Discover more from A Lie Before Its Time
New Paintings, New Music, and Arthur Jafa
TALES, a show of my new paintings opens at Shrine in Los Angeles next Friday, July 7th. This will be my first exhibition in Los Angeles, where I now live.
And I am continuing to release new songs every new moon. Here is the newest. Enjoy.
And below is my interview with filmmaker and artist, Arthur Jafa.
A decade ago, Arthur Jafa was a little known cinematographer who had experienced the peak of his career in the 1990s. In that era, he’d shot one of the defining films of contemporary Black Cinema, Daughters of the Dust, with his then wife, the director, Julie Dash; he worked on Spike Lee’s Crooklyn, and on second-unit on Eyes Wide Shut, working with his cinematic inspiration, Stanley Kubrick. These were significant achievements, and yet, by 2011, at the age of 51, Jafa felt like a failure.
In 2016, Jafa began a new, unexpected career in the artworld. His short video work, Love is the Message, the Message is Death became one of those rare sensations, garnering the kind of praise and attention usually seen in pop culture. Within a few years, he had become one of the most lauded contemporary artists of the moment, showing his work in prestigious museums, blue chip galleries, and international biennials. He’s won the industry’s top prizes and received the accompanying financial remuneration that is now allowing him to develop more ambitious works.
As an artist, Jafa plays with a variety of media, including 2-D, 3-D, and standees of Black Incredible Hulks; but his primary form is the filmic essay. Drawing on a vast, cultural library of images and video, he meticulously curates a kind of visual thesis in his videos, using rhythmic editing and the juxtaposition of media: youtube clips, old photographs, surveillance footage, and excerpts from cinematic history.
Primarily, these works have developed his deep and complicated definition of Blackness, a concept the following interview unpacks at length. He applies his thinking on the subject through a cinematic technique called black visual intonation, which attempts to imitate Black speech through irregular non-metronomic camera rates and frame replication, all as a part of his search for a new, thoroughly Black Cinema.
His recent work The White Album  flips his gaze onto Whiteness, which he sees from the perspective of Blackness, evoking the horrors of white supremacy through his method of collage. The video won the Golden Lion at the 2019 Venice Biennial, and is among his most challenging works to date.
Music is also essential to Jafa’s thought and he often references the history music to illustrate his ideas about Blackness, which he believes has seen one its most profound expressions in contemporary music. His videos often place music at their forefront (Oneohtrix Point Never, Kanye West, etc) and in the last few years, he’s turned his attention to music videos, working with Solange, Devendra Banhart and Jay-Z.
Though visuals and audio are what have brought him acclaim, language seems to be increasingly important to spreading his ideas. Through dialogues, lectures and occasional essays like My Black Death, he expresses himself boldly and often controversially, such as his criticism of 12 Years a Slave and Black Panther, which he felt were not true expressions of Blackness. He usually talks in long monologic phrases that seem to circle back on themselves, like the refrain of a pop song. When I spoke to him on the phone in the summer, he was in his home in Los Angeles and immediately took control of the conversation, orating fluidly and continuously, even when he had to step outside to move his parked car.
I. If you stand in a room with somebody else, you’re going to breathe in their air.
ROSS SIMONINI: Where are you now?
ARTHUR JAFA: I’m in Los Angeles. I just got back from Australia a few days ago. Three days ago. Two days basically. I’m going back toward the latter part of May to do a kind of more extensive investigation of parts of Australia. I was just in Sydney the whole time, so I want to go up into Queensland and some other places.
RS: For the Sydney Biennale?
AJ: Yes, the Sydney Biennale in 2020.
RS: Are you going to make new work for it?
AJ: Yeah definitely. I mean, I have some very, very preliminary ideas about what I want to do. I’ve been interested in Aboriginal painting for a long, long time. Since I was in high school, really. When I go back in May I’m going to visit some of the communities that do these paintings just to meet some of the painters and talk to them. I have some very romantic ideas about walkabouts.
RS: Aboriginal paintings are often described as being a kind of map of dream time.
