Witte de With Contemporary Art
Program—Welcome to Drexciya
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Sediments — Future | January 2016

Welcome to Drexciya
By Patrick Langley

Still from clip Mantaray by Drexciya. Source: youtube.com

The final track on the CD version of Harnessed The Storm, the penultimate album by the techno and electro group Drexciya, is called “Birth of new life.” It is a poignant title: in September 2002, eight months after the album was released, James Marcel Stinson—one half of the group, alongside his collaborator Gerald Donald, and regarded by Drexciya aficionados as its driving force—died of a heart condition in Newnan, Georgia. Stinson was aware that his time was limited. He headed south from his hometown of Detroit, Michigan, to the more temperate climate of Newnan in a bid to improve his health, and instructed his various record labels to continue to release his final albums (or “storms,” as he referred to them) after he died. Many of Drexciya’s tracks, especially those that date from their earliest releases, are relentless dance-floor workouts built around rapid Roland 808 drum machine patterns and metallic-sounding bass lines. “Birth of new life,” by contrast, sits at the sweeter end of the group’s sonic spectrum, with its meandering melody, pulsing kick drum, and woozy compositional structure. Significantly, however, the song is in a minor key, padded out with funereal organ chords that undercut the optimism of its title.

In late 2002, Underground Resistance, the Detroit-based group and record label with which Drexciya were closely affiliated, and who released several of their EPs, issued a gnomic press release in which they mourned Stinson’s passing: “Negative evolution cycle completed. Now in sonic infinitum mode.” The idea of a rebirth or renewal occasioned by death is more than just an affirmation of posterity; it is integral to understanding the mythology that Drexciya explored across the three albums, thirteen EPs, and one compilation they released in the decade prior to the completion of Stinson’s “negative evolution cycle.” (A number of releases have emerged since 2002, most notably the Journey of the Deep Sea Dweller compilations on Clone Records.) Regeneration, evolution, and spiritual migration furnished the group with their most potent metaphors, tying together the disparate elements of the intricate science-fictional world they created, and connecting it to the struggle for black emancipation in America.

At the heart of Drexciya’s mythology was a futuristic city on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean, a body of water that geographically separates, yet historically connects, Africa and America. Here, the Drexciyans—a highly sophisticated and militarized race descended from drowned African slaves—develop “magnetron” technology, build structures from “hydro cubes,” use “cruisers” to sweep down “aquabahns,” and, in their final album, establish a new colony beyond the stars. Populated by sea snakes, mutant gillmen, and the mysterious Dr Blowfin, Drexciya’s discography provides the kind of immersive experience found in literature, box-set television, prog-rock concept albums, and the like, though less frequently in electronic dance music, which typically eschews lyrical complexity in favor of hypnotic, propulsive, dance floor-oriented beats.

As the artist and music critic Kodwo Eshun has argued, however, Drexciya’s output is propositional: each of their tracks, logos, album covers, track titles, and vinyl stickers “functions as a component in an electronic mythology the listener assembles.”1Eshun is here describing the group’s evocative song titles, which refer to the architecture (“Bubble Metropolis,” “Draining of the Tanks”), topography (“Red Hills of Lardossa,” “Andreaen Sand Dunes”), technology (“Oxyplasmic Gyration Beam”), and people (“Darthouven Fish Men”) of the Drexciyan world-system. Kodwo Eshun, “Further Considerations on Afrofuturism,” CR: The New Centennial Review, vol. 3, no. 2 (2003): 287–302. He does not mean to posit Drexciya as the conceptual equivalent of flat-pack furniture, rather to underscore the fact that the listener is not passive. I have spent a lot of time immersed in Drexciya, heavily influenced, no doubt, by the elaborate concept art that accompanied each release, tying their music to a consistently outlandish visual identity. In my mind, it is a menacing yet liberating place: a drowned landscape of abyssal trenches, jagged peaks, and coral reefs where masked mutants flit through the shadows as strange technology crackles and hums. The Drexciyan world seems so flexible and open-ended to me precisely because it is not prescriptive, or strictly underpinned by linear narrative, but rather offers a number of sonic environments that I can, for a few minutes, imaginatively inhabit.

