DeForrest Brown, Jr. – Interview

DeForrest Brown, Jr.: “To put it directly, Black people are hostages of the United States government who have not been able to properly participate in the nation or its rights, protections, economies and industries as full citizens.”

DeForrest Brown, Jr. (Photo: Ting Ding)

With his albums „Black Nationalist Sonic Weaponry“ (released under the imprint Speaker Music) and “The Wages of Being Black is Death” (together with Kepla) New York City based artist and theorist DeForrest Brown, Jr. positioned himself as a highly socio-politically charged artist, which musical approaches are not separable from his political agenda and vice versa. He is a representative of the “Make Techno Black Again” campaign, and gonna publish his first book “Assembling a Black Counter Culture” later in 2021 via Primary Information. 

Deforrest Brown, Jr. participated last week alongside Michelle Lhooq, Taeyoon Choi, Jay Jordan and Jack Jordan in the “Rethinking Music Ecosystems” series of CTM festival, a series that brings “together artists, organisers, activists, thinkers, promoters, and listeners alike to speculate on what a more collaborative, equitable, and interdependent music ecosystem might look like, and how we might work towards one”, quoting CTM. 

Lars Fleischmann and Deforrest Brown, Jr. exchanged questions and answers by email the week before CTM festival started – the interview was originally conducted by Lars Fleischmann for the german daily newspaper Taz and featured in a german version in their paper issue as well as online

Ta-Nehisi Coates called the outgoing president the „First White President“, since he was the first who explicitly campaigned on and won because of his Whiteness. What is your opinion on this matter after four years of Trump in the White House?
I’m a fan of Coates’ writing and perspective, and he was definitely inspiring to me in regards to speaking out against the 500 year long history of oppression and violence from the white American community against the African-American population. I must say that I think he was grossly mistaken in calling Donald Trump the “First white President” as many of the previous presidents have been both slave owners and white nationalists in their ideals. I’ll offer a few quotes from previous presidents of the United States to illustrate this:
Abraham Lincoln, the 16th U.S president, during a presidential debate with Democratic Party nominee Stephen Douglas in 1858, said, “I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and Black races”; and also “a physical difference between the white and the Black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together… while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any man am in favor having the superior position assigned to the white race.” Lincoln would ultimately free the slaves in 1865 without securing a tangible plane on how to integrate, segregate or simply liberate the African American slaves that they’ve held hostage for the 400 years prior, saying this in his final speech before being assassinated, “It is unsatisfactory to some that the elective franchise is not given to the colored man. I would myself prefer that it were now conferred on the very intelligent, and on those who serve our cause as soldiers.”
Ronald Reagan while on the phone with the 37th US President Richard Nixon in a discussion over the recognition of China by the United Nations, said, “To watch that thing on television, as I did, to see those, those monkeys from those African countries – damn them, they’re still uncomfortable wearing shoes!” Both presidents would lead the “War on Drugs” through the late 1970s and 1980s that would simultaneously introduce drugs into Black communities, then raiding their homes with “No Knock” warrants and making arrests while nightly news covered these events, distorting the public perception of Black people in the media as well as falsely claiming increase in violent crimes across the nation.
Donald Trump, the reality show television host, who I have since day one refused to acknowledge as a legitimate president, said this to and about Joe Biden, the 46th president-elect, and his involvement in architecting the 1994 Violent Crime and Law Enforcement Act with the then president of the National Association of Police Officers, Tom Scott, during the first presidential debate of last year’s election: “You did a crime bill, 1994, where you call them super predators — African-Americans are super predators — and they’ve never forgotten it.” To be fair, 2016 president-elect, Hilary Clinton was actually the person who came up with the phrase “super predators,” which inspired the song on Black Nationalist Sonic Weaponry. I should probably add that Joe Biden has continued to campaign for bipartisanism and cooperation with the Republic Party who are overwhelming against recognizing his victory of the popular vote as well as having in some cases more or less planned for his assassination by inciting the white nationalist, QAnon, religious evangelical Christian attack on the White House on January 6th.

