Wayde Compton and the African-Canadian background of his work

On Black-Canadian Literature, Hip Hip aesthetics and avantgardistic black poetry

Seminar Paper, 2009
22 Pages, Grade: 3,0


The following paper is concerned with the artist Wayde Compton and the African-Canadian background of his work. In the beginning, Compton´s life as well as some insights into the historical and socio-cultural background that characterize the author´s life and his works will be described. A discussion on Compton´s view on topics such as Black Englishes, Hip Hop oralities and Turntable Pluralities follows, after which the paper will provide some information on the poetry collection Performance Bond as well as other works by Wayde Compton. After an explanation concering the field of „Hip Hop aesthetics“ as well as a discussion of Compton´s poem „Declaration of the Halfrican Nation“, the paper concludes with a presentation of „mixed-race“ or „hyphenated“ writers and their work aside from Wayde Compton.

Wayde Compton was born in 1972 in Vancouver. He is one of the most progressive and experimental poets in Canada and his books include 49th Parallel Psalm, Bluesprint: Black British Columbian Literature and Orature, and Performance Bond (Arsenal Pulp, 2004). Together with Jason de Couto, as a duo called „The Contact Zone Crew“, they perform turntable-based sound poetry. Compton has performed his sound-poetry project at events such as „WordFest- Calgary-Banff International Writers Festival“, „Fuse“ at the Vancouver Art Gallery and Toronto´s „Omiala: Festival of New Black Culture“. Furthermore, in 2002 Compton participated as a co-founder of the Hogan's Alley Memorial Project, which intends to preserve the public memory of Vancouver's original black community. At the moment Compton also teaches English composition and literature at Emily Carr University of Art and Design and the Coquitlam College. Apart from that, he is also one of the publishers of Commodore Books, Canada´s first black-owned small press. In fall 2010 he has a book forthcoming from Arsenal Pulp Press with the title After Canaan: Essays on Race, Writing and Region . 1996 turned out to be an important year for Compton, regarding the fact that he then penned the semi-autobiographical poem Declaration of the Halfrican Nation which will be discussed in detail further down.

Compton´s poetry is inspired through Hip-Hip and Jazz, and features fusions of language, contemporary black politics and language. In Performance Bond, a collection of poems and short fiction, Compton eloquently and defiantly confronts facts such as globalization and the commodification of black culture and history. The issue proves urgent in its call to the collective and is politically charged. It includes a recording of Compton reading „The Reinventing Wheel“. Moreover, Compton´s topics include the Black diaspora at the outer rim of culture and geography, the legacy of the Slave trade, as well as ramifications of urban renewal on North American cities. (cf. http://www.atwaterlibrary.ca/en/node/626, http://www.sfu.ca/~wcompton/, 03.01.2010)

In an interview for „Horizon- Digital Arts and Culture in Canada“, Compton talks about the poem The Reinventing Wheel and gives his personal view on the topic of blending poetry of cultures through Hip Hop turntablism. Against the background of a rebirth of black vernacular which has appeard since the 1970s with the advancement of Hip Hop, he gives insight into the blending of present and past cultures, his turntable poetry project, and Hip Hop´s broken Englishes. Topics like „Black Englishes“, „Hip Hop Oralities“, and „Turntable Pluralities“ outline the prevalent issues.

When writing the poems for his first book, 49th Parallel Psalm, Compton felt drawn to the languages of black North America, so the „Black Englishes“, which was partly due to the fact that he was writing various poems about his father and friends of his father, who all immigrated into Canada in the mid-20th century. Furthermore, he was also writing about the first people who migrated to British Columbia in the 19th century, whereas Compton´s intention was to somehow „channel“ these people, and therefore a imaginery version of their voices was required. Compton also claims that he had always had a strong interest in the tradition of Voodoo and the idea of spirits talking through another person using one´s voice and body from a secluded place somewhere in the spirit realm. It turned out to be a good formal metaphor for the historical recovery Compton was exercising in his poems.

At the same time that Compton was writing poems about his father and his father´s friends he was creating contemporary poems about himself and his mulatto friends, as well as those children of black background that were born in British Columbia in the 1970s. Compton accounted for the past and the fact whether these children have or have not inherited oral traditions form other nations. While doing so, he was using black Englishes, whereas an intervening factor that striked him, the source that distorts these lineages and even distorts the disjointedness of these lineages, was Hip Hop.

Compton points out the fact that Hip Hip changed the world. Its forms are reflective to many important events and happenings, such as the Black Power Movement, or the (marginal) success of the Civil Rights Movement. Obviously Black American Culture has been present all around the globe earlier due to the influence of America in the world cultural trade. But when Hip Hop came into the play, it soon became clear that it´s trademark vocal tone was a sort of seething aggravation. Hip Hop mirrors the new kind of African American voice, and by this means an innovative black voice known all around the globe.

