At the End of the Decade, Negus is King.
Angela N Carroll
How long can you go without touching your phone? How long has it been since you updated your profile or troll scrolled through others’ social media feeds? Humans are sensory beings and we have become deeply addicted to our devices, our virtual lives and the delusional ephemera of social media landscapes. The last decade has heightened our addiction, solidified a dependence masked as liberation, and revealed our compliance to conform to self-imposed surveillance for fear of becoming obscure. Who are you without the likes and affirming comments of virtual strangers? Who are you without avatar friends to amplify your follow count into the thousands? We have chosen detachment over the sometimes messy, unphotographable realities of our daily lives. What lasting loyalty is there to be gained from these digital distractions and the algorithms they use to capture our clicks, record our likes, our facial features, and hive mind the data into marketable commodities? Humans are insecure and the companies who create the apps and distractions we engage in capitalize on that fragility.
The artist Yasiin Bey, formerly known as Mos Def said it best in the song “Life in Marvelous Times”, from his last full-length effort, The Ecstatic (2009).
“We are alive in amazing times, delicate hearts, diabolical minds.
Revelations, hatred, love, and war,
and more and more and more and more and more of less than ever before.
It’s just too much more for your mind to absorb.
It’s scary like hell, but there’s no doubt, we can’t be alive in no time but now!”
The cover art for The Ecstatic revamps a still from Charles Burnett’s cinematic cult classic Killer of Sheep. The image depicts a child leaping from one building to another. The figure hovers, legs outstretched across the void: the gap between where they were and where they want to go. To this day, that image and many of Bey’s albums have stayed with me, each troubling and enlightening my relationship to the physical and virtual world and enhancing my understanding of our collective histories. Bey’s narratives explore the individual ways we experience the present and imagine the future.
This year marks the twentieth anniversary of Bey’s timeless premiere effort, Black on Both Sides. As a testament to the resilience and adaptability of hip hop and Black people, the artist released Negus, a new album that can only be experienced as a physical art installation. Negus, an Ethiopian Semitic term that loosely translates to ruler, emperor or king, was originally released in March 2019 at Art Basel Hong Kong. Recorded in London in 2015 the album features ambient and sporadic head-nod inducing tracks from producers Lord Tusk, Steven Julien and ACyde. The album will continue to travel as an installation, but it will never receive a physical release.
When was the last time you were inspired by or even remotely interested in the content of a mainstream artist? Maybe I’m just old, but I still get excited by the lyrical dexterity of true storytellers. After all, isn’t that what hip hop is supposed to be about? Before you label me a purist or just an unshakably loyal fan, hear me out. Negus, as an album and an art intervention, attempts to ignite an ecstatic vibe for contemplative and mindful reflection.
I recently encountered the installation at The Brooklyn Museum, nearly a month after it opened. Many of the initial reviews I read about the effort overwhelmingly criticized the artists’ intentions. Most of his critics considered the installation a well-meaning elitist endeavor. Others griped about the disappointment of waiting ten years to hear an album they could not own. One notable critic lauded that the effort was “unlistenable”. While I agree that the album is not the best work I have ever heard from Bey, an artist who has only released five full-length albums in the last twenty years, I respect the effort as an intriguing conceptual work.
The installation is a space for attendees to listen with intention and to be completely present with the work. You will not be tempted to look at your phone or document yourself in the installation because you will be required to lock up all electronic devices before you enter the space. You will not be distracted by the conversations of those around you because they, like you, will be wearing headphones. The gallery is filled with comfortable cushions so that you can sit and look at the art, three large scale murals by Bey, and two small framed works on paper by Julie Mehretu, or the people around you.
When the album started, I was more interested in listening than looking. After ten years of waiting, I wanted to hear what Bey had to say. “Nobody ever really dies” Bey echoes in one verse. “Come together, waves, wavy, actual waves,” he intones on another song. “An experience you can’t quite explain…the facts are in flux, the truth is unchanged,” he offers on another. “Hey Professor, what do you mean by the term the modern world? What do you mean by the term civilization?”. On each track, Bey queries the contemporary moment that has bred our collective conditioning. What have we been taught to value? What objects, ideas or pursuits have been deified? These questions are not new: Bey has always interrogated and remained somewhat optimistic about the current state of our world.
When I looked around the gallery to gauge other people’s responses, I was intrigued by people’s reactions. Several young men bobbed their heads, but most of the crowd stared blankly or mulled around the space waiting for something beyond the music blaring through their headphones to happen. A group of older women walked out of the installation minutes after they walked in. Some teenagers walked around impatiently, sat down for a song or two and left. By the time the album ended, the large crowd that walked in with me had dwindled significantly.
Sustaining a state of presence is difficult for most people. Bey’s creative request for attentiveness from his listeners is not the rub that catalyzed many in the hip-hop community to offer jeers instead of encouragement. That Negus has only been exhibited in predominantly white institutions, or at cost-prohibitive venues is the predominant concern. The installation triggers questions for me about whose presence Bey deems worthy of consideration as well as the audience the work is intended to engage. To whom does he feel compelled to illustrate the regality and humanity of Black culture? Who is he audaciously challenging to come into presence? Presumably everyone, but to date, only those who can afford the experience. I am optimistic that Bey will expound upon this intervention and present future iterations that are more accessible to the communities who have always supported his explorations. Until then I applaud the effort as a defiant response to the general lack of presence we have all engaged over the last ten years. At the end of a decade, Negus stands as a compelling, understated refutation about our chosen state of mind and offers encouraging possibilities about the ways we can be more present in the years to come.
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Angela N. Carroll is an artist-archivist; a purveyor and investigator of art history and culture in Washington DC, Maryland and Virginia. Angela contributes contemporary art, performance and film criticism for BmoreArt Magazine, Arts.Black, Sugarcane Magazine, and Umber Magazine. She received her MFA in Digital Arts and New Media from the University of California at Santa Cruz and currently teaches within the Film and Moving Image program at Stevenson University in Baltimore Maryland. Follow her on IG @angela_n_carroll or at angelancarroll.com.
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