Album Review: Space Afrika - Have You Been Through What I've Been Through?
There are a couple of different ways I could, quickly, talk about Have You Been Through What I’ve Been Through? (abbreviated as ‘hybtwibt’)—the first is I could rattle off a long list of descriptive words that attempt to do justice to the things the album makes you feel, and think about, while you listen. There’s a pretty good chance a bulk of those words will end up in this piece, because there is no way I could ‘quickly talk about this album.
That would be doing it a huge injustice.
I could also say that it is an album (or mixtape, as the duo behind it have dubbed it) about juxtaposition—specifically, the contrast between the beautiful, and the upsetting and horrifying.
I could also say that it, as a 33 minute statement and reflection on a specific moment in world history, deserves to be looked at as an incredibly impactful and important listen.
There are a lot of things that hybtwibt is, and there are a lot of things that it is like.
With recorded material dating back as far as six years ago, Space Afrika, the Manchester-based duo of Josh Reidy and Joshua Inyang have been producing what, a profile from Fact Magazine refers to as, ‘dub techno.’ And, yes, their earliest work, including the long out of print Above The Concrete/Below The Concrete, as well as their 2018 full length Somewhere Decent to Live, walks the line between eerie, shadowy sounds of ‘dub,’ with the dance floor ready accessibility of what listeners commonly call ‘techno,’ however, hybtwibt is not representative of the duo’s previous efforts in the slightest.
Assembled from ‘off cut new work, cuts, edits, and extractions’ from the duo’s recent NTS Radio transmission from May 30th, hybtwibt was put together between May 31st and June 3rd, then released into the world on June 5th, via Space Afrika’s Bandcamp page—available as a ‘pay what you want’ download, with proceeds from the album’s ‘sales’ being donated to the NAACP, National Bailout, and Black Lives Matter Global Network, among other social justice organizations.
There is a reason behind the urgency with which Reidy and Inyang produced the effort, and there is a reason that the revenue generated from its sales is all going to these specific organizations.
The reason is this moment—this moment in time, and this moment in history.
Have You Been Through What I’ve Been Through? is upsetting. That’s the first thing you should know about it.
At 33 minutes, sequenced out into 18 tracks, and intended to be listened to uninterrupted from beginning to end, there are times when it perfectly captures the horrific, fragile nature of the human condition (especially right now) that it seems almost too raw, or too exploitive, at times, of the pain of others, that we shouldn’t be listening to it.
But, as upsetting and unnerving as parts of it can be, there are parts of it that are absolutely gorgeous and wildly haunting—all of these things, at times, collide within the same piece, creating results that are beyond remarkable. The collection’s fourth track, “Oh Baby,” is probably the piece that is the most beautiful and horrifying at the same time, arriving as one of the collections’ finest and most memorable pieces. “Oh Baby” blurs together, and creates a palpable sense of tension and possible dread, through a loop of a strong, soulful, disembodied female voice belting out the line “Oh baby,” a sweeping, grand string sample, then near the end, some slight dissonant piano key plunking. All of these elements collide with a young child becoming wildly distressed and emotional while reciting something about the sickening injustices toward Black individuals.
“Today we’re going to talk about how I feel,” the child begins, parts of her words becoming lost within the absolutely dizzying, swooning way the song is mixed. “I don’t like the way we’re treated,” you can make out at one point, before she hesitates in continuing, and another voice snaps at her, viciously, “DO NOT STOP!” The child, now on the verge of tears, continues, and you can hear “We should’t have to protest,” and then perhaps the most telling thing buried in the piece: “We do this because we need to.”
Then, near the end, the most chilling, unsettling line: “It’s a shame we have to to go the graveyard, and bury them.”
There are times when the fragmented, cut and paste aesthetic of hybtwibt makes it sound like you are only catching bits of muffled conversations that you hear through walls, or maybe happen to be passing by, with only a few words or phrases really registering. And there are times when the upsetting, real nature of the album and its conceit is too much, as it is on “Oh Baby,” or like one of the tracks that arrive before it, “Judge,” or one that immediately follows it, “Craze”—and they make me actually feel physically ill.
