Feeling In Truth
The video essay Feeling in Truth explores relationships between sounds and images in the music video directed by AG Rojas for Kamasi Washington’s composition ‘Truth’ (2017). Drawing from the pioneering research of Alessandra Raengo and the liquid blackness collective, this project analyses Washington and Rojas’s collaboration through a variety of different theoretical lenses, thereby attempting to form a ’liquid’ methodology that ebbs and flows across disciplines. The author provides observations through subtitles, striving to avoid interrupting the experiences that manifest when percipients see and hear the music video’s respective audial and visual components.
Authors: Merje Laiapea (SOAS, University of London)
Format: Video Essay
Published: October 2022
The analysis seeks to decode the conceptual resonance between sound and image in the music art video Truth by composer Kamasi Washington and filmmaker AG Rojas. It is motivated by personal affective response, and looks at the methods by which the music seeps in and out of image to provide deeper understandings of both – and deeper feeling as an impact.
Through a multimodal approach the essay explores how forms of frequency, from the visual, sonic, haptic, temporal and kinetic, offer a framework for understanding black life and its diasporas. In which ways does the video exemplify liquid blackness: a theoretical concept that focuses on blackness as an aesthetic mode, emphasising multiplicity and experimentation (Raengo 2014)? In the context of the city of Los Angeles, how might it help us to see, hear, and feel in order to create a different kind of present and futurity for its diverse communities?
Truth is the sixth and final track from Kamasi Washington’s 2017 EP Harmony of Difference. It is a virtuosic result of Washington balancing similarity and difference between five separate melodies to harmonise a new whole. For the accompanying video, the composer collaborated with LA-based director AG Rojas, a filmmaker of Colombian and Costa Rican heritage who works in the intersection of community, architecture and image-making. This analysis seeks to decode the 14-minute long music video, a version of which was first shown at the 2017 Whitney Biennale. As an example of the cross-disciplinarity and inherent visuality of Washington’s music, the six tracks from the album – Desire, Humility, Knowledge, Perspective, Integrity and <Truth – were installed at the Biennale alongside his sister Amani Washington’s paintings. These paintings also feature in the final music video. Out of a desire to fully realise the spirit of hisHeaven and Earth, Washington went on to found international artists’ group Ummah Chroma in 2018.
In Los Angeles, the cultural productions of punk, hip hop, and present day Afro-futurist jazz revival – of which Kamasi Washington is a key part – generate discursive spaces that hold memory and origins, as well as futurity and resistance. Jazz in its many visualisations and forms has been ascribed a cosmological power in Black music studies, an idea that speaks to its boundlessness and infinity as well as abstraction. Working class communities in Los Angeles have been pitted against each other in debates about economic, civil and immigrant rights. The 2006 jail riots in Los Angeles, for example, were presented in media outlets as an ‘edgy competition’ between African Americans and Hispanics – one that engages almost every arena of public life (Duggan 2004, Pomfret 2006). A report by the Pew Research Center centred the narrative about the growing numbers of immigrant workers becoming an obstacle for black people to find employment (Carroll 2006). The prison-industrial complex, anti-immigration policies, and economic restructuring as a whole have severely curtailed the freedom and mobility of Black and Brown people in the city (Johnson 2013). Truth speaks to this psychological and physical displacement and containment across the whole Black Atlantic (Gilroy 1993). An ode to the black and brown communities of Los Angeles, the video not only presents difference as a joyous breadth of people and communities making the world infinitely richer, but it reaches, through its frequential qualities, beyond representation – to a space of intimacy and collective unity.
My analysis is foundationally supported by the work of the research group and journal liquid blackness. Led by Alessandra Raengo, members of the collective explore the ‘music art video,’ an experimental artform that plumbs the depths of Black performance and expressive culture. The group has previously analysed work by artists Arthur Jafa, Jenn Nkiru and Kahlil Joseph, seeking to understand how images in their videos vibrate in accordance with the frequential values of the music (Raengo and Cramer 2020). My research questions developed further after experiencing the ‘Frequencies of Blackness’ listening session by The Sojourner Project, in which Tina Campt, Zara Julius, Jenn Nkiru and Alexander Weheliye discussed frequency as a site of possibility and means to transport to a ‘larger understanding of blackness,’ one that speaks to beyond freedoms (The Sojourner Project, 2020).
The method for analysing such work needs to be as improvisational as the rich sound culture that sustains it, and one that claims the common and fluid sensorial terrain of blackness as an object of focus, requiring a ‘liquid’ methodology (Raengo 2014, Raengo and Cramer 2020). The term liquid blackness activates innumerable forms of tension, and resonates differently with each person who says, thinks, or writes it. Its unstable nature is intentional , in order to maintain a productive tension between experience and expression, between people and sensorial regimes (Raengo 2014). The work insists on cultural sensitivity, and requires ‘an awareness of Blackness and appreciation of some of its innumerable creative and historical forms’ (2020, 146).
