‘Its Own Sovereign State’: Catching up with the NON collective at the New Museum

Citzens of NON (L to R): Nkisi, Skyshaker, Tygapaw, Angel Ho, Chino Amobi Johnny Utterback

Members of NON, from left: Nkisi, Skyshaker, Tygapaw, Angel Ho, Chino Amobi.


Last Friday at the New Museum, in order to get into “Legacy Systems,” a performance by the multinational collective and record label NON presented in tandem with Red Bull Music Academy, ticket holders received a custom crafted, label-branded passport, which was then stamped by museum employees. It was a focused gesture from a group that often refers to its collaborators and allies as “citizens” and sees itself as a fluid, borderless configuration of artists and musicians from Africa and the African diaspora.

Although NON—whose cofounders are Cape Town–based Angel-Ho, London-based Nkisi and Richmond, and Virginia-based Chino Amobi—started only a year ago, in that time it has built up an impressive body of work, mainly in the audio realm, that synthesizes traditions and creates a politicized kind of club-not-club music. NON releases have sonically referenced everything from African music to contemporary rap, club, and noise, while the group’s ethos recalls in part the strong-willed Detroit collective Underground Resistance.

In an interview with Amobi before the performance, he called NON “its own sovereign state,” adding that “we exist autonomously, but we’re not necessarily at odds with any other states. We are superimposed on those states, though. It’s not an insurrection of trying to go out and formally do a military coup, it’s like the insurrection of the everyday experience through our expression within various media.”

According to Amobi, NON’s reach hopes to transcend contemporary music and art. In our interview, he listed community building, social justice and youth-based music and technology education as just some of the group’s organizational interests. He claimed inspiration from sources such as the Black Panther Party, the French Situationists, Wu-Tang, and the Nigerian community from which his parents originated.

Before the performance started in earnest, a computerized female voice took the form of a flight attendant, announcing strike-and-protest related delays over the PA and making cryptic statements like “burning bridges and building new stories from the ashes” as a CGI flag adorned with the NON logo projected behind a stage. As the show progressed, the house lights gradually shifted from lecture-hall bright (although the performance was driven by body music, it was a mostly seated affair) to dance-club dark, with all three cofounders taking turns, playing sets that blurred the lines between DJ culture, experimental music, and performance art. Amobi’s portion incorporated a megaphone and included a collaborative section with the poet Rodan.

Throughout the sets, pounding pan-global dance music drifted in and out of more abstracted sonic passages. Traditional DJ sound effects like sirens and bomb drops were finessed into a sort of club-aware musique concrete. “A lot of our ideas are abstract in a way that I feel like challenges certain conceptions of what black music can be or what brown music can be, and we like to do that because the complexity of our personal expression is infinite, it’s vast, and we want people to walk away feeling that,” Amobi said.

Visuals oscillated between stylized CGI and more political concerns: footage of protest and insurgency, faux-CNN aesthetics, and a computer-generated hammer and sickle. The night ended with all members on stage plus the addition of artists Skyshaker and Tygapaw. A hectic, celebratory feedback-laced improvisational session ensued; performers even started burning concert tickets.

In addition to the New Museum and after party (which took place at the nearby Rainforest Cafe–esque Tropical 128 and featured NON-affiliates like Total Freedom and the Mexican NAAFI collective, among many others), the label has also been housing a pop-up shop at the Red Bull gift shop in Chelsea. Keeping in line with the travel theme, the store is called the “NON Duty Free Zone” and has for sale airline pillows and pilot’s pins alongside decidedly less travel-safe items, like pocketknives.

“I think it’s important for us to be working within these spaces, within the intersection of what could be deemed as outsider or insider. Because we don’t consider ourselves outsider,” Amobi said when asked about his collaboration with the energy drink company, in which militant political signifiers are placed within the context of the corporate. “We view ourselves as superimposed on all aspects of culture, and I think it’s important for us to be interrupting and intervening and purifying these spaces with our message.”

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