Two weeks ago we were forced to watch Trump-fans/conspiracy theorist/so called Proud Boys forcing their way into the Capitol. Was this just an insurrection or do you think that we should call this an attempted coup? Noah Caine (and later Khloe Kardashian) called the storm on the Capitol (and getting away with it) the epitome of White privilege? But is it though? Was this only a matter of race – or have not been attributes like political ideology and/or class as important as only their whiteness?
To quote the late Toni Morrison, “In this country, American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate.” Meaning, that the United States is a country, government, culture and industrial complex that built itself upon the mass near-genocide of Native Americans and the transatlantic slave trading of many types of people from the Western region of the African continent as a part of a colonial financial venture and landgrab by the United Kingdom and Europe as a means of developing a conceptual “New World” beginning in the 1500s and ending in 1783 with the American revolutionary war. The Africans that were born and bred in America were overtime designated as “Black” and eventually freed by the United States government as a compromise at the end of the American Civil War after the Southern slave trading colonies of the Confederate States of America lost to the Union Army of the Northern industrialized states in 1865.
To put it directly, Black people are hostages of the United States government who have not been able to properly participate in the nation or its rights, protections, economies and industries as full citizens. The normalization of the unfinished assimilation, segregation or liberation of Black people into American culture creates a standard of plausible deniability about how far along the nation has gotten in irradicating white supremacist threats and disparities between Blacks and whites. A particular loop hole in the “contract of Black citizenship” is that though we may be coexisting amongst white people, we are still not quite perceived as human or inherently worthy of care, which leads to things like nearly 200 Black people being killed by trigger happy police officers within the span of the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic setting in last March and the end of the year. Which, on Christmas day, there was a white supremacist suicide bombing in Nashville, Tennessee; and on January 6th, the attempted overthrow of the government by Repubican politicians, white nationalists and off-duty police officers and military personnel.
I should probably say that the reason that the attack on the capitol happened was because more Black people in Southern states voted than usual for an election due to the severity of Donald Trump’s presidency, which in my mind should have been considered illegitimate due to his having no experience in government. Part of the compromise at the end of the Civil War is that an electoral college would cast a final vote on the presidential election after the popular vote was tallied. This lottery system was never meant to be swayed by the Black population, which had never happened until now with Biden edging ahead of Trump in the popular vote and obviously breaches the terms of an over 100 year old political and ideological contract.

Your tape (which was produced together with Kepla) is called „The Wages of Being Black is Death“. What do you mean with that and do you think that you could interpolate this on the last 12 months since COVID-19 reached the US, Breonna Taylor and Georg Floyd got killed by policemen and the following actions of BLM-activists?
I meant what I said, or else I wouldn’t have said it. When that tape came out, a lot of people kept asking me if I really meant “the Wages of Being Black is Death”…I think that shows that people have a hard time caring about and accepting another human’s suffering or just their words in general based on faith and reasoning with what’s being said to them, alone.
To be clear, besides the gruesome and infuriating footage of an unarmed George Floyd being murdered by then police officer Derek Chauvin, nearly 200 unarmed Black people, mostly men, were killed by the police in the U.S. last year; and, 40% of families with members in the police force experience domestic violence and abuse. No wonder police officers can beat and kill whoever they want; their families are terrified of them, police officers are averaging over $100,000 a year and giving weapons that aren’t legally accessible to the general population…
“The War on Drugs” campaign started almost immediately after the murders of Black liberation and civil rights leaders: Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968, Malcolm X was murdered in 1965, and Fred Hampton of the Black Panther Party was assassinated in 1969. In 2020, 21 year old Hamza “Travis” Nagdy and 41 year old Kris Smith, both prominent activists in the protests over Breonna Taylor’s murder were shot and killed months later in November and December, weeks apart.
Even further, a 2019 article from the Chicago Tribune titled “A puzzling number of men tied to the Ferguson protests have since died,” notes that in the aftermath of the murder of 18 year old Michael Brown by officer Darren Wilson in 2014, multiple Black men who were actively involved in the protests were also murdered or otherwise found dead without probable cause: 20 year old Deandre Joshua’s body was found inside a burned car with a bullet hole in his head near the protest, 29-year-old Darren Seals’s body was found with multiple bullet wounds inside of a burned car in 2016. MarShawn McCarrel and Edward Crawford Jr. (a photo of himself throwing a tear gas canister back at police officers during the Ferguson protests won a Pulitzer Prize) both killed themselves. Danye Jones was found hanging from a tree in 2018––if you ever find a Black man in the United States hanging from a tree, he was lynched by a minimum of five white men; this is an American tradition as old as apple pie.

