Jenn Nkiru visits ICA to share films that explore blackness through music 

London-based artist Jenn Nkiru visited the ICA Oct. 9 to share her films, "Black to Techno" and "Rebirth is Necessary."

Quentin Rice, Staff Writer

Jenn Nkiru had an interest in electronic music at a young age, but it wasn’t until she attended the Detroit Electronic Music Festival in 2010 that she realized exactly what she liked about it. 

“It was a moment for me that just connected so many dots,” Nkiru said. “I kind of had this perception of certain sounds, but to see it in its origin space helped me really get the foundations of what the sound is … particularly as a black sound.”

Richmond natives huddled into the auditorium of the Institute for Contemporary Art on Oct. 9 for the screening of two films, “Black to Techno” and “Rebirth is Necessary,” directed by South London director Jenn Nkiru, known for her collaborations with Janelle Monae, Kamasi Washington, Jay-Z and Beyoncé.

Nkiru was in attendance to participate in a post-screening discussion about her creative process and insights into her films.

The first film, “Black to Techno,” explores the black origins of techno music in Detroit. The film focuses on anecdotes from Detroit residents and samples clips from Detroit-based media, including a commercial for a Ford Focus, a TV show called “The Scene” and workers on an assembly line.

One lighthearted moment showed a slow pan through a car manufacturing factory that finally landed on a trio of women wearing denim work clothes and safety goggles, spinning records on a turntable while employees continued their jobs around them.

Nkiru frames the film within the afrofuturistic mythology of Drexciya, a seminal techno act from Detroit. “Drexciya,” according to the duo, is an underwater city in the Atlantic Ocean inhabited by the children of pregnant black women of the middle passage who were thrown off slave ships.

“As Richmond and its residents still struggle with the echoes of the Confederacy, Nkiru’s art was well-received as a part of the healing process.” —Quentin Rice

Nkiru starts the film by explaining this mythology and ends it with a shot of a baby on a platform afloat in a wide body of water.

“Black to Techno” was realized after clothing brand Gucci and London-based art magazine Frieze were putting together a series of films about the Second Summer of Love, a period from the late ’80s into the ’90s that saw the rise of electronic music. They approached Nkiru about doing a film on techno music. 

“What was the selling point for me was, they were like, ‘You can have complete free reign over the film,’” Nkiru said. “They said, ‘You’ll own the film, and you’ll decide the final cut.’”

With such power over the film, Nkiru said she wanted to keep it focused on anecdotes from Detroit residents. One such story was that of a 24-hour hair salon that used to be open in Detroit where, as the nameless narrator explains, people went to have their hair touched up after a few hours at a techno club.

A recurring inspiration in Nkiru’s work is J Dilla, a Detroit native who revolutionized the hip-hop industry with his innovative use of soul and funk music samples and drum loops. “Black to Techno” features a shot of Dilla’s childhood home and a phone call between Nkiru and Dilla’s mother, Maureen “Ma Dukes” Yancey. 

Nkiru said there were many shots inside Dilla’s home that had to be cut from the final version of “Black to Techno” that she will upload to her Instagram, @jennnkiru, in the coming weeks. Dilla’s influence carries over into “Rebirth is Necessary,” the other film screened at the ICA, which gets its name from a Dilla track.

“Rebirth is Necessary” chains together old footage of The Black Panther Party, jazz legends Sun Ra and Alice Coltrane, and contemporary performance art pieces to explore the evolution and different interpretations of blackness. Interspersed are quotes from black figures such as Audre Lorde and Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first president. 

Nkiru said that most of the work she does is slogging through hours of vintage footage in order to find the right bits to use. 

“In ‘Rebirth,’ some of the original source material was four hours long,” she said. “So it involves a lot of heavy digging.” 

“Rebirth is Necessary” ends with reversed footage of black actors in colorful clothing dancing through streets plastered with graffiti and advertisements. The credits roll over vintage footage of black couples as Shafiq Husayn’s “Le’ Star” bookends the film on an optimistically groovy note. 

The spirit of Nkiru’s films felt appropriate in Richmond, which has its own ugly history with the African diaspora. As Richmond and its residents still struggle with the echoes of the Confederacy, Nkiru’s art was well-received as a part of the healing process.

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