“You all is harden! Too too harden!” Uttered by Ruth Joseph, the mother of the protagonist, Michael, in David Chariandy’s Brother, these words are meant to cut.1 Using an adjective that cuts as deep as the buried wounds it excavates, the precision of this verbal attack opens us to the flesh that is black diasporic life. “Harden” captures in one succinct term the impact of antiblackness on Caribbean youth in diasporic homes. Michael’s brother Francis is harden. Michael is not harden enough. And their mother laments their hardening—yet she herself is harden. There are moments in Brother when the reader is able to glimpse what lies beneath the harden—a womb filled with wounds sutured by Afrosonic significations. Throughout this second novel, Chariandy makes various black musics a bassline and bedrock that make steady the shattered emotional remains of the Afrodiasporic life routinely dehumanized under Western regimes.2 Multiple characters in the story take pleasure in the likes of John Coltrane, Toots and the Maytals, and Nina Simone, among others. In Brother, the “metaphysican” work of both the character Jelly’s mastery behind the turntables and Chariandy’s refusal of linearity and embrace of an intergenerational remix scores a new narrative of the children of the Caribbean diaspora. Michael explains, “We heard, as if with new ears, the music of our parents, the lost arts of funk, especially but also ska and soul, blues and jazz” (102). This metaphysican work—of splicing genres, eras, and soundscapes using vinyl records—remixes the rupture of diaspora, counteracting the loss of elders and refusing the market logics that encourage the commercialized consumption of “new music.”
From the Bad Johns and Rudebwoys of the 1960s to today’s “shotta yout” and hoodmans, Afrosonic innovations operate within masculinist and hypermasculinist constructs to unearth and unravel the complex emotionality stunted and stimulated by everyday antiblackness. Francis’s anger reverberates throughout the novel, interrupted only briefly by the tenderness Nina Simone allows. Francis’s care for Michael is brisk, sharp, and unwavering but never tender. Instead, from the panyard to the basement studio, musical innovations in the Caribbean diaspora do more than simply entertain—they also serve as gateways to buried emotional landscapes. In some instances, black musics permit one to “free up” or “get down,” allow someone to be “in their feelings”—reifying a dignified sense of humanity regularly denied at shopping malls and bus stops. Black musics encase: they protect, they house, they incubate, they remember, they remix, they resignify. “Black music is an ethical blueprint for black life,” Aaron Kamugisha argues. “It provides spaces of imagination for other forms of being, and is central to the making of the new person beyond coloniality. Black happiness in an antiblack world is an achievement in itself.”3
Feeling Good: The Power of Black Music
In effect, these musics become “blueprints” for a life that refuses dehumanization, expunging the daily aggressions and microaggressions that remind one of our deeply intertwined colonial histories and present. Throughout Brother, Ruth’s few and far between moments of joy are soundtracked, so that Simone’s “Feeling Good” speaks with and for this wounded mother’s desires. In the Canadian context, the machinations of settler colonialism and the myth of Canada’s moral supremacy to its southern neighbor layers atop the foundational antiblack and anti-indigenous social constructions of Western life. Safe spaces in Brother, like Desirea’s barbershop, are rare sites to be protected, but they are also sonically invented in contrast to socially constructed boundaries and categories like nations and genres. The intergenerational episodes of Jelly and Ruth smirking with a Walkman and of Michael’s friend Aisha’s father, Samuel, hearing Francis hum a Nina Simone remix are moments of safe space, moments of connection too often violently denied in these diasporic settings.
It is this point that many of Chariandy’s characters, Francis, Jelly, Samuel, and Ruth, take up so beautifully in small glimpses throughout the novel. It is through the playing of records and looking at photos that Ruth is able to access a state of joy that Michael has rarely seen his mother display—a state that appears a far cry from her daily routine. It is as if the music loosens the suffocating grasp of Afro-Caribbean Canadian life, of long hours of public transit to degrading jobs, of the antiblack stimuli that can make the simple words “you people” so painfully venomous. The shared pain of Nina Simone, Otis Redding, and others extends nodes of emotional slippage that can recover the only humanity one can craft from the throes of unending dehumanization.
