From April 14th until April 23rd, three events of profound and specifically black cultural significance took place in New York and elsewhere, ending, of course, with the release of the musician Beyoncé’s visual album, “Lemonade.” There was Prince’s death, last Thursday, and none of it has registered as a final state because Prince never ended anything; the avalanche of words marking his passing felt, for the most part, like dead leaves being blown about by the force of his ever-shifting continuum, which continues. During that time there were, too, the jazz maestro Cecil Taylor’s two performances at the Whitney Museum of American Art. The Taylor shows were part of a wondrous eleven-day celebration of the titanic pianist and poet, organized with enthusiasm and love by the curator Jay Sanders. (I was fortunate enough to be included in the program.) As part of the museum’s ingenious “Open Plan” series, wherein the institution turns over the entire fifth floor to a single artist’s work, Taylor was a wise choice, demonstrating how the museum is committed to exploring the idiosyncrasies that elevate American art.
For more than sixty years now, Taylor, who was born in 1929, has produced, often amid great criticism, some of the more difficult, emotional, and percussive jazz improvisations ever recorded. With an attack that rivals that of Aretha Franklin—he admires the singer, whom he calls Re Re—the Brooklyn-based artist’s true home is one where two of his early heroes, Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday, poured the concrete, but the rest of it—the walls and hallways, beds and utensils—was built and forged by Taylor himself. There he speaks to his ghosts, transcribing what they say, and the new language he makes out of it, directly onto the keys with a swiftness his fingers can barely keep up with, but they do.
On the evening of the 14th, Taylor, who walks swiftly but with a cane, took the fifth-floor stage and sat behind the piano with his customary quiet and energy. He was wearing a brightly colored, nearly metallic jacket, and his hands—those extraordinary hands, with their long, knotty fingers—paused over the keys as he looked first at Min Tanaka, the famous seventy-one-year-old Butoh dancer, who, dressed in a khaki suit, began to dance as Taylor played a solo that was sometimes disrupted and added to by Tony Oxley, the English drummer. As Tanaka moved through the space and against the large windows that looked out on the Hudson River and the plum-colored sky, Taylor’s music moved through our bodies. Tanaka’s large and small gestures articulated how we felt and how we would move to the music, too, if we were brave enough.
As the forty-five-minute improvisation unfolded, I thought of another idiosyncratic black artist: the late American writer Octavia Butler. In her stories and novels, Butler discussed time travel—that is, the phenomenon of how blacks had managed to make the journey from slavery to the modern world. Similarly, Taylor wasn’t only travelling through museum space that evening, he was traversing musical history and attitudes about performance—Billie Holiday’s arm as she popped her fingers to the beat, Mary Lou Williams’s boogie-boogie joy, and then Taylor himself, skittering along softly in all that joyful and deep play about playing.
Butler is the dominant artistic force in the movie version of “Lemonade.” Shot by various young filmmakers, ranging from Kahlil Joseph to Melina Matsoukas, the movie is accompanied by lyrics that chronicle the anxiety of infidelity and resolution—no love, let alone any coupling, is perfect—but it’s the black female body, Butler’s great subject, that struggles against and sometimes breaks free of Beyoncé’s pop perfection. Born in Pasadena, California, in 1947, Butler was the only child of a domestic-worker mother; her father shined shoes. When she was seven, Butler’s father died, and she was raised by her mother and grandmother in a strict Baptist household. Awkward, big, and suffering from dyslexia, Butler was picked on by her schoolmates; she retreated into a world of books and invention.
The racially integrated Pasadena offered a window into the racism Butler would describe in her books, the best of which deal with survival—and how the black female body, despite its relative alienation in American society from slavery on, looks to other bodies of her kind to move forward, move on. Science fiction helped Butler deal with her own no doubt complicated relationship to her black, Baptist-raised body; in fantasy she could be free. In the 1979 novel “Kindred,” a young woman named Dana shuttles between her contemporary California home and the antebellum South. There, she meets her ancestors—a weak but cruel white slave owner and a black freewoman who’s forced into prostitution. The past affects the present as black women then and now find themselves treated as chattel.
In “Lemonade,” Beyoncé travels between the present—a world filled with police brutality, marital rage, and alienation—and a past inhabited by the Louisiana-based female ancestors her mother and thus herself are born from. Toward the end of the film, as the singer moves further back into the past and examines her roots, we see any number of sharply dressed women sitting in the natural world, talking among themselves. This will remind readers of that extraordinary scene in “Beloved,” when the elder, Baby Suggs, commands those who have gathered in a clearing to love their hands, themselves—because if they don’t, who will? While that sentiment is clear in Beyoncé’s film—she includes an audio clip of Malcolm X talking about how black women are the least defended in the world—it’s Butler’s fantastic evocation of the history of black women being unloved and somehow finding a way that is the spiritual source of “Lemonade.” To live, the bright, resourceful heroines of Butler’s fiction must shape-shift to fit into various societies.
While “Transformation” is just one of the sections making up “Lemonade,” shape-shifting is what Beyoncé does throughout; she is a pop star who must cut herself and her fashions to fit the times. Is her blackness a new style, or an accepted one? No amount of fame affords her the freedom to escape blackness, or the past, nor would she want to. (Even if she has jettisoned it before. Remember “Austin Powers”?) Because to abandon these things would mean leaving her mother, who, like her daughter, suffered the pain of infidelity—and survived. Toward the end of “Lemonade,” Beyoncé sings with her skin painted white. There, she is no longer “black,” but the style of her R. & B.-inflected sound is. How different is one’s body from one’s soul? Are they connected, and if so how does the body show what one feels? As Beyoncé sings, we see various shots of black mothers holding photographs of their sons—boys and men who have lost their lives to “accidental” police shootings. It’s in those moments that Beyoncé displays, most profoundly, what Butler called “hyper empathy”—the ability to identify with and feel the pain of others. Which, of course, has always been at the heart of black music, black style.
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