Of Ralph Ellison, The Invisible Man, and music.
by Marcus K. Dowling
My favorite novel is Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man.” It’s one of my favorite litmus test points for social evolution and social movements, as Ellison’s unnamed African-American narrator passes through the universe in bouts of invisibility, presence and omnipresence, with the eventual emphasis on invisibility, but living underground in an amazingly well lit unknown (but formerly known) sector of a building only rented to white people. It stands as one of the great pieces of literature because it so deftly allows the reader the ability to enter, exit and define one’s self ultimately in the forgotten margins of society, growing with strength, intellect and wisdom, appearing spontaneously and brilliant, then, being discovered, torn asunder, and pushed back to ignominy. This novel is not just a great explanation of the black experience, but rather it’s an outstanding definition of any underground experience, and works rather well when applied to our present musical condition.
We’re at this point right now, where, due to the state and nature of the universe, we’re unearthing all of music’s “Invisible Men.” In history, we’ve normally introduced them one by one, allowing them to shine, then they become overrun by corporate greed, become trite and hackneyed, then are expunged from our experience. This is the story of Ellison. What is now occurring is similar, but will end much differently. In the next year, due to numerous factors, it would appear as if all of these “Invisible Men” are going to be allowed to run unfettered, growing, co mingling, developing and entering and re-entering our consciousness perpetually. From Baltimore club’s rapid ascension, to hipster clubs being overrun by the grandsons and granddaughters of disco, to dubstep’s new place as King of the Underground, to hardcore rappers being more emo than emo pop bands could ever be, things are insane, and the quest for visibility has begun in earnest.
Why is this happening? This is the question at the lips of every music listener that for years fell under the sway of mass marketed and mass produced corporate industry scheme. The folks who JUST love gangsta rap, the folks who JUST love electro, the folks who JUST love country, guitar driven rock, hip hop, and so on and so forth, are in trouble. When we weren’t in a recession, these sounds were pure, the sounds were real, they were codified and stratified and presented by the mainstream as law and rule. However, as with most things, technology came along, and has completely adjusted the paradigm.
The strong hand of corporations cannot defeat the limitlessness of technology. Technology has destroyed the “Invisible Man.” When technology was not controlled, the industry kept the underground, well, underground, but, as technology won, the genre specific nature of music slowly began to fade, the underground became the rule, fact and law. Technology, via download, blog, Youtube, and so many others, allows us to dig into the various lairs of the various musical “narrators,” and, without fail, for those who find them, they all note that the homes of the various musical forms can be described as Ellison’s narrator describes his home. “My hole is warm and full of light. Yes, full of light. I doubt if there is a brighter spot in all New York than this hole of mine, and I do not exclude Broadway.” The holes are still filled with the source material, curated, prepared and stored away, waiting for the eyes of the universe. In that space that is warm and full of light, quite the party has been raging away. Be they Baltimore club bangers like DJ Technics’ take on “Please Mr. Postman or Rod Lee’s “Dance My Pain Away,” clear harbingers to DJ Class’ “I’m the Shit,” or on a pop level Beyonce mirroring her “Single Ladies” video strut to Bob Fosse’s choreography of “Mexican Breakfast,” everything is visible, and those 1,369 lights are shining brightly everywhere, illuminating the future of music.
But people still turn away. There are people in this world that feel that the theory of the “Invisible Man” is the way. To stay underground, to develop underground, to be real underground, to stay true to one’s reality, to be a “Trueblood” (to steal once again from Ellison) and celebrate the tiny victories of people, if even for a second “crossing over, yet keeping it real,” is amazing, and ultimately an outmoded model. Being Ellison’s narrator and following his model of living far beneath, but secretly within the establishment is dead. Opening up our ears and eyes to what happened, and embracing the insanity, and letting new sounds bowl us over, letting new artists with different theories of their evolution exist without hate. Ultimately clear and full acceptance is the way. Nothing must be allowed to stay “underground.” Pulling, chasing, exposing, listening, harvesting, hearing, always open, always appreciating. Those who are successful set the standard. Those who fall by the wayside must continue to search. There is a sound available. It’s ALL available.
The Invisible Man has died.
ed. note: The author, Marcus Dowling’s other work can be found at his site, TGRIOnline.com, True Genius Requires Insanity. He can also be followed on Twitter at twitter(dot)com/marcuskdowling.