In the myth of Atlantis, first mentioned in Plato’s dialogues Timaeus and Critias, the city is submerged beneath the Atlantic as divine punishment for a failed attempt to invade Athens. In Drexciya’s mythology, this insurrectionary arc is reversed: the underwater city becomes (via the Bermuda Triangle, as outlined in their 1994 EP Aquatic Invasion) the base for “stingray and barracuda” attacks against the “programmer strongholds” on mainland America—the contemporary equivalent, one might argue, of the Delian League. These Drexciyan attacks are figurations of empowerment: a submerged, suppressed populace rising up from the depths; a nation of discarded bodies—the children of murdered mothers—evolving underwater, gaining military power, and, when the time is ripe, vengefully ascending to reclaim the land.

The paramilitary overtones of Drexciya’s imagery is not mere escapist machismo. Among the black population of America there was (still is) a deep anxiety about the need to defend oneself in opposition to a country that has proven itself historically and systemically hostile—at times murderously so—to black people. Drexciya’s logo depicts a masked soldier leaping forward with a harpoon in his hand, his muscular legs sheathed in curved, fin-like blades, his head protected and anonymized by a diving helmet. The figure’s armored uniform may look like the aquatic equivalent of a Star Wars storm trooper, yet importantly, perhaps deliberately, it also evokes the all-black, openly armed, ready-for-combat uniform worn by members of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, formed in Oakland, California, in 1966, to militantly defend minority communities and foment revolutionary Socialism.

Unlike the Panthers, Drexciya did not advocate for the open carrying of firearms, organize rallies, lead armed patrols of black neighborhoods, or earn the dubious privilege of being described by J. Edgar Hoover as “the greatest threat to the internal security of [America]”: Drexciya were musicians, not activists. Their music can, however, be understood in terms of what poet and theorist Fred Moten has called the “reordering of aesthetic space” that “marks and makes possible” resistance to, or disruption of, established racial, economic, and political orders. For Moten, black popular music is a kind of utopian domain “whose essence is an ongoing call for the production of New Space, of a new world, by holding—which is to say suspending, embracing—time.”2Fred Moten, In The Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 225. The idea that the temporal space of a popular song momentarily embodies, in sonic form, the possibility of revolution is certainly romantic, yet it explains a deep tradition in black vernacular culture in which present-day yearnings are articulated in the form of alternative futures.

The term “Afrofuturism” derives from “Black to the Future,” a 1993 essay by the author and cultural theorist Mark Dery in which he argues that “African Americans, in a very real sense, are the descendants of alien abductees; they inhabit a sci-fi nightmare”—as opposed to participating in the American Dream, that is. Afrofuturism emerged as a dominant black-vernacular mode of expression between the late 1950s and the 1990s; its context is the Civil Rights Movement, Jim Crow, Rodney King, and the Detroit Riots of 1943 and 1967. Some examples of the Afrofuturist genre—or perhaps ‘movement’—include Sun Ra’s (disarmingly poker-faced) claim to be an alien from Saturn; the novels of Samuel R. Delany and Octavia Butler; Parliament’s 1975 album Mothership Connection, which features on its front cover a kind of glam-funk, extra-terrestrial pimp cruising through the cosmos in a silver UFO; the “Jupiter jazz,” “final frontiers,” and “interstellar fugitives” of Underground Resistance’s minimalist techno; and the “techno cities” of Juan Atkins and Richard Davis’s Detroit electro group Cybotron. As Ta-Nehisi Coates argues in his 2014 Atlantic essay “The Case for Reparations,” “the notion that black lives, black bodies, and black wealth were rightful targets [for exploitation] remained deeply rooted in the broader society” in the wake of slavery. Afrofuturist fantasies of interstellar diasporas and speculative future worlds stood in stark contrast to—and offered an imaginary liberation from—the economic and social realities of life for black people in America. Talk of aliens illustrated present-day alienation.

