Flying Lotus and Registers of Black Life and Death

*This post is part of our New Black Surrealisms series organized by Tiffany E. Barber and Jerome Dent.

Screenshot from “Until the Quiet Comes” music video, Flying Lotus (Warp Records)

The music video for Flying Lotus’s Until the Quiet Comes charts the visual and extravisual registers of Black life and death. Released in 2012, the video doubles as a short film that depicts suspended states of being, dancing bodies, the forward and backward passages of time, play, innocence, and violence. These oscillations between past, present, and future activity urge viewers to question the possible relationships between each character and the events that occur in the moving images. With each sequence, viewers see how Black life exists within death, and how innocence and joy are forced to coexist with trauma. What results is a picture of new Black surrealism.

The first thing we see in Until the Quiet Comes is clear blue water. Bubbles form and swirl, matching the whirring, muted sounds of percolation. Swaths of red and bright white fabric enter the frame in sharp contrast to each other and the blue of the water. Then the title card appears. The music video, which doubles as a short film, then cuts to a little boy standing in an empty pool, and we hear a simple request from Erykah Badu — “Dream of love and light and laughter” — as the young boy points his fingers in the shape of a gun at the other side of the vacant pool. When he pulls the trigger on his imaginary gun, an invisible bullet ricochets off of the side of the pool and strikes him in his chest. As his body falls to the ground, we see a matching shot of another body lying on a sidewalk somewhere in another place and time. At the bottom of the pool, a river of blood flows from the boy’s body into the pool’s drain. From this aerial view, the arc of blood mimics a richly saturated, monochromatic rainbow. This scene frames two themes of the music video: 1) what is supposed to be imaginary or dream-like becomes real and fatal, and 2) the coeval nature of brutality and beauty.

Each scene of Until the Quiet Comes focuses on an action that reinforces the themes of the film — tensions arise between death and vibrancy, coming of age and the joy of play comingle with brutality and violence, animated sequences of movement turn deadly, and suspended visions of Blackness refuse to be anchored. Directed by Kahlil Joseph and shot in the Nickerson Gardens Housing Project in the Watts neighborhood of South Los Angeles, Until the Quiet Comes is strange and beautiful — a complicated portrait of Black urban life that defies the linear narratives we might expect from social realism and fiction film. The setting elaborates these themes. Los Angeles, colloquially called “La La Land,” is socio-historically understood to be a place that is out of touch with reality, usually due to bliss or ignorance. Lalaland as a term characterizes daydreaming, drug-induced states of mind, and sleeping, especially dreaming. In this way, the film exemplifies Flying Lotus’s otherworldly approach to art and music. Flying Lotus, born Steven Ellison, is a multi-genre producer, musician, filmmaker, and DJ whose work is heavily influenced by the concepts of astral projection, lucid dreaming, and hip hop as Black visual culture. His aesthetic choices and music are often categorized as mind-boggling, surreal, and avant-garde.

After the opening scene, viewers get an artfully constructed, interior look at Nickerson Gardens, and the next few sequences center on two little boys as they play together in a field. Against a vibrant red-hued sunset, the boys tackle each other, exchange words and smiles, and run free in front of rows of apartment homes. The film cuts away from the boys playing to the boy from the opening scene, and we see him sharing food and laughter with an older Black male played by dancer Storyboard P., then running towards the field again with his friends.

These dualities between boyhood and early adulthood, contradiction and beauty, play out in different ways in Until the Quiet Comes. Mirror images abound in the video, as do confusions between time and being. Between seeing the little boy’s body in the pool and him walking through his community, we are given little insight into his backstory and character. His connection with Storyboard P. is also unclear beyond sharing snacks and laughs. But the two characters act as doubles in their expressions of masculinity under dark and constraining conditions. These fleeting images of doubling and intimate exchange evolve over the course of the video.

Night has now fallen on the field. The young boy walks along a chain-link fence alone as the film switches to a sequence of shots that simultaneously flashes back to earlier images and offers premonitions. In silence, we see a body in a red hoodie lying on the ground, and someone hunched over runs in reverse past the lifeless body. Then we are again immersed in water, a familiar image from the film’s first looks. The glimpses of red and white fabric from the opening scene now materialize in a fully identifiable body wearing a red hoodie, white t-shirt, and dark pants — another mirror image. The apparitional body floats, suspended.

