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Keep Yer Big Apple: The New New York vs. Jennifer Jazz’s Spill Ink on It

By Oscar Mardell.

Jennifer Jazz, Spill Ink on It (Spuyten-Duyvil Press, 2019)

“New York is a city which will be replaced by another”
– Rem Koolhaas, Delirious Manhattan

 

 

 

Preface

“Empire State of Mind” — the third single from Jay-Z’s eleventh studio album, and his first to hit number one – is more than a decade old. If this is hard to believe – if it feels like only yesterday that the song’s bland chorus became ubiquitous – that is partly because its mythical image of New York City remains dogmatically persistent. This New York is the one “where dreams are made of”: the site at which private fantasies are not compromised by, but transformed into, objective realities; the arena of unlimited self-fashioning where destiny is moulded according to personal vision. But this New York is also the universal indicator of success, the highest judge of ability and talent: “since I made it here / I can make it anywhere”. For Jay-Z, then, New York is the cradle of a life which neither inspires nor imitates but is art – an inherently creative practice whose value is universally acknowledged. And it’s an image which, contra Koolhaas, has proven hard to replace.

It makes sense, then, that Jay-Z should be infatuated with Jean-Michel Basquiat (whom he namedrops on “Most Kingz”, “3 Kings”, “Illest Motherfucker Alive”, “Ain’t I”, and “Picasso Baby”, and for whose 1982 work Mecca he paid a casual 4.5 million USD): the mythologies upheld in “Empire State” have an obvious precursor in Basquiat’s life-story – that of a homeless graffiti writer from the Lower East Side who fashions himself, via his work, into art-world superstar, and who achieves global success the very minute his talent is recognised by the Downtown establishment. And this life-as-art-story has, in turn, provided the blueprint for Jay-Z’s own: in interviews, as in his lyrics, Z makes regular reference to his own self-fashioning through his work – from Bed-Stuy crack dealer via rap music to billionaire entrepreneur. But there is a gaping contradiction at the heart of these tales. How does an artist offer genuine resistance to the establishment and become assimilated within its mechanisms? Remain true to their personal vision and impact the world around them? Adhere to their private fantasies and “boom for real”?

It depends on what you mean by “real” – or rather, on whose definition you use. In “hip hop”, wrote Simon Reynolds in a 1996 piece for The Wire,

‘real’ has two meanings. First, it means authentic, uncompromised music that refuses to sell out to the music industry and soften its message for crossover. ‘Real’ also signifies that the music reflects a ‘reality’ constituted by late capitalist economic instability, institutionalized racism, and increased surveillance and harassment of youth by the police. ‘Real’ means the death of the social: it means corporations who respond to increased profits not by raising pay or improving benefits but by … downsizing (the laying-off the permanent workforce in order to create a floating employment pool of part-time and freelance workers without benefits or job security).

And as Mark Fisher explained, “it was precisely hip hop’s performance of this first version of the real – ‘the uncompromising’ – that enabled its easy absorption into the second, the reality of late capitalist economic instability, where such authenticity has proven highly marketable”. For all the panic that has surrounded the genre, a great deal of hip hop is simply a reiteration of the status quo, another means of enforcing what Fisher dubbed “capitalist realism” in his book of that name – “the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it”. “Gangster rap”, wrote Fisher,

neither merely reflects pre-existing social conditions, as many of its advocates claim, nor does it simply cause those conditions, as its critics argue – rather the circuit whereby hip hop and the late capitalist social field feed into each other is one of the means by which capitalist realism transforms itself into a kind of anti-mythical myth. The affinity between hip hop and gangster movies such as Scarface, The Godfather films, Reservoir Dogs, Goodfellas and Pulp Fiction arises from their common claim to have stripped the world of sentimental illusions and seen it for ‘what it really is’: a Hobbesian war of all against all, a system of perpetual exploitation and generalized criminality.

Jay-Z might not make gangster rap, but his music propagates this same “desentimentalised” (read: cynical) view of reality. It’s a view which sees the differences between the drug trade and the stock market – or between the graffiti scene and the art world – only as differences of scale, and as breachable differences, therefore (rather than, say, a view which sees the existence of the former as the direct result of the insatiability and exclusivity of the latter). And it’s a view which sees no irony when personal integrity becomes assimilated by the capitalist machine – or, in Basquiat’s case, when his visceral depictions of corporate greed are used to adorn Reebok trainers. The contradiction is easily reconciled if you cannot conceive of an existence other than dog-eat-dog.

