We’re in the midst of a systematic global existential and political crisis, it’s affecting our economic prospects, impacting our climate and spiking hate into social order. In the wake of our own post-Brexit disorder, the very core of perceived British value systems are now deluding a sense of self – and it’s reached a crisis point.
Are we now just post-global citizens falling back into our enclosures, deeply disenfranchised from one another, a bunch of marginalised masses being manipulated to transgress politically correct lines? Witnessing the rise of activism, racism and fascism over the last year has brought discontent into sharp focus and we’re only now beginning to witness the impact of a media machine that is capitalising on the consequences of apathy, pandering to an elite all while fuelling hate with click-bait.
This year from the Orlando shootings, to the rise of the right-wing across Europe, a shocking Brexit vote in the UK and a forthcoming US presidential election that threatens to throw up more walls – where can you run to for refuge?
Frankly our debates have been dumbed down far enough – so enough with patronising yourself by believing there’s an easy way out – there isn’t one. Cultural action in art and music, is the domain that still gives us an alternate outlet for a critical interpretation of our times. Late last year the Flatbush ZOMBiES released #blacktivist – the video – which made up one part of a visual project in collaboration with German multidisciplinary artist Mario Pfeifer. Clocking over 2.5 millions views, #blacktivist has kept building greater resonance since it’s release a few months ago. Today we’re premiering the 2nd alternate video of #blacktivist from the 2 channel video installation project which features spoken sequences with each member of the Flatbush ZOMBiES – Erick Arc Elliott, Meechy Darko, and Zombie Juice. Watch the video below and go deeper with a read of our exclusive conversation with Mario Pfeifer talking about #Blacktivist, activism in the age of dissent – and then “we’ll meet you at the crossroad”.
What inspired you to create this visual project and how did your collaboration with the Flatbush ZOMBiES and Drew Arnold emerge, was the track ‘Blacktivist’ already recorded prior to your collaboration?
Since I moved to New York, around 2010, I was interested to produce artwork that would adopt Hip Hop as an integral part of its appearance and discourse. But it took a while to focus on that idea. It was Questlove’s essay “How Hip Hop has failed Black America”, published in Spring 2014, that gave me the confidence for a project, that both challenged the context of music and art. It would create resonance with the current debate and point to the relationship between Hip Hop and a capitalistic, split society whose citizens seek a voice to resist in public. I was given the opportunity by Ludlow 38’s curator at the time, Vivien Trommer, who invited me for a new production and exhibition project. The idea took form and was manifested by the political and social climate in the US in 2015 – namely the #blacklivesmatter movement, which was a reaction to the ultra-violent police enforcement throughout the country leaving families, communities and a huge part of the nation in trauma.
My previous projects have often been socially engaged, moderated between different protagonists and cultural producers, so for #blacktivist I wanted to seek out strong and reflective music protagonists but I was also interested to work with somebody “from the industry”.
I consider the Flatbush ZOMBiES as a very innovative, politically minded trio whose creativity and performance is mind-blowing. Their refection on both politics but also the music industry, particularly in their position as independent and outspoken artists, made them a great partner to develop a project together. With this in mind they agreed to invite Drew Arnold to the project, a post-producer who has worked with rather more commercial performers such as Kayne West and Beyonce, and nevertheless has a political mind of his own.
The song ‘Blacktivist’ was produced independently by the Flatbush ZOMBiES. We met when the song was in the making, but had many conversations during that time which I believe also shaped some of the ideas for the song. But it remains an independent creation that we – once the song was finalised – reacted upon with the production of the videos. The song’s title then also came to life. I still believe it was a creative merging process between music, lyrics and visuals by five protagonist and the conversations we shared.
When you conceived the project Blacktivist, what did you envisage the meaning to be at the beginning of the project and how do you believe the meaning of the word itself has evolved in your mind, considering the changing political landscape that we’re currently witnessing across Europe and the U.S?
The birth of the project for me goes back to the notion of collaborating with musicians that are both aware of the socio-political situation we live in, but also perform their music with rigor and outspokenness, just as you find through the history of Hip Hop from the early days until today.
As an artist I am interested in a conversational process, and my projects most often develop within a very open process. In that sense my expectation was to create something relevant, visually challenging and overall also accessible, a work that speaks to our time and is not afraid to name and visualize things as they exist: racism – police brutality – gun violence – global terrorism – to name a few.
