SLĀV – ‘It hurts to play this music’

I was disappointed to hear about the Montreal Jazz Festival booking multiple nights of a show called SLĀV, in which a majority white group of singers, lead by a white Québécois director, sing African-American slave songs, sometimes dressed as field slaves and cotton pickers” ~ Moses Sumney.

All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it. And even then, on the rare occasions when something opens within, and the music enters, what we mainly hear, or hear corroborated, are personal, private, vanishing evocations. But the man who creates the music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air. What is evoked in him, then, is of another order, more terrible because it has no words, and triumphant, too, for that same reason
~ James Baldwin, Sonny’s Blues


What happens when a white director produces a “theatrical odyssey based on slave songs”? What happens when this show features predominately white vocalists? What should we pay attention to? What historical forces are at work, what violence? The discomfort and perversity of this pairing, beyond the optics and the obvious, goes deep.

As Wadada Leo Smith, trumpeter-composer, said – ‘it hurts to play this music’ (Black and Blur). As Fred Moten puts it, black “music is a riotous solemnity, a terrible beauty. It hurts so much that we have to celebrate. That we have to celebrate is what hurts so much. Exhaustive celebration of and in and through our suffering, which is neither distant nor sutured…

Moten speaks about a “terror that infuses black music”, a terror that, at times, such as in Louis Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World, “can hardly be discerned”. But it is there, he writes, and bears ‘the scream’ – the violence perpetuated in, through and in the aftermath of slavery.

Whence this terror, this scream? I turn to Saidiya Hartman who turns to Frederick Douglass, when she writes, setting the scene, that:

the terrible spectacle that introduced Frederick Douglass to slavery was the beating of his Aunt Hester. It is one of the most well-known scenes of torture in the literature of slavery… By locating this ‘horrible exhibition’ in the first chapter of his 1845 ‘Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass’, Douglass establishes the centrality of violence to the making of the slave and identified it as an original generative act equivalent to the statement ‘I was born’. The passage through the blood-stained gate is an inaugural moment in the formation of the enslaved. In this regard, it is the primal scene. By this I mean that the terrible spectacle dramatizes the origin of the subject and demonstrates that to be a slave is to be under the brutal power and authority of another…

I have chosen to reproduce Douglass’s account of the beating of Aunt Hester in order to call attention to the ease with which such scenes are usually reiterated, the casualness with which they are circulated, and the consequences of this routine display of the slave’s ravaged body. Rather than inciting indignation, too often they immure us to pain by virtue of their familiarity – the oft-repeated or restored character of these accounts and our distance from them are signaled by the theatrical language usually restored to in describing these instances – and especially because they reinforce the spectacular character of black suffering. What interest me are the ways we are called upon to participate in such scenes…

At issue here is the precariousness of empathy and the uncertain line between witness and spectator. Only more obscene than the brutality unleashed at the whipping post is the demand that this suffering be materialized and evidenced by the display of the tortured body or endless recitations of the ghastly and terrible. In light of this, how does one give expression to these outrages without exacerbating the indifference to suffering that is the consequence of the benumbing spectacle or contend with the narcissistic identification that obliterates the other or the prurience that too often is the response to such displays? This was the challenge faced by Douglass and the other foes of slavery, and this is the task I take up here.

Therefore, rather than try to convey the routinized violence of slavery and its aftermath through invocations of the shocking and the terrible, I have chosen to look elsewhere and consider those scenes in which the terror can hardly be discerned… By defamiliarizing the familiar, I hope to illuminate the terror of the mundane and quotidian rather than exploit the shocking spectacle. What concerns me here is the diffusion of terror and the violence perpetuated under the rubric of pleasure, paternalism and property” ~ Saidiya Hartman, Scenes of Subjection

This passage is crucial and rich in so many ways, many of which I do not know how to write about and many of which demand much longer attention. Here, I want to address but a few points that Hartman makes.

For Moten, inspired by Hartman, black music bears the primal scream; blackness bears the “diffusion of the terror of anti-blackness”. In Moten’s book, ‘Black and Blur’, he “seeks after what the scream contains (and pours out), and after the way that content is passed on – to terribly and too beautifully – in black art.” As he writes, I remain convinced that Aunt Hester’s scream is diffused in but not diluted by black music.”

Diffusion, a spreading out and percolation that will not stop; a creeping into every crevice. For Moten, diffusion is a “pouring forth, a holding or spreading out, or a running over that never runs out and is never over; a disbursal more than a dispersal; a funding that is not so much founding as continual finding of what is never lost in being lost.”

