Mar 11, 2015

Guerilla Blues and Holy Ghosts

Admittedly, I have very little interest in old school cracker-hating black revolutionaries and the history of hip-hop, which I have always found completely intolerable in all its various forms, but somehow I found myself rather excited about watching an experimental documentary about both Afrocentric subjects entitled Guerilla Blues and Holy Ghosts: A Grammar of Black Suffering, Absence of Presence, and Other Reflections on Dead Weight (2012) directed by South African auteur Aryan Kaganof (Naar de klote! aka Wasted!, Shabondama Elegy aka Tokyo Elegy). Of course, I must confess that my interest in seeing the doc was somewhat superficial and surely a symptom of my voracious cinephilia, especially when it comes to the singular oeuvre of Aryan Kaganof (or the artist formerly known as Ian Kerkhof). Indeed, after seeing Kyodai Makes the Big Time (1992) and The Mozart Bird (1993), which were the first two chapters in the director’s self-described ‘Urban Wasteland Serial,’ I decided to contact Kaganof to see if I could get a copy of the seemingly mysterious third and final film in his cinematic triptych, The Turner Revelation (1995), but he responded by stating the film was, “so terrible that I don't even have a copy of it myself. Just a grueling endless gabfest of moaning. Utterly beyond redemption.” Ultimately, Kaganof decided to send me a copy of Guerilla Blues and Holy Ghosts, which not only features excerpts from Kaganof’s rare lost film, but is also about Gylan Kain who both starred in and penned the racially-charged play that The Turner Revelation is based on.  Indeed, the film is based on Kain's semi-autobiographical O.J. Simpson inspired play Ritual for a Poet in B Natural and tells the tale of a black man named Turner who murders his white wife, subsequently has a conversation with the devil over the telephone and realizes he has killed the wrong woman, and eventually undergoes an eerie court room style interrogation from a young white woman known as ‘The Prosecutor/Witchdoctor’ where the protagonist ultimately realizes that his mother is the true source of his resentment towards women.  Notably, excerpts of the penetrating psychodramatic scenes from Kain's interrogation in The Turner Revelation are featured throughout Guerilla Blues and Holy Ghosts, which is only fitting considering the documentary features a rather candid and even intrusive depiction of the seemingly forsaken American negro poet's singular life and work.  Simultaneously a poet for the people yet a born outsider and rebel who rechristened himself after the first murderer of the Bible, Kain is depicted in Kaganof's documentary as a man of seeming contradicts who ultimately realized after various rebirths that only he, and not the black nationalist movement or even poetry, could save himself from a life of metaphysical hell and internal torment.

 I have to confess I knew nothing about Kain or his legendary group The Last Poets before watching the doc, which just goes to show Kaganof’s keen talent as a filmmaker as I found Guerilla Blues and Holy Ghosts to be just as unwaveringly gripping, aesthetically alluring yet iconoclastic, and preternaturally transcendental as the director’s greatest and most revered works. Kain is a poet, playwright, spoken word warrior and sometimes actor that is best known as the original leader and one of the founding members of the NYC-based black nationalist oriented group The Last Poets, which is credited as being one of the first, if not the first, proto-hip-hop groups, as well as a band that was championed by none other than Jimi Hendrix and Mick Jagger, among various other important mainstream musicians of the counter-culture zeitgeist. Born shortly after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and on the anniversary of Malcolm X's birthday on May 19, 1968 in Marcus Garvey Park, The Last Poets are the victims of an undying apocryphal tale that they derived their name from the poem ‘Towards a Walk in the Sun’ written by black South African revolutionary poet Willie Kgositsile that reads: “This wind you hear is the birth of memory when the movement hatches in time's womb there will be no art talk. The only poem you will hear will be the spearpoint pivoted in the punctured marrow of the villain.” While Kain was surely influenced by Kgositsile's poem, which he interpreted as meaning that there will be no need for writing poetry in the future as the black people will become the poetry once that have defeated and destroyed their white oppressor, The Last Poets apparently derived their name from a poem written by the group's co-founder David Nelson. Sort of black America’s answer to Gabriele D'Annunzio or Yukio Mishima as a ‘warrior-poet’ who used the spoken word to wage a spiritual war against white America and to spread the message of negro liberation and black power, albeit with a stage presence and vocal delivery style comparable comparable to fellow poet-cum-frontman Jim Morrison of The Doors, Kain is certainly the sort of highly literate black cultural crusader that negro networks like BET should be honoring instead of culturally deleterious individuals like Tupac and Kanye West, who might as well be described as neo-minstrel performers. 