Drexciya’s alter-destiny is remarkably rich and detailed, but it was, importantly, far from unprecedented. In a 1994 interview for Wired magazine, Atkins—Cybotron were a formative influence on Drexciya’s music—was asked how Detroit Techno differed from Chicago House. He answered in philosophical, rather than musical, terms. “It’s always been about insight and forward thinking,” he said. “It goes as far as the science fiction I was into early on and the class I took in high school called ‘Future Studies.’ One of the textbooks I had to read was Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock.”3Interview with Dan Sicko in Wired, no. 2.07 (July 1994). In fact The Third Wave, Toffler’s 1980 follow-up to Future Shock, is most often cited as the origin of the term “techno.” In the book, Toffler argues that we are entering a new, information-centric age (“third” because it follows on from the agrarian and the industrial) precipitated by the collapse of second-wave economies built upon the mass production and consumption of physical goods.

Nowhere has this collapse been more painfully felt than in Detroit, the ‘Motor City’ brought to its knees by the decline of the ‘Big Three’ car companies (General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler); the rise of automated assembly-line production, which took thousands of blue-collar workers’ jobs; and the supply-side Reaganomics of the 1980s, which hastened the decline of the city’s industrial base. In 1987, Robocop was released. It depicted Detroit as a blighted, post-industrial wasteland torn apart by rampant criminality—an image that continues to define it, both in America and abroad. Between 1970 and 1990, Detroit’s population shrank by 483,508 (or 32 percent).4The decline continues. A 2009 op-ed on Detroit in The New York Times was titled “An American Catastrophe.” In 2013, the city filed for bankruptcy. Most of this was a result of so-called white flight: the departure of the (predominantly middle-class) white population from inner-city neighborhoods.

But for Stinson, Detroit was “not a dark, gloomy place,” and never had been. “There’s a lot of sunshine and a lot of happiness,” he remarked in one of the few (and always anonymous) interviews he gave. “The people have this thing about making something out of nothing, especially when times are hard, and they know how to have fun.” Growing up in the early 1980s, Stinson used to cycle around Detroit with a portable radio and listen to the local DJ Charles Johnson, a.k.a. The Electrifying Mojo. At the time, Detroit’s airwaves were alive with funk, R&B, and disco—the kind of music Stinson’s parents might have danced to in the city’s music theaters and blind-pig bars. Johnson’s show, by contrast, drew on a more avant-garde, even futuristic palate of sounds: Prince, Genesis, Kraftwerk, Parliament, and Human League, as well as, most significantly, the techno and electro that began to emerge from the city during Reagan’s early years in office. Johnson’s sets ritually opened with an uproarious sonic montage called “The Landing of the Mothership,” in which he describes his descent from outer space to Planet Earth. (He took the idea from Parliament’s Mothership Connection.) As if to illustrate the civic significance of his broadcasts, Johnson co-opted Detroit mayor Coleman Young to deliver the opening lines for one of his shows.

The decline of factory capitalism gave rise to other modes of production. For Toffler, the vanguards of the postindustrial era are the “Techno Rebels”—a more contemporary if less glamorous term would be “early adopters”—who embrace the emergence of new, cheaper, and more widely available technology. For example, MIDI sequencers, Roland’s 808 and 909 drum machines, Yamaha’s FM synthesizers, consumer-level analogue synthesizers like the Korg Mono/Poly, and reel-to-reel tape recorders: wire these elements together and you can turn a Detroit bedroom (or in Stinson’s case, reportedly the basement of his mother’s house) into a factory floor of music production. By embracing this shift toward ‘prosumer’ economics, Detroit Techno producers became, in Toffler’s terms, “agents of the Third Wave”: “as much part of the advance to a new stage of civilization as our missions to Venus, our amazing computers, our biological discoveries, or our explorations of the oceanic depths.”5Alvin Toffler, The Third Wave (New York: Bantam, 1980), 12.

