“Have you been through what I’ve been through?” The answer, no matter who asks the question, is invariably “No”. Two separate minds can never move through the world in quite the same way; our ability to empathize with others is hampered always by the unfortunate fact that personal experience is entirely subjective. Think, for instance, of explaining a dream you’ve had to another person. If there are defined actions, situations, the other person can understand the dream well enough. But the colors of the dream, the subconscious hues that truly make it gripping and bizarre, are impossible to explain. Our dreams are never as interesting to other people as they are to ourselves. Art though, especially music, can assist us in empathy; the most effective music can nearly embed us in the mind of another, allowing us to cross the borders of our subjectivity. In illustrating the minutiae of our lives, and gesturing towards authentic common experience, we can begin to dissolve solipsism.
Space Afrika, the Manchester-based duo of Joshua Inyang & Joshua Tarelle, recently released a mixtape titled hybtwibt? (read the first sentence of this review) that displays a firm understanding of sound’s empathetic potential. This self-described collection of “off cuff new work / cuts / edits & extractions” was recorded over the course of a week at the end of May and released on Bandcamp to raise money for a variety of organizations working for Black liberation. This is the duo’s first release since the 2018 album on sferic, Somewhere Decent to Live, a nocturnal and sophisticated catalog of dub impressions and sub-bass tone poems. This new mixtape echoes certain aspects of their previous work while expanding the duo’s melancholic insularity to make an absorbing and prescient series of observations. While the duo’s style is rooted in suggestiveness, hybtwibt? is laced with explicit references to the social action for Black liberation that has gained momentum in the recent months following a series of police killings of Black people including George Floyd, Tony McDade, and Breonna Taylor.
It would be a mistake, though, to characterize this mixtape as conventional protest music: nothing is abstracted; sloganeering is firmly rejected in favor of an illustrative approach. I’d be tempted to call the project a time capsule if that didn’t imply its scope was limited. On the contrary, the most effective way of inviting empathy and self-expansion is to familiarize yourself with the intimate details of another’s (emphasis on Other) life. hybtwibt?, in its diaristic approach as well as its evocative use of spoken word samples, achieves that.
This balance of insularity and social response, in tandem with the mixtape’s fragmented tone, makes it a compelling and occasionally puzzling listen. While their previous work is characterized by restraint and the gradual blend of discrete elements, hybtwibt? is full of intensely emotional moments, as on “oh baby” where then 9-year-old Zianna Oliphant’s statement at a 2016 Charlotte City Council meeting is set against a soaring, yearning vocal loop. A visceral, but not un-subtle, piece of art. Aside from a few key cuts like “self” and “where is”, the mixtape mostly eschews the dub gestures of their previous work in favor of an assemblage of evocative samples, loops, ambient noise, and spoken word. Many of the tracks follow a sound collage impulse, loosely stringing together textural sketches and obscured synth keys alongside snippets of protestors, urban ambience, soul samples, as well as edits of FKA Twigs and the ambient score to the cult Playstation 2 game Ico.
When thinking about the limits of empathy, it is important to remember that white supremacy is founded not only on a hatred for people of color, but more fundamentally on a commitment to ignorance and the adulation of the self. The title and content of this mixtape speaks directly to this impulse toward self-containment and self-worship by placing the listener in a space built for confrontational empathy: “Have you been through what I’ve been through? Do you have any idea what is it to live in my body, to experience this life as I have?” While there has been lots of discussion lately about the need to center Black voices in music and art, this mixtape does that literally, to disarming and cathartic effect.