This is the first in a series of posts first published in 2014
* * * * * *
First After-Shock: The Coup and I
Just a week or so ago, my wife and I flew all the way across the country from New Jersey, where we are summering, to California. We made the trip in order to attend Shadowbox, a new multimedia project put together by the hip-hop group The Coup, which was having its world premier at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) in San Francisco.
If you have no idea who The Coup may be, don’t feel alone. I had no idea either, until I attended the concert. Only then did I begin to get an idea of who The Coup may be—an ideational process very definitely still in progress.
We went to The Coup performance in order to see our daughter, a cellist who lives in northern California, perform in a string quartet from one of the other musical groups that The Coup had given a role in their concert. The Coup does that.
Indeed, that is one good place to start knowing who The Coup is—or at least it is for me, given what I saw that night. The Coup is a group of musicians that goes out of its way, whenever and wherever it performs, to share the spotlight, whose shine its presence generates, with other, lesser-known, more “local” groups. Rather than laying claim to all the glory for itself, The Coup would seem to glory in sharing the glory with others.
So who The Coup is, is a group that builds up groups. At least judging from Shadowbox, a Coup performance is the opening up of a place, a space, where groups of musicians, including The Coup itself, can play music together. At the event my wife and I attended, those who played music along with The Coup, on the three stages set up for the purpose, with The Coup on the center-stage, were what some of the YBCA promotional material describes as “up-and-coming Oakland experimental soul act Mortar & Pestle, new wave folksters Snow Angel, NOLA-style second line outfit Extra Action Marching Band, and neo-chamber orchestra Classical Revolution,” the group that included our daughter on cello. Also playing music were some “special guests,” including “longtime Riley co-collaborators and fellow revolutionary hip-hop torchbearers dead prez.” Then there was also “alternative puppet troupe Eat the Fish Presents” (which, as the name suggests, provided puppetry as well as music)—as well as various other musical participant-guests, of both Bay-area and broader provenance.
The same space The Coup opens for musicians to come and play along, is also open to others, besides musicians—others who are also invited to enter and play along, each after each’s own fashion. In the case of Shadowbox, those “others” included visual artist Jon-Paul Bail, who created the noteworthy graphic-art murals that hung on all four sides of the performance space, and production designer David Szlasa, as well as comedian W. Kamau Bell. The “others” also included all the members of the audience who attended the two sold-out premier performances on August 16. Most of that audience played along by dancing, hopping, jumping, writhing, gyrating, hand-lifting, gesticulating, waving, and in other ways noticeably moving around physically. Some did that more than others, of course. Then, too, there were other “others” who just stood there pretty much immobile. I was one of those other others (and I’ll return to me soon, as I always like to do). In one way or another, musicians or muralists, puppets (and puppeteers) or comedians, gyrators or still-standers, “artists” or “audience,” we all took part in the performance itself, becoming, at least for that few hours, a richly diverse community of our own.
Indeed, judging from my experience of Shadowbox, a Coup performance is precisely that: the creation of a space, an opening, where community can—and in one manner or another actually does—occur. Thus, one might say that a Coup performance creates a communizing space.
That is not a bad way to put it, “a communizing space.” Boots Riley, front-man and lead for The Coup, who co-founded the group back in the beginning of the 1990s, self-identifies as a “communist.” According to Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Coup), The Coup itself is “politically communist.”*
The end of the Cold War had at least one good side-effect: It made it possible even for Americans to use the term “communist” in a positive way and still find wide popularity, as the success of The Coup attests. The Wikipedia entry for The Coup also tells us how the “communism” at issue for Riley and The Coup is to be defined. It quotes Riley as saying: “I think that people should have democratic control over the profits that they produce. It is not real democracy until you have that. And the plain and simple definition of communism is the people having democratic control over the profits that they create.”
Not a bad definition. Not a bad idea.
Correlated to that idea is something else Riley said at a couple of points during Shadowbox itself, when there would be a pause in the music and other action and he would briefly just speak into the microphone. That was how, when we find ourselves part of a movement—such as the Occupy movement, in which Riley himself has played a part, especially in the Oakland area, or the “communist” movement to give “the people” themselves control over the profits their own efforts create—then we no longer act and live just as isolated individuals, but as parts of a whole, of an “us” in effect.
