Black Music Month: Blackness as Cultural Technology

3D model created in Tinkercad based on Cold Sweat music visualization

Black Music Appreciation Month is an annual celebration of African-American music in the United States. It was initiated as Black Music Month by President Jimmy Carter in June 1979. In his 2016 proclamation, Barack Obama noted that African-American music and musicians have helped the country “to dance, to express our faith through song, to march against injustice, and to defend our country’s enduring promise of freedom and opportunity for all.”

The late James A. Snead

In recent years, I’ve applied the ideas of late scholar James A. Snead — set out in his 1981 essay ‘Repetition as a figure in black culture’ — to funk music and digital media. This includes coding, 3D modeling, music visualization, and digital fabrication. Snead highlights music by James Brown, i.e., the first funk song, “Cold Sweat.”

Snead writes: “Once this groove is established, there is a sharp break, and a new tempo is set up with new horn and vocal patterns. Another cut occurs when we hear punchy horns and Brown’s delivery of the song title: ‘I break out’ — bemp, bemp, bemp, bemp — ‘in a cold sweat!’ — bemp, bemp, bemp, tonktonk, BREAAAH. And we then return to the initial groove. The song’s pattern is A-B-A-B-A, with cuts as the markers of transition.”

The “A-B-A-B-A” pattern in “Cold Sweat” reads as an algorithm, which is a set of instructions written in such a way that computers can follow them. We can take Snead’s thesis further into black culture and music production — something that the public is fairly familiar with — through what Lev Manovich refers in his book The Language of New Media as “cultural transcoding.”

Cultural transcoding
Cultural layer: A traditional Kuba textile pattern
Cultural layer meets the computer: Cold Sweat music visualization (stills)

Manovich believes that both, the culture layer and the computer layer influence the development of one another. Cultural layers are transcoded into new media and are processed through computers. The computer layer provides the code that the computer uses to translate (code) into objects. A few years ago I created a music visualization using “Cold Sweat” and noted that the visual patterns were similar to Kuba and Kente textiles.

Preparing the 3D model for digital fabrication

I took a still image from the music visual (animation) and imported it into Tinkercad 3D Designs. After exporting the 3D model I used Slicer for Fusion 360 to create a file that could be fabricated by a laser cutter. I wanted to move back out into the physical world; to see code as a physical object or objects.

Proof of concept: laser cut version of the 3D model

The displaced element, taken from one context and put into another, gains new meaning, new definition and wholeness while still retaining traces of its otherness in the new context. The transformation, through divine inspiration, redeems what had been abandoned by the world, and in doing so redefines its restorer. — Sheryl Tucker de Vasquez

Music & 3D Modeling Lesson Plan

I wrote a lesson plan to show how this ‘proof of concept’ could inspire students to use their cultural knowledge to create things. Funk creates a vernacular that emanates from the customs and rituals of a community of practice. This is what James Snead was exploring when he wrote his essay that provided a premise for the creation of Black music, algorithms and models.

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