In 2019, Virginia Beach-born multi-instrumentalist composer, experimental producer, researcher, and author JJJJJerome Ellis published The Clearing. The essay examines the many overlaps between America’s grotesque history of colonization and enslavement, philosophies of music and health, meditations on and reframings of Ellis’ own disability—a profound “glottal block” stutter—and the liberatory-discursive frameworks that emerge within and between the work of Black critical thinkers. In the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic he recorded a musical accompaniment to the essay. The album, also named The Clearing, was released on NNA Tapes and the Poetry Project. On the album, Ellis interweaves spoken passages of text and poetry with ambient and experimental electronic compositions, a Bernie Mac comedy show, and, of course, his stutter. The latter he refers to as an “heirloom” which he inherited through his matrilineal bloodline and that serves as the thematic and musical muse of the album.
In the following interview conducted by music journalist Christine Kakaire, Ellis expands on how he made the stutter his ally. Today, Ellis points out, he understands his disability as a gift rather than an obstacle, helping him to slow down. We are excited to make the conversation that was originally commissioned for the 26th issue of Switzerland-based print magazine zweikommasieben available online—as a part of our ongoing focus theme on “Alliance.”
CHRISTINE KAKAIRE When I emailed you recently, I received an auto-reply message about you taking time offline for gardening. I thought that was really beautiful. I wanted to ask you—particularly because your work is so generous and effortful—what is your relationship to resting?
JJJJJEROME ELLIS What a wonderful question. Well, I find rest elusive a lot of the time. I have chronic sleep problems that started around 2012 and have been going since then. My sleep is extremely fragile. Do you know Chani Nicholas’ work?
CK Yes, I love her.
JE Me too. I have received so much guidance from her over the years. I was rereading my birth chart the other day, and in the section where it’s talking about my Mercury in Pisces, it was saying that sleep can be a tricky art. I really liked that phrasing. I like thinking of sleep as an art. I felt very validated. Another way of saying it is that I find it hard to sink into deep breath, so I have to be very intentional about it. Gardening is one way of sinking, connecting with the earth, and introducing forms of slowness. One of the many, many, many gifts that my stutter gives me is a constant invitation into forms of slowness. For most of my life I experienced a lot of despair and anger and frustration because I felt like my stutter was slowing me down or preventing me from speaking at the tempo that I needed to or that was expected of me. I’m ordering food at the coffee shop, and there’s a line behind me and I’m stuttering and I feel like I’m holding things up. So, I’ve had this feeling for most of my life, like I’m gumming up the works, but now I try to see it as a gift. Because when things slow down, it can be an opportunity to observe something that needs to be changed. So, I really prioritize rest; I tried to make my schedule stutter and introduce clearings into the schedule.
CK I’m so curious about the artful way that you deploy language. As somebody who also works with words, I’m always preoccupied with the partisan nature of words. Through the course of the album, you move through medical terms like glottal block and other descriptive and illustrative terms like disfluency to characterize your stutter, but I’d like to know how you came to the phrase “the clearing,” and why it was important for you to name your stutter this way.
JE I have long been fascinated with names. My name has historically been the site of great anguish because of how often I stutter my own name, and now it is a core site in my aesthetic practice. I started spelling my name with five Js during lockdown, and it was scary at first. I took guidance from bell hooks, Prince’s [love symbol] and other Black artists who have taken their name as a site of disruption. I had this book when I was growing up about the names of God in the Hebrew Bible, like Jehovah-Nissi and Jehovah Shalom, and I was so fascinated by the idea of more than one name for a divine being. My friend, the wonderful poet Chris Martin, said to me: “You know, when you name the thing, it can help you see it in a different way.” A name invites me into a form of recognition. For most of my life, my understanding of stuttering was that it was a burden, it was a curse, it was a pathology, it was a problem, something that needed to be fixed. There’s the very field of speech-language pathology. So, what happens if we say “clearings” instead of saying “stutter”? All of a sudden, the simple subtraction of one word and the addition of another opens up a whole other world. In the current manuscript I’m working on, for a second book, there’s a line that says, “stutters are vessels.” There’s another line that says, “stutters are an occasion to be present in complex thought,” and every time I read that it thrills open this whole other whole vista. If I can think of this presence in my body not as a pathology that guides me down one path but an heirloom—something that I need, something that I inherited from my mother that is very precious—that’s a whole other path. The Clearing came about when I was commissioned to write this essay in 2019. I was thinking about Toni Morrison’s Beloved, about the clearings there and about the larger tradition that she’s written towards of “hush harbors,” using Black people gathering in clearings as a form of protection. I was also thinking about the way it feels in my body; that the stutter feels like this opening. I gradually arrived at this phrase, the clearing of the present moment. I was meditating on how, for me, stuttering so often feels like it freezes time, in a certain way, in my body, which for most of my life was very painful. The original title of the essay was The Clearing of The Present Moment, and then my partner at the time said: “What if you just call it The Clearing?”
