Aya Nakamura – AYA

This album review was originally published for Pitchfork on December 4, 2020.

Since catapulting to the top of the French charts, multi-platinum Malian-born artist Aya Danioko has been given countless labels. In one breath, she is abbreviated as an Afro-pop artist, the next bundled into France’s robust and increasingly populous rap scene, teeming with talent from Paris to Marseille.

Her success has frequently been minimized as a novelty act, despite being the most listened-to contemporary French act in the world. Her international smash hit “Djadja”—from her sublime second album, 2018’s Nakamura—placed her on a feminist pedestal she was reluctant to embrace. Her detractors looked at her unflappable demeanor as a tall dark-skinned woman, churning out hit after hit in France’s cis-male dominated music industry, and pegged her as overly cocksure.

The clearest signal in the noise, however, lies in the labels she gives herself, indicating her creative essence long before she became a mainstay on Spotify. Her performing surname, Nakamura, comes from the character Hiro Nakamura of the superhero series Heroes; a warrior who, through sheer force of will, can bend space and time, transporting himself to different worlds. This has been Aya’s superpower since the days of her 2017 debut Journal Intime—playing with the universes of not just Afrobeats, but zouk, R&B, and pop to layer in her penetrating musings on life, love, and freedom.

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Shamira Explains It All Issue No. 1: New York is Burning

This originally published on June 1st 2020 as part of my Newsletter series on Substack here.

Welcome to Shamira Explains It All/Shamira Explique Tout, a culture newsletter discussing the origins and impact of Black production and exchange, identity, and intellectual property via our digital, social, and archival discussions – and whatever else may be timely and interesting. Part English, Part French (la moitié est écrite en français, ou plus, si le thème du mois le demande). Reach out with feedback, suggestions, tips, and ideas at contact@shamirathefirst.com.

Sistas, how y’all feel? Brothas, y’all alright?

I originally wanted to launch this newsletter on my birthday – for a variety of reasons, that did not come to fruition. So I’m launching this on my mother’s birthday instead – a woman who as born in a country that had that to claw and fight for its independence from its oppressors, and continues to try to find its way. It grounds me in a sobering truth – eradicating the most visible oppressors is only the first step. But as Samuel Beckett wrote, “Ever Tried. Ever Failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Over the past few days, cities across the United States have been rife with clashes between organizers, protesters, and their respective law enforcement forces. Some people are confrontational and others are not; all methods of protest are legitimate (including this amazing form of surveillance disruption by K-pop stans). Ultimately, the concept of a “peaceful” protest is a farce; it presumes opposing forces that do not seek to engage the community as enemy combatants. Corporations and businesses are not people, despite the fact that the Supreme Court opted to give them protections that treated them as such; but when discussing looting, keep in mind that there is record unemployment in a public health crisis with little to no social safety network to keep people afloat. As people have pointed out recently, Martin Luther King, in his advocacy for nonviolence, still expressed that “a riot is the language of the unheard:”

I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity. And so in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.

With regards to how people discuss MLK and nonviolence in general, it is frequently misconstrued and decontextualized. I encourage people to listen to this clip from Bomani Jones’ ESPN Radio Show about the impetus behind MLK Day and the clarity of his actual message – that the greatest weapon he employed wasn’t pacifism, but shame.

In Brooklyn, near-unprecedented violence is ongoing in Fort Greene and Flatbush. It should not be lost on spectators that the nexus of brutality going on in Kings Country is happening around the Barclays Center – the source of its own violence on the Black community in Brooklyn. Gentrification and displacement go hand in hand with over policing and stop and frisk. I explored that in my piece for OkayPlayer

Lastly, I will just share my quick (and growing) thread on surveillance practices and ethics with journalism and organizing. It will be an ever expanding discussion as we continue to accept loss of privacy to the state and use of that data in a retaliatory manner, but one that we have to accept is a very present threat in the first place. This is an excerpt from an unpublished essay I wrote some time ago on surveillance and criminalization of Black communities:

Between the patterns of zeros and ones rests a minotaur for the digital age – amalgamating the sophistry of inherent Black criminality within a web of innovation that only serves as an anchor to longstanding pathologies. If we have any hope of a technological age that isn’t inextricably contracted to white supremacy, we would be well-suited to look at the threshold between mythology and history in order to reshape the way we think about applying harm reduction and racial equity. The surest way to get swallowed alive by a monster is to fail to realize that one is even there; and it is only by identifying that framework that we can begin to lay down the thread that will guide the perception of inherent Black criminality from the bowels of a modern digital labyrinth. 

We have a long way to go to understand just how much data we have forfeited to third parties and actors that profit from participation in the prison industrial complex. A calculation can never supersede the inherent biases that it is introduced to and the fact remains that the carceral state was designed out of a pathology to funnel brown bodies into boxes. As Michelle Alexander points out in The New Jim Crow, “whiteness mitigates crime, whereas blackness defines the criminal.”  The superimposition of automation belies this truth, but as Saidiya Hartman spoke to “a racial calculus and a political arithmetic that were entrenched centuries ago”, so has the digital model continued to reinforce the punitive history behind bars: it is all it knows, and therefore all it can be.