My research aims to establish a multimodal and multisensory dialogue between the artwork, my own observations and ideas from previous thinkers. It was important for my analysis not to interfere with the flow of the audiovisual experience. I decided to include the original video by Rojas and Washington in its entirety to not sever the very frequential levels I find so powerful. The focus of my analysis is to observe and strengthen the video’s incantational effects. Therefore, it would have been counterproductive to crop and edit the video, or to provide voiceover, which would have disrupted the sonic frequencies. My observations, added as subtitles, are intended to guide the viewers through the sonic tonality of images and leave enough space for individual interpretation.
For thought and theory on the African diaspora, the research relies on Cultural Studies thinker Paul Gilroy (1993), and for more specific regional context Gaye Theresa Johnson’s Spaces of Conflict, Sounds of Solidarity (2014). The term ‘teeth-gritting harmony’ was first coined by French philosopher Louis Althusser to describe the social formations in which the ruling ideology is reproduced (Althusser 1974). In Johnson’s work the term is used ironically to refer to the cultural products and interracial coalitions that seek to interrupt submission to the ruling ideology (Johnson 2014). Simply put, ‘teeth-gritting harmony’ signifies the struggle and active pursuit of freedom and rights. I argue that the experience ofTruth, as part of Washington’s album Harmony of Difference, touches a space beyond that pursuit.
To unpack how Rojas’ filmmaking creates such feeling, I explored methods of ‘suspension’ and ‘still-moving-image’ through previous case studies by Tina Campt, Lauren McLeod Cramer and Alessandra Raengo (Cramer 2017, Raengo 2017, Campt 2019). Specifically, I considered the aesthetic possibilities of these images as powerful tools to cross-cut time, break the expected order of things, and to move beyond the realm of representation. The still-moving images, in particular, demand the viewers feel with or through them, to ‘engage the overlapping sensory realms of the visual, the sonic, the haptic, and the affective labor that constellates in, around, and in response to such images’ (Campt 2019, 27).The sonic tonality of Truth evokes all aspects of the haptic, which Campt defines as a ‘multisensory modality of contact and relationality’ and includes the physical (touching), visual (seeing), and psychic (feeling) (Campt 2019, 43). My subtitled analysis aims to strengthen the haptic experience of Truth: to strengthen connection with one another; to do the labor of creating and sustaining affiliation. Hapticity should not be confused with empathy, as it is not ‘feeling for’ another; instead it is the labor of love required to feel across difference (Campt 2019).
Building on the work of liquid blackness, the analysis aims to provide thought and method for future multimodal research that combines language-based meaning with nonverbal forms. Studying music through the film medium helps visualise the richness of information and memory in music, for example to visualise ‘repetition’ or ‘Black noise.’ Truth demonstrates the expressive power that can calibrate in the sound-image relationship. The sensorial experience of the video’s last few minutes – the quick manipulation of frame rates, five melodies weaving together, repeating and coming to a climax – can be felt and seen as incantational. The analysis enabled me to articulate the continuum of intimacy I felt with the video when I first experienced it, and I hope it inspires other researchers on similar paths.
The video was my final submission for the postgraduate Film Industries module at SOAS in January 2022. Since then, some viewers have highlighted the affective impact of the audio-watch, and others categorised it as curatorial activism. In speaking to aspiring filmmakers and fellow researchers, it has been gratifying to hear that my analysis brought to the surface conceptual thinking behind the images, which otherwise could have been appreciated only for their aesthetics. Truth is an example of ways that shine and luminosity have been used in Black cultural production. Contesting the limits of the visible world with over-saturated images that ‘blind’ the viewer (Thompson 2009) can be seen as contesting the realm of representation. After having watched the essay, a friend decided to listen to just the music of Truth, as an exercise to understand the difference in the sensorial experience. He concluded that the visuals substantially enrich the music, or indeed, that the music itself is innately visual. This project is an exploration of such tensions, when sounds and images collide and extend beyond verbal communication.
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Jafa, Arthur. 1998. ‘Black Visual Intonation’. The Jazz Cadence of American Culture, ed Robert O’Meally, 264–68. New York: Columbia University Press.
Johnson, Gaye Theresa. 2013. ‘Spaces of Conflict, Sounds of Solidarity: Music, Race, and Spatial Entitlement in Los Angeles’, American Crossroads, Book 36, University of California Press.
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Alderson, Rob. 2017. WeTransfer Studios x Kamasi Washington & A.G. Rojas: Truth https://the-dots.com/projects/wetransfer-studios-x-kamasi-washington-a-g-rojas-truth-170119.