One of the times he said that sort of thing, Riley added that such movements are the genuine way to address the real problems that we face, which, he affirmed, are not just a bunch isolated, individual problems. “Our” real problems are not just my problems, plus your problems, plus his, her, and their problems, as our global-economy simulacrum of a culture would have us believe (my words there, not his—though I doubt he’d spit them out in disgust). Rather, “our” real problems are group problems, problems that “we” have together (and that we therefore must also address together, in “movements”).
So the message he was delivering nicely matched the delivery-system he was using to deliver it, that is, the delivery-system of The Coup’s Shadowbox project itself, which was such an inclusive, “all of us” sort of thing, as I’ve tried to make clear, and as it so powerfully struck me as being. That effectively effected creation of a new body of which I experienced myself to be a part was a coup The Coup strongly delivered to me, at least. Yet at another of the times Riley said the thing about movements, a bit earlier that same night, I seemed to receive a counter-coup, as it were. The way I was struck by something else he went on to say at that point ended up in-cluding me personally as part of the “us” of the community at/of the performance only, paradoxically, by ex-cluding me. I’ll try to explain.
What Riley said on the occasion in question was to the effect that trying to address the real problems we all face together by trying to maintain our perceived, precious “independence” in refusing to let ourselves become involved in any “movements,” was “like going to a Coup concert and not dancing.” The only way you really could “attend” a Coup concert, he said, was by joining the dancing. Otherwise, you weren’t really in attendance at all. In my words: Your body might have been there, but you weren’t.
My problem, however, is that, you see, I don’t dance. Often, no-longer-drinking drunks such as myself share with one another how they never danced when they were sober, but that once they belted a few drinks they were disinhibited enough to do so. Well, as I will often tell such other now-abstinent drinkers, not only did I not dance when I was sober. I also did not dance when I was drunk. (“But when I drank, I didn’t give a shit,” I always like to add.)
Well, I could tell you that on Saturday night, August 16, in the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts during The Coup’s Shadowbox, when Boots Riley said what he did about how the only way to attend a Coup concert is to join in the dancing, he inadvertently threatened my nearly 28-year sobriety! I could tell you that. But I won’t. It would be a lie.
What he did do, though, was to challenge (say “threaten,” if you like, it doesn’t matter) my sense of being part of the “we” who were all there together in the Yerba Beuna Center attending the Coup concert that night. If you have to dance in order really to attend a Coup concert, then it seemed I was not in attendance, despite my physical presence, my mental presence, and even my shock from the coup The Coup was delivering to me. That left me uneasy and uncertain, since my desire, grounded in my multidimensional presence to the presentation that night, was to be one of “us,” and not just some isolated, dis-involved “me.”
My uneasiness and uncertainty did not last long, however. It found itself dispelled when, a bit later, Boots Riley spoke again about “movements,” and said what I recounted first above—the business about our problems really being our problems, a matter of the group, and not just the personal, individual problems of each one of us. Hearing him say that, and appreciating its truth, suddenly gave me the insight that my own lifelong, total, immobilizing disability/disinclination/dis-capacity to dance—and therewith my very isolation and exclusion—was, if you will, not my fault. I was not to blame for it. My problem was in that sense not just my problem any longer, it was our problem.
I believe that I’ve shared before on this blog a line I treasure from the literature of Narcotics Anonymous. NA is a Twelve-Step group for which I lack the qualifications for membership, insofar as narcotics were never my thing at all. Nevertheless, I easily identify with NA members and have nothing but respect for NA as a group. In fact, it would not be at all off the mark to say that, when it comes to NA, I feel myself to be of the group even if I am not in it, as it were.
That is itself an example of what I’m trying to describe about my non-dancer’s relation to the dance requirement for membership in the group/community constituted by and in participation in The Coup concert I’m addressing: an example of how ex-clusion itself, properly undergone, can be a vehicle for a new, more inclusive in-clusion of its own. But that’s not why I brought NA and its literature up. Rather, I brought it up because of the line from that literature that, as I’ve already mentioned, I treasure. In that line the NA member-authors say, with regard to their being hooked on narcotics, “We are not to blame for our own addictions, but we are responsible for our own recovery.”