Playlist for the Month:

This month:

  • If you are uploading pictures of protestors or people organizing – use this tool to scrub metadata and blur peoples faces and other identifying features.
  • Try to contribute to vetted bail funds if you can. Here is a Twitter Thread with links to bail funds throughout the nation. (Important Note: The NYC Chapter has said they are overwhelmed by funds, so you may want to divert funds to local organizations in need of resources instead – like Equality for Flatbush’s mutual aid fund, so that they can continue investing in their police abolition organizing as well as community support)
  • For those who want to get involved but can’t take to the streets for various reasons (like myself, because of my immigration status) , here is a link to various to be in the struggle.
  • If you are interested in additional anti-carceral reading during this quarantine, for those of you who are just starting out – I encourage you to check out Angela Davis’ “Are Prisons Obsolete?
  • This is a great 5-minute appearance from Cornel West on CNN worth checking out (where he references the Samuel Beckett quote above). Key takeaway: “It looks as if the system cannot reform itself. We’ve tried Black faces in high places – too often our Black politicians, professional class, middle class, become too accommodated to the the capitalist economy…”
  • Here is some legal guidance for those who are arrested in New York City.

Francophone Corner:

  • Découvrez le lancement de SUNU : Journal of African Affairs, Critical Thought + Aesthetics, une création de la brillante Amy Sall. SUNU Journal cherche à interroger, critiquer et célébrer le passé et le présent, tout en contribuant à une riche lignée de production intellectuelle, culturelle artistique africaine et afro-diasporique.
  • Check out the launch of SUNU: Journal of African Affairs, Critical Thought + Aesthetics the brainchild of the brilliant Amy Sall. SUNU Journal seeks to interrogate, critique and celebrate the past and the present, whilst contributing to a rich lineage of African and Afro-diasporic intellectual, cultural + artistic production.
  • Soutenons les médias indépendants ! Avec ce concept de « blingzine » bilingue (français/anglais), 33 Carats propose 106 pages de découvertes hip hop, lifestyle et mode par une équipe de passionnées. C’est le thème de la Déconnexion qui est exploré pour ce numéro avec des interviews d’experts sur les stratégies marketing des rappeurs français, une visite de Négus l’exposition/album de Yassin Bey par la journaliste américaine Ebony Janice.  Mais le récit collaboratif fait de bling et de hip hop « Birkins and Drake » dont Life is Good  le premier épisode est écrit par moi 🙂 En bonus ; une interview exclusive d’Erykah Badu : pas mal pour un média indépendant !Erykah Badu lance son site Badu World Market, Elle y propose des collections limitées hoodies et tee-shirts oversize en collaboration avec l’artiste canadienne Jackie Musial. A l’occasion du lancement de ce nouveau projet de la chanteuse, une interview exclusive par Sanaa Carats, fondatrice et rédactrice en chef du média, est disponible dans le numéro 3. Le rappeur français Cleim Haring en couverture.En attendant la version papier, En vente sur Issuu : 
  • Support independent media! With this bilingual (French/English) “blingzine” concept, 33 Carats offers 106 pages of hip hop, lifestyle and fashion discoveries by a team of passionate people. Interviews with experts on the marketing strategies of French rappers, a visit to Négus exhibition/album by Yassin Bey by the American journalist Ebony Janice.  But the collaborative fictional series of bling and hip hop “Birkins and Drake” of which Life is Good is the first episode is written by me 🙂 As a bonus; an exclusive interview with Erykah Badu!Erykah Badu launches her website Badu World Market, where she offers limited collections of hoodies and oversize tee-shirts in collaboration with Canadian artist Jackie Musial. On the occasion of the launch of this new project of the singer, an exclusive interview by Sanaa Carats, founder and editor-in-chief of the media, is available in this third issue. Buy it here.https://www.33carats.com/Suivre sur Instagram: 33caratswebzineTwitter: https://twitter.com/33caratswebzineFacebook: https://www.facebook.com/33carats/

Alors, c’est tout. Sign up now so you don’t miss the next issue.


In the meantime, tell your friends!

‘Hang the Whites’: Rapper’s Hate Speech Trial Exposes the Hypocrisy of Race Relations in France

Originally published for The Root.

The music video for 34-year-old French rapper Nick Conrad’s “Pendez les Blancs” (“Hang the Whites”) opens with a jarring visual akin to the title itself: the lifeless body of a white man on a noose, while Conrad (a black man of Cameroonian descent) stands beside him lighting a cigar.

It’s a role reversal intended to make even the most unperturbed person’s pupils dilate, with lyrics to match: In the opening lines, he speaks about entering daycares to kill white babies and then hang their parents.

