Like so many people across the world, the first contact that artists Isaac Diggs and Edward Hillel had with the city of Detroit was through its music. Hillel’s first 45’s included Motor City greats like Diana Ross and the Supremes, Aretha Franklin, and Smokey Robinson; and Diggs discovered DJs like Underground Resistance, Theo Parrish, and the rapper J Dilla on the radio. Detroit is known internationally for its techno, house, and hip hop music, though the strong role its Black artists played in pioneering those genres is often under-recognized. And in recent years, it’s been painted as a city in decline, and even in ruins. So where does Detroit — and its Black music culture — stand today?
Diggs and Hillel’s new book Electronic Landscapes: Music, Space, and Resistance in Detroit (Kris Graves Projects, 2021) answers this question in over 80 photographs, two essays, and a series of interviews that celebrate the Black creatives who continue to sustain and innovate the city’s music scene. “Culture is vital to the life of our cities, a point driven home by its felt absence during the pandemic,” Diggs wrote in a recent email to Hyperallergic. The book highlights “artists who are not only making important music, but controlling, preserving, and transforming the spaces in which to do so.”
Electronic Landscapes takes the reader from the urban exteriors of Detroit — shots of its downtown, Eight Mile Wall, defunct storefronts, and facades of its legendary dance clubs — and into the storied record shops and cozy home studios of its most important musicians, producers, and other cultural agents. Diggs and Hillel cultivated relationships with their subjects over the course of six years, and their photographs of Detroiters singing, working, and relaxing in their home studios radiate a special sensitivity.
“Slowly, musicians opened up their spaces [to us], shared their stories and directed us to specific places in the landscape they thought significant,” Diggs said. In one photo, musician Jay Daniel’s keyboards are set up next to his small, sunny kitchen; in another, Donald Lee Roland II sings in the padded nook of his rehearsal space, a home he inherited from his mother. The book grants us rare access to these creative and domestic spaces where intimacy, experimentation, and innovation intertwine.
This is Diggs and Hillel’s second collaboration. Their 2014 book 125th: Time in Harlem focused on a single street in the New York mecca of Black culture. While their most recent project widens the lens to an entire city, both books investigate the lasting legacies of the Great Migration in the United States, and argue for the importance of Black creative space in modern American life. In the wake of ongoing racial injustices, Electronic Landscapes is a timely affirmation. “While completing this book during the pandemic,” Hillel reflected in an email with Hyperallergic, “the senseless killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many other Black folks, [and] the rise and solidarity behind BLM, it became crystal clear how necessary it is for stories like Electronic Landscapes to circulate, to express who we are and how we are building the future.”
Electronic Landscapes: Music, Space, and Resistance in Detroit by Isaac Diggs and Edward Hillel is available online through Kris Graves Projects.