CK From a listener’s perspective, while being invited into this clearing I sometimes feel this desire to rush in and somehow make the space less clear, I suppose. There’s an impulse to try and speak for you, or speak around you, to fill the space and resolve that moment. In this nonstop, hyper-capitalist world, being asked to simply wait in a moment of discomfort feels very confrontational in some way. Now that there are other people interacting with your clearing, what has that experience been like for you?
JE I’ve received so much life-giving feedback which feels so good and so unexpected. If you had told me when I was five, ten, 15, 20, 25, that I would be so open and public about something that has long been so private for me, that would have been quite a surprise. For most of my life stuttering was so private, and I found it hard to talk about. I used to have much shame about it. In seventh grade I discovered that if I speak in an alternate voice, like if I put on another voice, then it could help me avoid stuttering and so I did that in Spanish class. My teacher was like: “Don’t do that, that’s not allowed in my class. You need to speak in your regular voice.” I remember I wrote on a piece of paper, “Shut up, Mr. H,” and then he sent me to the principal’s office and I got in trouble. When I was in my last year of high school, I had to do some oral exams, and only at that point was I beginning to be able to speak about my stutter. I asked one of my administrators if there was any way that I could have this requirement waived, and they waived my English exam, but I still had to do the Spanish one. But my teacher then was so kind, allowing me to do it after school, so we could do it in private. It took me maybe 15 minutes to say five sentences in Spanish. I learned how to hide my stutter for a long time, and I tried so intensely to pass. Now it’s the opposite. As you said, the clearing for me is an invitation into my body, into my experience. Now, people who stutter tell me: “It really affected me hearing, hearing my experience mirrored in you.” Those phone call tracks [“The Bookseller, Pt 1” and “The Bookseller, Pt 2”] were easy to make, because I’ve been having those calls since I was a child. Joshua St. Pierre, the Disability Studies scholar and stutterer, taught me in his writing: we can think of the stutter as a medicalized, individual thing to deal with, by going to speech therapy, to try and fix it in order to become a member, as you said, of our capitalist society. But what happens if we think of it more in line of the social model of disability? Even though it adheres in my body in a way, what if the stutter is not mine? What if it is something that we share and thus is not solely my responsibility? What if it is something that we carry together?
CK I’d love to ask you to speak on the intersection of these ideas with the representation of the disabled Black body in your work. In the track “Dysfluent Waters” there is a poetic moment when you describe seeing an ultrasound of what actually occurs in your body during the glottal block stutter. There was something particularly powerful for me in that moment depicting the humanity and fragility of the Black body, especially interwoven with music. I think there are so many troubling persistent myths and ideas about Blackness and intrinsic musicality, about how it is somehow perfectly and effortlessly coded in the body. I reject all of these ideas because I see a link between this and the refusal to acknowledge Black music as the result of technology, intellect, or creative labor. Because, as you mention in the album, skepticism towards the humanity of Black people is common.
JE It’s so complex to try to think about things connected to what is living in my body. It’s this heirloom that I inherited from my family line that is my gift to steward and take care of, and I try to carry that gift with integrity. Part of that carrying involves certain types of risk that come at this intersection of the stutter and being in the Black body. The story that I tell in the preface of the book, where I get pulled over by a cop, presents a very clear and sharp instance of this intersection where I am thinking about all the things that the Black body has been made to carry: threat, danger, the possibility of violence. Then the stutter is made to carry the possibility of deception. I’m thinking: “I need to not stutter, so that it doesn’t seem like I’m lying, and I need to be Black as little as I can.” The cop is coming towards me, and I’m thinking, “I’m not listening to rap music right now. That’s a positive. I’m not wearing grills. I’m not carrying certain signifiers of Blackness that can make me seem more of a threat.” Then the question arises: “How can I be safe in the clearing?” I’m speaking to you right now, and when the stutter bubbles up I let it breathe, I let it bloom. With the police officer, I didn’t feel safe doing that. Every stutter I felt rising felt like a liability. I was really trying to hide it, but he asked where I was going, and I had this fork in the road. I knew I could lie and say a different city that would roll off my tongue, but I knew that if I said the city where I really was going, I could already feel the stutter in my body, it’s this very specific feeling. And I chose to risk the stutter. And I stuttered for maybe like three seconds. My stutter connects me with my ancestors. My great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great relative who stuttered and I meet within that moment, but I don’t feel safe revealing these ancestral bonds to the cop, because I’m just worried about getting out of this situation alive, let alone trying to have a conversation with him. So now I’m searching his eyes to see if he’s wondering why it took me so long to say where I was going, because sometimes when people ask me my name and I pause, they joke like: “Oh, you don’t know your own name?” There are things that we are not supposed to hesitate on. So many questions take place in those three seconds. What is the Black body carrying? What is it allowed to carry? What are the codes attached to what it is carrying? The stutter is to me a sacred thing, but in this moment, I don’t feel safe in its sacredness. How are these double binds created and then placed upon Black bodies? There are so many questions.
