While scholarly articles and papers were formerly a primary avenue for communicating complex theory and thought, in the era of booming technology, people are more able to do so through a variety of media, allowing for a greater diversity of ideas accessible to anyone with internet connection.
One of the areas most affected by this growth is music, as musicians spread their work far and wide with the help of streaming services. Jasper Marsalis, known by his stage name Slauson Malone, knows that well. His most recent album, “A Quiet Farwell, Twenty Sixteen to Twenty Eighteen,” was released on Apr. 18, 2019 and is jam-packed with engaging and innovative musical technique, grabbing the listener from the very beginning of the 33 minute-long project. The project is ambitious for such a short run-time, addressing themes of blackness, nostalgia, and trauma throughout the glitchy, beautiful, and soulful project.
Further, Malone published liner notes with his album announcement on Twitter, and when analyzed along with several interviews, they provide a clearer idea of what he’s trying to get across on such a non-traditional album. And while Malone doesn’t take the time to directly reference famed psychiatrist and philosopher Frantz Fanon, I argue that Malone’s performance proves the practicality of Fanon’s creation of a space for exploring black identity outside of essentializing stereotypes.
Prior to diving into the album, it is first important to set the table with Fanon’s ideas, which I draw from the fifth chapter of his book Black Skin, White Masks. The chapter, “The Lived Experience of the Black Man,” gives the reader a complex view of understanding one’s own blackness in a white space which reduces the black body to a series of objectifying preconceptions. The motif, “Look! A Negro!” characterizes the section, as Fanon displays the consumption of blackness in several different spheres. The first iteration of the phrase comes at the beginning of the chapter, dictating the objectification of the black body: “I came into this world anxious to uncover the meaning… and here I am an object among other objects.” This quote is best considered in conjunction with the next appearance of the motif: “‘Look! A Negro!’ It was a passing sting. I attempted a smile. ‘Look! A Negro!’ Absolutely. I was beginning to enjoy myself. ‘Look! A Negro!’ The circle was gradually getting smaller. I was really enjoying myself.”
These two quotes show Fanon’s growing awareness of the space his blackness occupies in an otherwise white area. He sees there are two seats empty to the side of him and realizes he is triple — not existing in third person — but taking up triple the space of his physical body. Taking up all that space is his “blackness, my ethnic features; deafened by cannibalism, backwardness, fetishism, racial stigmas, slave traders, and above all, yes, above all, the grinning Ya bon Banania.”
Becoming aware of these tragedies is horrible and difficult to process, and only through several more iterations of the motif can he free himself. After being tortured more, he is able to do so. “‘The handsome Negro says, ‘Fuck you, madame.’ Her face colored with shame. At last I was freed from my rumination.” Through each further iteration of “Look! A Negro!,” Fanon unpacks more of what it means to be black in the grasp of a constant white gaze.
As he references in The Wretched of the Earth, colonial systems are composed of violence at every level, and only violence can free a subject from them. Fanon does so in this dialogue, breaking the systems of inequity that have caused him such harm. Further than repetition of the central motif, Fanon asserts the irrationality of oppression through the realization that he was hated “not by my next-door neighbor, or a close cousin, but an entire race.”
These ideas of blackness are informed by “My history that others have fabricated for me, the pedestal of cannibalism was given pride of place so that I wouldn’t forget.” Later in the chapter, a white man preaches to Fanon: “‘Lay aside your history, your research into the past, and try to get in step with our rhythm.’” Rejecting this white supremacist rhythm, Fanon establishes his own sense of self. The chapter ends with Fanon rejecting the idea that being black is comparable to being disabled; “Yet, with all my being, I refuse to accept this amputation. I feel my soul as vast as the world, truly a soul as deep as the deepest of rivers; my chest has the power to expand to infinity.” The last several quotes are especially consequential in that they create a space for performance and rhythm to reclaim black identity from the popular white supremacist version of history. Fanon empowers people of color around the world when he writes these final lines of the book.
Slauson Malone is one of those people.
Forming identity within a similar sphere of understanding as Fanon did in Black Skin, White Masks, Slauson Malone composed “A Quiet Farwell, Twenty Sixteen to Twenty Eighteen,” packing it full of rhythm, soul, and blues with assorted influence from hip-hop, jazz, and glitch. More important than genre classification, however, is his meditation on the black experience in America, the irrationality of oppression, and the effect memory has on nostalgia and trauma.
With empowerment from Fanon and plenty others, Malone puts his lived experience into rhythm and blues. Lacking the soaring vocals of Marvin Gaye or the tenderness of D’Angelo, “A Quiet Farwell” doesn’t present itself as a traditional blues album, but with attentive listening, the depth of emotion prevalent in blues shows itself through unique forms of production.
Slauson Malone theorizes about his own blackness through the avenues of pensive lyrics and wonky production throughout “A Quiet Farwell.” The first and most striking example of his feelings come on “Ttrabul,” a song ready-made for soul-searching. He explained in an interview that the track “is the deepest on the album for reasons I can’t go into because it’s too personal.”
