For Lula, Mississippi – Elemental Mixtape: EM002
Arjuna Neuman On one of the many long car journeys we took, we had to look it up as neither of us knew. The technical term for a gas turning into a solid is ‘deposition’ – a phase transition of air becoming earth. The example the internet gave was soot, although I thought of heart break. I can’t recollect how I got to the blues, so framing this version of the mixtape was never going to be easy. And anyway, as if a beginning, a single root was all it took to make sense of things, as if emotions, especially the ones full of gravity, don’t spill over their carefully bevelled edges. Before the blues was recorded, it was improvised not wholly from scratch. Each song’s beginning and end was more or less consistent, a courtesy. Its torso, however, would emerge responding to the crowd, time and mood. Each rendition then, a world of its own, but not really its own. The blues was not in my usual listening rotation, nor did any perky algorithm insist on its reception. I had bruises though, through and through and through. If this frame were neater, I would tell with warm eyes: On that long car journey as we looked up the technical terms for different phase transitions, AC blowing, and on the radio suddenly, Robert Johnson sings, all gravelly, ‘blues falling down like hail / blues falling down like hail’. This happened, but not as I remember it. Underneath every story is another; even some of our oxygen comes from before the Big Bang. Sometimes we breathe across the cosmos. It was actually dub techno on the radio, because we liked its bass and politics (same thing), and it suited the desert swooning by. It reminded me that a body is always full of caves, coextensive with the landscape, open windows, rushes of air, you know, a corpus infinitum riddled with cavities that resonate at different frequencies, a particular dance floor, we are. But what of bruises, what of our blue porosity? I suppose I got to the blues from techno, got back there, or most roads lead back to the Yazoo-Delta anyway. Elvis will tell you that. Sadness will tell you that, too. But when I got to the Delta, I found another curious root sharing the exact same spacetime. This is not a rhizome, but one or two of the many superimposed universes made of the very same elements: different yet inseparable, nested yet discrete, native yet alien. This other cosmos, twin and root of the blues, is Choctaw music. But this much we have forgotten. This elemental mixtape, EM002, is here set to shuffle. It is a series of essays that are in a process of deposition, which is to say planetary grief and its witness – moving along the LU meridian towards a new subjectivity and a new way to breathe. They are an accompaniment to the film and exhibition Soot Breath / Corpus Infinitum due later this year, which is to say all this over-spillingthinkingfeeling is made together with my collaborator, Denise, who I make many long journeys with. One day soon it will plumpen into a collaborative book or mixtape-essay, as we like to call it, and an exhibition at CCA Glasgow, and importantly a radio show too, so we can read and dance together, and feel across our mind-bodies at the same time, sharing an emergent sensibility. But for now, here are some songs/essays/fragments, those little artifactual feelings that just might come from both this place and a different one. An all-and-at-once then. Parallel roots, growing twisted wild into two or three berries, each inside one another, these our blue porosities, our bruised bodies. Homeless Blues – Bessie Smith Homeless Blues is an account of the 1927 Mississippi Flood, one of the greatest natural disasters of the 20th century. Many blues artists responded to this disaster, which should be known more as a crime because it made clear how race relations were so easily rolled back to models from slavery in a moment of crisis. Much has been written about this flood, but just to say, the Black plantation workers were not allowed to leave the region, even when it became clear the river was going to flood. They were sent to concentration camps along the levee and once again forced to work for free. The decision to not let the Black community leave, again prioritised economic welfare over the lives of humans. A story, it seems, that is set on repeat to this day. This decision was made because of the belief that the levees would hold against a rising river – the hubris that man can somehow control, outsmart and outengineer nature also continues to this day. It characterises an antagonistic and dominating relationship with the natural worlds rather than one of respect, stewardship and collaboration. Its lineage can be traced back to the many Western philosophical moments that reassert European Man’s fundamental separation from, and superiority over, the natural world because of his ability to reason and think abstractly. Such an onto-epistemic figuration gives Man total power over the ‘unruly’ natural world, a nature that included ‘primitive’ non-European people who supposedly lacked the faculty of reason. Such a figuration ultimately justifies (as it still stands today) both unlimited resource extraction and unlimited racial violence, or, put differently, permanent ecocide and never-ending genocide. Bessie Smith’s account of the flood is a chilling description of an event that brings into focus the two atmospheric acts of violence described above. ‘Oh you know I’m homeless, might as well be dead, / Hungry and disgusted, no place to lay my head!’ In both an expressive and documentary tradition, she describes the Black community’s dire situation following the flood, as well as her and others’ reactions. It is a mix of despair at being homeless, and disgust at the way the Black community was treated following the disaster. Her straight talk has made it a useful resource for historians wishing to counter the sometimes-boosterish reports (written to smooth over the crime) that was the official response to the Great Flood. The straight-talking, which is common to much of the blues, is also used here as an aesthetic strategy. In the first instance to act as a witness and tell it how it is – a gritty radical tradition that carries forward to writers like James Baldwin. In the second instance, the straight-talking sets up the final verse, refracting from a documentary mode to something much more metaphorical and speculative. This refraction and redirection have been described as the song’s moment of protest because it holds the dream and power of leaving behind the dire conditions, both of the flood disaster and, more generally, of North American racism. ‘Wish I was an Eagle, but I’m a plain old black crow, / Wish I was an Eagle, but I’m a plain old black crow, / I’m gonna flap my wings and leave here, and never come back no more!’ The typical interpretation unpacks the eagle imagery as a symbol of American freedom and the crow as somehow barred from this freedom. The crow also connects to Jim Crow, both the minstrel character and the law of racial segregation. The final line visualises a transformation into an animal and flying away from the long, violent histories of separation, oppression and suffering. Such imagining of becoming an animal, can or must also be read with Indigenous cosmology/ontology in mind. This is to say the moment of protest in Bessie Smith’s song not only metaphorically transgresses the divide of racial segregation, it also heals the divide of humankind’s separation from nature. The crow is a common, spiritually-loaded symbol across Native American mythology. The Sioux, who ancestrally came from Mississippi, have a creation myth in which only the crow survives a great flood at the beginning of time. The crow is the first creature and companion of the creator. Together and through them, a new world is born, or rather through a turtle brought up from the water, earth is added to make land. And so the world emerges through a material continuum of bodies and elements: the inseparability of earth, water and animals that obviously and eventually includes humans. Such a speculative moment of protest, world-building and its ecological materiality is quite different from traditional Black music paradigms, such as hip hop’s street rebellion, or Afrofuturism that tends more towards a technologically mediated (as musically derived – See Kodwo Eshun’s More Brilliant than the Sun) other world and some kind of emancipatory journey inverting or bifurcating the Middle Passage to get there. Instead, what we find (also) in the blues and its regional influences is a radical sensibility that is simultaneously ancient and modern, alien and native, ontological, ecological and entangled. In short, a body expressed by the elements. Or as the Sioux say, all made of the same mud and water. Cold Weather Blues – Muddy Waters If Nina Simone is a creature of the wind (and the wind is the matter of love), then Muddy Waters is most certainly an alluvial being (and mud is the matter of emotional excess). He earned the name Muddy as a child. He always had his hands and fingers deep in the soft mud of the Mississippi Delta. Even up until his death, Muddy kept a beloved garden. The legend goes that his first instrument was piles of mud that he struck with a stick and hummed along to the rhythm of the soft ground being tapped. He was not the first to call on the alluvial terrain and its matter to make music. The Choctaw make a drum from local cypress tree roots and elbows that rise out of the flooded forests that are a particularity of the region: a land in a constant phase transition, a landscape that trembles. This water drum carries the trees’ and swamps’ resonances, of being both above and below ground, solid and liquid or the constant relay between the two as the river rises and falls. At 57 seconds, in characteristic style, Muddy’s voice trembles in a performance of lost control, not quite on the edge of tears like Tommy Johnson, but in sheer phase: the transformative moment of emotional excess. It is the kind of excess that makes it impossible to hold pitch, to not make one’s heart speed up or hands shake. It is a tremor, the body as an agent, that lets you know of the sheer depth between words or even between two syllables within a word, which is to say the word itself, their semantic veracity is mostly the ruse of this song. Not that the words are entirely irrelevant: Cold Weather Blues expresses homesickness, a longing for the warm climate of home and warmth more generally. And given the involutions of climate and feelings inherent to this music, the song also expresses the homesickness of slavery’s children and all those who have been displaced. However, more than the words, logocentricity – and not even between the lines, but in the very trembles and pitch space Muddy creates, bending his slide guitar multiple semi-tones away from classical notes, in a voice that makes a space where there isn’t one – is the song’s hidden home and the response to its call of homesickness. This is an underground reparative sensibility, which is to say under the words, under its cracked muddy surface rendered soft, as in deep, by Waters’ timbral precision, lies the song’s feeling and its revolutionary potential. It is a music of shelter, speculatively and sonically reclaiming ground that had been dispossessed of Muddy’s families. Like the cypress tree root growing upwards and downwards, the underground goes deeper to build shelter. Or in other words: as with the wind comes love, as with the element of earth comes home. Hellhound On My Trail – Robert Johnson This song marks the possibility of a new subjectivity, of the reproduction of the blues body, which emerges when the body and climate are repaired in a continuum – an ontology learned in part from the Indigenous