Friday, September 30, 2011

Meditations on Belhaven Meridian

As we await the new Kahlil Joseph-directed shabazz palaces vid which should be dropping soon, it seems about time that we spoke on Belhaven Meridian, the first and only official SP video, released in 2009.

settling dust

Back then, no one, including me, was really ready to offer more than a few words on the impression that this startling work of art made. Everyone caught on that it shouted out Killer of Sheep, Charles Burnett’s recently ‘rediscovered’ 1979 classic. There were comments on the trippy upside down effect, but beyond that and the murmurs of awed appreciation, not much else.

It starts with the ignition of an engine, that of Palaceer Lazaro’s ’68 Chevy Camaro (serious car) After putting down his phone he declares, “It’s time.” We’re left to conclude that the impulse to start the journey comes almost as a command from an unknown, mysterious source, which Lazaro (who symbolises the ‘artist’, or ‘human being seeking self-realisation’) has no choice but to obey. This fits in with what he’s been expressing in interviews about the creative impulse. His lady (symbolising us, the observing audience) isn’t privy to the same secrets, but is happy to be along for the ride. She asks “Where are we going?” which beyond its obvious meaning (‘where are now driving to?’) also indicates humanity’s first question: ‘What’s the meaning of life? Why are we here and where are we going after this?’ As they drive off with that question left hanging in the air, the intro song (a mess, the booth soaks in palacian musk, palaceer in vintage LRG, yes pure NS,uppowndet watermelon lips beat) plays out and we feel we’re going to ‘find out’ the answer.

(art below by leif podhajsky)


These Arabic words then appear. The meaning is “He saves us”. The first possibility is that ‘He’ refers to the Divine, i.e. the Light/God/Allah/Jah i.e. the creator with a capital C. This would prefigure the main song’s (“find out”) lyrics - the most explicity ‘religious’ of Butler’s catalogue - which lament the fact that we ‘use God to make our dough up’ and condemn the ‘depraved devil’s heart system that got us all laid down; make us content to play around n’ let God see us get clowned’. But because Arabic is a gender language, ‘things’ can also be masculine (or feminine), so the other possibility is that ‘He’ signifies ‘the Beat’ with a capital B. After all the first shabazz palaces EP (eagles soar, oil flows) starts off with the chorus “the beat will always save us”. In interviews Lazaro has said that he believes in music (“that eternal heart dance beat” as he said in gunbeat falls), and that it will take care of us if we give it its due. A truly religious dedication to music, for him the beat assumes eternal, cosmic, spiritual proportions. This is not only a fruitful and poetic conceptualisation of the matter, but if you’re a music lover and think on how it really can make you feel, you have to conclude that it can only, in fact, be true.

watts, LA

These words indicating where the action takes place immediately bring us back from the world of metaphysical speculation. The southern california hood is one of the most significant places in African American history, the scene of the riots that erupted in 1965 in protest at blatant discrimination suffered by the city’s black population and then again in 1992 when the Rodney King beating (pictured) and the acquittal of the criminally savage policemen sparked off more violence.

Despite the ‘universalist’ nature of these 3 and a half minutes, the video is at a fundamental level grounded in Lazaro’s community, another chapter in the cultural resistance which black music has always played in the story of Amerikkka.

the hero’s journey

Joseph Cambell (see video below) is known for his work on mythology, and his concept of ‘the hero’s journey’. After spending years studying all the major mythological traditions and religions of the globe’s different cultures, he concluded that all point to a basic ‘heroic journey’ that each one of us must take if we are to truly ‘find out’ who we are. All major myths in all societies seem to follow the 3 basic stages in this journey. 1) Departure. The hero heeds the call, leaving the quotidian world of convention and conformity, and sets out on the path. 2) Initiation. The hero is tested, and with the aid of supernatural powers, or divine assistance, is able to overcome the trials. 3) Return. Having conquered his or her demons and scaled the peak of a mountain most don’t even know exists, the hero returns to normal life, and with this new insight and knowledge of self, is able to play his or her part as a responsible human being, helping others. As the camera pans up to a great height, it reinforces the sense that we’re being told a real story, a grand, eternal myth. I think that because there isn't just one 'hero' in this video but three, that's a clear message that the hero can be any one of us. We're all on our own journey, hopefully.

This initial shot of the lady walking ahead seems to reflect the first stage of the journey. She’s strong, beautiful, purposeful, and set on the journey. The dude, like his game, is weak, lame, boring. She pays no attention and continues on her way.

sheep killer, est. 1977

The camera then pans to the right where there’s a re-enactment of the filming of a scene from the 70s classic Killer of Sheep, directed by Charles Burnett. That film as far as I can see doesn’t have a literal connection to the allegorical theme of the video, but on a more subtle level, it is great art born from black America, and it portrays on a human-level the pain of a man condemned to be a have-not simply because he lives in an unjust society. You feel the pain of the film’s protagonist Stan (and his wife), how his soul suffers from having to work in an abattoir and support a family; it's touching and beautiful and sad.