AJ: They’re kind of like cartographies of a certain level, but also, they have this other stuff going on. I’m starting to think through how their understanding of dreams, you know, functions depending on the relationship to visualizing them and these sort of Afro-American ideas of dreams epitomized by MLK’s speech. But I want to look at the whole question of a dream, like, how Black America is really doing. Like psychoanalytically, but, also, sociohistorically. I don’t know. These are really just sort of rough ideas. I don’t really know what I’m going to do. Like I said, the first thing, I want to make waves. Since I was in high school. I saw the film The Last Wave when I was in high school. You know that film?
RS: The Peter Weir film? It’s great.
AJ: Yeah, exactly. I saw that when I was in high school and I couldn’t even tell you what it was about. I haven’t seen the film in probably twenty-five, thirty years but I think I was fascinated by how the people looked. I would term the look Dravidian now. It’s something I’ve been obsessed with for a long, long time. I went to the southern Tamil part of India and that’s the whole, sort of, Dravidian part of India. Dravidian architecture. And the people all look like Miles Davis tribe. They’re all super, super, super dark. It’s the kind of Black that’s not even typical of people of African descent. Certainly not typical Black Americans — there were some parts of Mississippi that I grew up in where you would see it on occasion, but it was very atypical. But I was always sort of drawn to that, so when I saw The Last Wave, basically I remember one scene where Richard Chamberlain is sitting in a cave, and he’s facing this Aborigine. I can see it and there’s this ax sitting between them on the floor. They’re having this conversation and Richard Chamberlain says, “Who are you?” to the guy. And the guy says, “Who are you?” And the next time Richard Chamberlain speaks in response to the Aborigine guy, the Aborigine guy’s voice comes out of Richard Chamberlain’s mouth. And that just kind of blew my mind, honestly. that’s certainly one of the earliest instances that I can remember a kind of dissociative dynamic between the body and the voice. You know what I mean? And that fear of a tidal wave in the film. Fear of water is something also that you see in the Delta. I have a script for this film I want to make about Robert Johnson and there’s a scene in it where he actually confronts a 200-foot sentient, rogue wave at midnight. At night in the woods.
RS: All these topics — Robert Johnson, floods, Aboriginal dream time – they’re all really rich with mythology. Is the kind of Whiteness you’re depicting mythologized?
AJ: Cornel West said there’s certain things you cannot not know as a Black person in America. A good name for what you cannot not know is Whiteness, and what I mean by that is, I don’t think pinning anything down is necessarily the only way of apprehending a thing. My interest is not about pinning it down, it’s not about necessarily mapping out all the particularities of it, the divergences of it. What it’s really about is trying to describe what it looks like for Black people operatively speaking, instrumentally speaking,. And to a certain degree that’s like really defined by the sort of pathological dimensions of Whiteness. I feel like it’s important not to collapse Whiteness and White people. I don’t think they are necessarily the same thing, in the same way that Blackness and Black people are not the same thing. Like say Fred Moten, for example, he said, I think quite accurately that Black people have a privileged relationship to Blackness, but we don’t have a proprietary relationship to it. It’s like Blackness is the ontological formulation, right, that can be understood by people who are not necessarily even Black. I mean it’s a thing unto itself. It’s a thing that can inform how you might understand the world. It has its own, sort of, parameters around trying to understand the world. It’s why I say, for example, if you look at southern soul music, you look at Jazz or techno, I think most people wouldn’t argue that those are Black musics, but often times the participants, the practitioners are not themselves Black, you know what I mean. It means that they operate inside of a certain givens in terms of an aesthetic modality. In the same way, just because a person is Black singing opera, even if they bring the Black sensibility to it, that doesn’t make opera Black music. You know what I’m saying? Because opera itself, as a formulation, is tethered to its own particular trajectory. So, opera is a response to a sort of expressive desires of say Italians of whatever century who innovated opera. So, of course there’s a line at which you can say is this thing Black, is this thing not Black? That’s like anything. Does one drop of African blood make you Black? Does one drop of White blood make you White? There’s no hard and fast line, but, nevertheless, there is such a thing as Whiteness and there is such a thing as Blackness.
