- The Unruly Archives of Black Music Videos
Midway through Kahlil Joseph's short film Music Is My Mistress (2017), the cellist and singer Kelsey Lu turns to Ishmael Butler, a rapper and member of the hip-hop duo Shabazz Palaces, to ask a question. The dialogue is inaudible, but an intertitle appears on screen: "her: Who is your favorite film-maker?" "him: Miles Davis." This moment of Black audiovisual appreciation anticipates a conversation between Black popular culture scholars Uri McMillan and Mark Anthony Neal that inspires the subtitle for this In Focus dossier: "Music Video as Black Art."1 McMillan and Neal interpret the complexity of contemporary Black music video production as a "return" to its status as "art"—and specifically as Black art—that self-consciously uses visual and sonic citations from various realms of Black expressive culture including the visual and performing arts, fashion, design, and, obviously, the rich history of Black music and Black music production. McMillan and Neal implicitly refer to an earlier, more recognizable moment in Black music video history, the mid-1990s and early 2000s, when Hype Williams defined music video aesthetics as one of the single most important innovators of the form. Although it is rarely addressed in the literature on music videos, the glare of the prolific filmmaker's influence extends beyond his signature luminous visual style; Williams distinguished the Black music video as a creative laboratory for a new generation of artists such as Arthur Jafa, Kahlil Joseph, Bradford Young, and Jenn Nkiru. As Joseph [End Page 138] suggests in Music Is My Mistress, this generation of artists holds the freedom of expression achieved through Black music as an inspiration for formal experimentation in audiovisual media and approaches its filmmaking practice through musical processes, such as improvisation, remixing, looping, and sampling. Often working collaboratively, these artists have taken the music video into the art gallery and bridged the gap between this popular form, art cinema, and installation art. This In Focus is dedicated to these filmmakers and the fluid exchange they have initiated.
In a 2016 article for the New Yorker, "The Profound Power of the New Solange Videos," on music videos shot by Jafa, Cassie da Costa explains that tracing the development of Black aesthetic modes across such diverse instantiations presents a distinct challenge.2 However, Jenny Gunn has argued in response that it may be precisely where the proper terms of the lineage seem the least transparent that the work of the archive becomes most necessary.3 When this group of Black music video directors apply musical techniques to high-art visual references—as, for example, in Young's and Joseph's frequent re-creation of Roy DeCarava's photographs or when Alan Ferguson and Solange Knowles reproduce the painting "Complication" by Ghanaian-British painter Lynette Yiadom-Boakye in "Don't Touch My Hair ft. Sampha"—they knowingly perform archival work. Like hip-hop producers "digging in the crates," their work reorganizes history and challenges conventional thinking about medium specificity by bringing sometimes-unattended visual and sonic material to new surfaces. The artists discussed here understand and develop their filmmaking process after the music-making process. Hence their work's form is powerfully shaped by complex, nonlinear temporalities, a radical investigation of the sound-image relation, and the relationship between movement and sound as it occurs through synchronization. By establishing a "sizeable archive of social, political, and cultural alternatives," these filmmakers perform the inherently critical work of Black studies and distinguish the "Black music video," within mainstream, popular spaces where this work is widely distributed, received—and most notably, appropriated.4
These artists' theoretically engaged music videos resemble essay films and thus demand an analytical method that is similarly innovative: an untraditional historiography that follows the work's complex references and is just as improvisational as the rich history of sound culture that sustains it. Thus, this dossier's contributor attend to analytical approaches as they emerge from the work itself. We call this a "liquid" methodology because it was developed by the research group known as liquid blackness, precisely to probe the way the legacy of experimentations initiated by the...