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Dr Satan’s echo chamber

“Well, the fact of technology – especially if you don’t have direct access to it – signifies ‘the future’. It is a metaphor – of development, of power, of perhaps ‘the West’, but certainly of a network of ideas that those on the margins crave access to or wish to echo or version.”

Michael McMillan (MM): You have referred to your hybrid/mixed Nigerian  and Jamaican background. How has that shaped your cultural formation,  positionality and transdisciplinary practice as a scholar?  

Louis Chude-Sokei (LCS): Now that I’ve produced an actual memoir that  is imminent (Floating in A Peculiar Way, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2021),  I can admit that much of my work has always been memoiristic in that  it’s been rooted in my experience within/around/outside multiple, distinct  Black identities, cultures and histories – all of which deal with racism and  colonialism but from quite varied historical vantage points and in some times divergent ways. I’d toss African-American into this biographical mix  because I’ve always described myself as half Nigerian, half Jamaican and  half Black American – bad math but absolutely accurate.  

So from Pan-Africanism to Diaspora, from the continent to the Middle  Passage to the ‘new’ worlds, my work has followed my actual migration and  the evolving tastes and issues I’ve encountered. It’s meant that I’ve been  unable and unwilling to ’root’ myself in any specific Blackness given how  contested Black roots are in the Black diaspora itself (we habitually speak  of Africa and Diaspora as fixed or legible or cohesive entities, but they are  always fragmented and contested, not just due to colonialism and white  supremacy but by the raw diversity of Black experiences and responses to  colonialism and white supremacy). 

MM: This leads to thinking about the Black Diaspora as a ‘changing same’ process that touches on Stuart Hall’s idea of diaspora as metaphor, Paul  Gilroy’s ‘Black Atlantic’, and Kobena Mercer’s ‘rhizomatic network of aesthetic exchange and borrowings’ rather than on a crucible of homogenous  social and cultural meanings where Africa still have relevance. How do you  think this plays out in the ‘sounding’ of sound system culture? 

LCS: Exactly that: the rhizomatic – the Deleuze and Guattari idea to be  specific – as that which expands and contests ‘arborescent ecologies’, as  they put it: those systems of meaning that fix on roots and stability. Or, as  Edouard Glissant would put it in his Caribbean take on Deleuze and Guattari,  that fixate on origins and return. It is because diaspora is metaphor – as  is race, as Africa also often is – that’s why I’ve hewn to literary and sonic  forces of cultural production. It was in literature and ‘theory’ that I was able  to train in the politics of metaphor and expand it to the material sphere of  culture. 

Now, it is no accident that Hall, Gilroy and Mercer to a lesser extent  fixate on ‘culture’, because that is where metaphors are transmuted into both materialities and ‘reality’ – which, though fetishized in Jamaican vernacular, is often just another metaphor. These critics also allude to sound  systems, or at least reggae. Glissant as well. For peoples who come from  an oral historical base and who are not necessarily privileged by access to  the written word, which in colonial societies signified class hierarchies and  power, music is the privileged site of cultural meaning-making. Not just  individual artistic metaphor, but collective meaning-making. And given that  reggae music was in my time so dominated by the metaphors of Africa,  race, colonialism, migration and the equally metaphoric ‘realities’ of sex,  gender and violence, it was inevitable that I would gravitate to the music.  And if you get serious about the music and the community that participates  in it most intimately, well you get drawn into the sound systems.

For a perpetual immigrant, that particular music was for much of my life  the closest thing to home I could imagine or theorize. Music, after all, enables a curious mix of belonging and strangeness. With it you can be both  insider and outsider of a culture at the same time. Music is also the space  of longing, of desire, and it was always clear to me that the plaintive longing  of roots reggae – for home, for stability, for unity, for Africa, for Zion – and  the less plaintive longings for bodies, sex, desire, manhood, womanhood,  revenge and fulfillment, were all being narrated via the metaphor of Africa.  And in the realm of sound. 

MM: How does echo as a metaphor unpack the ‘science’ of reggae and dub  in the context of the sonic diasporic migration of sound system culture that  you develop in Dr Satan’s Echo Chamber

LCS: Echo is repetition, it is reciprocity. It is seeing/hearing the self replicated, doubled, dubbed. It is also narcissism, hearing only yourself, haunted  and trapped by your own history and biases. 

My methodology in Dr Satan’s Echo Chamber (2020) and The Sound  of Culture (2016) is rooted in that process. It is a migratory process, so the  movement of the material apparatus of sound system culture (not just metaphors) from, say, Jamaica to Britain in that colonial/post-imperial context,  or from Jamaica to the Bronx, New York and mutating into hip hop, and  then the music and iconography and production styles travelling ‘back to  Africa’ and helping transition local music scenes in Africa eventually into the  Afro-beats of today – all of that maps out a Diasporic echo chamber of re flections and interpretations. Also, reflections of reflections, interpretations  of interpretations, decay, distortion and volume across vistas of space, time  and history and noise.  

Now, reggae did not invent that process. It can be traced back to the late nineteenth century and to the beginnings of sound recording which  popularized and extended the meanings that were coded in Black bodies  in transit. It’s there in blackface minstrelsy, which I’ve written extensively  about, particularly in The Last ‘Darky’ (2005), which is about West Indian immigrants performing stereotypes of African American identity in a context  defined by both Black solidarity and Black on Black prejudice. But reggae,  even more than jazz, enshrined that problematic but productive echoic ping pong process. It canonized these metaphors and narratives in the global  Black popular imagination like no other form of indigenous culture.  

MM: In The Sound of Culture there is the fascinating concept that sound  has been the primary nexus of race and technology that can be traced back  to the jazz age and notions of primitivist modernism in the context of new  technologies of ‘massification’. How is Afro-futurism signified in jazz to reggae, hip hop to electronic dance music through this intersection between  race, machine and technology? 

