My mouth could not find a language. / I find myself instead,
—Dionne Brand

Like light, language does not have to travel in a straight line. It can bend ideas the same way light rays reshape the way images appear under water. They take turns. In space, gravity requires light to change its behavior around massive objects; On earth, our need and curiosity asks the same of speech and syntax.   

In Dionne Brand’s poetry collection, Land to Light On, she diagrams her extradition from language so exquisitely and also makes the case for the radical potentiality within it. Following her observation that she finds herself instead of language she adds, almost as an afterthought, “useless as that,” as though to suggest that finding the self without the means to understand it is to render the self without use. And what freedoms can be found within a self that has no useuse as defined by the same systems that deploy language to produce the useless world that we find ourselves living in?


Toni Morrison, in her 1993 acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in Literature, cautioned against resting too easily on the laurels of language. Her work orbited around a suspicion of language’s capacity to mask its danger through its mundanity; To stay vigilant about the tools we use every day is to remember that they are technologies with methods capable of destroying histories and narratives with as much grace as creating them. “It must be rejected, altered and exposed,” she said. I’ve studied these instructions for years and lately, the past participle of “altered” feels most exhilarating. The flimsiness of language itself is succinctly being rejected and exposed all the time, in direct view, mostly on social media. But perhaps the way to do that is not through more words, but through looking to see what else we already know how to do, rather than try to begin anew and find novelty along the way.

In 2019, the critic Kimberly Drew astutely observed in an article for Office Magazine that opera was becoming a popular “architecture for the future of Black cultural production”; And now, five years later, that observation seems to be accelerating and expanding. Perhaps that is because opera is, by definition, epic, and can match the scale of Black prophecy, imagination, and urgency. It is bombastic, as an artist working on her own opera told me in a recent conversation, capacious enough to hold the vast expanses of ideas and desires for transformation that are unfolding in our lifetime. [a]Opera is the plural of the Latin word opus, work that is, by definition, exponential.

One history traces the art form back to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, in Florence, Italy, though a friend who works in theater recently reminded me that opera itself is just the word that a multiplicity of ideas, disciplines, and practices were corralled into over time. Opera is what we call the medium, but it has other names and knowings and histories before the taxonomizing by the Italians. Perhaps we are only just beginning to see what an opera is and what it can do—and conversely, what language, in its unadulterated form, cannot.

Woman sitting at pianoSilouhette of a man
X’ene’s Witness, presented by Los Angeles Nomadic Division [LAND], images courtesy of Justen Leroy and 718 Photography

Last fall, I was in Los Angeles, California at a cavernous marble temple, watching a piece created by Justen LeRoy called X’ene’s Witness, billed as a live opera to “highlight Black environmentalism. Ultimately, LeRoy is trying to find new ways to talk about the climate, both the planet and what the scholar Christina Sharpe defines as “the totality of our environments; The weather is the total climate; and that climate is anti-black.[1] LeRoy describes his upbringing in South Central Los Angeles and wanting to engage his community with bigger conversations about where we live and the how and the why of it. LeRoy hopes to bridge these dialogues with vocal nuances, looking for connection between familiar emotional chords in Black sound and those of the earth itself. The performance took notes from classical operatic performances like Phantom of the Opera, Rocky Horror, and paranoid thrillers Frankenstein: Productions laden with curiosities about our obligations and relationships to each other and the thorniness of trying to create something new—whether love, life forms, queer utopias.

We were there to bear witness to an exorcism, perhaps, a purging, of the known in search of the unknown. It felt like a medicine ceremony or a tightly controlled experiment to release emotions. The show orbited around X’ene Sky and her spiritual awakening, articulated through a scale of sound and song. Oftentimes her vocalizations erupted into high pitched screams or laughter. The music, both emanating from her body and the soundtrack composed by LeRoy and Alexander Hadyn, and a chorus of gospel singers, had a body too. Many bodies, all trying to find each other and create something (coaxed into being with stunning choreography by the artist Qwenga). A feeling filled the space, asking as much of us as the performers themselves.

