I was thinking back on what might have been formative moments in my analysis of popular music and culture, and remembered a paper I wrote/presentation I gave as an undergrad in a senior poetry seminar on Brooklyn Funk Essentials’ “The Revolution was Postponed Because of Rain.” The song, an acid jazz riff on dub-poetry—it has got that rooted bass line and spacy synth sounds—is on the band’s debut album Cool and Steady and Easy. The lyrics, written/performed by David Allen (not to be confused with all the other David Allens who are musicians, this one is mostly a poet), use absurdity and humor to describe what amounts to the state of Black Revolution in America in light of the appeal of consumerism and the focus on individual contentment. It describes a kind of apathy that infects and undermines the revolutionary spirit, and coming out in 1995, capturing, for me, a sense of the delusions of the Clinton Era. It is the sad 90s answer to Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.”
The paper I wrote back then (I lost it long ago. I took the class in 1997) was a line by line reading of the poem/song, but to do that here would be to harp on the obvious—better to let you simply listen to the song and read the lyrics. Instead, I’m just going to point out some of my favorite parts and deconstruct it a little bit.
The song starts with a tinny electronic beat, fuzzy bass notes that sound like sampled horns, a sample of what sounds to be William Burroughs saying, “Cool and steady and easy. It makes them like it…,” reading a selection from his book Exterminator! and then the vocals come in.
The revolution was postponed because of rain.
The underlying immediate political socio-economic and trigger mechanism causes
were all in place when
some negro or the other got hungry
had to stop at the McDonald’s
had to get on the line with the new trainee cashier
“uhh, where’s the button for the fries?”
so we missed the bus…
I love how when Allen’s words arrive at “when” the tinny beat has given way to a reverb-laden trashy cymbal and a ghostly saxophone. The rhythm builds with affected laconia. All the lyrics that follow “when” detail the absurdity of the revolutionary imagination in the face of a culture that values superficial and materialistic contentment over justice and equality. The song uses humor in order to point out how the appeal of a culture of immediate gratification undermines political progress or revolutionary resistance. To begin with McDonald’s makes perfect sense, what with chemical-laden fast food dominating the palettes of Ghetto America, even as the lack of decent supermarkets designate the surrounding blocks a food desert. That trainee cashier goes from could-be revolutionary to wage-slave, hoping to become assistant manager one day, if he’s respectable, while helping to keep his community undernourished. And yet, I understand how hunger can drive us to make choices we’d prefer not to take—like the Black state worker in South Carolina who had to raise the Confederate flag over the state house after Bree Newsome took it down. I can’t knock that guy, I don’t know his circumstances and I don’t have a job to replace the one he’d likely lose if he refused to do it.
The Burroughs sample is even more ominous, as the short prose piece it comes from—“From Here to Eternity”—is an indictment of the American military’s “broad view” on the rape and murder of civilians. That “cool and steady and easy it makes them like it” is a reference to a more productive and long-term strategy towards violently fucking over the American people, as opposed to the immediate gratification allowed American G.I.s in places like Vietnam (the Burroughs piece is from 1972). When I think of Clinton’s dismantling of welfare, the adoption of harsh three-strike laws and all the other policies that helped push America Right in the guise of a president that represented the Left, I think of that line “cool and steady and easy. It makes them like it.” Remember, Reagan helped the inner city become a cracked out wasteland, but Clinton enabled the mass incarceration that was presented as the solution and ended up being the New Jim Crow, even as he led the way for the dismantling of welfare in the name of “reform.” As you listen to the song, listen for when that Burroughs sample returns.
So when in the verses that follow, revolutionary plans are ruined by the leader who loses his keys and worries that someone is going to rob him of his TV and VCR, or the entire cell gives in to seasonal depression and allay their psychological crises with pop music that bemoans familial deprivation, we, as listeners, understand that the revolutionary spirit is difficult to maintain in a culture that suggests that contentment is achieved through material excess and affective catharsis. And let me be clear: Here I am indicting American culture as a whole, not Black culture, which is both embedded in American culture forever adjacent to it.
When I gave my presentation on this song/poem to my seminar, my professor made the claim that he did not think the poet was much of a revolutionary or thought highly of revolution, but I wasn’t so sure then or now. Despite the fact that the revolutionaries in the song come off as ridiculous—like Peace who “wanted the revolution to start on Tuesday / She was in a pissed off mood / Her tax return didn’t come in time for the rent”—the song does a great job of describing the apparent pleasures that Adorno and Horkheimer warn about in “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception,” the most famous chapter of their book, Dialectic of Enlightenment. The affect of revolution becomes the ultimate product, thus forestalling actual uprising. The absurdity of the revolutionary reactions to their cultural world is evident when in the song Allen explains:
But they showed the “We Are the World” video
on cable that evening and
we all held hands and
cried to stop from laughing and
our anger subsided
“We Are the World” is a perfect example of spectacle over substance, of feeling like you are doing something to change the world rather than actually doing much to change it. Raising money to feed people is admirable, but as Mike Barthel explain in his article on The Awl:
Concurrent with the crop failure [in Ethiopia] was a Cold War proxy battle between US-backed rebels and Soviet-backed government forces, a war that consumed a near-majority of the country’s GDP, crippling funding for health care or agricultural planning and making distribution of relief exceedingly difficult. People weren’t just starving because they didn’t have food, in other words. They were starving because the foreign policies of two countries made it very hard for them to have food at all.
In other words, our anger should not “subside” over what is at best a futile gesture in the face of the way the results of the way world powers operate without concern for people on the ground, especially if those people are Black Africans. Allen goes on to speculate, “Looking back it could have been a plot / but there are more substantive plots to expose than the “We Are the World” conspiracy,” which echoes the general attitudes about the value of cultural studies and an underestimation of the self-generating power of the Ideological State Apparatus.
“The Revolution Was Postponed Because of Rain” seems to me to be a sharp assessment of those who claim to want to change things as people who might also allow something as simple as the rain keep them from taking action. The double-valence of “rain” is what gives the song its edge—in that both “making it rain” and “making it through the rain” use the climatological metaphor for opposite experiences. That ambiguity remains at the end of the song/poem, when Allen says, “Now we wait for the rain to stop…” going on to describe killer parties “in Brooklyn basements packed in between booming speakers… bogling and doing the east coast stomp / gargling with Bacardi and Brown Cow.” The song ends with the evocation of intimacy and desire, “breaking that monotony with slow movements / slow, hip-grinding movements / with the men breathing in the women’s ears to Earth Wind & Fire’s ‘Reasons’ / and wondering what the weather will be like / next weekend.” The pleasure of the moment makes the postponement seem not so bad, but in light of the current moment, 20 years later, when #BlackLivesMatter is the necessary slogan, Black churches burn and black and brown people are beaten and/or killed with impunity by police, and there is a 24-hour news station dedicated to selling unquestioned white supremacy to America, that delay seems catastrophic.