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The Ummah Chroma collective https://www.theummahchroma.com/
The music art video for Truth, by Kamasi Washington, A.G. Rojas https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rtW1S5EbHgU&ab_channel=KamasiWashington
All reviews refer to original research statements which have been edited in response to what follows:
Review 1: Invite resubmission with major revisions of practical work and/or written statement.
Although as an affiliated member of the liquid blackness research group, I am excited to see Merje Laiapea’s application of the liquid blackness methodology and their interest in what Arthur Jafa calls Black Visual Intonation, that is the relationship of black film to black music and more generally of the visual to the sonic, I cannot recommend publishing this video essay in its current form. My first issue is that the entirety of Kamasi Washington’s “Truth” music video directed by AJ Rojas is used uncut, and I do not believe that the subtitles utilized, which provide the bulk of the author’s analysis, would suffice as a transformative use for copyright purposes and for a fair use defense. Secondly, the bulk of the prose provided by the author is taken from other scholarship such as Campt, Raengo, and Cramer and frequently presented in quotation format with a lack of thorough contextualization provided by the author or reflecting the author’s own perspective on either the “Truth’ video or the scholarship itself. Thus, the theory as applied merely reduplicates existing scholarship. I would recommend the author do more to provide their interpretation of the video and its relationship to the theory, particularly the concept of liquid blackness, by recutting the video to utilize methodologies common to the video essay such as providing voiceover commentary, cutting the video into illustrative sections, and analyzing the
content. These additions would not only better transform the original source but would also give the author the opportunity to better assert their own usage of the scholarship to directly address what they see as its relationship to the narrative and aesthetic content of the “Truth” video. In its present state, the relationship between the video and the scholarship is only implicit where it should be explicit: explaining this relationship would be the original contribution of the author, but this thesis is not expressed clearly enough in the video’s current form.
Review 2: Accept submission for publication with no amendments
This video essay makes an innovative and complex intervention not only as a highly sophisticated cross-disciplinary academic work, but also regarding form as practice-research. The object of study is the music art video Truth (2017) by composer Kamasi Washington and filmmaker AG Rojas. The video essay argues that in Washington and Rojas’s collaborative work: “The music needs the image to fully realize its spirit,” asking, “How does the music seep in and out of image… to provide deeper understanding… deeper feeling […]”. The video essay proceeds with an exploration of the interconnections between visual, sonic and haptic ways of communication as a framing of Black performance and expressive culture. Through this multimodal framework, the work seeks to build upon and open avenues for further research on the theoretical notion of “liquid blackness.”
The video essay, Truth, makes an original contribution to the understanding of practice-research and the wealth of possibilities for making an argument audiovisually. The accompanying research statement is especially useful in this regard. For instance, the establishing shot confronts the viewer with the subtitle: “The hearing of images, the seeing of sounds” which serves to introduce the arguments the video essayist will proceed with regarding, as the research statement advances, theorizing the visual, through concepts such as shine and luminosity and contesting representation from a dominant culture perspective. Such contestation is not only at the heart of the creative-academic argument, but also resonates as critical self-awareness of the process(es) of mediation at play in audiovisual analysis. Such self-awareness of process, and methodology, is evidenced in the video essayist’s choices. For instance, rather than use voiceover, the essayist chooses to articulate the academic argument entirely through subtitles superposed onto the frames of Rojas’s film, which is shown without any editing or excerpting on the part of the video essayist. This is a welcome and powerful strategy since Truth is a silent film except for the haptic jazz composition and thus the video essay echoes the power of nonverbal communication. Additionally, the visual subtitling allows the essayist to guide the viewer through the video essay’s argument, a choice that is well articulated in the thoroughly researched and well written accompanying statement.
A rather simple format for a dense, multipronged argument. In my view, this is one way the video essayist strikes a balance between the creative and the academic. As practice-research, when I read the assertion in the research statement that the video essay self-consciously “crosses over to curatorial activism,” it led me to consider the work as contributing not only to musicology on screen, but also to museology and curatorial practices, disciplines and practices which scholars and practitioners are increasingly attempting to decolonize. While I would not say that the submission is lacking an important relevant work, I would recommend future consideration of Kenneth Harrow’s most recent book: Space and Time in African Cinema and Cine-scapes (2022).
All reviews refer to original research statements which have been edited in response.
Merje Laiapea is an artistic programmer and researcher working across music and film. She explores the expressive power of the sound-image relationship using a multi-modal approach. Her interactive map and written analysis of music in Ukraine’s resistance was published on Sounding Out! in June 2022. She is the Programme Producer for the SOAS Festival of Ideas and currently completing her MA in Global Creative and Cultural Industries.