We Out Here: A Conversation with Rion Amilcar Scott about Beyoncé, Kendrick Lamar, and Blackness
Flashes of Beyoncé’s “Formation” video appear in my head like subliminal messages spliced into my consciousness. Blue Ivy’s afro. The sinking cop car, Beyoncé splayed atop the roof. Martin’s face next to the headline “More Than A Dreamer.” Beyoncé in all black, her eyes hidden like a mystic conversing with the very ecosystem of the Louisiana bayou; Beyoncé in blood red; Beyoncé powered up, battery charged to one hundred in her spinal column, Beyoncé like a bomb, Beyoncé detonated, Beyoncé fired because triggers can only be tickled for so long before chaos is activated; the big Beyoncé theory. Black creatives are gathering — powerful creatures that are part poet, part wolf: what a time to be alive, indeed.
Black creatives are gathering — powerful creatures that are part poet, part wolf: what a time to be alive, indeed.
My friendship and working relationship with author and satirist Rion Amilcar Scott reminds me how often Black American artistic circles can overlap: one of Scott’s colleagues at Bowie State University in Maryland, where Scott currently teaches, used to be a boss of mine at Karibu Books, a black bookstore with locations throughout Prince George’s County — that enclave, that center of space I called “home” for two years — years before Scott and I would meet for the first time, albeit online, thanks to the generosity of a writer who granted us space to be creative, and ridiculous, and black on the blog of a literary magazine.
Since then, I’ve learned and embraced the value of establishing an actual, true friendship with Rion: not one constructed of flimsy shout-outs on Twitter, or the occasional squad shot on Instagram, but with emails, with sit-downs, with support and acknowledgement of his space and mine, two separate points saying “As black artists, we should on occasion talk with one another, and plot to burn this motherfucker down.”
Before I begin to pander to a white sensibility that has nothing to do with my art, a proper introduction. Rion Amilcar Scott’s writing is subversive in the Ishmael Reed tradition: a brilliant sense of humor with an edge, therefore never dull and hardly comfortable but certainly volatile in that his writing can assassinate from miles away with militaristic precision. And while his essays — a recent meditation on Black Lives Matter for The Literary Hub, for example — are both cerebral and mystical, like a spell of sorts, fiction is the realm where his mind inflicts the most damage, where his imagination creates the most wonder. I knew as much when I published “A Friendly Game” for Specter (and later for Literary Orphans as part of the Black Thought issue I guest edited), and nominated it for a Pushcart — only one of six possible nominations I bothered to submit as editor/curator of Specter. With two story collections scheduled for release in 2016, Rion Amilcar Scott is arriving at a moment when we’ve been called into formation, and blackness — as a cultural and spiritual force of creativity and consciousness engaged with our world, our lives, our loves and flaws — asks us to be out here.
Rion Amilcar Scott has contributed to Crab Orchard Review, PANK, The Rumpus, Fiction International, The Toast, and Confrontation, among others. He was raised in Silver Spring, Maryland and earned an MFA from George Mason University. His collection, Wolf Tickets, is forthcoming from Tiny Hardcore Press, as well as the collection Insurrections from University Press of Kentucky (Fall 2016).
Mensah Demary: So I’ve been thinking about how to start this. A burning question: why U-God? Why is he your favorite Wu Tang member? Or at least, why do you keep bringing him up on Twitter? Explain yourself.
Rion Amilcar Scott: U-God isn’t my favorite Wu-Tang member. It alternates between Ghostface, The GZA, The RZA, and Ol’ Dirty depending on how I feel at the moment. What fascinates me about U-God, and Masta Killa for that matter, is what fascinates me about Phife of A Tribe Called Quest, Sen Dog of Cypress Hill, 5ft of Black Moon, and Flavor Flav — the willingness to play a secondary support role alongside better emcees. Rap suffered when the group disappeared and every mediocre rapper decided to try his or her hand as a soloist. I always thought that a mediocre rapper like Memphis Bleek should have found a better rapper and played sidekick. As support staff, U-God often makes exciting contributions on songs like “Cherchez Le Ghost” from Ghostface’s Supreme Clientele and “Soul Power” from Wu-Tang’s Iron Flag. Most of his solo albums have been pretty weak, though Keynote Speaker is pretty good.
