M. Lamar: From Sun Ra to Cecil Taylor; Or Toward A Black Existentialist Futurity

“I want to have a deep critical relationship with everything, and then I want to make something that is a manifestation of my coming into a kind of consciousness, a coming into my own kind of journey. Moving toward a greater consciousness – something that’s not so mundane where you’re just in the muck of the everyday of survival – that’s very real, but I think there’s a higher point, realizing your connection to other beings, and to history, and to the future, and I think that the goal of art is always, ultimately, as with abstraction, about things that become very near universal.”

– M Lamar

M Lamar is a very real and alluring hallucination. He is also a composer, musician, pianist, singer and multimedia performance artist, and he is also a Black and volute oscillating myth emanating and penetrating this reality from an entirely alternate dimension. He invokes the presence of the myth-master, Sun Ra (1914 – 1993 ), throughout our hour and a half conversation. Complicated creatives are always difficult to know in-themselves; when dealing with a truly dynamic figuration like Lamar, another set of analytical processes are needed: metaphysics, sociology, deontology, history and, yes, even demonology. Lamar cannot be located at any ‘central’ or ‘biographical’ level. Every time an image of him is captured, another image arises recursively within that former image, further displacing the original. Inaccessible to the white lights of surveillance and oppression, his ‘Negrogothic’ persona is not just a mask, it is a vehicle traversing many spaces and multiple times. Utilizing the vocalizations, sounds, philosophies and art of late modernism, Lamar encapsulates, and then creates anew, the harmonies, vibrations and dissonances of free jazz, opera, Spirituals, and something entirely new, without a signifier.

Lamar lives and transcends the late modernist period (circa 1920 – 1965) using it as a spring board to move both into the past and the future, while building a hefty Bergsonian presence in durationDuring the beginning of our interview, he muses, “Lately, I’ve been very interested in that late, or high, modernist period. There are overlooked aspects of it. For example, people like Sun Ra. I am fascinated with him because he is less interested in things that are factual – that are allegedly factual – and more about mythologies around himself. One of the amazing Sun Ra quotes that I love is he says we don’t need a democracy but a mythocracy. In other words, we need more myths around the ways in which Black people can come to know themselves; the ways in which they come to be – be and become – I think he was always interested in statues and monuments being made around various Black people. He talked about white supremacy as a kind of myth created to perpetuate a system built by very wealthy white people.”

“Using interviews with Sun Ra, interviews with Cecil Taylor, or writings from Ornette Coleman. I am trying to chart a kind of elevated consciousness that is definitely in the works of Sun Ra, of Cecil Taylor, John Coltrane, and Ornette Coleman.”

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M. Lamar / Courtesy M. Lamar / Photo By: Wil Adamy

The linear, biographical readings of musicians, philosophers, writers and other creatives, doesn’t appeal to Lamar. Explaining, his reasoning, he states, “I think that people imagining themselves is much more interesting than any kind of actual biographical things. These often become boring and trite, like ‘oh, my mother was abusive or she was emotionally unavailable;’ I mean all of these things are relatable, but not that interesting ultimately. I think about ways, in particular Black people, can imagine ourselves, to imagine a certain kind of legacy – a mythology about oneself. Audre Lorde (1934 – 1992 ) had an interesting take on this, she tried to write a biography in terms of what one would long for.”  Unlike Lamar’s previous work, which featured the work of G.F.W. Hegel (1770 – 1831) and Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900) more centrally, he is moving closer towards, “Using interviews with Sun Ra, interviews with Cecil Taylor (1929 – 2018 ), or writings from Ornette Coleman (1930 – 2015 ). I am trying to chart a kind of elevated consciousness that is definitely in the works of Sun Ra, of Cecil Taylor, John Coltrane (1926 – 1967 ), and Ornette Coleman.” Coming out of the long tradition of Black existentialism, primarily philosophically birthed in the late modernist period (circa 1920 – 1965), from W.E.B. Du Bios’ (1868 – 1963 ) concept of double consciousness, Richard Wright’s (1908 – 1960 ) literary work, and Franz Fanon’s (1925 – 1961 ) writings on alienation and colonialism, along with the towering musical figures already mentioned, Lamar avers, “I want to feature in a way, from that period, and from the future too, the philosophical aspects of what I am calling a Black Transcendent-Existentialism.”

Lamar finds it unfortunate that, “Looking at the history of the 40s, 50s, 60s, with John Coltrane or Cecil Taylor they were able to get to and elevate – and levitate even – on or above the level of what was happening in Parisian cafes, etc, and yet they are not placed within the whole context of their times, very rarely. You asked about [John-Paul] Sartre. Of course, I have read some of his work. But, I don’t need Sartre, I’ve got Cecil Taylor. And I would say, that Taylor and Coltrane levitated people to different kinds of places, and so my new piece is very interested in that kind of consciousness. It’s interested in that state of being, it is interested in that period, that period of late or high modernism; you can see it whenever Cecil Taylor is playing or whenever he is giving an interview – his embodiment. He just died, on April 5th (2018); and what was really disappointing about all the texts written about his life is that no one  made the parallels between him making work in the 50s, 60s, this work called ‘free jazz’ and him embodying an existentialist-transcendent freedom. Yet they did make those connections to Martin Luther King or Malcolm X being down on the streets; that they were fighting for freedom, equality and justice, and, in my view, Cecil Taylor was actually embodying it, demonstrating it. And his work is a part of the entire social and artistic context of that time, radically spiritual like Pollack, and especially Rothko.”

