- Intergenerational Pedagogy in Jenn Nkiru's Rebirth is Necessary
We need to see ourselves to know we exist.—Jenn Nkiru1
The British Nigerian filmmaker Jenn Nkiru has quickly become an important and critically acclaimed practitioner of contemporary Black cinema whose focus on rendering rarely seen aspects of Black life—particularly queer identity and Black feminist thought—is an expression of a younger generation of Black artists' conception of identity, style, and history.2 Nkiru experienced a meteoric rise to popular prominence as the second unit director for the Carters' "apeshit" music video (Ricky Saiz, 2018).3 Creating a viral phenomenon, the "apeshit" video was released on YouTube at the same time as the single, the first from Beyoncé and Jay-Z's first joint album, everything is love (2018).4 Although she often works in the commercial music video form, directing videos for Kamasi Washing-ton and Neneh Cherry, among others, like her frequent collaborators and fellow Howard graduates Arthur Jafa and Bradford Young, Nkiru intentionally pushes the format to more formally daring and theoretically informed ends, creating work that lives as comfortably in the formal gallery space as it does on online. To recognize the situatedness of this type of work, located at the fluid intersection of art installation and experimental film, the liquid blackness group has utilized the term "music art video."5 Of keen interest to Nkiru's filmmaking practice [End Page 163] in particular is the building of coalitional diasporic audiences. Distribution through online streaming platforms is crucial to fulfill Nkiru's mission of the intergenerational pedagogy modeled in her music art videos. As an example of this coalition building, this essay considers her 2017 short film rebirth is necessary.
Attesting to both the influence of music video and her prior experience as a DJ, Nkiru insists on the vital role of sound in her aesthetic formation and her film-making practice.6 The short rebirth is necessary vigorously reflects this genealogy. Unearthing "secret histories" such as those Linscott discusses, the short features a variety of audio and video archival materials—including samples of Sun Ra, James Baldwin, Fred Moten, Steve Reich, Kathleen Cleaver, and Alice Coltrane, among many others—as well as original footage shot in South Africa and her native South London. In so doing, it enacts what Nkiru has deemed a "cosmic archaeology" of life and filmmaking in the African diaspora.7 Montage predominates as the aesthetic organization of the film, employing Nkiru's principle of sonic mimesis through its use of the remix logic of hip-hop sampling.8 Like early hip-hop, the experience of the work is frenetic. Disrupting the notional fidelity of the synched image and documentary realism, the video features a variety of one- to five-second audio and video archival clips, which makes the project of mapping its narrative organization and references daunting. Given its density and complexity, one might assume that Nkiru's archival resources were drawn from a public-access archive such as the BBC, but in fact Nkiru and her production team personally sought out permissions from each source, revealing a disciplined intention behind the use of each clip.9 Because of its intense reliance on archival footage, Nkiru has described rebirth is necessary as akin to a bibliography, an observation which led the liquid blackness research group to think through her work as "Black Studies as Aesthetic Practice."10 Its formal structure largely mirroring its larger political purpose, the aesthetic density of rebirth is necessary relays to its audiences the diverse complexity of African diasporic culture. Through montage, Nkiru's film touches on modes of embodiment, sexual and gender fluidities, spiritual and ritual practices, and theories of the Black experience from Afro-pessimism to Afrofuturism. To further illustrate the work's complexity, it seems useful to analytically examine a portion of the film in more detail.
The video channel Nowness produced rebirth is necessary for their Blackstar series, which features upcoming directors' reflections on the Black experience. In Nkiru's words, it is "like therapy. It's where I go to reconcile my worlds—the material and the [End Page 164] spiritual, the human and divine. This film is...