Well, what struck me when Boots Riley made his remarks about how our problems are group problems, and not just individual problems was that I was not to blame for my own dance-disability, but that I was responsible for my own recovery from it.
Recovery from dance-disability does not consist in all of a sudden miraculously acquiring the capacity to go out and dance, dance, dance the night away. If it did, then it would not be my own responsibility at all. It would be God’s responsibility, or the responsibility of the dance-doctors, or of whatever other higher authority took care of such things, if there is any such authority. Recovery from dance-disability consists of making and then keeping the decision not to let one’s inability to dance exclude one from the party. There’s more than one way to dance, and the challenge to those who would recover from dance-disability is to find how to make not-dancing into its own way to dance.
As it happens, what came to my mind on the recent evening of August 16 as I stood listening to The Coup in the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, and I heard Boots Riley remind us that our problems are really our problems, was not that fine line from NA. It was, instead, Russell Banks’ 1989 novel Affliction.
I used Banks’ later novel Cloudsplitter, about the abolitionist John Brown, in the final post of the preceding series on this blog. I finished writing that post just a day or so before my wife and I took off for San Francisco to attend The Coup’s concert. (Our internet connection went down just before I finished writing the post, so even though it was already written before we left, I did not actually post it until just the other day, after we got back to New Jersey and were able to get our internet service back.) Because of using Cloudsplitter in that preceding post, I had decided to go back and read Affliction, which I’ve meant to read for years, but never got around to till now. So I downloaded the e-version of the book and took it with me to read while we visited California and attended The Coup’s concert.
Affliction is the story of Wade Whitehouse, a 41-year-old man. Interestingly, Boots Riley is roughly the same age now, by the way, so perhaps my mental pairing up of the two on August 16 at the concert was in part affected by that analogy. At any rate, Wade Whitehouse is an American male who is afflicted by a not uncommon American male condition. He comes from a home with an abusive, alcoholic father and a passive, acquiescent mother, and hasn’t a clue about how to own his own feelings, ambitions, aspirations, or, in short, life. Wade is robbed of himself, through no fault of his own. He is no more to be blamed for his affliction than narcotics addicts are to be blamed for their addictions.
Nor does the narrow, rural New England world in which he lives offer Wade any real possibility of escape. Indeed (and this is really the same thing, just put a bit differently), it offers him no real possibility even to become fully aware of his own condition. Thus—unlike narcotics addicts fortunate enough not only to bottom out into desperation, but also to find a new option, unavailable to them until then, through NA or the equivalent—Wade is never given so much as the opportunity to assume responsibility for recovering from his afflicted condition.
As a result, he gets locked into repeating the very cycle of violence and abusive parenting (only with differences, of course, as is always the case in such cases) that he so longs to escape. But there is no escape for him, and Banks’ novel (at least read at the surface level, which is what I am doing in my account of it here) chronicles his relentless spiraling downward into violence and murder.
Wade Whitehouse came to my mind on the night of August 16, just a bit over a week ago, when I was feeling so left out of things at the Coup concert and heard Boots Riley talk about our problems being group problems, and not just individual problems. Hearing his remarks triggered my memory of Russell Banks’ novel, which so caringly details how Wade Whitehouse’s problems were, just as Riley was saying, not just Wade’s individual problems, but were generated by the whole constellation of factors that made up Wade’s world: They were “group” problems.
Unlike Wade Whitehouse, who was offered no options, I have found myself offered options for recovering from the afflictions with which I have myself been beset. I have been offered such options more than once, for more than one affliction—or at least for more than one manifestation of my affliction, if there is really only one, in the final analysis. On the night of August 16, 2014, I was offered an option for recovering from the affliction of my radical, total, and irremediable dance-disability. I was shown that my very not-dancing could become, if I would have it be so, a dancing of its own.
For that, I would like to thank The Coup.
* * * * * *
Next time, Part Two.
* I must confess I’m not sure whether Wikipedia means that the politics of The Coup is communist, or wants to suggest that there are non-political ways of being communist, such that The Coup might not be communist in those other, non-political ways (maybe The Coup is politically communist but erotically capitalist, for example—whatever that would mean). Either way, the remark raises some questions worth a thought or two—questions that could be summed up under two, using two richly ambiguous expressions: Just what is the politics of art? And just what is the art of politics?