people of North America. What makes this possible is the multi-scalar and multi-stable nature of the blues. Johnson sings ‘Blues falling down like hail / blues falling down like hail’. The chord sequence follows suit with a tumbling, hail-like pattern, pattering down. Johnson is inviting us to think of the blues and mood as the weather equally, a connection that is consistent in both the lyrics of many Delta blues songs and in the music’s sonic textures. By merging the blues (music and mood) with the weather, we find one of the many revolutionary sensibilities in this musical culture that some describe as the origin or genome of the Black radical tradition. (Hortense Spillers explained this to me in a recent conversation.) The critical step is to consider environmental and cosmological questions alongside the more well-trodden readings on race and body – especially given the current moment where we must forge solidarity across anti-racism movements and climate justice. Later in the song, rhyming the suffering that is hail, Johnson sings ‘hellhounds on my trail’. Hound dogs often led the lynch mob. By elevating hound dogs to hellhounds, the fear and violence of the recent slave past and its many legacies are equally raised to climatic and now mythical proportions. Or put differently, violence is atmospheric, as in total. The song plays out a battle of atmospheres – total violence (racism as weather) versus a body-climate continuum (weather as elemental embodiment). In response to the hellhounds chasing him, Johnson calls on the counter-mythology of ‘hot-foot powder’, a hoodoo concoction of herbs and spices used to ward off evil and danger. Hoodoo was inspired in part by Native American herbalism and its practices of medicine and healing, which comes from cosmological and ontological figurations of the human body as part of the animal, material and vegetal world around it. Hot-foot powder allows Johnson to turn away from the total violence hounding him, or at least protect himself from it and give him enough shelter to attune instead to the natural environment around him, noticing (perhaps in warning, or maybe in calming) ‘the wind is risin’ / the leaves trembling on the tree’. A storm is coming. His bottleneck slide guitar mirrors the lyrics and sound of a rising wind in the trees. One last thing to note is the repetitive vocables Johnson uses in his penultimate line, ‘hey hey hey’. These sounds are common to many Native American songs, from the gourd songs of the Kiowa to the love songs sung at the Santa Fe Indian School. They have become so ubiquitous in modern music, from Bob Dylan to Outcast, that it is easy to forget their shared Indigenous and blues roots. While the words in some of these contemporary musics took on a semantic application, typically as a kind of greeting, this ignores their original use as both sonic texture and rhythmic chanting. In this reading against the semantic grain, or rather in this vibing with its textural rhythm, we can appreciate the vocable repetitions as proto-techno beats. Such a lineage becomes less speculative when Bill Withers repeatedly chants ‘I know’ 26 times in the third verse of his song Ain’t No Sunshine. After the fourth or fifth repetition, the mono-syllabic words lose meaning and become a purely rhythmic beat or even a syncopated incantation like a kick and high-hat pattern. In more modern terms, Withers ‘samples’ himself, inspired by the repetition of the factory where he worked and the blues and Native music’s vocable technique. In turn, he creates a template for techno to soon emerge out of a similar smog-ridden industrial landscape awash with acid rain. This lineage becomes even more concrete when, 20 years later, Underground Resistance pays homage to Bill Withers and his proto-techno song by naming a track Ain’t No Sunshine on their Acid Rain 2 EP. The Storm – Underground Resistance Too much emphasis has been devoted to the Afrofuturist character of Underground Resistance. Or rather, not enough if any attention has been given to their environmental commitments. On their first EP, Sonic, from 1990, alongside cosmic tracks like Orbit and alien narrative tracks like Predator, with its reference to the 1987 film, there is, importantly, Eye of the Storm. It is an environmental track that would prototype a long-standing approach used by UR by developing the new acid rain sound made by hacking a Roland TB-303 monosynth. Three years later, the same acid method returns in The Storm at a slightly faster BPM on their third EP, Acid Rain. And with it, elemental techno was born. The Acid Rain EP’s perspective moves from the protagonist or individual position of UR’s earlier tracks to something much more plural – a key development in their music and politics. Compare the singular, first-person perspective clearly articulated in Predator, whose running bassline conveys a sense of being hunted, to The Storm, which shifts into something atmospheric. The difference is between being in the eye of the storm, a fixed coordinated point, and the song being the storm itself, something amorphous, borderless and vast. Or more precisely and in crystalline fashion, the song constantly scatters between both positions (UR’s distribution and collective anonymous identity mirror this), subject and object, one and many, person and storm, simultaneously. As both a personal mood and the atmosphere or vibe outside, the German word Stimmung helps characterise this multi-perspectival combination of the first point of view with the atmospheric sensorium (see Pitch Blue by Radio Earth Hold for more). What makes this possible is an inter-scalar fluttering, a 303 (acid) method of bassline arpeggiation that melts sovereign ontologies, a technique inherited from Native cosmologies and metabolised through the blues. This strange doubling down of perspective and new/ancient ontological commitments, happen through the acid (Roland TB-303), which quite literally dissolves previously held categories of being. Good acid does this – in fact, all three types do: the sound, the drug and the chemical substance. Think of rave aliases, or who you are when deep tripping. The song’s acidic 303 shimmer passing through a spine-tingling reverb evokes sheets of rain moving swiftly over a landscape on the distant horizon. It also produces the very feeling of being in the middle of a roaring storm or even being the roaring storm itself. The sheets of acid rain stinging the skin of your face, from inside and out – high-hat stabs sent through icy echo, sweeping across the acoustic flatlands of the North East. A storm outside and a storm deep within (that 303 method of trans-cavity resonance): techno as a transgressive micro-climate, speakers causing winds and waves, the body as porous and suspended in and through this particular vitriolic atmosphere. Elemental techno starts to characterise a counter-sublime, or at least it melts down the entrenched Kantian version since it allows no safe distance, no reasonable separation through which to escape the environment and no vantage point to objectify it in our ‘noble mind’. Put differently, the human point of view as it was characterised and centred through European Enlightenment traditions comes undone here, and with it, legacies of anthropocentrism, and with that, the inevitable march to climate catastrophe. The human point of view, the safe Eye of the Storm, soon melts into The Storm itself. The danger is palpable; the track makes you shiver. This undoing of the Human and its European Sublime makes the song illegible and opaque by modern standards, at least in terms of traditional narrative and normative representational means – where, for example, there are no storm sounds in the song; no rain samples, no wind. Yet, each track is named precisely after this meteorology. (Compare this to the soppy ever-raining samples of white ambient music.) Instead, the Acid Rain EP as a method relies on affectability – melting rather than isolating, haptics rather than logic, atmospherics rather than narrative protagonism – and mostly dancing together, which is to say coproducing a vibe (Stimmung) inside and out. The affect is alienating yet profoundly familiar. It pulls the body and the body’s cavities through filter sweeps in multiple directions (crystalline movement without movement), remembering that these sweeps are bracketed and highlighted frequencies that cause the various nested cavities, bodies and rooms to resonate at their spatial tone in tandem and succession. Put differently, this 303 method turns the human body into a consensual instrument of sorts. Just as an acoustic guitar’s body resonates with its plucked strings, so does the human body, when filter swept frequencies twin the size of, say, your lungs – they are made to resonate. This playing with the body-as-instrument on the dancefloor is a type of consensual submission, remembering how good BDSM can be safe trauma-replaying: somatic healing at its most complex (see my film Multicultural Dread for more jungle abreaction). Importantly, this happens not only at the pre-linguistic level but also pre-emotionally. Elemental techno produces sensations and palpitations felt against cavity linings, cell walls, protein crystals, phonons all vibrating, all of which also melt (the acid affect). Only later, the mind attempts to consolidate these perceptions into emotions or sovereign fictions, if at all. We also feel or sense the atmosphere in our bodies in a similar pre-linguistic way, just as animals do. Consider how your cat will come inside long before the storm breaks, or that pain you feel in your knees on a damp day. Some call this intuition, somatic knowledge or simply a reminder of our in/distinction. Elemental techno in general, and The Storm specifically, follows suit. It is both within/as the body and engulfing it from without. Similarly, the blues is both a feeling or the precursor to depressive feelings and the meteorology that reversibly coextends it, the hail or the rain or the storm. In short, elemental techno repairs the body-climate continuum. This dangerous or at least challenging ontology explains why Black raves and before them Native American culture at large were banned and attempted to be erased, likewise their historical intersection. This erasure continues in less state-sanctioned and more soft cultural ways today. Consider how such an anti-sovereign sensibility is fixed as alien in the (now-classic) first-wave Afrofuturist tradition. Such conflicts with the dominant status quo (from lethal abstraction to ethical valuation to total violence, all in the name of accumulation) are far easier to swallow and dismiss or commercialise if described as from elsewhere, verging on some kind of childish sci-fi cartoon. Somehow this narration lampoons its real subversive threat, rendering the anti-sovereign sensibility as off-planetary and therefore diffused, as always already at a safe distance, as in fictional and fluffy, or big-eyed and green. A far more dangerous placement of this category-melting acid 303 method, and the corpus infinitum it reproduces, is to bring it home like mud. To situate it as entirely endemic, elemental, embodied and terrestrial, landed: as ubiquitous as the weather, as the weather itself, as the weather inside and outside the mind-body themselves. This creates a much greater ontological threat since its very potential lies deep in our matter and flesh. Mask Off – Future Praise The Lord (Da Shine) – A$AP Rocky (feat. Skepta) Through a stroke of intuitive genius, the young producer Metro Boomin gifted trap music the flute. Perhaps one of the strangest or nerdiest instruments to enter the trap house. A trap house is a drug den, usually an abandoned inner-city building with a single entrance to ensure its dealers’ safety – or in