Your record as Speaker Music from 2020 is named „Black Nationalist Sonic Weaponry “. What is meant with „black nationalism “for you? How much do you dock onto pan-African ideas e.g., Rastafari culture?
I should say first and foremost that Blackness itself is a country, and is inside of every African-American person and appears whenever African-American people congregate. When I called my album “Black Nationalist Sonic Weaponry”, I was referring to my own weaponization of the African-American epic of Black history, Black culture, and the speculative concept of a Black nation metabolized into a singular, cybernetic and improvisational Black music. This album as well as the assembling of written materials from philosophers, theorists and poets such as Alexandra Mason, Ryan Clarke and my 18 year old cousin, Maia Sanaa in the accompanying booklet, is my way of contributing to the Black liberation movement in the tradition of the African-American free jazz music scene of the 1960s. Planet Mu, the record label that released Black Nationalist Sonic Weaponry, also donated their revenue from the album to Movement for Black Lives and the Black Emotional and Mental Health collective.
I am fully supportive of Pan-African liberation from the evil and unforgivable crimes that took place during the European colonial project from the 1500s to whatever present day governmental structures exists to maintain the borders and ideologies that initiated and justified the murdering and enslavement of millions in the name of building civilization and the idiotic concept of “the New World.” But, I am from America, and live my life as an ex-American whose spiritual home is in an Africa I can only imagine and never quite have due to the formality of 500 years of isolation and alienation from my West African origins. Black Nationalist Sonic Weaponry comes from my origins in the Black Belt region of America, and from the history of the city of Birmingham, AL; or “Bombingham,” which from the 1930s to the early 1970s, was one of the most violently segregated cities in the United States. My grandfather was a slave until 1930, my family still has his certificate. The neighborhood he built his house and decided to raise his family in was bombed nearly 50 times by white nationalists between 1947 and 1965, eventually earning the nickname “Dynamite Hill.” The final bombing killed four Black girls at the 16th St. Baptist Church; my aunt, my great grandfather’s daughter, was supposed to be in the building that day. Later in life, she moved to Detroit to be a music teacher and choir director, so that’s my connection to techno.
My understanding of America is constructed from my own family’s migration north to Detroit, Chicago and New York following the bombings and police brutality under the Jim Crow laws, which legally instituted less civil rights and protections kept Black people from being able to vote as well as control and maintain a white majority in governing positions. Martin Luther King, Jr. traveled over to Birmingham from the city of Atlanta, Georgia, a state over, to organize the Black community against the white nationalist ideology of American citizens and political officials of the Southern states. The marches and demonstrations that he would lead with the previous iteration of my community were heavily documented by television and newspaper journalists, which to me was a kind of ingenious cinematic warfare strategy to hack the media narrative and broadcast the atrocities of white nationalism to the world. King, Jr. was promptly arrested and placed in a jail that my grandmother would work in until she retired.