The track represents especially difficult times for Malone, as evidenced by the repetition of the word “trouble,” misspelled in the song’s title. Accompanied by Medhane, a common collaborator with Malone, the track begins with pain-ridden wailing and quickly transitions into a voice that sounds deeply troubled, as if the weight of tragedy is compressing the actual pitch of the song. It’s difficult to say any one sound can set the tone for an album with such a diverse arrangement, but the sorrowful nature of the track is too heavy to forget over the next 18 tracks.
Malone explores his blackness relative to another famous black figure on the fourth track, titled “(Fred Hampton’s Door Into Farewell Sassy) Na.” Fred Hampton was a leader of the Black Panther Party before his assassinatation in 1969, who is represented with an explosion to introduce the song, and the line, “Hopin’ that the reaper don’t get me” which implies Slauson’s hope that he doesn’t face the same fate for his own activism. Despite the fact that he doesn’t have the same platform as Fred Hampton, Malone likely sees that most black people in America can face an untimely end no matter their reputation or actions. This feeling is complicated with the lyrics “I love you more when it’s over,” which has no clear meaning, but one interpretation could find that Malone is more ready for love when his life is over — this life is too attached to trauma and tragedy for him to properly love someone.
The fifth track, “Won’t Bleed Me: The Sequel,” builds on the theme of death, further developing Slauson’s meditation on what it means to exist as a black person in a colonized space. “They bled my mama (They won’t bleed me) / They bled my papa (They won’t bleed me) / They bled my brother (Won’t bleed me) / They bled my sister (Won’t bleed).” Whether or not he’s actually referring to his close family members is unclear, but this track gives the feeling that he’s not ready to die despite the fate of the people he loves. This track marks a transition from his theorization or representation of his feelings around trauma and death into a more nostalgic set of songs, starting with “King Sisyphus of the Atlantic,” going all the way through “Smile 1.” It’s a strategy comparable to the motif development through repetition Fanon uses with “Look! A Negro!”
Malone contextualizes these feelings of nostalgia in his interview with passionweiss. “I feel like if nostalgia were a house, trauma would be right next to it – like if you’re in the nostalgia room, you hear all the screams in the trauma room next door.”
The structure of this album might be a representation of that feeling, combining the trauma of the first few tracks with nostalgia of the ones that come after. “Smile 2” opens with a siren and transitions into a verse from rapper Maxo. “Smile at the past when I see it… My mother try and keep me safe (haha) / Mama try and keep me safe.” Laughing at the caution of one’s mother implies the potential futility of that mother’s efforts. Maxo seems to feel that his life is marked for death from the beginning, which makes his mother’s care almost meaningless. The nostalgia could carry from a childhood feeling of safety; the idea that he’s smiling at the past when he sees it could mean the world was better when he was a youth, before maturing and realizing the existential threat that comes with being black in the US.
The next track, “Treachery of Memories,” presents itself as consequential in the context of Malone’s comments on memory, nostalgia, and trauma, an importance reflected by the lyrics “I don’t feel like getting up today / Living in the darkness.” The depression of living as a black person in a society dominated by white supremacy is loud and clear on this one, and living in the darkness extends that, with the tri-fold imagery of living in darkness, which could apply to dark skin, a dark world without light of hope, or the metaphysical darkness of white supremacy.
Closing the set of nostalgic tracks, and likely serving as the centerpiece of the album, “Smile 1” translates feelings of nostalgia and trauma that create black identity outside of the essentialized idea of blackness understood by Fanon. It’s titled “Smile 1” because it was recorded before “Smile 2,” despite it being later in the track listing. This iteration begins with a round of applause and then a loud yelling, transitioning into another iteration of “Smile at the past when I see it,” rapped by former bandmate Caleb Giles. Giles’s verse more deeply examines nostalgia than Maxo’s. “See the stars from the sidewalk, I’m missin’ home.” The verse ends with the lines “In my younger years, before I learned black- / I wanted to be- and say- drown in my own tears.”
This is one of several references to the innocence of immature self-conceptions of blackness — as though Giles and Fanon each felt they were happier before understanding their own oppression. Imitating Fanon’s technique of iteration and interrogation, Malone is fascinated with the phrase “smile at the past when I see it.” In the same interview cited above, he says “I was just like what the fuck does that mean? Like it sounds like it makes sense but it doesn’t make any sense.”
The line made an impact on Malone immediately, and it became a motif for the album. Smiling at the past is naturally nostalgic, but “when I see it” adds an extra fold. It could mean when he sees it in his mind, or when he sees something in real life that reminds him of the past, or some combination of seeing something in memory and in physical form.
On the first “Smile,” Maxo touches on his conception of being marked for death as a black person, and on the second “Smile,” Caleb Giles says, “I ain’t know I was hurt ’til the healin’,” continuing the theme of a moment of self-realization evidenced earlier in the verse. This projection of insecurity is supported by Malone’s perspective on nostalgia, what he described in the interview as “really dangerous because what ends up happening is that you’re fabricating or altering events to your own subjective experience.”
