I think it would be impossible to fully encapsulate the amount of adoration and outright appreciation that I have for the three songs that comprise Black in Deep Red, 2014, an EP by the brilliantly talented Moses Sumney released in August 2018. The EP was written after Sumney attended the Ferguson protests after the killing of Michael Brown, choosing to release it four years later to convey the ever-present reality of State racism.
We are now two years post-release, and we continue to mourn for the lives of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and many more that were lost due to white supremacy.
While Sumney’s talent undoubtedly goes beyond the content of this EP (please go check out literally every single piece of art that he has ever shared if you wish to transcend into a realm outside the bounds of the mere physical), this EP alone is an indication to the depth that Sumney possesses as both an artist and a political activist.
As shown time and time again through his work, Sumney carries a penchant for forming blissfully immersive interaction between the visual and the musical. I have firsthand experience of this when I had the opportunity to see Sumney live in February 2020 (pre-COVID nostalgia) while he was serving residency at the Bootleg Theater for his newest album “græ.” When you first entered the lobby of the theater, you were at once engrossed within the thought processes of Sumney, through paintings and photographs that he believed to engender the meaning and substance of “græ.”
Black in Deep Red, 2014 also embraces this relationship of the visual and the musical as it is named after the Mark Rothko painting “Black in Deep Red,” inspiration from which is plainly featured in the EP cover art. The decision to draw inspiration from this painting for the cover art of an EP that confronts the deeply embedded and institutionalized racism that exists in this country was no coincidence. One reason that makes art beautiful lies in audience interpretation. And I personally interpreted the choice of utilizing imagery from Rothko’s painting for this EP as a symbolic display of the blood that Black people have unnecessarily shed over hundreds of years at the hands of racist systems.
The opening song “Power?” cuts straight to it. “Power?” signifies the transformative power that lies within communal action. The song begins with energizing and motivational sensibilities through the yelling and call back of the supposed protest organizer and protestors, “Power to the community / Community power / Power to the people / The people have power.”
As the song progresses, the voices of the people are drowned out by a robotic voice as we, as listeners, are consumed by eeriness. The monotonous voice suffocates the cries of the protest, much like the monotony of certain media propaganda suffocates and subsequently perverts the message that protests, such as those following Michael Brown and the ones we are facing today, aim to bring into public consciousness. The robotic voice, in some ways, attempts to silence the voices that make up the protest. Yet the failure to completely silence the voices iterates the notion that there is true power within collectivity.
Also through this song, we are immediately faced with absorbing the brutally grim reality of repetition; we must confront that the senseless violence against Black people is meant to be a repetitive process, due to the fundamentality of racism and anti-Blackness. Protests ensue, but then protests are quelled. The pattern thus continues.
The second song “Call-to-Arms” advances the same sentiment. But this song is meant to move you through solely sound. Its lyrical lack extracts a kind of enhanced emotional divulgement. We feel a lot more through Sumney’s ranging riffs, the pulsing beats, rhythmic claps, synth-y yet throbbing saxophone, and finger-picking strums of guitar.
This song is meant to cultivate and stir up emotional feeling that we as listeners are not able to describe in words. The strength of message of “Call-to-Arms” lies within its absence of actual lyrics; without distinct verbalization, we are placed within the purview of abstraction, able to create our own interpretation with ease. The song then builds and builds and builds until we enter the momentous “Rank & File.”
“Rank & File” is thus the climax, the thesis, the main act, Sumney’s shining star of this EP. “Rank & File” does not beat around the bush or weave us through conceptual thought; it’s painfully direct. The song evokes images of not only the protest but candidly delineates the reasons why people are protesting. It is not simply because a man was killed (Michael Brown or George Floyd), but because we as a society have fostered and perpetuated systems of oppression, such as racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, that make it permittable for these killings (and many, many more) of Black folks to occur. An entity that is founded on and sustained through such systems is the police, an institution constructed to bolster the existence of the carceral state.
“Puppets, erect / With batteries set / They charge for a while / And fall right into rank and file.” Speaking about the police, Sumney portrays the imagery of police constituting a single entity serving a singular purpose, rather than uniquely different individuals who are able to be effortlessly distinguished. This line astutely exclaims that all police officers, regardless of their idiosyncratic identities, are participating in a profession, subdued within the larger structure of an entire carceral state, that is meant to preserve the aforementioned systems of oppression.
“Their governing master / To their hip is plastered / Say protect and serve us / But murder’s not service.” This line just echoes the notion that the police serve the greater purpose of furthering the authoritative influence of the police state, which is rooted firmly in racism. We must ask ourselves, who are the police meant to protect? Why does the African American community make up about 6.5% of the American population while making up about 40.2% of the prison population?
In pure Sumney fashion of merging the visual and the musical, we see in the “Rank & File” video as sped up melting of a wax soldier. I view this as a testament that the only true way we can achieve Black liberation, and in turn liberation for all oppressed peoples, is through the dismantling of the police state. We must now reimagine, reenvision, and reconstruct a world that is free for all.