Why Covid-19 will bring the New Renaissance: The Surrealists, Earl Sweatshirt and World Changing Art
We’re in a very strange point in time. Basically the whole world is quarantined at once. We’re all at home running away from this virus. It was originally called Coronavirus but beer sales went down so niggas started using its government name, Covid-19. Now I don’t really know what’s going on to be honest with you. If you’ve kept up with any of my articles you would know that I’m somewhat of a conspiracy theorist. I don’t believe that the moons made of cheese or anything but as a black person in North America, I’m very much aware of how much the media can distort reality and what lengths those in powers are willing to go to for personal gain. And I definitely have conspiracy theories about this situation, but in the end, it’s not the time for that. We can have our theories and suspicions but there’s no way to really know and the only thing we’d possibly be doing is spreading harmful information. It wouldn’t change anything. The reality is, we are all “social distancing” and locked up in our homes. So instead of a conspiracy theory, I’m here to discuss why this moment in time will be remembered as the start of the New Renaissance.
The Black Death or Great Bubonic Plague was one of the most devastating pandemics in human history, resulting in the deaths of an estimated 75 to 200 million people in Eurasia, peaking in Europe from 1347 to 1351. It marked the end of an era in Italy, its impact was profound, and it resulted in wide-ranging social, economic, cultural and religious changes. These changes, directly and indirectly, led to the emergence of the Renaissance, one of the greatest eras for art, architecture, and literature in human history. Now the Coronavirus might not be as deadly as the Bubonic Plague but it has provided a moment unlike any other in modern history. For the first time in human history, all humans in the world are urged to stay home while also being able to maintain communication with all other humans, having all of the world's information literally in the palm of their hands and having more resources to create than ever before as well as having the opportunity to earn a living from their creativity. Right now we all have a muse, free time and resources at hand. The need for art and creativity has never been higher. People need art and creativity to help them contextualize their place in the world, to learn, as well as provide a temporary escape from reality and a bit of comfort.
Every single great cultural movement has started because of a great tragedy. The harsh reality of slavery gave birth to the beauty of the blues which gave birth to rock and roll, country music, soul music and artists like Nina Simone, Sam Cooke, Otis Redding and changed the course of modern American history. That music became the backbone of black culture in America and that along with the socioeconomic state of African Americans and the rise of the crack epidemic gave birth to Hip Hop which influenced a young black man from the south side of Chicago to grow up and become the first black president. Art has always influenced the trajectory of the world. I started looking up different cultural movements that started because of great tragedies and that brought me to surrealism.
Surrealism is an artistic movement aimed at expressing imaginative dreams and visions free from conscious rational control. The movement started after the concept of the unconscious/subconscious mind was popularized by the Austrian neurologist and psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. In psychoanalytic theory, unconscious processes are understood to be directly represented in dreams, as well as in slips of the tongue and jokes. According to French Author and leader of the surrealist movement Andre Breton, surrealism's aim was to “resolve the previously contradictory conditions of dream and reality into an absolute reality, a super-reality", or surreality. Surrealism originated from Dadaism. Dadaism developed in reaction to World War I. The Dada movement consisted of artists who rejected the logic, reason, and aestheticism of modern capitalist society, instead expressing nonsense, irrationality, and anti-bourgeois protest in their works. This movement started because people went through a great tragedy and understood the power of great art in spreading a powerful message.
Surrealist art has always fascinated me. It helped me see the dreamlike nature of reality. Recurring themes, metaphors, foreshadowing as well as completely bizarre moments and bits of irony are all things that exist in all states of reality. But due to the structural mundaneness of most of our daily lives, we don’t usually spot those aspects of life. We rigidly impose our conscious understanding of life on our daily experiences and strip away the magic of life. We abandon everything irrational and stray away from it. Surrealism as a philosophy is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of previously neglected associations, in the omnipotence of dream and in the disinterested play of thought. Most of life is controlled by the subconscious.
Your brain controls all of your bodily functions such as your heart beating, immune system, digestive system etc. mostly without your conscious awareness of those functions. Your conscious mind is just a series of decisions and actions that are ingrained in your subconscious. The reason why you make most of your decisions is because of what your subconscious mind was predisposed to doing and identifies as true. You’re a series of your thoughts about yourself, but even more than that all of the decisions you make are because of your own internal monologue and story that you tell yourself about yourself. And even further than that everything you see is as a result of that subconscious programming. It’s like when you read a new word and suddenly it pops up everywhere. It’s usually not that the word is more frequent, it’s just that your brain is noticing it more because you’ve been exposed to it and are thinking about it.
In the same way everything you see in the infinite field of vision that is in front of you is filtered out by what you believe is most important to you. Since there is so much to look at your subconscious makes life easier for you by making you focus on things that are of utmost importance and ignores the rest as unnecessary information. Kind of like when it fills in the blanks for your eyes when you see something out of your peripheral vision. Your subconscious is always going extra hard to decide what you see and lead you on the path that you have told yourself you desire or deserve.
The problem with that is that we’re still people and people are animals. We have a lot of irrational and undesirable feelings and emotions like jealousy, anger, envy and more that we try to repress in our subconscious. There are many emotions that society has deemed as negative and so we repress a lot of those parts in ourselves. And those parts come out sneakily and control our behaviour in our waking lives.