Future’s words, ‘Drug houses lookin like Peru’. What the crossroads is to Delta blues (describing its rural openness), the trap house is to trap (capturing its urban sense of enclosure). This is a music of capture, or as a verb, ‘we trapping’. Perhaps its most recognizable signature is the triple speed high-hats that create a net-like structure, a web of anxiety often phase-shifting or ping-pong panning across stereo fields to create an all-encompassing tension. Their high rattling tempo is often heard and instantly recognized through the crack of a car window speeding by, and with it the strong smell of chronic. Although chronic is not the drug of choice, unlike in earlier rap, nor is it the narcotic aesthetic that coproduces this music. When the beat drops, Future mumbles the chorus, ‘Percocets, Molly, Percocets’. In his album Heroes Wear No Capes from 2018, Metro Boomin plays with the kick drum’s tempo, which normally yokes the listener’s heartbeat to the rhythm, slowing it down and speeding it up. This embodied temporal fluttering not only recalls the fast and loose tempos of blues music with its inconsistent foot tapping, but it also twins the opiate effect of Percocet. Its users often describe momentary drops or slowing down of linear time. When taken with Molly (MDMA, methamphetamine) time both speeds up and slows down; it flutters given the contradictory effects of uppers and downers eaten together. Just as the chronic of yesteryear’s rap coproduces weird narratives and funny stories about being high, trap’s ‘Molly Percocets’ narcotic aesthetic produces an ambient texture. It’s a sort of floating dissociative state; a response to trauma and anxiety. In the case of the Mask Off music video, Future smoothly drives his Bentley through an apocalyptic inner city, where crime, violence, protest all happen outside and yet Future is blissed out, dreamily absorbed in the texture of his Molly-Percocet trip. The lyrics ‘Percocets, Molly, Percocets’ carry this textural sensibility. While not even making a complete sentence, the rhythm of this lyric’s almost onomatopoeia effect and Future’s delivery are incantatory and evoke the temporal shifts induced by this drug cocktail. Percocet, with its three hard plosive syllables (P, K, T), slows things down. Molly, with its soft and quick labiovelar approximate, picks up the speed, only to slow down again with the opioidlike Per-co-cet. Or put differently, the music, the drugs and the wider aesthetics of trap are chemically trance-inducing, incantatory, dissociative, and like this song in particular, intensely hypnotic. Returning to the site of the music, trap marks a focusing of hip hop’s epistemological allegiance to the streets. Black music is hyper-urban – specifically rap and its progenies, but also techno and house, although they later diverge to off-planet associations and Afrofuturist narrations. The streets have always been both the battleground and the concert hall, not only for music but also for its wider culture, from break-dancing, block parties and graffiti to protest and civil rights activism. This allegiance to the streets continues in trap. Meanwhile, the rural or agricultural, which includes the Black ecological figure, is often forgotten – arguably as a response to the trauma of plantation slavery and land-based violence as well as towards disidentification with the savage that is still mobilised today in Racecraft. Of course, there is a history of Black ecology and agriculture (see Freedom Farmers). At the same time, a certain disavowal happens with 20th-century rural-to-urban migration. Think of the scene in Charles Burnett’s film Killer of Sheep, when Stan berates his son for calling his mother ‘Ma Dear’ – epitomising country-speak. In other words, a very understandable pride exists, being modern and even upwardly mobile means letting go of or even rejecting the culture and values that were thought of as more ‘country’, as in more backward. This sentiment carries to the music and partly explains why the Delta blues (despite its fleshy ubiquity in modern music), with its twangy field vibe, is less often called on today by Black radical culture than its intellectual and sophisticated – which is to say urbane cousin, jazz. When Metro Boomin intuitively introduces the flute into trap, and other producers pick up and deploy this strange instrument in an otherwise gritty, violent, chemical, anxious and textural space, they are not calling on the jazz flute (played sideways) but rather something even more elemental. The flute or reed flute (played vertically) is possibly the oldest instrument in the world, but more than being a product of human culture, it marks a blurring of the nature/culture divide. Arguably, the flute is even an accident of nature: a breeze over a lake vibrating reeds of different lengths, creating the wind’s melody and air’s collaborative sound. Native American stories tell of how the flute happened first in nature. Tribes from the Eastern Woodlands tell of the wind playing the river reeds. Other tribes from the Plains tell of a woodpecker making holes in a tree through which the wind whistled. Regardless of how humans stumbled upon the flute, what is important is how it carries an ecological consciousness and unconsciousness, the blurring of the nature/culture divide, and a sensibility and ontology that would transfer from Native Americans to the blues tradition, especially in the American South Eastern Woodlands where trap music also emerged in modern-day Atlanta. This connection back to Indigenous music, and with it the cosmologies and ontologies the music carries, can be made explicit in another Metro Boomin-produced flute trap song, A$AP Rocky’s Praise The Lord (Da Shine) (feat. Skepta). Here, the flute sample comes from an Indigenous instrument: Andean panpipes. The song equally draws attention to the weather and the elements, even though on the