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Hilton Als on the "hyper empathy" of black music


In the New Yorker, Hilton Als has a powerful rumination on several black musicians whose work has profoundly moved him lately, including Prince, Beyoncé, and jazz pianist Cecil Taylor. Als writes that their music, born of the struggle to survive and love yourself that is inherent to being black in the US—especially black and female—expresses a “hyper empathy.” Here’s an excerpt:

In “Lemonade,” Beyoncé travels between the present—a world filled with police brutality, marital rage, and alienation—and a past inhabited by the Louisiana-based female ancestors her mother and thus herself are born from. Toward the end of the film, as the singer moves further back into the past and examines her roots, we see any number of sharply dressed women sitting in the natural world, talking among themselves. This will remind readers of that extraordinary scene in “Beloved,” when the elder, Baby Suggs, commands those who have gathered in a clearing to love their hands, themselves—because if they don’t, who will? While that sentiment is clear in Beyoncé’s film—she includes an audio clip of Malcolm X talking about how black women are the least defended in the world—it’s Octavia Butler’s fantastic evocation of the history of black women being unloved and somehow finding a way that is the spiritual source of “Lemonade.” To live, the bright, resourceful heroines of Butler’s fiction must shape-shift to fit into various societies.

While “Transformation” is just one of the sections making up “Lemonade,” shape-shifting is what Beyoncé does throughout; she is a pop star who must cut herself and her fashions to fit the times. Is her blackness a new style, or an accepted one? No amount of fame affords her the freedom to escape blackness, or the past, nor would she want to. (Even if she has jettisoned it before. Remember “Austin Powers”?) Because to abandon these things would mean leaving her mother, who, like her daughter, suffered the pain of infidelity—and survived. Toward the end of “Lemonade,” Beyoncé sings with her skin painted white. There, she is no longer “black,” but the style of her R. & B.-inflected sound is. How different is one’s body from one’s soul? Are they connected, and if so how does the body show what one feels? As Beyoncé sings, we see various shots of black mothers holding photographs of their sons—boys and men who have lost their lives to “accidental” police shootings. It’s in those moments that Beyoncé displays, most profoundly, what Butler called “hyper empathy”—the ability to identify with and feel the pain of others. Which, of course, has always been at the heart of black music, black style.

Image of Beyoncé et al. via New Yorker.