Vijay Iyer on “Complicity with Excess”

Jazz pianist Vijay Iyer performs in the Soundcheck studio.

If you haven’t seen musician Vijay Iyer‘s speech concerning “complicity with excess” that was delivered to the Yale Asian alumni, you should check out this article on the Asian American Writers’ Workshop site. It is, in a word, fantastic. Here’s a preview,

I’ve found myself right in the middle of conversations about race for most of the past 20 years. Now I’ve managed to maintain a stable and consistent presence in the jazz world; by any measure I’ve been one of jazz’s success stories, and at this point I have no bitterness; I just observe how things unfold. For example, I’ve seen my work described repeatedly (mostly by white men, who tend to do most of the talking in jazz) as “mathematical,” “technical,” “inauthentic,” “too conceptual,” “jazz for nerds,” “dissonant,” “academic,” and just last month, a “failure.” Over the years a racialized component emerges in such language—basically a kind of model minority discourse that presumes that Asians have no soul and have no business trying to be artists, especially in proximity to Blackness, which is, in the white imagination, a realm of pure intuition, apparently devoid of intellect. No such critique, I should add, is typically leveled at white jazz musicians, of which there are many.

Iyer makes the point that our culture is so deeply steeped in a racial worldview which, in it’s contemporary expression, joins Black and Asian together as flip sides of one experience of anti-normativity, that even in music we see this play of the stolid Oriental versus the Black savage against the backdrop of whiteness as the “flesh” colored crayon of art, a kind of racial neutral.

But there’s more. Iyer reminds us of the history of Yale University, an institution named after Elihu Yale, a man made his fortune in the 17th century through the most grotesque kind of illegal profiteering via the East India Company while he served as the Governor of Fort St. George (formerly White Town, now Chennai) during the English occupation of India. And then he says this,

Now that I am hanging my hat each week at that other centuries-old corporation of higher learning, just up the road in Cambridge, I am more and more mindful of what the British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare has called ‘complicity with excess.’

And as we continue to consider, construct and develop our trajectories as Americans, I am also constantly mindful of what it means to be complicit with a system like this country, with all of its structural inequalities, its patterns of domination, and its ghastly histories of slavery and violence.

Many of us are here because we’ve become successful in that very context. That’s how we got into Yale, by being voted most likely to succeed; and that may be what emboldened some of us to show our faces here this weekend, because we actually have something to show for ourselves, that somehow in the years since we first dined at the Alternate Food Line we’ve managed to carve a place for ourselves in the landscape of America. Whether you attribute it to some mysterious triple package or to your own Horatio Alger story, to succeed in America is, somehow, to be complicit with the idea of America—which means that at some level you’ve made peace with its rather ugly past.

And, let’s not ignore it’s rather ugly present, of drone attacks and NSA spying, mass deportation and mass incarceration, and corporate welfare at the expense of a robust social safety net.

It’s really quite a remarkable speech, especially given that it was delivered at Yale University. Read it and be inspired.

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