Blacktivist speaks a universal language and it captures the social struggle in the U.S. and elsewhere
Blacktivist as a “term” came half way through the project when we prepared the video production. I saw, and I still see, a great potential in that word itself – easy to understand, complex in its self-describing nature and challenging in a global situation. Blacktivist can be applied in Brazil, in France or in South Africa I believe – by anybody who believes Black activism is necessary in a world that exploits, neglects and segregates people. Blacktivist speaks a universal language and it captures the social struggle in the U.S. and elsewhere. This struggle is not new, but we collaboratively addressed the matter with the peaceful weapons we carry: lyrics and visuals, beats and images. That Blacktivist was so right on point, is a point that I am reminded of by the actuality of it almost every week reading news from Syria to Chicago – it’s still astonishing for me, but tragic in another way. It gives reason for the creation, not the other way around.
Hip-Hop is as much a socio-political medium as it is a medium for entertainment. Watching #blacktivist a few months since its release, during a time when many more artists are starting to use their music to voice current socio-political issues again, are we in danger of moving beyond the point of saturation?
I strongly believe in the power of music and visual art to address socio-political conditions. Entertainment comes second, if you ask me. There will always be entertainment in a hyper-capitalistic market place, but entertainment and media production today, are partly responsible for the lack of people understanding how capitalism has affected their social engagement towards zero, and diminished their natural empathy. In my opinion every media producer needs to address the neglected until we live in a more sustainable, less violent and more equal society. Since – being realistic – Fox News and its allies will continue to brainwash their audiences, I am happy to see artists of any kind express their vision of a society in the format they find articulate and effective. So I won’t get tired of seeing and listening to works of artists who address these issues – who actually in their real lives have issues with the world we live in – since I believe they are currently in the minority within the music industry and the market of art. Hip Hop was founded on the principles to speak out about what people live through socially. That it has been smoothed down to reach massive audiences, to become more adaptable to a wider audience and more proftable for global operating companies, isn’t a development I am in line with, since it washes out content and vision. I am interested in a diverse and engaged society, in unique expressions rather than mass-appealing marketing strategies in which music (and its visual representation) – become a money making-machine.
In the same vein, we’ve also seen the emergence of multiple activist movements from Anonymous, Occupy, Black Lives Matter and many more, do you believe we may be heading to a collision course with multiple layers of activism? Is it adding to the distraction?
Under the given circumstances, can there be enough resistance? Activism is one form of resistance. To date activism was related to the global crisis, in my generation. The I am a Man marches initiated by Dr. Martin Luther King are described in our school books as a human rights movement. Once these human rights were gained – on paper – the people stopped the march.
Activism in my point of view reacts to very complex societal conditions and tries to be aware and knowledgable to find counter-strategies in order to live in a more equal and sustainable society. As you mentioned there are several movements that came to life after massive authoritative abuses of power. The resistance of the people against injustice is very valuable in a society.
One can argue whether the different movements could unite, or if they even should unite. If they have common goals they should unite, but at the end of the day the election – as the citizens of U.S. will face this year – is the moment to decide over the country’s future. This can only happen beyond skin color, race, economic and social backgrounds, as a nation that will strive for equality and sustainability. People will need to think about what kind of society they want to live in. So activism in my opinion leads to more knowledge, more communication and more pressure on political elites and I find it essential in a democratic society. It’s a progressive force. The distraction you mention is a risk but I prefer the risk of too much noise then political silence on our streets. There is so much noise caused by Capitalistic power, that any street noise from people who are advocating their needs and visions is at least taking away attention from the exploitative distraction we face living with every single day.
With the rise of extreme inequality and the rapid evolution of technology do you think this has been a major factor in contributing to the rise of neo-facism with Trump in the U.S and the right wing in Europe? Many talk about jobs losing out to technology and globalisation, do you think a culture of hate is being fueled?
