Racism: A Basic Diagnosis

(I will tentatively begin to include not directly music related content in this blog.  Because these are topics important to every human, maybe especially lovers of music from the Global South)

Around the globe today, sparked by recent incidents of police murder and brutality in the US, with immigration and refugee issues intensifying along many borders, race and racism is again making headlines, a central topic of discussion across all sections of society, and new spaces have opened up for supplying ourselves with the knowledge and tools to treat this plague of the mind.  But before we can alleviate symptoms, undergo operations, toward healing and restoration, we must first examine its roots, study its nature, and identify precisely what it is not, and what it is.


There have been several recent studies which demonstrate instinctual distrust of faces which look different from our own. The more different the faces, the more distrust:

Antonio Damasio, neurologist and director of the Brain and Creativity Institute, pointed out the former usefulness of associating difference with threat. “Probably, the detection of differences is something that has an old biological history,” he said. “There possibly was a time when it was advantageous to recognize difference very rapidly, because difference might indicate a possibly unfriendly group.”  — Wayne Lewis, Journalist

This has sometimes been called “biological racism”, but there is a serious problem with this label: this instinctual distrust is related to, but needs to be conceived separately from racism as we know it.  Similarly, both xenophobia, the fear of difference, and ethnocentrism, the feeling that one’s own culture is superior, have existed since different groups of humans first came in contact with each other.  Yet while both of these concepts are also related to racism, they are not exactly racism either.

What we understand as race is the belief that the myriad of biological and cultural differences between ethnicities and groups can be summed up in sweeping generalizations, in large categories indicated by superficial physical traits.  What we know as racism is a particular way of classifying humanity on a hierarchical scale from “primitive” to “advanced”, “inferior” to “superior”, according to skin color.

Genetic differences between ethnic groups are biological facts; but there are much more genetic differences between different groups of Africans, than between Africans and Europeans.  What this means is that the way we have recently chosen to define the groups, “the methods with which we subdivide the differences we construe as “racial” characteristics, are subjective, historically and culturally contingent, and arbitrary. In biology there are many different ways to break down “race”, none really more empirical or correct than any other” (Phillip Leckman, Anthropologist).  Thus race as we understand it is like organizing the books in a library not according to subject, language, publishing date, or any other characteristics, but according to the color of the covers, and then declaring that books with blue covers use more refined language than books with red covers, green books are easier to read, purple books contain questionable information, and so on.

The above mentioned three pre-existing social dynamics, instinctual distrust of difference, ethnocentrism, and xenophobia, are commonly confused and conflated with racism; and this common confusion/conflation is one of the best ways to validate racism.  Saying “racism has always existed” is perhaps the best way to normalize and accept this modern disease of the mind, to justify its continued existence, to excuse the pandemic violence, cruelty, and injustice caused by it in today’s world.

Inequality and prejudice did of course exist prior to the modern era, but were primarily distributed along lines of class and culture, and not “race” the way we do.  Skin color was rarely much of a factor at all, but even when skin color was mentioned in ancient history as characteristic of foreigners, it was one sign of difference among many other signs, such as dress or language, and never was a determining basis for the judgement of another.

“Historically it is pretty well proved now that the ancient Greeks and Romans knew nothing about race.  They had another standard—civilised and barbarian—and you could have white skin and be a barbarian and be black and civilised.”  — CLR James

There were examples of practices such as banning of marriage to foreigners in some cultures, but these policies were caused by a great number of reasons, including the afore mentioned xenophobia or ethno-centricity, and not because the foreigners were viewed as belonging to an inferior or less-than-human “race” of people.  

“The Ancients did not fall into the error of biological racism; dark skin was never a sign of inferiority; Greeks and Romans did not establish color as an obstacle to integration in society; and ancient society was one that ‘for all its faults and failures never made skin color the basis for judging a man’  — Roderick Douglas Bush, sociologist and author  

The Roman emperor Septimius Severus from modern day Libya was almost certainly black

“(Prior to 16th C.) African and Asian peoples constitued notions of distinction based not on skin color but on cultural exchange. (There was) ignorant ethnocentrism and xenophobia… (but) to feel (culturally) superior to someone is not necessarily to hate that person, and it certainly does not ordain that one can then capture, treat as fundamentally inhuman, and utilize that person principllay for labor.” —  Vijay Prashad, historian and author

Another common held false belief is that “slavery is as old as empires”. But this is not entirely true, because the various kinds of slavery practiced in ancient times were very different from the Trans-Atlantic Chattel slavery of the modern age in many ways, including ethnicity not being at all a factor. Again from Vijay Prashad:

“Despite evidence of enslavement in ancient times, it is clear, however, that the premodern mode of production was not based on slave labor (as was the Atlantic economy of the colonial era), nor was the sort of slavery practiced based upon the dehumanization of particular groups of people […]  The Chinese enslaved mostly other Chinese, Arabs other Arabs, etc.  Premodern slavery was sometimes brutal, (but besides war-captives) but just as common was a form of apprenticeship in which slaves learnt a trade and then later earned their freedom. […] The practice of slavery was often in the form of debt bondage; and slaves became free once again after the debt was paid.  In fact ‘Slavery was often used as a means of creating fictive ties of kinship” (like marriage).”


