The corner was our time when time stood still. . . . The corner was our magic, our music, our politics. . . . The corner was our Rock of Gibraltar, our Stonehenge, our Taj Mahal, our monument, our testimonial to freedom, to peace, and to love.
—The Last Poets, “The Corner”
Do you know why he’s off to the side [on On the Corner]? Because that’s where we push gay people.
—Cortez “Corky” McCoy, interview
His manager called it an “experiment.”1 Miles Davis had offered to curate and headline the December 12, 1969, reopening of the jazz venue at the legendary New York City entertainment nightclub the Village Gate (aka the Gate). A generally trendy and lucrative establishment since its opening in 1958, the Gate’s jazz space experienced such a severe drop in attendance that it temporarily ceased operations in November 1969.2 And so Davis, a fixture at the Gate, devised a plan—an experiment, as his manager called it—to attract a new wave of patrons and restore the jazz club to its previous prominence. He organized a two-weekend, three-set performance series that included his own working group, African American comedian Richard Pryor, and an unnamed South Asian sitar player.3 The word “experiment” not only adequately describes the demographic makeup of the performance itself—Davis, a renowned, older, African American jazz musician; Pryor, a fairly new comedian; and an unannounced sitarist—but also captures the essence of Davis and Pryor’s respective acts. By December of 1969, Davis had finished recording Bitches Brew, started to play new music with a revamped working band that featured South Asian artists, and was working on ideas for what would later be his early 1970 African American–themed albums Black Beauty and Jack Johnson. Pryor, following a mental breakdown a year prior, had begun to test out edgier material in 1969 that dealt more with, as he later recounted in his autobiography, “the black man’s struggle to make it in a white world.” Pryor believed that the Gate’s reopening was an appropriate site from which to express this new material centered on racial critique and anti-Black racism in the United States.4 While neither Miles Davis nor Richard Pryor publicly discussed what happened on stage during that weekend, Pryor did share a behind-the-scenes anecdote in his autobiography. This joke suggested that another kind of experiment, an erotic experiment if you will, also took place that weekend: “When I entered [Davis’s dressing room] he was kissing Dizzy Gillespie, with tongue and shit, which made me wonder what kind of shit he had planned for me.”5
Over the next two years, Davis continued to intermittently experiment with South Asian musicians and music in his live sets, but it wasn’t until his 1972 record On the Corner that he recorded his first and only studio album to include South Asian artists and instrumentation as well as, coincidentally (if not also unwittingly), engage the kinds of ethnoracial (Afro–South Asian) topical (centered on Black politics), and sexual (queer) valences that described his performance at the Gate. Davis’s career was at a crossroads with Black audiences. Jazz purists (Black and non-Black) decried his new electric sound and forays into fusion like Bitches Brew. Jeremy Smith also argues that Columbia Records, Davis’s parent label, brought his electric jazz sound under its national marketing strategy in an attempt to tap into the emergent white “college-aged middle-class” counterculture generation in the United States.6 It was at this moment that Davis grew increasingly frustrated with this alienation from Black audiences, especially Black youth, telling music critic Stephen Davis, “They [Columbia] don’t even try to go into the black neighborhoods and sell records. They tell me, ‘We want to introduce you to a new audience,’ but that audience is always white! Sheeit!”7 Enter On the Corner, Davis’s first and only studio album attempt to explicitly capture “black life” and “be heard by young black people.”8 Davis was especially interested in tapping into the Black Power generation. Musically, On the Corner draws on the funk-inspired rhythms of James Brown, Sly Stone, and the Last Poets, all cultural icons of the late 1960s / early 1970s Black Power movements. Visually, the cover dovetails with the political valences of the album’s sound, and depicts Afro-donned characters in red, black, and green outfits as well as in black berets and leather jackets—symbols of pan-Africanism and the Black Panther Party, respectively.
