Critical World
Thinking Globalization Through Popular Culture
Slave Ship On The InfoSea
Categories: Critical World Book

This article was created to accompany a text that appeared in the edited volume entitled “Music and Globalization:  Critical Encounters” (Indiana University Press, 2012). For more information, visit:  http://www.iupress.indiana.edu/a/MUSGLP

I want to bring together three figures—those of the slave ship, the blood-borne virus, and digital information—and think about the ways in which they contaminate one another in the work and legacy of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti and Gilberto Gil.

—Barbara Browning

 

 

 

Send “Fela Kuti” to your Cell

Fela Anikulapo-Kuti was born in Nigeria in 1938, and died there in 1997. Without exaggeration, he was an artist who radically transformed the global understanding of African and African diasporic musics and political interventionism.

—Barbara Browning

Contamination and its variants, contagion and infection, are risky and yet often productive terms in analyzing the relationship between political exploitation, disease, and cultural transmission (Patton 1990, Farmer 1995, Browning 1998, Wald 2008, e-misférica 2009). There are insidious and often racist ways in which metaphorical and literal forms of “infectiousness” are often blithely yoked together.

And yet I am, in effect, encouraging here an analysis which allows for the interpenetration of three spheres – the political, the biological, and the cultural – in the hope is that these figures (of the slave ship, the virus and the digital information circuit) might also help us in thinking through a political critique both in and of two influential artists often categorized under the rubric of “World Music.”

—Barbara Browning

 

Malaria fever nko? (He dey!)
Jaundice fever nko? (He dey!)
Hay fever nko? (He dey!)
Influenza fever nko? (He dey!)
Inflation fever nko? (He dey!)
Freedom fever nko? (He dey!)
Yellow fever nko? (He dey!)

Original catch you
Your eye go yellow
Your yansh go yellow
Your face go yellow
Your body go weak
I say but later if you no die inside
The yellow go fade away

Artificial catch you
You be man or woman
Na you go catch am yourself
Na your money go do am for you
You go yellow pass yellow
You go catch moustache for face
You go get your double colour
Your yansh go black like coal
You self go think say you dey fine
Who say you fine?

 

Yellow fever, of course, is a “sickness, a true sickness.” But the figurative yellowing of a desire to emulate whiteness is, to Fela, also truly pathological. As is not only malaria and influenza, but economic violence as well. And what of freedom? The lyric implies that political consciousness can be as “catching,” as “infectious,” as either the blood-borne virus or cultural imperialism.

—Barbara Browning

Yellow Fever by Fela Kuti:

 

It would be accurate to say that Yellow Fever simply manifests the deeper pathology of the commodification of human beings, and the slave ship as a vector of that pathology is much greater than the circulation of the mosquito. But freedom, too, is contagious—which is precisely why Haitian slaves were cast as dangerous, potentially infectious beings.

—Barbara Browning

 

 

 

The notion of contagion or infectiousness is a powerful metaphor that has at times been invoked in seemingly benign ways, sometimes malignant ways, and sometimes in politically productive ways to talk about African and African diasporic culture—and particularly music and dance.

—Barbara Browning

Afro Beat, the cosmopolitan and insistently African musical style that Fela popularized, is almost invariably described in terms of its “infectiousness.” And his political philosophy, dubbed “felism” on his posthumous official website, is defined in relation to its “virulence” (http://www.fela.net/). The lyric of his 1976 song “Perambulator” is said to “summarize” this politics of virulence. The lyric warns that perambulation—a possible alternative term for the exploitative effects of globalization—is not necessarily progress. “Mobility”—in the forms of literal travel, Western education, or the African importation of external cultural and intellectual influences can lead, Fela says, to immobility.

—Barbara Browning

 

Photo in the News: Bird Flu Dance Craze Sweeps Ivory Coast

Economic circulatory systems are linked to routes of literal contagion—and of healing. And the most extremely exploitative system of circulation—the trafficking of slaves—was also linked to pathological vectors.

John Edgar Wideman’s short story, “Fever,” returns to an 18th-century epidemiological theory that suggested that Yellow Fever spread to the U.S. through the vector of Haitian slaves being transported north by slave-owners fearing political foment on the island.

Wideman opens his meditation on the virulent nature of the pathology of slavery in the hold of a slave ship, where an aedes aegypti mosquito infects a man with a blood-borne virus. It would be accurate to say that Yellow Fever simply manifests the deeper pathology of the commodification of human beings, and the slave ship as a vector of that pathology is much greater than the circulation of the mosquito. But freedom, too, is contagious—which is precisely why Haitian slaves were cast as dangerous, potentially infectious beings.

—Barbara Browning

 

In 2004, Gil performed a benefit concert in New York with David Byrne to promote the Creative Commons project. It was co-sponsored by Wired magazine.

It struck me as entirely logical at the time that he performed two songs, one about the tragedy of the transatlantic slave trade, and another about the utopian possibilities of the digital crossing of information across the “infosea” of the internet.

He prefaced the former song (“La lune de Gorée”) by referencing the history of slavery in the Americas, “the reason,” he said, “we are here today.”

That meant many things—among them, that a celebration of technology’s capacity to endow individuals with self-sovereignty is directly related to the historical enslavement of Africans.

—Barbara Browning

Gilberto Gil, Pela Internet:

 

 

In the live show promoting the new album, Gil performed a number of his older songs – including “Pela Internet,” which I cited above, and also “Sarará Miolo,” a song which has remarkable resonances with Fela’s “Yellow Fever.” Sarará designates, in Brazil, a person of mixed racial heritage, with kinky but blonde hair:

 

Sara, sara, sara, sarará                         Heal, heal, heal, sarará
Sara, sara, sara, sarará                         Heal, heal, heal, sarará
Sarará miolo                                           Sarará flesh
Sara, sara, sara cura                              Heal, heal, heal, cure
Dessa doença de branco                       This sickness of the white man
Sara, sara, sara cura                               Heal, heal, heal, cure
Dessa doença de branco                        This sickness of the white man
De querer cabelo liso                              Of wanting straight hair
Já tendo cabelo louro                              When you already have blonde hair
Cabelo duro é preciso                               Kinky hair is necessary
Que é para ser você, crioulo                    For you to be who you are, black man

 

Intellectual property rights bear a relation to the historical trafficking not only of black artistic production, but of black people. That makes this a complex issue with no easy answers.

There are certainly contexts within which a freer circulation of, for example, life-saving medications can only be understood as righteous and just. It remains to be charted, what the freer circulation of artistic productions might mean.

We’re just starting out on this ocean, even though in many ways it’s the same ocean we’ve been traversing for hundreds of years. It’s a dangerous place with a pathological history of exploitation and viruses both literal and figurative. The utopian question, and I think we really do need some of those right now, is whether we might stand a chance of catching a little freedom.

—Barbara Browning

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