Surrealism lives – and it is black, female and revolutionary


Robin D G Kelley

Word got round quite slowly about the presence of distinguished jazz scholar and UCLA professor Robin DG Kelley in Johannesburg last week. That’s a pity, because as well as being the author of a mammoth biography of Thelonious Monk (and more), Kelley has a strong interest in the relationship of jazz in Africa and jazz in America, not only as a line of descent, but also in its more contemporary manifestations of cultural circulation and solidarity, discussed in his most recent book, Africa Speaks, America Answers: modern jazz in revolutionary times ( ).

Kelley book

By the time he spoke at the Afrikan Freedom Station on June 29, however, it was clear that news was finally spreading; the room was packed for his conversation with Unisa’s Tendayi Sithole on Surrealism/Thelonious Monk and the Psychic (spiritual) Debt to Black Genius.

Surrealism is often discussed as a European phenomenon. However, Kelley was clear that the roots of the movement were assertively African, revolutionary and anti-colonialist. (For more on this, see the volume he co-edited with Franklin Rosemont: Black Brown & Beige: Surrealist Writings from Africa and the Diaspora As French Surrealists declared in their 1932 manifesto, Murderous Humanitarianism: “We surrealists pronounced ourselves in favor of changing the imperialist war, in its chronic and colonial form, into a civil war. Thus we placed our energies at the disposal of the revolution, of the proletariat and its struggles, and defined our attitude towards the colonial problem, and hence towards the colour question.”

Monk was a hero to many surrealists in Europe (poet Claude Tarnaud imagined him jamming with Rimbaud) but, like many African-American writers and artists, his surrealism related not only to a cultural heritage that was wider, deeper and more playful than narrow puritan positivism, but also to a lived experience as a person of colour in racist America that was regularly, literally, surreal. Responding to audience questions, Kelley noted that overturning the rigid, inhumane and commoditised circumstances of modern capitalism – anywhere – demanded hard, collective work. Just as one message of Monk’s jazz was the need to be constantly “ready for the marvellous,” so another was that “ensemble work is always collective work.”

Suzanne Cesaire

Conventional views of surrealism have often been reductive. Its playfulness is reduced to kookiness, its interest in unpredictability to the random insights of the idiot savant. Monk suffered from both these in the commentaries of philistine and sometimes racist critics. Certain US acolytes, such as white beat poet Jack Kerouac, also reduced the movement to something exclusively and toxically masculine. (There were precedents. Andre Breton was a notoriously vicious homophobe.) That, too, was never the case: black women such as Suzanne Cesaire – from whom Kelley quoted extensively – and Simone Yoyotte, as well as other women including Frida Kahlo and Claude Cahun were prominent among its early shapers and voices. They were not – horrible term! – ‘muses’, but makers. And to their ranks may be added the musician Alice Coltrane, the writers Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, Octavia Butler and many more.

N.K. Jemison
NK Jemisin

Another reductive trope about surrealism holds that its observations of the bizarre and the grotesque are ‘fantasy’. But for the peoples of Africa, America and Asia, alien invasion, subjugation, kidnap and experimentation are realities of history (they are called colonialism). If you want to know where that intellectual thread of black female surrealism is today, don’t tarry too long at the pop Afrofuturism of Janelle Monae (her sartorial style is not new, as any account of the Harlem Renaissance makes clear). The visual art of Kara Walker in America and Mary Sibanda here are already gathering attention. On the bookshelves labelled ‘fantasy and science fiction’ you’ll find genuinely radical imaginations at work; after Butler, award-winning writers Nnedi Okorafor and N.K Jemisin are very good places to start. Surrealism lives.


Geri Allen
Geri Allen

In jazz, there are too many radical imaginations to list, but tragically one is no longer with us. Pianist, composer, bandleader, educator and scholar Geri Allen died on June 27 following complications of cancer. She was 0nly 60. At the time of her death, Allen was Director of Jazz Studies at the University of Pittsburgh and, with drummer Terri-Lynne Carrington and saxophonist David Murray, was part of the MAC Power Trio ( ), which had been scheduled to play the Johannesburg Joy of Jazz Festival in September. Detroit native Allen grew up with jazz through her father’s extensive record collection and began music lessons aged 7. Like many Detroit players, she was a mentee of trumpeter Marcus Belgrave. You can hear her discussing her life in music in a 2008 interview here: . Her first degree, in jazz studies, came from Howard University, and she later completed a Masters in ethnomusicology at Pittsburgh. Her distinguished stage and scholarly career included more than two dozen recordings as both accompanist and leader – including the highly-praised 1992 Maroons ( ),

and the 2010 solo outing Flying Towards the Sound ( ), as well as work with Betty Carter, Jason Moran, Ornette Coleman ( ), and McCoy Tyner. Allen’s style was often labelled ‘avant-garde’, but she resisted that and other labels, preferring that listeners should relate to her music as they heard it, without preconceptions. Indeed, she often stressed the historic roots of her adventurous style, and its relation to African-American dance, as on the 2010 Timeline project ( ) with tap percussionist Maurice Chestnut. She was co-producer of the re-mastered Erroll Garner Complete Concert By The Sea, for which she earned a Grammy nomination. A Guggenheim Fellow, Allen was the first recipient of the Lady of Soul Award for jazz, and the youngest-ever recipient of the Danish JazzPar Award. Allen also participated in and pioneered projects asserting the role and right to performance space of female musicians (as in Carrington’s Mosaic project: ), including time as programme director for the NJPAC’s all-female jazz residency scheme. She will be buried on July 8 in Bethany, New Jersey. Hamba Kahle.


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