The NON cofounder speaks to Andrew Ryce about the importance of collaboration and collectivism in art and music.
"It is an exposition of the negative dialectic by way of Adorno in the form of a subordinate psycho-geography," he wrote. "It uses the strength of trans-individuation and the minor subject to break through the fallacy of prescribed subjectivity."
I'll admit I had to use a dictionary and Wikipedia to figure out what he was saying. The explanation he gave during our phone conversation was easier to understand. But this kind of thoughtful discourse is part-and-parcel of Chino Amobi's music. A true interdisciplinary artist, he borrows ideas and concepts from other forms of art, academia and social justice. He thinks big, and he thinks carefully.
Two years ago, the Richmond, Virginia-based Amobi started NON, a worldwide collective and record label, with London's Nkisi and Cape Town's ANGEL-HO. It was meant as a supportive platform for members of the global African diaspora to express and share their experiences, to highlight voices that are often denied the chance to speak. NON's earliest material was confrontational, in the vein of Berlin's Janus crew—angry, discordant experimental club music—and concerned with themes of social justice, like the history of the slave trade or immigration policies.
The label, and Amobi, quickly became more avant-garde, encompassing visual, textual and performance art, in addition to the music, which is released digitally through Bandcamp and SoundCloud. Last year, as the music became more cerebral—like Amobi's Airport Music For Black Folk, a send-up of Brian Eno's Music For Airports that highlights the anxiety that black travellers feel navigating the system—NON published a magazine featuring poetry, essays and photography, and held a prominent showcase at the New Museum in New York.
Through all this, Amobi has become one of the most eccentric and thought-provoking artists in the NON fold, though he wouldn't tell you that himself. He is quick to credit those around him, even for his own work. He lives the idea at the heart of NON: that a supportive group that develops together is better and more meaningful than individual success.
Paradiso, Amobi's first album, embodies this philosophy. It features a cast of artists from across the experimental club scene, from Elysia Crampton to Embaci, with no individual credits. Most of the time you can't even tell what Amobi himself might have contributed. It's a dense, dizzying listen with layers upon layers of samples, spoken word and percussion, unfolding more like a radio play than an album. And true to the goals of NON, Paradiso features all kinds of voices with all kinds of accents narrating all kinds of things—personal diatribes, radio jingles, poetry, rap—over a brilliant musical backdrop that rarely stays still.
Despite the album's almost hyperactive shuffling of focus and style, Amobi himself is slow and deliberate with his words, choosing each one carefully. Over our hour-long conversation, he spoke about the year-long making of Paradiso, his experiences with NON and how music can still be a vehicle for social change and understanding.
Let's talk about the idea behind Paradiso.
When I started working on Paradiso, I wanted it to be something that was larger than myself. Airport Music For Black Folk was very much about myself travelling through airports and interior spaces. A lot of self-reflection went into that. But I wanted my LP to be something that was about more than myself. I wanted to get my friends involved, people who I've collaborated with over a long period of time, people who I've been wanting to collaborate with, people who I've just met recently. So I would make some of the tracks, I would start with sketches of them and I would send them out to people or have sessions face-to-face with them.
A lot of time was spent talking about different ideas with collaborators. Songs changed over time, and the world expanded. Teasing out the vocabulary and the language of what could fit in there, what worked and what didn't. There would be sounds that would come up and I would automatically know—no, that doesn't belong in this world, it doesn't fit the palette of this world. Or somebody who I was collaborating with would say the same thing. A lot more world-building, thinking about role playing games where you travel to different towns, different destinations—more like a journalist approach to this world.
So what is Paradiso, and how did the idea come to you?
Paradiso is design fiction, a hyperobject that I move through. A lot of it came to me just thinking about all the work that I've done as Chino Amobi, working with others, working with Elysia Crampton. I think of it in a lot of ways as the sequel to Demon City by Elysia Crampton. I collaborated with her for two songs on that. I envision these places existing in the same world. You know how there's Marvel and DC, I picture the world of Demon City and the world of Paradiso existing similarly.
A big part of the album was inspired by my interactions with Elysia, and I dedicate the album to her. Also the work that I've done with Dutch E Germ and the sound that we've been working on together had a big part in making the place that is Paradiso.
