Afrobeat & Algorithms: Closing Out Black History Month

Nina Simone + Deep Dream

I grew up in a Southern Baptist church and, as a kid, I yearned to join the youth choir. I wanted to be in the processional on their special night. Each member, in turn, stepped forward, paused, and moved forward diagonally to a new position where they repeated the action in the opposite direction. The result was similar to weaving a textile. Choir members moved into their places behind the pulpit row-by-row, then moved together side-to-side, and this was all done on the beat (rhythm) played by live musicians.

*I didn’t have the knowledge at the time but now I realize this processional is an algorithm… and this is linked to other cultural production.

In the PBS video (above) the ingredients of the Afrobeat sound weaves tradition and music to create its own fabric: call and response (participation), improvisation, and short rhythmic phrases. Weaving is a generative concept in computational art and design both in method and as an experiment or tool. Both of these creative, cultural productions (choir processional, Afrobeat) got me to thinking about the nature and influence of algorithms in culture.

Nontsikelelo Mutiti and Julia Novitch. “Morning O”

The website “Morning O” plays the transcript of a hair braiding appointment in Yoeville, Johannesburg in real time. This tool, according to Nontsikelelo Mutiti, performs aesthetic gestures based preset commands and algorithms. The execution and repetition of these procedures produces patterns such as braids, rhythmic sequences, or even a choir processional. Had someone taught me how this was an example of coding (computation) I might have been more interested in the domain as a kid. I initially rejected it.

Basic Algorithm of the Choir Processional (program):

This piece of software requires 3 inputs from the user:

  • A chant, hymn or other music sung during the procession
  • Total # of steps/pauses
  • Total # of diagonal movements

All three inputs are crucial on how the final result is going to be. We can take this further and describe the program based on call-and-response participation, improvisation and short rhythm sequences. How can this practice inform AI or AI pedagogy? How can call-and-response and improvisation, as data sets or theoretical frames, help shape AI’s possibilities in both capacity and applications? These are questions I’m beginning to address in my work.

Note: I don’t have a video of the youth choir processional.

Embedded in the algorithm of the choir processional is culture/heritage and history, including a history of Black music and the Black church. As it relates to music (Afrobeat, funk, jazz, etc.), there are algorithms in call-and-response and improvisation. The computation/AI discussion can move conversations from the past, or the present toward a more technologically-engaged future.

Nettrice is a digital artist, academic, cultural critic and advocate of STEAM education.