Further Thoughts On Kelis

I’ve posted briefly about work from Kelis’s “Flesh Tone” before, but here I want to follow through several quick but interesting observations/questions about her recent singles.

1. Afrofuturist feminism in “Acapella,” this time with some theory:

I’ve posted about this topic before, but when reading Tina Chanter’s essay in Convergences: Black Feminism and Continental Philosophy, I came across another way of theoretically framing what’s going on here. My previous argument was that “humanist” regimes have discounted the humanity of women and non-whites, and that Kelis’s “Acapella” video shows that a positive valuation of mothers-of-color is possible (only) from a posthuman perspective. The humanist regime of “reproductive futurism,” values motherhood, children, and heterosexual reproduction, but only when it produces “human” babies—i.e., white babies, preferably white male babies. Humanism treats non-white children as pests in need of extermination—just think about the despicable discourses of “anchor babies” and “welfare queens.” Basically, humanism rewards only white people for reproducing, b/c only whites are thought to be fully human.

Chanter makes more or less the same point, framing her claim in psychoanalytic/structuralist terms rather than in Afrofuturist/posthuman terms. (Perhaps too) briefly, Chanter thinks that race is used to determine one’s status as human, which in turn determines one’s eligibility to reproduce. She argues:

If there are certain humans whose humanity is in question, humans who do not unequivocally signify as human, and their failure to qualify as unambiguously human puts them off limits as sexual/marriage partners, this would appear to prescribe that only those whose humanity is not in question are acceptable sexual partners. If skin color becomes a mark of race, and race becomes a way of distinguishing between those who qualify unproblematically as human, and those who barely qualify as human, then racial taboos would seem to function as inarticulate conditions, invisibly built into the incest prohibition (71).

According to Chanter, race functions, like (or rather, in conjunction with) incest, as a taboo prohibiting sexual partnering, and thus reproduction. Chanter is interested in demonstrating that racial taboos work in conjunction with the incest taboo: if the incest taboo mandates exogamy (marriage outside one’s group), the race taboo defines exactly how far “outside” one’s group one may go. To step beyond the racial taboo is to step beyond the human (into bestiality or objectophilia, I guess).

What Kelis does, in her representations both of herself as an artist and as a black mother, is step beyond the human. “Acapella” is a song about her son: “before you, my whole life was acapella.” In the video, she shows herself carrying/caring for her new baby, and even in scenes where he is not on screen, she presents herself as various sorts of animal-human-cyborg hybrids. Thus, the video suggests that black mothers aren’t “human,” because regimes of “humanism” presume the racial taboo Chanter identifies, and exclude the possibility of positively valuing black maternity.

Chanter was my dissertation director, and though it’s been years since I’ve been her student, I’m glad to see that we still seem to be starting in really different places (her film, me music) and arriving at similar ideas. Great minds, blahblahblah…

2. “Fourth of July (Fireworks)” vs. Perry’s “Firework”

In a previous post, I contrasted Katy Perry’s “Firework” with X-Ray Spex’s “Plastic Bag” in order to highlight “Firework’s” commitments to liberal individualism: you’re unique, you’re special, there’s nobody like you, you can pull yourself up by your own bootstraps (“maybe reason why all the doors are closed, so you can open one”). Kelis’s “Fourth of July (Fireworks)” obviously uses the same theme as Perry’s “Firework,” but to completely different ends. Unlike Perry’s song, which is an anthem to the autonomous liberal “individual,” Kelis’s song makes a quasi-Beauvoiran argument about the irreducibly relational, political basis of “individual” freedom. In The Ethics of Ambiguity, Beauvoir argues that we are necessarily and irrevocably interdependent; autonomy is a nice idea, but it is incompatible with the fact of embodied human existence. We all rely on others for care, and the division of labor means that we rely on others for a whole lot of other things, too. Because we are interdependent, Beauvoir argues, my individual freedom draws on and contributes to the freedom of others. If I impoverish the freedom of others, I also impoverish my own freedom; similarly, if I empower others, I empower myself. Freedom, for Beauvoir, is relational.

Kelis’s song makes more or less the same claim. Like “Acapella,” “Fourth of July (Firework)” is also about and addressed to Kelis’s new son. Here, she describes the birth of her son as a transformative experience: “Didn’t think I needed you/Never seemed to/But I’m living proof/Nothing I’ll ever say or do/Will be as good as loving you.” Now, liberal models of individual freedom would object to Kelis’s subordination of her own accomplishments to a relationship: she would be sacrificing her own autonomy to the service of another. It is clear, however, that Kelis does not find her relation—importantly, a care relationship—to impede her autonomy, or to be a form of subordination or self-abnegation. She describes this relationship as spectacularly empowering: “You make me high/Just like the sky/On the Fourth of July.” Interestingly, while Perry’s song compares the individual to a single firework (“Baby you’re a firework/C’mon show ‘em what you’re worth”), Kelis’s song compares the individual to the entire sky full of fireworks (You even see this in the titles, which are permutations of the same phrase: one puts “Firework” first, the other puts “Fourth of July” first). In the same way that Beauvoir situates subjects as the products of their relations (to one another, to events), Kelis doesn’t separate herself out from all other fireworks—she is not one isolated phenomenon, but a fabric of interacting phenomena.

3. “Scream”

So, this is merely an aesthetic observation. This song and video seem really, seriously influenced by Chicks on Speed. The monotone, haltingly-syllabified party-rapped, multi-tracked (so, multi-voiced) chorus (e.g., around 0:47) sounds a lot like your average COS track. Pitchfork’s Jess Harvell notes that Kelis sounds like a “haughty electroclash ingénue,” which I take as a sideways reference to COS. Take, for example, this one:

Or this one:

Similarly, the glowy-black-light graffiti aesthetic (first seen at 0:16, and again throughout the 2:16-50 period in Kelis’s video) strongly resembles this COS visual aesthetic:

Or this pic of a recent performance in Vienna: