Jacques Morel. Photographs of Who Is Queen? 2021. Image courtesy the author

A playlist inspired by Adam Pendelton’s Who Is Queen?

When MoMA invited me to make this playlist, I was prepared to see some great art and put together something to accompany a midday stroll through the museum. But Who Is Queen?Adam Pendelton’s 60-foot-high installation—left me dumbfounded and in awe. It became no surprise to learn that Pendleton’s work functions as an illogical and purposefully illegible artistic response to 400 years of Black history.

This response comes in the form of “Black Dada,” a framework Pendleton described in a conversation with writer Awa Konaté as a way to “talk about the future while talking about the past.” It builds upon the absurdism embedded within Dada, the irreverent art movement that grew in response to the charnel house of World War I.

Jacques Morel. Photographs of Who Is Queen? 2021

Jacques Morel. Photographs of Who Is Queen? 2021

Pendleton’s Who Is Queen? is characterized by paintings of stark black-and-white words that feel ominous: one reads “HEY MAMA,” another “WE ARE NOT.” Movies play on a loop, projecting an image of the now removed Robert E. Lee statue in Richmond, VA, on a massive screen. As I was taking it in, the mood was somber and reflective, yet the entire experience felt absurd. Did I mention how tall it was?

To reflect on this installation, I selected songs from Black musicians that are illogical in certain ways. Some of the connections are on the nose—Janelle Monae and Erykah Badu’s “Q.U.E.E.N.” and Kanye West’s “Hey Mama” to name a few—but others are a stretch. In what world can the empowerment in Little Simz’s “Introvert” explain the bleakness felt in Mobb Deep’s “Shook Ones Pt. II”? How does the blissful feeling of Blood Orange’s “You’re Not Good Enough” reveal the sad message underlying the upbeat “I Just Want to Dance,” by the enigmatic group SAULT? What answers can trans singer Shea Diamond’s “Smile” provide to Amiri Baraka’s echoing question in “Who Will Survive America?”

The tension felt between these songs is akin to Pendleton’s “radical juxtapositions”—his assembling of works from poets, writers, and others in order to reveal new meanings and possibilities. If the deaths of millions of Europeans during a four-year war could spur a movement that shook the art world to its core, what of the continued plight of Black people living under white supremacy? Who will, in fact, survive America? The absurdity of even having to ask this question is at the root of Black Dada.

Jacques Morel is a host, producer, and journalist whose work examines the connections between music and culture. He is currently the host of 7 tracks, a podcast dedicated to exploring the stories beneath the tracks that empower us to be who we are today.