Hello, it is I, the resident science fiction nerd for Heavy Blog (there are actually two of us now that Joshua has joined our ranks). A year or so ago, I covered Clipping.’s phenomenal Splendor & Misery, dissecting its themes and lyrics. In the process, I tried to give an overview of “afrofuturism”, a media spanning genre which uses science fiction and futurist thought to conceive of racially radical ideas and propose a counterpoint to what is often a white dominated genre. As I wanted to keep the posts from getting insanely long (they were already really long), I could only touch upon afrofuturism briefly and, seeing as that’s my medium of choice, I focused on its presence in literature. How good of Clipping. themselves then to help me shed light on less known but not less important instances of the movement/genre/way of thought.
Their newest single, released in collaboration and for the successful podcast series, “This American Life”, Clipping. chose to pay homage to one of the essential afrofuturistic acts, Drexciya. This Detroit based duo operated mostly in the 90’s and, using mostly techno music (which was then seeing its biggest growth spurt), they weaved an intensely thought out afrofuturistic story. In it, the children of African slaves are born at the bottom of the ocean, after their mothers are thrown overboard. By the way, that’s a thing which happened: as slaves were considered chattel, merely possessions and goods to be sold for profit, if they were deemed as a risk to the endeavor (whether because of their own traits, like being pregnant, or whether there was danger, like a storm), slavers would often “dispose” of them just like they would an excess piece of, let’s say, furniture.
In Drexciya’s story, these babies adapted and formed a society named, interestingly enough, Drexciya. However, the story wasn’t fleshed out in the music itself; rather, it was elucidated in liner notes mostly written by the elusive Gerald Donald, one half of Drexciya, an accomplished yet shadowy producer, and a particle physicist (yes, really). In a vividly interesting interview from 2012 (seriously, read this interview), Donald talks a bit more about how he sees his music and the influences on it:
Interviewer: Do you see yourself and your work with Drexciya as part of the lineage of American afro-futurism in America—next to artists like Sun Ra, Parliament, electric-era Miles Davis or Afrika Bambaataa?
Donald: I do not wish to specify any particular ethnicity. I would state that all variations of humanity have contributed to the evolution of electronic music. Electronic music is the only music type that is global in scope and not specific to any particular culture. Granted, if a variety stems from a particular culture, then it will apply its own idiosyncrasies to the form. But in general it’s a universal sonic medium with endless contributions. However, as an external observer, I can safely say that what we did was not the same. Our concepts took more stimulation from the world’s oceans and its marine life than any musical entity. This is the fact of the matter. The marine domain was the central axis upon which all other elements hinged. Of course all musical techniques influence one another, but in this case it was mostly nature itself.
Which lands us solidly at Clipping.’s feet. While Donald’s paragraph above might be hazy about how exactly Drexciya was afrofuturist, Clipping. aren’t known for mincing words and, after their previous release, have shown that they can powerfully use science fiction tropes to tell an inherently anti-colonial, anti-racist and, most importantly of all, African story. This track is no different; it starts off just like Drexciya, with babies being born underwater after their mothers were thrown overboard. The track itself is a ritual, a remembrance that the denizens of this society hold to remember all they have been through. After being born, they form a society and, for a while, live in peace. These first passages are characterized by a slow beat and a lazy drawl from Daveed, taking his time in unraveling his story.
Quite like The Ocean‘s classic concept album, the beat also corresponds to the depth in which the track takes place. We start off deep underwater, where everything is peaceful and no trouble is had from above. After the killer line “you feed off the bottom, now y’all remember”, the track’s first of many transitions takes place. The beat gets quicker as, suddenly, the ocean starts to warm up. The denizens of the underwater kingdom, in a chilling parallel of us surface dwellers and our global warming “debate”, argue if the water is actually getting warmer and if this is even a problem. Furthermore, what could be the source of this change? “It couldn’t be the “two-legs”, walking around on top, right?” they say, “they’re like us, our mothers were two-legs!”. But then, suddenly, there is no more question; an attack comes.
It is indeed the “two-legs”. Now, even though there is a species distinction here, the parallel is obvious. These “two-legs” are attacking for oil, just like the “West” attacked Africa for its natural resources and manpower. As the blast comes, the denizens of the underwater world have no means of defense; their castles made of coral crumble and they die by the dozens. As the beat accelerates even further, after the first rounds of aggression for “black gold” take place, the story changes from that of our history. There’s a regime change in the underwater world and, instead of the placating rulers of before, a more militant government is installed. The fins are galvanized; if the two-legs want to come for them, they’re going to have to bring more firepower. Sure they walk about in heaven up here, but they’re soft, they’re not from here, they’re not deep. Using their native knowledge of the ocean floor, “They use sonar as second language / y’all fluent with it”, the outcasts fight back and start pushing back the two-legs.
But now, it’s time for the beat to get even faster. It’s not enough that the two-legs were beaten back; it’s time to take the fight to them. Listen for that reference to Splendor & Misery in the form of the repeated “Ride on, ride on” which Cargo 2331 sings as he kills his enemies. The same thing is happening here; the outcast, the colonized, those who were to be raided, are striking back and taking the fight to their would be oppressors. The call goes out and the denizens emerge from underwater on to the surface, together with all the challenges that poses; sun and wind for the first time. They fight and kill, riding the waves on top of the two-legs and drowning them, “making them believers”. However, it wounds them as well as they recognize the two-legs as their brothers and sisters, as people who, in another situation, they might love and protect.
But there is no hope for them but to fight back and eliminate them. That’s the purpose of this ritual, this song; to remind them why they fight. Among “ya’ll remember”s, the narrator describes the final demise of the two-legs and why their extermination was necessary. The track ends with the water-dwellers conjuring a massive tidal wave as pay back for “the blast, the drill and the gas”, wiping out the two-legs once and for all. Thus, the allegory is complete; instead of the erasure and drowning of black culture in our world, you have the oppressed wiping out the oppressor. The message is complex and, in that way, Clipping. pay perfect homage to Drexciya; even though afrofuturism would like to imagine freedom and triumph for the oppressed, that doesn’t come without a price, without hardship and human things which must be shed behind us. Is it worth it? Just like Splendor & Misery, Clipping. don’t give a definite response; it’s up to the listener to decide.