Jenn Nkiru is best known for her 2nd unit directorial work with Ricky Saiz on The Carters music video Apesh*t, as well as in her own films As Told G/D Thyself featuring Kamasi Washington, Rebirth Is Necessary and Women Are Present.
Black to Techno is an exploration into the direct origins of blackness in techno and electronic music. The presentation of this doc is unlike any other.
Nkiru’s take on presenting the history of techno in a nonlinear format is her intention to bring attention to this history reflecting on how black people see themselves in their art.
“My hope is that all individuals with some level of curiosity can come into these things and see aspects of themselves, or at least be curious about the things they don’t know” — Jenn Nkiru, AnOther Magazine
Origins of Techno
The word “Techno” was originally conceived in the mid-1980s by Belleville three, 3 friends straight out of Detroit who later became music producers, Juan Atkins, Derrick May, and Kevin Saunderson.
They grew up listening to Parliament-Funkadelic [specifically George Clinton and Bootsy Collins respectively], Kraftwerk, and Yellow Magic Orchestra, who use electronic and synthesizers in their production. The tracks that stood out of them were Flashlight, Autobahn Their response to hearing this “alien” music as Derrick May put it, was to make their own.
Radio DJ’s were essential in the expansion of the sound. As techno thrived in the underground, it slowly began to emerge in the media. One of the Belleville 3’s biggest influences was The Electrifying Mojo, a cloaked radio DJ who ran The Midnight Funk Association, a radio show that played funk, new-wave, and hip-hop. The show had a space-ago, sci-fi theme, even with a segment called Mojo’s Mothership, paying homage to Parliament-Funkadelic. While listening to radio mixes and discovering new music, they would visit Chicago to check out the house scene.
The Belleville Three worked collaboratively under different names and groups Juan Atkins started a group called Cybotron, an alias called Model 500 and formed a label called Metroplex, Derrick May worked with Atkins as Rhythim is Rhythim, Kevin Saunderson worked as Kreem on Atkins’ Metroplex, also an Inner City, and later formed his label called KMS.
The Belleville Three were contacted by Neil Rushton a music entrepreneur from the UK license their music in the UK. This would differentiate themselves from their interpretation of the Chicago house sound into what they would call techno or Detroit techno. As a result, a compilation called Techno! The New Dance Sound of Detroit was released, which became the staple of the genre.
The Meaning of Techno
The etymology of Techno comes from the word Techne means art or craft. In relation to techno, the music is created by a soulful merge between man and machine as a musician is to the instrument.
The connotation of “soul-music” is derivative of Motown, being that the sound is associated with the early 1960s, which the time, energy and feelings people had is embedded because of the music
This merge in the industrial sense, techno is a reaction to Detroit’s industrialization, and the effects it had on its residents.
The Language of Techno
As the genre continued to grow more artists began to emerge with a concerted effort to develop a language that was conscious and contextualized visions for the future.
The Belleville Three named themselves according to their founding premise: Juan Atkins was The Initiator, Derrick May was The Innovator, and Kevin Saunderson was The Elevator.
These titles were an intent to develop their own post-industrial subculture, including a language with vocabulary, dialogue, and foundation of musical-sound architecture, referencing the city of Detroit and how they perceive the world.
Artists like Drexciya and Underground Resistance came after the Belleville Three, both of which introduced mythologies and manifestos to give commentary to the effects of what techno can do by creating in an alternate universe or encouraging change within yourself and others.
Drexciya’s “Intro: Temple Of Dos De Aqua” opens the film, introduces an “underwater country inhabited by unborn children by pregnant women that drowned after were thrown off of slave ships.” This is in line with the Igbo landing story with a twist, instead of their bodies drowning and souls ‘flying’ back to Africa in their spiritual form, they create their own aquatic civilization.
This mythological approach creates an interconnected dialogue between African and American cultures through the polyrhythms of techno. There is an Afrofuturist undercurrent in Drexciya’s language, that relates directly to traumas African Slave Trade, developments in technoculture, and notions of reality. This is exactly how techno as a music genre is a vehicle for change.