„This vocal trope is loaded with history, namely the dashed promises of utopian black nationalisms. But at the same time, this voice exhibits an uncoded starkness that is distanced far enough from the furtive, masked complaints of the blues to show the gulf between then and now, in terms of collective self-confidence. The creeping nihilism in black expressive culture, as well as an unprecedented degree of freedom-of-speech presently being seized upon by black speakers, and the passing of communal renewals of black languages in favour of a standardizing dialect disseminated worldwide through the media“ (Compton, Horizonzero, issue 08).

Compton regards these new conditions as decisive for the constellation of a new relationship between black North American writers and the old and important orality of Black´s collective memory.

Hip Hop can be considered as an extension of orality, which is ironically a kind of music that is never really live but much more plugged into a big media machine and extended into people´s homes and ears much more individually than communally. This individualization is aggravated in the culturally isolated black minority groups of Western Canada.

Discussing the issues of contemporary Black Englishes in Vancouver, Compton regards turntablism as a manipulation of received sound and received culture, a system which seemed most suitable to convey and transfer orality forward from the edge of black diaspora. This constitutes the reason why turntablism was the one element of Hip Hop that he felt himself most drawn to, whereas emceeing, the direct speaking of the various Englishes, proves important to him too in this respect, since the continuance of black Englishes hardly ever evolves out of direct lineages.

„If I could find a way to make poetry on the turntables, then elements of ancient, non-literate, vestigial African culture could be blended directly into textual poetry, and both could be blended back into hip hop“ (Compton, Horizonzero, issue 08).

Compton was attracted in what he saw in the dualism of the turntables as a potential metaphor:

„The back-and-forth reflection of forms and conditions seems evident in the very imagery of the "ones and twos": the cornerstones of hip hop, the DJ's materials - the left and the right turntable, two halves of a dichotomy. The poetry would arise through the cultural "feedback" these loops would spark“ (Compton, Horizonzero, Issue 08).

Referring to the creation of „The Reinventing Wheel“, Compton read and recorded his poem in Trevor Thompson´s Vancouver bedroom studio. After that he sent the digital recording to plant in Colorado in order to obtain some one-off test pressing, also known as „dub plates“, and had it concretized into two playable records. He was practising the dub plates together with spoken word records and instrumental Hip Hop, which proved to be a learning process for Compton, considering the fact that at this point he had not had any background as a DJ. The result of the „mix-performance“ of the poem was The Reinventing Wheel. The first mix that Compton performed in Vancouver, Toronto and Calgary during 2001 and 2001 he entitels himself as the „Cargo Cult Mix“.

Speaking of reincarnations as metaphors for culture, Compton refers to Kamau Brathwaite, one of the major voices in the Carribean literary canon, who is noted for his studies of Black cultural life both in Africa as well as throughout the African diasporas of the world in works like Folk Culture of the Slaves in Jamaica; The Development of Creole Society in Jamaica, 1770-1820; Contradictory Omens; Afternoon of the Status Crow; and History of the Voice. (cf. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kamau_Brathwaite, 03.01.2010)

Brathwaite speaks of „tidalectics“, which can be seen as a scrambled neologism for a rather statically transforming than moving forward dialectic. Compton interprets it in the way that every person, each beat and each stadium of culture does not feature a progressive disjuncture, but the version of the last one. If this holds true, he sees a possibility that the orality of spatially- and temporally-removed Africa turns out to bet his new electronic orality.

„The idea is not to break, or even to preserve, but to repeat; and to celebrate repetition, knowing that you will mis-duplicate - and that the mis-duplications are the closest achievable thing to an actual you. Where is agency? Perhaps in the doubling: I enjoy the idea of transforming my voice (myself, that is) into a static disc to be manipulated by the later me, the next me, from above. The remix is a way of - in one moment and one performance - re-enacting the manipulation of history and source culture“ (Compton, Horizonzero, Issue 08).

According to Compton, in The Reinventing Wheel this happens in the body of one mad split up into two voices by the turntables. Just like Compton himself, his partner Jason de Couto is of a racially mixed background, namely both Japanese and white. Compton considers this as a good basis for their forthcoming performances, which with their various reinventions will be suitable for an even wider debate with regards to Canada´s culturally and socially intermingled and re-mixed character. The two partner call it The Reinventing Wheel: Rolling Wave Mix (cf. Compton, Horizonzero, Issue 08).