Now, as a person of African descent in the Americas, this Whiteness is often times traumatic; more often than not it is traumatic. Again, there’s a difference between Whiteness and White people. Sometimes White people are the carriers of Whiteness, sometimes they aren’t. So, Whiteness itself as a formulation, is inherently bound up with ideas of purity, it’s bound up with ideas of difference. Whiteness as its own self-conception is completely bound by the idea of defining itself not by what it is, but by what it isn’t. And a definition of purity in the world is a problematic definition because it’s a definition inherently based on being able to control the other. You know what I mean? The world is a world full of mixing. It’s impossible not to mix. If you stand in a room with somebody else, you’re going to breathe in their air. That’s just it. You don’t have to touch a person, you can just be in a room, you blow out air they breathe air in. There’s going to be an exchange. Exchanges always happen. But Whiteness as it defines itself is completely bound up with a problematization of this whole idea of exchange. Of changing with the others. Blackness becomes the ultimate contaminant as opposed to like an Asian person who one might say doesn’t have as much melanin, or whatever the trigger is around in terms of Whiteness and understanding itself as being polluted. So, that’s why on a certain sort of social level you see all this antagonism to Black people. Does that make sense?
So, there’s the tension between Whiteness as I cannot not know as a Black person, as a non-White person in the context of my society. There’s tension between the version of Whiteness that’s frightening, scary, you know, alt-right, Klan, White supremacist, Nazi and the people in my life who I care about, who I adore and love who are White. Maintaining these two things simultaneously is complicated. Meaning, when you start collapsing White people and Whiteness you get into problematics like Oh! I met some White people I love, so Whiteness must not be a bad thing because there are some good White people. Nah, that’s not how that works. It’s like saying patriarchy is not the same thing as men, but if a man refuses to have a self-understanding, a self-conception that’s unbounded from patriarchy then if you’re anti-patriarchal, you’re going to be anti-man in that self-conception. So, to me, White people who don’t have any mechanisms of any sort to refuse aspects of Whiteness in themselves is a psychopathology. It’s the equivalent to German people saying Yes. To be German is to be Nazi.
So, I’m not anti-White people, but I am anti-Whiteness because, I think, a lot of people have a difficulty understanding that Whiteness is, at least in my sort of world view, a malformulation in the same way that Nazism is a malformulation and patriarchy is a malformulation. It’s a malformulation, but people’s identities are so bound up with Whiteness that they can’t separate. I had a really good friend. She came to a talk that I gave up at the gallery. I think she was a good friend. We were good friends. We haven’t talked in a few years because she came up to me afterward and said I didn’t like your talk because I felt very alienated. And we talked. I said, well your alienation is because you’re unable to disassociate yourself from Whiteness. You can’t disassociate yourself from Whiteness.
Now, someone would say Well, we’re not asking you to cease identifying with Blackness, but see, they’re not the same thing. They’re very different. Like in a way, Blackness is the ontological construction of something that’s been forced on us, but it’s more cultural than anything. Some people say that Blackness is inherently bound up with Whiteness, that, in fact, Blackness is part of the malformulation.
There may be no biological definition of race, but clearly, there is a thing called race that exists because if it didn’t exist we couldn’t have a society structured around it. Science is not the only way to apprehend the world, it’s not the only way in which the complexity of the world can be understood or defined or categorized. It’s just one of them. And, so, it seems to me that one of the things that The White Album itself is actually struggling with is the kinship between these two things – Whiteness and White people.
II. Flora and Fauna
RS: Since you’re talking about Blackness as a kind of intermixing, and we’re inherently moving toward a more global, interconnected world, are we moving toward Blackness?
AJ: I don’t know if moving away from Whiteness is moving towards Blackness. It’s not the same thing to me. I think we are moving away from Whiteness, but that’s because Whiteness and most White people have designated themselves as being the absence of anything else. That’s who we’re moving away from, but to move away from Whiteness is not necessarily meaning you’re becoming Black. I don’t think Asian people in East Asia or in South Asia — I don’t think they’re Black. They’re certainly not Black in the Black-American ontological Black. A lot of people have adopted the term Black to describe themselves in Australia; the Aborigines call themselves Black. As do Black people in many you know, in London. When I first went to London right out of college I was very confused when East Asians, South Asian people in London referred to themselves as Black. So, a lot of people have adopted the designation Black because they realize they are in that subaltern, ulterior relationship to White. So, they’re not White so they define themselves as Black. It’s more of a political gesture than anything. But, again, Whiteness is the sub definition that mostly has to do with the absence of Black. You know that book How the Irish became White? It basically breaks down the process in which when Irish people first came en masse to America, to the U.S. in particular. You know, they were kind of considered the niggers of Europe, you know what I mean?