The aspect of racism in our times which distinguishes it from injustice of the past is the idea that there are distinct physical and behavioral traits arising from genetic difference between 3 or 4 major “races”, and that is grounds for systematic discrimination.  This doctrine enables dehumanization along artificially manufactured racial lines, in which entire ethnicities are viewed as “inferior” and “less than human” based on skin-color, and thus justified to use and treat like farm animals.  (the absurdity of “white”, “black”, “yellow” as distinct categories is highlighted by the following image: even people from the same geographic location are of an infinite number of shades)

race‘humanae’ — Pantone skin color spectrum chart by Angelica Dass

“Slavery was not born of racism—rather, racism was the consequence of slavery.” — Eric Williams, historian

This pseudo-scientific system of categorization based on skin color was created less than 500 years ago, during the process of European colonization, with the specific purpose of dehumanizing entire populations which happened to have less effective weapons at the time.  The method with which racism typecasts difference is a phenomenon entirely unique to the modern era, beginning in late 17th Century North America.  The idea that people of European descent were of the “white race”, and that they were genetically superior to the “black race” of African descendants, who were not really human, was invented specifically to create disunity among the underclasses (who previously stood together against the elites), and facilitate their economic exploitation.  The poor white indentured servants whose existence was not very different from that of slaves now felt an affinity with their white masters because of supposed “racial alliance”, and class antagonism was diverted: since the beginning racism has been used not only as a rationale for oppression, but also as a theater of distraction from class inequality.  

The next thing the politicians did sealed the deal: they paid poor whites a bounty for runaway slaves, and often made them overseers for slaves, turning every poor white in America into a prison guard against the people who had once been their neighbors and allies.”  Quinn Norton, Journalist (from How White People Got Made)

“The hostility between the whites and blacks of the [US] South is easily explained. It has its root and sap in the relation of slavery, and was incited on both sides by the poor whites and blacks by putting enmity between them. They divided both to conquer each.” — Frederick Douglass, anti-slavery campaigner 

European colonists of the 1600s explained the difference in technological development on the various continents not as the consequence of varied fundamental material conditions over time, but rather as expression of “racial difference”.  Early 20th Century capitalists explained poverty, unemployment, and crime as not the result of societal dysfunction, but rather as genetic deficiency within the individuals, which led to the annual sterilization of hundreds of thousands of poor women in NYC until the 1930s (the Nazis would later learn much from these practices of Eugenics).  Similarly, contemporary race theories and racist pseudo-science comprise of distortions of the theory of natural selection and the false attribution of cultural and economic differences to biological ones.  To the racial “scientists” of today black people are poor not because of systematic marginalization from a series of discriminatory and oppressive policies since abolition such as Black Codes, Redlining, convict leasing, voter suppression, racially charged predatory bank loans, and the school-to-prison-pipeline, but because “African descendants are inherently lazy and less intelligent” (see the 1994 best seller and hugely influential The Bell Curve, which argues that “human intelligence is […] a better predictor of […] financial income, job performance, birth out of wedlock, and involvement in crime than are an individual’s parental socioeconomic status, or education level.”  They also basically say that the elites should rule over all because they are more intelligent than the average population.)

Yes, there is just as much popular racist pseudo-science today as ever — another good example being this 2014 article by Nicholas Wade, the former science editor of the New York Times, published by Time Magazine. Wade’s basic ideas here are that human evolution continued during the past 30,000 years, after various large groups settled in different climates and conditions, and thus indeed took different evolutionary paths, both culturally and biologically.  In his premise Wade has set up enormous straw-men, such as the proponents of “race-doesn’t-exist” claiming that genetic differences do not exist, or that evolution of humans ever stopped.  In fact no legitimate social scientists today believe either of these clearly absurd notions, if any ever have.  The “take downs” of these straw-men which follow are extremely hollow, but surely sounds great to advocates of race (and racism).  As if this wasn’t enough, Mr. Wade is mired in all kinds of ahistorical falsity and racist distortion, such as the cause of conflict in the Middle East (they have not evolved out of tribalism!), and what made the wonderful wonders of the Industrial Revolution possible (Europeans evolved to a higher level of organization!)   It is chilling, to say the least, to realize that these ideas are apparently taken seriously today, even in some so-called “scientific” circles, and considering who presented them, and endorsed by which publication.  (another, more in depth take-down of Wade’s work here)