If “Oh Baby” is where the beautiful and horrific converge, “Judge,” the second piece in the collection and a sparse minute and thirty seconds, is just simply where the icy, and the horrifying, are on display. It’s a brazen move on the part of Reidy and Inyang to sequence something so catastrophic to hear, so early on in the record, but there’s obviously a reason for doing so; it really sets the tone for things to come.
Against a mournful piano progression, and a low underscore of dusty, static crackle, and vocal samples pulled from “Judge Me,” an interlude by Headie One and Fred Again, with featured vocalist FKA Twigs—and yes, this is certainly haunting enough on its own—but the real anguish comes from the sound someone in hysterics, coming in underneath all of this. You are really listening to somebody else’s pain—the otherworldly, hideous sounds of someone really crying—grab a hold of you, settling in discomfort into the pit of your stomach, and for the next half hour, that feeling really never lets go.
“Craze” is slightly less difficult to hear, at least until you get to the portion of the track that sounds like it has visceral sobbing mixed into it—then, there is, the track’s conclusion, featuring snippets of dialogue like, “She died the day he died,” and “This is not a good feeling. I just don’t know why my son—why this happened to him; why they’re doing this to our family.”
It’s not even at the album’s halfway point that the real violence that inspired it is directly revealed, with additional excerpts of audio taken from people out during the protests and volatile riots happening across the country, then later across the world, at the end of May and beginning of June. On “Out Chair,” one voice states, “Fuckin’ cops. There’s a whole line of cops down there”; another details the chaos as its unfolding, describing a post office that is being consumed by fire. In the background, you can hear one of the building’s windows shatter.
As Have You Been Through What I’ve Been Through continues on to its middle section, it becomes even more dissonant, challenging, and cacophonic, relying heavily on the repetition of specific samples, manipulated heavily throughout tracks sequence back to back, like the usage of “Jezebel” by Sade—the phrases “You can see” and “It’s more than just a dream,” stretched and pulled through the run of “WVE,” “You Can See,” and “More Than.” After that, on “Kitty” and “Kitty 2,” “I Want to Make Up,” an old soul song from The 24-Carat Black, is presented as equally stretched, pulled, and manipulated—this sequence of tracks, totaling around seven or eight minutes of the album’s length, slows the pacing down, or at least changes the pacing and tone slightly, and in doing that, creates a very, very disorienting, unnerving effect.
Heading into its final third, hybtwhibt changes tone again, moving away from the oscillating, ominous repetition of the previous five tracks, and makes a sudden, pensive shift, which carries the album to its end. If you hadn’t figured it out already, this is a very bleak record, made as a reaction to incredibly bleak times; however, the one moment of ‘hopefulness’ found on the record is tucked away near its conclusion.
Featuring blippy, almost playful sounding synthesizers, then later joined by additional instrumentation, “DairyDay4” is one of the few real moments of peace found in this collection. Arranged in what is exponentially more calming of a tone than the rest of the album, the music serves as the underscore for an out of context message (is it a video on Instagram? Who knows?) from somebody who introduces herself as Lady D—giving an update on being in London for a wedding, and how excited she is to be there. The moment doesn’t seem out of place, but by the time it arrives, hybtwibt has been such a difficult, emotional ride, this bit of respite can only be seen as a small reminder that there is still happiness, or comfort, left in the world, and that things, despite how horrible they are right in this very moment, will not always be this way.
Of all the tracks on hybtwibt that could be taken out of the context of the album as a whole, and looked at something that is accessible to a casual listen, or at the very least, just accessible, it would be “E.Tears.”
Beginning with a dusty, distant sounding sample of what appears to be acoustic guitar strings being plucked, and surrounded by haunting, whooshing voices that swirl and encompass the sample, around 50 seconds in, a clattering, slow moving drum machine rhythm kicks in, making “E.Tears” the most ‘traditional’ sounding piece on the record—giving it an experimental and hypnotic, near-trip-hop feeling before it abruptly ends and cuts out to a short burst of static.