And so, for Moten, “Slavery conditions an aftermath that bears it, an afterlife that extends it… understood as durational field rather than event”.

Perhaps this is one reason why, ‘it hurts so much’ to play this music. One briefly wonders whether this holds true for the white director and the performers of SLĀV. Undoubtedly it does not. It can not be. Their whiteness marks them not as the oppressed but rather as the bearers of privilege that connects all the way down to those bygone slave owners who had mercilessly whipped life into pieces; triggering the scream; monstrous directors of the primal scene.

A white gaze and white voices, their rendition cannot bear the scream. Then what does their dipping into the world of black pain yield? What do they convey and ask us to pay attention to. With Hartman, one wonders about what their performance, their theatrical approach and dramatization of violence and subjugation demands of us, those who witness. For witness we do, not as passive observers but as co-creators of the event. What the vocalists guided by a director’s hands convey, we pick up, add to and become part of. How are we called to participate in such scenes? To how much do we have access?

As Baldwin reminds us, “All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it. And even then, on the rare occasions when something opens within, and the music enters, what we mainly hear, or hear corroborated, are personal, private, vanishing evocations”.

Does SLĀV do – would have done – what Hartman fears? Circulate violence with casualness, participating in our culture’s routine display of (black) suffering. Or would this have been a political moment, calling us to understand the context, the complex history, our roles in its perpetuation? Or rather than indignation, would the performance have immured us to the ‘scream’ – the voices of the white artists unable to bear its ghostly traces, leaving little if any resonance with the audience, leaving no impression but that of a theatrical nature, familiar; “at issue here is the precariousness of empathy and the uncertain line between witness and spectator” (Hartman).

Hartman chooses to look elsewhere, not at the shocking and the terrible, but at the quotidian terrors, the everyday diffusion of the terror, the “violence perpetuated under the rubric of pleasure, paternalism and property.” Would a black audience consider its heritage stolen, its history appropriated and distorted by the work of whiteness? When Hartman does her research, consults the archive, she struggles to hear the voices of the subjugated, for “there is no access to the subaltern consciousness outside dominant representations or elite documents… ” What little there was of black autobiography and writing during the time of slavery was “not free of barbarianism” but contained the influences of white power. She had therefore to “brush history against the grain… excavate at the margins of monumental history in order that the ruins of the dismembered pas be retrieved… attending to the cultivated silences, exclusions, relations of violence and domination that engender the official accounts.”

Among the many issues that should not be lost as part of this conversation is the connection between economics and white power. In a city where black and other racialized artists often struggle to make it in the art world, to find contracts, face discrimination, why were no black artists center stage at discussions and during the performance of what might have been a version of SLĀV that could have been important for its message.

It could have been otherwise. As it was, the violence perpetuated under the rubric of pleasure and property – performing at Montreal’s jazz festival and being well compensated for it, no doubt – was a quotidian kind of violence that bears the historical wrongs. It was yet again a stealing of black stories, of putting these to use for the benefit of whiteness – am I wrong? – and a marginalizing, socially and economically, of those who have yet to find justice in our city. For a black audience, one might wonder, would this performance, had it taken place, been experienced, symbolically and materially, as the diffusion of that ancient terror that lingers still? Would a white audience, in consuming this theatrically rendered story of oppression, rendered palatable, been assured of whiteness’ capability to empathize, to be kind? In singing your stories, black folk, we show how much we are able to ‘feel with you’ the pain that we inflicted, long ago, and continue to inflict, casually, differently, sometimes unbeknownst to us. What “precarious empathy”. What “narcissistic identification”. Why this obliteration of the other?


Democracy does not begin in ancient Athens, but emanates from Aunt Hester’s scream, as witnessed by Fredrick Douglas. The beating of a black woman by her jealous slave master; jealous he couldn’t posses her will, and the enunciation of that event by her young nephew, marked the beginning of a war by colonised peoples to civilise their colonisers.
~ Sacha Kahir, ‘Weaponize Aunt Hester’s Scream’

Din is discourse […] Since speech was forbidden, slaves camouflaged the word under the provocative intensity of the scream. It was to be nothing but the call of the wild animal. This is how the dispossessed man organized his speech by weaving it into the apparently meaningless texture of extreme noise
~ Edouard Glissant, Caribbean Discourses and Other Essays

White Americans seem to feel that happy songs are happy and sad songs are sad, and that, God help us, is exactly the way most white Americans sing them – sounding, in both cases, so helplessly, defencelessly fatuous that one dare not speculate on the temperature of the deep freeze from which issue their brave and sexless little voices. Only people who have been “down the line”, as the song puts it, know what this music is about”
James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time.


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