Written by Ali’a B. Edwards
Graham Fagen and Ghetto Priest’s The Slave’s Lament is a digital artwork on display at the Mississippi Museum of Art. Part of the New Symphony of Time exhibition, The Slave’s Lament, is situated in the Migration, Movement, and Home gallery. Museum curator, Elizabeth Abston, explained why The Slave’s Lament is included in the exhibition’s Migration, Movement, and Home gallery. “We started realizing that Mississippi is a home, but it’s also been a place of constant movement and constant change. This is a space where we can tell the stories, not just of diaspora, of people moving in, but of people getting pushed out.” (EA, 1:47 – 2:03)
Abston described artist Graham Fagen’s influences and motivations for this interpretive piece. “He really fell in love with Caribbean culture and reggae music and the freedom that [it] represented. So he’s dealing with these clashing cultures. And as he started to think about his artwork, he started thinking about these cultural inroads and the way that culture travels across continents. And also the tangled history of colonialism that is embedded in everything we experience today and that shaped everything back then.” (EA, 3:00 – 3:30)
Scottish artist, Graham Fagen, conceived of his interpretation of The Slave’s Lament while conversing with an artist and friend, Ghetto Priest. In 2000, while researching for a commissioned work, Fagen designated time to address his “idle curiosity” about Burns. (GF, 1:25) What Fagen discovered angered him and set him on a course to address and, potentially, redress the miseducation he received as a child in school. In 1786, Scotland’s celebrated poet, Robert Burns accepted a position to work as an overseer on a Jamaican slave plantation. Burns is widely recognized for having written a poem entitled, The Slave’s Lament. Many regard Burns as a “poet for freedom, liberty, and the common good of humankind.” It came as a surprise to Fagen that the author of The Slave’s Lament considered working for a plantation. Fagen knew this bit of information was missing from his grade school history books, which made him determined to create a piece of art that could amplify this critical detail. Fagen sought artists that could help increase awareness about this overlooked piece of Robert Burns’s history. He called on reggae musicians whose artistic voices have inspired him over the years.
He found Robert Burns’ slave song to be problematic. Fagen was displeased with Burns expressing what he thought were the laments of a chattel slave when he too was willing to participate in the oppressive institution of slavery. In 2015 Fagen recreated the original song with friend and frequent collaborator, Ghetto Priest. He says he didn’t initially set out to remake the poem as a song. His conversations with the reggae musicians, whose ancestors likely experienced the trauma described in Burns’ poem, inspired Fagen to reinterpret the poem as a song. When Fagen asked Ghetto Priest to collaborate with him, Priest’s response was, “your man Burns was born in 1759 to write the song, and I was born to sing it.” (GF, 7:14)
Graham Fagen’s The Slave’s Lament digital artwork is comprised of four screens. Each one shows a separate component of the collaborative piece. There are three musicians and a vocalist, Ghetto Priest. The camera is unflinching, as it shows us Ghetto Priest’s interpretation. Black facial features that are typically hidden or edited into the background are keenly and closely featured. The viewer can’t help but visually and sonically take Ghetto Priest in as he offers his voice to these haunting lyrics and melody. He sings with sorrow, power, and pride.
“Whether you believe it or not, I believe I was contacted via that Spirit to sing this song.” Of his performance Ghetto Priest says, “I am real and what you saw and whatever you received of what you saw in The Slave’s Lament is true.” (GPIII, 12:25)
When asked to give his opinion on the original song, Ghetto Priest asked incredulously, “Can you imagine a white man singing this song? And the first person to redo this song is someone who looks like the person he was writing about. Here I am, I’m keeping that fire burning. Just like Black Lives Matter, all these things have got to go on, but one can not lose sight of one’s self.” (GP III, 0:40 – 1:20) “When you hear this song it just comes to remind you that this ain’t over yet. There’s still things that need to be addressed. It’s still resonating to this day.” (GPII, 11:17) He addressed the emotion in his performance, “This is the beauty of our ancestors. Our ancestors never sleep. Remember, we come from before slavery, hence why I have this pride.” (GPII, 15:07)
Of this artwork, Fagen stated, “The key thing, I suppose about the work is about expanding or raising an awareness of the influence, the continued influence, the historic and contemporary influence the transatlantic slave trade has to this very day.” (GF, 17:23 – 17:50)
“The thing that’s important for me about the work is what you’re seeing is four people making an action, and what you’re hearing is the sound of their action. For example, through Ghetto Priest’s singing you hear the lyrics. And the musicians pressing their fingers on the string. That action has a reaction. And if you’re able to speak or understand English, hopefully you’ll begin to listen to the words that Ghetto Priest is singing. So hopefully, there is a primary relationship between the artwork and the viewer.” (GF, 20:39 – 22:47)
The conversations this work can stimulate give credence to the artist’s intention. As protests against police brutality and state-sponsored oppression of Black lives continue around the world, people are inquiring, listening, reflecting, and strategizing the appropriate actions to take to bring about change, justice and peace. Some state and local governments have acquiesced to public demand for the removal of statues that commemorate controversial historical figures. Removing these images of oppressors and colonizers from the public square helps alleviate some of the tension and trauma of living as a Black person in America and abroad. As politicians, organizations, and corporations pledge their commitment to reimagine our collective social justice narrative, those in leadership positions can take inspiration from Fagen’s interpretation of The Slave’s Lament and begin by including Black voices at the center of these conversations.