That might depend on the region we talk about. I believe the U.S. is fundamentally different than Europe for example. So, the neo-fascism in Europe has in my opinion different reasons than the one Donald Trump is advocating. Both thus have to do with the economic scale of both market places, that still function differently, unless TTIP demolishes this difference. Capitalism in its rawest form after the financial crisis of 2008 and the banking bail-out has rapidly divided the classes. Capitalism is responsible for the neo-fascist rise, given the situation in Germany for example, certainly being the most viable economy in Europe since the end of the 2nd World War, and now undergoing a dramatic push to the ultra-right. Reasons are those of cultural and religious fears rather than of an economic nature.
Trump has been pushing this in the US with his demagogic speeches to the right as if it is the only way to play his cards as a business mogul. Identifying the weakest – scapegoating immigrants in a country that is built on immigration – and blaming them for an economic policy that allowed elitist investment bankers to bankrupt a nation is way more than cynical. But Bernie Sanders called for a democratic, political revolution within the same presidential race – he is a kind of resistance fighter within the political landscape in the U.S., he could be considered an activist compared to his opponents, and his voice is important, and heard more and more.
Right now we live through a period of hate and fear, and minorities and economic competitors are blamed in that race.
The reason why these neo-fascist movements work so well in times of a recession is as simple as talking about fear. If you can create fear, publicize fear, and strengthen fear than a certain mainstream media dependent audience will believe in that very fear, whether it realistically exists or not, whether somebody turns facts into lies to create that atmosphere of dooms day. Trump is not saving the U.S., and neither will he make it great again.
Technology must replace jobs, that’s inherent to its creation. In Europe we engage on the highest political level in discussions of minimum wages, whether you actually have a job or not. Such a conversation – originally started by leftist activists – acknowledges the shifting paradigm in a society that might one day exist without physical work to accomplish. If a political elite will discuss these developments openly with its population than the population would have less fear about their future and might act more socially. Right now we live through a period of hate and fear, and minorities and economic competitors are blamed in that race.
#blacktivist explores the cycle of fear from the manufacture of a culture of fear into it’s manifestation to a culture of freedom to bear arms for self defence. How do you contrast the weaponisation of U.S citizens particularly within the black community against the cycle of fear that feeds itself into existence?
My impression in the U.S. – again fundamentally different from Europe – is that fear is only a minor reason to bear arms. The constitution and its 2nd amendment are the first reason to own, carry and make use of a firearm. It’s a culture now, that came out of a tradition – that I’ve always wondered should have long ago been overcome. But conservatism is strong in the U.S., so is the lobby of the arms industry.
Violence is the consequence of a never-resolved inequality between the classes
Our visual investigation into an “anarchist” start-up tech company” and “pending non-profit” organization Defense Distributed based in Austin, Texas reveals not only the entire pro-gun, anti-establishment, traditionalist, anti-monopoly and freedom of speech spectrum you find in the U.S. today, but also in my point of view, a radical interpretation of a constitution that was meant to unite a nation but seems to separate it by an extreme form of selfishness along with the extreme distrust into authoritative regulation. Once things add to the next: violence is the consequence of a never-resolved inequality between the classes, may it be educational, economic or of a social nature; but the State cannot guarantee safety to their citizens due to the tremendous amount of crime; abusive force of law enforcement that is poorly educated and strengthens the tensions between the mentioned classes; distrust of citizens who quote the constitution for self-defence as they find themselves in an almost lawless scenario as pro-gun activists proclaim it… That cycle of fear is the biggest civilian struggle of the citizens and their political representatives who have to deal with this in the U.S. The Obama administration was only able to enforce very small steps to the de-militarization of the U.S. (it was meant to make it harder to buy a gun for somebody with a criminal background or a psychologically in-stable condition) and it doesn’t draw a very bright future if you ask me.
#blacklivesmatter, is Blacktivist.
The societal debate in the U.S. today is still polarized, and it’s hard to escape it. Sadly we have to talk about race and crime, as it is the reality in the US. Crime, police brutality is connected to racism. We can’t just talk about police brutality, the U.S. Prison system, the illiteracy rate. Sadly it is always leading to the race question. Your question of how this scenario feeds into the weaponisation of the “black community” is hard to answer. My answer – as somebody who disregards the use of firearms entirely – is #blacklivesmatter, is Blacktivist. Gandhi and King fought their cases peacefully, and very sucessfully. It will take some more brave women and men to overcome the conditions we live in, and sadly some political leaders to draw the wheel back, but we need to push it forward again. And the #blacklivesmatter movement does this and I hope it doesn’t stop. The #blacklivesmatter movement shows the pacifist resistance that you cannot fight brutality and racism with firearms, but with humanity and unity.