And yet, despite On the Corner’s musical and visual gestures to 1970s Black (cultural) politics, there are two aspects of the album that seemingly run antithetical to dominant articulations of the 1970s Black Power generation that Davis desired to attract with the album, but that also recall his experiment at the Gate: queerness and South Asianness. In addition to the Black male characters in pan-African and Black Panther–inspired garb, the On the Corner cover also depicts Black women sex workers and a Black man (and possible sex worker) whose gender presentation does not map onto the sartorial styles of the other men on the cover. They are queer in the Cathy Cohen sense, as I explained in this book’s introduction, due to their gendered and sexual expression of a “radical politics of deviance” that is “often portrayed as directly in conflict with the normative assumptions of heterosexism and the nuclear family . . . [and] also often live under the constant surveillance of the state through regulatory agencies.”9 These queer characters complicate the ways in which, as Phillip Brian Harper and Tracye Matthews compellingly argue, dominant ideologies of Black cultural nationalism and the Black Panthers were routinely (but in no way universally) contingent on masculinist and heteronormative logics that often excluded, marginalized, and rendered illegible Black queer men and women.10
As the On the Corner album cover’s queer representations complicate gender and sexual norms of late 1960s and early 1970s Black Power, the music on the album itself expresses deviations from such dominant framings with respect to race and ethnicity. In particular, On the Corner features South Asian musicians and music. Davis hired Bangladeshi tabla player Badal Roy and sitarist Khalil Balakrishna to play on all the songs for On the Corner. This move to make South Asian culture and subjects central to an album meant to be about “Black life” and articulate with African American politics at the time counters the ways the early to mid-twentieth-century influence and involvement of South Asian political activists on African American activism had waned by the late 1960s. While the late 1960s witnessed a number of coalitions between Asian American and African American political activists, these Afro-Asian crossings predominantly concerned Japanese, Chinese, and Korean Americans. This elision of South Asian Americans was not only due to the smaller population of South Asians in the United States at the time, but also, as many scholars have pointed out, South Asians’ historical and ongoing experience of belonging to and apart from Asian America.11
What I’d like to do in this chapter is think through how, and argue that, the place of queerness and South Asianness in On the Corner challenges mainstream articulations of Black political thought at the time, and that it offers us a different way of understanding and engaging Black transformative and radical politics. In particular, I’m interested in how On the Corner is emblematic of the other side of things, how it presents an alternative imaginary of what I’d like to call “corner politics.” I define corner politics as a progressive political framework that employs the multiple and multidirectional meanings of the term “corner” in order to enact an expansive and broad-based leftist political movement that is intersectional, comparative, and transnational. Corner politics is a politics that animates and amplifies. It simultaneously pushes forward and expands in order to draw together, without flattening out, communities who have been pushed to the margins, to the corners of society, under the weight of, and in an allusion to bell hooks, global imperialist white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy.12 And it develops such a vision by thinking through the corner in three interrelated and layered ways. The first uses the corner to address how we typically frame the corner: as a particular space of the urban ghetto—the street corner—that is the product of postwar racial capitalism, and that was the political site of Black liberation politics among the Black Power generation. The corner was, as Nikhil Singh points out, a zone filled with the deemed “denizens” of society who “were cast as potential heroes and liberators” of Black radical politics during the late 1960s and early 1970s.13
The second layered meaning of the corner in corner politics takes the fact that corners are literally formed at the intersections to imagine the corner as a site of interlocking systems of power, privilege, and oppression. While the first, typical definition of the corner generally frames it through the lens of race and class, the second definition holds the first accountable by demanding a politics that can also address gender, sexuality, and other vectors of power, difference, and belonging. This second definition rejects the corner (and publicness in general) as always already framed as hetero-masculinist—as a space of and for straight Black men—and considers the corner in relation to, for example, sex work and the queerness of sex work. It considers the labor of the corner that is gendered and sexualized.
Lastly, through the conception of the corner as a site that anchors and facilitates mobility and interaction, the third rubric of corner politics seeks transnational and comparative coalition building as a liberatory goal. It is at the corner, at the intersection, where various people, goods, and ideas are constantly moving, overlapping, and interacting. It is this dynamism of the corner that destabilizes a kind of coalitional vision trapped within the assumed discreteness of identity categories. This final iteration and tier of corner politics consequently pursues a more progressive political vision of transnational and comparative work, and one that creates the possibilities for the kinds of Afro–South Asian work of On the Corner.
Corner politics thus is in conversation with but also complicates what Marlon Bailey and Rashad Shabazz call “around the corner.”14 Rooted in the theories of Michel Foucault’s “heterotopias” and Katherine McKittrick and Clyde Woods’s “black geographies,” Bailey and Shabazz use “around the corner” as a concept through which to name the placeless geographies that render visible and invisible Black “so-called deviant subjects, [and] the sexual labor they perform.”15 For Bailey and Shabazz, the corner is a site where Black queer desire is pursued and articulated. However, since such expressions and desires can only occur as tucked away and “around the corner,” the corner also names the space of Black queer marginalization. “Corner politics” shares with “around the corner” a focus on the intersections of Blackness, queerness, and labor, but it does so by also considering how such intersections work relationally with other ethnoracial groups (e.g., South Asians). Corner politics seeks to understand how comparative racialization shapes and articulates with around the corner. And in so doing, corner politics names the corner as a cross-racial and queer coalitional site of struggle and possibility.
To be clear, corner politics in general, and its particular manifestation with Davis’s On the Corner, is not an entirely easy, uncomplicated, or clean liberatory project. Miles Davis, after all, has a long history of misogyny and violence against women (by his own admission), and so it is perhaps somewhat awkward to explore and exalt Davis’s pursuit of the other side of things and his engagements with the progressive imaginary of corner politics in On the Corner.16 But it is precisely Davis’s violent sexism and misogyny in relation to the transformative work of corner politics and On the Corner that interests me. It is emblematic of the struggle of what Cathy Cohen terms “principled coalition work” because it requires us to uncomfortably confront “the relative power and privilege” of our positionalities that “challenge dichotomies such as . . . enemy/comrade.”17 On the Corner, then, is a cultural work that visually and sonically represents the process, and not the product, of corner politics. It offers a way for how we might see and sound the kinds of complicated possibilities that corner politics, as an iteration of the other side of things, can express and imagine.
