More than ever, experimental electronic music has become the preferred space for marginalized artists. The underground scene that used to be largely accredited to white men, as told by the dominant narrative of ’90s IDM, is now widely recognized by artists such as Lotic and SOPHIE—the latter was nominated for the Grammy’s best dance/electronic album of 2018. Not only has this communal, politicized movement inspired some of the most exciting electronic music of this decade, but also, it has developed a distinct, powerful voice for artists who are queer, people of color, Third World, and more.
Emerging from the experimental underground is the bourgeoning star Tia Cabral, aka SPELLLING. She comes from the flourishing Oakland scene that is “queerer, browner, and more femme”, as Bandcamp calls it. On her debut full-length Pantheon of Me, Cabral introduced a captivating spell of invocative vocals, spiritual balladry, and always conscious imagery—see “Blue (American Dream)“. Now, on her latest full-length Mazy Fly, Cabral applies her mystical aesthetic to imagine a better, otherworldly future.
While conceptualizing Mazy Fly, Cabral “was struck by the way the same technologies that have given humans the ability to achieve utopian dreams of discovery have also brought the world to the precipice of dystopic global devastation”. Perhaps, this thought can be understood through Afrofuturism. This cultural lens is more than a simple mesh of black aesthetics and science fiction. Rather, the theory reads current “progress” as misguided and deceptive, preserving and concealing longstanding oppressive systems, such as racial capitalism; the aesthetic is conscious of this fallacy, but also, it interacts with and modifies it in the past, present, and future to imagine a better world.
Mazy Fly, then, revels in a celestial imagination, a consciousness in accordance with Afrofuturism. For instance, the retrofuture disco single “Under the Sun” sings to the fictive star Planet Dawn. Over gently joyous synths, Cabral prays the reprise, “Yesterday is clean and gone / One day under the Sun.” The incantation progressively grows from tepid hope to emphatic declarations until the imagined Planet Dawn truly manifests. Thereafter, the jazzy to the nearly orchestral metal song “Real Fun” depicts alien contact as a celebration. On top of tongued guitars and merry horns, Cabral croons about aliens and humans that “sway to Holiday / Groove to Billie Jean.” On these album centerpieces, Cabral does not utilize sci-fi imagery simply for the fantastical effect. Rather, the fantastical operates to convey Cabral’s radical conceptions of a better future. In Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture, Ytasha Womack says, “Desire, hope, and imagination are the cornerstones of social change and the first targets for those who fight against it.” Cabral assertively protects and expresses optimism, resisting the dominant culture that favors indifference and passive acceptance.
For the Afrofuturist, the non-linear lens uncovers the past in the present. For instance, the lingering ballad “Haunted Water” remembers the slave ships that crossed the Middle Passage. Cabral envisions “the bridge” across the Atlantic to the West Indies, which connects more than the actual route. The bridge also connects the 16th century to the present black consciousness, resting over an inherited, intergenerational trauma. In this manner, Cabral recreates the theoretical imagery of Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Sharpe defines “wake work” as “to occupy and to be occupied by the continuous and changing present of slavery’s as yet unresolved unfolding”. That is, the wake is the enduring ripple of the Transatlantic slave ships, which drags asunder even in the present. Cabral, then, engages in wake work as “Haunted Water” uncovers the violent history of colonialism in the present systems, such as the “other forms of passage in the current day, involving refugees and the global refugee crisis”, as she tells i-D.
For Sharpe, wake work is not only the theory of intergenerational trauma, but also, it is the praxis of necessary care for black people. On Mazy Fly, care is practiced as Cabral sings by her compass. Her layered croons are not bound by perfect harmonies, but rather, they are guided by something beyond Western music theory. From sharp, wispy aches to flat, guttural releases, vocal notes move innately and curiously. She sings to discover as if every bellow imagines a peace that her spoken voice cannot. For instance, on “Golden Numbers”, a wild exchange of vocals in falsetto reassures, “But I hope that I know you’re not fine.” So, even the recorded form maintains the raw vigor of songwriting, the first improvised vocal performance. It is the effect of timelessness that remembers intergenerational traumas but also heals them. Hence, Cabral sings about mystical ideas, but even more, her practice of singing is mystical.
The name Mazy Fly comes from a simple fantasy: a daydream about her pet border collie soaring about with wings. It is this practice of unfettered imagination and critical care for innocent ideas that created this unpredictable, nuanced album. If Cabral dismissed the humorous thought of a flying dog, then, the album steeped in theory and radial hope would have never begun. For, the thought of the flying dog helped Cabral learn, “when I jump off the edge / I float right back up again”, as she sings on “Secret Thread”. Mazy Fly transcends earthly concerns and pains by reveling in a celestial imagination. When the present reality is gripped by a growing pessimism, the most radical work develops in the conceptions of a better future. That is the necessary function of Afrofuturism and wake work.