Fascism and colonialism in the work of Cut Hands and Blackest Ever Black
I couldn’t get this published anywhere, so I’m posting it here. I think it’s really worrying that there are so few places in which we can talk about artists’ politics, even when they are actively dangerous.
“You did call an album Buchenwald.”
“Yeah, and so what? It’s just a name.”
William Bennett professes to care very much about language. He has an interest in neuro-linguistic programming, a widely discredited technique that looks at the interplay between mind, language, and behaviour, and in 2010 his installation Extralinguistic Sequencing premiered at the Tate during their Speculative Realism series. And yet he is seemingly not bothered enough about language to understand that Buchenwald, the German concentration camp in which some 56,545 people died, is more than “just a name”.
William Bennett is best known as a founding father of contemporary noise music. His band Whitehouse coined the phrase ‘power electronics’, starting a genre and with it producing some of the most innovative music of the ‘80s and ‘90s. Whitehouse, along with many of their contemporaries, self-consciously concerned themselves with taboos. In practice this meant lyrics about rape, child abuse, eating disorders – the spectrum of transgressions with which industrial music soon became synonymous.
Although singing about those transgressions now seems more trite than shocking, Bennett remains a controversial figure. Much of that controversy stems from a 1982 ‘manifesto’ he wrote for art magazine Force Mental, in which he bemoaned, amongst other things, the “unhealthy Negroid influences in all popular music today.” Bennett maintains that the article was satirical and, to a degree, he can be believed. There are many people who believe the article to be evidence of Bennett’s fascism, but in reality it seems to be a childish flirtation with far right aesthetics – a flirtation that came to define industrial music, and which now, given the prevalence of those aesthetics in that scene, seems just about the least transgressive thing a ‘transgressive’ artist could do.
But, perhaps surprisingly, this article is not the most problematic aspect of Bennett’s career. Whitehouse haven’t released a studio album since 2007 and, had that been the end of Bennett’s work, it would have been easy to forget him. But he has now reinvented himself, and his new project is much more troubling.
Last month Bennett released the third and fourth ‘volumes’ of his new Cut Hands project. The records follow a string of releases over the past few years, including the excellent Afro Noise 1 and a series of 12”s released on his own Susan Lawly imprint, Regis’ Downwards, and label du jour Blackest Ever Black. Bennett’s work as Cut Hands is gripping. It’s immediate in a way that Whitehouse perhaps were not, and Afro Noise 1 is a record that seems to represent a new creative peak for the artist. But the records draw heavily on Haitian vaudou tradition, recasting its polyrhythmic percussion as the foundation for distended, techno-esque maulings – and it is in this appropriation that Bennett’s work as Cut Hands becomes unpalatable.
Cut Hands belongs to a long lineage of white artists appropriating black art. Bennett takes those vaudou aesthetics and rips them from their context. Haiti was a chilling example of colonialism in operation. The country was carved up between France and Spain, and its native population were put to work in industry. Thousands of African slaves were brought to Haiti to work in brutal conditions on the plantations, before a bloody revolution against white rule that lasted more than a decade. Theirs is a recent history of appalling white oppression.
Bennett is clearly rather taken with Africa’s colonial past. In 1997 he released a record called Extreme Music From Africa, ostensibly a collection of tracks offering “a totally unique vision of a totally unique continent”. The artwork features an image of what appears to be a horrifically mutilated black woman, bleeding through bandages across her face. The liner notes, meanwhile, begin with the following paragraph: “Africa – the dark continent of the tyrants, the beautiful girls, the bizarre rituals, the tropical fruits, the pygmies, the guns, the mercenaries, the tribal wars, the unusual diseases, the abject poverty, the sumptuous riches, the widespread executions, the praetorian colonialists, the exotic wildlife – and the music.” This is the language that ‘others’ Africa, that sexualises it, that reduces it to violence, that casts it as a dark, unknowable, hostile place. It is the language on which racist violence is based - language that has a real and potent danger.