Woman sitting at piano
X’ene’s Witness, presented by Los Angeles Nomadic Division [LAND], images courtesy of Justen Leroy and 718 Photography

One of LeRoy’s previous pieces also worked to connect Black expressionist sounds to those of the utterances of the earth. Lay Me Down In Praise, which was exhibited as part of a collaboration between the California African American Museum and Art + Practice, drew connections between gospel’s wordless moan and the “moans” emitted by the earth amidst anthropocentric climate abuse, from the sounds of the ocean to the rustling of the trees. There is a collective remembering of the intelligence of the body, of the throat, of the moan as a means to connect ourselves to a larger picture of being and existence. It only makes sense, then, for artists to begin working with gestures, limbs, and vocal chords, those mechanisms beyond words, those that accompany words, those that preempt them and ultimately replace them. Sometimes what needs to be said comes through the vocal chords and out of the mouth; other times it comes up through the body and out through the skin. Our hands, mouths, hips have syntax; cutting eyes, sucking teeth, sweeping movements have a grammar. New sentences can be formed there.[b]

Perhaps the language we are trying to rewrite is a language of self.

This forming, this reaching is a pushing against the limits of language that not only breaks ideas about what it is possible to say, but what it is possible to do. These new choreographies even feel present in the atmospheric shift in popular culture, from Beyoncé’s Renaissance to André 3000’s New Blue Sun. The former embodies the need to shout affirmations in unison, communal proclamations of love and belonging, meant to be experienced collectively, the choral amplification doubling as a validation of worth and acceptance and autonomy. André 3000’s album arrives in a moment when people seem to need the exact opposite: An invitation to meander, to go inward, to let the mind quiet and wander, an excuse to slow down and stop speaking for a little while, offering inspiration to try something new. The song titles seem to say a lot while revealing very little, the instruments arriving and departing with dignity and quietude. It’s not an album to memorize or even stay attuned to. It’s also music for releasing the self as a means to find it. 

This is a tradition that can be traced throughout music history. For example, in 1975, Dizzy Gillespie gathered Sarah Vaughan, Joe Carroll, Al Haig, and other jazz greats for a reunion concert that aired on PBS. The performance is an electric capsule of a sonic era that defined their careers; It is a perfectly respectable showcase, the ideal soundtrack for making dinner at home on a cozy night. But about halfway through, the performance splits open. Something peels back, slips out, is revealed.

Vaughan is winding down a particularly slinky performance of “Round Midnight,” not so much singing as she is releasing sound in the shape of decades of practice, grief parceled out in legible packets. Perhaps it’s the way Vaughan loosens her jaw and allows the song to lose its shape a little. Maybe it’s the way she works the lyrics into new shapes, kneading them into new forms. After she finishes, the band immediately jumps into an uptempo riff on Gillespie’s “Oop Pop a Da.” The song has less business with the way wind moves through a brass instrument and everything to do with the speed, innovation, and creativity of the mouth. Most notably, scatting.

The vibes are ecstatic, the skills on display virtuosic. The audience’s polite applause is not sufficient for the level of majesty and mastery on display. In the version I watched, the feed seems to short-circuit as though the technology used to upload this footage can’t contain the electricity crackling through the performance. There’s a kinetic energy threaded throughout that reflects the hypomanic times, a love of art and music paired with the perpetual disappointment and heartache of America and all that language and art and culture didn’t do.


Scatting rose out of necessity, a flurry of dropped paper during a record taping, and freestyling in lieu of lyrics, as the lore goes. But isn’t it equally possible that this new form of orality arose from an urgent desire to explore the seam between speech and music, organization and chaos, human and machine, legibility and illegibility? And perhaps the need to say something that could only be felt, rather than heard? Scatting arrived at a time when the velocity of jazz’s co-option was dizzying; perhaps as a means to protect Black opacity and creativity by birthing a new art form that is almost impossible to duplicate. It’s a performance of profundity, posterity. A record of genius and the ways intelligence can be improvised.

Decolonizing the land is one task, decolonizing our bodies, our throats, our emanations, our expressions is another. How do you choose a tongue to use when they are all bitten, thick with blood?[c] There is no easy option, no peaceful option. The betrayal, resonating at a register high enough and sharp enough that it resembles a sheathed knife, is already apparent in the necessity of choice. These revelations feel rooted in a newfound interest in what the body is able to do. What the lungs can do. Improvising. Feeling our way toward something new and unfamiliar in the hopes of finding new frameworks, structures, and paradigms that work better.

When the science fiction author Octavia Butler wrote that “There’s nothing new under the sun, but there are new suns,”[2] she didn’t mean we were out of potentiality; she meant that there is a fecund place of possibility beyond the fields of fatigue and exhaustion. We just have to feel for it.[3]

[1] Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being.

[2] Epigraph to Octavia Butler’s incomplete book, Parable of the Trickster.

[3] Title culled from the following text: Fred Moten, “Black Mo’nin’,” in Loss: The Politics of Mourning, David L. Eng and David Kazanjian.