“It’s funny because on many of Cecil’s album covers there are like these high modernist paintings and there’s certain other Black painters, who I think were working in a same sort of way; and I think maybe in the art world a little bit they kind of get that connection a little more. Although it’s not talked about enough in my view – that connection between high modernist painting, high modernist music and the political aspect of what that kind of embodiment means.”

Lamar is a person of many projects, highlighting all of them would be impossible. Discussing one of his last pieces Funeral Doom Spiritual, where Lamar pulls from Negro Spirituals, which heavily draw on revelations and revaluations from the Bible, he states, “It’s an album I did with Hunter Hunt-Hendrix, who is a controversial and incredibly philosophical figure. He wrote the Transcendental Black Metal Manifesto. Funeral Doom actually happens 100 years into the future, and it’s about this person who’s mourning the loss of his beloved at the hands of a police officer. This person has been mourning this death for about 100 years, and so again this person is somehow supernatural; they somehow can exist for 100 years still carrying very romantically and tragically – maybe more romantically than tragically – the coffin of their beloved on their back. They are waiting for resurrection; see, we understand that Negro Spirituals were field songs or songs that were through oral tradition passed on from generation to generation during the slave period in the US. Generally, the narratives we remember are from the Old Testament when Israel was in Egypt – ‘let my people go’ – that was a particular thing that was very interesting to these captured Africans in the slave context. But the thing that was interesting to me about the Doom Spiritual or these Spirituals that happen to come from the last book of the Bible, the Book of Revelations. So here we’re talking about when dead bodies would begin to rise from the Earth, or the stars would fall, or the world would end. There’s all this kind of futurism; it is apocalyptic. Doomsday visions are happening in these songs, but interestingly, they were used always in a very happy way. This was very intriguing to me – trying to really figure out that aspect of the Spiritual for these Doom Spirituals.”

I am Black; I am in total fusion with the world, in sympathetic affinity with the earth, losing my id in the heart of the cosmos — and the white man, however intelligent he may be, is incapable of understanding Louis Armstrong or songs from the Congo. I am Black, not because of a curse, but because my skin has been able to capture all the cosmic effluvia. I am truly a drop of sun under the Earth.”
Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks

Psychically, physically and metaphysically, this journey into and through the Funeral Doom Spiritual led Lamar into what he calls a different, stratospheric-level, where one overcomes the body, through the body. Continuing, Lamar elaborates on his journey, “I’d been performing, and mourning, toward this different level. I’ve been performing it in a way vocally perhaps, in a way that Marian Anderson (1897 – 1993 ) would sing with lots of lovely legato. However, the piano setting would be very disruptive and very doom-like, and that led to me wanting to do this piece. So there must be this fusion of harmony and dissonance. Interestingly, originally the piece was going to be called Negro Zombie Apocalypse, and I was talking to my friend who directs a lot of my work and he said, ‘well you should read this essay by Anthony Paul Farley, called Zombie Jubilee and also When the Stars Begin to Fall,‘ which is a line from the Negro Spiritual My Lord, What a Morning. Read both, and I realized that there were these people who were thinking very much in the way I was thinking, but it wasn’t music. I wanted to transform it into music. So after doing Funeral Doom Spiritual a lot, we had performed it, I don’t know like how many times, hundreds of times at this point in the last 3, 4 years, Rita Books issued a lengthy essay with Hunter Hunt-Hendrix. What I was trying to do with the piece, and what our collaboration sparked, really kind of led to this new work; led to me revisiting the Hegel as a sort of starting point to get me to actualize myself in conjunction with thinking about Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor, Ornette Colman, and Cornell West. In this latest work, after Funeral Doom, Sun Ra has a lot to say and this is really fun. I guess I’m always looking for models of Black masculinity to defy how we think of Black masculinity – I mean I think that Sun Ra’s embodiment or Cecil’s embodiment – they really contradict whatever kinds of images, pornographic imaginings that people might have of Black men. I want to get to that stratospheric transcendence; the ‘how’ of why they are able to embody certain kinds of – or defy – Black masculinity. It’s beyond respectability, beyond a negative or positive image; they’re just out there, one literally from outer space.”