Philip Maysle, in his essay “Dubbing the Nation,” references Sylvia Wynter’s observations of the power of black music, reminding us that “music subverts the limits that are placed upon the Afro-Creole subject when reduced to ‘symbolic Negro’ within a code of objectification.”4 Across the African diaspora, there are numerous examples—from St. Croix’s scratch band music, to Martinique’s zouk, to New Orleans bounce—in which Afrodiasporic individuals find solace, joy, community, and rejuvenation, transforming their being via Afrosonic innovations. These are what Katherine McKittrick calls the “cognitive schemas, modes of being human that refuse antiblackness.”5 Accordingly, as demonstrated in Wynter’s “Black Metamorphosis,” black musics and culture reinvent black human life outside the logics of capital accumulation, consumerism, and property ownership.6 Together, Jelly and Ruth joyfully experience Simone remixes while, in another setting, Samuel and Francis do the same. Both pairs of Simone fans are importantly enraptured by the work of the remix, the bringing together of previously separate sounds and vestiges of soundscapes to form a new, albeit recognizable soundscape. Remixes are intergenerational, genre-defying sonic innovations that disrupt copyright regimes and put nostalgia and familiarity to work in the excavation and reimagining of buried sonic subjectivities. These remixes defy the manufactured urge to consume new music, refusing and rewriting one key way consumerism structures Western life. The daily hunt for records by Jelly and Francis, their crate digging, forges new relations with the demands of late capitalism, yet they cannot escape the allure of a meritocracy in which their skills as DJs will create a path of opportunities not afforded to them by their parents.
Both Jelly and Francis etch their hopes into a sonic landscape that is vinyl bound, resistant to the manufactured obsolescence of the music industry—a landscape that knows no time, seamlessly weaving generations of black folks into a momentary escape. But the young men’s hopes are tainted; they are bombarded by the residues of celebrity culture, of meritocracy, of the plethora of socially constructed ways of being—overconsumptive, surveilled, and governed as laboring object—in Western culture. Importantly, their hopes of “making it” allow for the opening of a buried emotionality too often hardened as fortification against the onslaught of hate that makes antiblackness omnipresent in their diasporic home. It is their parents’ vinyl records and their parents’ desires for “volume”—the frequent response to the call of black musics—that structure these diasporic youths’ escape into their own sonic subjectivities.
What Dionne Brand describes as the “interiority” of Chariandy’s observations and writing serve multiple generations of socaheads, hip-hop heads, funk followers, and soul connoisseurs detailing precisely how life is managed, lived, celebrated, and lost through sound.7 This interiority measures and invents black life within the crevices and cracks of Western societies, somewhere between consuming subject and laboring object, so that warm scenes of the brotherhood that is the barbershop interrupt one’s hardened state and assert a modality of vibrant black life in small momentary ways. It is this level of nuanced glimpsing, both minute and fleeting, that provides a dignified breath of life in the novel without detailed exposure or a pressing explanatory persistence. Black life in Brother is not on display for a new audience, nor is it under a sociological microscope—its measured revelation is designed for a relational rather than consumptive logic. Since death and loss are undeniably integral parts of black life in the Caribbean diaspora, what of the trauma we must live with? For Michael and Francis, the haunting of the “black murders,” propped up by a media industry unfriendly to blackness, blur the real and imagined, at once marking their existence as precarious and battering the memories of these innocent boys when they are as young as seven. Simone, Jelly, and other sonic innovators maintain defenses against the unspeakable trauma of antiblackness which returns with every threat of violence, following the novel’s main characters throughout their lives.
The Sound of the Police: Sonic Dissonance
It may be clear why the harden exists, but what is less clear are the ways such harden gets solidified, reproduced, or reconstituted on a regular basis. Life in the Caribbean diaspora has been well documented as unglamorous, hostile and taxing. Combined with robust Rastafarian-indebted discursive tools to recognize coloniality and the shitstem, the ways Afro-Caribbean youth, both within the region and in diaspora, have sought to express their analysis of their contemporary moment have provided important pathways to cultural production, specifically music and dress. In the Toronto black musical context, the sound of the police was and still is a familiar sonic rendering. For example, Devon’s track “Mr. Metro” intimately details the ways overpolicing circumscribed black life in 1990s Toronto; his refrain reiterates and questions the police force’s “to serve and protect” by adding “Who?” to the end of the mission statement.8 In the United States, Big Daddy Kane’s own documenting of his relationship with police in 1988, on his track “Another Victory,” aligns with Devon’s sonic lament. Kane rhymes, “When I am cruising in my Volvo, cops harass me / They never ride past me, they hound me like Lassie.” According to Kane, “They can’t understand to see a black man / Drivin’ a car that costs twenty-five grand.”9 Just over a decade later, in 2003, Jay-Z’s “99 Problems” would again chronicle this fraught relationship with overpolicing, as he details dialogue while getting pulled over:
“Son, do you know why I’m stopping you for?”
