exposure she got in pop culture, the more she seemed to have to be exposed. She is at best a spectacle, a sort of hip-hop Sarah Baartman/sex cyborg - someone or something to be gawked at, lusted after, and devoured visually. This spectacle is enhanced by the lewdness of her lyrics and videos, having her voice match her hypersexualized appearance. Yes, in yet another ironic twist, through her attempts to compete on the same level as her male counterparts, her body and voice have become a site for even deeper and frankly more disturbing levels of the misogyny enacted upon women’s bodies. If Little Kim liberated and empowered a female sexuality, Nicki locks it back up and returns it to the control and for the consumption of her male counterparts.

But this is not the source of today’s outrage.

When I saw the cover art for Nicki Minaj’s new single “Lookin Ass Nigga”, I thought to myself this can’t be real! I wanted to believe that Nicki Minaj, despite her misgivings, would not appropriate the iconic image of Malcolm X defending his family, for a song called “Lookin Ass Nigga”. Worse still, it’s not so much an appropriation as much as it is literally the image of Malcolm X, assault rifle in hand, peering through a window after receiving word that his home and family were in imminent danger, with the words “LOOKIN ASS NIGGA” written on it.

image

I think it is meant to be ironic. Two words; EPIC FAIL. THIS IS NOT IRONY! This is an egregious assault on the legacy of Malcolm X and what this particular image has come to symbolize in terms of Black resistance. What is ironic however is the fact that if it weren’t for the actions and words of Malcolm X, if it wasn’t for the sacrifice he made, if it wasn’t for the power he inspired for Black people- THROUGH THIS IMAGE, there may never have BEEN a Nicki Minaj. What’s most ironic is that Nicki has staked her career on the very thing she chooses to criticize in the song and that which continues to keep her relevant - LOOKIN ASS NIGGAS. You see, the spectacle only remains a spectacle as long as you can continue to shock and awe your audience. At the point she fails to hold our attention with her body, her sexually explicit rhymes and pornographic allusions to bi-sexuality, or contentious and controversial images, she won’t have to worry about a LOOKIN ASS ANYBODY- let alone niggas.

At the end of the day, someone approved of this cover art, put it out for public consumption with the express knowledge that it would be controversial and generate a great deal of attention. What would be ironic, tragically ironic, is if they got away with it!