On the Way to the Corner
By the time Miles Davis began recording On the Corner, his sound was less strictly attached to the modal and free jazz idioms of the early to mid-1960s, and more in tune with the popular, and often political, genres of rock, soul, R&B, and funk. This is not to say that jazz was no longer political—Joe McPhee’s Amiri Baraka–inspired live album Nation Time, Pharoah Sanders’s Black Unity, and the work of the Art Ensemble of Chicago are some of the more explicit examples. Rather, I am saying that by the late 1960s, the forms of popular music, and especially Black popular music, that gained more traction with younger people, and again particularly African American youth, were those aligned with the racialized aesthetics and politics of artists like Sly and the Family Stone, Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions, Aretha Franklin, Vicki Anderson, and James Brown.18 And so for Davis, the writing was on the wall. He wanted his music to be more timely, topical, and immediate. He wasn’t, as he noted in his autobiography, “prepared to be a memory yet.”19
It was at this moment of Miles Davis’s pursuit of resonance in and with the present (to not be a memory yet) that the forty-one-year-old Davis met twenty-two-year-old model and singer-songwriter Betty Mabry. The two connected at the Village Gate in 1967, following one of his performances, and soon began dating. They married a year later, but eventually divorced in 1969. Despite the short-lived relationship, Betty Davis greatly influenced Miles Davis’s musical career. Maureen Mahon posits that Betty Davis “was the guiding force behind the sharp musical turn that Miles Davis took at the end of the 1960s” that would come to frame albums like On the Corner. It was through Betty Davis that Miles Davis listened to and learned from (and met) Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone, Aretha Franklin, and James Brown. As Betty Davis helped broaden Miles Davis’s musical vision, he started to use more electric instruments in his bands and adopt more rhythmic patterns in line with funk, R&B, and rock. These shifts in Davis’s sound marked the beginning of his controversial “electric” turn that can be heard on albums like Filles de Kilimanjaro—where Betty Davis appears on the cover; and which contains the song “Mademoiselle Mabry (Miss Mabry),” named after Betty Davis, “a reworking of Hendrix’s ‘The Wind Cries Mary’”—and Bitches Brew—an album name that Betty Davis helped craft and one that popularized the “jazz fusion” subgenre.
Kevin Fellezs writes that fusion is a “broken middle,” a permanently unstable and “liminal space between genres” that tested the limits of rock, funk, and jazz during the late 1960s and early 1970s, and, drawing on Fabian Holt, produced “new social collectivities” that crossed racial and generational borders of young and old, Black and white.20 As stated at the outset of this chapter, the rock-inspired Bitches Brew, with the assistance of the Columbia Records marketing team, attracted a new cohort of college-aged listeners to Davis and his music. But this was a predominantly white audience and one that still eluded his desired Black youth of the Black Power generation. It is perhaps no surprise then that Davis’s subsequent studio album, a soundtrack to the 1971 documentary film Jack Johnson, dabbled in the world of funk: the songs “Right Off” and “Yesternow” contain replayed and reinterpreted elements from Sly and the Family Stone’s “Sing a Simple Song” and James Brown’s “Say It Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud,” respectively. Fellezs argues that funk “was a musical genre created by, marketed to, and popular within an urban African American audience, sounding out the social realities brought by urban ‘renewal’ white flight to the suburbs, and the political sensibilities that emerged in an increasingly pessimistic post–civil rights era.”21 By 1971, the year of the release of Jack Johnson, Sly Stone was delving into a darker political world with There’s a Riot Goin’ On, James Brown traded in his signature perm for an Afro and was recording songs like “Soul Power,” and a newly “soul styled” (in an allusion to Tanisha Ford) Aretha Franklin was publicly supporting and organizing fund-raising events to free Black Power activist Angela Davis.22 Miles Davis’s use of Stone and especially Brown on Jack Johnson provided an added musical texture that heightened the political urgency of a documentary about the historical Black male political figure. With Jack Johnson, Miles Davis began to experiment with his own take on a musical album that addressed Black politics of the time. Jack Johnson spoke to these politics because the use of funk for a soundtrack about a Black boxer who challenged the U.S. racial logics of whiteness, masculinity, and civilization tapped into the heteropatriarchal norms of Black Power; and it was an album that was experimental because Davis’s use of Brown and Stone were hidden and gestural rather than explicit and direct. But with On the Corner, Davis made explicit his forays into a musical aesthetics of Black Power politics, and did so in ways that dramatically reimagined dominant strains of the movement. It was an album that remade the corner to be a cross-cultural, queer, and coalitional site. It was with On the Corner that Miles Davis advanced the other side of things of Black radical politics.
Hearing the Corner
On the Corner was recorded over three separate days in the summer of 1972. The album contains four songs—“On the Corner / New York Girl / Thinkin’ of One Thing and Doin’ Another / Vote For Miles” (I have shortened this title to “On the Corner”), “Black Satin,” “One and One,” and “Helen Butte / Mr. Freedom X” (I will refer to this song as “Mr. Freedom X”). “On the Corner” was laid down on the first day of recording, the remainder of the album was recorded during the second recording session, and the third session involved overdubbing the tracks recorded during the second session. Similar to “Yesternow,” On the Corner features heavily edited material from the recording sessions. Engineer Teo Macero extracted various parts of the material from each day of recording, and used a number of postproduction recording techniques to manipulate each song. Upon the album’s release, the liner notes did not contain the names of the musicians playing on the album, aside from Miles Davis. Despite Columbia’s, Davis’s, and other musicians’ attempts over the years to correctly identify the album’s personnel, an official list of Davis’s studio bands featured on On the Corner remains incomplete.23 As a result, I will only refer to certain artists by name if it has been established (through various accounts) that a particular musician played on On the Corner.24 Regardless of the confusion of personnel, On the Corner offers listeners material that lasts nearly an hour and that constantly incorporates and shifts between jazz, rock, and funk aesthetics as well as West African, Afro-diasporic, and South Asian musical practices and idioms.
