Though he had spent nearly a decade away from making art, when Nep Sidhu heard a pair of self-released 2009 EPs by the hip-hop group Shabazz Palaces, his creative dormancy immediately ended. The Toronto-based visual artist had spent the sojourn managing his family’s sheet-metal business in Toronto’s blue-collar east end, but what he heard on those recordings struck a chord deep within him. (On “Gunbeat Falls” from the Of Light EP, Shabazz rapper Ishmael Butler issues the prompt: “Ain’t got time for stallin’ now, ain’t got time for fallin’ down.”)
“I had never come across someone whose work was calling out for response,” says Sidhu. “It was just a very natural, obvious thing. There are spaces in the music that allow you to inject your own meaning into the work — that doesn’t happen enough.” As a way of finding solace after the death of his mother, who weathered a long, arduous bout with cancer, Sidhu began making art built around the theme of protection. Some of it was sculpture, some clothing, and another was a 23-foot-wide painting on muslin cotton. That piece, an abstract pastoral scene with goldenrod-yellow hand stitching and overlapping geometric silhouettes, occupies almost an entire wall in Sidhu’s airy, industrial live-work space near a former Wrigley’s gum factory. The scale alone is stunning. After a Shabazz Palaces show in the city in 2012, Sidhu brought it — folded, for easier handling — to the group’s vocalist and de facto frontman Ishmael Butler, who took it in carefully while two hotel maids held the piece up. A conversation ensued; as it turned out, Butler’s mother had also passed, under similar circumstances.
Two years later, Sidhu is responsible for the artwork for Lese Majesty, Shabazz Palaces’ new album, and their second full-length for Sub Pop. Listening to it feels like floating in an isolation tank, unfiltered thoughts hovering above your body like little clouds. The art, on the other hand, demands full use of your senses: The black-on-black, “suede-feeling” sharkskin-embossed cover; a fold-out architectural mind map delineating the album’s seven suites; a script-like etching on the vinyl. The work wasn’t specifically commissioned for the album, explains Sidhu. He just created the pieces, including a customized script informed by sacred geometry, based on conversations he’d had with Butler and their friends. Sidhu didn’t even know the script would be pressed into the vinyl until it happened. This free-flowing exchange is typical of the way Black Constellation, a crew of mostly West Coast artists and musicians of which Sidhu and Ishmael are members, moves. “We don’t talk about these ideas much,” says Sidhu, whose memory of a serpent-loving resident of his family’s Indian village provided the inspiration for the leashed boas in the new Shabazz Palaces press shots. “We talk about other stuff — lots of funny things — and some of these threads instinctively capture the attitude. Maybe a verse Ish raps was exactly replicated in this M1 silk bomber I made — not literally but in its attitude and attack. It’s the ultimate confirmation of the work, because of how much we openly and instinctively trust, call and respond to each other.”
In a post-”Picasso Baby” world where art and rap have found mutual ground through commerce, the Constellationaires — as they call themselves —are a unified vote for autonomy and creativity for its own sake. They’re only creating for each other — if people “get it,” that’s a bonus. “I spent many of my days as a young woman dreaming of compatible persons to explore the universe with, and here they are. Here we are,” says Catherine Harris-White, one-half of the Sub Pop-signed rap duo THEEsatisfaction. She, along with bandmate Stas Irons, are also part of the Constellation. “We move as a unit and community, benefiting all those directly and indirectly involved.”
Right now Seattle’s Frye Art Museum is hosting a show called Your Feast Has Ended, featuring pieces by Sidhu, Alaskan artist Nicholas Galanin and Black Constellation elder Maikoiyo Alley-Barnes. For his part, Sidhu is displaying his massive, meditative canvases, combining traditional elements (paper, calligraphic treatment of verse, textile) with manmade alloys (steel, brass, architecture). Alley-Barnes, a Seattle native, is showing more than 40 pieces including sculptural work, wall-mounted textiles, and pelts that form the series, Wait! Wait! Don’t Shoot (An incantation for jazz and Trayvon), a contemporary take on his editorial cartooning practice. For the Constellation — all artists of color, all producing emotive and resistive works, all in California except Sidhu — the gallery show is a feat, but it isn’t a coup. “The Frye took a wild chance on us — wild in the sense that a show like this doesn’t happen in institutions of that scale,” says Sidhu, pouring out glasses of rum and store-brand ginger beer in his kitchen. “But it’s not wild to me or my folks. It’s low-hanging fruit, like, ‘Why wouldn’t you?’ This is beautiful, penetrative, giving stuff.”
