Between 4’52” by Ashon Crawley
for Jack, Issa, Bilal, Diallo
It’s all about agitational roughness. The roughness of sandpaper makes itself experienced, known, through difference. Those tiny grains of sand, each grain announcing itself as but so many irregularities across surface, giving miniscule – but no less felt – depth. Your hand touches it. Scratchy. You hear the sound it makes as agitational technology. Grating. You hear it because it makes dialogue with objects – of resistance, of refusal, of rejection. You feel it because its force resonates, because its vibration on and against other objects, is sent into the world. Such vibration, such grating, such scratchiness leads to smoothness. Objects become smoother because of the agitational difference – difference emerging from grains of sand – sandpaper makes on and against those objects. Agitation leads to an otherwise state, an otherwise possibility, for the object in relation with such a paper. And it is in the repetition of such agitation that smoothness emerges. Repetition, then, is the tie that binds the sandpaper to object creating agitation on one surface, creating smoothness on the other. Repetition, in other words, prepares us for – and is only ever about – relationship.
And it’s all about relationship. One listens to D’Angelo’s “The Line,” a song that is now almost 15 years old and with each listen, after the very first time one listens closely, one notices relation. Relation that only emerges through a difference – a miniscule divergence – a difference that announces itself at almost the very edge and end of the song. Listen to the bass line that reiterates itself over and over again, that repetitiously enunciates itself throughout the whole of the song. So much so that such a bass line is backgrounded, there but certainly not the stuff typically thought about as the grounds for the sonic event.
But then it happens, 4’52”
Then back to “normal”
But what is normal now that the sonic difference of 4’52”’s bass line creates a disruption and rupture with normative bass, normative function and flow? What does such a variation mean? What does it mean for difference to emerge after having paid almost no attention at all to the ongoing, repetitious, reiterative nature of the bass line? D’Angelo created the bass lines for all the songs on the Voodoo (2000) album, and then gave the creative edge, the improvisatory possibilities, to Pino Palladino. We might wonder, perhaps, why Palladino decided to create difference at the very edge and end of “The Line,” why – for him – improvisation meant nuance, meant change in the most innocent – the almost unnoticeable – of ways. For me, the change at 4’52” – after having closely listened that first time when such a disruption made itself heard – makes the entire song. That divergence compels a going back to the beginning to relisten to the entire thing all over again. And again. And again.
The song is sumptuous and generous, both in what it decides to give and withhold. The song’s line – it’s root – is as much about what Palladino does as it is about what he doesn’t do, what is withheld in the sonic event of “The Line.” And we come to know something of the force of what’s withheld through the difference that emerges at 4’52”. Palladino could have chosen a much more elaborate pattern and play than what emerges as the final cut of the song. Yet Palladino made a choice, an intentioned desire, to taunt the listener with what one would come to think of as droning, as unceasing similarity. But then the change drops, the bass line and temporal shift. These divergences from normative form comment upon all that came before it. What Palladino produced are the concepts of editing and anticipation at the moment of elaboration. Once 4’52” happens, you realize you’d been anticipating it, that you’d been anticipating something to come without even realizing it.
“The Line” challenges us to anticipate change, to anticipate movement and possibility otherwise, even in the slightest, in the most nuanced, of ways. Palladino’s two-note descent then two-note assent, Palladino’s compression from eleven notes to four, prepares us to be attentive to relationship, to the way organizing music can be a model for political social mobilizing in our current milieu.
We sat around a table on a crisp mid-October Sunday morning for brunch. Old friends and new getting together to catch up in Philadelphia and eat barbecue. Because, why not? Three adults and two kids, we sat at the table engaging in conversation that ranged from scholarly pursuits to my desire for Chinese food with duck sauce. It was, in other words, a regular day of food and conversation, nothing given over to the extraordinary other than the love we wanted to share with each other as friends.
One of the kids – the older one, eleven years old – was drawing on the paper placemat. An artist both fully engaged in the adults’ conversations while also fully engrossed in his art project. Somehow or another – one is prone to forget the details – a conversation began about superheroes and the older one asked who my favorite superhero was in the Marvel universe and who I would be if I could choose. I chose Rogue. Both kids were incredulous. Why not Wolverine? But it was the other kid – the younger one, eight years old – that asked the question that I’ve since been pondering. The younger one asked if I preferred the Marvel or DC universe. I chose, of course, Marvel. What commenced between the two kids and the three adults was a conversation that foregrounded imagination, it was imagination that aligned our wishes and opened the door for us all to consider what we’d do in otherwise worlds with otherwise powers. I was not prepared for how that conversation about comic book universes would move me. It wasn’t until another random listen to “The Line” that I figured out how the question of universe, the question of creating worlds, was grounded in the 4’52” performative rupture. The conversation was grounded in the improvisational. It considered improvisation as world-making, as taking seriously imaginative flights of fancy. Whereas, in the known world of our inhabitation, imagination is considered the excess – the superfluity – of thought, these boys’ queries and excitements made imagination the privileged way to engage the world. This conversation occurred in October, the resistance of police brutality and state violence – all under the heading of Mike Brown and Ferguson – playing in the background. What made their imaginative possibilities cultivated such that we could all cherish such a set of concerns? It was the variation, the divergence, from the established line, the foregrounding of imagination as a serious series of protocols, itineraries, for engaging the world.