In the following Wayde Compton´s poetry collection Performance Bond, which also includes The Reinventing Wheel, will be discussed in greater detail. Performance bond features a union of contemporary Hip Hop aesthetics and visual poetry, and even though the major part of the collection consists of lyric poems, visual poems also play an important role. Examples include the mirror images of Forme and Chase, the staged photographs of the artificial doorways and step of Lost-Found Landmarks of Black Vancouver, the photograph entitled Vividuct, or the graffiti tag Rev. Oz across a white page. Even though Vancouver boasts a population of over two million inhabitants, its greater area of today does not have a centralized black community like in other North American cities, such as Toronto, Los Angeles, Chicago, or Halifax. In order to reconile this absence, Compton intends to create an imaginative place for Vancouver´s black community. Furthermore, he really wants to reclaim the geographic space for Black People, which he tries to accomplish via the combination of images and words, graffiti, petry, voodoo symbols, typed characters, or for instance the simulated newspaper facsimile of an original Vancouver Daily Province article. All his devices are strongly influenced by Hip Hop aesthetics, whereas the spatial emphasis found both in visual poetry and Hip Hop facilitae Compton´s endeavour (cf. Sherman 2009).

Performance Bond proves similar to Compton´s previous academic, poetic, historical and activist work, which marked and historicized the contemporary existance of Black people in B.C., and attempted to deal with the situation which Rinaldo Walcott calls attention to claiming “National historical narratives render these [black Canadian] racial geographies invisible, and many people continue to believe that any black presence in Canada is…recent” (2000: 277). With an obvious concentration on North America, Compton samples black culture from across the globe in order to represent and develop his own „mixed-race“ identity in a way common to Hip Hop aesthetics.

Performance Bond is a synthesis of visual poetry and hip-hop aesthetics which facilitates the creation of space for Vancouver’s black community through the recreation of a historical black place in the city. Compton utilizes forms of visual poetry and Hip Hop and hybridizes contemporary academic and popular culture. Furthermore, the spatial elements of visual images and Hip Hop act as a significant advantage when it comes to Compton´s intention to construct a social place because spatial aesthetics are emphasized over temporal considerations, which liberates Compton’s works from the linear constraints of oral performances and written language. Visual poetry proves especially important in Compton´s work in the way that it is able to claim physical space for the diaspora more efficiently than written language by itself (cf. Sherman 2009).

In order to give insight into Compton´s other works, his anthology Bluespring: Black British Columbian LIterature and Orature aims to annotate the 144-year long history of Black people´s presence in the province by means of a catalogue of black B.C. writing. George Elliot Clarke´s two-volume anthology Fire and Water of Black Nova Scotian literature serves as a sort of „role model“ for Compton in order to endorse what Clarke terms an „aboriginal blackness“ in Canada. Similarly, Compton´s poetry collection 49th Parallel Psalm features a historical revision of Black people´s migration to Canada. Referring to Compton´s work Culture at the Crossroads: Voodoo Aesthetics and the Axis of Blackness in Literature of the Black Diaspora, the reader is presented with an exploration of the far-reaching impacts and influences that are conducive to Black British Columbian literature against the backdrop of the global black diasporic cultural production.

What distinguishes Compton´s Performance Bond from his other works, are predominantly its visual components concurring with standard lyrical poetry. Including images and signs, Compton draws on an avantgarde artistic manifestation challenging conventional standard poetic discourses. His incorporation of Hip Hop aesthetics and images build on a strong deviation from conventional Western poetry, and even though insufficient time has passed for him to prompt substantial advancements in poetics, his work can be considered as a new milestone. Compton breaks with traditional conventions such as metre, rhyme, linear-temporal sequence of words or standard line lenghts, and next to concrety poetry, in which meaning is created through the form of the words and lines, audacious forms of visual representations emphasize the image over the word.

Especially the visual components of Performance Bond are strongly influenced by Hip Hop aesthetics, which raises the question what exactly is understood under that term. First of all, it is a matter of argument whether Hip Hop is a legitimate art form at all. Even though it has been the focus of recent studies, the position in the field of academic studies is still at ist infancy, which raises the difficulty to give a proper definition of the term Hip Hip aesthetics. In Prophets of the Hood: Politics and Poetics in Hip Hop, Imani Perry describes Hip Hop in relation to black culture as follows: „an “iteration of black language, black music, black style, and black youth culture. Hip hop music, or rap…is an art often culturally rich and economically impoverished, and, sometimes recently, artistically impoverished but backed by huge corporate dollars. At its best, it is compelling art and culture”. The influence is clearly recognizable in Performance Bond as well as in Compton´s other works. As belonging to the academic community and a self-taught DJ Compton is not only familiar with the practical aspects of Hip Hop, but also the theoretical aspects and the critical theory behind it. Regarding The Reinventing Wheel Compton explains

“If I could find a way to make poetry on the turntables, then elements of ancient, non-literate, vestigial African culture could be blended directly into textual poetry, and both could be blended back into hip hop.” (cf. Compton, The Epic Moment, 2002).


Excerpt out of 22 pages


Wayde Compton and the African-Canadian background of his work
On Black-Canadian Literature, Hip Hip aesthetics and avantgardistic black poetry
University of Vienna  (Anglistik)
Popular Literature in Canada
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
442 KB
Wayde, Compton, African-Canadian, Black-Canadian, Literature
Quote paper
Katharina Eder (Author), 2009, Wayde Compton and the African-Canadian background of his work, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/149772


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