The Polyphonic Experiences of Black America in Love Is the Message, the Message Is Death
“I knew something was wrong when a little pretty white girl ran into a Black man’s arms. Uh-huh. Something’s wrong here. Dead giveaway.”1 Charles Ramsey, the samaritan who in 2013 rescued the formerly kidnapped and imprisoned Amanda Berry, repeats “dead giveaway” twice for emphasis—a necessary affect that occludes the hazardous precondition of the Black man in America. This soundbite from Ramsey’s local television interview launches Arthur Jafa’s seven-minute video of Love Is the Message, the Message is Death (2016). This prismatic work offers an intimate portrait of the collective Black experience in America. Jafa’s video is comprised of images of various Black people partaking in acts of both subjection and subjecthood within scenes showing progress and the disabuse of social progress. Jafa’s choice of opening his work with Ramsey is to affirm to viewers that racialized schemas influence and muddle our own racialized biases as well as precepts concerning Black people. These white paranoiac biases and precepts are why Black people, particularly men like Ramsey, must assume that the only reason a white person may run to them is out of desperation.
Jafa is commenting on how Black people have been historically preconditioned to understand and accept that the constant racial profiling of their bodily presence poses as an inadvertent threat to the continuity and safety of white people.2 Ramsey can’t be considered culpable for his cautionary presuppositions because he has borne witness to the Black condition in America, and reciprocated appropriately based on his traumatic, generational, social training. Ramsey’s immediate, as if preternatural diagnosis of a problem is a response to a precept so often applied to his bodily schema as a Black male, who has been historically preconditioned to understand that his body serves as a natural threat to white people, internalized and normalized. This is the corrosively constructive narrative whiteness has permeated across American society.
Love Is the Message, the Message Is Death tasks audiences with witnessing a strategically curated assemblage of a checkered U.S. history of police brutality, promotions of church gospel and spiritual litanies, distilled expressions of dejection, perseverance for social change, beatific animations of song and dance, articulations of sexual expression, exhibitions of athletic exceptionalism, and other acts of Black performativity and expressivity in all its awesome variety. These images graphically undulate in nature from violent, reckless, and aggressive to exulting and spiritual. Gestalt psychology would read Jafa’s work as speaking to the false prism of progress formed under accumulated experiences of trauma, repeated and reproduced [in media]—itself traumatic. In accordance with gestalt trauma, Jafa strives to assemble a piece that examines the disruptive nature of the Black experience, while using a video technique of non-metronomic framing to isolate and synthesize clips in a method that suggests an audio-visual dissonance. Kanye West’s “Ultralight Beam” serves as the score. The neo-gospel composition is interwoven with mixed recordings of song and spoken-word in order to present an accumulated product that reads as more than the sum of its individual parts. Jafa achieves this gestalten effect while using the soundtrack to double ends: He platforms Black music and simultaneously comments on the radical alienation of it in Eurocentric cinema. The artist marries the alienation of Black music with discursive Black cinema to reproduce the Black visual intonation—a radical departure from convention ascribed Eurocentric conventions of filmmaking.
There is no single message of his artwork because the experience and interpretation of Love Is the Message, the Message Is Death is dependent on the final work, not the speculative precepts of a constructed narrative that is supposedly driving the work’s intention. Jafa’s methodology is oddly similar to the fashion in which Judith Butler describes the reproduction of the Rodney King beating footage, in which evidence is culled, cultivated, and regulated by police so what is being seen in the visual field is read through a heavily filtered, and racially schematized lens. Jafa culls, cultivates, and regulates images from across popular news, media, and culture, but in a manner that seeks to subvert those racial schemas that operate under what Butler describes in “Endangered / Endangering: Schematic Racism and White Paranoia” as the prism of the white paranoiac. The paranoiac, according to Butler, “forms a sequence of narrative intelligibility that consolidates the racist figure of the black man”3 Jafa transcends the imprisoning nature of white paranoia’s constructs, by not escaping it, but confronting it in an effort to exceed its power.4 To execute this Herculean task, Jafa’s work commands that each mode of experiencing his video be activated: witnessing, seeing, reading, listening, and potentially empathizing. If Jafa’s intention can be surmised by audiences, then it may be to conduct an experiment in addressing the capricious and volatile nature of Black experiences, all of which undulate between the highs and lows of American society—all consolidated and subjugated under a toxic spell of whiteness.