Baby Suggs. She is our guide. She privileged the sound and fleshliness of laughter but called forth such laughter – such handclapping and smiles, such belly holding and squeals and yelps of pleasure – not from the mouths and flesh of adults but from the mouths and flesh of children. Why begin there, with children? Perhaps it was because of their radical imagination, their capacity to see the world around them, be fully engrossed in it while simultaneously remaining insouciant to its pernicious nature, its violent character. Perhaps it was also to say that laughter, their laughter, was also necessary for commenting upon, creating a critical intervention into, the known world and its violence. As their laugher was sent out missionizing, the woods rang. Their sound produced the density of the space in which they dwelt together, the sound of laughter produced the compression, the zone of inhabitation that would protect them. The sound and fleshliness of laughter meant that space and time are always temporal and moving, never stable and coherent, that they are enacted at moments of encounter. Their enfleshed laughter created density and compression in and as open but secreted – open but caring – space.
Sound of enfleshed laughter traveled but also was contained by – was the barrier for – what the clearing was, what the clearing could be. Just beyond the horizonal thrust of the edge and end of the vibratory sound of their laughter would be the edge and end of their space. Not owned or centered but emerging only through the urgency of the occasion, a space dense and compressed, able to be carried within and released from flesh at moment's notice. Radical care. And all this announced through the laughter of black flesh, of black flesh allowed space to imagine and play and cry. Their laughter was an ethics, the production of an otherwise social political mode of inhabitation. Such that perhaps we can ask more compelling questions about the laughter of #BlackTwitter during moments of intense violence.
Vivian Morris, an observer for the Work Projects Administration on December 19, 1938, visited the Holy and Sanctified Church of God in Christ, 225 West 130th St. in Harlem, a storefront church on the second floor of what seemed to have been a jazz club. Morris recounted much of what happened in the church service: the furor and frenzy, the praise and prayers, the heat and hymns. But there is an almost throwaway sentence included, a 4’52” disruptive statement: “Mid all this excitement, a little shovel-headed boy in the rear, calmly draws men with cowboy paraphernalia on and six-guns spitting flame, (maybe a creative artist of the future) and Indians riding stick horses.” Morris also talked about the smirks of the children at the play and praise of the adults. That this child, that the kids that were in the back of the church with him, could be in the environment but totally engrossed in their own world-making projects, that they could be in that world but also participatory of other possibilities? Beautiful.
We know about Baby Suggs’s sermon and how she drew a dichotomy between “here…in this place” and “yonder.” This distinction is crucial if we pay attention to the laughter of children, to their smirks, to their capacity to be engrossed while making other worlds. Because “here in this this place” there was never a need to articulate who we are, who we be, to those beyond, to those “yonder.” Hers was a command know and to love who and what we are. In this place. But such knowing and loving came after the fact of the disruptive enfleshed laugh of children, after having dislodged from “yonder” to create a clearing through the sound of children’s voices, through the movement of children’s bodies. The flesh was valued rhetorically only after the physical, corporeal celebration and lament. The world in which they exist “here…in this place” was by the privileging of flesh, by making flesh that which aligns with another epistemology altogether. Baby Suggs’s sermon – coming after the enfleshed laughter of children – was a total rejection of the theology and philosophy of “yonder.”
Baby Suggs’s encouragement of children’s laughter is the calling forth of black feminist sociality, her making the laughter of black child flesh the line on which the sermon and performance would align, making apparent the divergence from normative function and form to which we must attend. Filmmaker Arthur Jafa has a concept he calls Black Visual Intonation: “How do we make Black music or Black images vibrate in accordance with certain frequential values that exist in Black music? How can we analyze the tone, not the sequence of notes that Coltrane hit, but the tone itself and synchronize Black visual movement with that?…What [Black Visual Intonation] consists of is the use of irregular, nontempered (nonmetronomic) camera rates and frame replication to prompt filmic movement to function in a manner that approximates Black vocal intonation.” Jafa’s attention to the desire manifest in black music is performed in Baby Suggs’s call and sermon. Her call for the children to come, to laugh, and her sermon all performed the care of flesh that makes possible the audiovisual encounter and inhabitation of otherwise worlds of possibilities in which black boys and girls play.
