In 2017, Chicago Public Radio program This American Life aired an episode called “We Are in the Future,” which explored the nature of Afrofuturism, a strain of science fiction that addresses the intersection between the larger African diaspora and technology across mediums. The episode followed producer Neil Drumming as he covered the topic and also commissioned a song called “The Deep” from experimental hip-hop group Clipping. This June, the band’s song will be turned into a book by Better Worlds author Rivers Solomon.
The song is an engrossing one. It opens with a brief introduction about an underwater society built from the offspring of pregnant women who were thrown overboard from their slave ships. When companies exploring for oil attack their cities, the descendants of those children begin an uprising. The song builds in intensity as it covers the rise of the society, the attack, and the retaliation.
Clipping (made up of Hamilton’s Daveed Diggs and producers William Hutson and Jonathan Snipes) told The Verge that the song was an homage to the Detroit Acid / Techno duo Drexciya. It’s set in the “same mythological universe that [Drexciya] created for their music.”
All of their records refer to a utopian underwater civilization founded by African mothers thrown overboard from slave ships. It’s like if Wakanda were Atlantis. We mashed that up with a few details from Parliament’s Motor Booty Affair album, as if they and Drexiya were writing about two different aspects of the same place.
Saga Press senior editor Navah Wolfe was already familiar with the band. She explained to The Verge that she met them while at the 2017 Worldcon in Helsinki where they earned a nomination for their album Splendor & Misery, and she was “transfixed” when the group released “The Deep” a week after the end of the convention. “It felt like there were stories in it, stories that needed to be told, and so I reached out to clipping and with their blessing, began to search for the perfect writer to bring the underwater world of ‘The Deep’ to life,” she said.
“The Deep” earned the group more acclaim a year later when it was nominated for a Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form). Wolfe’s search ultimately led her to author Rivers Solomon, who had released their debut novel, An Unkindness of Ghosts, the year before. “I knew Rivers was the voice I had been hoping to find,” she says. “Rivers’ writing is raw and beautiful, painful and powerful — it gave me the same shivers that listening to ‘The Deep’ had given me.”
Solomon explains that the original song contained a considerable amount of material that was of particular interest to them personally. “Diaspora and slavery, ecological devastation, memory and remembrance,” they explained to The Verge. “It also seemed like a chance for an adventure. The world clipping describes in the song is wild and alien and strange. The deep sea itself is a wondrous black pit of mystery. Who wouldn’t want a chance to journey there?”
Solomon notes that transforming the song into an outline for a longer story was fairly easy, a “testament to how layered and textured the source material is,” they explained. “The Deep is incredibly theatrical, employing different voices and sound effects/techniques, a clear narrative that’s indicated by the lyrics themselves but also in the way the tempo and mood changes as the song beats forward. Thus I was already working with fertile ground.”
The key was to develop a central character for the story to rest on, “someone who embodied the pain, sadness, and rage present in clipping’s song. That someone had to have their own private backstory and goals but also had to be a vehicle for expressing this vast alternate history as told in the lyrics to ‘The Deep.’”
The Deep introduces readers to Yetu, a historian who documents the painful memories of her people, the water-dwelling descendants of pregnant African slave women. Those memories are both traumatic and wonderful, and the burden has begun to take its toll. She flees to the surface to escape her responsibilities and the memories, only to discover the surface world from which they came, learning more than she expected about their past and their future.
Solomon says that what attracted them the most to the project was the story’s “indictment of the slave trade.” This is a theme that permeates Solomon’s works. Their debut novel is about a spacefarer named Aster who lives aboard the HSS Matilda, a generation ship that is transporting humanity to a distant planet and is organized along racial lines in a way that resembles the Antebellum South. Solomon’s recent Better Worlds story “St. Juju” tackles similar topics. The Deep draws on a similar focus, exploring the role of the ocean in the global slave trade and its impact on the African continent. “The book adaptation touches more on what it’s like to have a broken identity because of the slave trade, where huge tomes of cultural knowledge and history were lost,” they say.
Solomon explains that the band was involved in the project along the way, reading over the outline and samples in the easiest stages, and later reading the draft of the book to make sure that the story fit within the vision of their song. Their involvement didn’t end with the book, however. Wolfe described the project as a “game of artistic telephone” and said that “none of them are direct adaptations or retellings of each other,” citing Clipping’s William Hutson as saying that “the song and book are two different lenses through which one can access a single fictional world.” Wolfe notes that the musical inspiration will come full circle: the music of Drexciya inspired Clipping, Clipping inspired Solomon, and “clipping will be producing new music inspired by Rivers’ book.”
Clipping says that they hope that their collaboration will encourage “an awareness of the young SF community that Rivers is a part of,” and that it draws attention to their growing body of work. “SF is uniquely suited to address difficult political topics in any era, and Rivers is one of a handful of new writers that are going to drag our imaginations in the right direction.”
The Deep will hit stores on June 4th, 2019.