Underground Resistance is a collective that encourages artistic and socio-political freedom, escaping the trappings of the society by using music as a form of resistance to ultimately have a better future.
Their words allude to war or battle on techno music, which relates to the commercialization of techno, which to any artform can affect is authenticity.
The UR manifesto cites,
“A movement that wants change by sonic revolution. We urge you to join the resistance and help us combat the mediocre audio and visual programming that is being fed to the inhabitants of Earth. Techno is a music based in experimentation; it is music for the future of the human race” — Underground Resistance Manifesto
Both of these are manifestos and mythologies have built encompassing philosophies based on the foundation the Belleville 3 had started. These sayings are reminiscent of the stature of the Futurism movement and disruption of Dada movement and can be more closely related to what we know now as a basis of Afrofuturism.
The structure music is of a dub structure is what links reggae, jazz, disco, soul, blues, hip-hop, and R&B together to electronic sound known as techno.
This idea of structure builds a foundation of language, architecture, and sonics, the same concepts are applied to confronting realities facing Detroit and the world we live in.
“Body and soul leap into techno. Syncopation, black rhythm, black time, might be understood as a suspension of the resolution between contradictory but twinned positions.” — Jenn Nkiru, Black to Techno
If I was to introduce techno and electronic music to anyone, I would show them this film.
Nkiru’s directorial ability is to realize her visions are heightened with each release. Her style is “social-anthropological” experimental-documentary based storytelling with hints of imagination sprinkled in. She blurs the lines between documentary and speculative fiction, allowing the ambiguity of the visuals, music, and audio to fill the space. Black to Techno features archival footage of migrant workers in fields and assembly line factory workers, car advertisements, dance clubs, all of which birthed the structure around Fordism — the basis of mass consumption of products — this creates a means for the citizens of Detroit to escape the mundane.
Research group and journal liquid blackness frame her work as “Black Studies As Aesthetic Practice”, Nkiru implements a “Pan-African and Afrofuturist sensibility, the Black Arts Movement and Black Power, as well as the desire to draw from her Nigerian roots”.
In the context of techno, her perspective of using “cosmic archaeology” as a vehicle for a nonlinear narrative is directly influenced by the mystique around techno music’s history.
Black To Techno has a variety of footage, both archival and on-location, to address the encompassing black origins in techno. The masterful cinematography was done by Bradford Young, who is an auteur in the ongoing conversations on black cinema and film.
There are narrating voices throughout, such as Juan Atkins (1 of the Bellville Three), writer dream hampton, cultural critics Greg Tate, Kodwo Eshun (who appeared in John Akomfrah’s techno doc The Last Angel of History).
There are special appearances by The Last Poets and DJ John Collins to name a few.
It is interesting how Nkiru places herself as a narrator in her own film, with her hand on the dial as director, her presence as a filmmaker is not only heard but felt.
A scene that exemplifies the ethos of the film is with DJ’s in the factory. Black women who are DJ’s and are Detroit natives, in an assembly line mixing Cybotron’s Clear. Dressed from head to toe in denim, (a reference to blue-collar clothing, line work, industrialization) while standing side-by-side, like an assembly line, commanding the warehouse (clubs, where techno and house music are played, are also known as warehouses) as workers, in tune with their decks, in rhythm.
“How do we present this in a way that people are interested in and can vibe with?” — Jenn Nkiru, AnOther Magazine
As a fan of Nkiru’s work, I was deeply moved by how she uses cinema to express things that she loves. I was that young kid that always wanted to know more. I always caught a vibe from watching documentaries that made me curious. I love techno and electronic music so much yet I didn’t know why, and this film has presented itself as an ephemeral thing. It was made for people like me who love to dive deep into less talked about, yet highly influential aspects in black music and culture.
Check out Black to Techno by Jenn Nkiru on Youtube.
Check out Jenn Nkiru’s website.
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