Certainly inequality and oppression is as old as civilization itself, but what we have seen in the last few hundred years is the dynamics and processes of injustice mechanized, streamlined, systematized, and more efficiently administered on an exponentially expanded scale, enabled by the invention of race and racism.  In fact a very solid case can be made for racism being the central ideological engine behind the building of the modern world, based on analysis of the central role of chattel slavery in the establishment of industrial capitalism.  The root disease of power, hierarchy, and subjugation has existed for 10,000 years, but racism is thus far the most powerful and deadly strain.

Dj Zhao, December 2014

Cut Hands: Between Silence and Violence

A follow up to Josh Hall’s piece “Fascism and colonialism in the work of Cut Hands and Blackest Ever Black”  – published here because i doubt any music publication is willing to address these very serious issues.

Even if William Bennett, a UK citizen, was not aware of this method of punishment for unruly African subjects having been administered by his own government in Kenya, about which more and more is surfacing today, he was surely aware of King Leopold’s standard practice on Congolese rubber plantations when he chose the name Cut Hands.  (a wide spread colonial practice also popular in the Americas (for instance in the North American South, Cuba, Brazil, and Haiti), for crimes such as playing drums)

There are fundamental differences between Bennett’s exploration of “human transgression” and “artistic immersion in taboo areas of human expression” (his own words) and other artists who make use of violent imagery.  For example, Hermann Nitsch’s obsession with ritualistic sacrifice is not specifically related to current power imbalances in the real world, the wide spread actual violence born of these imbalances, or entangled in the dynamics and history of racism and colonialism. William Bennett is a European working from a position of privilege afforded by the colonial spoils of his country, who makes exclusive use of the culture of the victims of colonialism, and makes a living from problematic cultural appropriation. Cut Hands almost entirely consists of direct transcriptions of rhythm patterns from the music of people formerly dominated, enslaved, tortured and murdered by Europeans, yet the context and dynamic of a European using these often sacred rhythms has never been addressed. The meaning of a white man directly appropriating the creative labor of people previously enslaved, and currently still economically exploited by white men, is not even touched on, at all, in or around the work. Further, with the name of the project he references the widespread colonial practice in places where a lot of the rhythms he uses comes from (Haiti, for example), of punishing slaves by cutting their hands off. Elsewhere William’s work makes use of explicit images of violence suffered by Africans, while actual violence from the legacy of colonialism and enabled/sustained by current western economic imperialism has been, and still is taking place, on a massive scale, in Africa. The safe non-transparency, the alleged neutrality of “leaving the work open to interpretation”, where the artist refuses to answer any questions, reveal political motives or position, or take any kind of moral stance, in a case like this, is not only not enough, but is extremely problematic. Is silence not consent? When does art collude, by virtue of its silence, with the structures which sustain systematic injustice? Does the combination of depicting violence and refusal to take a position in relation to it, not reenforce structural relationships which perpetuate violence? Relationships which, for example, is indirectly but surely responsible for the violent killing of 8 million people in the Congo during past decade alone. If one doesn’t speak out against violence and injustice perpetrated by one’s own culture, by a violent and unjust global economic system from which one benefits, while reveling in images of that violence and injustice, does it not mean pardoning or even giving tacit approval? When does poetic license become, at best unethical shirking of responsibility, and at worst complicit in crimes against humanity? <span style=”font-size: x-small;”>Cover of an earlier compilation of music put out by William Bennett, with fictional African artists (many have suggested that all the music on it are actually by William himself)</span> Whether he is an actual Neo-Nazi or not is besides the point (allegedly parodic printed racist statements from the past and recent statements notwithstanding).  The point is reproducing colonial attitudes as well as cynically exploiting images of wide spread suffering caused by colonialism and exploitation, in a pornographic sense. And it’s not about whether his interest or love of the music is genuine or not, it is the way he is largely presenting African music as his own, and the meanings which accrue around the context of him doing so. If he is, as the statement on his blog says, an “anti-racist” and “anti-colonialist” and “anti-fascist”, maybe he should directly address and confront these issues in his work, and explain his reasons and meaning of using such imagery. Such music may have the potential to raise awareness of how multi-nationals have kept the Congo in conflict, for instance. He is articulate and intelligent, why not get directly involved politically and stand with the people, against injustice? But instead he is only using the awesome power of African rhythms for self aggrandizement, while projecting his fantasies of violence onto “The Dark Continent“, which amounts to nothing more than cliche art-school libertarianism, garden-variety-Satanism, and “will to power” for sad, emasculated white men. To these people, like Boyd Rice, “Do What Thou Wilt” means doing evil, and “Beyond Good and Evil” means freedom for the privileged to exploit the powerless, with zero accountability.