“I clung to nothing, in a way I was calm. But it was a horrible calm—because of my body; my body, I saw with its eyes, I heard with its ears, but it was no longer me; it sweated and trembled by itself and I didn’t recognize it any more.”
Jean-Paul Sartre, The Wall

Musing on the body, his body, as an axis of performance, creation and becoming, Lamar states, “Embodiment is for me an unfortunate thing in a way; I mean I guess I’ve never been that interested in the body, as much as I’m really sexual. I deal with a lot of sex because maybe it’s a compulsion for me. I’m really interested in having sex with people and connecting in that way. But in terms of art, it always feels like something to be overcome. This thing has limits, right? I mean the body, there are physical limits; ultimately, we’re all going to die. I mean if you see Cecil Taylor playing at Ornette Coleman’s funeral, it is very different to the Cecil Taylor you see in the late 1970s early 1980s which is much more physical. Now the thing that’s happening at Ornette Coleman’s funeral – captured on that beautiful YouTube video – is that it’s much more lyrical, there isn’t the same kind of physical force that he’s playing with in like the late 1970s, early 1980s. And yet, there’s a lyricism and there’s a gentleness that you see there.”

Lamar’s music, performance and oeuvre ascends and crashes upon the brains of those who hear, see and experience it. Researching his contemporary audio and visual work, there are acute cognizant streams of prophetically righteous, politically relevant and libidinal forces moving throughout his narrations. He expresses sexuality in new formations, undressing interracial tensions, sensations and attractions. A number of his performances have moved me, including with the Living Earth Show, one called Yo My Crackafeaturing Charlie Looker, and Carrying, a part of the collaborative endeavor with Hunter Hunt-Hendrix. In times when white nationalists have an admitted ally in the White House, with Donald Trump, crypto-fascists and neo-Nazis march on the streets, police murder Black people with impunity, and the crushing effects of slavery, Jim Crow and mass incarceration act like a giant tumble drier, revolving endlessly, and sucking out the water of freedom from the multiple Black communities, the Brooklyn-based Lamar is a not just an artist with an extensive mastery of multiple crafts, he is a necessary embodiment of beauty, justice and Black futurity.

Lamar’s prolific artistic, social and dynamically astute political preeminence has produced something that comes from both 1955 and 2055. Lamar’s piece Legacies’ introductory trailer hit me the most with its unceasingly powerful, raw symbolism and lyricism. Starting off – a black and white video –  with a coffin, that has a circular hole on its surface, a puff of smoke comes from the corner as Lamar’s voice acts like a rocket blasting the listener/viewer into an operatic space. White men are situated in Abu Ghraib-style poses, with black coverings, as a whip slowly moves out of an aperture in a wall; the viewer sees this image as though looking at a double mirror, holding the screen’s left and right within this troubling and odd mise en scene. Lamar goes to the top of some stairs above these men, dressed in his iconic black robes. The whip is coming from what seems to be a guillotine, and – in a moment of symbolic castration – the whip falls. The next scene shows a white man pulling on Lamar’s whip through wooden cage. Lamar stands affixed, head tilted, as the white man pulls on his whip. Lyrically, Lamar sings, “He cut off my father’s private parts, and likes to play with mine; play with mine, play with mine. He wore that hood, that hood, in mobs of men.” These are eerie and clear references to the Klu Klux Klan’s use of sexual violence and terror, and subsequently the US military’s own usages of these S/M power dynamics on other colonized people of color; juxtaposed to the lyrics, at this point in the video, Lamar is kissing the same white man who was pulling his (castrated) whip. And then we are returned to the double image of guillotine, Abu Ghraib-esque prisoners, and Lamar’s walk up the stairs. In going to these Phallic gallows, there are clear indications that Lamar is addressing the ways in which quotidian, daily, white oppressive mechanism act to emasculate and desecrate the Black male body. The next scene is even more evident, as multiple repeated images of a lynching appear. The framing of these images begin to take the shape of inverted crosses. Lamar sings “Hanging from the tree. He hung him from the tree of blood. And now the tree done swallow me. Swallow me.” In Legacies, the matrices of sexuality, brutality, homosexuality, racism have never been so operatically portrayed with such poignancy. Disturbingly necessary, his work is a sublime examination of America’s (all too hidden) abject past and present.

Lastly, Lamar daydreams about the last days of Cecil Taylor, “I guess – I never met Cecil Taylor and I wasn’t especially upset about that. I didn’t need to meet him. I was very comforted by the fact he was on the other side of Brooklyn, perhaps still playing music, perhaps still flirting with or maybe even having sex with very young boys. I had friends in their 20s and 30s that he was flirting with a lot when he would meet them which made me very happy. I heard stories of him still doing copious amounts of drugs – I don’t know if that’s true – I just loved hearing stories about him. I don’t need to know that they are true. I don’t need to have met him to confirm any of these things; I just loved sharing the same air on this planet still – I’m very devastated by his death.”

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This article is dedicated to Cecil Taylor.

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Support artists living outside the realms of the beau monde, and purchase at your leisure, directly from M Lamar’s online shop.

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