Throughout the rest of the nine-minute clip, Conrad leans into a macabre inversion of anti-black violence via reenactments of culturally relevant and critically acclaimed films such as Get Out and American History X—including the latter’s iconic curb stomp scene—while wordsmithing references to actual atrocities committed against the black diaspora at the hands of white supremacists. Each line intentionally evokes a new horror, superimposed with a white face—from the whippings and lynchings described with syntax akin to that of “Strange Fruit” (“hanging from trees in cosmic emptiness/these filthy fruits provide a fascinating show”) to descriptions of torturing insubordinates to subdue rebellion to the endless wars waged for profit. Halfway through the video, a Malcolm X quote is put on the screen: “The price of freedom is death.” As a coda to his final verse, Conrad declares that he is “reversing the triangular trade” via “Black History X,” cleverly tying together themes of his song and the corresponding video by making the race reversal concept and the purpose of the cinematic allusions even more overt.

Uploaded to YouTube in September, “PLB” gained the attention of French politicians and organizations, and the backlash was swift: Far-right leader Marine Le Pen declared the video an instance of “anti-white racism” and a call to hatred and murder, demanding that the transgression be rewarded with appropriate penalties on all social media platforms. France’s interior minister, Gerard Collomb, responded in kind, stating on Twitter, “I condemn without reservation these abject remarks and ignominious attacks.” LICRA, France’s largest organization intended to fight racism and anti-Semitism, put out a statement calling the video “abject and incredibly violent” and called for legal action. YouTube promptly removed the video from its platform, claiming that it “violated hate speech guidelines.” In just a few days, Nick Conrad went from being a little-known artist with under 1,000 average hits a month to the No. 1 trending topic in France.

Pursuant to the outcry, French prosecutors investigated and determined that Conrad’s artistic license violated France’s codified press laws by causing “incitement to racial discrimination, hatred, or violence on the basis of one’s origin or membership in an ethnic, national, racial, or religious group”—in this case, Caucasians. The charge is similar to one made in 2015 against Saïdou of the well-known French group ZEP for their song “Nique la France” (“Fuck France”), in which he would be charged and later absolved of targeting hate speech toward those who were “Français de souche,” or French to the root—namely, again, Caucasians.

Proceedings began this past Wednesday with Conrad and his team facing off against complainants LICRA and the far-right leaning LAGRIF (General Alliance Against Racism and for Respect for French and Christian Identity). Reports of the trial describe Conrad enumerating in detail how the concept of the video was not only informed by multiple popular cultural and historical references (which the complainants allege are not ones that French people know well), but also the reality of his life and upbringing in France: “There is so much oppression and innuendo in society on a daily basis, even in a subliminal way; there are so many things that may elude most, but we see them.”

Conrad was questioned over his reference to Malcolm X, and the complainants implied that the deceased black liberation activist was an anti-white racist and black supremacist, unlike a more peaceful Martin Luther King. In a stunning but familiar pivot, one member of LAGRIF’s counsel team maintained, “It’s all the white man’s fault. But do we talk about the Arab slave trade and the black people who sold their brothers?”

Beyond these cartoonishly incorrect readings of history, implicit in the discussion is the assumption that racism is an equal exchange of offenses as opposed to a systemic construction. All sins are not created equal, and the collective weight of the black struggle is a debt that has accumulated over time. Under the guise of “universalism,” the French community’s continued reluctance to allow their nonwhite compatriots to confront those failings in an open space has long provided cover for oppressive tactics, to the point that France has worked to ban events and gatherings targeted for black people on the grounds of racism. It’s a farce of an exercise in a country that has yet to even track any sort of race-related census, consistently putting forth a narrative that race is not even a consideration in French identity as recently as the World Cup.

The scenes and lyrics played out in Conrad’s video are indisputably graphic, but that has hardly precluded people from understanding a performer’s artistic vision before. In Childish Gambino’s video for “This Is America,” a black man is shot in the head point blank, and a church choir is gunned down; released with similar shock value intent, it received acclaim and is currently nominated for a Grammy. Contemporaries notwithstanding, the question remains: If the scenes depicted in Conrad’s video were near-facsimiles of movies that have become cultural staples, why are we so comfortable celebrating and watching these same portrayals of violence against black people without discomfort?

Despite the perpetual efforts to distance itself from systematic wrongdoing against the black community, France has still been a site of unjustifiable black deaths: 24-year-old Adama Traore’s death in police custody in 2016 has largely gone unanswered by both the government and LICRA. Meanwhile, both institutions continue to hold court over perceived offenses of reverse racism. This dynamic evidences the power imbalance that Conrad sought to flip on its head, albeit crudely. If merely the visualization of violence against white people causes panic, however visceral, it should stand to reason that the accrued toll of centuries of brutality against black people at the hands of white supremacy is immeasurable. Whether or not Conrad is found guilty during his March 19 sentencing, there is a clear failure of France’s vocal white demographic to appreciate the magnitude of that calculus.

As Conrad’s lawyers stated, “[The song] is a violent, shocking, disturbing piece of art. But history itself is violent, shocking and disturbing.”