“On the Corner” starts mid-track (a point in the recording session that is neither the beginning nor the end) with Michael Henderson, a funk and R&B bass guitarist who’d been a part of Davis’s band for two years, and jazz-fusion drummers/percussionists Billy Hart and Jack DeJohnette, who collaboratively establish a recursive bass and drum groove. Henderson’s bass-line riff consists of two sixteenth notes on the downbeat, and Hart and DeJohnette play a sixteenth-note rhythm on the hi-hat. “On the Corner” does not feature a melody or harmonic progression, and leaves the groove to anchor the entire song. The rest of the band indiscriminately plays around this groove, in an almost free improvisational manner. The majority of “On the Corner” involves looped (endlessly repeated) conga and tabla percussive patterns, organ riffs, and guitar and sitar stabs. Jazz-fusion and funk pianist Herbie Hancock plays a synthesizer melody. Davis, jazz-rock fusion guitarist John McLaughlin, jazz-fusion saxophonist David Liebman, and jazz-fusion and funk organist Harold “Ivory” Williams perform solos, but they are lost in the fray of the track’s density. The track ends with all the instruments fading out except the percussion elements, which have established a 4/4 pattern, and a looped sitar drone.
“Black Satin” begins where “On the Corner” ends. Tabla player Badal Roy engages a sitarist, but this interplay abruptly ends thirty seconds into the song. Again, like “On the Corner,” a mid-track groove is inserted into “Black Satin,” featuring another Henderson bass line playing atop a two-bar drum pattern that, as musicologist Jesse Stewart accurately points out, is eerily reminiscent of James Brown’s 1967 song “Cold Sweat.”25 Four measures into the “Cold Sweat” groove, Davis and a collective ensemble establish a melody using overdubs of whistling and a wah-wah trumpet. A series of looped handclaps and bells join in the overdubbing, and someone plays a series of synthesizer arpeggios. Davis solos, but is, again, washed out by and engulfed within the rhythmic and melodic complexity and density of the track. James Mtume enhances the rhythmic complexity of “Black Satin” by playing what sounds like a West African djidundun (a water drum) in conversation with Roy on the tabla. “Black Satin” concludes with a reintroduction of the tabla/sitar looped opening.
“One and One” and “Mr. Freedom X” are essentially variations of “Black Satin.” They both work on the “Cold Sweat” groove by adding a fuller bass line. Moreover, Roy and Mtume continue to play dueling and interlocking percussion patterns on both tracks. “One and One” does not feature any handclaps or whistles, but it does reuse the bells and shakers from “Black Satin.” Instead of a Davis solo, multi-reedists Bennie Maupin and Carlos Garnett perform looped solos on bass clarinet and soprano saxophone, respectively. “One and One” ends with a thunderous hi-hat that coincidently starts “Mr. Freedom X.” If one were simply to start with “Mr. Freedom X” without having heard “One and One,” one would have imagined the start of “Mr. Freedom X” to feature another mid-track opening. Perhaps a result of how Macero mixed “Mr. Freedom X,” Mtume and Roy’s percussion appear at the center of the basic drum groove rather than sitting on the periphery like on “One and One” and “Black Satin.” That is to say, rather than playing in response to the groove, Roy and Mtume are incorporated into the groove; they are the groove. This sonic layering continues with Hancock and organist Chick Corea playing frequent offbeat chordal voicings. Davis, Garnett, and fusion guitarist David Creamer provide solos that, consistent with the entire album, seem to play at the center rather than the foreground of the recording. Oddly, “Mr. Freedom X” ends just as the band’s playing intensifies and the tempo speeds up.
On the Corner constantly weaves in and out of the musical aesthetics of jazz, rock, and funk. The multitude of instrument play and improvisational style signal practices in free jazz, the album’s amplified sounds and use of musicians like David Creamer and John McLaughlin gesture toward rock, and its interpolation of James Brown’s “Cold Sweat” squarely situates On the Corner in funk. Yet it is precisely Davis’s use of these singular elements of funk, rock, and jazz as a musical constellation that transgress the normative divides of these genres.26 Upon the album’s release, music critics as well as the musicians involved in the making of On the Corner had difficulty labeling the work.27 It was perhaps in light of On the Corner’s ambiguity, disruption, and multiplicity of approaches that Miles Davis proclaimed that the record “had no label,” and rejected allegiance to a particular genre.28 The most important thing for Davis was that On the Corner adequately spoke to his vision of Blackness and African American street life.
