Header Photo: Otobong Nkanga 'In Pursuit of Bling: The Transformation' (2014)
Let’s begin with Elysia Crampton’s edit of Justin Bieber’s 2012 track, “As Long As You Love Me”. In the original, over an EDM chart-pop backing, Bieber extols the transportive, protective power of love: “As you long as you love me/we could be starving/we could be homeless/we could be broke.” In Crampton’s version, Bieber’s voice is unmoored from its original source, placed instead in a funereal procession of drum and synth. Monstrous laughter and rushing water foam beneath the track’s surface, as the lyrics are chopped and reworked, their mawkish tenderness disfigured by pain and melancholy. In the hands of someone who’s spent time living on the streets, Bieber’s escape from starvation, homelessness and penury becomes resignified and regrounded in the histories of violence, dispossession, and care that make up Crampton’s aesthetico-political world. As an Aymaran trans woman whose life has been lived between Mexico, the U.S. and Bolivia, Crampton inhabits the world in a radically different manner to Bieber, a fact detailed in the affect and structure of the edit, which undoes the glossy, frictionlessness of Bieber’s music and the associated form of being that it indexes. In this essay, I want to follow this undoing, and explore how Crampton’s music, which fuses together various pop forms, Latin American rhythms like cumbia and huayno, and digitized samples – like the laughter which insistently unsettles Bieber’s reveries – enacts a disruption of the colonial ordering of the world. Tracing a movement through decolonial, indigenous and queer thought and aesthetics, and tarrying with the materialities and histories of the Andes and its people, Crampton’s music “[fractures] the sensible architecture of experience that is constitutive of the aesthetic regime itself - the normative order, or ‘distribution of the sensible’” of settler colonialism and racial capitalism. Such fracturing proceeds along striated lines too numerous to count, so for the purposes of this piece, I want to focus on three interrelated aspects of Crampton’s work as they unsettle the apparatuses and imaginaries of settler colonialism and racial capitalism: land and time, individuation, and futurity.
Land and time
Firstly, land, and her 2015 album, American Drift, which begins:
I'm nailed to the impossible.
Stoned heights, blue gallows —
Slough of despond;
Trampler, Mangler, Mauler, Butcher —
Naked like a worm,
The gross bulls encompass me.
Save me from the dog’s mouth.
Blaze on you conjury of stars,
Blaze just, Orion.
This meditation on the Shenandoah Mountain in Virginia inaugurates an album-length examination of Virginian American history, and an exploration of what she calls “brownness as more than culture or Othering, as geology”. Recorded in Roanoke, Virginia and Chuquiago Marka, Bolivia, American Drift is soundtracked by explosions, gunshots, Lil Jon acapellas, crunk, metal, and the cumbia and huayno rhythms. In Crampton’s hands, the land is made resonant, a zone within which the Americas’ history of violence and colonization is sounded. Virginia’s geology is her music’s context and process, the “stoned heights, blue gallows, sundered rock” announcing a situation of destruction, dispossession and decay. But, Crampton’s practice is not solely confined to a mapping of a past that unspools into a broken present but is rather the sounding of an embraided past, present and future, befitting Aymaran conceptions of non-linear temporality:
For us Aymara, the past is here, what we see. The future does not lie ahead but is behind us, something we carry. To move forward is to also return. This is but one other way of understanding what has been called space-time, out of many possibilities.
As the poem wends its way through the foothills of Shenandoah Mountain, it begins to take flight – “slipping infinity” – as broken rocks are joined by “speared summits,” its sense of place joined to a sense of movement and unfolding – a fugitive flight that is, with Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui, a bringing together of “simultaneously modernizing and archaic impulses, of strategies to preserve the status quo and of others that signify revolt and renewal of the world: Pachakuti.”
It is from this spatio-temporal form, one that moves both forwards and backwards, with and against the land in which it finds itself, that Crampton’s practice develops, seeking a survival and a flourishing beyond the “onsetting horizon of coloniality.” The geology of Shenandoah Mountain offers Crampton a different aperture into the temporal that is also a different construction of the political and the aesthetic. Against a simple resituating of Indigeneity within the land – which brings with it an attendant discourse of origin that blunts contemporary struggles – Crampton’s music indexes categorial and ontological indistinction, sounding chi’ixi, migration and homecoming, diasporic collage and radical reversal. It is a music that refuses temporal separation, showing a past that predates settler colonialism, indicating, in the present, the presence of Indigenous people as makers of the new, and creates a terrain of and for the future. In this melding of times and spaces – Roanoke and Chuquiago Marka, 2015 and 1776 – two flights emerge: the flight away from the individual, and the flight into the future.