surface, as depicted in the music video and predominantly in the lyrics, there is a celebration of hustling the streets. This is rendered transnational through collaboration with UK grime artist, Skepta. We see US projects on one side of the Atlantic and British council estates on the other, bopping in sync with the bouncy rhythm. And yet, two things, two symptoms, hint at possibly repressed – or at least wilfully forgotten – ecological feelings. If this were a dream, the Andean panpipes would be the alien key that the analyst would latch on to. Less implicitly, Praise The Lord describes itself in the first verse as a ‘Rain Dance’, hence the Andean panpipes. In this case, rain is also a metaphor for money. Making it rain is slang for throwing money on a stripper. Rain to the agricultural is what money is to the urban. Both put food on the table, and on this table are metaphors that, like symptoms, reveal what lies beneath. In this case, it is a strong, perhaps repressed, connection to what we are calling the blues body (incommensurate with street epistemology): an ontology of a body-climate in continuum shared across Native American and Delta blues and carried forward – sometimes unconsciously (which is to say ripe for opening) – into various Black radical traditions. If we listen again to the flute sample in Mask Off, we can hear the wind and climate throughout the song, carrying (which is to say blending) a set of feelings and atmospheres. In this sense, it is a modern blues song, or at least bringing forward its spirit. What supports the surprising addition of the flute is the song’s hypnotising and trance-like vibe. Trance music has a long tradition, part of which is Native American and used in various rituals, such as rain dances. (Sometimes the dust kicked up by the dance would make it rain.) In the case of Mask Off, we might call it a wind dance. (Perhaps willing the warm wind and love of Nina Simone’s Wild is the Wind, rather than the numbing cold of this particular song). The Mask Off video opens with the sound of the wind blowing exegetically, or at least uncannily, at the scene of a liquor store robbery; the sound of wind chimes make it explicit we are hearing the wind. The elemental precedes the flute that soon drops with the beat and the ‘Percocets, Molly, Percocets’ mantra. The flute sample and the repeating melody are sampled from Tommy Butler’s blues-inspired The Prison Song from the 1976 musical Selma about Martin Luther King. While the inclusion of the flute in trap is probably intuitive (or even the return of the repressed) and not a deliberate reference to ecological and elemental consciousness, Metro Boomin’s inclusion of the Selma sample is quite deliberate, and the images of riots and protests in the music video make this reference explicit. The song ends with a return both to the sample (civil rights) and to the weather (elemental consciousness), as The Prison Song’s chorus, referencing Bill Withers 1971 song Harlem and its description of the cold cruelty of racist structural violence, is repeated on the fade-out: ‘Cold chills prison cells // cold chills prison cells // cold chills prison cells…’ One last thing to mention about the trap flute, as it seems to emerge from the ecological unconscious of the Black radical musical traditions: the flute has been used for healing across cultures and practices. Various experimental psychological and scientific studies have been done to successfully prove the flute’s remedial qualities. One study from the University of Detroit developed an ‘Interconnectedness Index’, which is a sense of the whole, of being connected to the world and environment, usually destroyed through traumatic experiences, as a metric for measuring the flute’s healing powers. In less new-age terms, the study shows how the flute can reduce anxiety, stress and various PTSD symptoms, such as dissociation. Given the flute’s therapeutic qualities (across spacetime, which is not to mention its use by medicine men and women all over the New World) it is no wonder it finds its way into the Percocet-ridden, dissociative trance of trap. Metro Boomin as a precocious millennial, or even Indigo Child, smuggles an elemental healing mode into a genre of music widely misunderstood as nihilistic and narcissistic. Put differently in a blues tradition, trap not only critically embodies the current moment of trauma induced dissociation, trance-floating through the ruins of colonialism and capitalism, but it also includes a musical, ancestral and elemental means to recover from this scene of total violence. Water Me – FKA Twigs Cellophane – FKA Twigs As we move further away from the Yazoo-Delta and the birth of the blues, contemporary artists connect and carry forward these legacies in both diluted and less straightforward ways. Certainly, at one level, FKA Twigs, in a conventional blues style, calls on heartache and heartbreak to inspire empowerment. Although one hundred years later, such a narrative arc has become pretty much the bread and butter of pop music. What separates FKA Twigs from convention and marks a much deeper entanglement with the forgotten Black ecological figure, aka Native sensibility, is how she calls on both embodiment and the elemental as different sides of the same crystal. One of the matrices beyond their material inseparability (our bodies are 70% water, and water is life, as Standing Rock reminds us) is their constant state of transformation: a body never stays still, even in death, whereas matter constantly phase transitions (without time). This functional twinning and material nesting inspired the question at the end of the film Serpent Rain, where Denise and I ask: ‘What kind of human would emerge if it were expressed by the elements?’ By ‘expression’, we mean both a certain affectability, that is resonance, and (gene) expression, the way in which we are ancestrally emergent as beings. We want to add the classical elements very materially, or rather remind that water, wind, earth and fire play a fundamental role in the constant re-composing subject that is the human as we re-imagine its genesis and genre. This human is importantly very different from today’s hegemonic, violent, ossified and sovereign post-enlightenment version. In its place, an elementally expressed body emerges from shared ecological and perhaps unconscious feelings, from a body-climate continuum and from the ontological community of Indigenous X Delta blues. FKA Twigs, the speculative character, channels this ontological community’s afterlife by embodying its elemental vibe: she is named after the forest, which gave rise to many instruments like the flute, as well as echoing Native nomenclature; her body is constantly morphing (hence the abbreviation FKA: formerly known as) through digital animation (metaphysical analogue) and rigorous physical training; more recently, FKA Twigs mastered both pole dancing and Wu Shu Kwan after life-threatening surgery. Her song Water Me, written and produced with Arca, and accompanying music video by filmmaker Jessie Kanda, is both simple and complex in its rendering of a body in continuity with the elements. The lyrics describe Twigs as drying out, craving love and lovemaking. She asks to be watered as a plant and as an expressive emotional creature in need of love and care: ‘I told him, “Water me” / I promise I can grow tall’. The video features a close-up of Twig’s self-described alien (and here, foliage-like) face, enhanced and distorted through animation. Her eyes are slightly too large. Her right eye sheds a tear that falls back down on Twigs’ head through an animated water cycle, making her eyes grow even more prominent. In a transgressive crystalline fashion, Twigs appears both human and vegetal, alien and native, Black and ecological, which is to say her body is in continuum with the wider world and together with it; all are continually transforming. The music video for Cellophane from 2019 follows a similar process of transformation. It ends with Twigs falling into a muddy plain in which seemingly post-human, masked and multiple beings take care of her body by gently covering it with mud and reincorporating her into the elemental matter of the world that surrounds us. Before that, the heart-breaking song reaches its climax with the only singular phrase in a song otherwise filled with incantatory repetition: ‘All wrapped in cellophane, the feelings that we had’. A complex train of associations is conjured, which need no interpretation, other than to say that within the video’s world, as a moment of self-realisation, it induces her to fall. She falls, but also escapes from an uncomfortable pole-dancing position in front of glaring lights and a judgmental audience, above a mirrored floor that synthetically hides nothing while fixing her in performative composure – an adroit representation of our enlightened, cruel-optical regime. After the fall, the video concludes with the sound of Twigs’ breathing deeply. The ending is a release for her and us as we recover from being musically suspended in a crystalline matrix of contradictions. The feeling is being on the verge of crying and being overwhelmed by emotion, somewhere between eroticism and sadness, brokenness and composure, commitment and rejection – between being scrutinised and pure vulnerability. It leads not so much to dance but to deep transformative embodiment (what is dance?), breath and the re-pairing of our body’s continuity with the earthy world around us. The mud literally heals her. Remembering the tripartite metonymic chain of heartbreak for the blues (body): FKA Twigs as herself, as the racialised and displaced subject, and as a genre of the human cleaved from the natural world. Once all these figures have been re-lathered in elemental mud, re-entangled with the natural world and their ontological rift sutured, together with Twigs, we can all finally breathe again. Tangle Eye Blues – Walter ‘Tangle Eye’ Jackson Alan Lomax recorded this bone-chilling a cappella at Parchman prison. Its strange reverb and the faint cries of other prisoners make palpable the penitentiary setting. Unlike Tommy Johnson or Muddy Waters, the voice surpasses the moment of excessive emotion and crying, carrying in it the sound of when no more tears will come; the sound of a vast ocean of grief. In 1947 Lomax set out to record the ‘untouched’ sound of the blues. He chased authenticity like a good ethnographer and aimed to find prisoners serving life sentences, who also had musical chops but had not been exposed to and ‘contaminated by’ the now popular, fast-evolving city blues and jazz. He found Tangle Eye at Parchman prison and released the first volume of ‘authentic’ blues and work songs under the title Murderous Home. The album contributes to a characterisation of the blues as related to evil, the devil, incarceration and violence. When made by a white scholar, such labelling verges on stereotyping, or at least marketing. These themes are as inherent to the music as they are to the African American experience, but they are not the whole story. Starting with the name, Tangle Eye echoes Native nomenclature and reminds us of other Indigenous named bluesmen such as Robert Nightingale, Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf, who made good of his name by howling on many of his tracks. Literally speaking, the image of a tangle eye could be derived from lazy or crossed eyes, but this does not quite suffice as a complete explanation, even if the blues is rife with blindness. Instead, what if we follow a more lyrical, Native understanding, where the name characterises the talents of the named, where a name is earned and made good by deed. Given Tangle Eye’s extraordinarily touching singing and deep-felt sense of the blues, we could say, this sensibility