Fifteen art institutions will be simultaneously livestreaming ‘Love is the Message, The Message Is Death,’ a 2016 video work by Arthur Jafa, over the course of 48 hours starting June 26. The initiative is spearheaded by the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which jointly acquired the work in 2018.
When the work debuted in 2016 following the election of Donald Trump, the mashup of archival video footage, all set to Kanye West’s gospel-inflected song Ultralight Beam found a captive audience and was widely celebrated. For Jafa however, the quick and vocal embrace was dubious. He went on to create a follow-up work, titled The White Album to challenge and confront the overwhelmingly white response that he found performative.
Revisiting Jafa’s work four years after its debut, it’s sadly more relevant than ever before. The nearly eight minute long video loops together clips and archival footage of civil rights marches, police violence, rap videos, and other iconic moments that defined pop culture, all set to Kanye’s Ultralight Beam, a gospel song that’s been hollowed out, featuring a choir, an organ and Chance the Rapper.
It’s perfectly edited, with endless cuts slicing the music up, and tearing apart at the imagery. It has the power to completely knock you to the ground, but only after breaking you down into a fragile and emotional state. Jafa purposely sends you through horror, humor, joy, pride, anger and disgust so quickly that you’re left broken, scared yet somehow hopeful. You find yourself furious when a policeman bodyslams a young black girl to the ground, and then you’re quickly brought back to life when John Coltrane plays the sax and equally amazed at LeBron James’s slam dunk.
Jafa entwines these clips together to create a loud battle cry that was widely heard in 2016 and even more so today. He creates a loud, tearful scream of intent that showcases the power and endurance of black America. He shows how it’s exploited, it’s strengths and weaknesses and also shows how it perseveres. We have all consumed the brilliance of Nina Simone before, but perhaps in a microdose. Jafa puts it all together and forces us to truly question what it would be like if the world loved black people as much as it loved black culture.
‘Love Is the Message, the Message Is Death’ is a paean and equally a eulogy to black America. It’s full of pride and heartbreak but is also defiant. It’s powerful, emotional and absolutely vital.
Two discussions featuring Jafa will take place on Saturday, June 27, at 2 p.m. EST and Sunday, June 28, at 2 p.m. EST at www.sunhaus.us. Saturday’s roundtable will feature Peter L’Official, Josh Begley, Elleza Kelley, and Thomas J. Lax. On Sunday, Aria Dean, Rashaad Newsome, Isis Pickens, and Simone White will hold discussion and both panels will be moderated by Tina Campt.