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My Message and My Minstrels
On my taboo fantasy alter-egos in music
We all need an alibi for our most dangerous affections and I think many of us use music to avoid trafficking one another as involuntary accomplices in our crimes of passion. In her book Constructing a Nervous System (2022) Margo Jefferson invents a world in which black women take on men as our minstrels. She establishes rules for the task— the minstrel, she explains, must be someone who can get away with misbehaving in public in the exact manner that you might if you knew you too could get away with it, or be rewarded for it. These are alter egos we keep close to our hearts and pine after; men who we beg to destroy our decorum, to criminalize us, to make us our whole selves by negating any facade of timidity or pure virtue, antagonize us just by existing. Their license taunts our self-imposed restrictions. If we’re lucky, we act like them in pseudo secret, in our writing, filmmaking, lovemaking, private waring, we find ways to be a little terrible and better for it. The alternative is the kind of madness that shows up as pathological virtue signaling, a constant disguise that attempts to differentiate you from the bad you long to embody.
My minstrel man is a hybrid of Miles Davis, Sun Ra, Prince, and Ye — A proud composite with impeccable taste and timing, sometimes prone to undermining themselves when the slick texture of auto-erotic self-sabotage is called for as it loads the spring into the mythic and inevitable comeback. They always come back, improved and ravishing, my puppets and their miraculous proportions. I swoop in and take them on, they belong to me when I’m finally open enough to betray myself. Betray means show, not go against or uproot. It’s just that showing who we might be is so embarrassing that we associate it with ruinous self-loathing and refuse to see the triumph that it is. I’m going to betray myself now and admit I don’t want to be like any of these men except for one thing they share, the ability to take themselves seriously in the middle of being ridiculous, miraculous. It allows them to accomplish harrowing artistic feats in a veil of subtlety. It allows them to unite performance with self-realization until all the world’s a stage and the stage collapses with the tinny spinning thud of body armor, afro-victorian chivalry steps in, and they step down, abdicate worship and with that really become what gods are, those who give themselves up to infinite rebirth and are always open to misinterpretation which is part of their aliveness. When I get to the point where I’m affirming my riffs as unapologetically as these men do, I will be dangerous and perfect. I will be the ultimate betrayal, the one that turns the self heroic to survive it.
On the way there, I’m playing “It Never Entered My Mind,” running out my contract with meekness in a swirl of gold ribbon and pine. An acapela Prince song turns the hours falsetto in the hills, Mary don’t you weep, he urges, with tears in his sound. On my minstrel’s stage abandonment is comforting, and this negates so much anxiety, which makes those who feed on it very angry and impotent. No one beats their Oedipus complex allegations in that fit of rage. I turn on Sun Ra’s “As You Once We’re, You Still Are to Me,” lying, you’re different, and I’ve changed too. I’ve become this stupor of gemini harbored in the toros womb at the end of heartbreak. I’m my own alibi for my own precarious affections. Ye is the last gemini standing in my cast of bad men I daydream I’m becoming. And he’s the worst and on his worst behavior, free slave raging in tongues and being called his own oppressor. He is the final celebrity and who wouldn’t want to be that last monster before we’re forced to turn to god together, to go angelic in recoil from our own tantrums and tangents. He cannot end the performance until everyone in the audience is dead, implicated, or rejects their role as a spectator and becomes real again. My minstrel, as a matter of black survival, would not function as such if he was not under siege. Men who pursue ease and politeness are useless here, at this show, they hate their own truths and objective truths for being difficult, they live as excerpts of themselves. Anyone whole is terrible, unforgivably true to himself.
Why settle for being possessed by what you can take possession of as rhythm? My minstrels are my excuse to live like a song that keeps changing as soon as you memorize it. I demand new archetypes and the sad dead men whisper directions toward them. I demand better music and they get quiet and uncanny while I make it. They suggest Leadbelly and screen their fame for scams, find so many it gets sexual, erotic first, then pornographic, then useless, to be so well known you cannot be known, only idolized, not loved, only worshiped. This effacement of my minstrels is where I’m going to get back to the vengeance of daylight called a self. And I’m glad, and then what? Maybe they sit around wondering how to get by with being more like me. Let the endlessly relaying black performance be this devastating loop of longing for intimacy with the self you refuse to allow into being until it blurts itself out in song.