On Whiteness and Sound Studies

white noise

World Listening Month3This is the first post in Sounding Out!’s 4th annual July forum on listening in observation of World Listening Day on July 18th, 2015.  World Listening Day is a time to think about the impacts we have on our auditory environments and, in turn, their effects on us.  For Sounding Out! World Listening Day necessitates discussions of the politics of listening and listening as a political act, beginning this year with Gustavus Stadler’s timely provocation.  –Editor-in-Chief JS

Many amusing incidents attend the exhibition of the Edison phonograph and graphophone, especially in the South, where a negro can be frightened to death almost by a ‘talking machine.’ Western Electrician May 11, 1889, (255).

What does an ever-nearer, ever-louder police siren sound like in an urban neighborhood, depending on the listener’s racial identity? Rescue or invasion? Impending succor or potential violence? These dichotomies are perhaps overly neat, divorced as they are from context. Nonetheless, contemplating them offers one charged example of how race shapes listening—and hence, some would say, sound itself—in American cities and all over the world. Indeed, in the past year, what Jennifer Stoever calls the “sonic color line” has become newly audible to many white Americans with the attention the #blacklivesmatter movement has drawn to police violence perpetrated routinely against people of color.

"Sheet music 'Coon Coon Coon' from 1901" via Wikimedia, public domain

“Sheet music ‘Coon Coon Coon’ from 1901″ via Wikimedia, public domain

Racialized differences in listening have a history, of course. Consider the early decades of the phonograph, which coincided with the collapse of Reconstruction and the consolidation of Jim Crow laws (with the Supreme Court’s stamp of approval). At first, these historical phenomena might seem wholly discrete. But in fact, white supremacy provided the fuel for many early commercial phonographic recordings, including not only ethnic humor and “coon songs” but a form of “descriptive specialty”—the period name for spoken-word recordings about news events and slices of life—that reenacted the lynchings of black men. These lynching recordings, as I argued in “Never Heard Such a Thing,” an essay published in Social Text five years ago, appear to have been part of the same overall entertainment market as the ones lampooning foreign accents and “negro dialect”; that is, they were all meant to exhibit the wonders of the new sound reproduction to Americans on street corners, at country fairs, and in other public venues.

Thus, experiencing modernity as wondrous, by means of such world-rattling phenomena as the disembodiment of the voice, was an implicitly white experience. In early encounters with the phonograph, black listeners were frequently reminded that the marvels of modernity were not designed for them, and in certain cases were expressly designed to announce this exclusion, as the epigraph to this post makes brutally evident. For those who heard the lynching recordings, this new technology became another site at which they were reminded of the potential price of challenging the racist presumptions that underwrote this modernity. Of course, not all black (or white) listeners heard the same sounds or heard them the same way. But the overarching context coloring these early encounters with the mechanical reproduction of sound was that of deeply entrenched, aggressive, white supremacist racism.

"66 West 12th Street, New School entrance" by Wikimedia user Beyond My Ken, CC BY-SA 4.0

“66 West 12th Street, New School entrance” by Wikimedia user Beyond My Ken, CC BY-SA 4.0

The recent Sonic Shadows symposium at The New School offered me an opportunity to come back to “Never Heard Such a Thing” at a time when the field of sound studies has grown more prominent and coherent—arguably, more of an institutionally recognizable “field” than ever before. In the past three years, at least three major reference/textbook-style publications have appeared containing both “classic” essays and newer writing from the recent flowering of work on sound, all of them formidable and erudite, all of great benefit for those of us who teach classes about sound: The Oxford Handbook of Sound Studies (2012), edited by Karen Bijsterveld and Trevor Pinch; The Sound Studies Reader (2013), edited by Jonathan Sterne; and Keywords in Sound (2015), edited by David Novak and Matt Sakakeeny. From a variety of disciplinary perspectives, these collections bring new heft to the analysis of sound and sound culture.

