a neo-griot (writing with text, sound and light) manifesto.
—kalamu ya salaam (firstname.lastname@example.org)
words. words are the basic element of all writing. seems obvious. except the obvious is misleading. for the last 400 years or so, western culture has defined the “word” primarily and almost solely as “text.” enter the mating of digital technology with african-heritage aesthetics, and we are on the verge of liberation from the tyranny of text. we can step back to an old aesthetic in order to boldly create a new paradigm. sankofa fetching an ancient worldview to help fashion a future vision.
in the beginning was the word. and it wasn’t text. in the beginning the word had sound and gesture as well as meaning. indeed, sound and gesture were part of the meaning.
guttenburg’s printing press combined with the alphabet to mute words; stripped words of sound and gesture. (that was not the first instance, but, thanks to western military hegemony, the roman alphabet became the dominant form of word discourse. today, even the chinese use that alphabet, even though their glyphs are older and their language spoken by more people.) western imperialism ensured that the muted text of the printed page became the standard for literature, for writing.
following the first revolution of the printing press, came the 2nd revolution, the reproduction of sound for mass dessimenation via recordings and radio. that happened around the turn of the 20th century. sound was re-mated to words. although most recordings were used for music, radio, for a long while, hung in with all kinds of “talk” shows, from political speeches to orson wells declaring interstellar war had arrived, from cartoons come to life (like the shadow do) to declarations of what soap made you whiter, i mean, cleaner–question: was the golddust twins more clean than the ivory soap chile? even today, talk shows still have a major foothold on radio.
the third revolution is digital, and digital completes the turning of the word back onto its original self: the trinity of sense (literal meaning), sound and gesture. talking cinema, which had its popular birth with al johnson’s “jazz singer” in 1927 was the opening salvo of putting gesture back with the word. and then in the fifties came television. but the distinction is that it costed a lot of money, as well as access to and expertise with highly technical equipment, in order to produce movies and television. the girl next door and the guy in the mirror were not able to make their own movies or produce their own television shows.
the significance of the third communications revolution is that with digital, we can all make movies, we can all present our words with sound and gesture as well as sense. digital is completing the re-animation of words via high quality sound and gesture. the democratication of mass media through the digital revolution is perhaps the most significant development in terms of the preservation, creation and propagation of third world cultural activities and products.
as a writer using digital technology, i can concentrate on what it is i do best, i.e. use words to convey ideas and emotions. and i can do it from the holistic african-heritage perspective which tends to mix and almalgamate rather than specialize and segregate. moreover, digital makes it possible both technically and financially for me to “write” about my culture in its fullest expression and to do so without regard to the strictures of the market place. i can make a movie about the sister next door who integrated her elementary school fifty years ago, or the brother down the street who joined the deacons for defense after he came out of the korean conflict—you don’t know who and what the deacons for defense was, well, that’s precisely why the digital revolution is so important. digital will make it possible for us to tell all the tales and present the total vision that up til now has been severly limited.
digital technology allows us to produce broadcast quality work that can compete in the marketplace. for example, thanks again to the digital revolution, our work can be distributed on cable television. the days of major network strangleholds on mass communications are coming to an end even as there is more and more concentration of wealth and power in fewer and fewer hands. global capitalism is moving toward monopolies, but the underside is that the communications infrastructure has a voracious appetite for content. 300 cable channels require over 2.5 million hours of content to operate year round. there will be room, indeed, there will be a need for locally produced content.
if one needs an example of how thorough going the digital revolution will be and of how deeply we can participate in this revolution, i give you “rap” music. if there was no digital technology, there would be no rap as we know it today. yes, i understand that rap started with analog equipment and the human voice, but that’s not what it is today. the rap that dominates musical culture worldwide is produced via digital equipment. rap is the electronic enhancement of words. electronic machines turned to drums supporting the wit and wisdom of human speech. the digital revolution is all in our face but many of us don’t see it because some of the chief practictioners don’t have white faces, ph.d. faces, or technical “you-got-to-be-technically-trained-to-do-this” faces. the truth is that brothers and sisters at the street level have completely revolutionized the making of music, indeed, revolutionized the very definition of music. and the greater truth is that black dominance of music happened with the previous revolution of sound reproduction at the turn of the century. jazz stood the music world on it’s head. indeed, from ragtime to rap, black music was the dominant sound of the 20th century.
my argument is not that all writers need to become rappers. my argument is that rappers demonstate what we can do if we are willing to grasp existing technology and use it to facilitate our self expression. and this is not simply a question of music. we have so many stories that need to be told, sounded, shown. digital technology and our own human will to create makes it possible for us to truly and fully express ourselves. as writers, as cultural workers, our task ought to be to investigate our past, critique our current conditions and create visions of our future.
so, on the one hand, with digital we can tell our story in our own way. although the aesthetics question is a story onto itself, suffice it to say at this moment, with the ease and affordability of digital we can present our culture in our own way like never before. on the other hand, local, national and global audiences want our content. now is the time.
there are, of course, issues to be dealt with, obstacles to overcome, and cultural battles to be waged, but there is a future if we are willing to seize the means of production and actively participate in the distribution of our vision. and it is no accident that i distribute this manifesto via the internet rather than as a pamphlet or an article in somebody else’s magazine. can you hear me now?