Influences: Reclaiming

This post is part of my Influences series, which is explained here.

black star

Black Star’s song “Astronomy (8th Light)” is especially helpful for thinking about how to repurpose concepts that came before, because it is structured around a reclaiming of negative metaphors of Blackness such as phrases like “black sheep” and associations of Blackness with death, voids, to give just a few examples. Instead, they turn Blackness into a conception that is positive in numerous ways. For example, see this excerpt from the full lyrics:

Black like my baby girl’s stare

Black like the veil that the Muslimina wear

Black like the planet that they fear, why they scared?

Black like the slave ship belly that brought us here

Black like the cheeks that are roadways for tears (Mm)

That leave black faces well traveled with years

Black like assassin crosshairs

Blacker than my granddaddy armchair

He never really got no time to chill there

‘Cause this life is warfare, warfare

There are Black feminist reclaimings of poetry and music, like Sarah Jones’s “Your Revolution Will Not Be Between These Thighs” (text), a remix of Gill Scott Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” (text), but a remix that also references a slew of hiphop songs from the 1990s and early 2000s. There are also Black nationalist reclaimings of mainstream hiphop, like the Dead Prez’s “We Need a Revolution” (lyrics) which reworks Alliyah’s “We Need a Resolution.”

Reclaiming familiar terms and using them for a new purpose is one aspect of “intimate and distant,” or how Black Star refer to themselves in the song. In my experience, which to be fair is necessarily limited, reclaiming is closely aligned with the practice of sampling not just melodies but also words and ideas. As such, reclaiming is central to hiphop as well as the music of Black people globally. The most famous example is the 1970s political slogan, “Black is beautiful,” which sought to change the negative connotations that, under white supremacy, viewed being Black as by definition lesser than, un-beautiful. There are also phrases like “the Blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice,” which counters colorism and which is also the name of a Kendrik Lamar song, and to which TuPac has added in his ode to Black women, “I say the darker the flesh, the deeper the roots.”

These examples are evidence of efforts to take apart Audre Lorde’s “master’s tools,” in this case negative images of Blackness, and they’re relevant to critical research since no source, no author is perfect, and so citation, borrowing, sampling, is also always an act of translation and remaking. But power dynamics also reshaping reclaiming, particularly given the longstanding practice of white people gaining fame and wealth by retooling the work of BIPOC (Black, indigenous, and people of color) creators. One classic example is the song “Hound Dog” by the Black, lesbian, and gender nonconforming artist Willie Mae Thornton which was famous in its day but afterwards has long been remembered in white communities as if Elvis’s cover is the only version. For more on the politics of issues related to reclaiming, see the debates over appropriation (exhibits A, B, C, D, E, and F) and citation (such as Cite Black Women).