The notes also give “special thanks” to a man referred to as “Jonathan Azande of the University of Zimbabwe”. Two tracks on the record are credited to Azande. The only traces online of a man by that name point either to Extreme Music From Africa, or to a 2007 mix called Noise Retrospective 1913-2007, on which Azande also features – along with Whitehouse. Indeed, ten of the artists on Extreme Music also appear on Noise Retrospective, and there are no other records of any of those artists in any other context online. Some of the artists’ names, such as Petro Loa, make explicit reference to vaudou tradition. There is widespread speculation that Extreme Music From Africa is entirely the work of Bennett himself.
For a white artist to make a record and then claim it is the work of African musicians is to eradicate the work of black musicians. Even if we accept that Extreme Music is, in fact, a compilation of African music, Bennett has been guilty of that eradication since; clearly, the title of Afro Noise 1 is just as problematic. This is not “afro noise” – this is a white musician plundering black traditions for his own purposes. Indeed, that title drew criticism from black artists on the record’s release. La Bruha Desi La, a black experimental musician, wrote to The Wire following a 2012 review of Afro Noise 1. “In the review, as well as the preceding article on Cut Hands’ William Bennett,” he wrote, ”I feel that the inherent offensive nature of the titling of the album in question wasn’t addressed in any way.
“It has been a constant problem for the black community to have our work diminished and stolen for the use of the white community where artists are able to earn greater financial rewards (to a certain extent), success and recognition. Though I cannot stop William Bennett from using the term in the future, I hope that The Wire when covering his work will keep in mind the very colonial ideal attached to the exotic nature which he attributes to his work.”
Bennett’s work as Cut Hands also veers into the misogynist. In 2013 he released the “Madwoman” 12” on Downwards. The title of the track alone is enough to cause a wince, reproducing the idea of “female hysteria”, a catchall diagnosis until the 20th Century for women displaying virtually any symptom of illness. The artwork is even worse, featuring the silhouette of a topless woman clutching a pair of scissors – a sexualised image of the archetypal ‘madwoman’.
In an email conversation, Bennett said that the “Madwoman” artwork is the work of feminist artist Mimsy DeBlois, “and is part of a series as a tribute to the radical feminist writer Mary Daly.” It is important to note that Daly is frequently condemned by other feminists as transphobic, and for what many see as her racism. She was censured in the ‘70s over her book Gyn/Ecology, which some saw as “dismissing…the heritage of all…non-European women”. Fittingly, Daly’s book was specifically criticised for overlooking the Vodun traditions on which both Bennett and DeBlois draw.
It is also important to bear in mind the question of context. Mimsy DeBlois is, of course, more than within her rights to make whatever image of a woman she chooses. Bennett, however, seems not to recognise that in the hands of a man, an image of a topless woman clutching scissors accretes misogynist connotations. Similarly, the visuals for his live show often feature eroticised silhouettes of naked women dancing – images that should be given as short shrift here as they are frequently given in hip-hop. It is a simple principle, but one that Bennett does not seem to grasp: women can do this; men cannot.
Although Bennett broadly declined to answer my questions, he did write a separate comment. “I’m not trying to make you wrong about all this,” he wrote, “because I genuinely share your values and hopefully you can see what I’m up against here. If crude assumptions are made along the lines of ‘such-and-such is an X therefore this song or that song or this or that detail means X’, you’re basically fucked.”
Although many people do indeed believe that Bennett is a fascist, which is what he seems to mean by that ‘X’, this masks a far more complex problem. I am not alleging that Bennett is a fascist; it seems unlikely that he is. But this does not mean that he or his work should be welcomed. Bennett’s work is nakedly colonialist, erases the work of black musicians, and shrugs at (and sometimes even indulges in) misogyny. In his email to me, Bennett placed great importance on the idea of intent. But intent should never be our marker of achievement. The question should not be “what did the author mean to do?” but rather, “what does this work actually mean in the real world, and what are its implications?” Bennett is a white man not only appropriating the work of black artists, but also daring to work in their name. This has destructive consequences.