Whiteness as a construct is ubiquitous power, social destruction, and an inhibition to Black progress. It’s an inimically racialized mode of seeing,5 which inhibit the expressivity of Black culture while simultaneously imposing pressure from within Black culture to perform ever-elusive attempts not to escape the power of whiteness, but to exceed its tendentious and disabling influence. The images condensed into Love Is the Message, the Message Is Death vary in severity, with some challenging a viewer’s threshold to consume graphic and violent episodes in Black lives. Jafa’s riotous assemblage of imagery is an effort to commandeer agency from constructs of whiteness as expressed in biased multimedia outlets that have historically manipulated narratives of Black Americans. Jafa, by reproducing and curating an assemblage of imagery in which Black people are depicted in violent situations, he reaffirms the criminal pretenses of whiteness. By reproducing imagery using the Black visual intonation, he has activated what Butler would call counter-visuality or counter-reading6—a means of recontextualizing the visual field by confronting the whiteness of isolated imagery and its sources. Recontextualizing imagery enables Jafa to subvert racist narratives, and redress the historical abjection of Black narrative in America.
Jafa refers to the exceptionalism of Black talent witnessed across entertainment, athletics, and academia as “surplus expressivity”7 The performative potential of a Black individual who is decidedly provoked by the pressures to perform and succeed results in a surplus of expressivity. Jafa offers the example of basketball players who excel above and beyond their white counterparts, whose performance solidifies a virtuosic necessity for the Black individual to succeed, and thereby exceed the bondage of whiteness. However, whiteness remains inescapable, though through fame, money, and limited power, the athlete is capable of establishing a footing in the world. The athlete, however, must experience the fruits of success within the prism of whiteness; the owners and virtual puppeteers of the basketball players’ talents are by and large white men of power, who likely seek to exploit those talents for personal profit. Though this is business, it is inherently problematic because the profits are at the expense of Black performativity. Black performativity is ultimately leveraged to reinforce the continuity of white power constructs. The Black athlete, though exceptional in talent and creativity, inadvertently remains subject to the whiteness schema that enables his success. Jafa’s work itself is a concatenation of the pressurizing effects of whiteness constructs when imposed upon the Black community. The pressure to either perform or inhibit the expressiveness of Black culture and performativity potentialities within Black America remains omnipresent. Within the context of expressivity, Jafa acknowledges that hierarchies of Black culture are also inefficient. He instead offers to sever narrative constructs bound to these Black cultural hierarchies in order to recognize the achievements of the Black community while simultaneously acknowledging the deficiencies or detriments of individual actions.
As much as Jafa showcases the righteousness and excellence of Black perseverance in the face of turmoil and adversity, the weaknesses in the Black community are not spared by Jafa either. There is a recurrent theme of adverse and stereotyped Black female imagery that traverses the seven-minute Jafa video. Each time an image of a young woman is reproduced by Jafa, she is either dancing or is sexually leading the hand of a black man towards her. The dancing—twerking—happens within a highly sexually-suggestive simulation that seemingly provides comfort to her male Black dance partner. If not with a partner, she is twerking alone half-naked in a purple, lace thong accentuating the long ridiculed, sexualized, sought after, and appropriated derriere of the Black woman. The clips in which a woman guides a man’s hand to her body suggest that comfort lies in her arms, in her body, and in her sex. These images provide an intra- and extra-cultural visualization of Black women. Their bodies are subjugated beneath not only white supremic constructs, but that of the Black man as well, who usurps what limited privileges patriarchy awards him. In accordance to these sexist, racist constructs, the Black female is not designed for autonomy or disclosure of her pain, but is instead relegated to a position that is architected for the safety, comfort, and libidinous reinforcement of the Black male, who must primarily endure the reprehensible woes of whiteness.