Jean-Michel Basquiat passed away on August 12, 1988. “When he died I mourned,” wrote Luc Sante on a Pinakothek post in 1999, “but it seemed inevitable, as well as a symptom of the times, the wretched ’80s. He was a casualty in a war — a war that, by the way, continues.” But whose “war” is this? Fisher’s “Hobbesian war of all against all”? Sante drops a hint in his account of meeting Basquiat for the first time in 1979:

He was sleeping on the floors of a rotating set of NYU dorm rooms then. He had no money at all. He had recently stopped tagging as SAMO and had renamed himself MAN-MADE, although that wasn’t a tag but a signature for things he made, T-shirts and collages and these color-Xerox postcards, which he sold for a buck or two. Eventually he sold one to Henry Geldzahler and one to Andy Warhol, and his name became currency.

Sante’s phrasing here is crucial. Basquiat has ‘no money at all’ but his name is ‘currency’: his total lack of economic capital is matched by an excess of cultural capital – no cash but bottomless cool. The implication is clear: it is the former’s ruthless assimilation of the latter – and not simply New Yorker self-fashioning – which defines Basquiat’s life-as-art-story. Basquiat was not just some proponent-cum-victim of dog-eat-dog, not some martyr of all-against-all. He was able to adhere to an uncompromising vision and be assimilated by the establishment, not because the two were fundamentally compatible, but because of the latter’s incessant appropriation of the former. If Basquiat didn’t sell out that is only because he was bought up – and because his radicalism was thereby, as Sante has written elsewhere of New York’s local history in general, “preserved as a seasoning”. The implied New York is the cradle of a life which is not art but artefact, not the site of unlimited self-fashioning but simply the field of unchecked gentrification.

But the sharpest critique of the mythologies upheld in “Empire State of Mind” actually came from Newport in South Wales – a thriving port (and a chartist stronghold) for much of the Nineteenth Century which was de-industrialised (and thereby devastated) over the course of the Twentieth. One year after the release of the Jay-Z single, the filmmaker M-J Delaney created a parody version called “Ymerodraeth State of Mind” in which the original allusions to New York City are replaced with references to Newport, Gwent. Cultural and economic centre thus becomes post-industrial periphery; change becomes stagnation; unlimited self-fashioning becomes a fate sealed at birth. “Keep yer big apple,” sings Alex Warren, “We’ll ’ave a tangerine” – a tongue-in-cheek rejection of the promises of metropolitan opportunity for the threat of parochial determinism: black and tangerine are the home colours of the local football team. And within months of being uploaded, “Ymerodraeth State of Mind” was taken down and replaced with the familiar comment: “This video is no longer available due to a copyright claim by EMI Music Publishing Ltd.” But whether or not it was fair use, “Ymerodraeth”, as Jemima Kiss wrote in The Guardian, “was far more entertaining. . . . Perhaps that’s what really stung”.

It was more entertaining because it made Jay-Z’s declaration of civic pride look superficial. In Jay-Z, NYC is loved because it is NYC: on account of the fact that its size, its density, its institutions, and its cultural and economic centrality, collectively promise its inhabitants the ability to craft their own selves into works of art. But to love one’s city for this reason is surely just an elevated form of narcissism. In Delaney, Newport is loved in spite of the fact that it is Newport – even though it is a dead end and a shithole [in fact, Goldie Lookin’ Chain – the Newport posse responsible for “Guns Don’t Kill People, Rappers Do” – went on to make a diss track called “Newport State of Mind (You’re Not From Newport)” in which they suggested that the Delaney version had not gone far enough, that it had spun a tourist’s view of Newport, and that it had failed to observe how much of a shithole the city really is]. To love Newport, then, is to be madly, irrationally, in love. It is to disregard the visible evidence and to love unconditionally. It is to engage in what a woman in a pub there once explained to me as “a version of Stockholm syndrome” – a form not of narcissism but of self-loathing, which the city instils in its inhabitants by the bucketload. And next to this, “I Love NY” (at least, the NY “where dreams are made of”) feels like the sentimental guff of T-shirt slogans.

I.

Spill Ink on It is the memoir of Jennifer Jazz – a writer, musician, actress, filmmaker, performance artist, and former fixture of the East Village art scene who now divides her time between Mexico City and Guatemala City (“Writing” she tells me, “doesn’t pay New York bills and who in their right mind wants to live in Trumpland?”). In our correspondence, she describes her work in terms more eloquent than I could ever muster:

an extended memory of being a crazy restless black girl who drops out of Swarthmore after a semester in 1978 and takes off for the Basquiat Lower East Side, crashing in a couple of the same apartments that he did, wandering the streets of New York City drunk and/or stoned, then Thatcher England, Birmingham to be specific, leading into the black youth riots that break out across England in the early eighties. Roaming back to the Bronx of my childhood during the sixties when the borough was on fire and Puerto Rican independence anthems squealed from windows and cars. The Bronx bebop jazz scene of Thelonious Monk and Carmen McRae, in which my father — a drummer — was an active participant, was winding down, but had already done a beautiful sort of damage to verse, chorus, verse composition.