But Bennett’s questionable race and gender politics are not unique within the noise or techno scenes. In fact, they are all too common. Some of the best-loved, most critically lauded labels have welcomed actual fascists onto their rosters and into their sets. As well as releasing work from Cut Hands, Downwards boss Regis frequently uses the music of fascist artists in his mixes. As a member of Sandwell District, Regis included tracks from Boyd Rice and Death In June in his mix for Fabric. Both also appear on 2012’s Hidden Summer mix. Boyd Rice is an associate of Bob Heick, the leader of Californian white supremacist organisation the American Front (AF), and was famously photographed with Heick in AF uniform. Rice also appeared on Race And Reason, a TV show hosted by ex-Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard and White Aryan Resistance founder Tom Metzger, on which he was described as a “cult figure in the racial underground musical world”. During the interview Rice is asked about the “evolution of this underground music into the more white racially oriented music.” He cites, amongst others, Death In June, who he describes as “very racialist oriented.”
In fact, Death In June make recurring appearances in this world. According to Blood & Honour, a neo-Nazi promotions outfit with close links to Combat 18, Death In June played “kettle drums draped in Totenkopf banners” while “dressed in SS pea pattern smocks”. Death In June’s founder, Tony Wakeford, was a member of the National Front, and was photographed in 1982 manning an NF stall on Brick Lane, in the heart of London’s Bangladeshi community. After leaving Death In June Wakeford formed Above The Ruins, who contributed a song to the National Front benefit album No Surrender Vol 1, alongside Skrewdriver. Wakeford founded Sol Invictus after the collapse of Above The Ruins – and Sol Invictus’ “See The Dove Fall” / “Somewhere In Europe” was, until last month, distributed by Blackest Ever Black. I contacted the label’s founder Kiran Sande for comment several times and, although he did not respond, immediately after my first email the Sol Invictus record disappeared from their site. Although the page is not available on the Way Back Machine, at the time of writing it still appears in Google search results.
Wakeford claims to have renounced his fascist politics, but he continues to keep extremely questionable company. The artwork for his 2007 album Into The Woods, for example,was painted by artist Richard Moult, for whom David Myatt has also sat – Myatt being the man described by The Guardian as the “ideological heavyweight” behind Combat 18. Associations aside, many people would question how many chances should be given to Wakeford, a man who attended fascist demonstrations in Brick Lane in the wake of the racially motivated murder of Altab Ali, a 24 year-old Bangladeshi man who was stabbed in the neck to death, and after whom a Whitechapel park is now named. Ali’s murder followed that of Kennith Singh, a 10 year-old who was stabbed to death, eight times in the back of his head, just weeks before, and just a stone’s throw from his home.
For his part, Bennett released a statement in March last year, but only when his shows were at risk of cancellation and when there was therefore a financial imperative for him to speak. He insisted that he is not a fascist, and yet, again, that rather misses the point. Bennett is not a fascist – the story is more complicated than that. Instead, he skips perilously between two roles: that of the attention-starved teenager desperately trying to get a rise, and that of the carefully considered adult happily reproducing fascist and misogynist iconography. Bennett is clearly not a paid up neo-Nazi, but his work has real and troubling implications, and exists on a clear continuum with that of Wakeford and Rice. He is fond of saying that he does not like to “rationalise” his work, and this is exactly the cop out that it appears. You can’t unquestioningly use, or even revel in, the imagery and language of colonialism and misogyny, and then act aghast when it is pointed out that you might be propagating colonialism and misogyny.
There is a common conception of noise and techno as somehow liberatory and, in many cases, they are. But there is an unpleasant core to the labels around which this scene oscillates. Blackest Ever Black and Downwards happily welcome fascists into their orbits, and that is unforgiveable – but Bennett’s case is similarly troubling. Cut Hands is the musical equivalent of blacking up. For Bennett, Africa is a plaything; something from which he can snatch aesthetics while ignoring the ethical implications of what he is doing. Indeed, Bennett seems to think that he can divorce those aesthetics entirely from context. This is a pernicious and under-explored aspect of neo-colonialism. If we want to create a truly liberatory music, Bennett, just like Wakeford and Rice, should play no part in it.
Why Did The City Of London Police Cancel Just Jam?
This afternoon East London photographers and web TV hosts Tim And Barry announced the cancellation of their highly anticipated Just Jam event following “concerns raised by the City of London police”. Noisey was the media partner of this event.
The pair, noted for their work with grime artists, had curated an extraordinary lineup for the show, including Syrian dabke singer Omar Souleyman, a grime set from JME, Big Narstie, and Preditah, Mount Kimbie, and an appearance from footwork pioneer RP Boo.
But the Barbican, the venue where the event was due to be held this Saturday, said that they had decided to cancel the show “on the grounds of public safety following dialogue with the City of London police.” A spokesperson said: “As a responsible public venue we have to take police advice seriously and consider the safety of audience members, artists, and our staff.”
German Whip and new grime vs “the mainstream”
The phone rings, and I pick up. “Hello?” There is a pause. “It’s Mr Blacked Out Windows Leaning Back.”
Does BBC Radio Still Have A Diversity Problem?
Last week 6 Music announced the line-up for their first festival and, unsurprisingly, the acts they’ve booked are those favoured by the children of people who commute from the Home Counties to a hedge fund job. The National and Midlake are two of the big draws – bands for people who are too discerning for Mumford, but who once applied for tickets to Michael McIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow.
Perhaps that’s unfair, but questions of taste aside, the most remarkable thing about the inaugural 6 Music Festival is its whiteness. The lineup consists of more than 70 musicians, 32 acts, and of these fewer than ten are people of colour. Kelis will be the only black artist to appear live on the main stage on either of the two days.
WTF, The Police? Mark Duggan, Deaths In Custody & Cops Off Campus
"The majority of people in this country know Mark was executed. We’re going to fight until we have no breath left in our body, for justice for Mark, for his children, and for all of the deaths in custody. No justice, no peace!" - Carole Duggan
A group of police officers stand around outside a university building. There are maybe a dozen of them; it is early evening. They are smiling, chatting. Beside them is a pool of a student’s blood.
It’s a picture so chilling, so absurd, that it seems staged. And yet variations of the same image, each taken by different people, circulated around Twitter one Thursday evening in early December, seeming to mark a step change in the police’s treatment of protest.
EDM (Egyptian Dance Music) Comes To London: A Full Report
"It’s actually something I cannot even translate. It’s like… ‘Creating tahini out of the sea, and writing on it.’ Not that it means anything to me, but for them it actually has meaning."
Electro chaabi slang seems to be too much even for our Egyptian translator. Knaka, one of the scene’s protagonists, is reciting some of the lyrics that best demonstrate the hyper-local language he and his fellow MCs use. The translator is laughing nervously. Diesel, Knaka’s collaborator, sits smiling in the minicab passenger seat, filming Brick Lane through the windscreen.
A response to Simon Price’s response to Will Self’s response to Mark Kermode
I enjoyed Simon Price’s stout defence of the critic on The Quietus today, in response to Will Self’s review of Mark Kermode’s latest book.
I can’t help but think, though, that we read different articles. Price appears to have seen Will Self’s piece as a total negation of the critic in the digital age, suggesting that Self now sees the function of traditional arts criticism as one of telling us whether or not “our precious time will be wasted”. Price seems to see in Self’s article a suggestion that the role of the critic has been entirely subsumed into some nameless morass of the collective web-enabled amateur. “Any bum can look up the facts on Google or Wikipedia,” Price says, “but it takes skill to analyse and contextualise.”
I read it differently. To me, Self’s article is less an attack on the critic as a necessary hinge in the equipment of a (barely) functioning cultural machine, and more a recognition that the traditional modes of criticism are no longer relevant. He is not saying that critics must merely provide consumer guidance, but is instead pointing out that this is what the anachronisms of top-down criticism in a hyper-connected culture have yielded. In this respect he agrees with blogging Kermode. Self cites Marshall McLuhan’s idea of the “linear Gutenberg technology” that dominated knowledge transfer, and its transformation into the “total field…implied by the instantaneity of electricity.” Self continues: “McLuhan’s point is that when it comes to the impact of new media on the human consciousness – both individual and collective – content is an irrelevance; we have to look not at what is on the screen, but how the screen is used.”
