The Technosonic of Black Expressionism
At night, you can feel the bass from down the block. One night it is a consistent hypnotic thump. Other nights, it’s rhythmic and dynamic— rising or falling in a moment’s notice. The songs stretch across crowds and spaces, past and present. Underground dance music, specifically sonic production, or music that is made in combination with technology, thrives wherever it can; in a home, a club, an abandoned warehouse and beyond. Despite its apparent limitlessness, at the center is and has always been Blackness.
From New Jersey to Sao Paulo to Chicago, underground music moves in and through one person to the next. Whether it is techno, footwork, jersey club, or bailé funk, most, or if not all genres’ origins rely on a connection to, or born out of a Black community. However you found that record at your favorite music store, or archived a Soundcloud playlist you found, when you tilt your head back, the music has a connection beyond the flesh, beyond the realities that try to contain it. The music feels as if it represents an expression of a moment, and on the other hand, it expresses what a moment should feel like before it happens. Underground sonic production lays the foundation for popular music, while at the same time, it abstracts and moves outside the realms of legibility; the music becomes the chorus, becomes its own embodiment.
And yeah, before I get ahead of myself, let’s take a step back.
In his book, Phonographies: Grooves in Sonic-AfroModernity, Dr. Alexander Weheliye expands notions of Afro-modernity and sonic productions. He states that “the sonic remains an important zone from and through which to theorize the fundamentality of Afro-diasporic formations to the currents of Western modernity…” Black sonic creations, especially the singing voice as to Dr. Wheelie’s research is an act of value and archive for Black communities. Although these creations have always existed outside of the categories of human, Dr. Weheliye does usher a suggestion for the black singing voice as its own body, moving outside the articulations of dehumanization, and into languages outside the Enlightenment’s desires of the ‘human’.
It is in this value, this placement towards an alternative ‘body’, Black sonic creativity can be seen as a source of raw material. A material, in combination with technological advances, shifts from a stable, embodied source into a remixed, re(contextualized) and appropriated source scattered across the world. Dr. Weheliye asks, “In what sense does the de/re/coupling of sound and source shift the central place of orality and music in the production, transmission and reception of black culture?”
Even though Dr. Weheliye’s research bases itself on the black singing voice (without negating it), I take the same questions and concepts as it relates to Black sonic production. In of itself, Black electronic/dance/sonic production is a technosonic sound. Techno, especially made by Black people for Black people to dance, is imperative to all mainstream popular and underground music. Techno’s sound is capable only because of technology — both the hardware of a computer and the technology of Black communal histories and connectivity. Thus making Black Technosonic’s true value relying on the digital experience and transmission of itself; streaming platforms, virality, social media and digital/crypto-currency. Without the Internet, without technology to combine with a communal Blackness, what we know of music would not exist today (more or less).
To express such a stance, you can watch Supa Hot Fire – The Rap Battle Parody (FULL VIDEO) [DeShawn Raw]. A video in which its humor and tropes on rap/comedy, still circulates in the forms of GIFs/memes today. The video’s iconic humor is self aware of the ways rap, Black music, and essentially blackness is a currency. The humor, too, doesn’t downplay rap in its jokes (a technique often utilized by non-Black comedians). Instead the video understands the mechanisms of the music genre and instead flips it. This and the crowd of screaming and overjoyed Black boys (an image we aren’t used to seeing) says so much about the importance of Black music and also Blackness’ existence to the Internet/popular culture.
Such revolutions by Black creators are not new; especially when it comes to recontextualizing, or disemboding creations. Abstract Expressionism is an artistic movement with techniques that take away the representations of the every day and in turn, abstracts and reformulates it with the expressions by the creator. Works by the painter Norman Lewis, large canvases spread with layers of color and lines that expands what we think Black people can feel. As seen below in Jazz Band (1948), Lewis’ architecture of emotion is contained in quick gestures centered on the black background The emotion, inspired by the musical genre of Jazz, are the visual inscriptions of the sound. The shapes are ephemeral, shapeshifting as your eyes trail down the piece. With much of Lewis’ works, like most Black Abstract Expressionists take influences from the world, which can be the same for Black music and importantly, the Black Technosonic.
Black Abstract Expressionist artists did not dismiss the representative; most were figurative drawers or painters before making work strictly in color, or gesture. Although for Black Abstract Expressionism, without the representative or the image of ‘Blackness’, most were overlooked, erased and exploited compared to their white peers and society. For Black Abstract Expressionism, the work stands to be Black simply because it feels to be Black rather than what is known. Feeling is a presence, an act before articulation.
Which means the Black Technosonic is felt whether that is in the beat, its sample and melody before it is understood as an object to be articulated into genres, or extracted through appropriation. The Black Technosonic, in part with the technological embodiment and Black cultural production, sits at the crossroads of Black humanism and can also be considered an act of Black humanism. What are the sounds of Black people – what are the sounds of celebration, of hope and love?
The answer is at the center of the Black Technosonic; the oftentimes underground sonic productions are a site of auditory, material and visual communal happenings. In his essay, Architecture and Teklife in the Hyperghetto: The Sonic Ecology of Footwork, Dhanveer Sing Brar makes such a case for Footwork. Stating that “…Footwork, as a name for the ongoing relations between dancers and producers, between tracks and battle footage, between sound and gesture, is a mode of socially strategized overabundance.” The social overabundance is generated within the dance connected to the production, but the architecture of the production makes space for a type of sociality that, without the production, wouldn’t exist. In part because Black dance is connected to music and as well, due to the ever declining safer space for Black communal social connection. In a way Footwork makes a stance of Black social space physically, but it also makes space for Black digital sociality through auditory invention.