#Blacktivist is ultimately “the life of an American Horror Story”, how much has your collaboration as a European visual artist with an American Hip-Hop group like the Flatbush ZOMBiES impacted on the shape of this project as a whole and what can you tell us about the EP and what we can expect next?
I feel the generation I live in is heavily infected by the U.S. Culture. I consider this collaboration as a project that takes the American situation and discusses it globally. Hip Hop is a great platform to talk politics, art offers a radically free form for expression and discourse, both popular and intellectually. #blacktivist as a project was meant to bury borders and create a discourse beyond frontiers and categories. It wouldn’t exist for me without the Flatbush ZOMBiES but I believe their music can live without my visual creation. The music video was conceived from beginning to end in common spirit, sharing a similar feel for the society we live in. That we wanted to produce the first Vinyl EP with the FBZ was always the plan, independently and free from any regulations. I believe the EP features a great song, and additional materials that show the state of mind of the the Flatbush ZOMBiES during that period. I never acted as a producer or advisor on their musical expression as this is not my domain, so I can’t speak for it. I can only say that this EP will have its place in history…
How do you perceive the growing collaboration between Hip-Hop artists and the art world, and do you believe its making art more accessible and inclusive?
I distrust most of the outcomes of such collaborations with maybe one exception: Die Antwoord vs. Roger Ballen’s “I FINK U FREEKY” – a project I discussed with the FBZ on our initial meeting as I saw an amazing collaboration between two very different partners (the YouTube interview with Roger Ballen and Die Antwoord documents their relationship uniquely). They share an identifcation and engagement with marginalized communities in the urban centers of South Africa, and the collaboration carries that uncompromisingly. Ballen’s experience as a visual producer is undeniable.
Art and popular music as we speak, have much in common, but share as much diference.
Any collaboration between so-called high and popular cultures can be fruitful. I think it’s rather a question of who you wish to reach and what you want to say. A collaboration in itself between genres or different activities doesn’t automatically mean that the more complex or intellectual approach becomes more accessible or inclusive to a popular audience. Art and popular music as we speak, have much in common, but share as much diference. A museum or gallery is a different place than a club or a sound stage. There are good reasons to keep it that way, and good reasons to challenge the music world with other forms of socially engaged art. The music video is a pretty interesting format, but it hardly becomes part of a museum exhibition. I believe it can belong to institutional showcases, as it then also speaks to other audiences challenging their idea of culture, class and discourse. The Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles has lately been investing in this discourse addressing different communities and generations with video installations by Kahlil Joseph who produced music videos for Kendrick Lamar.
A successful collaboration in my eyes would produce a radical visual statement that is innovative in its very own system combined with a powerful track that carries a uniting message to both attract the music and an art-afiliated audience. Its creators would both identify themselves with the achievement. If both collaborating parties could speak and defend the project as their very own but share it as one entity, than I believe the chance that the collaboration can be meaningful rises. I mentioned one example where I felt that way and I’d rather not name the ones that I am skeptical about…
Do you believe that the collaboration between Kanye West and Vanessa Beecroft successfully juxtaposes the complexities of our post-racial society within culture through art, fashion and music?
No. I think both have much more powerful creative tools to address such a condition. I don’t see them taking any risks or an uncompromising will to use their power, fame and skill to address and heavily influence the society we live in, to actually even proclaim a post-racial society. Their “collaboration” (isn’t it a combination of skills?) seems to be based on a very different status and need. It seems to me that both act in their comfort zone – they know what they are brilliant at – but in combination it weakens out, maybe more to the disadvantage for Beecroft from my perspective. Beecroft is a powerful artist, West is a very successful musician. It would be interesting to see them trying something different than what they are already celebrated for.
#blacktivist will be shown at the ACUD in Berlin where Mario Pfeifer will present the 2 channel audio visual installation from the 8th of July.
Flatbush ZOMBiES 3001 European tour kicks off from the 12th of September in London at KOKO, as the trio head across the UK and Ireland, to Netherlands, France, Germany, Poland, Switzerland, Denmark, Norway and Sweden.