What does it mean to carry a coffin across centuries?
This is the central question M. Lamar is trying to resolve in his work. In a year marked by the public memorialization and politicization of Black lives lost to police violence, M. Lamar uploaded a Soundcloud file with the image of Michael Brown in his graduation robe and a title that directly references Darren Wilson’s testimony: “Scarecrow Jim Crow I’m A Demon Coming At You (Don’t Give Up On Me)”. Accompanied by heavy percussive piano, Lamar’s operatic voice sings, Stand down your firing squad / Your state-sanctioned genocide / These black children are no threat to you.
“Scarecrow Jim Crow” is part of Negrogothic, an album released this October, which also includes songs such as “Trying to Leave My Body” and “In the Belly of the Ship”—powerful, difficult pieces that connect histories of violence with present-day trauma. It is also a key part of Destruction, a forthcoming performance at the Abrons Art Center’s American Realness festival.
I meet M. Lamar in a coffee shop to talk about the piece, for which he’s currently working on the libretto. He wears black leather, with eye makeup done as corpse paint. It’s how he dresses both on stage and in his daily life, living inside his work as the work lives inside him.
“There are no answers in the moment. History teaches us a lot about how we got to this moment so my work has always been historically based. I’m interested in how history reflects the present but [with Destruction] I’m in the future in a way. How that history can reflect a different kind of future. This show [takes place] in 2116 and it’s all about these unjust deaths being finally reconciled. All these dead souls get to come back in this show.
It happens in a kind of futuristic Easter, because Easter is all about resurrection. It’s not just one figure, it’s many, many figures, this army of people who can destroy finally the world order of white supremacy. It starts in a mournful place, my work is about mourning ultimately, but it ends up in a very different place, which is very exciting.
But today I’ve been reworking the mourning section.
The beginning parts of the show will hopefully to take you to a very devastating place. Or at least I will be there and maybe people will come with me.”
In December, M. Lamar performed his piece Surveillance, Punishment, and the Black Psyche, at Cooper Union. Seated at a grand piano in an orange prison jumpsuit, accompanied by a smoke machine and a deeply symbolic lyric video, he performed an hour-long work that told the story of a person on death row, all the while synthesizing ideas about the panopticon, slave ships, plantation sexuality, incarceration, the internalization of the white gaze and the surveillance state.
During the Q&A an audience member praised the work, saying they had never felt quite that uncomfortable.
“[With] Surveillance and Speculum Orum, I’m generally devastated for a long time after those pieces.
[Though] lately with Surveillance there’s been a kind of elation because I get to move through it, because the work is so historically based. The fact that I’m still here, that anybody Black is still walking around, seems like a miracle to me given the sort of extreme devastation that has been a part of Black lives, the fact that death has been such a fundamental part of what it means to be black in the U.S. context.
[The work is about] slave ships, the plantations, lynching, and now all these police shootings, which have always been a thing but maybe now technology [means] people get to see them, all the white people who are sort of liberally minded get to be outraged in a way that we have always known. If you go back to Richard Pryor in the 1970s, making jokes about police and police brutality and talking about these things for a really long time.
The fact that I’m still here, that anybody Black is still walking around, seems like a miracle to me given the sort of extreme devastation that has been a part of Black lives, the fact that death has been such a fundamental part of what it means to be black in the U.S. context.
When Trayvon Martin was shot, it was a sort of awakening for white people around the fact that we were being unfairly targeted, but this is something that I’ve been on about for a very long time.
I was devastated by [Michael Brown’s death] but then moved by all the activity around that death. I think that made people come together and insist that we will never forget a person who was taken in an unjust way. And in our indignation, we can rise.
I was very conflicted when I saw what was going down in Ferguson and when Darren Wilson’s testimony came out—on one level I was like, this is very useful, because we get to be inside the mind of the white supremacist and to really examine what they’re going through. But then you’re like, this is so fucked, the ‘toddler holding onto Hulk Hogan’s arm,’ or ‘he’s a demon coming at me.’ That monstrous image of blackness in the white imagination is useful and not a surprise to me. I spend so much time in porn, researching it I mean, and that’s the very image you see of Black people in porn, that same demon-like sexuality and I’m always insisting the flip side is that fearful black person that we have to shoot down.
I mean, that Black woman that was shot [Renisha McBride]. Her car broke down, she was in a car accident, she knocked on this white man’s house, and then he just shot her. Or Sandra Bland…I mean there are so many. There is a line in the show: your death has become my life. I have joy in my life because that’s a real burden to carry, but I mean, we’ve been carrying it.
A lot of my interest has been about, what does it mean to carry these coffins across centuries? The story that I’m trying to tell is not just about this moment, it’s about many moments past and many moments unfortunately probably to come. The futuristic element is about having one single figure who can exist across different time periods who will carry these coffins, who will carry these memories with them, until that one moment that one day when all the souls can rise again.”
“When I was in college I was thinking about this history of Black death in a very theoretical way, reading Cornel West, and then when I moved away from visual art [I set] this history in sort of a punk / goth / metal context [and] started drawing very much from a kind of schlocky b-movie sensibility.
I think diving deep into the fictional side of it made the reality of it even more intense. There’s a horror around my Negrogothic sensibilities. The horror is not a fantasy; it’s real life if you’re a Black person in America.
My connection to punk / goth / metal subcultures is huge. These are my people, this is my scene. That subculture is the thing that made me, that’s where I come from, I’m still there. I love playing a big piano to big halls with great acoustics, I love the sonic experience of it, but I also love playing in basements and dark clubs with punk and metal bands.
I dropped out of art school, I was like, I want to do stuff for the people. The art world seemed really detached from people, at least my people. I’m not just talking about Black people but people who are punk or goth or have anti-capitalist values. So that was more about accessibility… even though I don’t know how accessible my band really was.