I’m struck, however, by the relative absence of a certain strain of work in these volumes—an approach that is difficult to characterize but that is probably best approximated by the term “American Studies.” Over the past two decades, this field has emerged as an especially vibrant site for the sustained, nuanced exploration of forms of social difference, race in particular. Some of the most exciting sound-focused work that I know of arising from this general direction includes: Stoever’s trailblazing account of sound’s role in racial formation in the U.S.; Fred Moten’s enormously influential remix of radical black aesthetics, largely focused on music but including broader sonic phenomena like the scream of Frederick Douglass’s Aunt Hester; Bryan Wagner’s work on the role of racial violence in the “coon songs” written and recorded by George W. Johnson, widely considered the first black phonographic artist; Dolores Inés Casillas’s explication of Spanish-language radio’s tactical sonic coding at the Mexican border; Derek Vaillant’s work on racial formation and Chicago radio in the 1920s and 30s. I was surprised to see none of these authors included in any of the new reference works; indeed, with the exception of one reference in The Sound Studies Reader to Moten’s work (in an essay not concerned with race), none is cited. The new(ish) American Studies provided the bedrock of two sound-focused special issues of journals: American Quarterly’s “Sound Clash: Listening to American Studies,” edited by Kara Keeling and Josh Kun, and Social Text’s “The Politics of Recorded Sound,” edited by me. Many of the authors of the essays in these special issues hold expertise in the history and politics of difference, and scholarship on those issues drives their work on sound. None of them, other than Mara Mills, is among the contributors to the new reference works. Aside from Mills’s contributions and a couple of bibliographic nods in the introduction, these journal issues play no role in the analytical work collected in the volumes.

"Blank pages intentionally, end of book" by Wikimedia user Brian 0918, CC BY-SA 3.0

“Blank pages intentionally, end of book” by Wikimedia user Brian 0918, CC BY-SA 3.0

The three new collections address the relationship between sound, listening, and specific forms of social difference to varying degrees. All three of the books contain excerpts from Mara Mills’ excellent work on the centrality of deafness to the development of sound technology. The Sound Studies Reader, in particular, contains a small array of pieces that focus on disability, gender and race; in attending to race, specifically, Sterne shrewdly includes an excerpt from Franz Fanon’s A Dying Colonialism, as well as essays on black music by authors likely unfamiliar to many American readers. The Oxford Handbook’s sole piece addressing race is a contribution on racial authenticity in hip-hop. It’s a strong essay in itself. But appearing in this time and space of field-articulation, its strength is undermined by its isolation, and its distance from any deeper analysis of race’s role in sound than what seems to be, across all three volumes, at best, a liberal politics of representation or “inclusion.” Encountering the three books at once, I found it hard not to hear the implicit message that no sound-related topics other than black music have anything to do with race. At the same time, the mere inclusion of work on black music in these books, without any larger theory of race and sound or wider critical framing, risks reproducing the dubious politics of white Euro-Americans’ long historical fascination with black voices.

What I would like to hear more audibly in our field—what I want all of us to work to make more prominent and more possible—is scholarship that explicitly confronts, and broadcasts, the underlying whiteness of the field, and of the generic terms that provide so much currency in it: terms like “the listener,” “the body,” “the ear,” and so on. This work does exist. I believe it should be aggressively encouraged and pursued by the most influential figures in sound studies, regardless of their disciplinary background. Yes, work in these volumes is useful for this project; Novak and Sakakeeny seem to be making this point in their Keywords introduction when they write:

While many keyword entries productively reference sonic identities linked to socially constructed categories of gender, race, ethnicity, religion, disability, citizenship, and personhood, our project does not explicitly foreground those modalities of social difference. Rather, in curating a conceptual lexicon for a particular field, we have kept sound at the center of analysis, arriving at other points from the terminologies of sound, and not the reverse. (8)

I would agree there are important ways of exploring sound and listening that need to be sharpened in ways that extended discussion of race, gender, class, or sexuality will not help with. But this doesn’t mean that work that doesn’t consider such categories is somehow really about sound in a way that the work does take them up isn’t, any more than a white middle-class person who hears a police siren can really hear what it sounds like while a black person’s perception of the sound is inaccurate because burdened (read: biased) by the weight of history and politics.

"Pointy Rays of Justice" by Flickr user Christopher Sebela, CC BY-NC 2.0

“Pointy Rays of Justice” by Flickr user Christopher Sebela, CC BY-NC 2.0

In a recent Twitter conversation with me, the philosopher Robin James made the canny point that whiteness, masquerading as lack of bias, can operate to guarantee the coherence and legibility of a field in formation. James’s trenchant insight reminds me of cultural theorist Kandice Chuh’s recent work on “aboutness” in “It’s Not About Anything,” from Social Text (Winter 2014) and knowledge formation in the contemporary academy. Focus on what the object of analysis in a field is, on what work in a field is about, Chuh argues, is “often conducted as a way of avoiding engagement with ‘difference,’ and especially with racialized difference.”