a paper on music and racism

musicology article from Black Music Research Journal published by Columbia University, detailing the inherent contradictions and dynamics within 2 post-war British youth cultures centered around Afro-Caribbean and Afro-American music — the Skinhead movement and the Northern Soul experience.

Voices of Hate, Sounds of Hybridity: Black Music and the Complexities of Racism (PDF: 1MB)

probably nothing mind shattering and even if none of it is news to you, still some interesting first person accounts of what went on in London and other places in the 60s and 70s, perhaps giving us insight into the political dimension of music and its consumption in our own time.

lets get it straight once and for all

Many still view European classical music as “high culture” / “serious art”, while dance music is frivolous, “primitive”, and inconsequential.  But the exact opposite is true: European classical music was created and largely functioned as pure Entertainment for royalty and aristocracy during its time; while today’s dance and club music, however misguided, convoluted, or lost it may often be, is directly descendant of the true, central, spiritua/cultural heritage of our species.

NGOMA Manifesto


“The boundaries of objects are vague – and that goes for us too… Describing the world in terms of discrete objects is a useful fiction.” – Kees van Deemter

Well worn cliche or not, everything is connected. Borders and separation, in the spheres of physics, of politics, of “race”, as it is of culture, are illusions fostered by narrow and fearful minds, often purposefully fabricated by those who seek control and to benefit from alienation, antagonism, and the suffering of millions.

Today our conceptions of the cultures of the world, of their history and relationships to each other, is sadly still under heavy influence of 18th and 19th century revisionist versions of history. During those colonialist times in the United States, education reform initiated by the wealthy elite of powerful industrialists applied sweeping changes across university campuses, teaching a fundamental and intrinsic divide between “East” and “West”, painting the former as largely superstitious, backwards, repressive, and the later progressive, modern, liberal. While in Europe racist German and English scholars began erasing the African and Asian foundational influence of classical Greece out of history, replaced by an absurd Euro-centric story of the “Cradle of Western Civilization” developing more or less autonomously, with the only outside influence from “Northern Tribes”, separate from much older and more advanced civilizations in close physical proximity. The dissemination of this fictional dichotomy between the “occident” and “orient” has always been politically motivated: it furthers the aims of the ruling class, provides a necessary ideological backdrop for colonial and neo-colonial agendas, and is still instrumental in world affairs today (the structural basis for “the war on terror” as related to the demonization of Islam).

But there is no essential divide between “East” and “West”, their relationship being more like parent and child. And in the realm of music, the inter-relatedness of all cultures and the character of their specific relationships becomes apparent and clear. For instance the guitar was a direct descendent of the Oud, the grand parent of all plucked instruments, the first record of which appears in ancient Mesopotamia during the Acadian period (2359-2159 BC). The Romans around 40 AD made a version of it called the Cithara, which spread to the Vikings in Europe; and later Gypsies living in Islamic Spain created the modern guitar based on that. And if one traces the history of 20th Century North American pop and dance music, a crude and very abbreviated but basically sound genealogy describes a line going back to Disco, to Soul, to Funk, to Motown, to Gospel, to Blues, to Jazz, to work songs of the slaves, and indeed, to Africa.

Continuities are everywhere one chooses to look: the Balkans are connected to Israel to Iran to Spain to Egypt to Morrocco to Mali to the Congo to Haiti to Cuba to Colombia to New York City. Yet there is still this prevalent vantage point that “World Music” is indeed somehow fundamentally different from “Western Music”, and it is still shocking to some that non-Western sounds are making such a ripple in 2010 (the success of artists such as Omar Suleyman, and a new wave of indie musicians citing non-western influence). As if Rock and Roll itself wasn’t African American, and less directly, African in origin. As if Led Zeppelin wasn’t heavily influenced by Turkish music, or the Rolling Stones by Morroccan traditions, the Beatles by Indian Classical, Can and (early) Kraftwerk by East Asian sensibilities and African percussion, Debussey and John Cage by Indonesian Gamelan, Steve Reich and Georgy Ligetti by African polyrhythms, etc, etc, etc. Forward thinking and ground breaking modern music in the “west” has always taken cues from much older non-western sources (similar to the way modern visual art owes much to pre-modern, so called “primitive” forms).


