On “My Daughter Aaliyah” in 3 Parts

Written by Rin Johnson

Crushing On...

Art by Rin Johnson, Hank Willis Thomas, Devin Kinney, Kemi Fatoba


Rin Johnson is an intimidatingly smart Brooklyn-based video artist, sculptor and poet who was kind enough to forward us their latest work. Their piece is a surreal meditation that “works thru ideas of the erotic” set to the audio backdrop of the thundering tones of *that* overwhelmed Christian mother getting mad about Vince Staples from viral video fame. The piece feels like it’s more than about bodies or swimming pools or one white woman’s enraged reaction to rap music — it abstractly and elegantly seems to touch upon the current political climate in America. Johnson walked us through it. — Sophie

The following is how My Daughter Aaliyah came to be and what I was thinking as I worked with each layer.

1. On The Raising Of Hands


My mentor, Hank Willis Thomas created Raise Up, 2014, a bronze sculpture of a series of bodies seen from behind with their hands against a wall. Raise Up was inspired by a photograph of a lineup of black men, removing their bodies and leaving their hands and supporting shoulders. What does it feel like to be asked to hold your hands up? What doesn’t it feel like? Hands up, you’re vulnerable. I’ve been asked to keep my hands where they can be seen but never to raise them.

As I continue to pass as a black man and as my country continues to show the bubbling over of the hate embedded within it, I’m sure one day there will come a time when the police ask me to raise my hands. I expect this theoretical and often futile form of surrender. I expect that what happens after will not be something I can control. With all of this in mind I shot a series of videos of me slowly undressing while repeating an exaggerated dance of the process of having a mug shot taken. A dance of getting booked.


In my head I tried to repeat a mantra:


Face Forward.
Put your hands up.
Put your hands down.
Turn to the right – stand up straight – look straight ahead.
Face the wall.
Put your hands up.
Put your hands down.
Turn to the right – stand up straight – look straight ahead.
Face forward.

Sometimes I would forget parts of this mantra which created a randomness that I found relevant. This video sat around on my computer while I tried to figure out who its companions might be and how it might function.

2. On The Pool


I find myself in these feedback loops where phrases get stuck in my head. This summer I saw the OJ 30 for 30 documentary and for weeks I kept thinking: “he’s not black, he’s OJ”. 

How funny to live within these multiplicities implied in US blackness: through each set of eyes and extraordinary circumstances, thru each socioeconomic layer standards move around and in this moving around self-perception shifts as does access, as does most things. If a black person has privilege, they probably do not truly always reside in that place of privilege like their white equivalent might — they traverse between having material power and not having any power at all: I can still get pulled over in my BMW, and I can still be asked to leave the vehicle and I can still ask to keep my hands where they are visible, I will still have to put my hands behind my back, on my head or in the air (or there are subtle ways for skin to make itself present.)

When I was in Hawaii with my parents and girlfriend this past summer we stayed at a nice ocean front resort with lots of white people, 1 indian family, 2 japanese families and a smattering of black couples staying for a few days at a time on anniversary trips, we noticed this but did not notice this the way one does when white space can become normative space because white privileged space is designed to be comfortable and frankly it is. How can comfort be simultaneously violent?



I brought along my super modified VR rig. One of the VR videos I made in Hawaii I made in a small pool. I let the cameras float around there for awhile, I wanted something meditative and ambient and I got the opposite, this sort of turbulent examination of the inside of the pool and the water. Meanwhile, I had forgotten how foreign I must seem to the other vacationers. The restrooms as always were a problem and often my girlfriend and I we were asked if we were related — a funny thought because we don’t look much alike but funnier still because later those with that question would find themselves watching us hold hands or make out. 

I think that white people think (or think it without noticing they do so) that Black people don’t go on vacation unless they are famous. We aren’t famous so what were we doing on vacation? Whenever I spend time with my parents I find myself thinking of money and blackness and since I was in this feedback loop about OJ and blackness and money and floating and disappearing I associated this video with all these layers (maybe that doesn’t read and you’re just in a pool and it’s a little weird, but it felt right.

3. On The Audio

My friend Devin Kenny is a master of the internet and lucky for the rest of us he likes to share. One day he posted this video of a white mom crying over Vince Staples’ “Norf, Norf.” I think Vince Staples is a genius (I quote him in my poem, “Nothing Whole and Nothing Half” so obviously I clicked through and this video of this white woman is hilarious, and kind of fucked, and sad and low-key violent because how silly to be so sad over language. She starts by describing how she ended up listening to a radio station that might play such offensive music. Her oldest daughter Aaliyah(!) really liked this station and so on the way to school, she asked to listen to it. She has what it sounds like is 5 daughters and she drops all but the youngest ones off at school and then “Norf Norf” comes on while her young daughters are there.

She is disgusted that this is where the top 40 radio stations have found themselves. I am too lazy to quote her verbatim but she says something like: “in my day, the top hits were Britany Spears and Christina Aguilera.” Not to get too pointed but it’s not like Britney and Christina were saints: each came on to the scene scantily clad with undertones of promiscuity only to graduate and produce legendary sexy anthems like “Toxic” and “Moulin Rouge” finally reaching their full potential and sailing into hot pop star retirement through a shaved head or their voice respectively.

In her reprise of the good old days, she neglects to mention that on the radio with these saintly whites were Aaliyah and Missy and Destiny’s Child and Mary J. and and and apparently it is her job to protect her white daughters from the perils of blackness. How funny she could forget that if I were to guess, she didn’t get the name Aaliyah from a family album. Our white mom complains about how terrible the language of “Norf Norf” is. The chorus: “I ain’t never run from nothing from the police”. Our white mom descends into a sad nonsense putty messy as she begins to sob reading the lyrics of “Norf Norf”, how could they do this to our children, oh mom, I don’t know.

To play off her nonsense and thinking of Harney and Moten’s Undercommons I settled on turning her rant into a Cacophony of Nonsense, our only recourse. Things slid together after I started to layer the audio, the pool video made sense for the foundational layer and given the lyrics, I had found a home for one of my hands up mantra videos. Finally, to highlight the absurdity of how other Americans (mostly the white ones) pick and choose what they’d like from black American culture I had my title, “My daughter Aaliyah (Norf, Norf).”

I finished My Daughter Aaliyah, towards the middle of October of this year and I’ve happily released it with some of my poetry through Manila Institute – one of my favorite NYC based arts institutions. We’ve embedded the video above but please find the full release on Manila’s site.


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