Those parts exist in what Freud called the Id which is the part of the mind in which innate instinctive impulses and primary processes are manifest. It’s also what psychoanalyst Carl Jung called the shadow self. The shadow self are the unknown hidden forces that we try to repress that the surrealists believed could unknowingly control the conscious mind if repressed. Which is why they embraced the irrational. They felt as though if they expressed the irrational aspects of themselves then they wouldn’t be controlled by the bourgeoisie culture which repressed the irrational that they believed was the cause of the First World War. I also believe that our collective shadow displayed itself last week when people were fighting over rolls of toilet paper in the grocery stores when they were panic buying. We repress all these undesirable aspects of ourselves when things are good but when shit hits the fan our ugliness takes hold of us and controls us. Leader of the surrealists André Breton was explicit in his assertion that Surrealism was, above all, a revolutionary movement. And that’s what a lot of great art has historically been.
Artists like Tupac Shakur, Leonardo Da Vinci, Basquiat, Bob Marley, Nipsey Hussle, John Lennon, Nina Simone and more are heralded because they truly believed they could change the world through their art. They really believed their art and thought processes could reach people and help them. And they are remembered as being founding members of world changing movements. You can feel it when someone really believes that the craft they are doing is important and will impact others and make a ripple in society. But the problem is art is always at odds with capitalism. The purpose of capitalism is monetary gain and Art is about ultimate creative expression. If something works artistically the capitalistic response is to mass produce the product. And in doing so the creativity aspect diminishes and the art form becomes generic, formulaic and just another copy of a copy.
Basically every cool artistic movement ends up as a suburb that white moms are into. It happened with jazz, it happened with rock and roll, it even happened with something as corny as disco. And lately I’ve felt like that’s what happened to Hip Hop. Hip Hop started as cool and it was counterculture. But then Hip Hop became affluent and that’s when people decided to rap to make money and Hip Hop became pop music. There’s still really good Hip Hop but what seems to be killing shit in the mainstream and gets consistent radio play is the same generic trap song about being rich and fucking my bitch.
That realization is when I came across Some Rap Songs. Some Rap Songs is Earl Sweatshirt's third studio album. Three years after his last release Earl dropped his highly anticipated album. Earl was lauded as the next Nas as early as 16 due to his high level multisyllabic rapping and clever bars. Earl came back as a poet philosopher. From a blurry album cover that looked like it was taken on an iPhones front camera to the lofi old school production sounds to the offbeat, droney delivery and high level rapping, this project was different. It didn’t feel like he made it for radio play, it didn’t feel like it could be recreated and mass produced. It just felt like Earl had a lot on his mind about himself, society and his place in the world around him. The lyrics were coded, challenging and subversive. They spoke on social issues as well as Earls internal turmoil. The project flowed like an effortless stream of consciousness addressing ones place within the self, society and culture.
At 24:39 seconds the project was able to leave me wanting more. That led me to the sLUMs collective. Some Rap Songs featured Navy Blue a New York rapper and as I went into that rabbit hole I found that he and Earl belonged to a scene that was currently expanding. This New York based collective had frequent collaborators like Earl, Mavi and Medhane to name a few. As I listened to their music I found it wildly intriguing. The sLUms sound is distinct, yet varies across artists and collaborators. Songs are usually short with minimal hooks. The production relies on loops and tends to fall somewhere between the dusty knock of boom bap and the foggy distortion of early vaporwave. Raps rely on deliberate flows with off beat and non-traditional rhythms which are obviously inspired by MF DOOM and Earl Sweatshirt. This all culminates in a musical style that hides complex rhythmic messaging and often personal and political lyrics behind a hazy front. This entire movement fascinated me and was clearly revolutionary.
This movement doesn’t care about radio play or going mainstream. The sLUms movement doesn’t just want to make music, they want to change the world. They all seemed to follow a certain do for self mentality and promoted self expression, political awareness, being outspoken against the corrupt system, all behind a mysterious and unique delivery. This movement reminds me of the surrealist movement. The minimal and dusty nature of the production and the stream of consciousness, sleepy delivery of the lyrics with the coded, deliberate anti capitalist, revolutionary messaging is exactly like the Dada artists that rejected the aestheticism of modern capitalist society. This entire movement entering my life when it did was a synchronous act of serendipity. This type of movement isn’t new.
Every dope cultural movement started with the belief that the individual can alchemize the world around him and change it for the better with their time on Earth. It’s happened before with Punk Rock. Rooted in 1960s garage rock, punk bands rejected the perceived excesses of mainstream 1970s rock. They typically produced short, fast-paced songs with hard-edged melodies and singing styles, stripped-down instrumentation, and often political, anti-establishment lyrics. Punk embraces a DIY ethic. Many bands self-produce recordings and distribute them through independent record labels.
These movements in art are necessary and they end up influencing far more than just other artists. Movements like the surrealists, punk rock or even the sLUms movement influence and inspire whole generations to try to better the world and express themselves. Our capitalist world incentivizes these movements to happen when our societies focus more on greed and excess than the wellbeing of the people. The Dadaists and Surrealists lived in the eras after the First World War, the Punk Rockers lived through the Vietnam war, presidential assassinations, segregation and much more, and The sLUms live through climate change, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, social media, police brutality, corrupt governments and now the Coronavirus.
Just like everything else we’re gonna get through this. But for now we are all social distancing and locked in our homes with nothing but free time and all of the information the world has ever known. This is a revolutionary moment in time that is looking for revolutionaries to create the ripples that will move the world towards the future. This will no doubt be a boom for Artistic entrepreneurship. More artists will have time to create without the constraints of 9-5 life and the internet allows you to monetize and show your creativity to the whole world without a middleman. The world's reactions to this pandemic will spark a lot of ideas and rhetoric. This will no doubt be the birth of the next major artistic movement that will affect the trajectory of the world. We are currently at the dawn of the New Renaissance. So create freely, say what the universe is telling you to say and always believe that you can make a difference if you really try. See y’all on the other side of this.