RS: Right. Italians, too.
AJ: Yeah, Italians as well. The way every ethnic group who has come to the Americas who wanted to make sure that they were under the umbrella of Whiteness. I mean, I’ve had Italian fans who have said to me things like, they reveal things to me like, “Yeah, if I’m in certain parties and if they’re White I don’t feel clean, I feel unclean.” Things like that. So, what you’re talking about is the presence, in some ways, it’s almost an etymological designation. You’re talking about the presence of otherness, which more or less amounts to the presence of levels of melanin. We know melanin is not just what defines Blackness. Clearly, it’s not because Black people move a certain kind of way, talk a certain kind of way, we interact a certain kind of way. It doesn’t mean those things are exclusive to Black people. It means the combination of those things define the character of Black, though. I have always been amazed, like, if you say Black music pretty much everyone knows what you’re talking about, right? I could think off the top of my head, I could literally list a hundred Black musicians, you know, Black artists who are musicians, musical artists, right. I could list a hundred people. And, in every instance you would never confuse one of those first people with another person. Say, could you ever conceivably confuse Billie Holiday with Bob Marley with Jimi Hendrix with Miles Davis with Lil Richard with Chuck Barry with Ella Fitzgerald? Those are almost different universes. You could never confuse them. Nevertheless, they all constantly sit under the banner of Black music. If everybody gets it, everybody gets it. I could play people for you who you have never heard. Meaning I could play musicians you have never actually heard, and you could still identify that as Black music. In some instances, it may even be White people making it, but you could still identify it as Black music. So, one of the things that is fascinating to me about that is how this thing is so big, encompassing, but it’s so diverse at the same time. Meaning it’s physically and radically diverse at the same time.
How come Black music was the dominant culture form of the twentieth century? I think at this point it’s still an argument if that is the case. I don’t know if that’s going to be the case for the twenty-first century. I don’t think that was the case for the nineteenth century, but for the twentieth century, Black music was clearly the dominant cultural form. And I think, my hypothesis is something like this: African music culture is one of the oldest musical cultures, if not the oldest musical culture in the world. That means this music culture is sophisticated. It’s not the only one, you know. You go to Europe, to China, to all these places to find sophisticated ancient musical cultures, right, but you’re talking about one of the oldest musical cultures in the world. But as is often the case with many cultural formulations and stuff, it has a certain relationship with power. I like to think the way to understand traditional African music and its relationship to power is to look at the relationship between say, painting, in Europe and power. You go to the Louvre and you look at this painting and 99.95% of it is going to come down to two or three things: paintings of aristocracy, the kings and queens; paintings by the church, of the church, the mythologies, or the beliefs of the church, right; and at a certain point paintings of the merchant class – the money class. I mean 99% of them is that. Why is that? It’s not complicated. It’s because they were the ones subsidizing the paintings. They were the ones who were paying the painters to paint, and, of course, they wanted pictures, if not of themselves, of the things they control, they own, the things they use to measure their power or wealth. So, even if you said the issues of landscapes, pastoral landscapes all these kinds of things completely bound up with controlling the universe, controlling the world. Peasant classes do not own the land, do not own landscapes in the way money and royal classes do. I think what happens is you get this music, right, that’s super sophisticated, but it’s bound to the ruling class kings and queens. Africans are enslaved and, moved to the Americas where a paradoxical thing happened. On one hand, their movement and self-determination is radically circumscribed, meaning Black people don’t get to go where they want to go, don’t get to do what they want to do because they’re not recognized as human beings, right? They’re only recognized as assets, property. But very paradoxically, at the same time in which Black people find themselves physically circumscribed, the music is kind of unleashed. So what you get is an incredibly sophisticated, vibrant musical tradition untethered to the narratives of the ruling class, in favor of the narratives of the peasant class in one of the most volatile circumstances in the history of humankind. So [the music] is about the inherent drama of that circumstance.
RS: What about contemporary art? how do you see Blackness fitting into that culture?
AJ: The Black presence in contemporary art is something that's in process. Something that is inevitable. Not inevitable. It's past inevitable, at this point. Obviously, there's such a thing as Blackness in the art world. And obviously, it can be profitable. I mean, if there was any question, Basquiat answered that question, just on the level of the potential for profitability. And there's so many artists, like Kerry James Marshall, who are selling prints for incredible amounts of money. But there's no such thing as art that has any inherent value. It's all assigned value. People draw pictures all the time; that doesn't mean they have any value. People take photos all time that doesn't mean they have any value, right. So when we say the Mona Lisa's worth X, Y, and Z, versus whatever other picture, I mean, it's not because the Mona Lisa's photo-realistic, because you can take a photograph and get a photo realistic painting. I'm just trying to think in the broadest sense, what is it about the Mona Lisa? is the Mona Lisa a better picture than you can do with a high-resolution digital camera? Is it a better picture? It's not. It's just assigned value. So in some ways the push into the art world, as much as anything— and I don't think this is the only thing that is going on— is about the assertion of value. It's a little bit of a gold rush, too. Like whatever the mechanism inside of Whiteness that has feared that there is some value in artificially diminishing the worth or the value of the output of other people who are not White, you know what I mean. Because clearly, there was some mechanism that was asserting it. [The mechanism] was asserting that paintings by Black people were not as good, as valuable, nor as worthy of being selected as paintings by White people. The mechanism is really about elevating Whiteness. In other words, it's a crucially desperate attempt to give Whiteness some inherent value.
RS: This kind of cultural value usually addresses a fixed, unchanging object, like the Mona Lisa. But you’ve continued to “fiddle” with your work, as you put it. You keep changing The White Album with each show. It’s not static artwork. You're continuing to develop it, in the same way that that Kanye did with The Life of Pablo. It’s like a subversion of that idea of an artwork being a...
RS: Yeah, it's not a single thing. It's more of an idea by doing that, less of an object.
AJ: Yeah, it's like if you buy a mix. Or if you go and experience a mix, let's say. I mean, as soon as you record a mix and release it, it in a sense becomes a thing. But then a mix is not a thing. It's not a thing in the same way a record is the same or a track is the same. A mix is a curation. And I think in the instance of Life of Pablo, that was certainly the most powerful demonstration or articulation of this idea that we've seen, in the last ten years, you know, Kanye's insistence that the things continue to evolve, even after it was released. Like, see, to me, I mean this is a bit of stretch but I would suggest that there's something Black about that. There's something very Black about the idea that the thing is constantly evolving even after it's purchased. I mean that that would be a good way of saying it. It's like the fact that Black people were designated as non-human, as sub-human perhaps. When I was in Australia, one of the most amazing things, or the most amazing concrete example of something I didn't know before I got there was, like, up until 1967 in Australia, aboriginal people were designated in the constitution as flora and fauna. Up until 1967. Now, that's interesting because it's something about the whole idea of a Black person not being a human being: no culture, no language, no intelligence. And nevertheless, continuing to evolve after we have been purchased and moved from one place to another.
III. Black Cinema
RS: You often cite books but to what degree is writing is a part of what you do?
AJ: I don't really write. I don't really write too much. I find writing to be extremely time-consuming and in some ways, perhaps, even paralyzing. I just don’t get the kind of feedback loop that I was trying to elicit. I mean, I'm very proud of the handful of things that I actually sat down and wrote, like, you know, my essay from My Black Death or something like that, but by and large, I've just been much more comfortable speaking.
RS: Is speaking a form of writing for you?
AJ: I mean I do talks I don't prepare for at this point in my life. And it's because I haven't seen much of an appreciable difference, between when I do perform and when I don't. I mean there's something pretentious but slightly improvisational about it. And I do feel like the work does something different than the talks.
RS: Would you say that you started in Hollywood? Or is that not how you see it?