As such, Spill Ink on It offers what artist Risha Rox has called “The missing black female perspective on one of the formative periods of contemporary American arts and culture.” But what does this perspective actually see? What new light does it shine on this already over-documented period?

“T-Connection” writes jazz, “is a spot above a storefront where teenagers into rap go on Friday and Saturday nights even if the rhyming over beats things strikes me as a fad that will be short lived.” Spill Ink isn’t just sceptical of hip hop’s essential formula, it wholly rejects its Hobbesian world view. The book concludes with the following reflection:

And once every damned inch of the street becomes prime real estate whose profitability is ensured by a police force with drone surveillance capability, New York will become a sorry extension of cyberspace in which every blink and sneeze is corporate sponsored, that I’ll wholeheartedly reject. . . . I’ll be relieved to be evicted from my Harlem apartment. My move, a kneejerk effort to avoid an armed sheriff, will be that of an avant-garde dancer rushing between surreal props—and as for the window gate that was supposed to have divided order from chaos, I’ll leave it, but by then, it’ll already be unlocked and hanging from a loose hinge.

Here, police brutality is not simply accepted as an inevitable ‘reality’: it is exposed as an instrument in a politically contingent process (one which, for all of its claims to be bringing ‘order’ and stability to communities it affects, is in fact wreaking ‘chaos’ upon the private lives of their inhabitants). Jazz compares resisting this process to the artistry of ‘an avant-garde dancer’, but, of course the comparison works in both directions: here, the ‘avant-garde’ neither facilitates nor is facilitated by gentrification; it consists in that which, by definition, capital cannot assimilate.

It makes sense, then, that Jazz should be suspicious of Jean-Michel Basquiat. About a hundred pages in, the two cross paths:

Ease down on the “quiat” part and you might forget he’s “a bridge and tunnel kid,” the bitchy term used to describe those of us without the dramatic arc of having arrived in New York from an America without botanicas and bodegas. If his name were Tyrone Brown or Malik Harris, there’s no way he’d provide as much of a thrill to those most fascinated by him. . . . There are the shadows who move in and out of the projects on Avenue D and then there’s him to those creating his myth whereas I don’t understand why it’s taken so long for a black artist so familiar to emerge. His ubiquitous crown symbol, one example. It’s got to be based on the Dubble Bubble bubble gum logo. Anyone who spent childhood in one of the five boroughs would say the same. I ask if he’s trying to upend Uncle Sam by disseminating ironic protest messages or if his artwork is just a personal marketing campaign. But he’d just as soon strut around in the company of the rich and famous as logo their faces, so his answer’s all over the place.

Crucially, the critique here is not of Basquiat per se, but of his followers. For Jazz, they are tourists, less interested in his work — whose imagery, after all, would seem commonplace to any New York native – as they are in his ‘myth’: the homeless graffiti writer from the Lower East Side fashioning himself into art-world superstar. Instead of attacking this ‘myth’ on, say, factual grounds, Spill Ink simply confines it to the wings. Centre stage is given to ‘the shadows who move in and out of the projects’ – to the anonymous eccentrics who didn’t go on to fame and fortune, and who would never be namedropped on hip hop records. Spill Ink records them all – in loving, lyrical, and non-linear detail. As such, it succeeds in ‘upending Uncle Sam’ without ever feeling like a ‘marketing campaign’ – in presenting a radical vision which remains wholly incompatible with the ‘dramatic arc’ of capitalist self-fashioning.

But most importantly, Spill Ink is a love song to a lost New York – not to the one ‘where dreams are made of’, but to the New York which that one replaced: a dead end and a shithole, depopulated and decaying. It’s a love song to a New York which predates the property developers, and which is loved even though it is New York – that is, with the intensity of the fiercest parochialism. And like “Ymerodraeth”, it makes most tributes to the city’s current incarnation look superficial.

Oscar Mardell

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Oscar Mardell was born in London and raised in South Wales. He currently lives in an urban commune in Auckland, New Zealand where he brews beer and practices Aikido. He teaches in the English Department at St Mary’s College, and volunteers for English Language Partners NZ. His work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in War, Literature & the Arts, The Literary London Journal, and DIAGRAM.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, February 7th, 2020.