Is My Mind a Machine Gun? - KESSWA + Shigeto
“I’ve got a creeping intuition,” a disembodied and electronically warped voice mutters, “I’m on a mission, clearly, clearly, clearly…” The voice continues to warble and reverb, throbbing like the pulse of blood through my fleshy ears. A face emerges briefly through the static of raspberry pink and baby blue strobe lights and then disappears from view just as quickly, cutting to indistinct shapes and colors similar to the indistinct and faint imprint of light through closed eyelids. The face emerges again, clearly visible this time and bathed in blue light, staring unabashedly at the viewer. The frame changes almost immediately, establishing a visual trope of rapidly shifting images, cycling through ambient footage of a city skyline at nighttime; a nondescript biker slowing to a halt on the sidewalk, their identity concealed by a medical mask; a figure standing amidst a forest of leaf barren trees, only a silhouette of their portrait visible, punctuated by a golden disk earring that faintly reflects the sky and tree line; disembodied hands with their palms facing upward, looking vulnerable and imploring; a woman striding across what appears to be a stage, framed by the concave, gray arch behind her, before she stops center-stage and begins slowly ambling towards the camera. The pulsating percussion continues to build and layer, joined by the plucking hum of a harp. The woman begins to sing the same line over and over again, mantra-like, “oh my love, tell me now if you want me.”
Is My Mind A Machine Gun? is a collaboration between Detroit-based artist KESSWA and producer, DJ and drummer Shigeto and was commissioned by the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit for the museum’s new media platform Daily Rush. The digital platform features the work of visual artists and filmmakers whose production lies in-between digital media, contemporary art and moving image—highlighting ideas on digital culture and technology by artists and thought leaders from Detroit and beyond. Is My Mind A Machine Gun? follows KESSWA’s 2019 debut Soften, a four-track electronic journey through grief and acceptance.
KESSWA’s use of repetition reminds me of the opening track of Solange’s 2019 album When I Get Home where she continually repeats the lyric, “I saw things I imagined,” inflecting the words with the same melody until the words are stripped of their meaning, taking on a sense of urgency and suggesting a depth of meaning that is not readily comprehensible or evident to the listener. Throughout Is My Mind A Machine Gun?, KESSWA chants the refrain “tell me now if you want me,” repeatedly while subtlety recreating a simple choreographic movement, drawing her arms in towards her exposed midriff, floating her hands up the length of her torso and allowing them to rest momentarily and unfurl at the joints of her shoulder before letting them fall—palms up—back to her sides. The gentle movement, paired with the delicate musical accompaniment of harpist Ahya Simone, suggests a lush vulnerability, an openness, an invitation for us to come closer. Yet, the movement could also be an act of meditation or prayer, an opening and unfurling of oneself for introspection and contemplation. Her body is saying, “I’m here, tell me now if you want it.”
In an interview with Sara Barron for Audiofemme, KESSWA discusses the project’s title, saying that the line—an excerpt from civil rights activist Assata Shakur’s poem What is Left?—stood out to her because it captured this idea of how we can weaponize our thoughts against ourselves and that “as a person who exists at the center of many intersections of identity, I find myself internalizing and reacting to the projections of the outside world on my body, my creative potential and my values.” The machine gun becomes a metaphor for anxiety and depression, the critical self-doubt that is impressed on us by society. However, KESSWA is explicit, if her mind is a machine gun, she wants to aim it at the social structures that constrict and limit her. Near the end of the video, she whispers affirmations: “I’m impulsive, but I’m brave/ Insisting on myself/ I’m determined, but I’m earnest/ I am kind, I am worthy/ Inherently.” These affirmations nullify the anxiety of her previous plea, “tell me now if you want me.” Instead, KESSWA asserts her worth and, if her mind is a machine gun, she has turned it away from herself and towards the anxiety and doubt that previously immobilized her, claiming her agency.
The aesthetic of Is My Mind A Machine Gun? reminds me of scholar Jasmine Elizabeth Johnson’s concept of hush acts: a visual, sonic, and bodily quality of performance that lulls in order to explore the possibilities for Black female being. Johnson uses Solange’s performance for “Cranes in the Sky” as an example of a hush act where Black bodies are cast in muted tones, subtle gestures and soft choreographies that are explicitly opposed to stereotypical representations of “loud” Black women. Solange herself describes the song as an act of meditation and that through repetition she is able to give some structure to herself and her brain and her emotions. Similarly, as a practitioner of Nichiren Buddhism, KESSWA has discussed the relationship between her music and spirituality, identifying mantra as a powerful tool to achieve enlightenment. Is My Mind A Machine Gun? shares similar visual and aural qualities to “Cranes in the Sky,” creating slow moving visuals of gentle, slow-moving choreographing as KESSWA walks across the stage, squats down, and stands stoically still. In several shots, her body is pushed to the margins, only partially visible while the majority of the frame is surrendered to empty space—rough-textured walls, sparsely populated scenes of a city at night, a large, undecorated stage, the open sky marked only by bald tree branches. KESSWA’s laconic, repetitious lyricism and languid, restrained presence and choreography operate as a hush act, creating a quiet moment for self-recognition and self-exploration where she can call herself forth and assert her worth in spite of a society that violently limits the possibilities of being for Black women.
While watching Is My Mind A Machine Gun? I am struck by one visual in particular where KESSWA reaches out with her hands, facing away from the viewer. It feels like an offering; however, an offering that is not for us. Who is she reaching out to? The image changes. She is facing the camera, wearing a silver, tightly woven tank top that exposes her shoulders. The camera goes in and out of focus. She is demure. She makes eye contact with us but turns down her gaze. She is present, but not entirely. She is allowing us to observe her, but also urging us, “tell me now if you want me.” Do you want me now? You have to tell me. I am here, I am waiting, but I will not act until you have told me. I am assured. I am worthy whether or not you want me. I have found whatever I needed within myself. My mind is a machine gun and, for once, I am aiming it at something other than myself.