Firstly, the individual, and its invocation and critique in Stefano Harney and Fred Moten’s essay ‘Improvement and Preservation: Or, Usufruct and Use’. In this essay, Harney and Moten detail how the European Enlightenment subject comes to define itself through its difference from and superiority over its non-human Others, a hierarchy secured through a discourse and practice of ownership: the European subject owns itself, while its Others are owned. Concomitantly, this self-owning subject requires a corresponding terrain upon which the abstraction of this ownership can be materialized and its particular form of being can be instantiated, what Harney and Moten call “a self-owning world that is, at once, an absolute and expansive locale.” Ownership in this subject’s terms, whether of the self or the land, is consecrated through improvement; it is by making one’s land more productive that this subject becomes recognisable as an individual, a subject of the law, a citizen. Or, as Harney and Moten have it:
ownership emerges in Europe as usufruct, in the improvement of land that grants and justifies it. It is extended and diffused throughout the regime the social contract defines in the self-ownership that will have taken its completed form in the individual—that brutal, brittle crystallization of an always and necessarily incomplete melding of subject and object.
Against this self-owning, earth-owning individual, whose shadow continues to fall across the contemporary world, Crampton pursues an aesthetics founded in self-determination and autonomy, one that does not end at the individual, but seeks an unsettling of the apparatuses by which the individual comes to be constructed, arguing that her greater project is a “[questioning of] the limits of sovereignty itself.” We can observe this questioning in her second album, Elysia Crampton: Presents Demon City (2016), which was made in and through a collaborative process with a network of other musicians, one of whom, Lexxi, contributes the album’s final track, ‘Red Eyez’ as well as the name for the style of music-making that Crampton applied to her work at the time: severo. For Crampton, this collaborative process of ‘being-with’ her friends allows for an approach to the individual that drifts from self-possession and sovereignty towards a kind of possession by and with others. In her words, “[h]ow does my friends’—[who are] from all different backgrounds—support of me inform my own autonomy, my own agency?”
Crampton presents us with a form of self-determination that is not hinged to individual improvement, but instead arises through collectivity––an attachment to others and their circumstances. Crampton’s disdain for the self-possessing individual stems from this ontological form’s limitations, and the violence required to produce and sustain it. By way of response, her music seeks to fracture the self-possessing, land-possessing individual, undermining the foundations it requires for coherency and seeking to “map out some sense of self and body that is ultra-body.” There is an alternate mode of sociality and territoriality at play in Crampton’s work that moves beyond the individual and its practices and spaces of ownership, and which we can observe by turning to Demon City’s second track, ‘Dummy Track’.
‘Dummy Track’ begins with a riotous clattering of drums and the ominous rumble of monstrous laughter. As the drums begin to resolve themselves into a steady beat, a second laugh becomes tangled up in the percussion’s momentum, braided into it. The syncopated laugh comes to function as a multivocal sonic object, both an element of the drum track, and a melody in and of itself. As Adam Harper notes, writing about ‘Dummy Track’ in an article entitled ‘Music That Laughs’, “[t]he music doesn’t just feature laughter on top of it, the music itself is laughing, and the laughter is ‘musicking.’” This sonic conflation – between laughter and music, music and laughter – creates an arena within which the singularity of the individual and its body is made untenable and unsound. Harper observes that it is virtually impossible to tell who is laughing here or why, as the laugh’s entanglement with the music short-circuits the emergence of any clear subject-position: “The laughter suggests a vocalic body behind it – who owns it, why are they laughing and what are they doing?” Instead of a singular body that laughs, the listener is given only the laugh’s carnivalesque echo, its fluid movement between subject and object in what we might call, echoing a line from American Drift, a mode of ‘slip infinity’. Indeed, Crampton herself refuses to pin down which part of her musical heritage the laugh – one of her sonic signatures – comes from, instead saying that
it’s always there, and what I like is that no one can locate a real owner, there’s no master or originator there, so it’s just part of this legacy that finds its way into my work and I just carry it on.