Also it’s a nod to a film that wasn’t appreciated at all at the time it came out but 30 years later is revered as a classic. It’s hard not to see the correlation with Butler’s output, although the widespread acclaim that greeted Black Up is a far cry from the way that Bright Black and even Blowout Comb were ignored by almost everyone when they were released. Still, ever since 95 I’ve maintained that it’ll be a decade or two after it’s released before Butler’s work is given the recognition it deserves. This shit is just way too advanced, after all. The camera then spins upside down and the rest of the video is shot like that. I can’t see anything symbolic here but it looks very very cool, and is a second technical coup by Joseph. The main one being that the entire video is shot in one take.


Then the second 'hero' (played by Ernest Wadell of The Wire, apparently) appears, again, on the journey. He is walking, with some ominous figures on the waiting on the road ahead of him, but then an African mask appears to come down upon him from above. After some time, he turns around and grabs the mask just as it begins to float away. He then runs forward, mask in hand, towards his adversaries. This is the key point in the allegory. Only when you set out on the journey, leaving behind the status quo, will you open yourself to the ‘helping hand’ of the universe. Like Cherrywine said on A Street Gospel, if you want to be an artist, you have to “come outdoors, if you wanna breath more”, or the chorus of Swerve, the reaping of all that is worthwhile (noir not withstanding): “if you talk about it, that’s show. But if you move about it, then it’s a go.” Or the Goethe couplet:

Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it.
Boldness has genius, power and magic in it

But that’s not all. The supernatural power will float down into your life for a certain time, and it won’t wait for you forever. Grab the opportunity and slip through the door before it closes. But once you take that decision, you’ll make it. In the ‘heroic journey’ schema, such divine aid or guidance is often provided by a wise elder (like Virgil in Dante’s Inferno, or Obi Wan Kenobi in Star Wars) but in the African American context, the mask represents the supernatural mighty unseen force.

Check the first half of the Campbell clip (until 2:37) below for more on masks.

Just as he starts running forwards into the midst of the foe, (your personal demons?/the world?/the business?/personal life?/any of the sacrifices that must be made to pursue your true calling) the chorus kicks in. This is just great directing, what can I say, it’s perfect.

Find out who you are and see it
Find out what you are and free it
Find out who you love and need it
Find out what you can and be it

Find out who you love and be it
Find out what you can and free it
Find out what you love and need it
Find out who you are and see it

You could write a whole essay on each of the lines above, but that’s not the task at hand now. This other writer Graham has already spoken about the chorus, and he also sees it in a mystical self-realisation vein, enlisting Nietzsche’s words. Check out his post, which I link to at the end of this piece.

the struggle

So with this mask he able to fend off about twenty guys that are trying to pull him down, and drag him off course. Even though it seems he is finally pulled down by those two guys and disappears from the frame, he ultimately shakes them off and continues.


The final stage of the hero’s journey is that he has overcome the trials and is able to pass on his precious learning to the next generation. In the video, they are represented on superfast Japanese motorbikes, signifying the future. The message seems to be that even though you made that epic journey, the power that enabled you to do so was never from within you, but was a blessing that you hung on to for a time, before passing the mantle to those that follow. That’s also an allegory on the transience of life.

What’s specific about the ‘return’ stage in Belhaven Meridian is that the kalimba strains of blastit at the homie rayzer’s charm lake plateau bbq july at outpalace pk kick in and the suburban street gives way to a wider, sunnier, less built up locale, which doesn’t really look like America. What this change in sound and place indicate to the viewer is one thing: Africa. Lazaro and Joseph represent the future as African.

(Shabazz Palaces art by Leif Podhajsky)

But that’s not all. As the camera follows the bikes into ‘Africa’, Ish’s Camaro appears in a final display of technical virtuosity and drives off, in formation with the motorcycles, into the sunset. I love this ending, it’s like a really elaborate way of saying “I’ve got the unseen power now- it’s my turn to run with the mask for a few moments on the earth.”

So we sit back and think on the hero’s journey, and finally ask ourselves what it’s all for. What is our path and where should we be heading. Well, for Ish it’s obviously music (and acting?), for me it might be visual art, for you it might be architecture or motherhood or dancing or charitable work or anything under the sun. The key is, if you don’t already know what your journey is towards, then ‘find out’. Find out who you are and free it. Because, as the answer to the question goes, once we know who we are then we can go wherever we want.


Q: What’s the name of that piece by Graham specifically looking at the chorus to this song?
A: It’s here.

Q: You didn’t tell us what “Belhaven Meridian” means…wtf.
A: Good question – any ideas? Lazaro’s cryptic references come from diverse sources (often black history, science fiction, etc.) What does Belhaven Meridian signify? A Meridian is “A circle passing through the celestial poles and the zenith of a given place on the earth's surface” which sounds cool, though my head hurts just thinking about it. I don’t know. Neither can I say why there’s what looks like a rifle poking out of the Camaro at the end…

Q: Why bring up stuff about Watts and Rodney King?
A: Obama being president doesn’t change much. The same story is going on over and over again. What about Troy Davis? It’s on a global scale too. What about the soldier who killed a boy in Afghanistan for fun, and posed smiling for pictures next to the body? He got 7 years; the ‘judge’ told him “I hope and believe you will have a long, happy life."

Q: Can you recommend any Joseph Campbell stuff?
A: I’m new to him. Reading his first book The Hero With a Thousand Faces which lays out his archetypal ‘heroic journey’ but I find it slightly heavy. Surely his later, more popular stuff explains things in a more accessible way. He’s also made lots of videos and audio books, with PBS.

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