To help fulfill this vision, Davis sought a sound and a band for On the Corner that could, as he would later explain, provide a “deep African thing, a deep African-American groove, with a lot of emphasis on drums and rhythm, and not on individual solos.”29 Davis’s words and vision align with Olly Wilson’s tenets of African and Afro-diasporic music making tendencies, which John Coltrane pursued with A Love Supreme. On the Corner’s inclusion of multiple percussion instruments and emphasis on repetitious grooves, at the expense of harmonic progressions or melody, ties into the centrality of rhythm and cyclicality in West African music. Further, Davis’s insistence on filling dead space with guitar stabs and synthesizer arpeggios underscores West African musicians’ tendency to create dense music. On the Corner’s density is enacted through the employment of a large ensemble (a rough estimate is fourteen players) and varied musical instruments (tablas, sitars, electric guitar, bass guitar, congas, hi-hats, wah-wah-inflected trumpet, etc.) that speaks to what Wilson calls the “kaleidoscopic” basis of the heterogeneous sound ideal of African musical production. These are approaches that create a collective music making experience. Indeed, all the riffs, stabs, licks, and comps interlock with the overall makeup of each song. Teo Macero also plays with the EQ levels on the album, a technique that refuses a foregrounding of solos and pushes a blending of them with the rest of the studio working group. On the Corner thus makes audible the kind of participatory democracy that marks much of West African music—it marks an embrace of the collective and the communal.30
The adapted “Cold Sweat” groove throughout most of On the Corner also illuminates Davis’s desire for an African and Afro-diasporic aesthetic. Olly Wilson is again useful here as he famously explained how James Brown’s music during the 1960s and 1970s draws on musical practices of West Africa—its heterogenous sound ideal—and that it is this kind of adaptation that explicates Brown’s popularity in West Africa and his role in the creation of Afrobeat.31 Brown’s music simultaneously represents the historical traces of and contemporary links to West African musical traditions. Davis’s allusions to “Cold Sweat,” then, dually mark an embrace of funk as well as a late 1960s / early 1970s pan-Africanist engagement with transnational forms of relatedness and belonging, illustrating a cultural and political commitment to domestic and transnational Black expression.
And yet, as Davis unites West African and Afro-diasporic musical aesthetics on On the Corner, and articulates a cultural and political ideology of Blackness, the presence of Badal Roy (and to a lesser extent Khalil Balakrishna) gesture to how such expressions of Blackness are contingent on, if not inextricably tied to, South Asian culture. Throughout On the Corner, Roy’s tabla playing is in dialogue with a West African or Afro-diasporic instrument. Teo Macero uses stereo-switching to pan a conga or djidundun (depending on the recording session) and Roy’s tabla to opposite outlet sides, and then loops each percussive phrasing after every measure. This technique produces an effect where both percussion instruments are involved in a duet. This is not call-and-response, but rather a different form of musical dialogue that, through looping each instrument at equal temporal sequences and units, approximates collective, interlocked, mutually constitutive, and simultaneous sonic conversations.
Additionally, just as Badal Roy’s collaborative work with the entire On the Corner studio band underscores the linkages between South Asian, West African, and Afro-diasporic culture, Miles Davis’s reasoning behind inviting Roy to play on the album highlights a much deeper cross-racial and transnational engagement. When I interviewed Roy and his wife, Geeta (a jazz tambourist in her own right), I asked him why Davis wanted him on the album. Roy responded, “He wanted to introduce the Indian sound. Miles really wanted to introduce the Indian sound.”32 Perhaps influenced by the increasing use of the electric sitar in R&B songs like Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I’m Yours)” or tracks by Philadelphia Soul artists like the Delfonics’ “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time),” Davis and his friends visited Indian restaurants in New York City to find and hire South Asian talent.33 According to James Mtume, Davis frequented an Indian restaurant on 125th Street in Harlem to gather ideas “of using the electric sitar and tablas.”34 And Roy informed me that Teo Macero was the one who initially approached him about playing for Davis after hearing Roy perform at an Indian restaurant in the East Village. I soon asked Roy what the first recording session was like with Davis after he was hired to perform on the album. He told me, “I was sitting on the floor with my tabla, and all of these musicians were there. And before we started, he [Davis] comes to me and says, ‘You start.’ And then I didn’t understand, but I started the groove anyway.”35 Roy did not have any formal training in jazz or in Indian classical music, and had a limited professional history playing with ensembles.36 To that end, Roy was anxious about being the one who would start the first rehearsals and recording sessions for On the Corner. Roy informed me that he expressed his nervousness to Davis, who responded by saying, “Play like a nigga. Just play like a nigga.”37
Roy told me that while he “did not understand what he [Davis] meant,” Roy read Davis’s remark as indicating a desire for Roy to “play from the heart.” Understanding Roy’s reading of this statement, I want to take a broader step back and consider what it means for a Black man who’s developing an album about Black politics and geared toward Black youth to ask a South Asian man to “play like a nigga” in 1972. While there are certainly a number of ways to interpret Davis’s response to Roy—race as a social construct, “nigger” versus “nigga,” and affective structures of racial formation—I read Davis’s remark as a request for Roy to commit what Vijay Prashad calls “model minority suicide.”38 For Prashad, “model minority” is a sociopolitical and sociohistorical category that frames Asian Americans (and particularly South Asian Americans and immigrants in the United States) as figurative weapons to be used against African Americans in order to maintain Black alterity and uphold white supremacy. As a result, to commit model minority suicide means to express and enact solidarity with African Americans and work together to subvert and dismantle white supremacy and other structures of inequality.