Against the bounded individual, Crampton is instead enfolded in a trans-generational play of influence that resolves itself into a sonic mantle that she takes on and continues. Ownership of this sound is less important than its persistence, ensuring that its legacies are respected, its attachments attended to. Through her employment of laughter, Crampton is then participating in what Harney and Moten see as the necessary rejoinder to the self-owning individual’s “enclosure and settlement of the earth”:
The play […] is to desediment, to exfoliate, to renew the earthly and inseparable assembly, the habitual jam, by way of and in the differentiation of what will be neither regulated nor understood. All we got is us in this continual giving away of all.
Crampton desediments, exfoliates and renews through her attachments to her friends, through her unsettling of the individual and its desire for ownership. Returning to American Drift, we can note a dialectic that emerges between the specificity of its geographical location, and an unbounded unfolding of the type indexed by the laugh. In the words of the song:
Son whose limit is your infinity alone —
Limit with us.
Stretched and frightfully flayed.
In this traffic between the limit and the infinite, the laugh and its echo, we can locate Crampton. Her music, in its oversaturation with sound and history, requires a relation to land, but not in the manner recognizable by the subject, citizen or settler. Rather than the linearity demanded by the self-possessed – the particular temporal progression necessitated by improvement, that of chronology and productivity – Crampton sounds contradiction and multiplicity, intertwining the modern and the traditional, the melodic and the atonal, and shows these oppositions to be arbitrary, reliant on foundational suppositions – the bounded individual, the subject/object divide – which she is fundamentally disinterested in. Her music instead dwells in this play between the unfolding and the here, “both rooted and fugitive, always grounded in place and land, yet highly mobile and adaptive”.
And it is to this mobility, this unfolding towards the infinite that I want to turn by discussing Crampton’s flight away from the here and now into a speculative future sounded in her 2016 piece Dissolution of The Sovereign: A Time Slide Into The Future (Or: A Non-Abled Offender's Exercise in Jurisprudence). The piece, which combines spoken word, sonic collage and DJing, moves jaggedly from the 18th century to a distant future, and uses the figure of the Aymaran revolutionary Bartolina Sisa to think through modes of resistance, fugitivity and death. Beginning with the words, ‘The future is our domain/the here and now is a prison house’, Dissolution finds Crampton performing against images of revolution and violence, to a musical backing that veers from the elegiac to the demonic, intertwining, among others styles, baile funk, footwork and a sample of Beethoven’s 5th. The piece reaches its climax in the reanimation of Sisa in a distant future marked by climatic devastation and the collapse of a world-spanning prison-industrial complex. Sisa – transformed now into a multiplicitous being comprised of a network of AIs and mecha–spiders – ranges across the charred remnants of earth, and the narrative ends with a reminder of the enduring importance of her actions for those who remain: “We still carry the name, Sisa, after the ancient human, Bartolina, that helped liberate our ancestors.” Dissolution here harbours the same disinterest in bounded linear historical progression I have been tracing throughout this essay. Indeed, its time scales might be best described as geologic in scope, as Bartolina Sisa, who died in 1782, reappears in a future two billion years removed from our present, a length of time that far exceeds the boundaries of any individual human’s temporal perception.
Beginning from an Aymaran sense of time and a non-individuated understanding of the self allows for time – understood here to be that endlessly repeated time of extraction and violence definitive of racial capitalism and coloniality – to become a zone of contestation, an arena in which fugitive flights away from colonial ways of knowing and being are enacted. This particular temporal configuration, in which the past and the deep future are braided together, is an Aymaran one, with Crampton remarking in an interview that Aymara as a language “doesn't even embody that linear perspective of time” registered by the chronological. As with ‘Dummy Track’s’ laugh, in Dissolution, sound does the work that language cannot, embodying concepts and thinking through historical unfoldings unimaginable to the self-possessing, land-possessing individual. Through its sonic marriage of past and future, Crampton’s music serves to re-presence Aymaran history, her care for figures like Sisa part of a move to “bring them to light and to recalibrate them with myself into a history that […] shatters right out of this history that we’re in, that […] ignores those bodies, rejects those stories.” In her presentation of this braided history, one that is against colonial temporality and individuation, Crampton creates an aperture through which a future that is radically different from the present can be sounded. It is a future that is unbounded and unfolding, requiring an imaginative leap away from the present’s distribution of the sensible, a flight into forms of being and relations to land and time that are both wholly incompatible with the colonial and deeply enmeshed in Aymaran knowledges and politics. Crampton’s placing of herself in relation to Sisa is instructive here, as it is through a connection to her ancestors that any possible future becomes apparent. This reciprocal relation to the lives of those who come before you is tied to a care for those who come after you, one that with Jordy Rosenberg we can think of as foundational to radical politics. Rosenberg writes that a commitment to “the expansive concept of a future unconfined from the telos of the capital-accumulative family” is a commitment to “a future that may never know our name or remember us personally.” Rosenberg terms this “Radical anonymity.” “I am not talking about anonymity in the present” he says, “I am talking about anonymity to the future. I mean politics.” To be anonymous to the future is to commit to a political project whose results will most likely not be registered in the span of one’s own life-time. But, as Crampton shows us, an Aymaran understanding of personhood and community unmoors us from the epistemologies and temporalities of the self-possessing individual and refuses the insularities and certainties of its politics. Instead, we are moved into aesthetic works and imaginative worlds that “will be neither regulated nor understood,” whose horizons do not end at the human. In Crampton’s “continual giving away of it all,” in her attachments to ancestors, friends and rocks, in her desire for the infinite, in her use of sound to de-individuate and to unsettle, a kind of political ontology is made possible, one that radically departs from the here and now and flies instead elsewhere.
