Arthur Jafa took me to church, and he left me a shaken convert. On the roof of an immense office block in the middle of London, the one-time Spike Lee cinematographer and Beyoncé collaborator has pitched a tent to screen his film. The tent is meant to evoke the Baptist churches of the American South, but the gospel being preached has nothing to do with God. Jafa wants to use his art to create a black visual aesthetic with ‘the power, beauty and alienation of black music’. In ‘Love Is the Message, the Message Is Death’, he knots together clips and archival footage of civil rights marches, police violence, rappers, dancers and sports stars, all set to Kanye’s ‘Ultralight Beam’. It sounds simple, but if you only ever listen to me once, make it this time: this film is one of the most important works of art of the past decade.
It’s perfectly edited, with endless simple little cuts slicing into the music, tearing apart at the imagery: a genuine masterclass in whipping the viewer into a fragile emotional state before knocking them to the ground. He sends you teetering through humour, horror, disgust, joy, pride and anger. You’re left reeling when a policeman brutally punches a young black girl; amazed when LeBron James slam dunks; staggered by John Coltrane shredding the sax; shocked at the sight of a young kid begging his spaced-out mother to wake up. Then there are clips of teens dancing in nightclubs, a woman riding in her car: simple, everyday things.
Jafa weaves these strands together into a euphoric war cry, a chest-thumping, tear-stained scream of intent. This is the power of black America, these are its weaknesses, here’s how it’s exploited, here’s how it stands the fuck up for itself.
The thing is, for most of the artsy, liberal Londoners who will come and see this, none of it is a surprise. We know about police brutality, we know about the civil rights movement, we know about the brilliance of Nina Simone and Michael Jordan, but we consume all of that knowledge and culture in microdoses: 30 seconds of shameful violence shared on social media in between clusters of lols and ‘just married’ bullshit. Jafa blasts it all together into a whole that you know and recognise, but never truly understood before.
‘Love Is the Message, the Message Is Death’ is a hymn, a paean and a eulogy to black America. It’s full of pride and wracked with heartbreak, it’s open and approachable, but defiant and independent. It genuinely had me in tears, and I truly believe that this is what art should be: powerful, emotional and absolutely vital. If this is what going to church is like, then call me a believer.