To be clear, the model minority category was not as firmly rooted in U.S. politics and culture in 1972 as it is today, but it still had a particular effect among South Asian American and South Asian immigrant groups. Susan Koshy notes that 1970 was the first and only time in U.S. history that the census officially counted South Asians as white.39 As a result, by the time Roy became involved in On the Corner, the United States had created a path for South Asian immigration, and thereby a path for South Asian immigrants and South Asian Americans toward whiteness. The U.S. racialization of South Asians as white dates back to the early twentieth century. But as scholars like Mae Ngai and Ian Haney López explain, South Asian immigrants used this turn-of-the-century association with whiteness in order to subvert the racial and spatial exclusionary parameters of U.S. citizenship.40 By contrast, this 1970s racialization of South Asians as white was state-led and state-sanctioned, and worked to distance and discipline African American subjects. Indeed, this census change worked in tandem with the class and sexually normative kinship–biased legislative provisions of the Immigration Act of 1965 that disproportionately increased the number of middle- and upper-class Asian immigrant nuclear families in the United States, and consequently created a political and cultural assimilative space and incentive through which South Asian immigrants like Roy could identify with whiteness, middle-classness, and normative housing formations through and against the criminalized, policed, and often deemed sexually nonnormative Black working-class communities.41 To “play like a nigga,” then, serves as an invitation to sever ties with whiteness and be in solidarity with Black people, Black life, Blackness, and Black music. It is an insistence on Roy to align with rather than stand against Black working-class quotidian life that the legal and political regimes of the U.S. nation-state and mainstream culture actively and violently sought to curtail. It is a call to reject the hailing of white-middle class normativity—“model minority suicide”—in order to form alliances with Black communities against such race, gender, class, and sexual normative systems of oppression. It is an insistence to live and play within the other side of things.
We can hear these kinds of Afro–South Asian alliances, these coalitional auralities, on On the Corner. Roy and Mtume participate in rhythmic duets and interlock the percussive sounds of a tabla and Afro-diasporic drumming (Figures 1a and 1b). Macero’s manipulation of the recording sessions and play with the structures of both Roy and Mtume present percussive patterns that refuse the sonic norms governing their instruments’ traditional (and masculinist) histories, and instead allow for a collective playing against one another. They perform what Afro–South Asian solidarity might sound like when a South Asian immigrant and/or American commits model minority suicide and resists the racial, gender, and sexual normativity that such a category demands. This is the kind of (queer?) approach to recording that Roy and Mtume share in the same aural space on On the Corner. They develop an overlapping, homosocial, and Afro–South Asian sonic collective—their playing enacts a sonic manifestation of corner politics.
Seeing the Corner
The complex Black, queer, and coalitional politics within the music of On the Corner extends to the album’s cover. Miles Davis’s friend and personal photographer Cortez “Corky” McCoy illustrated (with the assistance of McCoy’s wife, Sandra McCoy) the cover for On the Corner. Using a cartoon aesthetic, the front cover (Figure 2a) is set against a yellow background, with the word “ON” atop the cover, and features eight African American characters—seven men and one woman. There are two men with Afros engaged in a “low five” hand greeting. Both men are wearing red, black, and green sweaters, and one of the men has the phrase “VOTE MILES” written on the sweater in red and green lettering. The sole woman on the front cover is wearing a form-fitting outfit that ends at her butt. She is involved in a conversation with a man wearing a business suit, and he has pulled out his empty pockets to signify to her that he does not have any money—an act that suggests that the woman is a sex worker. This speculation is seemingly confirmed as a man in a bright pink suit, and even brighter yellow hat, is pointing his finger in the woman’s direction while speaking to another man, which suggests that the flamboyantly dressed man in pink is a pimp and the man next to him is a prospective client.42 Near the bottom of the front cover, a middle-aged man wearing a black leather jacket, black beret, and a button that reads “FREE ME” is positioned in a way such that he is looking at the viewer. Each character is engaged with someone else (two youths, pimp and his prospective client, the man who does not have money to hire the sex worker, and the older man and the viewer), except one character. Off to the distance, there is a young man in a yellow sweater with his arms crossed, lips pursed, and pinky-finger pointed upward, and he is looking at the entire scene on the corner with a raised eyebrow.
The On the Corner back cover (Figure 2b) is similar but distinct from the front. This back cover has the word “OFF” written at the top as opposed to the front cover’s use of the word “ON.” Rather than eight, the back cover features seven characters; and instead of one woman, there are two. The sex worker and her would-be business-suited client are again engaged in conversation, but this time, he is holding a stack of books. The Black male youth in the “VOTE MILES” sweater is without his friend, but is still seen simultaneously raising his fist in the air while smiling at a woman wearing a crop top and miniskirt. The pimp is seen smiling at both the woman and this young man, implying that either she is also a sex worker or that the pimp wants her to work for him. Moreover, instead of looking at the viewer, the middle-aged man is holding on to an electrical plug for his trumpet and is wearing a button that reads “SOUL” on his leather jacket. Finally, the young Black man who was on the side of the corner and wearing a yellow sweater on the front cover is now wearing a midriff variation of this sweater, exposing his six-pack abs. Similar to the front cover, his lips are pursed and his pinky finger is extended on his left hand.
