In 'We Are Sent Here By History', Shabaka and The Ancestors are the Last Angel of History

Shabaka and The Ancestors - We Are Sent Here By History (Photo: Supplied)
Shabaka and The Ancestors - We Are Sent Here By History (Photo: Supplied)

John Akomfrah’s The Last Angel of History is an experimental video essay that uses the concepts of Afrofuturism to explore a Pan-African reading of displacement, black culture, alienation, mythology and futurity. 

Set as a work of fiction, the hybrid film introduces us to the character of the "data-thief" who traverses space and time, jumping between periods of history to collect fragments of a black past, pieces of black culture, in search of a code that holds the key to his future.  

"We came across the story of a bluesman from the 1930s. A guy called Robert Johnson. Now the story goes that Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil at the Crossroads in the Deep South. He sold his soul, and in return, he was given the secret of black technology, of a black secret technology we know now to be The Blues. The Blues begat Jazz. The Blues begat Soul. The Blues begat Hip Hop. The Blues begat RnB. Now flash forward 200 years into the future. Next figure. Another hoodlum. Another bad boy, scavenger poet figure. He’s called a data-thief. 200 years into the future, the data-thief is told a story. If you can find the crossroads. A crossroads. This crossroads. If you can make an archaeological dig into this crossroads, you’ll find crossroads, techno-fossils. And if you can put those elements, those fragments together you’ll find a code. Crack that code and you’ve got the keys to your future. You’ve got one clue, and it’s a phrase: mothership connection," the data-thief intones from a dystopian, sepia-toned outcrop. 

The Last Angel of History trailer

This opening monologue is itself deeply coded and riddled with clues on how to read it. Across many mythological knowledge systems, the crossroads is the place "between the worlds", the meeting of the here and its afters. Where the membrane between realms is thinner, spirits can flit between our world and theirs. The crossroads is a liminal space, always in between. 

The Mothership Connection is an iconic album by Parliament, the space funkadelic cosmic home of George Clinton and the rest. Released in 1976 to luke-warm reviews, the album drew comparisons to James Brown (with Maceo Parker and Fred Wesley from Brown’s band joining the Parliament horn section). In the year of its release, Rolling Stone magazine had this to say about the Mothership Connection: "But this album refuses to be taken seriously, except as Clinton’s parody of modern funk. After all, it was George Clinton who renamed James Brown the 'Grandfather of Soul'. History has gone on to amend these critiques. It is easily one of the most respected Funk albums of all times.

History revisits itself all the time. This is how it is made. By adding and amending. By erasure through power and popular narrative. By addition through activism. Revision by way of revolution. History tells the data-thief of Sun-Ra, of George Clinton, of Lee Perry and Octavia Butler. History tells the data-thief about Africa, about the connection between history, space and the future. "Our thief of the future gives up the right to belong in his time, in order to come to our time to find the mothership connection. The thief becomes an angel, an angel of history."

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Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus is an oil transfer drawing with watercolour. In 1929, it was purchased for 1 000 marks by German philosopher and critic Walter Benjamin. At a glance the artwork is… not overly arresting. The figure is something of a cross between the human and the avian, topped with curls that form a number of unfurling scrolls. The eyes are unfocused. Wings the things of Icarus, they might take flight but it certainly won’t end well.

In an essay published posthumously, Benjamin has this to say of the painting: "His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward, the storm is what we call progress."

Paul Klee's Angelus Novus (Photo: Supplied)

                          Paul Klee's Angelus Novus

Basquiat’s Untitled (Fallen Angel) is a figure not dissimilar to Klee’s. The angels look more adept to being propelled than to flying, and they do not read as saintly. Basquiat’s Fallen Angel could even be described as menacing. Wings - misshapen. Halo - thorny. Arms outstretched in a way that can make you run into them, or away from them with just as much force. There are many angels in Basquiat’s lexicon, many of them untitled. Untitled Angel sits on a backdrop the colour of Johannesburg sunsets, a bruise before it starts to blue. The angel has its arms out at its side, slightly raised above its head. The halo is smaller than that of the Fallen Angel. There’s a picture of Basquiat online. Paint-stained jeans with a blue pullover. He holds in his hands a jar of white paint, a brush in the other. It's one of those pictures that catches one mid-expression. Smiling, squinting into the camera. About to say something. Behind him, Untitled (Fallen Angel) is still a work in progress. It’s wings spread out on either side on him. The 2D halo frames his afro. His iconographic crown appears above and below the wings in red and black.