The other thing that excites me about U-God is that he, Ghostface, Cappadonna and Raekwon represent an anarchic approach to language — abstractions, coined phrases, wild syntax, bizarre imagery
The other thing that excites me about U-God is that he, Ghostface, Cappadonna and Raekwon represent an anarchic approach to language — abstractions, coined phrases, wild syntax, bizarre imagery — whereas The GZA, The RZA, Inspectah Deck, Masta Killa and Method Man approach language in a much more orderly fashion. Ghostface’s Supreme Clientele is the pinnacle of that anarchic style. ODB fluctuated between these two poles (maybe owing to the fact that he didn’t write all of his lyrics — though the songs he did write land more on the anarchic side of things). I’m influenced by both approaches as a writer and also the tension between the two styles — this probably excites me most as a Wu fan. I’m probably more influenced and inspired by the Ghostface approach than the more orderly approach.
MD: In his memoir Mo’ Meta Blues, Questlove attributed the end of group acts in hip-hop with the arrival of Kanye West. (I’m riding the Ultralight Beam, loving most of Kanye’s new album The Life of Pablo, by the way.) On one hand, Quest is right…The Roots were probably the last act remaining when West rose. Whatever mix of mainstream and underground love The Roots thought they believed they could attain, Kanye snatched it. On the other hand, I wonder if group acts ended before Kanye. One could argue group acts — like ATCQ — were replaced with “crews” or loose affiliations where any personal or artistic attachment was decoupled from iron-clad business ties. Maybe I’m tripping.
Anyway, what’s good with the literary genius of Kendrick Lamar? When’s the last time you listened to To Pimp a Butterfly?
RAS: I actually listened to TPAB the other day on my way back from Philly. It was the first time in a long time and I wanted to reassess it on the verge of our AWP panel on his work. That album had a deep impact on me when it came out — pretty much all I listened to for a while, but it fell off my radar. I wanted to see if that falling off was because I and everybody else had over-hyped it and heard what we wanted to hear. I’ve definitely done that before, bestowing classic status on what I later realized were mediocre albums.
Don’t you see a man crying on these tracks, laying himself bare? Do you not hear the metaphors, the language, the technique?
TPAB is not a mediocre album, even if it is certainly an uneven and somewhat bloated album, which can be said about every rap album outside of Illmatic. It’s not as entertaining as Good Kid, Maad City, even as it’s clear that Lamar’s skills have grown. There are fewer traditionally structured songs with easily digestible and memorable hooks.
What makes it hard to listen to though is that it’s largely the record of a man opening up his chest and showing you his bloody heart. This is not an album one listens to back to back, day after day, because you have to digest the emotions. It seems like whenever we (as a society) have troubled times there is an album — actually several — that speak to that time. TPAB speaks to our troubles the way Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On? spoke to those times.
MD: Calling an album “classic” in its immediate wake is so easy now. I get caught up in the Twitter echo chamber when it comes to music, and the chatter around TPAB when it dropped made the album feel more alive, more — I don’t know — prescient, maybe? I listened to it nonstop for weeks, sometimes locking onto a few songs I might’ve skipped, or didn’t give too much love on Twitter. “Mortal Man” for example.
The album made me angry, and that anger seeped into me and my daily life. I couldn’t write the anger away, as if I kept refilling the cauldron every time I played it. Maybe as a counterbalance, or because I’m a Drake stan, I gravitated to Take Care shortly after TPAB. I inadvertently chose an album that added so much more context to TPAB. Kendrick rapping about meeting Drake for the first time on the “Buried Alive Interlude” track is a jarring experience now.
The transformation Kendrick has undergone since then is a radical one, a black one, generated by a closer connection to his home, his soul, his people, you and I. If John Coltrane was transformed by religion/spirituality and, in my opinion, the presence and love and genius of Alice, then Kendrick is experiencing a similar change, precipitated perhaps by fame and its shallow nature.
RAS: It troubled me that people assessed the album the way they would assess a speech from a presidential candidate, rejecting the entire thing on the grounds that Lamar veered close to respectability politics or whatever, as if this album were a musical recitation of Bill Cosby’s “pound cake” speech or something. I wanted to ask those people, “Don’t you see a man crying on these tracks, laying himself bare? Do you not hear the metaphors, the language, the technique? Don’t you see a man struggling with these ideas, showing his work, coming to shaky conclusions and then rejecting those and coming to other conclusions?”
In this way TPAB is less like a work of fiction the way Good Kid felt like a work of fiction, and more like an essay collection that thinks through blackness, violence, depression, fame, and the pains of maturation.