I think of it in terms of architecture, the space that bodies—especially disenfranchised or marginalised bodies from the South—take up. A lot of it has to do with me living in Richmond, Virginia, which is the capital of the South. Thinking about this tradition of the southern gothic narrative, and Edgar Allan Poe—ravens, crows, the plantations, overgrowth, jungles. Forests and slavery. But then the album also transcends beyond the South into the global South, accounting for South America and Africa and parts of the Middle East as well. Thinking about that narrative and recoding and dealing with history in a nonlinear way through the sound.
I was thinking a lot about non-spaces. I think of the non-space as a conceptual fragmentation between cultures where voices speak. And within that fractured and destabilised field there's an ability to rewrite prescriptive narratives and assumptions about those voices and ideas.
How does that manifest in the sound of the music on the album?
I think it manifests in different ways to the listener. When I listen to it, I hear a lot of collision with different voices and different sounds, and different places—geographically, physically, spiritually. There are many different styles of music overlapping, exploding, collapsing, dying on top of one another. Many different genres imploding and reducing into one another. In that way, when I listen to it through I hear, or I gain, new understanding of each artist, each voice, each sound. The sounds on the album evolve into new forms and generate multiplicities and new realities.
What is it about Elysia Crampton's work that has made such a lasting impression on you?
To me, I just get bored with the idea of this singular genius that Western art has propagated over the last century. I mean, it's not like there aren't artists that I love. Of course I love individual artists. But at the same time I get way more excited when everybody is creating together, the community aspect, because that way I feel like we all flourish and learn from one another. We teach one another and build one another up, instead of tearing one another down in this hyper-capitalist I-have-to-destroy-you-at-the-expense-of-myself way. I'm all about creating this confluence where we're able to nurture one another in ways that transcend the space where I'm at.
A lot of people on the album, I've known them for a long time, some of them since I was like five or six years old. And it came back around and I ended up working with a lot of artists that live all across the world. I've been talking with some since Myspace, others I just started talking with last year that live in, like, South Africa or Argentina, or in the UK. People I would've never been able to reach without sharing my music online and hearing their music and starting a dialogue.
I just love to celebrate that type of interaction and flourishing, how that also ties into collaboration across borders and the importance of not just isolating your ideas and navel-gazing. This isn't something I feel is heavily promoted, especially with minorities. Opportunities are slimmer—and historically have been—for minorities. So for us to work together in establishing our own communities and networks and bodies that transcend space, I think we create these opportunities for one another, and we're flourishing together.
It's not like it's without tension, because just being human and interacting with other humans, there's tension there. But I think even with that tension, it starts to become iron sharpening iron, all of us growing as individuals, as human beings, artists, musicians—cultural flourishing. That's essential to my practice, letting go of some of my own identity through collaboration.
There are voices on Paradiso that say things that I never would've been able to say. So it has to do with losing a little bit of control, which I've been thinking about a lot. The tension that exists within curation, but also simultaneously losing control, not being the one that's the be-all end-all of every single action. Because that's not the way the world is. I want to promote this sort of interaction with the work, because that's the way that I view myself interacting with the world.
I feel like it's important for us in these times to be working with each other and hearing other people's perspectives. Being in service to other people.
All those ideas tie into what NON is itself.
Yeah, for sure. I try to bring that into what I do with NON, or my involvement with NON, yes.
So how do you actually enact that idea of losing control when you're making your work, or putting work out?
Well, there are other individuals, like Nkisi and ANGEL-HO, that will curate things that I have no say in. They bounce ideas off me, but that's how we work—each of us spearheads our own things within NON. People come to me with project ideas and create designs and artwork, and I'm just like, "Yeah, that's cool." So it's not necessarily me being a fountainhead. Some of the ideas that are more essential to the core of what we do as NON have come from ANGEL-HO and Nkisi. People see me and think that I'm the mastermind of NON, but it's not like that. Nkisi and ANGEL-HO are the real masterminds, to be honest. I'm good at bringing people together, but not everything comes from me. That's just a reality. I think people get it twisted sometimes.
You said that Nkisi and ANGEL-HO have come up with some of the fundamental ideas for the label. What are those fundamentals?