“Those piles of ruins which you see in that narrow valley watered by the Nile, are the remains of opulent cities, the pride of the ancient kingdom of Ethiopia. There a people, now forgotten, discovered while others were yet barbarians, the elements of the arts and sciences.” – Count Volney

Humans have surely forgotten much more than we know today, with the ravage of time, after countless wars, destruction of entire cultures, libraries burnt down. By the same token, ancient musical traditions contain forms which are more advanced, more inventive, more structurally challenging, more revolutionary in every sense of the word, than any “futuristic” electronic dance music today. And in terms of the expansion of minds or total ecstatic celebration, the bits and pieces passed down to us, remnants of musical traditions reaching back to ancient times, often embody methods far superior to what you might find in today’s dance clubs. One man sitting on the island of Madagascar, singing over an insistent Rhythmelody plucked out of a single-string instrument contains all the elements of minimal techno, and with more ingenuity, more grace, more efficiency, more innovation, more raw power, than anything produced in the last 30 years.

All rhythm certainly comes from Africa, as the drum itself was invented somewhere around Kenya tens of thousands of years ago. But African music is much more than drumming, for example the various Kora traditions weaving complex melodic structures that would make Bach dizzy. To be more precise, in much of African music one finds an un-differentiated oneness of rhythm and melody, never divorced from each other by over analytical minds. Examples of this can be found in Soukous guitar, various Mbira (thumb piano) musics scattered through out the continent, Yoruba talking drums, and multiple traditions of tuned percussion instruments such as the Balafon or Marimba.

What we have seen in the last few centuries of Western musical development is a return to rhythm, after being largely divided from it for many centuries under the European Classical establishment, which reduced its importance and saw it as “primitive” and “plebean”, emblematic of the music of savages and the underclass. But in the melting pot of the Americas, a traumatic confrontation between European and African traditions became probably the most important source of innovation in the past mellenium, forming the seeds of the myriad kinds of musical styles we know today.

The only way to move forward is to look back upon the treasures of our collective past. It is indeed this re-entry of indigenous musical heritage, fused with urban bass culture, this combination of ancestral musical ideas and modern sound, which is now giving rise to irresistible next level dance music on every continent. Crucial new scenes thrive and vital new styles are born in almost every corner of the world, challenging and displacing the centralized hegemonic culture manufacturing machine which attempts to fill the world with its vacuous regurgitation. But despite the spread of information technologies, there is a pointed lack of communication between musical communities of the world today, and many scenes remain relatively isolated and insular, inaccessible to their potential global audience who hunger after new sounds. For instance Kwaito, the South African House/Hiphop hybrid style based on traditional Zulu music, flourished for 2 decades within the townships while being virtually unknown outside, and only recently began to make waves in the world at large.

3. the Responsibility of DJs

“who cares? it’s just music!” – anonymous

Economic, political, and other arbitrary factors entirely other than artistic merit often determine which music rises to global prominence, and which is relegated to obscurity and silence outside of it’s region. As the pioneering early 20th century ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax put it half a century ago (i paraphrase): “mass media broadcasts the voice of the privileged, while often times more deserving, more beautiful voices in poverty stricken places remain unheard.” Thus djs in these neo-colonialst times, as cultural workers whose particular role gives them direct access to large audiences, must be aware of the many levels of inequity in the world, and do his/her job with this awareness in mind.

Of course, above all other concerns, djs must rock the party. We must create unforgettable experiences on the dance floor, and fascilitate that most important (no, it is not frivolous at all!) of social functions: the celebration of life despite its hardships. But there is more than 1 way to mash up the dance, and djs do not have to pander to the charts or appeal to lowest common denominators to please a crowd.

It is possible to simultaneously entertain and educate the audience. DJs can transcend the here and now, go beyond (or destroy completely) the status quo, if they choose to. Music is never “just music”, but always an expression of subjective social reality.  The world around us and the particular dynamics and situations we are in, from the macro to the micro, should to some degree inform each dj set, with site specific references and conceptual links, infusing the musical experience with many levels of meaning. A good Dj does in depth research into her/his chosen styles, studies its history and lineage as related to other strands, and find and make unexpected connections.

In this day and age, many members of society and especially other kinds of artists still view the DJ as a clown-ish, superficial, unsophisticated and unimportant character, who exists solely to entertain drunk idiots. If all other reasons fail, this might be motivation enough to start taking ourselves and what we do more seriously.