The record is an analysis of rhythm as structure and rhythm as heritage of black (music-)culture. Is this right? Do you like to elaborate on this?
Black music articulates a feeling. In particular, Black music serves a specific communicative function. Every note in a rhythm in conjunction with the stressing and whining of a note and/or chord (as Arthur Jafa would say) is meant to travel long distances and bring information back to us through a z-axis call-and-response use of reverberation. Because of the former master and slave relationship in the United States, Black music has a fractured and somewhat distorted history because Black people weren’t allowed to read, write or speak any language when we were enslaved and music as a result was a way to communicate between one another as well as to gather intelligence on the surrounding environment. Black music is a technology used to design speculative scenarios within the performer and audience’s mind. Even after being freed, various events occurred in which either the U.S. government or rogue white nationalists would interfere and dismantle Black communities where Black music would occur such as the “Black Wall Street” massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921, “Disco Demolition” in Chicago, Illinois in 1979, or the MOVE bombing in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1985. The music scene in Detroit has a few different iterations because of similar activities such as the race riots in 1945 and 1967 over housing and workers rights for Black people in tandem with state-sanctioned brutality by the police. In the 1940s, Detroit’s music scene consisted of Jazz and Blues; in the 1950s and 60s, there was the Soul and R&B music of Motown; in the 1970s there was Disco and Funk; and in the 1980s Techno music emerged out of the progressive music scene that would bridge the gap following “Disco Demolition.”
The conceit of “Black Nationalist Sonic Weaponry” was to subvert and broadcast the protest movement amid clearly escalating violence from white supremacists and police officers by hacking the music and media distribution systems to spread awareness of what is happening in “the greatest country in the world.” I’ve tried to assemble emotion and context into a singular package that hopefully, like this interview, can restructure one’s understanding of the present moment and African-American condition. Detroit Techno does this sonically through its pressurizing beat structure and stereophonic phasing, but also literally with liner notes and its titles. For example the techno project Drexciya tells the myth-science of an underwater metropolis built by the African women, children and men who had been thrown overboard ships into the ocean during the transatlantic slave trade, offering clues in liner notes, track titles, etc that speculates on “epigenetic intelligence” and the possibility of a different type of society constructed alongside and out of the reach of the foolish British and European colonial project of the “New World” on the American continents. Black Nationalist Sonic Weaponry hopes to continue in that tradition and create a music that can communicate the centuries of hurt and trauma of the African-American experience.

Which outstanding role plays the bass(-drum) in this particular idea/theory?
I have a natural affinity for bass and high volume music. I think it’s my particular trauma playing out in that I used to hide away in music as a kid. Because of Birmingham being so close to Atlanta, I grew up hearing trap, miami bass and ghetto house quite often; so I guess I could say that the bass is mostly a response to the kind of dance music that I would hear DJs playing on the radio. I also grew up around a Black-specific style of marching band in Alabama. My music in a lot of ways mirror the structure and instrumentation of those bands arranged for trumpet, tuba as the dominate melodic and harmonic instruments, with clarinet, saxophone and flutes as a sub-harmonic undertone and texture surrounded by a polyphonic drumline, nearly equal to the size of the other sections of the band. Juan Atkins’ idea for techno was to scale the near 20-member ensemble structure of funk bands down to a single person; wielding interlocking machines, particularly rhythm and keyboard based synthesizers routed into mixers where he could fade and pan the captured sounds in real-time as he played these instruments live, improvisationally. In the same way, I’ve realized my relationship to his concept of techno as an electronic rhythm and soul music and added in my experience of playing trumpet and tuba in marching, concert and jazz bands throughout my life. So, I say all of that to say, I like my music loud, but also pressurized and swaddling.

In your mixtape/essay „Stereomodernism“ you tried to re-write/correct the story of techno-music? To straighten up the „euro-centric“ view with is myths about Kraftwerk as real inventors of techno and also the idea of transgression through rave/drugs. How important has techno-music been for the black community back then – and how important is it today?
Techno is one of many styles, types and flavors of music that naturally comes out of African-Americans when we congregate or create on our own, including Blues, Rock’n’Roll, Country, Jazz, Soul, Funk, Disco, Hip Hop, House, Footwork, Drill, Trap and even Pop music as constructed and standardized by Berry Gordy and Norman Whitfield at Motown Records. To this end, the concept of “Stereomodernism” was borrowed from poet Tsitsi Ella Jaji’s 2014 book Africa in Stereo: Modernism, Music, and Pan-African Solidarity to imagine a bridge between the modernist, electronic music that developed in Black America and the rest of the African Diaspora. Though our music comes from different places, together it tells a full story of our circumstances in the modern, information age. I see “Stereomodernism” as a direct response to what futurist and businessman Alvin Toffler calls “future shock” or the psychological response to living in a technological civilization run by technical experts. To quote Tony Harrington’s article on the soul of electronic dance music for the Wire, “the origins of techno and electro and all the musics that flow from them lie in the synthesized basslines, applied rhythmic technologies and Afrofuturist concepts developed in the early 1970s – pre-Autobahn, pre-Radio Activity – by such African-American visionaries as Herbie Hancock, George Duke, Bernie Worrell and Stevie Wonder, which Juan Atkins et al then took to the next level.”