Shot in three different cities over a decade period, including Amsterdam in 1994, New York City in 1996, and Johannesburg in 2004 and not officially released for almost another decade, Guerilla Blues and Holy Ghosts is not only a document about the life and work of Kain, but a bizarrely inspiring testament to the seemingly unlikely artistic collaboration between the director and his much older subject. As Kain explains towards the end of the documentary, his revolutionary group The Last Poets more or less started to fall apart after he refused to sell-out by working with a white record producer who he felt was attempting to steal black power from him and his comrades, but as Kaganof’s film reveals, the seemingly perennially wandering poet has had various rebirths throughout his life, thus reflecting a constantly evolving man that refuses to be labelled or pigeonholed. As a reflected in an allegorical scene featuring a shadowy Kain traveling in a darkened car in slow-motion through what seems like an unending green tunnel, life is an ever-changing spiritual journey that lasts until at least you croak. At the highly impressionable age of ten, Kain had his first encounters with the Holy Ghost at a black Christian church (which is a major motif of Kaganof's doc), but his brand of spirituality would only grow more subversive and highly personalized as he grew older.  Of course, despite his rebellious behavior, the influence of the Christian Church would never leave Kain as highlighted in various scenes scattered throughout Kaganof's doc featuring a pregnant black woman credited as ‘The Ghost That Was Holy’ (played by Sybil Jeffries) posing outside of various black churches.  As the poet explains himself, shortly after reading Albert Camus’ remark in the classic text The Rebel (1951) aka L'Homme révolté that Cain was the first rebel of the Bible when he was 23 years old, he had another rebirth and had his name legally changed to ‘Kain’ in symbolic solidarity with the first murderer of the Judeo-Christian holy book. As revealed in an inter-title featured in the doc, “In Dante’s Inferno the 9th Circle of hell is called Kaina, after Kain, the Bible’s first murderer.” Ironically, the 9th Circle of hell is for the ‘malicious sin’ of treachery, which Kain would ultimately suffer at the hands of new band mates, who ultimately took over The Last Poets, nearly beat him to death with a hammer, and continued to threaten to kill him and his entire family. 

 When Kain turned 30, he had a third rebirth of the artistic and metapolitical sort that resulted in the creation of his most important works, including his play Turner. As a man who wrote aggressive anti-art-fag lines like, “I am a poet. I hate poetry and love life” and “....rhythm don’t fill an empty stomach,” Kain was not exactly attempting to follow in any traditional style of western poetry, but instead saw the artistic medium as an empowering weapon that could be used to convert blacks across America to adopt an Afrocentric weltanschauung that emphasized racial nationalism and negro liberation as reflected in inciting lines like, “Time is running out as hastily as niggers run from the man.” Kain also had a reluctant interest in classic western poetry as demonstrated in bizarre lines like, “You know, a big stick don’t make a shepherd if he can’t control the flock. You better rise up Rudyard Kipling.” As Kain explains in the doc regarding his artistic agenda with his group, “It was very important that we have a conga player. We almost called ourselves ‘The Drum Poets’ because we wanted a very clear association with Africa.” More interested in spreading a bold and uncompromising black power message than making money or even creating art, Kain naturally could not fathom the idea of recording an album with a successful white record producer named Alan Douglas, who had previously worked with Jimi Hendrix and Miles Davis, or as he stoically states in the doc: “Just them saying that Alan Douglas was white just wrote it off of my agenda as being possible. For me, all the poetry that we were doing was even secondary to the machinery behind the poetry. I wanted to build an institution. All across the country it was about building black institutions, black powerbases. I rejected the idea of Alan Douglas recording us.” Ultimately, Kain’s stern reluctance to work with whitey Douglas caused a schism in the group and a seemingly fiendish Svengali-like fellow named Jalal Mansur Nuriddin (aka Alafia Pudim) was brought in to replace him as the leader of the group. As Kain states of Jalal and the other new members of The Last Poets, “There sense of poetry was not something I thought we were about.” Instead of working with The Lost Poets, Kain decided to record his own solo album entitled The Blue Guerrilla (1970), which is an angry and aggressive yet musically eclectic work that one might describe as an audio Afro-apocalypse.  After recording a sort of rival album against the new version of The Lost Poets (Kain fittingly called his new rival group ‘The Original Last Poets’ and they went on to star in the musical doc Right On!: Poetry on Film (1970) directed by Herbert Danska, which was accompanied by a soundtrack of the same name), Kain was apparently nearly beaten to death with a hammer by his rival Jalal (in the doc, Kain describes the experience as, “...the beating of my life”), but luckily a black cop came along and saved his life. Ultimately, the near-death experience caused Kain to become disillusioned with black nationalism and go to a “personal place with himself,” thus resulting his rebirth as ‘Baby Kain,’ which is the name he used for his Dutch era jazz oriented album Feel This (1997).