AJ: I may have aspired to Hollywood on a certain level, but about the closest I ever came was Crooklyn but even I would say that was only marginally in Hollywood. I mean obviously it was financed by a studio, but it was not a Hollywood type of thing at all. So I don't know that I have operated in Hollywood, you know.
RS: Have you turned away from that aspiration?
AJ: Well, I do think I'm moving towards it in certain kinds of ways. I mean certainly my career in cinematography is over for all practical purposes,. Just because, I mean, there were some very real limitations to cinematography as a modality for me, like, that I experienced very early on. Like when I worked on Daughters of the Dust, which was the first feature that I shot, I thought that was the real world. I didn't know how atypical that set-up was. It's kind of like, you start off in Miles Davis’ band, right, and the next thing you know, you make a step to John Coltrane's band. But the only step after that is to being a horn player, backing the Rolling Stones, you know. At best. At best. And I love the Rolling Stones. But you know, I'm saying, like, imagine 'Trane [John Coltrane] in Miles' band going to his own band, and then going from that to being like Clarence Clemons or something behind the Rolling Stones. You know what I'm saying? And I'm not meaning to compare myself with no John Coltrane. Or, it's like, a critical part of Basquiat’s success is not the paintings that he made, but his ability to be able to circumnavigate the context. I mean, he is, he was as much a genius at that as he was at making the paintings. But the toll that it took is why he didn't make it to 30. The point I'm trying to make in this is that the context in which you operate really does matter. It matters. And so, to me, the whole question of Hollywood is not a question of being in Hollywood, it is a question of, like, the terms by which I might be allowed to pursue my business to its fullest expression. Because inside of the way I have imagined or constructed, you know, in my head, what a Black cinema looks like, right, those terms of its fullest expression are going to be in many ways in contradistinction, they're going to be in conflict, with many of the assumptions, practices, protocols, methodologies. Meaning the very way in which a set has to be organized to fully realize my vision of Black cinema would be in conflict with the way things are done. In the same way Wong Kar-wai, right, attempted his Hollywood fame with My Blueberry Nights [his first feature in English]. The shit didn't work. It's fascinating, all the ways in which it didn't work and why it broke down, and why it doesn't look like any other Wong Kar-wai.
RS: Not a blockbuster.
AJ: But there's so many instances of, like, mostly European directors, right, who have transitioned their thing to Hollywood with little or no, no, no problems. You know what I'm saying? So it's not just the language thing. It really has to do with his methodology, his procedures, his protocols and how those things ultimately didn't work. They didn't work in a Hollywood context. It's just really a question of, like, to what degree it's possible for me to configure a situation in which I'm going to be allowed to fulfill my [dream?], I want to film what film could be. And that's something that I'm guardedly optimistic about.
RS: You don’t feel that the possibility of Black Cinema is changing?
AJ: Black films have demonstrated they can be blockbusters. Get Out. 12 Years a Slave. So, nobody has to argue the possibility of Black films being profitable, right. And in combination with the sort of verified possibility of Black films, there's also something around this trend of a new thing, a new different, a new possibility for films. Right? Like I personall, don't feel like Black Panther is it. I don't feel like 12 Years a Slave is it. I think Jordan Peele's thing is definitely ... he has a unique vision. Like the one thing that I really think was real Black cinema that we see functioning at a very high level, emotionally and aesthetically, was like Moonlight. I really feel like that had a very high portion of what I would term Black cinema, you know. But when you say Moonlight and Black Panther, exactly what are you pointing to? You know what I mean? I mean, it's a little bit of a kind of a back and forth, where we're actually trying to put our fingers on what I might be suggesting when I say Black film versus what somebody else might be thinking, like. Whereas when we say Black music, even though as I say, it's an incredibly diverse array or spectrum of things, we absolutely get it. We can all agree, there's a thing called lightning, right? But when we say that there's Black cinema it's very difficult to grasp what that thing is. Right? It's very difficult to grasp what it is. I can say, Moonlight has some of it. But I think Black Panther or 12 Years a Slave have very little of it. Most of what they have is Black figures, meaning Black actors, in the same narratives that seem to be preoccupied with Black people's lives? Black Cinema is different. But not just different, different in a way that's wholly bound up with the totality or the specificity of what it means when one says