M Lamar, photo Johnny Q, courtesy Rewire

M Lamar: Out of the beat and into the book

Issue no5
okt - nov 2022

Dagmar Bosma met up with the American composer, performer and artist M Lamar to talk about his interest in the writings of bell hooks.

I encounter composer, performer and artist M Lamar onstage at music festival Rewire in the Hague. It is the premiere of a new work by Lamar titled Machines and Other Intergalactic Technologies of The Spirit, a piece that is heavily inspired by Sun Ra’s retro-futurist sci-fi projections on the mind and spirit. In the piece, rhythm and harmony are dragged out into a seemingly endless vibration. You cannot really distinguish separate songs in Lamar’s set, which pours out over the audience, enveloping the space in long, shivering echoes.

Lamar studied painting and sculpture before dropping out to focus on music and become a trained opera singer. He now works across opera, metal, performance, video, sculpture and multimedia installation. His modern opera pieces, such as Lordship And Bondage: The Birth Of The Negro Superman, are often grounded in theory and literary writing, and combine classical music with doom metal and spirituals, a type of religious folksong closely associated with the enslavement of African people in the American south. Lamar coined the terms ‘Negrogothic’ and ‘Doom Spirituals’ to describe his fully embodied aesthetic and musical style. Inspired by the gothic novel, in which the horrific and the romantic coexist, Lamar’s ‘Negrogothic’ symbolism evokes the horror of the plantation, of lynching, of mass incarceration, police shootings and racial sexual fetish, as well as the romance of the resilience of black people.

I meet Lamar the next day at Page Not Found in the Hague, following his talk on the work of cultural theorist bell hooks. In commemoration of hooks' recent passing in december 2021, the gathering offered room for reflection as well as mourning. Speaking from personal experience, and from a place that felt deeply emotional, Lamar introduced the author's 2004 book We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity. Afterwards I ask Lamar about the impact that hooks has had, and continues to have, on his work and way of being in the world.

—M Lamar ‘bell hooks is my north star, even though I only met her in person a few times. Reading her work has been a life changing experience and has enabled healing, growth and real change for me. It kickstarted my mental health. It helped me make sense of my life in making sense of the world, gender, race and capitalism. Her writing has informed my work in content, but more foundationally, it has teached me what wellness for a black person could look like. I feel like I gained a parent through reading her work, and I believe we can all find parents in writers like hooks. She has also been a mentor-figure to me and has guided me as an artist. She herself was an artist and her work is as much an artistic as a critical endeavor. She worked from such a great need and urgency, writing to find a way to go on. The negro-spirituals I perform have that urgency too, originally sung by enslaved people to aid in each others survival.’

bell hooks emphasizes how all genders are impacted by the dominance of patriarchy, and how important it is for the wellbeing of men and women both to move away from patriarchal being

bell hooks, photgraphed by Lyle Ashton Harris, The cover of Metropolis M Boeken/Books is by Lyle Ashton Harris

—Dagmar Bosma Why is it important for you to share her writing from We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity in particular?

—M Lamar ‘Through reading this book I gained more understanding of how the world sees me as a black man, of how I see myself, and of the schism between both of those visions. In the book hooks points to the unnurtured sphere of giving love to black men. Oftentimes black men are desired and envied, but not loved. The fethishization, sexual and otherwise, that we are confronted with makes it so that there is no room for real black men, and that a lot of black men are emotionally lost. We Real Cool opened my eyes to how the harmful narratives placed on me made me act out in harmful ways in my own life. It has spurred a lot of reflection: what is my currency as a black man in a white supremacist society? How does one become well in the persisting context of these oppressing systems? And how can we come more fully into ourselves despite their upholding? In the book, hooks emphasizes how all genders are impacted by the dominance of patriarchy, and how important it is for the wellbeing of men and women both to move away from patriarchal being. For a long time sociological narratives have defined the absence of a father figure as the main "problem" within the black family, while a return to patriarchal structures was often posed as a "solution" to unstable home situations. But as hooks points out, the crisis has always been patriarchy and supremacy itself.’

—Dagmar Bosma In the piece Machines and Other Intergalactic Technologies of The Spirit you draw from the conceptual universe of the musician Sun Ra. How do music and thought relate within your practice?

—M Lamar ‘I read a lot and I take in a lot, but I don’t regard my reading as academic, even when I read Nietzsche or Fanon or Foucault. It’s just what I need to do to get through my life. I’ve read all the German people, from Hegel to Kant, but my favorite philosophers are musicians. Sun Ra, with his afro-futurist imaginations, was fundamentally a philosopher, a theoretician. His music is meant to take you out of your body, into another world. Through sound he creates spaces of escape, where you can travel to places unknown and unseen, where you can run away to an alternate planetary dimension. We both come from Alabama, but also from outer space. Because being black in America, your ancestors having been brought there against their will, you’re already an alien. Sun Ra’s fugitive philosophy embraces this alien status. Sometimes theory grounds my work where it needs to be. During the development of Machines and Other Intergalactic Technologies of The Spirit I have been reading a lot about physics and dark matter. Dark matter is everywhere but it cannot be quantified and we cannot measure it. To me this is an allegory of the deep impact and influence of black art and music. Infinite blackness encompasses all, but it is ungraspable, non commodifiable and non consumable. It transcends the corporeal plane.’

—Dagmar Bosma It seems like music is a place for you to think through things, or even a place to reach a higher consciousness?

—M Lamar ‘In music you can levitate and suspend time. Music is a lot about counting and quantifying time, but there’s a slippage where you’re not in the pocket of the beat anymore, where you can be in your own time. That’s when you reach that place where you are true to yourself, where you become an existential self. It is actually a very embodied process. I learned what my body needs through making sound, inhaling and exhaling, and blowing air into my skull. And it requires everything: there’s a lot of work and preparation involved to get your instrument to that point. I do it with the piano and others do it with basketball: enabling a moment where you can move in full flight and become a vessel for all these energies. Without ego, but in connection with the spirit.’


Dagmar Bosma
is beeldend kunstenaar

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