On this front it is also worth reading Katherine Viner’s AN Smith lecture, in which she talks about Thomas Pettitt’s theory of the Gutenberg Parenthesis. In this conception Pettitt suggests that the advent of the printing press signalled what Viner describes as “just an interruption in the usual flow of human communication. The web, says Pettitt, is returning us to a pre-Gutenberg state in which we are defined by oral traditions: flowing and ephemeral.”
It is a non-sequitur (albeit a frequently repeated one) to suggest that web ‘content’ is necessarily ephemera. If anything, the internet is the least ephemeral method of data transfer humankind has yet invented. Once something is on the internet, barring a catastrophic event it stays there. But clearly the post-Gutenberg world cannot function with the same rules that were imposed by those “linear technologies”. Self correctly points out that criticism has become both a dialogue and dialogic: it is in conversation with itself and its authors, but it is also at play in a world of endless references, influenced by and influencing the past, the present, and everything around it. This is not, as Price seems to argue, the same as saying that the critic is dead. Instead, it is a recognition that in order to survive the critic must be malleable and discursive, as opposed to dictatorial and unaccountable. The notion of a definitive voice is laughable today, and correctly so. As Self says, traditional, diktat criticism was no more than an “adjunct of a particular media technology”; the role of the critic today must be unrecognisable from that of the 1950s, or even the 1990s.
Self recognises the once monolithic powers of the Gutenberg press machine are no longer predominant. This is wholeheartedly a good thing (and the irony of him writing it in the Guardian, even if it is online, is palpable). Technological determinists have been proven wrong (again) in postmodernity by a culture that became obsessed with demolishing grand narratives and single-knowledge certainties long before social media. Technology is catching up with our hatred for those monoliths, not dictating it. Why should criticism be exempt from that? Self’s prognosis is an uncertain one. For him, neither the “Gutenberg minds” nor what he sees as the attention deficit young hold the answer. And that’s probably right. It is logically impossible to expect a single answer in a world that has already done away with the notion of certainty. Just as traditional criticism was an adjunct of the Gutenberg Parenthesis, so too will new criticism be an adjunct (or parasite, as Price has it) of new media technologies – but now it will be forced to remain in dialogue with both that technology and the people who use it. The idea of culture being something that is done to you or around you by other people seems laughable now, and that can only be a good thing. Criticism that is in dialogue only with the art and not with its readership seems just as geriatric. The traditional critic must die, yes, but that doesn’t mean that criticism must die with it. Instead, as Self recognises, now, for the first time in decades, we have the opportunity to build something better.
Rene Hell - Vanilla Call Option
Rene Hell is Jeff Witscher’s most enduring alias. The Californian artist has made two full-lengths under the name, plus a split with Oneohtrix Point Never and a dizzying array of limited cassette releases. On Vanilla Call Option, his first record for PAN, Witscher has taken a further left turn, abstracting his work to a far greater degree than he did on Porcelain Opera or The Terminal Symphony.
Rashad Becker interview
Rashad Becker lives in his studio.
It is a classic Kreuzberg construction: a tall, graffiti-covered townhouse entrance plastered with haphazard buzzers, behind which is a series of courtyards and a boxy building. He wanders across the road, stopping to speak gently with a passing friend, and greets me at the door, bleary eyed from a flight from Moscow the previous night.
JD Twitch interview
Although he rarely speaks about it in interviews, radical politics is one of a clutch of thematic strands running through Keith McIvor’s work.
He has been known to close Optimo sets with an anthem of the Spanish International Brigades. He is “vehemently anti-nationalist”. In 2008, he produced 10 Inches Of Fear, a collection of edits of tracks drawn from Crass Records’ anarcho-punk catalogue.
In the last two years, though, JD Twitch has made the most overtly political gestures of his career. Autonomous Africa is a 12” series with an unequivocal mission. It is intended to further the cause of an independent Africa, governed in the interests of its people and without interference from abroad. It calls for African land to be put into the service of Africans, and not sold on to foreign countries eager to exploit the continent’s resources. Today, as Africa suffers ever more violently at the hands of the market, these are radical demands.