Data Thieves & Black Christ of the Andes

On Mary Lou Williams and how to stop music from stealing your soul.

The kids today are consuming data, not music. — Azealia Banks

Let’s imagine a world wherein the music listens to us in a very literal way, and plays us instead playing to us, like a sound mirror prepared to mute our every protest to the arrangement and steal our sounds from us unrepentantly. Perhaps that’s the surreality we’re already living, obliviously. Surveillance is no longer even a little bit taboo for some, in fact many people court and celebrate it, longing to be tracked and traced and coded into legitimacy and virtue. And the songs have been tracking and tracing and snitching on us for a very long time, calling it confession or soul music which borrows our souls to enrich them like any heroic force urging, let me hold your soul, let me see your soul’s hold, put your soul back in your body and see me with it

Now it’s necessary to make a distinction between confession and snitching. One usually intends justice while the other (let’s hope it’s obvious which one is perverse) intends obstruction of that justice. When I think of just, confessional music I think of Duke Ellington first, then Mary Lou Williams. Then I lean deeper into some unnamed blues by Ma Rainey or Sterling Brown that we were taught not to cherish, and worksong recordings from sharecroppers working the land, recordings collected by Zora Neale Hurston. And then Zora’s own voice— a grainy, exuberant squeal of constant remembering, like eager chatter with a thud of worry or fantasy in it, the way she talked over her demons to reach the sound of putting everything she encountered back together in a sequence that made more sense and a better story. 

What thoughts and behaviors remain that cannot be extracted and returned to us for consumption in the form of goods and the new data music, so synthetic it’s almost warm in its plastic treble-heavy marketplace of noise. It’s almost its own secret garden that we only access when in complicity with it, which is to say, when we’re alone wearing floating headphones that are known to cause hearing damage but that’s ok because they are compact and caress the tiny nerves in those half moon hearts on our heads until they release the most satisfying side of our personalities, the side that is complete, needs nothing more than beauty and a sterile bubble of sound. 

A song that listened me into existence, plucked me from the abyss of unbecoming, is Mary Lou Williams’ “St. Martin de Porres” from her Black Christ of the Andes album. Duke Ellington once said of Williams “she is like soul on soul.” She outmodes surveillance and pernicious, paranoid watchfulness with breathless strides and arrangements so spacious yet intricately woven that’s it’s lazy and blasphemous not to surrender to their laws when her music is playing. Her tone on this song reminded me why religion isn’t corny at a time when I might have otherwise become wrapped up in the schemes of god is dead rhetoric and forgotten about the fictions that give us a reason to recreate ourselves in their image, for fun as much as out of desperation to survive. “St. Martin…” is a torch song for God. Hidden in the ethereal posture and tone of its chorus of fallen angels, is a reclamation of a living black god in the form of De Porres, and the singers beseech— Oh Black Christ of the Andes, come feed us and cure us now we pray. The entire six and a half minute song focuses on this demigod/saint born of the flesh, yet of God, and in changing God’s name and hue the music confuses any would be data thieves—you cannot steal a soul you refuse to see. Mary celebrates her ability to steal us back to ourselves with indulgent, rollicking stride piano midway through, after the chorus delivers dirge after dirge for the saint and savior, she enters to laugh with him. She interrupts the somberness that way to point out the fact that devotion and pious commitment often yield to irreverent joy, the same joy that commitment to decadence precludes. She manages to play within this contrast without becoming didactic. Energy that could cower toward dull moralizing instead springs into mysticism.  

Unjust confessional music sounds like surveillance or high-pitched microchips nibbling at the speaker trying to get out and be closer and closer to you until you start sounding as ridiculous as they do and singing along. But justice in testimony is that union of prayer and abandon that Mary Lou Williams finds when she discovers a god in her own image. A similar inversion occurs in Nina Simone’s “Black Swan” when she murmurs toward the end of the song take me down with you, take me down with you— the sun is falling and it’s lined in blood, the moon is weeping bandages of gold. While “Black Swan” is about searching and “St. Martin…” about what happens when you find the ideal and need to praise it, both songs are submerged in an elegant pleading to see and be seen. In the best case scenario, the music surveils and listens to us the way a friendly god might, hoping to answer our prayers and nurture our faith, which is to say, great music is what it sounds like when a miracle gets a body to dance inside of. To resist becoming more and more like data, we can become more and more like that music, more just, more devoted, messier, surer of our aims. In this society being less like data feels dangerous, but in the music it is liberation. 

Your radio is listening to you, and you’re (a) radio listening back, listening in, take it down with you, data miner, data minion, data master, data thief and co-conspirator. If the songs you choose to dial in are entering you and trying to become one with the heartbeat and the consciousness, it matters which ones you allow yourself to witness.