Taken as a whole, the front and back cover art of On the Corner aimed to depict the social climate and political possibilities of African American working-class people living in urban ghettos during the early 1970s. As the work of many postwar African American historians illustrates, many Black Power groupings saw the urban space of the ghetto in general, and the corner in particular, as a central site of Black liberation. From the 1940s through the 1970s various state-sanctioned economic and spatial policies and processes produced, to quote Arnold Hirsch, a “second ghetto” that segregated and confined working-class and working-poor African Americans to underdeveloped, economically strained, and heavily policed urban areas.43 Black Power organizations, and in particular the Black Panthers, posited that the ghetto constituted a U.S. internal colony, and therefore Black liberation struggles demanded new approaches that challenged the United States as an empire and not simply a nation. Moreover, the Panthers, drawing on Frantz Fanon, argued that because the ghetto represented a U.S. colony, its residents were a lumpenproletariat that comprises “the pimps, the hooligans, the unemployed and the petty criminals” of “street corner society,” and could be mobilized as a political unit to address racial and economic structural inequalities.44 These colonized subjects’ racialized and classed status provided them with the consciousness of marginalization, and the Panthers sought to tap into this consciousness to forge new collectivities as a way to combat and dismantle structural oppression.
The On the Corner album cover (back and front) thus illustrates a scene of the Black ghetto present, with the two pan-African men representing active members in Black liberation struggles, the pimp and prospective sex worker clients as subjects to be mobilized in the movement, and the middle-aged man in pseudo–Black Panther garb (he’s missing a gun) as a presumed leader of such political movements. I want to briefly draw attention to this latter character because he not only is the sole figure staring at the viewer, but also because he seems to symbolize Miles Davis. The back cover shows this character playing the trumpet attached to an electronic device, which recalls Davis’s frequent use of the wah-wah pedal during the fusion period of the recording. Moreover, his “SOUL” button speaks generally to the soul style of the 1970s and its ties to Black politics, and it gestures specifically to James Brown, known as the “Godfather of Soul.” Brown had released “Soul Power,” a record that extended the rhetorical and cultural self-affirmation “Black Power” just a year prior to On the Corner and, as noted above, Miles Davis riffs off his song “Cold Sweat” for most of On the Corner.45
Brown and Davis are also known for their misogyny and abuse of women, and there is perhaps evidence of this in the On the Corner album cover. For example, the “FREE ME” button that the cartoon figure representing Miles Davis wears signals the late 1960s imprisonment of Black Panther Minister of Defense Huey Newton and the “Free Huey” slogans that responded to and expressed solidarity with his incarceration. At the same time, however, by having a man wear the “FREE ME” button, the illustration masks Angela Davis’s incarceration, which was more recent than Newton’s. Further, the male character wearing the “VOTE MILES” sweater alludes to the upcoming 1972 presidential election, but it does so in ways that paper over Shirley Chisholm’s historic presidential run and reorients it toward that of a Black man. Lastly, Davis notes in his autobiography that he wanted Corky McCoy to depict “black women . . . wearing them real tight dresses that had their big butts sticking way out in the back . . . women trying to hide them big bad asses, trying to tuck them in.”46 In essence, Davis wanted McCoy to represent Black women in such a way that male consumers would be able to capture, fix, and gaze at the Black female body and the assumed already-present sexual availability of such bodies.
Yet, what Miles Davis imagined is not exactly what McCoy ended up illustrating. Corky and Sandra McCoy are known for their erotic representations of Black women. In particular, the McCoys worked for the Black pornography outlet Players, a magazine where, during McCoy’s stint with them, poet Wanda Coleman served as the editor and sought cultural work whose nonnormativity was “wholly unaccounted for in the black arts movement or the womanist movement.”47 The depictions of sex workers on the On the Corner album cover speak to these kinds of representations that sit outside the heteronormativity of mainstream formations of the Black Arts Movement and the sex negativity of dominant strains of the womanist movement. More to the point, Sandra McCoy explained to me that while the drawings might feature “scantily clad women,” these women also “respond to” the Black men with whom they engaged.48 We see this on the front cover of On the Corner where the woman sex worker is taller than her prospective client, the client is noticeably embarrassed that he doesn’t have any money, and the sex worker performs a hands-on-the-hip gesture of disapproval. These depictions work to illustrate and recast the corner as not simply a race- and class-based space of Black working-class and working-poor life, but also a site of sexual labor and desire, especially for Black women for whom sexuality is historically tied to violence and/or silence.
