Black Magic Women – Ancient, new, and circum-Atlantic

Still from Black Magic Woman

Before we hear her commanding voice, we feel her power buffeting two bible-carrying pastors who’ve accosted a young woman, talking on a phone, walking down a pathway. As they invade her personal space, we hear an insistent beat, first soft, then gaining force. It deflects the chasing proselytizers; the pursued woman escapes into the foreground. We are swirled into an alternate universe. Out of the mist in a jungle clearing she looms, sitting on a throne flanked by drummers, wielding sceptre, face paint, and megaphone.

Thus begins the new music video, ‘Black Magic Woman’, by Azizaa, ‘Ewe from Ghana soaked in the American pop culture by living here for over twenty years’. Produced by Wanlov the Kubolor, half of the Fokn Bois and an artist in his own right, it cannot but be provocative. The video’s address is Ghana, and contemporary West Africa. But its remit is wider: the repossession of time itself through a feminist reclaiming of the sacred.

The already scrambled time of African modernity is visually communicated through the bibles, men clad in shirts, ties, and trousers, and woman on a mobile phone. But murkier, more jumbled-up temporalities await in the jungle. The Black Magic Woman’s ‘ancient mind’ is ‘dreaming of aliens from the sky’ as did Sun Ra; the electronic pulse dialogues with percussionists; the bullhorn and megaphone are both prostheses of power. This mash-up of the ‘jungle’ and the sonic-lyric registers of Afro-futurism decolonizes the forward march of secular, factory, colonial time. As Azizaa says, ‘my music is a bridge between the ancient and the modern, the present and the future.’

It’s also a bridge between West Africa and the Americas. The last time a Black Magic Woman was invoked in a memorable song, it was Carlos Santana’s: ‘put a spell on me, baby’—an avatar of the exotic. As the ‘Black Magic Woman’ returns to the African Jungle, the pasts of slavery and colonialism meet the present of postcolonial West Africa. Christianity’s eschatology, a possible escape route from modernity’s metronome, is rejected as a legacy of colonialism and empire. Contemporary African Christianity is exposed as complicit with the restriction of women’s mobility and independence. Where is a spirituality that can decolonize the soul while empowering women? It’s in indigeneous West African spirituality that she finds the answer.

Not for Azizaa, however, a tidy nativist indigeneity, but the re-assemblage of cultural resources already re-assembled in New World diasporas.  ‘A voodoo priestess who creates voodoo music that is essential to my spiritual wellbeing,’ Azizaa is also the ‘daughter of Oshun’ (one of the female powers of the Afro-Cuban pantheon). Eschewing Hollywood–style voodoo with its dolls and hexes, her music, ‘spiritual but light-hearted, with a hint of sarcasm’, draws from female divinities with Yoruba roots, diasporic agencies, and various caprices and demands. Their auras range from the dark to the lighter; In Azizaa’s Black Magic Woman, possessor equally of ‘darkness’, ‘dragon’s breath’ and a sexy beauty, we see the dangerous Erzulie Dantor, the coquettish Erzulie Freda, the jewellery-loving Oshun, and the ‘supersyncretised’ Yemaya/ Lemanja/ Mami Wata: unpredictable Black Magic Women all, aliens from the sky, washed up on Black Atlantic shores.

Azizaa reclaims ‘voodoo’ from both the Afro-diasporic imaginary and Ghanaian pentecostalism: ‘”Vodou” means “free the people” in Ewe. So my music is for the free souls and minds.’ West African musical reinterpretations of Black Atlantic spirituality’s diasporic afterlives are a long-standing phenomenon. Cultural producers from across the region insist that ‘salsa came from here’, or that the ‘clave’, the signature rhythm cell of Cuban music, can be traced back to a village in Mali or Benin. This transatlantic cosmopolitanism evades imperial histories through affective strategies of reparation and reconnection: note, for instance, the ‘vodou-funk’ of Benin’s Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou.

Azizaa updates this trend with a feminist reworking of transatlantic voodoo and the nativist trope of the ‘Afro-tribal’. The Black Magic Woman also answers back to Chinua Achebe’s magisterial novel, Things Fall Apart, whose descriptions of the drums are set in a pre-colonial past thanks to realism’s collusion with linear narrative. Azizaa’s video is an aural-visual-percussive riposte to Achebe’s evasiveness regarding Christianity and female agency. Her use of English is welded to spoken word traditions and to the ‘Africa’ of the ribcage, thorax, and solar plexus. Watch how, at 4.22-2.29 in the video, body movement transmits the Black Magic Woman’s majesty as embodied, kinetic, and ‘African’, capable of ‘reconverting’ evangelist and pastor.

Ex Africa aliquid semper novi — from Africa always arises something new for the world. Aziza’s pocomagicmix of a video gives a new twist to strategic essentialism through its audacious and hypnotic power.

All descriptions of Azizaa’s music and cultural influences are taken from the author’s correspondence with her. Thank you, Azizaa.

Further Reading

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Patricia De Lille, one of South Africa’s most popular post-apartheid politicians, claims she tried to redress spatial apartheid in Cape Town, but the legacy of her seven year run as mayor is one of violent forced removals and a refusal to upgrade informal settlements.