Water has historically served as the barrier between the living and the dead. Within Black cultural production, it engenders what Nettrice Gaskins calls “a sonic third space characterized by embedded myths, the construction of culture and the invention of tradition.” In Bantu-Kongo cosmology, Kalunga is represented as a body of water, and it separates life and death. Water also signifies new birth in Bantu-Kongo cosmology.1 From these angles, the body suspended in water can be seen as a form of transition between the physical and spiritual world, a different kind of space that Storyboard P. activates with his dancing in the final moments of the film.

The soft chimes of “Getting There” begin as Storyboard P.’s body pulses to rise from the ground and move through the courtyard of Nickerson Gardens. His dancing is noticeably delayed, jolted, and confused. He clutches at his own shirt as he twists his torso and prances on his toes like a ballerina. He searches for the bullet wound that has ushered him into the afterlife. But rather than forward progress or resolve, he seems to move in reverse, yet again confounding our comprehension of time and narrative. The suspensions in time, space, and sound — still water, silence — punctuate the pauses and cuts we see in the video. The singer sings, “Was it not for us to claim/Win the game/Rivaled adversary weight/The give and take/Getting there we’re/Getting there,” and this scene marks the most pivotal part of the film. The give and take here is an exchange of life for death.

After he examines his wound and turns away from the camera, Storyboard P. abruptly jumps towards the sky and then gently collapses towards the ground. Next, he gracefully yet forcefully returns to his feet. He no longer faces the camera. This tension between elevation and giving way mirrors the towering yet crumbling project housing of the film’s setting. Alternately, Storyboard P.’s movements contradict the inhospitable, uniform stucco architecture that surrounds him and his community. His dynamic motions inform the camera, but the camera does not directly follow him. It, too, improvises and responds to him as he himself improvises the choreography amid the constraints of his environment. The camera floats and glides as he does, similar to the floating bodies in water we encounter throughout the film. He is no longer of this world. Yet, even in death, he fails to escape the structures of containment that populate this world.

His community does not see his transformation, nor do they see him weave his way through them. When he bounces off the wall and reaches the end of the line of people leaning against it, a woman and the little boy from throughout the video stand in our view. This is the last time the mirror figures encounter each other in the film. Once Storyboard P. passes the woman and boy, his body moves more gracefully; his motions are no longer choppy or confused. As Storyboard P. nears his destination, he slips into a lowrider that transports him into what viewers can only assume is the next stage of his afterlife. Flying Lotus, seated in the front passenger seat, functions as a grim reaper. The car rides out of frame as the camera pans to the neighborhood where red lights emanating from a parked ambulance flash and flood the landscape. Flying Lotus explains that the ambulance appeared by accident. He tweets, “that ambulance and helicopter just happened to be there. shit was active. It still goes down in the nicks.” But this is neither a scene of revelation, of resurrection, nor of transcendence.2 It is instead a characteristic image of Black life — a state of being that exists in the frictional zone between freedom and unfreedom. The film ends with water. The body from the opening scene floats slowly toward the surface, ever higher towards the light, away from the murky darkness in which it is suspended — a dream deferred.

  1. For further explication of water’s symbolic significance within African-rooted belief systems, see Terry Rey’s “Vodou, Water, and Exile: Symbolizing Spirit and Pain in Port-au-Prince,” in Religion, Violence, Memory, and Place, Ed. Oren Baruch Stier and J. Shawn Landres (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2006), 198-213.
  2. For a brilliantly illuminating analysis of these contradictions and slippages, see Lauren M. Cramer’s “Icons of Catastrophe: Diagramming Blackness in Until the Quiet Comesliquid blackness 4, 7 (October 2017), 142-168.
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Tiffany Barber and Isabel Jean-Louis

Tiffany E. Barber is a scholar, curator, and critic of twentieth and twenty-first century visual art, new media, and performance. Her work focuses on artists of the Black diaspora working in the United States and the broader Atlantic world. Her writing appears in Rhizomes, InVisible Culture: An Electronic Journal for Visual Culture, TOPIA: Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies, Black Camera, ASAP/Journal, Dance Research Journal, Afterimage: The Journal of Media Arts and Cultural Criticism, and various anthologies, exhibition catalogs, and online publications. She is Assistant Professor of Africana Studies at the University of Delaware. Isabel Jean-Louis is a Communications major at the University of Delaware, where her work focuses on interpersonal and visual communication, black media, and graphic design. Isabel has also worked to expand the underground music scene in Delaware. She graduates in May 2020.