It is the title of the second Shabaka and the Ancestors offering that brings me here to this crossroads, to this celestially guided negotiation with history. Following debut album Wisdom of Elders, We Are Sent Here By History trails its predecessor by almost three years. The sophomore offering is an excavation of the ruins, the things that survived the fires that raged through Wisdom of the Elders. The album is described as "a meditation on the fact of our coming extinction as a species. It is a reflection from the ruins, from the burning. A questioning of the steps to be taken in preparation for our transition individually and societally if the end is to be seen as anything but a tragic defeat".

Dylan Valley's BTS video for Wisdom of the Elders

"I guess for me, coming from the diaspora, it's an ongoing kind of question. How do you actually compose the narrative of what comprises you, as a member of a bigger community?" For Hutchings, this inquiry requires one to not only look inward, but like Lot's wife, to look back as well. In 2016, Hutchings contributed an article, We Need New Myths, to the Chimurenga Chronic. Drawing lessons from Afrofuturism, Hutchings affirms the power of myth-making. He argues that "repressed people lose the power to imagine, to re-contextualise an interpretation of the world handed to them". Where Wisdom of the Elders presented a new myth, We Are Sent Here By History returns to the birthplace of this myth, jumping - much like the data-thief - between a beginning and a fashioned end.

"History is a process of gathering." Hutchings large frame is forced into a square box on my screen. He speaks with his whole body, his hands and parts of his long arms disappearing off screen as he does.

"The more I’m growing and the more I’m learning about what history is in relation to me and what my personal history is, I’m realising that history in itself is almost like a verb. History is something that you actively do. You actively search towards being able to compose fragments. And for every one action experienced by a group of people, all the people involved will have a different perspective. So the history of what happened is the history of the communal experience. And the only way to know that is to know the many different perceptions. But what happens after that? What do you do with that? And this for me is where the myth-making comes in. Because myth-making is about how you treat the information. In the same way that education is how you give people who want to learn access to certain information."

Shabaka and The Ancestors - The Coming of the Strange Ones

The 11-track album, released on Impulse! records earlier this year, opens with the heavily-percussive and urgent 10-minute track, They Who Must Die. In the first words of the album, lead vocalist Siyabonga Mthembu issues a playful caution, "ayeye". In an interview with the New York Times, Mthembu speaks about imagining as recollection. "I think imagining — in an African space and in African philosophy — is remembering. Remembering that your people had ways, they had a science, they had ways of talking about the creator, had other idioms and metaphors. And it’s in the words that the remembering comes." 

In Track 2, it becomes clearer what is being warned against."The gods happy to turn their fields of war into their palaces of worship." In direct conversation with the cosmos created in the liner notes for Wisdom of the elder, this world of myth becomes a place of meaning. A truth. A super-reality. "We warned of how gods became irrelevant, impotent, when we possessed the power to pray our own devils back to hell. Back to the burning. We are sent here by history."

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But what is it that history can do here, when we've stopped heeding all the warnings. When all that can, has burnt? What comes from smoke and ashes when we've conceded that our collective perceived realities add up to very little more than sophistry, than smoke and ashes? Conceived as a sonic album, this is what Shabaka and The Ancestors have come to interrogate. More than a quest to find answers, this album provokes us to ask different questions. 

"It's a weird one," explains Hutchings, "because it flies in the face of history as being something sacred. It looks at history as something that has to constantly be expanded. It's exploring and keeping up to date with what the purpose of traditions actually are. For me, I like the idea of newness. Because it suggests that myths aren't static, stagnant. What I've been thinking about recently is the myth of white supremacy. It's such [an ingrained] myth that people don't even see it as a myth. Or the myth of patriarchy, that men are supposed to be the dominant sex. And how people then build a lot of structures around that myth. And it's these structures that people have developed their realities around. Are we articulating our myth-structures in an adequate way?"

*Stream/ buy We Are Sent Here By History here.

*Written by Lindokuhle Nkosi, the editor of Arts24.