 As Kain explains towards the end of Guerilla Blues and Holy Ghosts, “I’m not a tough guy. I don’t really know how to handle myself in this world out here and yet I feel about myself that I’m a spiritual alley cat because the violence that I have dealt with is an internal violence.” Indeed, judging by Kain’s own words, it seems like it was only a matter of time before he would reject the anti-individualistic collectivist thinking of the black power moment, which constituted a dead-end herd mentality that could never bring the constantly evolving artist the true sense transcendence that he so eagerly sought. Ultimately, it took countless rebirths for Kain to come to the conclusion that, “Nobody can save me but me” and “I could reject everything but I could not reject the experience of the Holy Ghost.” As Kain also explains, “The Holy Ghost is a violent experience but it’s a beautiful experience. I mean, nothing is hurtful about it in the experience itself, but it is a violent internal confrontation with the self which, in the metaphor of the church in the Holy Ghost language, it’s thought of in terms of god and the devil battling for your soul...,” thus emphasizing how his life has ultimately been a spiritual as opposed to political or racial struggle. Ironically considering his previous refusal to work with a white record producer, Kain is featured throughout the documentary performing his spoken word sessions with a white jazz drummer, thus symbolizing his new outlook on life as a lone wolf individualist as opposed to a racial collectivist. Of course, Kain would also go on to working with white filmmakers in Amsterdam and would not only appear in Kaganof's films Ten Monologues from the Lives of the Serial Killers (1994), The Turner Revelation (1995), and Reflections on Dead Weight (1995), but also Otakar Votocek’s Wings of Fame (1990) starring Peter O'Toole and Colin Firth and Dick Maas’ Do Not Disturb (1999) starring William Hurt.  It might also interest cinephiles to know that Kain's song with The Last Poets, “Wake Up, Niggers,” was featured on the soundtrack for Donald Cammell and Nicholas Roeg's counter-culture classic Performance (1970).

 After watching Guerilla Blues and Holy Ghosts, it is easy for me to see why auteur Aryan Kaganof took such a keen interest in Kain and his work, as the two men seem to be kindred spirits of sorts. Indeed, aside from both men having symbolic rebirths that led to them legally changing their names and living in exile in Amsterdam where they would ultimately collaborate with one another, both men are constantly evolving aesthetic pioneers who abhor pedantic art faggotry and refrain from subscribing to any sort of artistic trends.  On a more personal level, Kaganof and Kain also seem kindred spirits in that their works expresses a deep resentment towards their mothers, or what one might describe as an anti-Oedipal complex.  With that being said, I must admit that after watching Guerilla Blues and Holy Ghosts, I am dying to watch Kaganof’s The Turner Revelation which, as reflected in the handful of excerpts featured in the doc, feels like a haunting and foreboding celluloid chiaroscuro of the psychodramatic sort, with star and playwright Kain himself taking on the Holy Ghost. Notably, Kain was apparently deeply touched by the doc, or as he wrote in an e-mail to Kaganof regarding the film: “…it’s late so I will just say that the film troubled me in as much as it brings people back in my view I have long desired nothing but distance from/tremendous distance/but nevertheless have had a number of attempts to look and deal with the work. Finally brought it to the closest friend I’ve had in this Amsterdam city the last 25 years of my existence. She said: ‘It says everything we need to know. It’s a document, a testament.’ And then she said: ‘It’s a monument.’” As Kaganof once wrote under his alter-ego Abraxas, “All that is sacred is poetic and all that is poetic is sacred” and he certainly demonstrates this sentiment in Guerilla Blues and Holy Ghosts, which is nothing short of a highly personalized poetic tribute from one poet to another. In its demonstration that two different artists from very different artistic and personal backgrounds can share a sort of common ‘truth’ and spiritual connection, Kaganof's doc is like a visceral celluloid equivalent to what Aldous Huxley described as the ‘Perennial Philosophy.’ Undoubtedly, I cannot think of another film or piece of art in another artistic medium that enabled me to connect with a black American artist of the Afrocentric sort in a more accessible and refreshingly confrontational way. Indeed, only Kaganof could direct a potent and rather revealing film about one of the most important culture creators of American Black Nationalist history that depicts an elderly drunken Dutchman as god and features kraut queer New Wave countertenor Klaus Nomi’s Henry Purcell cover “Cold Song” juxtaposed with a voyeuristic shot of an old negro hobo eating McDonalds food out of a public trashcan.

-Ty E

1 comment:

Tony Brubaker said...

I`d like to get a four-hour 'tantric' blow-job from Miley Cyrus and then unload literally half-a-pint of spunk down her lushious young throat, what a stunningly gorgeous babe that bird is.