Devin Kenny: Love, The Sinner

Photo: Sable Elyse Smith

“The violence associated with [public] art is inseparable from its publicness, especially its exploitation of and by the apparatus of publicity, reproduction, and commercial distribution. The […] obtrusive theatricality of these images hold up a mirror to the nature of the commodified image.” —W. J. T. Mitchell, "The Violence of Public Art: Do The Right Thing"

Commercial music is a populace art—a public art, and both the content and medium of Devin Kenny’s performance, Love, The Sinner performed at MoMA PS1 on February 28, 2016 as a part of the Greater New York exhibition.

Upon hearing the first lines of Devin’s text I ask myself, "is he erecting a monument to the fallen, forgotten, or those concealed under the detritus of erasure? And if a monument, to what does it testify?" Which wound, because they all come with wounds.

In this performance lecture, Devin lays out a history: of folk music, in particular, but also the subjects of vernacular, migration, and the evolution from folk to blues to jazz to hip hop. He presents facts and lays out a journey, but not before erecting another auditory monument. The performance score he shares with me reads: “New York is the place I’ve made home for the past decade. During a two-year period living in Los Angeles, I was shaken by the news of the deaths of Aiyana Jones, Kimani Grey, Trayvon Martin, Jordan Russell Davis and others. I was reminded of Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo, and Oscar Grant.” This is what was printed on the page for him to read. But before this—to a packed audience in a large room upstairs somewhere, in the now decommissioned schoolhouse, all white—he took time. He reminded us of other names. And he didn’t recite them all. That could have possibly taken all the time. He uttered the names, those not printed on his page. It was important to me, and a gesture that so many of my peers have taken up.

Devin lectures us. He reads to us attentively, subtly shifting inflection, intonation, and the tenor of his voice. Phrases become cluttered—words, at moments, fall atop and through each other as a vocoder enters and folds the frame around his performance. He lays out facts, just facts. He backs these up with multimedia evidence. Tiny pictures move across the wall behind him:

  • clip from O Brother Where Art Thou with the devil

    clip from BBC doc of Leadbelly at Library of Congress

    Kanye at Yahoo

    Bobby Shmurda at Epic offices

  • He recites: “Folk music has been continually used to further the agendas of those who were able to make it so, in the time following the Depression, it was used not only commercially, as the technology for recording and distributing recorded music became more widespread, but also as a part of the project of defining American Culture.”

    I cite the score directly because much of Devin’s practice thinks through commodity and distribution as it relates to music and the internet—two entities which are now critically enmeshed. In his work, he is often thinking about the creation of culture and structures of power operating below the surface. Surface: a deft aesthetic approach. The surface, the shine, the superficial, the chameleon-like cloak of the populace—of vernacular, these are the materials Devin delicately molds, not necessarily with his hands, but with his voice.

    The lecture, peppered with musical performances, constructs an epoch. The music, originally created by Devin and performed by a persona of his, or vice versa, escalates within the frame. It evolves as each transgression is retold.

    Devin recites: “Walking downtown I’m blown away at the plaques stating that this or that location was an African Burial ground. Had these stolen Africans not earned the right to be called Americans, even as they died to build the infrastructure and capital base that the World Trade and other monoliths sit atop? […] Officials still are not sure of the extent/location of all the gravesites. Manhattan is built upon so many dead Black people, it’s hard to keep track …”

    Devin is seated, his delivery like that of a coy professor. In what may sound or feel like a respite from these text passages, Devin stands and repositions his body in relationship to the viewer. These moments when his back is to us feel like a refusal of our commodification and subjective image-making. We are forced to render his body in relationship to the narrative of black struggle or the suggestion of pain present in the cacophonous soundscape, generated by our collective experience for those hours. This is a soundscape equally contributed to by our shifting bodies, and by a low-resolution clip of MC Paul Barman reciting “love people, not places." Yet, there are words that bite. Devin’s mimetic performance is not about excess.

    And Devin raps to us. The rhythm and time signature alone suggest that this is a tune we know from the radio, the internet, or spotify. Yet its content is displaced from the formulaic familiarity of something like a Travi$ Scott party tune. A fog of exhaustion rather than exacerbation is present. We, the audience, are both enthralled and depleted toward the peak of his final liner note, “If I don’t laugh.”

    The last of the video imagery Devin shows a short clip featuring Maya Angelou. But before it arrives, before we climax, Devin tells us that the “best way to support a culture, is to support the people that make it. Not only the practitioners, but the family, the school, the hospital, the church, the playground, the studio, the block, the road, the watee, the water, the water …” A thick tension pushes the audience together.

    He continues: “Black life matters, lives are datable, numbers manipulatable. Ending the center-periphery, white-other, male-other, straight-other, cis-other, regular-ethnic, etc etc binary mode is the wave.” Devin is “pushing into and rubbing up against.” Or, what bell hooks might say, that he is “teaching to transgress.”

    He is lecturing us. He is using his body to project speech. We have to look at him. We watch him. We witness his body shift, shudder, expand between seated reading and standing rapping, singing, being. We witness him laugh. At staggered moments we in the audience laugh, ourselves. He plays for us the sound of Maya Angelou laughing or rather making a sound that resembles laughter. Then, her voice plays “…if the bus misses someone she laughs [laugh]. So I watched her for about 9 months. I thought hmmm uh huh, now if you don’t know black features you may think she’s laughing but she wasn’t laughing. She was simply extending her lips and making a sound [laugh]. I said, I see, that’s that survival apparatus. Now let me write about that to honor this woman who helps us to survive by her very survival. Miss Rosie, through your destruction I stand up.”

    I think about this standing. Now, Devin is standing, melodically emoting “If I don’t laugh I’ll cry.”