something is Black. And that it seems to me, where I can say this very clearly, that's what I'm interested in. I'm not just interested in making us some money. And I would suggest that in conjunction with the verifiable possibility of Black film, there's now some kind of unspoken anticipation of desire or hunger for, right, a real Black film. I believe it to be the case. I believe that to be the case, because I think there is a kind of internal pushing toward, attraction, repulsion to the very idea of cinema by Black people. Because, you know, Sydney [Wimmer?] said this very interesting thing. She says that the novel was always both the emblem of Western civilization and the prime mechanism in which the boundariesof Western civilization were not just defined, but reinforced. She would say, the novel that destroyed the medieval worldview was Cervantes' novel, Don Quixote. It made absurd and unsustainable many of the ideas that were central to the medieval worldview. But she says, now, in the current world, even though the novel in some ways is still the emblem of Western civilization, the actual heavy lifting of policing and affirming and asserting the values, boundaries of Whiteness and White civilization, fall to the audio visual, to media. Media is actually doing the heavy lifting now. So whereas a Black person making a painting can have a certain symbolic effect, and can achieve a certain effect in the world by valuation, in the case of Basquiat a certain aesthetic power, nobody actually thinks in the way which paintings are bound up with our sense of what determines value in society and these kinds of things. That's symbolic, because of the symbolic value. Nobody thinks a painting is going to change how people think about women or Black people. Whereas people actually do think cinema, certainly as a whole, can determine how people think about Black people and women and gay people and any other, right, people. I personally question some of it myself, but that's how people generally think about it. So the whole idea of Black cinema, I think, on one hand, is fascinating, because you are talking about giving the reins of making value, and making meaning in the world over to non-White people, right, over to the Other. The coming together of Black music i.e. Black values, and Black cinema is a very powerful idea. In terms of altering our understand of the world, it's a very powerful idea: the idea of a cinema with the capacity to transform how people think about the world. What the fuck does that look like? It's not anything we've seen before. Or like John Coltrane or Miles Davis or Billie Holiday or Jimi Hendrix. What is the cinematic equivalent of those things? We haven't seen it. We don't really know what that looks like. And I think, heretofore, or up until this point, there has been no real ... there's been no real investment in seeing these things. But when Chris Blackwell said, in the mid-late '60s, I'm going to make a billion dollar company based on the musical output of this, you know singer set in Jamaica who believes you shouldn't comb your hair, you should smoke dope all the time. And Haile Selassie, the emperor of Ethiopia, was God, a living, like, God. People would have said he was crazy. Right? But without Bob Marley there ain't no YouTube. There ain't all these other things that Island Records was able to do by virtue of the success of Bob Marley and associates, right. So in the same way, even more powerfully, if in 1910, I had said, Look, we got this thing, this new thing was invented, and we going to sell, it's called Black music, it would have seemed laughable. But not by the middle of the century, and certainly not by the end of the century. It's a trillion-dollar industry. And so the possibility of, in the sense, collapsing what Black music does, Black aesthetics and cinema is a very powerful idea that I think is slowly coming into being. And it's like the only thing that I'm interested in, in terms of film and stuff. I'm not going to make 10 feature films at this point in my life. I'm not. I dreamed of it when I was in my 20s, you know. Now, I'll be very happy to make three or four. But if that's the case, like James Joyce, I want to make three or four that I really want. I want them to really be what I want them to be. At this point in my life, I don't need to make any money from films. I don't make my living from cinema anymore. I make my living selling art. So I'm not going to take any little offer. I know, making films is expensive, and there is some inherent compromise that's involved. On this certain level, I don't mind compromising, but if we're trying to shoot a rocket to the moon, I'm not trying to make a racecar, you know what I'm saying. It's still got to be directed at the moon, so to speak, to use the analogy. It's got to still be shooting for the moon. And that's where I'm at. And failure's important. I think it's important to fail doing what you're trying to do, but not fail, you know, attempting a compromised vision of what you're trying to do. I don't want to fail at making a racing car, when I'm trying to make a rocket ship. I want to try to make a rocket ship and have that fail.
Originally published in The Believer.