Well, the idea to come up with passports, which we did in 2016 [at the New Museum], that was Nkisi's idea. Also the idea of "invisible visibility." Some of the military semiotics that we've utilised within our approach came from Nkisi. The word NON, that was ANGEL-HO's idea, to call the collective NON.
Are you surprised at the level of recognition NON has received in the last two years?
Yeah, I mean it happened really fast. I think that's the thing that surprised me. I knew that with us doing what we were doing and trying to be positive about it, the purity of the intention would stand out. It's not like it wouldn't ever have its problems, but I knew that things would start to pick up. But I didn't expect them to happen that fast.
I've noticed that the label's output has kinda slowed down in the past half year.
We just don't need to rush anymore. We don't feel we have to. At the onset, it was like bam-bam-bam, like flooding everything, because we had so much in abundance. And we still do, but we wanna really pace things out and make sure that each artist that we're releasing is getting the time and consideration that they need to.
Last year you guys did a performance at the New Museum with RBMA. How do you reconcile the anti-establishment ideology of NON with doing things in art spaces like the New Museum?
I think it's important to take the red pill and the blue pill at the same time. I'm not some type of isolationist that's gonna separate myself from culture at large. The resistance can happen within the establishment. Growing up I always existed in a liminal space between say, my Nigerian identity and my identity as a black American. I like to place myself in between and I think, within that place, that's where the action happens. For me it's not like, "Hey, how are you resisting these things, because you're performing in these spaces—how do you reconcile that?" That is how I reconcile that. By promoting some of the most brilliant minds of the age—black minds, brown minds—in these spaces, and spreading our message within these spaces. You know? I honestly think that we purify spaces with our performances and our presence wherever we go.
Do you feel that music is still a viable and important way to communicate the label's ideals of inclusivity and social justice?
Yeah, I definitely do. I think that music cuts to the heart and the mind in ways that sometimes visual language on its own can't. There's a way that our music is able to destabilise minds and spaces that open up channels, new levels and a new understanding. People tell us all the time that their minds have been changed, and their hearts have been changed, by what we've done.
It's not like everything changes overnight and we live in this perfect world. But I think that right now you're seeing culturally across the board, people are saying that we gotta do something about this, things have to change in terms of curation of events, things have to change in terms of allowing people to speak who have not been able to speak before. You see the opposite happen too, where some people in the world are like, "Nah, I just want my own people to speak," but I'm all about challenging that through sound and design and music. And I see how we have been having a positive impact on culture through our sound and our design and our work and our efforts. And also the love that we show one another and the love that we show to others.
I think that when NON started out, a lot of people thought of it as a deconstructed club label or whatever. And obviously it's not a club label, it's not even really a dance label. But do you think that the club space or the party space is valuable?
Yeah, I definitely think that it's valuable. I don't think that it's the be-all and end-all. I love music that's created beyond the club, but I also love music that's created for the club. But ultimately I just love diversity in music. Music that is created by minorities that challenges preconceptions of what these sounds mean, where they're coming from, how they function. Even with the club stuff, I try to subvert that. The whole deconstructed club thing, I don't really know what that means. I think all of us just make what we wanna make. And what we identify with personally.
NON, your music, your art—everything you do is ideological. You have an idea behind it. How do you get that across in an increasingly divided world? To people who might not be exposed to these ideas in the first place?
That's where we keep on pushing and just keep on doing what we've been doing. Because even if it's one person on that side of extremism that doesn't wanna hear it, maybe eventually something happens. It's not like it's our job to educate people or bring this understanding, but I think that in the same way that the ideology is propagated, we are using our tools of propagation and promoting our ideals with similar tools. I'm glad that dialectic is there, that people do have the choice.
Life is very complex. I think it's more complex that people even realise. Like the whole left-right thing—I get really bored with that discourse. I just am who I am. That's my politics. My politics are the life that I live. Nkisi and ANGEL-HO feel the same way. If people dig what we do, that's fine. If they don't, that's fine. We're just gonna keep on doing what we do. I'm gonna keep on doing what I do, and I'm gonna stay optimistic, keep my head to the ground and just work.