Rafael Lubner is a writer and academic based in London.
- This being the white, cis, bourgeois male, that consanguineous product of biology and economics which Sylvia Wynter calls Man2. See Sylvia Wynter, ‘Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation--An Argument’, CR: The New Centennial Review 3, no. 3 (2003), pp. 257–337; and more recently, Sylvia Wynter, ‘The Ceremony Found: Towards the Autopoetic Turn/Overturn, Its Autonomy of Human Agency and Extraterritoriality of (Self-) Cognition’, in Black Knowledges/Black Struggles: Essays in Critical Epistemology, ed. Jason R. Ambroise and Sabine Broeck (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2015), pp. 184–252. ↑
- Jarrett Martineau and Eric Ritskes, ‘Fugitive Indigeneity: Reclaiming the Terrain of Decolonial Struggle through Indigenous Art’, Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 3, no. 1 (2014), pp. I–II. ↑
- Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui, ‘Ch’ixinakax Utxiwa: A Reflection on the Practices and Discourses of Decolonization’, South Atlantic Quarterly 111, no. 1 (2012 1 January), p. 96. ↑
- As Cusicanqui argues, such a discourse “refers us to a past imagined as quiet, static, and archaic, which allows us to see the strategic recuperation of indigenous demands and the neutralization of the decolonizing impulse” Cusicanqui, p. 99. ↑
- “The word ch’ixi has many connotations: it is a color that is the product of juxtaposition, in small points or spots, of opposed or contrasting colors: black and white, red and green, and so on. It is this heather gray that comes from the imperceptible mixing of black and white, which are confused by perception, without ever being completely mixed. The notion of ch’ixi, like many others (allqa, ayni), reflects the Aymara idea of something that is and is not at the same time.” Cusicanqui, 105. For Crampton’s understanding of the word, see Milo Gooder, ‘In Conversation with Elysia Crampton’, Tank Magazine, https://tankmagazine.com/tank/2018/tank-talks/elysia-crampton. ↑
- Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, ‘Improvement and Preservation: Or, Usufruct and Use’, in Futures of Black Radicalism, ed. Gaye Theresa Johnson and Alex Lubin (London ; New York: Verso, 2017), pp. 83–91.
- Harney and Moten, p. 83. ↑
- Harney and Moten, p. 89. ↑
- Anaïs Duplan, ‘A Body That Is Ultra-Body: In Conversation with Fred Moten and Elysia Crampton’, Ploughshares at Emerson College, https://blog.pshares.org/a-body-that-is-ultra-body-in-conversation-with-fred-moten-and-elysia-crampton/. In the same conversation, Crampton articulates this expanded self by explaining her relation to the music that she edits: “The  isn’t so much mine. Yet my involvement, my hovering around it, my arranging through it is a mode of placement and geography, that also recognizes the movement of other bodies at the same time.” ↑
- Adam Harper, ‘Music That Laughs’, POP 6, no. 1 (2017), p. 64. ↑
- Harper, p. 64. ↑
- Laurel Uziell, ‘The Darkest Hour: Elysia Crampton Interview’, Stray Landings, 28 January 2017, /interviews/elysia-crampton-the-darkest-hour. ↑
- Harney and Moten, ‘Improvement and Preservation: Or, Usufruct and Use’, p. 86. ↑
- Martineau and Ritskes, ‘Fugitive Indigeneity’, p. V. ↑