Drexciya began releasing music in the 1990s, a decade of renewed interest in the Atlantic Ocean and its relation to black identity. Poets such as Robert Hayden and Derek Walcott had for decades been exploring links between the ocean, slavery, collective suffering, and racial identity. Hayden’s poem “Middle Passage,” first published in 1944 and one of the most widely anthologized poems on the transatlantic slave trade, contains the refrain “voyage through death / to life upon these shores,” positing the ocean as a place of catastrophic pain but also catharsis and renewal. Walcott’s “The Sea is History” (1979)—which reflects on the Middle Passage from Africa to the Caribbean, rather than mainland America—depicts the Atlantic as simultaneously a mass grave and a vital archive of cultural history: a “grey vault” of “tribal memory” whose “groined caves with barnacles / pitted like stone / are our cathedrals.” Both poets present migration and transformation as essential components of black history. Scale these concepts up to interstellar distances, infuse them with utopian science fiction, and you have the essence of Afrofuturism: migrations that lead not to enslavement, but to the promised land of emancipation.

In 1993, the same year that the term “Afrofuturism” was coined, the author and academic Paul Gilroy developed the notion of a “black Atlantic,” as outlined in his book of the same name: a transcontinental black identity that is not exclusively African, American, Caribbean, or European, but belongs to the migratory space of the ocean itself. There is no evidence that Drexciya were influenced by Gilroy—Deep Sea Dweller, their first release, precedes the publication of The Black Atlantic by a year, and its music, titles, and cover art demonstrate that Drexciya’s subaquatic mythos was fully formed from the outset—but their music and mythology explores a similar conception of the shifting space of the Atlantic as a source of cultural identity. In the sleeve notes to their 1997 compilation album The Quest, Drexciya anchored their mythology to the historical trauma of the Middle Passage:

During the greatest Holocaust the world has ever known, pregnant America-bound African slaves were thrown overboard by the thousands during labour for being sick and disruptive cargo. […] Are Drexciyans water-breathing, aquatically mutated descendants of those unfortunate victims of human greed? Have they been spared by God to teach us or terrorize us? Did they migrate from the Gulf of Mexico to the Mississippi river basin and on to the Great Lakes of Michigan?

Despite describing 250 years of slavery in America as a “Holocaust,” Drexciya’s alter-destiny was utopian. It constructed, in the realm of the imagination, a society that marked a radical alternative to “the order of things prevailing at the time” (one way in which the sociologist Karl Mannheim’s defines utopian thought in his 1929 book Ideology and Utopia). Echoing Thomas More, there is no talk of private ownership, let alone money, in Drexciya; only bodily mutation, advanced prosthetic technology, and a symbiotic relationship with the universal element of water. It was a power fantasy that emerged from historical trauma. In a well-known example of the murderous nature of the slave trade, in 1781 the slave ship Zong got lost on its journey from Liverpool, England, to Jamaica. Running low on water, the ship’s captain ordered that 133 slaves be thrown overboard in order to collect insurance payments. The event later inspired J.M.W. Turner’s 1840 painting The Slave Ship: a hellish vision of manacled arms and hands reaching up from the thrashing waves beneath a sky bright with colors of blood and fire.

Transatlantic slavery—in which black bodies were at their most vulnerable, abused, commodified, symbolically and actually mutilated—became the basis for an imaginative celebration of black physicality. Yet, for Drexciya, the Atlantic is simultaneously a watery tomb and wellspring from which a renewed, more powerful black identity emerges. The Drexciyan body is a supreme body. It is not considered a commodity, seen through the dehumanizing lens of its economic use-value, but is a highly evolved creature: not weak or degenerate but formidably strong, enhanced by an array of prosthetic weaponry, from helmets to body armor, tridents, harpoons, and flippers. The Detroit artist Abdul Qadim Haqq illustrated the group’s first LP, Neptune’s Lair (1999). In one of his elaborate, colorful paintings, four Drexciyan warriors swim toward the viewer, their red capes billowing. These creatures provide an imaginative or symbolic defense against a culture in which, to quote Coates again, black people “were powerfully, adamantly, dangerously afraid.”6Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015), 14.

