André 3000 performing at Lollapalooza in 2014. Photo: Theo Wargo/Getty Images

On André 3000’s Jumpsuits and the Shortness of Memory

OK, when do we hand over the cure and stop playing?

by Eileen Cartter
Jul 17 2020, 9:30am

André 3000 performing at Lollapalooza in 2014. Photo: Theo Wargo/Getty Images

“Something very important is happening all over the world and it is happening to all of us. How does it make you feel?” wasn’t one of the proverbial phrases that appeared on the custom jumpsuits André 3000 wore during OutKast’s 2014 reunion tour, but maybe a truncated version of it could’ve been. Earlier in June, the musician posted to his Instagram account for the first time in two years to announce a new collection of long-sleeved graphic tees inspired by the suits, which were available for sale on his website for three days with all proceeds going to The Movement for Black Lives.

In 2014, André began wearing the black nylon jumpsuits after the group’s lackluster debut tour performance, as Friday-night headliners during the first weekend of Coachella. He’d worn his regular clothes that night, a pair of striped overalls: “My first Coachella show, which was a horrible show, I wore something like [my outfit right now],” he told Nicolas Jaar later that year. “I didn't know what to wear on stage, so it was my overalls.” A week and a phone call from Prince later—who reportedly told 3K, “When you come back, people want to be wowed. And what’s the best way to wow people? Just give them the hits.”—André took the stage wearing a half-black, half-white flight suit, with a giant tag hanging off the arm that read “FOR SALE” on one side, “SOLD OUT $” on the other. He’s since spoken in interviews about a keen feeling of “selling out” by going back on tour, performing songs he’d written decades before. (This year’s commemorative tees feature printed red tags on the sleeves that say “NOT 4 SALE.”) For the rest of the festival circuit tour, he rolled out a different suit each show, printed across the chest with an array of statements ranging from punny (“children of the cornbread”) to existential (“god. or god?”), delirious (“sloppy wet poseidon”) to forthright (“i don’t know what else to say”)—a draw in their own right.

“I’m like, How am I gonna present these songs? I don’t have nothing new to say,” he told Jaar in 2014. “So I was like, maybe I can start saying new stuff while doing these old songs. It became a theme where I was more excited about this than the actual show.”

Performing at LouFest in Missouri that September, shortly following the first wave of protests in Ferguson after the killing of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson, André’s jumpsuit read, “can one rest in peace & violence?”; alongside him, Big Boi came on stage with both hands held high. That December, SCAD put all 47 jumpsuits on display during Art Basel Miami Beach. Six years later, in the wake of new worldwide protests against police brutality and white supremacy, they take on a new layer of political and cultural resonance, meriting an official T-shirt version. During an interview in writer Jonah Weiner’s newsletter Blackbird Spyplane in June 2020, André noted, “But also this was summer 2014 so with a lot of these suits I was responding to Ferguson in real time. So it was fun and serious and sad and everything. But they still make sense now—they ring even truer.”

What has changed, then, in any meaningful way since André 3000 debuted the jumpsuits? When does what was once relevant become prophetic? Images of the performer in his jumpsuits circulate often on the internet—particularly in times of crisis, when we’re in need of a picture that’s worth a thousand words. Big Boi himself has shared two photos in the last few months: In mid-March: “ok, hand over the cure and stop playing.” By late June: “breathe.” Perhaps the most widely shared online, the most frustratingly evergreen, is the suit André wore for Lollapalooza, which read, “across cultures, darker people suffer most. why?”

The language of the internet is visual, and 2014 pictures of André wearing the jumpsuits have their own shorthand value online. (See also, the 1983 photo of Lady Pink in Jenny Holzer’s “Abuse of Power Comes As No Surprise" T-shirt, or Blond-era Frank Ocean wearing his “Why be racist, sexist, homophobic or transphobic when you could just be quiet?” T-shirt in 2017.) Slogan garments can become visual soundbites within anti-discrimination discourse on the post-2010s internet—an aesthetic vernacular that favors clear, concise text. They stand as semantic markers, befit for Twitter or Tumblr, that get straight to the point and/or suspend the point in midair—holding it up to the light, letting it linger. We like it even more if that text can be made into merchandise, the wearable equivalent of a retweet (though it would be, frankly, rude and unfair to graphic tees to call them the wearable equivalent of a “retweet=endorsement”). We want memes, like merch, to convey what we often cannot say aloud. We appreciate thoughts that are packaged poignantly (what a moment for clean, sharable graphics) because word economy is fraught, and so is our attention span.

It feels uncanny when something from six years ago becomes archival enough to be iconic. Maybe it’s the way the internet compresses our sense of time, constantly propelling us into premature nostalgia as we wade deeper into this weird, trash future. Zoomers cling to Y2K as a relatively twee era of early tech ubiquity—pink flip phones! reality TV on actual televisions!—while anyone older maligns the idea that the aughts happened long enough ago to miss them. Our memory is shortened and distorted, as activists plead for us to remember the lessons of Ferguson.

When there are uprisings against racial violence, the internet reverbs. Prince purportedly told André during that post-Coachella phone call in 2014, “After you give them the hits, then you can do whatever.” At what point do white people stop nodding, liking, sharing, and wearing in awe at the foresight of Black artists, who have always been doing the work while giving us the hits? In a piece titled “When Black People Are in Pain, White People Just Join Book Clubs,” Tre Johnson wrote, “This is the racial ouroboros our country finds itself locked in, as black Americans relive an endless loop of injustice and white Americans keep revisiting the same performance, a Broadway show that never closes, just goes on hiatus now and then.” Does the internet ask us to come to conclusions in these conversations, or just to keep having them?

“Honestly, I lost hope in marches—until now,” André told Blackbird Spyplane last month. In the eternity between last month and now, activists have pushed back against the waning wave of media coverage, of feeds returning to normal, of pushing the events of mere weeks ago to the recesses of our collective memory. (Sure, there’s psychology behind the shortness of memory in times of peak information mass, although our attention span when it comes to injustice is unparalleled; in his protest song “The Bigger Picture,” released in June, Lil Baby remarked on a brief lapse—“What happened to Covid? Nobody remember”—that already feels unfathomable.) Part of the agony of this moment lies in the lag, and the forgetting. What took, and is taking, so long? When do white Americans stop listening and start doing? When do we hand over the cure and stop playing? Online, the wisdom of André 3000 and his jumpsuits is for everyone, but the imperative is, of course, the real-life work we do next.

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