M. Lamar on Defining Negrogothic and the Liberated Black Man

M. Lamar embodies a gorgeous Afro Gothic aesthetic that glows Black. His background in punk and metal ever-present, Lamar’s deeply moving works feature his operatic countertenor voice soaring powerfully over beautifully moving music. His influences and mentors are wide-ranging, including Ira Siff, Diamanda Galás, Leontyne Price, and Meredith MonkLordship and Bondage: The Birth of the Negro Superman is a clear example of how Lamar brings his unique aesthetic to the stage. Composed with support from the 2016 JFUND for New Music (now ACF | create) funded by the Jerome Foundation, Lordship and Bondage challenges the audience to understand what it means to be a liberated Black man while offering an unsanitized history of Black existence in the United States.

Lamar points to Lordship and Bondage as an important piece because it came after he had written a series of historical works like his slave ship requiem Speculum Orum: Shackled to the Dead (2013) and Funeral Doom Spiritual (2017), which explores the racialized violence of today projected into the future.

“All of my works sort of lead from one to the other, at least at this point in my composing and art-making,” says Lamar. “Everything is a response to everything else. In Funeral Doom Spiritual, there is incredible mourning that is happening. What we find in this piece after what I call the overture is ‘They Took You From Me,’ which finds this person talking about how their most beloved — it could be a child, it could be a lover — but their most beloved person was taken by the hands of a police officer. When I started writing this piece, it was in 2014 [when] Ferguson and Mike Brown happened, and Tamir Rice happened in 2015.”

The demonization of Mike Brown and the subsequent responses from the public are an aspect of that murder that Lamar is still contemplating. He has been particularly interested in statements made by Mike Brown’s murderer, in which he said he felt like “a kid holding onto Hulk Hogan’s arm,” even though he and Brown were the same height. This irrational fear of the Black male body is ingrained in white supremacy, to imagine Black men as superhuman sexually and physically. It is a deep pathology that was used during slavery to legitimize working us 16 hours a day without pay, and today is a way of legitimizing the murder of Black men by law enforcement across the United States.

Lamar initially attended school for visual art and studied at Yale, but left when he decided that he just needed to focus on music. He moved to San Francisco and studied composition and piano at City College. He joined a gospel choir to prepare him for the type of music that he wanted to make, and he spent time in bands where he wrote a catalog of songs.

“A lot of those songs survived as I moved towards composing music for piano and voice,” remembers Lamar. “These sort of songs were about racialized history and what it means to be Black in the United States — like what it means to become an emancipated subject in the context of the imperialist Western capitalist heteropatriarchy when you are a Black person; when you understand the history from whence you come and how you make yourself a free person in the mind. Malcolm X would talk about how we must free our minds, and one of the things he was encouraging Black people to do was to see themselves differently in the context of white supremacy; that we must have a different way of seeing ourselves and each other. So once you move through all of that, how do you make work? What does the work look like for the emancipated person?”

In his ACF-supported piece, Lordship and Bondage, Lamar explores what happens after resurrection when there is a different type of consciousness. “It’s all about transcendent existential things. I was trying to, in a philosophical way, talk about what an emancipated Black consciousness would look like. And I was lucky, in that goal, to have people to look to like Sun Ra, like Cecil Taylor, like Ornette Coleman, like John Coltrane, and I used a lot of the writing of Cornel West in the piece.”

Lamar really sees Taylor, Coleman, and the others as philosophers, and through this work on Lordship and Bondage, he was able to investigate their philosophies more deeply. “One of the things that is so compelling to me about Sun Ra is that he had an entire worldview, an entire manifesto way of living that was connected to not only biblical scholarship, but also to numerology and egyptology. He was very much a scholar and very much a person who was providing a map for people to live. And one of the things that he did, that I can’t do because I like to be alone, was that he had this house where his band members lived with him. He’d wake people up in the middle of the night and give talks and lectures on hieroglyphics, or numerology, or space. That is the thing. That is a real pedagogical way of being. A real legacy. You give people tools to take and move forward in a way that advances an entire lifestyle.”

In addition to Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor is someone who Lamar considers to be one of the most transcendent musicians he’s ever seen. Sun Ra and Cecil Taylor were both very clear about the fact that what they were doing was Black music. But Lamar feels a particular connection to Taylor’s approach to creation. “You know, he created his own scales. He was very insistent about his own nomenclature, he would say his own language, his own way of doing things.”

Following in Taylor’s footsteps, Lamar has coined words and phrases like “negrogothic” and “doom spiritual” to describe his own practice. “That model of coming up with your own language and your own voice, really I think is not a dominant theme in music now. I wanted an entire piece that focused on the philosophical piece of these people. There is one movement [of Lordship and Bondage] that is called ‘Fuschia Awning’ inspired by Cecil Taylor. There was this video of Cecil Taylor on the screen, and I don’t know if you saw him in the ’70s, but he wore these huge pink or purple hats and he gestured with his hands and said, ‘One could be walking and come across a fuschia awning and that’s music.’ And that was genius. This is life-changing stuff.”

For Lamar, there has always been what Cornel West describes as a “transfiguration of our guttural cry” in Black music like that of Sun Ra and Cecil Taylor. It is a sort of alchemy, this transformation of violence, like Ralph Ellison’s description of the blues as “an autobiographical chronicle of personal catastrophe expressed lyrically.” It is something not bound to any one genre, whether it is the blues — or in the case of Lamar — metal, punk, or a new way of presenting opera. This “cry” is a part of the experience of the descendants of Africans who were stolen from their land and enslaved in this new land to toil the earth. It creates a sort of catharsis that then allows for transcendence. It is something that you can hear in Lamar’s Negrogothic work that, since his 2016 JFUND award, he has sought to record, creating a catalog for future generations of Black men. All of these pieces — Speculum Orum: Shackled to the DeadSurveillance Punishment and the Black Psyche, Funeral Doom Spiritual, and Lordship and Bondage: The Birth of the Negro Superman can be read as a road map to self-liberation.


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