Most of it was pieced together in two hours. The music, a song by Kanye West, was added a few days later. Weeks of rearranging and tweaking followed. The result is perhaps the most powerful work of contemporary art of the past decade.
Arthur Jafa’s 7½-minute video, “Love is the Message, the Message is Death” – a dazzling, deeply emotional montage of found footage showing aspects of the black experience, set to the sounds of West’s “Ultralight Beam” – was made in 2016. If it was timely then, it feels even more so now. And yet it hasn’t been easy for everyone to see.
Beginning on Friday, for 48 hours, that will change. With Jafa’s blessing, a coalition of 13 museums around the world – including the Hirshhorn Museum, the Smithsonian American Art Museum and Glenstone – is making “Love is the Message, the Message is Death” freely available for streaming.
Jafa has worked with Spike Lee and Stanley Kubrick. He has directed or co-directed videos for Jay-Z and Solange. He won the Golden Lion for best artist at the last Venice Biennale.
“Love is the Message,” his best-known work, is intuitive and experiential rather than cerebral. It overwhelms you. Its footage arouses, in quick succession, so many conflicting and overlapping emotions that you walk away battered, bruised, euphoric, bewildered. It’s like going to a church funeral, a protest, an NBA game and a James Brown concert all on the same day.
Usually, the video is played on a large screen in a darkened gallery. Among the first things you see is a black man in a white T-shirt speaking to a news crew after some kind of emergency: “I knew something was wrong,” he says, “when a little pretty white girl ran into a black man’s arms. Something is wrong here. Dead giveaway. Dead giveaway.”
It’s an explosive opening. And indeed, within the next few seconds, as “Ultralight Beam” kicks in, you see footage of the burning sun and of an ecstatic crowd dancing in unison with players at a basketball game. After several other brief clips of black people celebrating and dancing, you’re confronted with the 2015 footage of Walter Scott being gunned down while running away from Michael Slager, a white police officer.
It goes on like this, the footage of black experiences alternating between familiar and obscure, raw and polished, riveting and sickening, athletic and physically crippled, recent and removed in time. There’s a lot of falling down and dancing. A lot of joy, a lot of despair. The correspondences keep getting richer, more artful and sophisticated; the emotions more and more intense.
A huge reason for this intensity is West’s music. In an interview with writer, musician and professor Greg Tate (available on the Hirshhorn’s website), Jafa explained that about 85 percent of the film’s footage had already been put together, with the help of his editor Chris Mitchell, when he saw Kanye West, along with Chance the Rapper, The-Dream, Kelly Price, Kirk Franklin and a small gospel choir, performing “Ultralight Beam” on “Saturday Night Live.”
Jafa rightly called the performance “mesmerizing,” the song itself “incredible.” He described “Ultralight Beam” as the “first formal innovation in gospel music in probably 50 years, if not longer,” and compared West’s innovations to Ray Charles’s fusing of gospel music and R&B to make soul.
“Ultralight Beam” is – more than most songs – a collective effort that scoops up energy from various traditions and performers as it chugs hypnotically toward its climax. Jafa compared West’s role in the song to that of a “curator,” allowing other talents to shine. And since there were so many collaborators on the track itself, he felt almost as if he “stepped in and picked up the baton,” saying: “OK, let’s move this thing on to a fuller audio visual manifestation.”
And in a way, that’s how it feels.
One of the questions the video raises is articulated, about four minutes in, by the black actress Amandla Stenberg: “What would America be like if we loved black people as much as we love black culture?”
Jafa, a huge sports fan, has spoken in interviews of what he calls “black potension”: “an inherent tension between actualized and unactualized potentiality in the black community.”
His film speaks to a schizophrenic tension flagged, most obviously, in the title. But it’s not just the conflict between love and hate; it’s between the enormous, in some ways unrivaled prestige accorded to so many aspects of black culture (particularly in music and sports, but also in protest and activism) and the persistent facts of racism, injustice and inequality.
Jafa, 59, lives in Ladera Heights, in Los Angeles County. He grew up in Mississippi, for many years shuttling back and forth on a weekly basis between his birthplace, Tupelo, which was integrated, and Clarksdale, which was segregated. He has compared the experience to “traveling back and forth in time.”
His godmother, who helped raise him, went to a Methodist church where she was an usher. Watching her in this official role mesmerized him. Ushers in Methodist churches wear white suits and white gloves. Keeping silent, they simply gesture or indicate with their hands, even when ecstatic congregants are falling down around them.
Watching them made Jafa conscious of the existence of two poles in black self-expression: One is a “surplus expressivity” of the kind you see when basketball players are more performative and virtuosic than they strictly need to be when putting balls through hoops. The other is a less familiar reticence.
“If surplus expressivity is speaking in tongues,” he said, “then there is a certain power that derives from holding your tongue.”
In creating the montage of footage that is “Love is the Message,” Jafa saw his role as akin to that of his godmother, the church usher. The video, he said, is his way of saying: “Hey, behold! See this! See this stuff is all around us. Let’s look at it.”