McCoy extends such sexual valences and gendered gestures of disapproval to the male character posing on the outskirts of the street corner of the front and back On the Corner covers. He is a character that I read as queer because his gender expression is vastly different from the other men on the cover, and because his pursed lips, exposed midriff, extended pinky, and devasting side-eye all point to the kinds of “communicative physical gestures” that José Muñoz refers to as the ephemeral evidence of queerness.49 During my interview with Corky McCoy, I asked him about the character, and he told me, “Do you know why he’s off to the side? Because that’s where we push gay people. That’s the answer. . . . This country is a great marginalizer.”50 McCoy would go on to tell me that Davis’s out gay brother Vernon as well as Davis’s generally unknown close friendship with James Baldwin inspired the illustration of the queer Black man on the cover.51 McCoy’s acknowledgment that Baldwin and Vernon Davis served as models for the queer Black man on the On the Corner cover speak to the kinds of queer antagonism that I described in the previous chapter that Baldwin faced—queerphobia that only exacerbated in the late 1960s and early 1970s, especially with activists like Eldridge Cleaver (who would eventually become Minister of Information for the Black Panthers)—and Vernon’s frustration with McCoy for eliding queer people in his artwork. As McCoy explained to me, “Miles’s brother would always say to me ‘You do all these pictures, but you never draw any gay people.’”52 The On the Corner cover thus makes visible as well as critiques the marginalization of Black queer men in mainstream articulations and representations of Black politics and everyday life in the early 1970s. McCoy’s drawing of a Black queer male character works as a political statement that exposes rather than extends the sidelining of Black queer men. It is not a liberal assimilative representation of inclusion. It is a depiction that underscores Black gay men’s marginality. We might thus read the character’s ability to ignore (as we see on the back cover) or side-eye (as we see on the front cover) the other characters on the street corner as an acknowledgment of how he is erased under dominant Black Power ideologies, a displeasure at such an erasure, and a critical refusal to be incorporated within such an ideology that demands a further erasure of queerness.53
It is this marginality that positions the Black queer man and the Black women sex workers in relation to one another on the On the Corner album cover. The cover gestures toward nonnormative marginality as the basis through which to organize a leftist-inspired street corner political vision. Instead of fleeing the corner into the arms of a white mainstream gay politics or second-wave feminism (and thus muting their Blackness) or hiding from the corner (an act that pleases dominant Black Power ideologies), the characters remain firmly rooted in and on the corner. Marginality and nonnormativity, as Cathy Cohen argues, form “the basis for progressive transformative coalitional work,” and so it is the corner that anchors and animates their political vision.54 Thus, when paired with the Afro–South Asian sonics of the album, On the Corner provides an audiovisual guide of how to imagine transformative and radical politics differently, how to see and hear an iteration of the other side of things that I call corner politics.
Playing on the Corner
On September 29, 1972, almost two weeks before On the Corner’s release, Miles Davis and several members of the studio band held a live concert at the Philharmonic Hall in New York. The band performed all songs with a mix of West African, Afro-diasporic, and South Asian instrumentation and sound. The show was recorded and released as an album titled In Concert. Similar to On the Corner, Corky McCoy illustrated the record (Figure 3). McCoy again employed the medium of cartoon drawings to depict the demographic of the concert’s audience. The cover features white hippie figures, which signified the fans Davis gained through Bitches Brew, and features the same cartoon characters from On the Corner to signal the return of Davis’s imagined African American attendees and political and cultural community. Each Black character on the cover holds a ticket, which are absent from the hands of the white characters. This is a significant difference in the illustration, as it indexed Davis’s 1971 concert at the Philharmonic where he provided free tickets to African American men and women who could not otherwise afford to attend the event.55
Perhaps surprisingly, the Black queer male from On the Corner is on the front cover of In Concert. He is again the only male with exposed skin (he’s wearing a deep V-neck top), but has added a couple of new accessories to his wardrobe: heels and a suede purse. I want to focus for a bit on his purse because, beginning in 1970, Davis patronized a queer underground leather and suede clothing store called Hernando’s in New York’s West Village.56 Many queer tourist guides during the early 1970s, like the 1971 Timely Gay Bar Guide, listed Hernando’s as a shop of interest for queer men in the city.57 While Davis never remarked on the queerness of Hernando’s, he did express in his autobiography that the clothes sold there articulated “blackness, you know, the black consciousness movement.”58 In line with Davis’s expansive expression of Blackness on On the Corner, Davis’s ideal fashioning of Black consciousness from Hernando’s included “a lot of African and Indian fabrics. . . . African dashikis and robes and looser clothes plus a lot of Indian tops.”59 Badal Roy confirmed Davis’s love of Indian clothing to me. He also informed me that Davis would frequently ask Roy for kurtas: “He told me what color he wanted, and I gave several shirts to him.”60
I conclude with a discussion of In Concert and Hernando’s because they illustrate the interplay between Blackness, South Asianness, Black queerness, and Black politics within Miles Davis’s music in 1972. I am not arguing that such a constitutive relationship was a necessary link for Davis throughout his career and life. Instead, I want to suggest that there was something in those 1972 recordings that provided a window into how Davis understood, or perhaps how he wanted us to see and hear, the political and cultural meanings and importance of Blackness. Indeed, Miles Davis’s last song to feature South Asian artists and music was also his last song that dealt with Black queerness: “Billy Preston,” a tribute to the legendary Black queer rock and funk musician of the same name. Thus, with On the Corner and his other 1972 recordings, Miles Davis expanded and reframed the then-present visions of Black political thought. He offered a different way of understanding and engaging Blackness that crosscut and included communities across the lines of race and sexuality. It was a politically framed articulation of Blackness that publicly embraced Black queerness and South Asian expressive culture as central formations through which to envision transformative politics, a corner politics, that would help us see and hear the other side of things. The kinds of collective playing heard on On the Corner (facilitated by Teo Macero’s splicing of various recording sessions) would come to influence many artists in funk and rap. And, as we will see in the next chapter, it was an influence that also included queer Afro–South Asian musical and visual aesthetics and that shaped the work and artistry of musicians like Rick James, OutKast, and Missy Elliott.