MD: Do you think this same pressure applied to black musicians apply to black writers as well? What connections do you see between Kendrick and black writers?
RAS: There may be pressure for black writers to speak on blackness, but I think we do it largely because it’s on our minds. We’re made to be mindful of our blackness and in many situations not being mindful of it can have horrible consequences. It becomes an existential obsession and those obsessions we have form the basis of our works. I don’t think it makes sense for writers to run from their obsessions, including any of the many obsessions outside of racial identity that form the basis of our personalities and make us human.
We’re made to be mindful of our blackness and in many situations not being mindful of it can have horrible consequences.
You asked me this before Claire Vaye Watkins’s Tin House essay, “On Pandering,” dropped, but reading it gave me a different perspective on this question. That essay, while generally excellent, didn’t completely imagine what “pandering” might look like for people of color. It was interesting that she could go so long without having this “revelation.” People of color are constantly negotiating how to engage gatekeepers who are largely white and may have limited awareness of or respect for othered cultures.
On Twitter, Roxane Gay posited that for women writers or queer writers or writers of color, “pandering” can mean “writing more ethnically, or in a queerer way or in a more gendered way, to meet editor/imagined audience expectations.” I had to really think about this. My work is pretty damn ethnically specific. I questioned whether it was this way as a kind of unconscious bow to reader expectations, but really the decision to write about mostly black worlds is a conscious choice, but it is also one that is guided by the fact that the world I’ve lived in has always been mostly black. That’s the way it is for a lot of black people, I think.
There was so much talk when TPAB came out about whether white audiences would be able to get Kendrick’s album and I think the reason for that is that it makes very few overtures to whiteness and doesn’t attempt to translate the black experience. That was the exciting thing about it for a lot of black listeners.
Which brings me back to Roxane’s idea that we often “pander” by writing our cultures in a way that meets white/straight/male expectations. I think that’s true only, or mostly, when whites have large and defining roles within “ethnic” stories. (I suppose you can substitute “straight people” or “men” within queer and female contexts, though I’m sure the nuances are different.) Extra points when said white person is acting badly.
A monstrous white person on the page perpetuates the myth that racism mostly involves bad actions by evil individuals and the eradication of it mostly involves mean people acting nicer. That’s the world of Kathryn Stockett’s fantasy novel and movie, The Help. Really racism and white supremacy (like sexism and patriarchy) involve a systematic infrastructure that seems to perpetuate itself even in the absence of any overt ill will by individual actors. That’s far more disconcerting and scary and a far more difficult thing to dramatize.
MD: Okay. We were going to end our talk here, but I can’t without asking you for your thoughts on “Formation.”
RAS: I must start this by saying, I am by no means a Beyoncé stan. That’s becoming the classic opening when discussing this song and video; I’ve seen so many people on Twitter and Facebook use that line. Whenever there’s a Beyoncé moment on Twitter, I’m usually on my timeline making fun of it. This time though, I had no jokes, no cynicism. She’s seemed to have united the Beyhive with black folks who were uninterested in her or even disdainful of her music. I can’t stress how important it is for an artist of Beyoncé’s caliber to forcefully assert her blackness at a time of racialized strife and turmoil. The “stop shooting us” iconography. The sinking cop car. The drowning/baptism/rebirth in the floodwaters of Katrina, where so many became politicized (and one of the many preludes to the #blacklivesmatter movement that officially kicked off in Ferguson). The expressions of love for her “negro nose” and her family, mixing the personal with the political. There’s a lot here.
If artists haven’t felt the call to put their art in the service of our liberation, this is a very good and very black bat signal.
Every movement needs art to minister to its spiritual, emotional and intellectual needs. It’s as important as the street protests, more possibly if the art transcends the moment. I’ve heard people question the authenticity of Yoncé’s “Formation” moment. Saying she’s been a superstar for so long and never has been particularly political. Let’s remember though that Marvin Gaye wasn’t a new artist when he made What’s Going On? He was called. I’ve heard people say “Formation” doesn’t come forcefully enough. I can dig that. Though I do think that mixing the personal with the political, the trivial with the profound is very much of our times. But, no, this isn’t exactly What’s Going On? It doesn’t need to be; the title itself, “Formation,” implies a beginning. It leaves room for other black artists to pick up the torch and take it further in their own respective mediums. If artists haven’t felt the call to put their art in the service of our liberation, this is a very good and very black bat signal.