Freedom: Yvette Janine Jackson as Cartographer of Sonic Expeditions

Yvette Janine Jackson is dropping an LP entitled Freedom (Fridman Gallery) on January 29, 2021. Consisting of two radio operas entitled Destination Freedom and Invisible People, the first question might be, “What is a radio opera?”

The answer is self-explanatory: an opera composed to be played on the radio rather than a stage, lending to its usual 20-minute or so brevity–unlike, say, Richard Wagner’s almost five-hour Die Meistersinger. And yet in a short amount of time, Jackson’s radio operas execute the same concept of Gesamtkunstwerk that Wagner was known for, her work being, as it is translated into English, a “total artwork.” Using instrumentals, voice, sermons, an oral poetic tradition of the Black church, and the theater of sound installations, Freedom is, indeed, the total artwork.

Provoking controversial thoughts through intricate layers of inflaming words, screeching stringed and choked wind instruments, drums and piano, and synthesized sound and voice, Destination Freedom begins where the story of Africans in this country shouldn’t have begun—on the ships of the transatlantic slave trade—while Invisible People gives a sort of “State of the Union Address” using snippets of Barack Obama’s landmark speech on gay marriage equality superimposed with real quotes from the Black community in its state of disunity with their own queer peoples.

Yvette Janine Jackson--Photo by Catherine Koch

Yvette Janine Jackson–Photo by Catherine Koch

When the news cycle skipped over Reverend Raphael Warnock’s shocking win of the Senate seat in Georgia to cover the Capitol building mob riots, both occurring on January 6, 2021, it changed this album’s release alongside the political spotlight on the same pulpit that MLK, Jr. held. Warnock’s win bolsters the standing of the church in the Black community as it now more loudly resembles liberation rather than oppression—the major themes of this album.

But these themes aren’t overall institutional. They aren’t about Black people being saved from the prison industrial complex (another form of slavey); these themes are about Black people being saved from themselves.

For example, a video clip of the live production of Invisible People on Jackson’s website evokes baptism and purification with two sermonizing pastors, one conducting an exorcism on an unclean spirit and the other preaching, delivering lines like, “If you do not hug your sons, some other man will.” A rather vacant-looking vocalist sings not to an audience, but to the deeply interior souls of Black folk in need of salvation. “This is not the way things are supposed to be,” she laments.

The LP audio track opens the first 30 seconds in the limbo between the Black church and queer sexuality, as ethereal and macabre as heaven and hell. It isn’t easy listening to the piled excerpts of damnation that retaliate against sound bites of Barack Obama voicing his support of gay marriage. It isn’t any easier listening to a sermon on deliverance after an ensemble of piano, drums, strings, and woodwinds breaks the discomfort. But what Jackson makes sure of is that it will be heard, nonetheless, because as uneasy as it is to listen to, it’s even harder to shut it off.

Yvette Janine Jackson--Photo courtesy of the artist

Yvette Janine Jackson–Photo courtesy of the artist

The first desire provoked in Destination Freedom is being wherever these sounds are. Minutes of crushed sound, muffled voices, an underneath hiding of pitched music; pulsing, but more like throbbing synthesized sounds that echo with movement like the waves of the ocean rather than repeating in stillness. But as with all of the maps that Black people have charted over the course of American history, this journey takes a turn towards the reality it is meant for: as a slave ship on its way to America from Africa. It is water that serves as thematic sound on this track, a parallel theme to the cleansing waters of baptism in an appeal made in Invisible People. “Come to the altar…today is the day for deliverance…do you want to be free?”

Destination Freedom, in all honesty, is easy to turn off and turn away from, as has been done for hundreds of years. The sounds are harrowing. They aren’t just unpleasant to the ears. They claw at the insides of the soul. Jackson perfectly composes the sounds of slavery that won’t be listened to because nobody wants to hear them. Freedom as a destination—literal, physical, marked latitudinally and longitudinally on a map to chart a journey overseas—Jackson points us to it, then asks whether we have the courage to go.

The Black church arose as the brave soul willing to take this expedition, spirituals being sung by slaves on plantations with hidden messages of escape (steal away to Jesus/steal away home/I hain’t got long to stay here); MLK Jr.’s pulpit, now resurrected in the Senate, once navigated the stormy winds of the Jim Crow era segregation. Jackson composes the Black church as now moving with these winds and sonically anchors our understanding of it.


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