The thematic allusions to the role of Black women, particularly young women, in the Black community is pronounced against the precisely timed lyrics of “Ultralight Beam.” When in one image, an attractive, tall, young Black woman, who is also dressed in a way that accentuates her figure, is seen taking the hand of what appears to be a Black, male television presenter, her hand is a gestural “come hither,” and over the clip, West whispers “I will fill your pain.” This clip in tandem with the strategic lyrical voice-over, is a clear demonstration of Jafa’s highlighting of the burdens imposed on Black females to provide unconditional love, comfort, and sex as a means of attenuating the suffering of the Black man. As indicative as this is of the failure to relinquish Black females from these socially constructed duties, Jafa detests more the unwarranted and exceptional brutality released upon Black females by white police officers. Audiences briefly revisit the notorious, viral, and categorically gross encounter between a fourteen-year-old bikini-clad Black girl and a white police officer at a pool party in Texas in 2015 in which the teenager is violently tackled to the ground and barbarically restrained by a white male police officer. By including the horrendous physical abuse by white police officers, Jafa shows that creating an equalizing plane of subjection whiteness operates on an equal plane, that is irrespective of gender. And by including clips that reinforce the sexual expressivity and speculative promiscuity of Black women by Black men, he also confirms the double suffering of Black women within the racialized visual field of seeing. The distinction is that white males hold no inherent cultural claim over a Black woman’s body and her services, though that does not halt the abuse of powers afforded whiteness from inflicting abuse. Conversely, Black males, as a means of coping with the imperious powers of whiteness, ascribe the duty of comforter to the Black female body as an integral component of her racial schema.8
Jafa intentionally delegates value to Kanye West’s “Ultralight Beam.” The song is a modern-day gospel that interweaves a purely black genre of music—hip-hop—with a neo-gospel intonation that evokes images of the Black church. The result is a moving service of worship and lamentation. Jafa orders the images to the accompaniment of “Ultralight Beam” so as to promote an effect of the song orchestrating the litany of Black movement, while the music strongly reinforces and amplifies Jafa’s sense of Black visual intonation. Strategically, Jafa non-metronomically, stitches distinct but thematically common images together to create an effect of unity with the beat, rhythmic flow, and lyrics of the song. Jafa’s technique of molding the Black visual intonation is to manipulate the imagery in a manner that synchronizes with the accompanying music, while time and pace of clip transitions are treated as inherently unstable and discursive as Black history in America itself. Jafa’s work is a quintessential expression of the rhythmic transubstantiation of abjection that Saidiya Hartman refers to as the prescription for Black performativity and placating “white guilt.”9 We, as audience members are asked not only to witness, look, and read, but to listen. We are not only tasked with listening to Kanye West, but are to also listen to the simultaneity of mixed audio that is spoken word from the reproduced characters in the respective clips or to the other few songs rapped or sung, and again danced rhythmically along to. This range includes “Teach me How to Dougie” and The Notorious B.I.G.’s freestyle. B.I.G.’s clip, which is also astutely introduced by an abstracted clip of Louis Farrakhan “introducing” Mr. Wallace (B.I.G.’s birth name is Christopher George Latore Wallace). Through proximity, illusions of interwebbed correlations between Black people, suggest a confluence of experience that must be understood not as simultaneous, but within the metaphysical, conceptualization of Black experience being told to audiences via the video. There is a significance behind depicting Black culture icons such as LeBron James and Chris Brown adjacent to average Black people who demonstrate a “familiar reticence” within the spectrum of Black expressivity (Jafa, 2020.) Whether these icons are placed adjacent or within these average groups, dancing, church-going, or otherwise, this is Jafa’s pursuit to eradicate hierarchies by putting all these people of professional variety on an equalizing plane that acknowledges achievements, but also connects the fundamental strain of existing and operating as a human being bonded by blackness, and the connective feeling that all black people experience whiteness as an inescapable, imperious institution. When Jay-Z sings in “The Story of O.J.” “Light nigga, dark nigga, faux nigga, real nigga/ Rich nigga, poor nigga, house nigga, field nigga/ Still nigga, still nigga,” the artist elucidates to audiences that regardless of the shade of one’s Black skin, or the economic situation of the Black individual, this individual is still regarded as the negative stereotype that the racialized field of visuality has historically prescribed the Black body.10 To escape these practiced, ideological and physical constraints is an eternal quest to exceed those powers through achievement and accomplishment—Black surplus expressivity—even if it means accepting the universality of racial precepts abusing the image of Black people in America. Like Jay-Z’s ‘The Story of O.J.,” Jafa’s Love Is the Message, the Message is Death equalizes Black people collectively through a shared experience of generational trauma that exists ubiquitously and continues to saturate the media.
