Hieroglyphic Being

Synth-expressionist and cosmic bebopper, but no Afrofuturist: Hieroglyphic Being speaks to Jocks&Nerds ahead of the release of his album, The Disco’s of Imhotep

On Thursday 7 July, the day before I spoke to DJ and producer Jamal Moss AKA Hieroglyphic Being, a series of brutal events in Dallas had profoundly hurt the African American community.

Stagnation and complacency will pacify you; it will be the end of you

That day, at a Black Lives Matter protest, Afghan War veteran and US Army Reserve member Micah Xavier Johnson shot five police officers dead and injured nine before being himself killed by a bomb attached to a remote controlled robot.

The initially peaceful protest was held in response to the police killings of Philando Castile in Minnesota on 6 July and Alton Sterling in Louisiana on 5 July. While the protesters were calling for an end to the bloodshed, Johnson was so upset with the police that he chose to escalate the violence instead.

On 9 July, the day after I met Moss, another black man named Alva Braziel was shot dead by police in Houston. Since then, officers have killed six more African Americans in separate incidents. A recurrent event throughout the year, Black Lives Matter protests have been held across the US nearly every month.

I do not discuss these events with Moss. But his frustrations with black-white relations come out instead when I mention Afrofuturism, which critics often connect him to – either because he is a native to Chicago, where the idea was supposedly born; because he has collaborated with Marshall Allen of the Sun Ra Arkestra; or because he is a creator of experimental and forward-looking music, who also happens to be black.

While Sun Ra is considered the founding father of Afrofuturism, after he fused Afrocentric and space age themes with jazz in the 1950s, it wasn’t until 1994 that the term was actually coined and intellectualised. This was done by a white cultural critic named Mark Dery in his essay Black to the Future.

In it, Dery wrote “African Americans, in a very real sense, are the descendants of alien abductees, they inhabit a sci-fi nightmare.”

According to Dery and critics after him who perpetuated this idea, Afrofuturists embraced their alienation in society and looked to a utopian future. Does Moss, a self-proclaimed “recluse” who was homeless for three years, follow this idea?

“I’m resentful of the fact that I need permission from white people to exist 2000 years from now”, he says.

Jamal Moss was born in the Chicago’s South Side in 1973. He was adopted by a Christian couple, and grew up during a peak time for Chicago house culture. At school, he felt alienated from the other kids. At 16, after he finished high school, his adoptive parents kicked him out because he spent too much time clubbing.

I just want to be a vessel for me

As an “urban refugee”, Moss made his home in warehouses in Chicago’s meatpacking district, dancing at parties by the likes of Ron Hardy and DJ Rush. When the party was over, he would sleep in parks in middle class neighbourhoods. He also regularly visited the Bahá'í House of Worship to help himself grow spiritually.

While studying anthropology at university, Moss found a musical mentor in the legendary DJ Adonis. Since 1996, as Hieroglyphic Being, he has released a whopping 37 albums. His 38th, The Disco’s of Imhotep, is out through Ninja Tune’s Technicolour imprint on 5 August.

Do you have a special feeling for each album?

My mentor DJ Adonis said to me 'whatever you have in your head, record it.' I realised this was very therapeutic. I would wake up everyday and make a chorus.

With all the albums, that's me just releasing all my raw feelings and emotions. It was a sonic diary. I put it out there myself to see if people would buy it. It got around and was a good hustle because the labels were refusing me. They thought my stuff was too lo-fi.

Did this album feel different?

It is more definitive. The original material was very different from what was released. At first, my ego was messing with me because the label were like, 'nah we need you to do this.'

But I realised they were trying to help me be a better me. I had to take my time and make each individual track the best I could.

This album has a story-telling structure. Everything else before was a sonic diary. Now I can sit down and create a narrative. They showed me how to get my conversation across.

To have these people telling us we're geniuses and future-forward, it hurts my heart

This taught me about myself not just sonically but in the way I approach other people. I use 20,000 words when I could use five. I don't know how to be precise.

I've read that you experience things intensely. Is it hard to contain your ideas?

I'm an empath; I'm very receptive to emotions. Sometimes, when a person is very caught up in their emotions, the spiritual and the rational falls into the background. This album taught me to be rational and not irrational in my process and approach.

I come from a background where everything we did was more primal, aboriginal. Primal and aboriginal cultures exist on a very spiritual and emotional level.

Native American, Amazonian and African tribes sing and dance for hours on end. For someone on the outside, they might think this is very repetitive. Where is it going? But when you’re in that trance, there are a lot of emotions within you that people who aren’t connected can perceive.

