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Our mothers were pregnant African women thrown overboard while crossing the Atlantic Ocean on slave ships. We were born breathing water as we did in the womb. We built our home on the sea floor, unaware of the two-legged surface dwellers until their world came to destroy ours. With cannons, they searched for oil beneath our cities. Their greed and recklessness forced our uprising. Tonight, we remember.
So begins “The Deep,” a 2017 track by the experimental hip-hop band clipping, on which the novella is based. It’s a futuristic ballad — a blend of hip-hop and electronica that time-travels from the horrific crimes of the past to the environmental degradation of the present to the oceanic uprising of the future.
The story of The Deep grew from “a game of artistic Telephone”* that started with another band — the aquatically-themed techno group Drexciya — who first introduced the concept of an undersea civilization created by the victims of the slave trade. Drexciya imagined a scenario in which an act of evil sows its own defeat, and asked: what if the children of the victims survived, by the grace of God and Nature? And did they do so in order “to teach us or terrorize us?”†
clipping. took that concept and turned it into a communal monologue, telling the story in the voice of the Drexciyan mer-people themselves. Only, they word it so that we, the listeners, are part of the community rather than just passive listeners. They purposely chose the pronoun “y’all” to emphasize the idea that this story is the work of a community and not a lone artist.
Rivers Solomon, in turn, fleshed out the story and further toyed with the concepts of individuality and community. Solomon hands the mic to an individual mer-being named Yetu, who is both one with and separate from the wajinru (Solomon’s word for the Drexciyans). Yetu is the Historian, a figure similar to the Receiver of Memory in Lois Lowry’s The Giver. She holds all of the memories of her entire race, from their birth to the present day, so her neighbors can exist in a state of blissful present tense. She remembers the trauma so they don’t have to — except once a year, when she conducts a ceremony to Remind the wajinru where they came from.
The ceremony is the only time when Yetu gets to rest, and this year, she is more desperate than ever to let go of the memories. The trouble is, she’s not sure if she can bear to take them back. They’ve been slowly killing her for the past twenty years…what if she just quit? What if she left the wajinru to deal with the History on their own? Would that be so bad?
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First: I love the idea of conscious artistic collaboration, and (more specifically) the idea of verbal stories inspired by music. Solomon and clipping. embody what writer/artist/poet Austin Kleon refers to as “steal[ing] like an artist” — an ethical, constructive form of derivative art. It’s an official form of fan-art. As the members of clipping. say in the book’s Afterword, they could imagine someone else continuing the game of Telephone, expanding the Drexciyan mer-world even further.
Second: I love the idea of the ocean itself pulsing with an organic form of music. There’s a reason so many ambient tracks include the sound of ocean waves. There’s something hypnotic about that constant crash and hiss. There’s something about underwater sounds — the echoing pop of bubbles against your ears, the warped squeals of whale song, the rapid clicks of dolphin speech — that slows you down, makes you more mindful, makes you feel both unhooked and fully part of the world. Music is a language that transcends time and space and species.
Third: I love how Solomon honors the concept of communal experience, but also argues for the importance of self-care and individuality. Yetu faces empathy burnout and awareness fatigue. She makes a radical decision that so many empaths, caregivers, and introverts are faced with — the choice to prioritize our own needs. To escape our social responsibilities before they drain us completely. To turn off the news.
Fourth: Solomon imagines a world in which sex and gender are literally fluid. The wajinru all have the same sexual organs, and can shift them at will, depending on their gender identities and on whether they wish to reproduce. This fluidity is so ingrained that Yetu has no trouble recognizing a non-binary surface dweller even before the person gives any explicit indication of their gender identity.
Fifth: I love romances between people with strongly different worldviews that are portrayed as equally legitimate. Romances in which both parties are willing to defend their positions and demand apologies for hurtful behavior — and are equally willing to give said apologies without losing their self-esteem.
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Ebb (but not really?)
The chapter that portrays wajinru politics felt out of place at first — partly because the rest of the story had such a dreamy, escapist tone, and partly because it felt like a different plot than the main story. But, on second thought, the novella is supposed to be experimental. It’s an expansion of the world introduced by Drexciya and clipping, not a complete and unchangeable product. Maybe another author or musician or visual artist will pick up Solomon’s thread and tell us more about the wajinru sociopolitical structure.
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If you enjoy stories like The Giver and the Lost Voices trilogy, I think you’ll enjoy this mer-story that explores the importance of shared memory and the ability to move forward from extreme trauma and injustice. If you enjoy trippy, experimental music, definitely check out Drexciya and clipping.
What are your favorite literary-musical intersections? If you could participate in a game of artistic Telephone, what artwork or concept would you build on or twist? Or, have you already done so?
* Rivers Solomon. The Deep. “Afterword.” Pg. 157.
† Pg. 158.