152 Onyx Ashanti

Born Iuka, MS, 1970 / Studies at Grambling State University, LA / Lives in Detroit and elsewhere

Somehow, I will dissolve into one of my constructs ….. I don’t understand the process yet.”

The late Detroit poet and musician Mick Vranich described his ever-increasing estrangement from even the outermost reaches of mainstream culture as a process of moving from the underground to the underworld. There’s a similarly inexorable feel to Onyx Ashanti’s ongoing life journey of transformation, transhumanism, and, as the above quote predicts, perhaps even transmutation.

Ashanti’s story starts in small-town Mississippi, where he grew up the son of a man who was both an electronics technician and a preacher. At seven, Ashanti picked out a flute for school music lessons, and at eleven, he transitioned to the saxophone. After studies at Grambling State, he headed to Atlanta to play his sax as a street musician. Hours of busking gave him limitless freedom to experiment, but the instrument didn’t.

A significant breakthrough came when he discovered a Wind Midi Controller in a pawn shop, allowing him to use his saxophone to control various synthesized sounds on his laptop. In 2007 he added an input from the accelerometer in his iPhone, allowing him to manipulate sound through physical gesture. He called the resulting system “Beatjazz.”

Over the next few years, Ashanti’s interest in gestural music-making increased, and he started to rely more on self-designed technology. A 2011 Ted Talk shows him abandoning his saxophone and creating Beatjazz from a mouthpiece and two handheld boxes, each interpreting his hand movements in three coordinate directions.

During the performance, Ashanti creates loops of sound from drums, bass, chords, and other synthesized patches, and adds melodies using four finger-buttons on each device. As the improvisation builds in complexity, the sounds expand and contract in a seamless choreography with Ashanti’s constant fluid movement. It’s a bold and imaginative performance, but when Ashanti reflected on it, he realized that his interests had become less about pushing the boundaries of music and more about exploring new ways of thinking, living, and expression. From this point on, his project exploded in numerous directions, enabled by the DIY potential of 3D printing and the burgeoning online world of maker communities and Youtube how-to videos.

A snapshot of the system in late 2013 shows Ashanti’s head cradled in a strikingly elaborate electronic superstructure. Through this new interface, Ashanti could send information through a pressure sensor mounted in a mouthpiece and potentially through electrodes pushed against his skull. The beatjazz handheld boxes of a year earlier were replaced by intricate 3D printed assemblies. The musical functionality may have been similar, but the futuristic design indicated a far higher level of ambition.

At some stage, Beatjazz became Sonocyb, with its hints to sonic cybernetics and Psilocybin. Sonocyb1 from 2017 shows Ashanti discarding the mouthpiece, which was the last legacy of the system’s saxophone-based origins, and debuting the “Brain Computer Interface,” a network of sensors feeding signals from the surface of his cranium into the sound-creating engine of his laptop.

Ashanti acknowledges that his life-project “absolutely is a performance,” but paradoxically he is now more absorbed with developing his system than performing in front of a formal audience. But that still allows space for a broad conversational and educational aspect to the project. In a remarkable 2018 video made with Far Off Sounds, Ashanti takes a prototype Sonocyb glove to the Detroit Jazz Festival, discussing the ideas behind it with curious passers-by.

 Ashanti is conscious that the project is changing him as much as he is directing the project. As he puts it, he is “coding himself.” Recent scientific research into neuroplasticity – suggesting that our brains are more physically reprogrammable than previously thought -supports this idea. It is not too much of a stretch to believe that Sonocyb is no longer merely an extension of Ashanti but that the two are becoming symbiotic. In Sonocyb2, Ashanti takes this a step further by changing the physical design paradigm from a superstructure to an exoskeleton. Now the 3D printed parts are not solid, but systems of flexible meshes that can potentially position networks of sensors and LEDs anywhere he desires. As Ashanti puts it, “This is my face now ….. it’s a mutating canvas.” 

 To step back and view Ashanti’s audacious project in its entirety is to see an artist engaged in an ever-accelerating race to question the limits of human existence. His strategic use of 3D printing allows a constantly changing prosthetic system that is dizzying in the speed of its evolution.  And by identifying what limits are inherent to our bodily state, he challenges us to see which others are just limits of our imagination.

Steve Panton, April 2021

Copyright Essay’d

Beatjazz, 2011, Video (6 min 13 seconds)
System Snapshot, 2013, Video (19 min 10 sec)
Sonocyb1, Brain Computer Interface, 2017, Video (20 min 20 sec)
Sonocyb2, Busking in Berlin, 2018, Video (3 min 1 sec)
Sonocyb Glove, Discussing with Passers-by, 2018, Video (13 min 2 sec)
Sonocyb2, 2019, talk and performance, Video (39 min 50 sec)
Mesh glove, 2019, Video (11 min, 25 sec)