In a 2019 interview with the Louisiana Channel, Jafa states that his additional reasoning for depicting cultural icons like LeBron James or Chris Brown in tandem with ordinary Black people is because doesn’t believe in hierarchies, and also recognizes that icons—as human beings, not as Black beings, are capable of “doing God’s work, but can also still be demonic.”11 This admission in recognizing that though the Black community has listlessly struggled and suffered in the pursuit for progress, success, and visibility, the harbingers of Black culture such as athletes and entertainers—the bastions for representative hope in media—are still corruptible, and capable of doing demonic things, including criminal behavior. Within the same song, Jay-Z perpetuates the apocryphal O.J. Simpson line, “I’m not Black, I’m O.J.” Though Simpson never said this, the statement comments on an alleged attempt by a Black cultural icon to exceed the powers of whiteness that enabled his ascendency, while ultimately descending beneath its consequences for violating the rules of appearances prescribed the retention of Black success in America. Similarly, in the Louisiana Channel interview, Jafa offers the example of Bill Cosby, exalting his acting achievements and cultural significance to the Black community, while subsequently accepting the reality that Cosby is irrefutably also a serial rapist. The accumulative life of both glory and damnation can coexist for Jafa; the importance lies in rejecting the dismissal of either when examining the life of flawed black icons. When Chris Brown is depicted dancing to “Teach Me How to Dougie,” there is a humanness about this clip that feels accessible and resonant for the Black community. Though he is also a problematic individual, who has publicly demonstrated criminal behavior, he still retains status as a uniquely important Black cultural icon for his musical contributions and services to the Black community, and watching him dance with other Black compatriots reads as a demonstration of his continued cherished status by virtue of racial connection and generationally inherited resonance with the Black Experience. By Jafa’s approximation, the general reticence of the Black community to accept when a Black icon has committed illegal, transgressive behavior, is a reflexive, desperation to cling to that surrogate of progress, a person who has represented Black experience in the collective and has pushed for visibility of the Black community with his or her success. In short, the success of the icon is read as the success of the Black race. The collective pressure and reliance on the success of just a few in the fields of visual performance is as enormous as it is flawed in practice, but is necessary to war with the constraints, continuously imposed by whiteness.
The propulsive question becomes: How does an audience experience Jafa’s work? We are left contemplating whether it is even possible to divorce empathy from witnessing, reading, and listening to Jafa’s work. Given the volatile, effusive, and poignant graphic imagery, it is hazardous to experience his work with empathy. Potentially worse is to experience it casually, without critical emotional investment. You can’t experience Love Is the Message, the Message Is Death with a detachment from emotional investment because it’s an instinctual and integral part of being a witness that actively seeks to see, read, and listen to a subject, and in most cases, empathy is an essential apparatus to growing, maturing, and evolving as a society. Jafa is not himself against empathy, nor is he definitively advocating for empathy. Instead, he is of the position that if his work elicits this particular emotion, then it is likely because an introspective conversation that challenges one’s own relationship to potentially aiding, abetting, and reinforcing whiteness is overdue. Empathy is neither bad nor unconditionally good, but it is hazardous depending on the psychological framework from which it stems. The intentions of that empathy become compounded by a destructive pattern of assuming the abject position of another in order to commiserate, resonate, and ultimately empathize 12 Hartman and Jafa would prefer that a Black body is not commandeered emotionally in order to be worthy of empathy. Rather, the body should be acknowledged and respected as an autonomous human entity worthy of empathy on the grounds of fundamental humanity—a concept—an intrinsic right—that has been historically despoiled from Black bodies. Humanity has been mutilated, manipulated, and rewarded back again to the same Black bodies in bastardized form. The form of empathy that Jafa and Hartman would argue against is the type that most undergo through a process of devaluation from its original form, which means being processed and reprocessed through the formidable eyes of whiteness—the terror must strike from within by becoming personal, by allowing the terror they witness to be directed at themselves or their loved ones, as John Rankin sadistically mused, in order to come to a “revelation” of humanity.13 Though that humanity produced from empathy or vice versa is critical to justice, it remains problematic because it rejects the idea that these Black bodies deserve recognition beyond their commodification and service to upholding whiteness.