The laughter of black child flesh was to set the frequential vibration of the clearing, was to clear and gather the space through imagining sonic as providing shelter. Like the black child with a bright smile who, at a dinner with friends, asked his mother if I wrote books for children, so he could tell his teacher and school librarian that he knew an author. Like the five-month-old child I held, talking to his mother about life and love. Each established a frequency, a vibrational otherwise, where care and concern were not excessive but integral to imagination. Each frequency is established by a black feminist care, by a black womanist ethic. Their mothers create spaces of inhabitation. Such that to ask questions about characters chosen and universes created, to draw pictures and smirk with friends in the back of rambunctious churches, black child flesh continues to give us the critical tools, the critical imagination, for thinking a social political zone of inhabitation wherein violence and violation are upended.
4’52”, it seems, has come and we would do well to attend to its vibrational, its sonic, force. Hear it, feel it. Agitational push and pull. An otherwise possibility, otherwise possibilities, are sounding out in and all around us. Echo. Reverberate. There is a change in the conversation, a 4’52” moment, where folks are discussing justice in much more expansive, and nuanced ways. Because of the ongoing struggle and resistance in Ferguson, Missouri that has spread both across the United States and globally – like the fundamental shift in sonic mood Palladino produces – people are asking much more expansive, radical and fundamental questions about our mode of social political possibility. It’s as if the force of D’Angelo’s line and Palladino’s improvisation have been gathered and dispersed into the world in order for us to think an otherwise possibility from police power. Changed is the tenor of the conversation with regard to the executive branch of government, people critiquing not only Barack Obama, but are also critiquing the governance that binds us, the governance that is – at its core, from its very inception, from its very conceptualization – white supremacist, exclusionary and violent. The vibrational force of 4’52”, the ethical demand such a nuance makes on us, illustrates the ways many desire other modes of social political organizing.
When the state of Michigan rules, through courts, that there is no responsibility to provide quality education, only to meet financial obligations, one sees with intense clarity and sharp focus the neoliberalism of our moment, the financialization of everything. And Barack Obama’s speech about the Grand Jury’s decision to not indict Darren Wilson in Ferguson dripped with the theology-philosophy of Americana: citizens have a personal responsibility to allow the law to do what it will to us, to enact violence against us; as citizens, we are indebted to the nation’s capacity to purportedly protect us; we are to submit ourselves to its authority, however it governs. We were told that it is poor black and brown communities in need of policing, presumably because we are more violent than other – which is, of course, white – communities. His words gave so much clarity to our moment. The political system wasn’t designed to produce justice. We have no choice but to fight.
In big and small ways, we are being forced to answer a question of Marvel and DC, of universes imagined and real of which we are – and want to be – a part. We are being compelled into the zone of the grave questions of innocent children, and ours is the task to think along the line and root, align ourselves with the concerns for justice that laughing black child flesh model for us.
We see the enactment of a 4’52” ethics when the Fruit of Islam stands guard for protesters in Houston and Ferguson – working with the Evangelical Christians, the atheists, the agnostics, the Baptists, the Palestinians hashtagging to Ferguson residents, the Jewish rabbis marching in tow. All those struggling for justice working together produce the dance and play, tension and release – and yes, it gets messy sometimes – of a disbelief grounded in blackness. This is a disbelief in the current order of things, a disbelief that we are still fighting the same battles that were thought won through things like the conferral of voting rights, like entry into predominantly white colleges and universities, like integrating once whites-only neighborhoods. This disbelief also produces the otherwise in the present moment, compels us so ask which universe do we desire to join, which universe we desire to make together.
W.E. B. Du Bois begins his now famous The Souls of Black Folks by stating: Between me and the other world is ever an unasked question.” And the Density of Rational Numbers rule says: given any two distinct numbers a and b, there is a rational number p such that
What this means, here, is an elaboration on Du Bois’s formulation: between 1.1 and 1.2, for example, is a world of exploration, of relation that emerges through difference that is irreducible. A zone is created that is not given to linear time and space, that is a disruption of normative function and form.