Placed strategically towards the end of the album are the final two smile iterations. While the first two songs were performed by collaborators, Malone takes full control of these last two tracks, bringing together the smile motif in a voiceless, confusingly-produced pair of songs: 4 and 3 feature very few intelligible lyrics, as opposed to 2 and 1, each of which contain full rap verses.
On “Smile 4” he sings, “Wish I had a sedative / Wish I wasn’t pessimist… My race a circus… Can’t smile at the past when I see it / Still in my past, they ain’t seen it / ‘Cause what was ain’t what it really seem.” The siren/scream motif that precludes the first two smiles is absent on this one, which could represent being past the time of death or vision of nostalgia. The rhythm of this track is slowed — it’s like Malone took his vocals and drowned them, depressing the emotion in his delivery.
“Smile 3” is the final iteration, and features the siren that was absent on “Smile 4.” After the siren is the line “Smile at the past when I see it,” followed by indecipherable mumbling. If “Smile 4” is after the time of death or vision of nostalgia, then “Smile 3” is the exact time of death — it’s more slowed and depressed than 4, as the unintelligible lyrics communicate a sense of futility and helplessness. The “Smile” series could have been an EP on their own. Serving as touch-points for the rest of the album, the “Smile” series help translate to the listener Malone’s main ideas of nostalgia and trauma playing large roles in his understanding of blackness in America. The series also follows a similar path as Fanon’s repetition of “Look! A Negro!” with each further iteration providing a fuller personal meaning of blackness.
Malone further complicates the understanding of the smiling motif with an explanation in the album’s manifesto, posted to Twitter with the album’s announcement. “I realize the Past is not an observable place, only existing in our minds eye. The deeper I go exploring its possible meanings, the farther I get from its meaning. ‘I feel myself rubbing up against the fabric of our collective history. Things become nonsense, proxies reveal themselves, and the shape of truth becomes flatter. I see us collectively Smiling, imagining a place called the Past that isn’t.’” There’s no singular meaning to the smile motif, further establishing Malone’s work outside of the reductive grand narrative.
Malone also explains the repeating siren/scream motif on the album that appears six times throughout the piece, adding to Fanon’s idea of collective tragedy he feels when he is linked to all other black people under the reductive white gaze. He says the “Siren/Scream collapses Black lifeNdeath into an abstraction that stretches itself over the sonic spectrum. Each Siren/Scream is titled with a date to mourn those we’ve lost to the ills of yt fear.”
Stylzing “white” as “yt” may keep the less-perceptive from understanding his message, as if he doesn’t wants to share his tragedy with the world, only with those who can understand it. The track dated 04/04/68 is the only one with a viable explanation; it’s the date of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination. Collapsing life and death and stretching it across the sonic spectrum problematizes the way we consume life and death; Malone portrays existence as something that can’t be seen within a certain note, word, or verse; only through universalizing life and death can we understand it.
“The Message” and “The Message 2,” present another motif, one of a dichotomy of self-empowerment and doubt, problematizing Fanon’s self-assured end to “The Lived Experience of the Black Man.” “The Message” contains four repetitions of the lyric “No matter how hard you try, you can’t stop me now.” It’s a sample of the chorus of “Message From a Black Man” by the Whatnauts, an American soul group. Malone’s empowerment comes off as muted due to the low tone and dampening effect on the sampled vocals, giving a solemnly dedicated tone to the song. “The Message 2” is a flip on the first, with a more futuristic background and a less inspired vocal tone, giving the listener a feeling of forfeit.; “No matter how hard I try / Nothing seems to work.”
“Two Thousand Eighteen Into Bye” is the album’s final track, and Malone chooses not to directly address the variety of themes from earlier in the project, closing in on the tone introduced on “The Message 2,” adding a moping, whining, and looping loneliness; “Because the sun don’t set it just go away.” The feeling is reminiscent of Fanon’s when he is coming to terms with all of the negative stereotypes and understandings of blackness after his experience on the train. The album’s final verse is sung by Malone, pitched and edited so that it sounds like he’s sobbing and his voice is wobbly while he sings the lines; “You’re not coming home / And you’re leaving me.” The conclusion to this album juxtaposes “The Lived Experience of a Black Man” as Malone chooses to end on a note of loneliness while Fanon concludes with a supernatural understanding of himself.
It may come in the form of a glitchy, time-lapsing product, but Slauson Malone’s “A Quiet Farwell, Twenty Sixteen to Twenty Eighteen” proves the practicality of Frantz Fanon’s idea of the black subject creating a new identity that is not essentialized or reductive with its nuanced understandings of nostalgia, trauma, and blackness in a white supremacist society. Malone’s version allows the album to exist as a piece of art that exists outside the popular styles of modern American music, combining existing genres with yet-to-be-named musical theory, letting Malone explore his identity outside the confines of grand stereotyped narratives of blackness.
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