I always found black metal … there is something about the blast-beats that I found really calming. I sleep really well with it. I put it on and fall asleep. Varg [Vikernes, aka Burzum]—well we know he’s a white supremacist—but there’s something very spiritual and haunting about his music. There’s nothing else like it.”
Along with the punk and goth aesthetics, Lamar’s music incorporates vocal techniques from operatic and gospel traditions, and a writing and performance style that draws comparisons to Diamanda Galas’ focus on genocide and isolation and Nina Simone’s capacity for embodying historical narratives.
“I had the privilege of speaking to Diamanda Galas and we talked about technique and singers and we put gospel singers pretty much in the same category as opera singers. There’s the same kind of rigor, the same technique. When I met her in the street in 2006 when I just moved to New York I was going to voice lessons and she walked by me and that kind of began our whole thing, and what she said to me was, ‘Keep singing against the buildings, because that means the sound is reverberating between the buildings in the East Village and this sound can take you to the gods.’
It’s not just about having spirit, it’s about some kind of technique and method to get you there. Lots of people can have the spirit but not the ability to take you to anything.
I came to gospel singing and a love of it late. Opera was my first sort of love with singing. With me the opera was never bougie. It was Leontyne Price, Marian Anderson, Jesse Norman, this divineness that the voice had. I always felt the spirit deeply when they were singing and those singers, more than any others I think, are so connected to the U.S. African tradition. Especially Leontyne, even when she’s singing Verdi you can still hear her Lowell, Mississippi accent.
That’s a very moving thing to me. The voice emits so much of who you are, more than any other instrument. There’s something about regional dialects and inflections, and it has the ability to tell your story and the human story in a way that [nothing else can].
There’s this moment in Selma when King is very dismayed and he calls Mahalia Jackson and she sings to him over the phone. To me that says everything about the primacy of voice.”
Lamar’s visual style invokes queer narratives, with BDSM imagery that inverts Robert Mapplethorpe, but he is adamant about feeling more connected to black cultural histories than queer ones, speaking reverently about the lineage forged by towering figures such as Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor, the life-and-death quality of James Brown, Marian Anderson singing “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord.”
“I think so much of the compelling art made in the late-1980s / early-1990s by queer people was about this HIV question and the fact that they knew they were going to die. I think you make work really differently when you know you’re going to die. I think all the great Black artists who we’ve had have always been really intimate with death.”
Sitting with this kind of death has been essential in Lamar’s work. As more writing emerges about the psychological toll of living with racialized violence, Lamar’s work holds space for grief, pursuing a catharsis around mourning and memory.
“bell hooks’ work is very moving to me because she talks in a way that no one else really has about how we haven’t had sustained periods of mourning about the sixties, those deaths, Martin King…we just had to continue on somehow.
Sustained public mourning is so necessary. Having spaces [and] works of art that celebrate mourning or recognize the value of it, to fully acknowledge the extent to which something is lost so we can fully go on.”
Sustained public mourning is so necessary. Having spaces [and] works of art that celebrate mourning or recognize the value of it, to fully acknowledge the extent to which something is lost so we can fully go on.
Destruction, the piece he’s presenting at American Realness, is about going on. It’s inspired, fittingly, by an amalgamation of The Walking Dead, Jack Halberstam and Anthony Paul Farley’s work on zombies, a revolutionary doom spiritual, and a phone call with bell hooks on the eve of Easter Sunday.
“I am lucky enough to be able to call bell hooks on the phone and talk sometimes, and I called bell hooks on Holy Saturday the day before Easter. ‘I’m really into tomorrow,’ she said, ‘I really love the idea of these spirits coming back and this resurrection thing,’ and those words have been sitting with me since then.
Maybe a year or so ago, I started doing this doom version of ‘My Lord, What a Morning’. I was singing that for a very long time, since I was a kid, in the way Marian Anderson would sing it, and I was thinking, what the fuck are these words about? When the stars begin to fall / You will hear the sinners shout / Wake the nations underground–what is all this stuff about? When I started looking into it, [it was about] the Underground Railroad, the spirits, coded messages in Christianity but also coded messages about various rebellions, meetings where things can happen, but specifically ‘the stars falling’ and ‘the dead rising’ was about the end of the world. I became obsessed with doom spirituals as this phase of reckoning when the world will fall. These slaves were singing these songs about various uprisings, and that was so exciting to me.
The spiritual-as-revolutionary, apocalyptic rapture thing is a big deal for this whole project. ‘My Lord What A Morning’ sparked it, thinking about these zombies. I was at this thing at Wesleyan and Jack Halberstam was there, all these queer theory type people spent a lot of time talking about zombies, particularly the person of color as zombie. Anthony Paul Farley talked about the dead always singing to us, that means they can’t really be dead, they can only be asleep, and the thing about the dead being asleep is that one day they can wake up.
I think there’s more joy in this piece. I think the point of this new work is to turn a corner where I’m not just documenting the devastation in black life historically but also to signal to something else, something that’s not just about being in mourning but a mourning that can be very active, that makes you want to go out and do something.”
Funeral Doom Spiritual‘s world premiere is in Los Angeles on April 16, presented by One Archive and USC, and accompanied by an installation of the same title which includes objects, videos, and prints that opens April 15th. These works were commissioned by One Archive and USC.
Surveillance, Punishment, and the Black Psyche is being made into a film with Charlie Looker from Psalm Zero writing string arrangements performed by Mivos Quartet. Selections from this piece will be performed at Merkin Concert Hall on March 19th as a part of the Ecstatic Music Festival. Tickets are available.
Destruction opens at Abrons Art Center on January 13. More info here.