What do you think is mostly overlooked by European/mostly white media-outputs?
The clear and simple fact that Black people in America have our own context, understanding, and expectations for our creative output that does and cannot be determined by what any white American or European person thinks or has to say about it. There is no negotiating of the terms of our culture: techno is Black, tekkno is German. I can appreciate the phenomenon and respective histories of both in reference to the influence of German people and music by the introduction of exported Black music through the American Forces Network radio and television programming organized by the United States military in 1945.

Coming back to a prior question: Could you say that the death of people like Mike Huckaby, innovators and key figures of techno and house, is really the epitome of white privilege? That those who came from the community and worked within were hit hard by this Virus?
I will say this, during the first wave of the pandemic, I was researching for the book and listened to a release on Underground Resistance by a producer named Alone called Has God Left This City? The first track was an address, which I looked up on Google Maps and saw Henry Ford Hospital not too far from that location. I looked up the hospital and found an article in the Detroit Metro Times that that hospital was bracing itself to make the unfortunate and cold decision of which patients should receive ventilator or ICU care. In that new story, Henry Ford’s executive vice president and chief clinical officer Dr. Adnan Munkarah wrote a statement saying they were at “an absolute worst-case scenario” and that”It is our hope we never have to apply them and will always do everything we can to care for our patients, utilizing every resource we have to make that happen.” That May, majority white American amed anti-lockdown protestors stormed the Michigan State Capitol as a part of their “American Patriot Rally.” In October it was revealed that there was a plot from the same faction that had planned to kidnap and most likely kill the Governor over the lockdown ordinance.

Politics of gender, race, class etc. are summarized as identity politics – to fence them of from „real politics “. Those identity politics are criticized by right-wing activists as well as leftist. One of the tracks on your LP is named „American Marxists Have Tended to Fall into the Trap of Thinking of the Negroes as Negroes, i.e., in Race Terms, When in Fact the Negroes Have Been and are Today the Most Oppressed and Submerged Sections of the Workers“… what do you think failed the close alliance?
Thank you for asking about this. That particular track is often ignored in reviews about the album, I think precisely because of the bias you brought up. This title is firstly a quote from political activist and early theorist of automation and cybernetics, James Boggs, who, interestingly enough is from Alabama and migrated to Detroit to work in the auto factories as an escape from the white supremacist violence in the Jim Crow era South. He wrote this statement in his book “The American Revolution: Pages from a Negro Worker’s Notebook” in response to his observation that the United States were planning on moving away from human operated assembly line labor to automated machine labor, which would disproportionality harm the employment and livible status of African-Americans who were a former slave class, uncompensated for any of our labor, even after being freed. Black people are not conceived as citizens or human in America, but as perpetual workers due to how we were introduced to the Western world. I think this point is particularly made because white people and Europeans don’t want to take responsibility for what has been done to Black people and Africans across the Diaspora as they pontificate analyses based on abstract indicators like class and political affiliations. To be honest, I see class and political affiliations to be a kind of ridiculous in-fighting between people who share nationality and genetic heritage as well as culture…the situation of being Black is an additional alienation due to optics, combined with the United States’ lack of effort in properly integrated their slave population into their citizenship population; instead white Americans chose and will continue to choose to kill and suppress rather than organize the conditions to make the United States the democracy it pretends to be while actually leading itself and the world as an economic republic and ethnostate, until now.

This interview with Deforrest Brown, Jr. was originally conducted by Lars Fleischmann for the german daily newspaper Taz and was featured in a german version in their paper issue as well as online
Thanks to editor Julian Weber for giving us the permission to publish the original english long read on Kaput. 

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