The evidence for Black physical and digital safer spaces can be traced all over the world. From exclusion to censorship or arrest, Black space and Black cultural space is imperative. Baile Funk, a form of electronic dance music, is a sound of criminalization and revival.
Created in the 1980s, Bailé Funk combines Afro-American, Afro-Brazilian, Latin freestyle and Miami bass soundscapes. Professor Carlos Palombini emphasizes that Bailé Funk is, “is [a] union… Its social importance in Brazilian culture comes from the fact that the music gives opportunity to those who are socially excluded.” Born out of favelas where large Black communities reside and as of recent explosion out of Rio de Janeiro, Bailé Funk is a resistance against oppressive conditions for Black and other excluded communities in Brazil. Its resistance is in the parties thrown in mass and the waves of dances that it stretches across the night. Its vibrant and dynamic production doesn’t take much to find its presence online, too. Bailé Funk arrives loud and clear of its musical mixtures as it smashes YouTube views and Soundcloud algorithms. Although it differs vastly from Footwork in production style, its impact is similar in formations and its undoing of racial mechanics; it brings communities together and there, one feels.
And with one of Black underground’s most dynamic productions, Jersey Club, is full of feeling. Taking notes from house music, sample culture and popular Black music, Jersey club, created in Newark, New Jersey, is something you won’t forget. From its hard kicks to catchy samples, the sound is everywhere: in the production of the mainstream, in the night clubs and even to the virality of Tik-Toks. Jersey Club’s influence isn’t only in the production, but its energy in the crowds. Ass shaking, voices screaming and legs kicking, Jersey Club is the definition of Black sociality. The energy is lightning like the songs; fast, rising and falling. Before you know it, you are swept inside of the music. Despite this, the powerful genre is also one full of appropriation — and there is something to be said about having influence. Again, Jersey Club is one of the largest influences on modern electronic and mainstream music. With such visibility, comes those taking from the genre (oftentimes white producers and creators) for their own gain and nothing more. Their aim isn’t to create the spaces that Jersey Club embodies so easily; their aim is to mimic and drain from the culture. This is easily achievable through digital consumption and erasure. At the end of the day, it is still Jersey Club that pushes through, with the kicks going harder, the voices of the crowd and songs, become one.
The creation of these soundscapes and their impact are interconnected, through their very existence. Dr. Katherine McKitterick offers that Black music “…moves between and across and outside ungraspable waveforms, the anticolonial politics underpinning Black cultural production, and the racial economy of white supremacy that denies Black personhood.” Black music, within such forms of rebellion, acts against anti-Blackness. Again, Black cultural inventions enacts before articulation, moves before racial technologies take shape, thus allowing those embodiments of Black expression, or the abstraction of the representative world, be felt. But over time, through experimentations of performance and streaming technologies, racial (more pointedly racial technologies digitally) technologies began entrapping Black musical inventions before they’re fully realized.
Black Technosonic production is a value tied to not only its production style, but its space-making capabilities. Primarily as a central mode of survival, Black expression is forced to create space, which in turn, becomes the base structure for any and all Black sonic productions. Especially with the growing decline of spaces and death technologies ravaging the land and climate, needless to say, Black sonic production is needed more than ever. Dr. McKitterick, as written through Dr. Syvlia Wynter, presses that Black music thinks outside, and changes our present order of knowledge. She continues that Black music “….subverts and undermines the existing systems of anti-Black technologies by exposing its limits while at the same time engendering Black joy.”
The Black Expressionism of Technosonic is a path forward, an understanding of Black emotional present and futurisms that escape and redefine the Eurocentric languages of personhood. It is born over and over again in the same vein of spaces – poor Black communities that rely on the interconnectivity of their creativity and love of creation. You can find the sounds on the radio, in your neighborhood, on the buried Youtube videos or the record store on the brink of closure. The sounds are the night clubs, the bass structurally holding the social presence in the room. Its resistance rings out in the night, slowly becoming the shadows and echoes of the day, once the sun arrives.
Alexander G. Weheliye, “Feenin: Posthuman Voices in Contemporary Black Popular Music”, in Social Text 71, edited by Alondra Nelson, Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Alexander G. Weheliye. Phonographies: Grooves in Sonic Afro-Modernity. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005.
Dhanveer S. Brar, “Architecture and Teklife in the Hyperghetto: The Sonic Ecology of Footwork,” in Social Text, edited by Marie Buck. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Katherine McKitterick, “Rebellion/Invention/Groove,” in Small Axe, edited by Aaron Kamugisha, pg 79-91. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Megan O’Grady, “Once Overlooked, Black Abstract Painters Are Finally Given Their Due,” The New York Times, February 12, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/0...
Raphael Garcia, “Baile Funk: the Criminalization of Bazil’s Funk Scene,” DJ Mag, September 22, 2020, https://djmag.com/longreads/ba...
Ruth Saxelby, “The Sky’s The Limit: An Oral History of Jersey Club,” The Fader, June 12, 2014. https://www.thefader.com/2014/...