Niela Orr

Niela Orr is a deputy editor of the Believer and the Black Mountain Institute’s inaugural Sidney and Bébé Wolf Fellow.

From The Blog
1 March 2023

De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising is to Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back what Bob Kaufman’s Abomunist Manifesto is to Allen Ginsberg’s Howl: a text that’s less a rallying cry than a high-concept hosanna for outliers. Where Kaufman was surveying the Bay Area’s brain fog, the Cold War and the menace of the A-bomb, De La Soul looked out at the macho rap landscape and added their small-pond sensibilities and day-glo colours to an overwhelmingly leather and gold NYC rap scene.

From The Blog
2 December 2022

Bernadette Mayer died on 22 November, aged 77. Earlier in the month, New Directions published the career-spanning collection Milkweed Smithereens. In ‘The Joys of Dahlias’, a nonsense taxonomy of sensual feelings inspired by flowers, Mayer writes:

sleep now, smart pants or the midnight dancer
will tutti frutti your fabulous memory

I don’t know who the midnight dancer is, but if I’m up late, grinding away for some deadline or other, they’re someone I might hallucinate. Listen how lovely Mayer’s invented verbs are: ‘tutti frutti’ could mean to chop up, desiccate and sweeten, like the ice-cream topping, or to reduce your ‘fabulous memory’ into little more than a rolling playback of Little Richard’s rock and roll squeal. (‘A wop bop a loo bop a lop bam boom’ might be sound poetry produced in the witching hour, the cry of an insomnolent artist under pressure to make a hit.)

From The Blog
20 May 2022

Kendrick Lamar’s recent single ‘The Heart Part 5’ samples ‘I Want You’, Marvin Gaye’s torch song for Janis Hunter. The 1970s saw Gaye whipsaw from socially conscious poet (What’s Going On, 1971) to lover man (Let’s Get It On, 1973) to lovelorn Janis-stan (I Want You, 1976). (Maybe he was all of these things at many times in his life, as David Ritz’s biography suggests, but his public-facing self seemed to transform with each new record.)

From The Blog
2 December 2021

Virgil Abloh, the artist and fashion designer, died on 28 November of cardiac angiosarcoma, a rare cancer. He was 41. The news was unexpected, as Abloh had chosen to keep his diagnosis private. An exhibition of his work at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago in 2019 was called Figures of Speech. One of his best jokes was to put the words ‘FOR WALKING’ in bold, all-caps lettering on a pair of women’s cowboy boots.

From The Blog
10 September 2021

The death of the actor Michael K. Williams, at the age of 54, was reported on 6 September. He had been found unresponsive in his Brooklyn penthouse. Williams was a major player in The Wire, one of American culture’s sharpest analyses of what happened to the country in the wake of 9/11.

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