It’s difficult to categorize Jafa as an empathetic artist or not. His work asks the viewer to go against the impulse to recoil from graphic imagery and instead look deeper and read its content. The reading therein is one of counter-visuality.14 The potential desensitization to imagery can once again be attributed to that preternatural disposition that Charles Ramsey feels, to accept the social construct and condition of the Black man as being perpetually subject to violence and injustice Ramsey singularly represents a collective subject of moot progress. Jafa’s counter-visuality is a way to commandeer previously established false suppositions regarding Black people, and that inimical narrative that compels the Black American condition. Jafa opts to reproduce the Black condition by manipulating the narrative preestablished through multimedia, and curating a processional diagram of Black bodies in continuous, unmitigated movement in as unadulterated an aesthetic as possible. The effect of Jafa’s method is to commandeer the narrative of Black social constructs that have operated under whiteness. When reproducing these images culled from the internet, he is transfixed on the media narrative that originally produced these images, and is effectively subverting that image through juxtaposition assemblage that disregards the context. By decontextualizing the source from which they were first conveyed to the public (the news medium that captured and transmitted the image originally), Jafa reformulates or recontextualizes the narrative to be an honest, representative portraiture of Black lives animated, against a backdrop of hip-hop gospel.
The work just suggests, but does not require, an audience member to watch, read, and listen, in order to see Black people as an integral part of the broader human condition. It’s likely impossible for a white person or any other non-Black person to empathize in a way that isn’t reminiscent of white abolitionist John Rankin’s method of empathizing, which is to assume the position of the Black body in order to forge a sense of humanity. Rankin would give painstaking detail of the humility of the Black slave, but could only muster empathy when imagining himself or his own family members in the same position. Jafa wouldn’t necessarily indict the character of a white person for empathizing in a way akin to John Rankin. Love Is the Message, The Message Is Death doesn’t present white people as adversaries so much as the destructive whiteness that precedes and defines both the source and intentions of empathy. The video does not suggest that there is an inherent requirement to empathize with the plight of Black people, because in simply empathizing, the white viewer undertakes an empty recourse, one that is also potentially inspired by a subconscious reflex to submit to the tentative, amorphous concept of white guilt. Even this concept, though, in action can be utilized as a means of enlightenment to the plight experienced by members of the Black community, is in and of itself a product of whiteness. If white guilt becomes the source of empathy for non-Black viewers of Love Is the Message, the Message Is Death, then Hartman’s psychological contextualization of John Rankin’s intentions is reinforced and perpetuated. She is correct to suggest that Rankin, as a white man, must assume the position of the slave, a Black body, in order to feel empathy, and collective guilt. White guilt is not what Jafa is pursuant of. He didn’t even craft this piece for white people, so it can’t exist as a visually, stitched design intended for white metabolization. “White people get to watch”, are his words from the Louisiana Channel interview. However, it can still serve a purpose for white people. In the Louisiana Channel interview, Jafa affirms that, akin to how Eric Clapton’s “Layla” was written and composed for Patti Boyd, his work is created for Black people, but like “Layla” anyone, irrespective of color, can consume and service themselves with Love Is the Message, the Message Is Death. If it isn’t empathy Jafa demands of viewers, then it is certainly a redress in the field of visualizing Black people and their bodily schema. When severed from a consequent call to action, empathy is hollow and empty, as productive as prayers answered by none, and tears that dissolve into the infinite, perpetuation of racism. Efficacious empathy, requires action, and how does one initiate action? By acknowledging, respecting, and appreciating both the autonomy, and individualistic as well as collective humanity of Black people, all of which must be divorced from the pretenses of whiteness. It seems like an oxymoronic and quite heavy task Jafa prescribes to audiences considering that each and every image in Love Is the Message, the Message Is Death originates from the historical and socially, terminal influence of white supremacy.