Are you cautious of controlling raw emotions?

It's helping me be a better person. It's communication. I went for a long period of my life communicating a certain way, so this change won't be overnight. I've been programmed a certain way. It might take a couple of years for me to be precise.

You don't want to be in a comfort zone?

No. Sometimes you just get into your bubble to feel safe. A lot of artists, especially where I come from, get too comfortable. Stagnation and complacency will pacify you; it will be the end of you.

I'm not saying I want to be God. I'm not saying I want to be a demigod. I'm not saying I want to be better than anybody else. I just want to be a vessel for me.

Afrofuturism, which was born in Chicago, comes up a lot in your interviews. But you don't see yourself as a part of it?

I'm not totally opposed to Afrofuturism, if it's going to benefit other people and make them better, intelligent and enlightened, if it'll get them up out of their despair and their poverty to show them hope for the future.

Black people are stuck behind this mental cage in America

The problem I have with Afrofuturism is every time I go to symposiums or talks, the people who need to hear that they belong to the future are not there.

I don't mean to disrespect anybody, but 90 per cent of the crowd are not black. They're just intellectuals stroking their egos.

The people who need to know about this stuff are out selling drugs to support their families or put clothes on their backs, or dodging bullets. Death, poverty and violence are more common to them than being intellectually, technologically, creatively or spiritually sound.

I had a talk with Janelle Monáe and Reggie Watts, and some other producers on stage, and I kind of went off at Moogfest. I said, 'the people on this stage that are black, we gonna be ok. We're gonna be able to pay our rent tomorrow. We're gonna be able to have clothes on our back and food on the table.'

I just wish that these seminars could be done through community outreach so the black youth who are eight to 18 can know they have a future too.

It's insulting to say that ‘these black people’ are like no other. They're not like they're normally perceived: animals, thugs, booty-shaking, bling bling. All the hip hop stuff; all the buffoonery culture that's been going on since the early 1900s in music – like with the jiggaboo and Satchmo.

When you wake up, you can see how bad it is because the youth follow that. They like Young Thug, Young Jeezy and all those other cats out there with the foolish lyrics.

So to have these people in front of us telling us that we're geniuses and future-forward, it hurts my heart. Because I know when I go back to Chicago, there are kids who have no idea about this.

How did you discover yourself?

I basically defined myself because I didn't want to just be a nigger. I didn't want to be this hood or this thug. For me to find something inside myself, to be more than what society has projected upon my parents, their parents, their parents’ parents and me.

Even when they still hate us, we are like, we love you so much

Black people are stuck behind this mental cage in America. It's like: your people were slaves; there was nothing before that, no kings and queens, no empires. You were just yanked from Africa and that's it.

That part me of never sat so well. I was like: ok it's time for me to define myself. I don't want to just be defined by what happened on the North American continent. I want to reach before that.

Sad to say, a lot of black folks in America feel like Egypt was the epicentre. That Egypt was the pinnacle of what ancient civilisation and culture is.

If black people in America knew more about other empires in Africa, they would gravitate towards that and feel special about themselves. Especially when you've been told you're three-fifths of a human – that's still in the [US] Constitution, no one took it out.

When you walk down the street, people look at you and are like, 'oh my god, he might do something.' For us, we're just hoping we can survive for the next day. We ain't worried about snatching purses, we already know the repercussions of fucking with white people.

You don't understand that we are the most forgiving, loving people on the planet. Especially in America, where so much has been done to my people: hosed, beat-down, hung, burned, raped, and enslaved.

We still look at the white man and say, ‘hey, we want to sit on the same table with you and share all we have with you, if you will just love us.’

Even when they still hate us, we are like, ‘we love you so much, and we’ll kill ourselves and do the job for you.’ That's how systematically messed up it is for us in the US.

I had to reprogram myself to find self-love and self-worth. I had to find key words and symbols. I wear this ankh, purely African. This is stuff that can let me know, and give me pride and joy.

Not to put anybody else down because this is not anti-white, this is not anti-anybody else. This is pro-me keeping myself together in this world, so I don't become the animal that they want me to be.

With Hieroglyphic Being, it was a way of being seen as more than human. To be known as human is disgusting right now. If you look at the world we live in, there's no pride in calling yourself human. What humans do to other humans is bullshit.

You need to let people be who they truly are and not be afraid. Because if they know who they truly are, they're not worried about fucking up in life.

Instead, they’re enjoying it.