Alley-Barnes, showing alongside the Frye’s retrospective of his artist father, Curtis R. Barnes, sees it as collaboration with an organization that is on a similar wavelength. “I used to say, ‘Fuck institutions,’ but there are strategic agreements that can amplify what we do, without which a girl in Morocco might never hear of Shabazz Palaces,” he says, over the phone from Seattle. Alley-Barnes also writes and directs video. His luminous Shabazz Palaces-scored short “Ode to Octavia” is a tribute to the soothsaying writer Octavia Butler, in which a group of brown-skinned men and women, dressed in primary colours, drift through the dewy and coarse landscapes of the Pacific Northwest toward a gathering at a glass-and-wood-walled house. It is otherworldly like LOST, with the laid-back cool of a Janet Jackson house party video. It’s a perfect example of what Black Constellation is attempting: narratives and images that situate brown bodies and lives, identifiably other and often presented as either exotic, outmoded or ahistoric, in the present.
Writing in 2012 about filmmaker Kahlil Joseph, another Black Constellation member, New Yorker critic Hilton Als observed the necessity of documenting othered art, culture and, most important, life independent of an interloper’s gaze. “Joseph doesn’t make music videos so much [as] visual riffs on the music,” wrote Als, of the clips for Flying Lotus’s “Until the Quiet Comes,” and Shabazz’s “Black Up.” “What it amounts to is emotional filmmaking that spares us the self-conscious folklore of something like Beasts of the Southern Wild by not imagining what blackness feels like but what it is.”
In today’s music media, blackness that doesn’t fit into a neat rap or R&B narrative is often tagged as “future.” Because Butler and his bandmate Tendai Baba Maraire make textural hip-hop that explores Earth, the cosmos, community and isolation (in addition to regular stuff, like love and wack rappers), they’re often categorized as Afrofuturists. But it’s not that simple: Alley-Barnes and Sidhu are dismissive of the catchall, introduced in the ’90s by cultural critic Mark Dery in an essay titled “Black to the Future.” The ascendancy of artists as diverse and amoebic as Flying Lotus, Janelle Monae and Future has brought the term back into vogue. “I try not to really think of past or future, but to make the most of the instinct that’s happening in the moment,” Butler recently told The Guardian. “To me, that’s where individuality lies. I learned and got the notion from Sun Ra and cats like that, for sure. I see these guys, who we call Afrofuturists, to be masters of the now.”
“I don’t think there’s anything futuristic about what we’re doing. In fact, I think it’s hyper-present,” says Sidhu. His noncommercial clothing line, Paradise Sportif, is exactly that. It’s clothing as a medium, an examination of traditional ideas of adornment and wearable protection that equally references hip-hop fashion from ’70s New York and modern-day cosmopolitan Lagos: croc-skin snapbacks brimmed with a veil of bullets, wax cotton tees, kente-print panels, forest green Italian silk slacks with asymmetrical detailing and ball jerseys embellished with cosmology pictograms and military-style aiguillette. “For me, the clothes addressed ideas I had of [the root function of clothing like] protection and adornment that I felt had become twisted so that it was no longer interesting, or fly.” Two decades ago the appropriation of lifestyle brands like Timberland, Ralph Lauren and Hilfiger signaled aspiration, but today Sidhu says, that relationship “is nothing more than a desperate dance between rapper and corporation, that ain’t got style to it.”
Alley-Barnes, who makes the sculptural headpieces that Shabazz Palaces sometimes wear on stage, adds: “I’m glad that we’re considered avant garde, but we really shouldn’t be. How could a guy wearing a mask on stage be considered forward-thinking, when there are eons of masking in the tradition that the man is from? Our past is the western world’s future. Afrofuturism is a responsive term, not a proactive term. Some white guy made it up and a bunch of black people have taken ownership of it.”
If there is a thread linking Alley-Barnes’s videos, sculpture and cartoons, Sidhu’s clothes and paintings, Shabazz Palace’s music and the work of the rest of the collective, which also includes rapper O.C. Notes, it’s what Alley-Barnes would describe as a continuum; people coming together and making art that is responsive, and indigenous to their experiences. From an outsiders’ purview it looks like a bunch of brilliant creatives with a similar personal code that involves resisting definitions — like Afrofuturism — in an attempt to engage.