So, if not empathy, is there hope in Love Is the Message, the Message Is Death? Hope is implicit, but not explicit. Where we see symbolic images of Black civil activists including MLK Jr., Angela Davis, civil rights marches, Black Lives Matter protests, Shirley Chisholm, among other images of bodily encapsulations of Black hope, especially against the soul-stirring gospel of “Ultralight Beam,” viewers are instinctually possessed with that sense that, yes, hope exists, but it is as fragile as it is inspiring. The force for sustaining hope within the history of Black America, rests upon the ubiquity of Black comradery and support. Jafa demonstrates a proclivity for inserting and juxtaposing clips thematically, but within a recurring frame of tactful processions. These themes range from exploring the exploitative, and stereotyped sexual promiscuity and reliance on Black women, the lionization and potential deification of controversial Black icons like Chris Brown, Michael Jackson, and Louis Farrakhan, to the kind, simple, but profoundly intimate clips of Black people being held up by the shoulders in varying situations of both tragedy and excitement. The visual comradery is invoked by clips of Black people aiding one another whilst enduring torrid flooding from Hurricane Katrina, to the concluding clip of a conspicuously exhausted James Brown on the edge of fainting after delivering an emphatic performance, and is conveniently being held back up by a Black friend just before surrendering his weight to gravity. All these themes are cemented under a fundamental conviction of relying on one another as a means of reinforcing collective resonance, sustaining hope for a better, improved, and less institutionally cumbersome future.
The generational objective is in the pursuit of exceeding the powers of whiteness. Black people oscillating between all these expressive extremes of surviving, living, thriving, and expiring under the institutional oppressions and repressions of whiteness, implies hope. When Black people exemplify the varieties of expressivity, this is the resounding determination to wrestle beyond the unmitigated, fragmentation whiteness inflicts, and this is hope in awesome movement. These demonstrations are the black gospel of hope that Jafa successfully tasks Kanye West with scoring. There’s no need to declare and reflect upon the possibility of hope. Arthur Jafa, as a surrogate, only insists that we witness it. Within the impermanence of hope that the pervasiveness of whiteness occludes, the evocative animations of spirituality as well as the burning, transformative simulation of a sun sick with electrically, enraged perforations of light, a desperate revival of hope resurges, and is manifested from an innate desire to live, and see if the next generation will bear witness to change. Hope is implicit, not explicit. Hope is embodied and demonstrated, not discussed. Love is the message, and the message is death. Love and death are both deeply intertwined, and inextricable elements of Black survivorship in America. For the Black community, death has become a regrettably, necessary prerequisite for the revival of both love and hope. Without death, there would be no need to congregate under the unifying presence of Black camaraderie, but because untimely death is a menacing prospect that lingers and contaminates the visual field of the Black person in America, hope serves as the catalyst to delivering oneself to love. The aspiration of Black hope becomes the acquisition of love. This love, manifests from racial acceptance—perhaps the most courageous and frightening form of Black expressivity and protest to whiteness exercised by Black America.
- “Charles Ramsey Interview, Rescuer of Amanda Berry Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight in Cleveland,” News 5 Cleveland, YouTube, May 6, 2013.
- Judith Butler, “Endangered/Endangering: Schematic Racism and White Paranoia,” in Reading Rodney King/Reading Urban Uprising, edited by Robert Gooding-Williams (Routledge, 1993), 15.
- Butler, “Endangered/Endangering,” 16.
- Butler, “Endangered/Endangering,” 17.
- Butler, “Endangered/Endangering,” 16.
- Butler, “Endangered/Endangering,” 20.
- Staff, i-D, et al. “Listen in on a Phone Call between Virgil Abloh and Arthur Jafa.” i-D, 16 Sept. 2019.
- bell hooks, Black Looks: Race and Representation (Routledge, 2015), 118.
- Saidiya Hartman, Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth Century America (Oxford University Press, 2010), 23.
- Jay-Z, “The Story of OJ,” 4:44 (Roc Nation/2017.)
- “Listen in on a Phone Call between Virgil Abloh and Arthur Jafa,” 2019.
- Hartman, Scenes of Subjection, 19.
- Hartman, Scenes of Subjection, 18.
- Butler, “Endangered/Endangering,” 20.