Thanks in part to imagery such as this, which expresses the rage, anxiety, and sheer imaginative potency of Afrofuturist aesthetics, Drexciya have proven influential in visual art as well as music. The Otolith Group paid homage to Drexciya in Hydra Decapita (2010), a film exploring the links between economic abstraction and death through the Atlantic slave trade. Ellen Gallagher’s series of watercolors and drawings “Watery Ecstatic” was inspired by the group’s music. In Bird In Hand (2006), the artist depicts a Drexciyan pirate evolving into a strange, powerful creature of the deep: his peg-leg sprouts black tendrils, bodily rooting him to the seaweed of the ocean floor, while his head erupts into a cloud of intertwining lines that look like coral but might be eyes, peering out at the viewer. As with Drexciya’s warriors, a sense of ambiguous, perhaps unstable power is at play, a feeling that bodily threat has been turned outward, sublimated into an icon of physical alteration and strength.

For Frederic Jameson, true utopian fiction does not offer a “vacuous evocation [of] the image of a perfect society,” but marks a “radical and systemic break with even that predicted and colonised future which is simply a prolongation of our capitalist present.”7Frederic Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future (New York and London: Verso, 2005), 72. Does Drexciya’s music satisfy this definition? Does it need to? In Jameson, utopianism distinguishes science fiction from its sister genre, fantasy. While the latter indulges in soothing tales of feudally stratified societies in which clean-cut heroes triumph over straightforwardly malignant villains, science fiction provides a space for sincerely provocative social critique, one that allies itself not with magic but with the empirical tradition of science.

It has become a cliché to say that science fiction set in the future is actually about the present, but clichés are often true. As Terry Eagleton argues in a recent Guardian article on the legacy of More’s Utopia: “If we can speak of the future at all, it follows that we are still tied to some extent to the present.” The semantics of futurity always posit the yet-to-come as a kind of elsewhere. Yet Drexciya’s music is arguably less concerned with future-oriented, socio-political change than partying, and parties always (only ever) happen in the immediate moment. I have never seen Drexciya play live, but nor has anyone else. In keeping with their mysterious mythology, they remained anonymous throughout their years of operation and never played in front of an audience. Stinson’s name was only attached to the project after he died; Donald, meanwhile, refuses to acknowledge his involvement publicly. I did once see DJ Stingray—a Detroit techno/electro producer and, as his name indicates, Drexciya affiliate—play London’s Plastic People club. It was a tiny, sweaty, windowless basement room with a small DJ booth and a Funktion One sound system of sobering intensity. I stood there shuffle-dancing with a bunch of friends, ever so slightly bored, wondering when the headline act was going to emerge. Approximately thirty seconds before his scheduled appearance, a huge man wearing a black balaclava and a shiny baseball jacket stormed from the back of the room, parted the crowd, commandeered the DJ booth, pulled a vinyl from a bag and lowered the needle. It was a startling way to begin, but entirely appropriate for a musical tradition that, for all its utopian aspirations and deep historical roots, emerges from a desire to seize and energize the present moment.

In this context, anonymity is less significant for what it conceals than for what it reveals: self-effacement orients the DJ in supplication to tradition—the music’s more important than they are, as individuals. Only Stingray’s eyes were visible from his balaclava. They were focused exclusively on the decks and barely once looked up at the crowd throughout the duration of his set, a fitting illustration of the purist mentality of techno producers. When asked about his preference for keeping a low profile, Stinson once remarked: “dance music is about the people who listen to it,” as if bequeathing his music to his fans. The intangibility of the world that he helped produce was matched by the somewhat incorporeal identity he cultivated, although it is arguably better to think of Drexciya—the world, not the band—as something that exists within, as a liberated, somewhat dreamy state of mind. Stinson never made enough money from producing to support himself exclusively as a musician. Throughout his time in Drexciya he worked as a truck driver, driving long routes across America that gave him time to think. The product of those meditative journeys—you could call them domestic migrations—was one of the most astonishing and ambitious musical projects in the history of dance music. In one of his final interviews, given on Detroit radio station WDET in May 2002, months before he died, Stinson was characteristically upbeat. He was looking forward to leaving Detroit and visiting Atlanta, Georgia, a city referred to as “the new land of Atlantis.”

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