is made possible by his all-tangled senses. To blur biology with metaphor, once the eyes are tangled, hearing and touch are released from sensory subordination, leaving us to ask: What happens if we re-imagine the world and its history with all tangled eyes? As a sensibility nurtured in and through the blues, this tangling twins our use of the crystalline in its re-composition of opticality. Rather than light passing through a lens in a mono-focal, linear enlightened way, light and therefore image and representation gets all tangled and refracted, dreaded and scattered. While a crystal, through its straight lines, holds lights’ inherent linearity even if the beams often collide, scatter and intersect, a tangled eye goes further, bending light against its will. Touch is perhaps the most entangled, indivisible and coiled sense. A tangled eye then could only see haptically through touch. Or to refract this idea through the landscape, since our senses hug our environments: If the crisp cliffs of a snowy Baltic sublime influenced the optical regime of Kant’s most ‘noble’ sense, vision, then the tangle eye comes from the swampy jungle and alluvial landscape of the Mississippi Delta. As place is coextensive with body and sense, determining how we feel and think, we might continue this speculation and say that the Kantian Sublime is a deeply situated European notion. It is a feeling and a response that could only ever be imagined in a very particular landscape, that of northern Europe. A place most markedly cold and flat, without much danger or diversity. Even beech, birch and pine trees grow ever so straight there. Said differently, the jungle sublime is a paradox. The swamps of the Mississippi Delta like the Amazon jungle are teeming with tangled life, ecological diversity and all-round environmental complexity, not to mention extremes in both temperature and tide, which is to say palpable danger. Given sight’s limited scope inside dense forests, the eyes are less useful in such environments than touch and hearing. Had Kant been dropped into such a swamp or jungle (although he probably would not survive long), we can imagine an entirely different understanding of both the Sublime and its implicit prioritising of sight and thought. High up on a breezy Baltic cliff (or even closer to home in an ivory tower), Kant can see the storm out over the sea and feel safe knowing he can conceptualise and tame it with reason. Such hubris collapses in the jungle (and continues to falter, as this pandemic is painfully teaching us). No amount of optical distancing, ennobling and separating of the human from the environment will save you (Kant). The humidity, heat, dense forest, fast tides, floods, sinking mud and the way vision gets all tangled up in the complexity of forest fauna means that to survive, one cannot extract themselves from the swampy, humid landscape. There is no safe distance in the swamp or the jungle – there are no clearings, no reasonable remove, no excerpt. Instead, one must coil into the flooded forests, sense with it, touch it, hug it, listen to and through it, and mostly feel and move with and among the environment because it is a continuation of the body and vice versa – at least if one wants to get out alive. The wailing in Tangle Eye Blues longs painfully for home: ‘Well it must have been the devil / that fooled me here’. This longing on one level describes his life sentence at Parchman prison. On another, it characterises the general history of African American displacement: imprisonment as a metonym for and a modern extension of slavery; the wail of grief as a metonym for planetary grief, the collective moan of the displaced. The blues quite uniquely has this inter-scalar potential, singing across time and space, in part because it emerges at the beginnings of one kind of planetarity – the legacy of transatlantic slavery and colonialism through racial capitalism, along with the violent trans-geographic chattel jump-cuts inherent to each historical stage. But the blues emerges out of a different planetarity too, where the body and the environment are held in an infinite continuum, all tangled, all and at once, all inseparable. This corpus infinitum can also be characterised in the bruise, where hurt flesh turns blue. This is the physical trace of trauma, where the metaphor for a feeling, feeling blue, is a translation of an embodied inscription: the blues body is the bruised body. This is a grammar without words but writ in flesh. What both bodies teach us, what this grammar learns us, is tenderness. A feeling that etymologically reminds us of this very tangled web of matter. Tenderness is kindness and gentleness. It is also a description of soft vegetation and an invitation to be soft like supple grass; as a verb ‘to tender’ comes from attending, to serve, to take care of. Serving is the opposite of slavery, while attending to is the opposite of exclusion, and care – the opposite of violence. When I look out at the world with tangled tearful eyes, when I listen to Tangle Eye Blues, I lose all my hard edges and feel… profound tenderness. A small but sturdy ship ready to cross the oceans of grief. Arjuna Neuman is an artist, writer, and filmmaker based in Berlin. He works with the essay form with a multi-perspectival and experimental approach in which he explores the economic, social and ideological systems that shape our lived experiences. Selected projects include collaborations with philosopher Denise Ferreira da Silva on films and installations Serpent Rain (2016) and 4 Waters-Deep Implicancy (2019). He is currently working on Soot Breath / Corpus Infinitum with da Silva, comprising film, installation and a publication. His works have been shown at Berlin Biennial 10, Serpentine Gallery, Whitechapel Gallery, Sharjah Biennial, Bergen Assembly, Haus der Kulturen der Welt. He also grows tomatoes and chillies in his studio.