CK There are elements of the Black experience which are global and universal, and I can certainly relate to some of those internal scripts and fears, but to be in a Black male-coded body in the United States is simply a chilling reality to consider. I’m just glad that you’re okay and that you survived that incident; my heart skipped a beat there as you were describing it.
JE Thank you. I hope it felt okay for me to share.
CK Absolutely. I think it’s important to document and share these very real incidents. You reference W. E. B. DuBois’ The Souls of Black Folks in The Clearing, and this anecdote is a very stark example of that text’s enduring concept—double consciousness—and what navigating a world that is committed to thinking the worst of you feels like, and what degree of emotional labor and calculation surviving this requires. I’m curious, you said that you started writing the essay The Clearing in 2019 and the accompanying album came out in 2021. Did the racial justice discourse through 2020 have some impact on you or your project?
JE I was in New York City in the process of recording the album in the summer when Breonna Taylor and George Floyd were killed. I assume that it did affect me, but nothing concrete comes to mind. The questions that I was asking while creating the work were questions that had been with me for a long time and have been with Black people for a long time. I want to reflect more on that because I learned so much during that moment, specifically the demand to defund the police is something that I had never heard, in that specific language and that specific change. I have a lot of uncertainty about my relationship to activism. I have a lot of uncertainty about how I want to be in this world, and how I want to respond to injustice. Something that began to arise was being able to ask myself what the political dimensions of stuttering are.
CK It surprises me that you don’t see yourself as connected with activism. I feel like in your work there is such a unique ability to draw together a plethora of influences—musical, literary, pop culture, ancestral, familial, linguistic—to illustrate in a very vivid way the falseness and failure of the structural imperative to discredit the continuity of Blackness. Your work reminds me a lot of Kevin Quashie’s writing on “Black Aliveness”, i.e., rejecting that our very existence as Black people is indexed to death. To me, both of these ideas are deeply radical and political.
JE I really appreciate that. I’m very, very grateful that you shared this idea of Black aliveness and resist equating Blackness with death. I find that very helpful and inspiring. It’s something that I’m so grateful to music for, something that I was interested in when we went into lockdown, because I had this written thing. I was wondering what it’d be like to be able to dance while reading this essay. Music holds so much aliveness, even when in the essay I’m meditating on the story with the cop, meditating on some aspects of Black life that have to do with death. Music is so generous in the way that it offers so many forms of aliveness. Music can invite me into dance, that’s such a powerful form of aliveness.
CK I would love to know a little about the process of translating the essay into the album. There’s a cinematic, widescreen effect throughout the album, not just based on the material of the essay but also in the episodic nature of the music.
JE There were two huge changes in my relationship to software that happened right as we went into lockdown. I had been interested in learning Ableton for some years and always felt like it just didn’t align with my schedule. While sheltering in place, I downloaded the Ableton Live trial. I was watching YouTube tutorials and I had a keyboard and my saxophones where I was staying, so I would just jam and record. I had some textures, including what became a lot of the music for “Dysfluent Waters”. Then there’s this plugin called Cycles made by the company Slate + Ash. My dear friend, Mikaal Sulaiman, a great, great composer, sent it to me. It’s a granular synthesizer. I had never used one before and immediately it felt like a spiritual tool to me. I have a piano here and the hammer dulcimer over there, and saxophones and flutes, and all my instruments feel like tools that I am able to encounter in order to practice in the way that meditation feels like a spiritual tool. I had all these recordings from the last few years of live performances that I had done. I would manipulate those recordings and make new sounds with the help of the plugin. The very first sound on the album, in “Loops of Retreat”, was created from a recording of me playing saxophone. I was just flush with inspiration and excited by the combination of those sounds. Then I got curious about recording some of the essays. For “Bend Back the Bow and Let the Hem Fly” I wanted the music to sound like being in a field at dawn when there’s a slight wind. I had a recording of myself playing on the dulcimer and I ran that through Cycles, and it turned into what sounds like strings. On “Dysfluent Waters” the music came first; it opens up with that piano figure, and it’s bouncy. I was like, “OK, what part of the essay does this remind me of? Oh, there’s this part about water in the essay,” and I would experiment reading over it. The way that a lot of the music in later stages got shaped is that when I would stutter, I would sometimes use that as an opportunity to make something happen musically. There are parts where I’m stuttering, and in the space of the stutter, in the clearing, an instrument will go in and another will be taken out. Something might shift in the music, the key might change, as a way of musically exploring the idea of the clearing as a place of possibility. The stutter is almost like a collaborator because I recorded and wrote the music all alone, but the stutter is this other interlocutor. One of my favorite parts about the recording process happened in July and August 2020: I had recorded basically all the album and had maybe 15 possible tracks, and I was trying to find a sequence. I would put the tracks in a specific sequence on my phone. And I would leave at midnight and go on a bike ride through Brooklyn and Queens until three in the morning listening to the sequence. I would make notes, and then go out again the next night.