1.1 – 1.2
1.1, 1.11 – 1.2
1.1, 1.11, 1.111 – 1.2
1.1, 1.11, 1.111, 1.1111 – 1.2
1.1, 1.11, 1.111, 1.1111, 1.11111 – 1.2
1.1, 1.11, 1.111, 1.1111, 1.11111, 1.111111 – 1.2
1.1, 1.11, 1.111, 1.1111, 1.11111, 1.111111, 1.1111111 – 1.2
1.1, 1.11, 1.111, 1.1111, 1.11111, 1.111111, 1.1111111, 1.11111111 – 1.2
1.1, 1.11, 1.111, 1.1111, 1.11111, 1.111111, 1.1111111, 1.11111111, 1.111111111 – 1.2
The unasked question of the world between Du Bois and the questioner, the space between 1.1 and 1.2, the laughter of black child flesh, the question of universe and character, all are about the possibility that exists otherwise when one gives attention to the disruption of normativity. It is in the space between 4’51” and 4’53” that produces the compression of difference: Palladino “fits” eleven notes in the same sonic event that only contain four notes. It is the zone between the need for nicer police and no police, between a better president and no president, a zone – that is – between the status quo of political social form and a range of otherwise possibilities heretofore unknown. But we’ve gotta commit ourselves, ethically, politically, to inhabiting the zone of what – on the surface perhaps – appears to be gross similarity; we’ve gotta commit ourselves to slipping down into the crack and fissure, into the momentary rupture of divergence, dwell there, dig deeply, explore. Let the children come, let them laugh. Their laughter, their radical imagination, is the social, political, ethical impulse, their laughter, their radical imagination is the vanguard for otherwise possibilities.
To end with a song. A Requiem for Mike Brown.
Modernity was constructed through the capacity of the eyewitness. Our milieu, our epoch, privileges seeing as the most precise way knowledge is attained and is produced. Our language “reflects” this ocular bias: worldview, viewpoint, perspective, observation, enlightenment. Odd, then, that eyewitness accounts of state sanctioned policed violence – intuitionally enforced, systemically informed – that are against the narratives of police power are deemed untrustworthy. What we have are explicit examples of what the eyewitness in this episteme, in this theological-philosophical mood and moment older than its 1492 genesis. The eye and its witness are in service to ongoing violence. The eyewitness account, the ocular basis of modernity, is to buoy white supremacist logic such that the only trustworthy eye is that emerging from or in the service to whiteness. To disrupt the logic of the eyewitness is an urgent task. So we turn to other logics, other epistemologies, in all their disruptive capacities. The sound of children laughing. The chanting of a requiem.
George Jackson, in his prison letters, stated, “In the end a requiem will be sung over the whole vast complex of disorder.” The Requiem for Mike Brown was the enactment, the sonic event, of the disruptive ethical demand of 4’52”, an event that elaborated the demand for producing an otherwise world full of possibility to come. It was the performance of dissent, of the line and root, that made it impossible for the audience to remain complicit: one would need decide whose side they were on both in terms of lyricism but also, importantly, in the choreographic and sonic ways they responded to such a disruption. The disruption was the performance, the disruption was the excess that made possible a range of emotive, affective replies. The disruption was a plea, a demand for antiphonal engagement with movement towards an otherwise. The Requiem was a question: who do you want to be, what universe do you want to join, to create?
The divergence, the asking about cosmic universes, is a dissent, like the changed bass line. Like 4’52”, in Mike Brown’s name is a compression of all that came before and after his murder, all the emotion and fear and desire and love are compressed into his name a movement against police power and the way it enacts a white supremacist aesthetic – which is to say a white supremacist form – of death. To be between 4’52” is to linger in dissent, to hold dissent as divergence, to mobilize divergence as difference, to disperse difference as desirous. To be between 4’52” is to recognize how the potentia of D’Angelo’s performance, of Palladino’s improvisation, is within that momentary rupture, how the kinesthesia emerges only through possibility that divergence holds. That divergence is found in the excesses, the radical imaginative capacity of black feminist and womanist epistemologies. It is in, for example, Miss Sofia’s “Hell, no!” reply to Miss Millie. A disruption of the highest order on the lowest frequencies.
The relation of difference for which such a disruption prepares us is a relation of possibility, of otherwise worlds in their not yet given states in all their plentitude, in all their manifold capacities. Capacious worlds, dense and full of beautiful darkness, immanent blackness. And the same is true for the demands for justice in our here, in our now. We want another world, we demand it. Perhaps we are at the very edge and end of the current order. This demand – like agitational grains of sand – has been registered in the calls for boycotts, in the staged die-ins, in the community meetings, in the tears. But importantly, the demand for otherwise, the ethical demand 4’52” enacts on us, has been registered in the drawing of pictures, in the smirks of children in church, of the drawing of characters on paper placemats, on asking what universe you desire to join, in the laughter of black child flesh.
Ashon Crawley is Assistant Professor of Ethnic Studies at University of California, Riverside. His research and teaching experiences are in the areas of Black Studies, Performance Theory and Sound Studies, Philosophy and Theology, Black Feminist and Queer theories. He is completing his first book project, Blackpentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility, which investigates the relationship of aesthetic productions to modes of collective, social intellectual practice.
Photo by Andrew Thomas Clifton.