Ever since I read this vignette, in 2000, about Bill Gates’ great Eureka, in which he finally ceases to be an entirely white boy, I have been thinking.
Gates looks back with some amusement at his belated realization that access to technological information might not be the answer to the world’s most serious problems. Microsoft was donating computers to poor communities in Africa in the mid-90’s, and during a visit to Johannesburg, Gates went to Soweto where he was proudly shown the town’s single computer. As he took in his surroundings, he recalls, he said to himself: ”Hey, wait a minute — there’s only one electrical outlet in this whole place.’ And yup, they had plugged in that computer, and when I was there, man, that thing was running and everybody was very thankful. But I looked around and thought, Hmm, computers may not be the highest priority in this particular place. I wondered, Who the heck is going to be really using this thing?”
I’ve been collecting a number of pieces of string around this, one being that Gates was so overwhelmed by actually being able to See something among all the invisible men and sockets in Soweto that he missed the picture of Tupac taped to the wall. I imagine the wall to be made of flattened 25-liter cooking oil tins. Maybe the picture is of Diddy or Little Richard or Snoop or Afrika Bambaataa or L’il Kim’s plastic breasts. Maybe it is affixed to the wall with a magnet, or wired to the wall through holes drilled in the tins. Whoever the picture is of, it is not a picture of anything Americans promulgate as American culture. American culture would be the socket they don’t have. The software Gates is trying to sell them.
From that moment, I realized that African Americans are the arbiters of American and thus global popular culture. Just finished reading a book called An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood. I await the sequel, about how African Americans — and System D — invented popular culture. And I do believe, as a very old school fan of the O’Jays and their love train, that the hip hop love train energy is what is moving through System D — what the African Francophones call the back channel economy, which now employs half the world’s workers and is the second-largest economy (after ours) — to save the world. Out of the garbage pile that is Lagos it comes, slouching toward
Bethlehem Wall fucking Street.
As usual, the comments on this clip are as important as the clip itself, if not more so.
Now comes this stunning profile of Kuk Harrell, a black man who is Justin Bieber’s and Rihanna’s vocal producer. He is now my template for culture czar. First thought. It’s all pastiche and technology. Second thought, Romare Bearden is all pastiche and he did it, he sliced up America, Justin Bieber, Bill Gates and Rihanna, listening, as many African American fine artists do, to jazz.
Kuk Harrell, culture arbiter.
Jazz is way too intellectual for me. I suspect it has to do with the heroin-like abstractions of bone-deep existential Cool. I am not cool. I do lurk late though, and so I nearly passed out staring at Bearden’s Tomorrow I May Be Far Away at the National Gallery’s great 2003 retrospective when I saw fragments of wood siding samples pasted into the [entirely modernist] cubist melange. (Was Picasso the first black president?)
I immediately connected them to the collageurs and pastiche masters of African American yard art, in which hub caps are transformed into mandalas and geomancy energy changers, and drive shafts driven into graves into axes mundi. This Bearden did with advertising images he clipped and re-imagined from white Life or black Ebony magazine.
Romare Bearden. Tomorrow I May Be Far Away. 1967
Finally, there’s nothing post-modern about the pastiche. I need to think some more about that. It’s totes modern, and totes Marxist in its deconstruction, or explosion, and synthesis (as Harrell’s biographer puts it) into a Frankensteinian work of cobbled System D art. It’s a total reappropriation by Harrell/Bearden/Frankenstein. I need to think a whole lot more about that, and the interpolation of technology — the mastery of recording technology — with which Harrell mediates, collages, and pastiches a song. You think it’s Bieber? Think again.
For now, hear this. African Americans and Kuk Harrell are your popular cultural arbiters. Nothin’ post-racial about it.
I have to get some more System D and Frenchie philosophy under my belt. I’m still flipping out around the idea that Lacan was a Freudian psychoanalyst. Nothin’ Afro pomo homo about that.
People all over the world? Join hands. Join hands.