Have You Been Through What I’ve Been Through? ends with two tracks that are somewhat companions to one another, or at least, fun house mirror reflections to one another. “Where Is” begins in a bed of white noise in motion—sounding like menacing ripples in a pool full of Electronic Voice Phenomena; eventually, a slightly eerie, but also slightly playful, synthesizer melody comes forward, but never quite breaks through the static. The melody is revisited, though heavily distorted and blown out, juxtaposed against a skittering, reversed rhythm in the album’s final track, “Where Is Pt. 2.” The two pieces do not run seamlessly from one to the other, but little silence passes between them, so the second part, while obviously sharing the same musical elements, sounds like a continuation of sorts to the first half of the song, with the addition of some warbled, glitchy sounds bubbling through, and the inclusion of a muffled, disembodied voice interjected a few times near the beginning. As dissonant and chaotic as the noise and rhythm can be, it is also very hypnotic, and lures you in —startling you as the song, and then the album, end somewhat abruptly.
Recently, a friend of mine recommended the book Ghosts of My Life to me.
A collection by the music writer Mark Fisher, it’s subtitled “Writings on Depression, Hauntology, and Lost Futures.” I joked with her—the friend who recommended the book—that she had me at ‘writings on depression.’
I hadn’t gotten too far into the book when I realized that I may not really be smart enough to have been reading it, but by the end, despite how uncultured, or unintelligent, I felt at times, the very idea of a ‘lost future,’ and the concept of hauntology, were both fascinating, if not incredibly challenging, to think about.
“Hauntology” is very difficult to put into words, but it’s an idea that revolves around nostalgia and melancholy, and the notion that we are haunted by possible futures that will ultimately not exist. In his writing about this idea, Fisher talks a lot about the film The Shining, but mostly, he writes at length about experimental and electronic based music—citing The Caretaker, Broadcast, William Basinksi, and Burial as artists who are “preoccupied with the way in which technology materialized memory – hence a fascination with television, vinyl records, audio tape, and with the sounds of these technologies breaking down.”
“It makes us aware that we are listening to t time out of joint.”
While Have You Been Through What I’ve Been Through? is an album, or mixtape, or ‘sound collage,’ or whatever you want to call it, that is wholly unique, yes, in the way it serves as an immediate response to a larger, detrimental situation in the world that, despite the weeks of unrest having more or less ceased in many major cities, is still a very real problem with complicated solutions. People are upset, afraid, tired, and angry—this album is a reflection of all of those emotions, and more. But, as it is unique in those elements, there are other elements, specifically some of its soundscapes, that owes a lot to artists that came before, namely Burial, whose lonely, dusty, late night ruminations defined (his full lengths—the self-titled album from 2006 and Untrue from 2007) and then redefined (the series of singles and EPs from 2011 on to 2013) electronic music. The kind of near-nightmarish darkness, among other feelings and ideas, that permeated those records and songs, runs throughout hybtwhibt, as well as the way Reidy and Inyang manipulate vocal samples to achieve that that spectral feeling Burial did so well almost right out of the gate.
From beginning to end, Have You Been Through What I’ve Been Through? is, itself, a lost future—or, it is ‘about’ a lost future. The lost future where George Floyd isn’t killed by a white police officer in front of a Minneapolis grocery store, setting off nationwide, then later worldwide, protests, riots, and a deafening call for the end of systemic racism and the defending of the police as we know it now. It’s the sound of the lost future where we don’t watch a police station burn to the ground in real time on social media. It’s the lost future where the countless other men and women of color who were killed by police brutality haven’t been. And this idea haunts the entirety of the record, even after it shifts tone beyond the halfway point.
Have You Been Through What I’ve Been Through? is both gorgeous as it is harrowing and at times extraordinarily brutal. It’s an important response to unprecedented times, and while it also serves as a reflection of our contemporary world, focusing on the futures we have already lost, there are also faint glimmers of the ones we still may be able to choose.
hybtwibt is available now as a charitable, 'pay what you want' download from the Space Afrika Bandcamp page.
hybtwibt is available now as a charitable, 'pay what you want' download from the Space Afrika Bandcamp page.