LCS: Well, the fact of technology – whether or not you have access to it,  indeed especially if you don’t have direct access to it – signifies ‘the future’.  It is, again, a metaphor – of development, of power, of perhaps ‘the West’,  but certainly of a network of ideas that those on the margins of those ideas  crave access to or wish to echo or version.  

It has been the case that, from the early part of the twentieth century to  the present, the primary zone of Black access to technology has been sound  recording. Black abilities have rarely been questioned here and arguments  about Black superiority were claimed very early in the development of that  technology. Certainly Black bodies were seen as supremely animalistic, hence the fetish for Black bodies and dance during eras of primitivism; but early  discussions of the superiority of Black vocal tones, on early phonographs for  example, as well as the use of Black images from minstrelsy and the popularity of Coon Songs from minstrel theatre sealed the relationship between ‘the negro’ and ‘the talking machine’ early in the twentieth century.  Blackness and technology is here sanctified in media and culture via  sound. Blacks would then engage those equations to assert, subvert, invert  modernity via popular music – early jazz in particular, which though now  represented as ‘organic’ was heard in the 1920s as machine age or industrial-era music (as were the elaborate, syncopated dances). Reggae, hip hop,  techno and other variants of Black musical sound only depend on the race/ technology nexus as established in this late nineteenth/early twentieth  century period (the same period of the development of what will be called  ‘science fiction’ in the early 1920s). 

‘The Negro’ was associated or contrasted with the brute animal, and  the machine; the soulless beast and the mindless automaton, or robot.  These are the seeds and base elements of what could be/will be called ‘Afro futurism’. Blacks then appropriate technology and those metaphoric associ ations via sound in order to articulate racial experiences and visions as well  as generating distinct futures that are direct products of Black people’s own  reevaluation of the past. This latter point reminds us that Afro-futurism is far  less futuristic than it often thinks. This dynamic has actually been around  from at least since the ‘new’ Negroes of the Harlem Renaissance and their  use of Jazz and Africa to push for a future-oriented set of Black political and  cultural transformations in the wake of slavery and the migration of Blacks  from the South and the Caribbean into New York and other East Coast cities  in the early twentieth century.

MM: Could you say something about ‘Black technopoetics’ in relation to  sound system culture, especially dub in relation to science fiction which  has genealogies in relation to race, machine and technology, and to master,  slave (robots) and coloniality?  

LCS: ‘Black technopoetics’ synthesizes the metaphoric associations be tween Black and machines I’ve been talking about. Despite a history that  suggested that machines or technology was ‘white’ or belonged to the  colonisers/slavers, the cultural practices that fetishize technology as a privi leged space of Black access and production – like sound systems – is what  I’ve focused on. And this should now be seen/explored far beyond sound.  

Key to my arguments have been that if we see/hear Black music as  being about rhythm or voice or lyrics or protest we may miss the fact that  sound production is about infomatics, about programming, about techno logical virtuosity. These ‘ghetto’ practices provide a feedback loop as Black  cultural priorities in using those technologies become reinserted into the  chain of production as mainstream designers and companies respond by  redesigning their own products, for example, to make them more sensitive  to bass and tonal saturation. So, not only is it about the Black redefinition of  how sound is made, it is also about how technology is consumed and domesticated via racial inputs (the obsession with Coon Songs and the use of  blackface iconography to market phonographs and sheet music in the early  twentieth century was merely the beginning). Again, this wasn’t invented in  Jamaican sound systems, but it most certainly was amplified. 

As to sci-fi: that dub music, Rastafarians and other aspects of Caribbean  culture would emerge in crucial works of genre-shaping white science fiction in the 1980s, just when reggae and hip hop went fully digital (William Gibson’s ‘cyberpunk’ work most notably, but also Emma Bull and any num ber of films), signified that this particular genre was tuning in to the history  of ‘creole’ uses of technology to articulate fictions of space – outer and inner  – race and science. I’ve not focused very much on Black SF or Afrofuturist  SF for many reasons, but one is that I felt we need a history of the very  genre itself because notions of race and colonialism were there from its  inception, well in advance of Afrofuturism. To be clear about this: science fiction, fantasy and horror have always had race in their generic DNA.

As to dub: in its initial heyday the form was replete with images of ro bots, space ships, mixing boards as control systems, studios as laboratories,  engineers as ‘scientists’, or ‘chemists’, producers as mad professors. This  told the story of a ‘Black technopoetics’ gone large in the popular, largely  working-class imagination. It also told the story of an indigeneous subgenre  of science fiction that operated in the sphere of music and sound system  culture but was clearly about much more than just music. The musical ob session with space, echo, noise and memory in dub was in conversation  with those issues of race, Africa, colonialism, technology. My task has been  to give this context a history, and that history was/is diasporic – jazz, and  nineteenth and early twentieth century writers who told stories of Blacks  and machines, or Blacks as machines. Indeed, in the wake of science fic tion, the language of masters and slaves is embedded in the language of  engineering, robotics and Artificial Intelligence. Again, this is a history that  not only predates ‘Afro-futurism’, it predates science fiction itself!

Louis Chude-Sokei

Louis Chude-Sokei’s work includes The Last Darky: Bert Williams, Black on  Black Minstrelsy and the African Diaspora, The Sound of Culture: Diaspora  and Black Technopoetics and the memoir, Floating in A Most Peculiar Way.  He teaches at Boston University, directs the African American Studies  Program and is Editor in Chief of the journal, The Black Scholar. He collaborates with noted electronic experimentalists, Mouse on Mars and is  currently curating the state sponsored sound art project at the Nazi Party  Rally Grounds in Nuremberg, Germany.

© Louis Chude-Sokei and Michael McMillan