Songs I Like #7: Papa Wemba, “Adida Kiesse”

A decade ago, someone left a CD of Franco at the zine library where I volunteered, shelving and cleaning, and I fell in immediate soul-stirring, body-tingling love with it, the way as a teen I lost it at first listen to Giant Steps, London Calling, The Indestructible Beat of Soweto, Country Life, feeling in the physical flow and vibrancy of the music something that fit an exact place in my spirit. Franco, a guitar colossus, declamatory singer, and ace bandleader, led the transition of Congolese music from lilting Cuban-inspired rumba to the punchy, virtuosic, sensual-then-brisk dance music called soukous. He and his rival/pal/fellow continental superstar the sweet-voiced Tabu Ley Rochereau so completely dominated the soukous scene in Kinshasa that they’d absorb nearly every gifted player and singer into their own rotating groups. One of the few exceptions to the creative duopoly was the prickly and independent-minded bandleader and composer Papa Wemba, who roared out of his Zaiko Langa Langa band in the 70s to create hard-edged, funky solo music.

Wemba, who died onstage in Abidjan three days ago at 66, could bark and wail and keen and serenade, sometimes all in the same song; he could quote village chants in a Saturday-night dancefloor tune. “La ville et le village,” he once wrote: “deux visages que j’aime!” I first met his music on the 1977-1997 anthology, then on the Peter Gabriel project Molokai. This tune– from the 90s, long after most soukous giants had fallen silent– is my fave.

 

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Prince: First Last Thoughts

When an artist you love dies, what do you mourn exactly? I can’t mourn like Prince’s family will mourn, his close friends and collaborators, his church friends, the people who knew and loved the person.

What I mourn is the possible generative future of a damn inconsistent and still wonderful artist—the next “Breakfast Can Wait” or “Black Sweat” or “1,000 X’s and O’s” that there’ll never be, much less all the stone-cold classics (I cleaned my writing studio just this morning to “Housequake” and “Slow Love,” danced just last night to “Raspberry Beret”) whose source will never conjure them up for us live. (Missed him last year here in Sattle; played four nights at a small club, $250 a ticket, extraordinary from what I heard, a 3-hour show of classics and B-sides and requests melting under the heat of his tireless energy and the crowd’s love.)

But mostly what I mourn is the projection of a possible way to be, a Prince I could live inside and love and shock myself as, a Prince that refreshed the courage of my community of weirdos queers artists mystics Christians and forever reshaped our big culture’s borders around racial and sexual identity and music.* I don’t know almost anything about what Prince was like personally. But I do know that an artist can be incredibly difficult in person but still, by extending their “I” to contain the longing and lust and will for freedom and psychedelic dreams and invention of the people who adore their art, give a gift of radical possibility. People could close their eyes and put themselves inside his music, his persona, his Prince-ness and be changed.

It’s different, I think, with the writers I love: the emptying of the personality into the written work means that there’s something primary, still-living, in their books even when they’re gone. (I still wanna take a moment and recommend round-the-clock health monitoring and security for Samuel Delany.) But Prince, now, belongs to a time that’s no longer quite reachable by the people whose lives and imaginations he changed. So that’s what I mourn.

*: Clarification added, after a few hours’ reflection, to the original post. Prince’s radical push against a homogenized white perception of black culture—his refigurement of blackness in the eyes of his pop audience—is a huge part of his art. And it’s an aspect of his work that, I wanna be clear, I can never “live inside,” as a POC fan of Prince’s music could. Prince was an artist of color in a racist society; I’m white. I can love this dimension of his work, and be challenged by it, and learn from it, but it’s not my role to inhabit.

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When People Ask Me Why I Quit Facebook

Something extractive about it, obligatory. You know what I mean? I’m good at overdoing things, and the way Facebook called me to overdo my friendedness made me tired.

Something diffuse, thinning about it. We live in an era in the wired-in Global North where friendship is changing from a noun to a verb: from the pleasure, aspiration, and moral ardor of a few abiding commitments to a diffuse cloud of being friended, a well-wishing whose many-fibered vapor buoys our sense of self. This formulation first got planted in my head by William Deresiewicz’s piece on this, one I still go back to.

Something self-commodifying about it. (I have nothing against commodities; I love commodities. I just got under my own skin when I realized how Facebook had trained me to position myself as a spectacle, a product.)

Something disquieting about how I saw politics manifest on it in my community. An environment where signaling membership and belonging is low-commitment and low-risk, but at the same time depends on an essentially middle-class code-fluency. Folks of our class and culture have been persuaded that virtuous self-expression is itself political. That that self-expression—rather than an ongoing personal relationship with, and practical commitment to, an oppressed community—amounts to categorical solidarity. That politics is about mastering a language. (Don’t want to minimize its potential for contacts among diffuse groups, rapid mobilization, usefully-jarring perspectives: there’s no one right way to do political work. Not intending to dismiss those for whom it’s an essential political tool. It’s just not for me anymore.)

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New Publication: on Emily Wilson and Julie Carr

Dear follower-friends, happy to share that Kenyon Review Online recently published my review of Emily Wilson’s The Great Medieval Yellows and Julie Carr’s Think Tank. Enjoy!

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On Liberation, Loneliness, Spirituality, and the Cops

Hi friends, the lefty/dissenting Catholic webspace, Young Adult Catholics, has published an essay called “Honored Guests” which I wrote last summer. Hope you enjoy.

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New Publication: on Frederick Seidel’s “Barbados”

Welcome to the nightmare! A reflection on one of the most ghastly poems of all time. Read all about it at Poetry Northwest.

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What Cait Said

White middle-class progressive folks are prone to feel a sense of individual burden or despair in facing an unjust world. Used to having our individuality and agency flattered, we face evil, destruction, unfairness, and oppression and think, “How could it be so unfair? What can I, with my sense of how to make things more just, ever do to make the system more just?” And with that, we often either sink into complacency (“nothing to be done”), or we begin holding forth to those around us about how much better we’d do things if only the powers that be would listen.

But activism is not mainly about explaining your smart idea to the powers that be. Institutional power seeks only to maintain itself. Power has no in-built drive toward rationality or fairness; few institutions have any free space in which a new idea is given a “hearing.” Instead, activism is mainly about building the strength– and amplifying the voice– of the people whom power ignores, diminishes, scatters, silences, or crushes. Want a fairer world? Fight to make room for those most excluded.

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