I sing the body electric,
The armies of those I love engirth me and I engirth them,
They will not let me off till I go with them, respond to them,
And discorrupt them, and charge them full with the charge of the soul.
151; Walt Whitman, “I Sing The Body Electric”
R&B has an interesting history. The term is credited to Jerry Wexler, a Billboard editor who created an R&B chart in the late ’40s that essentially encompassed Blues, and later soul music. Soul became a moniker used to define the music put out by Stax Records as well as the music of Motown, and eventually funk fell under the R&B umbrella, too. Ultimately, R&B was used as a genre to classify black popular music, and thus it became a very generalized category leaving little room for specifications.
If you look at Billboard‘s R&B chart today, it’s coupled alongside hip-hop, which means Aretha Franklin and Luther Vandross end up fighting for ranking against DMX and Chingy. Of course this posits a problem, as hip-hop ends up receiving top billing in a category that’s meant to represent the soul of black America. Some critics, of course, argue that hip-hop is ghetto or urban blues, and perhaps it is. But it is a bit absurd that this supposed genre only serves as a banner for either the traditional soul music that follows the black church style of verse and chorus sung in gospel-tinged melodies over a simple rhythmic structure, or rapped hook and verse over sampled and drum-machine produced beats that loop rhythmic lines while relying heavily on repetition and musical breaks.
The machinic black music, that is the true symbiosis of man and machine, is the black music of the future. In fact it is the black music of the now. It’s the transatlantic black music of the Afro-Diasporic self, dispersed throughout the networks of the modern world. It is the nonhuman otherworldiness that Kodwo Eshun explores in his 1998 book More Brilliant then the Sun: Adventures in Sonic Fiction:
“The idea of slavery as an alien abduction means that we’ve all been living in an alien-nation since the eighteenth century. The mutation of African male and female slaves in the eighteenth century into what became negro, and into an entire series of humans that were designed in America. That whole process, the key behind it all is that in America none of these humans were designated human. It’s in the music that you get this sense that most African Americans owe nothing to the status of the human. There is this sense of the human as being a really pointless and treacherous category.”
It’s been presumed that the black singing voice is what renders the soul and is otherwise human. Alexander G. Weheliye in “Posthuman Voice in Contemporary Black Popular Music,” in a 2002 Afrofuturism special edition of Social Text writes: “The ‘soul’ and by extension ‘humanity’ of black subjects, therefore is often imbricated in white mainstream culture, customarily reflecting an awareness of this very entanglement.” The entanglement that Weheliye writes of is that of black popular music proving black peoples’ soul and representing the soul of all US culture. He argues, “. . . that while the black singing voice harbors moments of value . . . it can hardly be construed as a purely authentic force, particularly once delocalized and offered up for national and/or international consumption.”
So then what happens to this posthuman voice when it becomes one with the machine? For those of us who follow the Marshall McLuhan school of thought, there is an understanding that consciousness and psyche, which in its purest sense is the soul, is symbiotic with technology. Today’s music makes much use of technology, in that technology serves the needs of the psyche. That relationship, as it regards black music, is probably illustrated most, and best, in two musics labeled as electronica and techno. As far as black music practices are concerned, electro is what we heard in Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit” or Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock”. And techno was founded in Detroit by three black men: Derrick May, Juan Atkins, and Kevin Saunderson. In this music, technology enabled these musicians, DJs, and producers, to take what was human and create the posthuman.
While the beatmakers became robots producing a futuristic sound that seemed humanly impossible, there was in fact a soul in the machine. So why then is there no electronica or techno in R&B? The music clearly has a soul, especially when even the voice becomes electric. For example, the voices of Peven Everett, Vikter Duplaix, and Steve Spacek, lead singer of Spacek, contain a machinic quality that are at once a primary component in the soul of the machine, and at the same time separated from it. Their voices can be regarded as electric in texture, as well as in their connections to the technologies that craft the music they sing to. If Einstein were right and everything is made up of energy, and everything radiates energy, and everything has an electrical frequency, then not only does music have vibrational frequencies, it in fact has psychic frequencies. It takes the mind/body/sprit connection to perceive, feel, and experience the music.
Enter technosoul. South London’s Spacek produces minimalist music with Steven’s silky smooth voice pairing with synthesizers to create vocal melodies. Likewise, Illinois-bred Peven Everett’s music is similar, and in capturing so many black musical genres is totally unclassifiable. His voice soothes and inspires. Any dictionary will tell you that to inspire is to influence, move, or guide by divine or supernatural inspiration. It is the in-breath of the spirit, and the spirit has a symbiotic relationship to the soul. Philly-based Vikter Duplaix’s voice also has a sultry and sumptuous quality. It’s electronic in that it often merges with the music, and then rides it nimbly.
These three men’s voices are subdued and sensual, and sometimes high-arching falsettos, but never big and powerful. They never sound like grand black church vocals, but yet they moan and hum in the aspect of African vocables. Their voices never overpower the music, but instead become one with it. In many regards, their voices produce that “OM”, drawing the breath, as Eshun says, “. . . up from the diaphragm in an autoinspiration that turns the body into a human resonating chamber.” As a chanted mantra, “OM” merges with sound vibration and becomes one with the energy wavelength of the object of itself. It’s as if “OM” is a machine, and just like the chanted “OM” has a profound affect on the mind/body/spirit, these “electric” black voices do, too. “OM’ is everything, and everything is energy. And isn’t ultimate energy just another way of talking about the soul? So why not the black soul, then?
When I play Spacek’s Vintage Hi-Tech, or Peven Everett’s Studio Confessions, or Duplaix’s International Affairs, I am at once at peace with my surroundings and myself. My “black soul” participates in communion with the music.
While all three men are black, their music is not always classifiably “authentic” black music. Not in nature, nor in context. They often traverse too many genres for the popular music buying public, or even for the music industry whose job it is to make sure that music is popularly consumable, to bound up in one box. So how do you sell it? For the most part, you can’t. The mass distribution center of black popular music doesn’t know how to sell this music as R&B. And somehow not being able to sell it, ends up meaning that this “otherwordly” music is not speaking for the black soul. And that’s a shame, because these brothers got some serious soul definitive soul albeit technosoul.
Like the “OM” their music is universal; the manifestation of the black posthuman alien. That posthuman is not concerned with the human that is connected to the “black singing voice” as the purveyor of the black soul. This posthuman realizes and actualizes its symbiosis with the machine, and it becomes the “soul” that R&B seems to have forgotten, treating it like an unwanted stepchild. Truth be told, technosoul doesn’t really need R&B to validate it, because R&B in and of itself holds no validity in terms of defining a new black music. R&B plays the role given it, while technosoul implodes new environments and explores new sensations. Isn’t music just sensory in its simplest sense? R&B has become human on so many levels that the sensory ranges are virtually fully mapped; whereas technosoul takes us to that next level of unexplored blackness.