Staring Back at the White Gaze.

Flashback to January 2019, I’m at work early in the morning, yawning at my computer screen, where my daily news-story algorithm (because I once checked boxes next to “music” and “entertainment” on some sort of Google/Microsoft/Apple/Yahoo /Facebook/Westinghouse/GE preferences survey that was required for some sort of internet authentication like ten years before that) recommends a video of the musical performance that had been aired on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon the night before (January 7th, 2019): Noname ft. Smino & Saba doing the song “Ace.” I can’t remember if I’d already heard of Noname in January 2019, but I probably had, because she’s from Chicago, and I live here too, and every single week I read the entire music section of the Chicago Reader, which was surely mentioning her steadily, well before this performance.

Still didn’t prepare me for how out-of-nowhere great this Fallon performance was going to be. Starts out with a lovely hook (“I got treeees in my luggage what you say, what you saaay to meeeeee?”) sung and rapped by a guy named Smino, from St. Louis, then Noname’s crazy verse, which I can finally start to make some sense of, after having listened to it like 15 times, especially when she says hilarious stuff like “I’m just writin’ my darkest secrets/like just wait and hear me out/sayin’ vegan food is delicious/like just wait and hear me out!,” just generally mind-blowing throughout, using what she calls, in a different video (talking to the crowd between songs during her also fantastic NPR Tiny Desk Concert), her “scramble-think” style.

Then talk about mind-blowing, next goes Saba, from the West Side of Chicago (Noname repped 30 seconds earlier: “Chicago overzealous with talent though/West Side get the money, it’s still a classic”), and his grand finale verse is ridiculous. Just watch it, and you’ll hopefully be grinning just as big as he is, right after he kills it at 2:32 in the embed below (but watch the whole thing) (and yes, the official Fallon/Noname/VEVO/whatever upload is now gone, and all that’s on YouTube now is this upload from Brazil where, yes, somebody translated all these dense lyrics into Portuguese subtitles, wow!):

This 3-song performance on Colbert is super good too:

And then, it’s a few days later and I’m on Spotify, deep into some algorithmic post-album random shuffle, when my ear is caught by a track called “Montego Bae,” and it’s by Noname ft. Rayven Lenay (also from Chicago, also good) and I love it, so I listen to the whole album Room 25, which she was promoting with the Fallon appearance, even rapping about it in the song (“Room 25 is the best album that’s comin’ out”), and goddamn the whole album is good, and it’s good well before you get to “Montego Bae” (track 7) and “Ace ft. Smino, Saba” (track 8!). I see it was released in September 2018, almost 2 years ago, and wonder what she’s done since then until now?

Well, in November 2019, almost a full year after that Fallon performance, a year she presumingly spent touring extensively for Room 25, she was on Twitter saying “Unfortunately, I'm not going to keep performing for predominately white crowds. I have two shows on the books then after that I'm chilling on making music. If y'all don't wanna leave the crib I feel it. I don't want to dance on a stage for white people." She also tweeted (these are all since deleted) that she was “consistently creating content that is primarily consumed by a white audience who would rather shit on me than challenge their liberalism because some how liking Lizzo’s music absolves them of racist tendencies.”

That’s intense. And I know what she’s talking about. I see it too. I’ve been part of that white audience, putting the white gaze on black artists. It makes me think of when I saw Art Ensemble of Chicago play a fantastic show at Town Hall in New York City in 1996, and I actually scanned as much of the entire audience as I could, with this very thing in mind, and it really seemed like there were no black people there. Not very many, anyway, like less than ten. AEC destroyed anyway, absolute top of their game, a quartet of Roscoe, Lester, Malachi Maghostut & Famodou Don, but I had to wonder if we were the audience they truly wanted to play for.

Noname’s frustration with her audience in 2019 also makes me think of the titan Nina’s staredown at the beginning of her legendary 1976 comeback performance at the Montreux Jazz Festival. They showed this clip in the What Happened, Miss Simone? doc (2015, d. Ruth Garbus), the eccentric onstage demeanor used as an example of her increasing mental instability, but I also wonder if she was in full control, and just couldn’t hide her disdain and disappointment as she stared back at this sea of white-only European faces. Or, maybe her mental breakdowns were due to the conflict and dissonance installed within her by increasingly exclusively white audiences. Maybe she was thinking about just turning around and walking right off stage, away from the white gaze forever, just like Noname walked away from the stage 43 years later.

You can already hear it happening, probably a good 6 or 7 years before the staredown in Montreux, during a live performance by Miss Simone of the Beatles song “Revolution.” There’s a recording of it on Spotify as part of the “expanded edition” of Nina’s 1969 covers album To Love Somebody. (I’m having trouble finding any record of this expanded edition on Discogs, let alone credits that say when and where the live version was recorded.) She starts out the song while still introducing it, vamping on the chord changes of her arrangement, talking to the audience, and says, “I see about ten soul brothers out there!,” apparently pointing to one of them, saying “You one!” and then laughing. Sounds indeed like another predominately white crowd...

FUN FACT: You can spell “Noname” using only letters in Nina Simone, without using any letter twice. In (fun) fact, Nina Simone is an anagram for “Noname is in,” as well as “Noname, I sin.”

UPDATE 3/18/21: From this new profile on Archie Shepp in The Guardian: “‘When I was a member of the so-called avant garde, I was on the fringes and people, my own people especially, didn’t listen to the music . . .’ ‘We were primarily benefited from the presence of a largely white audience,’ he adds. Was that hard to square because of the explicitly pro-black message of the music? ‘It always has been,’ he says. ‘It was very disturbing at the beginning.’”