If you look at the 2017 Hugo Award finalists for Best Dramatic Presentation – Short Form, five of the six nominees seem to be of a form: episodes from Game of Thrones, Doctor Who, The Expanse, and Black Mirror. But the sixth nominee, Splendor & Misery, is a unique contender in both form and content: It’s a sci-fi concept album, a hip-hop space opera (space hip-hopera?) from the experimental LA rap group clipping., which counts among its members Hamilton’s Daveed Diggs. The LP envisions a dystopian future that grows from an alternate history in which the Civil War ends differently; the trio describes the story as “follow[ing] the sole survivor of a slave uprising on an interstellar cargo ship, and the onboard computer that falls in love with him.”
According to this excellent Pitchfork piece, the last time the Hugos recognized a musical album was Paul Kantner’s (of Jefferson Airplane) Blows Against the Empire in 1971. Forty-plus years later in this Afrofuturist narrative, Diggs raps as the nameless Cargo#2331 while producers William Hutson and Jonathan Snipes create “a dissonant yet sympathetic soundscape” that evokes the bleeps and static of ship computers as well as zero-gravity through synths ungrounded by basslines (read the complete album review). Just as Kantner’s work set the stage for future sci-fi concept albums, Hutson shared his hopes with Pitchfork for how he would hope to see music honored at future Hugo Awards: “I would love for there to be more science fiction music that attempts to be literary on a different scale.”
The entire interview is worth reading, especially if you hadn’t heard of Splendor & Misery before its nomination, but here are a few choice quotes from Hutson.
clipping.’s various SFF influences:
All three of us have consumed science fiction for our whole lives. When I was a child, reading Tolkien and things like that were always important. My mom read a lot of science fiction, and she would just pile stuff up for me. Even when I was in fourth grade, she was like, “Oh, this is pretty good, you should read [Larry Niven’s] Ringworld. You should read [William Gibson’s] Neuromancer.” Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy was huge for me. I became really obsessed around college with all that late-’60s, early-’70s New Wave of science fiction stuff. So I started to connect my own personal politics to the types of fantasy I was reading, the sort of left politics made into science fiction.
I was also a huge Star Trek fan. What I loved about Star Trek: The Next Generation was that it’s the only mainstream piece of science fiction that imagines, in the future, not only technology getting better, but humans getting better. I was like, “This is exactly what my politics are.”
The impetus for Splendor & Misery:
Before Daveed started writing the lyrics, we decided we wanted a through-narrative to the songs. I got really into this idea of, “What if the Civil War had gone a different way? What if these struggles were projected onto a sci-fi universe? What if the history of slave songs and folk ballads had continued on into the future?” I wrote basically a short story that I gave to Daveed, then Daveed wrote the lyrics. His words changed everything—he added the love story between the computer AI and the mutinous survivor.
Whether they’ll be attending the 75th World Science Fiction Convention in Helsinki, Finland:
Um, definitely two of us will be there. The other one, it depends on his schedule now that he’s a big star and all that shit. [laughs] The goal is to do a couple shows in Finland and Norway this summer, just to get us there. That’s looking less and less likely, but still, at least two of us will be there. Because fuck all that, I’m not missing this. We’re never going to get nominated for this again. Our next album will not be science fiction—actually, I shouldn’t say that, because it’s not done—but there’s no way it’ll happen again. Even though there’s no way we’re going to win against “Game of Thrones” or “Doctor Who,” I want to be there. If for no other reason, I would happily, awkwardly, sheepishly approach my favorite authors and tell them what their books mean to me.