’Cause I’m young and I’m black and my hat’s real low
Or do I look like a mind reader, sir? I don’t know
Am I under arrest or should I guess some mo’?
“Well you was doing fifty-five in the fifty-four.”10
This consistency has Toronto’s MarveL, in his 2007 “Skankin,” weighing in on his own less-than-desirable interactions:
Here comes the babylon right on time [sirens]
“Officer, what is it you mean giving me a subpoena?”
“You got a job?”
I told him I sardine arenas11
Clearly the intergenerational traumas of police harassment reverberate throughout hip-hop music, providing a way for young black men to make sense of their social conditions. Within Brother, the reality of overpolicing rears its ugly head with a regularity that never lets us lose sight of the settler colonial logics that underpin black Canadian life. It is not simply the police officers’ regular visits to the boys in Desirea’s who “know the drill” (157) but also the threats uttered by a 7-Eleven security guard and the bouncers at the Canadian National Exhibition who contribute to the weaponization of law enforcement. Frequent home visits because of noise complaints, along with the questioning of local witnesses, mark the police as an omnipresent force in the lives of Afrodiasporic youth. The sound of the police, to borrow from the title of a KRS-One song, is that unwanted and unfiltered sonic dissonance resonating throughout the lives of AfroCaribbean youth, interrupting the safe spaces they create, like the barbershop.12
It is significant that Francis’s death is the result of officers following up on a report of a fight that is clearly a result of the surveillance of these boys at and around the barbershop. These circumstances of hypervisibility, of the consistent threat of violence, of forced hardening, become the circumstances by which Michael must continue to negotiate his reality while attending to his mother’s mourning. Big Daddy Kane, KRS-One, Devon, MarveL, and numerous other hip-hop artists not only heighten our social consciousness but also subvert the limits of the active criminalization of our youth. The relational subjectivities spurred by black musics make possible the connecting, responding, and self-fashioning of black life in constant contrast to the crushing subjecthoods craftily manufactured by Western life. The desire for “volume,” whether urged by a Stone Love selectah, a weary mother, or an ambitious turntablist youth, encodes a response to the call into a sonic subjectivity capable of providing more life beyond our hardened armor.
Mark V. Campbell is a DJ, scholar, and curator. His research explores the relationships between Afrosonic innovations and notions of humanism. Mark was cofounder and DJ of the Bigger than Hip Hop radio show from 1997 to 2015 and is a founder of Northside Hip Hop Archive. Mark’s forthcoming works include the monograph “B-sides and ‘Othered’ Kinds of Humans” and the coedited collection “Hip Hop in Canada: Diasporic and Indigenous Reverberations.”
1 David Chariandy, Brother (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2017), 1; hereafter cited in the text.
2 Chariandy’s first novel is Soucouyant (Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp, 2007).
3 Aaron Kamugisha, “The Black Experience of New World Coloniality,” Small Axe, no. 49 (March 2016): 138.
4 Philip Maysle, “Dubbing the Nation,” Small Axe, no. 11 (March 2002): 92; Maysle quotes Sylvia Wynter, “‘We Know Where We Are From’: The Politics of Black Culture from Myal to Marley” (paper presented at the joint meeting of the African Studies Association and the Latin American Studies Association in Houston, Texas, November 1977).
5 Katherine McKittrick, “Rebellion/invention/groove,” Small Axe, no. 49 (March 2016): 81.
6 Sylvia Wynter, “Black Metamorphosis: New Natives in a New World,” unpublished manuscript (1970s).
7 During the 2017 Toronto launch event for Brother, Dionne Brand’s opening remarks discussed Chariandy’s work as stemming from a certain interiority.
8 Devon Martin, “Mr. Metro,” It’s My Nature (Capital Records, EMI Canada, 1992).
9 Big Daddy Kane, “Long Live the Kane,” Long Live the Kane (Cold Chillin’, 1988).
10 Jay-Z, “99 Problems,” The Black Album (Rocafella Records, 2003).
11 MarveL, “Skankin,” No Streets EP (Mumble Hip Hop, 2007).
12 KRS-One, “Sound of da Police,” Return of the Boom Bap (Jive, 1993).