I would like us to explore alternatives to the assumption that we have to figure out how to talk about sound before we can talk about how race is indelibly shaping how we think about sound; I want more avenues opened, by the most powerful voices in the field, for work acknowledging that our understanding of sound is always conducted, and has always been conducted, from within history, as lived through categories like race.

The cultivation of such openings also requires that we acknowledge the overwhelming whiteness of scholars in the field, especially outside of work on music. If you’re concerned by this situation, and have the opportunity to do editorial work, one way to work to change it is by making a broader range of work in the field more inviting to people who make the stakes of racial politics critical to their scholarship and careers. As I’ve noted, there are people out there doing such work; indeed, Sounding Out! has continually cultivated and hosted it, with far more editorial care and advisement than one generally encounters in blogs (at least in my experience), over the course of its five years. But if the field remains fixated on sound as a category that exists in itself, outside of its perception by specifically marked subjects and bodies within history, no such change is likely to occur. Perhaps we will simply resign ourselves to having two (or more) isolated tracks of sound studies, or perhaps some of us will have to reevaluate whether we’re able to teach what we think is important to teach while working under its rubric.

Thanks to Robin James, Julie Beth Napolin, Jennifer Stoever, and David Suisman for their ideas and feedback.

Gustavus Stadler teaches English and American Studies at Haverford College. He is the author of Troubling Minds: The Cultural Politics of Genius in the U. S.1840-1890 (U of Minn Press, 2006).  His 2010 edited special issue of Social Text on “The Politics of Recorded Sound” was named a finalist for a prize in the category of “General History” by the Association of Recorded Sound Collections. He is the recipient of the 10th Annual Woody Guthrie fellowship! This fellowship will support research for his book-in-progress, Woody Guthrie and the Intimate Life of the Left.

 

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Reading the Politics of Recorded Sound — Jennifer Stoever

Hearing the Tenor of the Vendler/Dove Conversation: Race, Listening, and the “Noise” of Texts — Christina Sharpe

Listening to the Border: “‘2487′: Giving Voice in Diaspora” and the Sound Art of Luz María Sánchez — Dolores Inés Casillas

Sounding Out! Podcast #44: Retail Soundscapes and the Ambience of Commerce

Ambient interiors in a typical mall. Nicholas Eckhart CC BY.

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What is the ambient sound of commerce? Equally reviled and revered, the programmed soundscapes of retail space combine wonderful serendipity with quotidian blandness. This podcast examines field recordings from luxury megastores, suburban fast food joints, and everything in between. As it turns out, the corporate ambience of chain-store retail isn’t so far away from the high-brow ambitions of ambient music. Ambience is whatever surrounds us, and it’s embroiled within the same kinds of aesthetic, political, and economic struggles that have been recognized in architecture for centuries.

While a long line of thinkers have identified the links between retail and modernity, surprisingly few have addressed the phenomena in auditory terms. Following up on Jonathan Sterne’s 1997 inquiry regarding environmental music in the Mall of America, this podcast examines new developments in ambient sound that have accompanied the rise of e-commerce and the decline of brick-and-mortar stores. Segmentation of markets, nostalgia for the past, and the early history of recording are all addressed, as we take a listening trip through consumer culture.

The podcast presents highlights from field recordings from retail stores, accompanied by voice-over narration. Field recordings were captured with a Zoom H4n handy recorder, at Menlo Park Mall in Edison, NJ, Dover Street Market New York, Parsonage Road Target in Edison, NJ, Wal-Mart Route 27 in Edison, NJ, and Dunkin Donuts Route 27 in Edison, NJ. Also includes excerpts from Brian Eno’s “Ambient 1: Music for Airports” (1978) and Disconscious’ “Hologram Plaza” (2013).

James Hodges is a PhD student in media studies at Rutgers University. His research focuses on the relationship between promotional culture and media preservation. James is the cofounder of a media archaeology working group at Rutgers, and he runs a small cassette label for fun.

Featured image by Nicholas Eckhart @Flickr CC BY.

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Sounding Out! Podcast #6: Spaces of Listening / The Record Shop – Aaron Trammell

Sounding Out! Podcast #18: Listening to the Tuned City Brussels , Day 3: “Ephemeral Atmospheres”– Felicity Ford and Valeria Merlini

Sounding Out! Podcast #28: Off the 60: A Mix-Tape Dedication to Los Angeles – Jennifer Stoever

Caterpillars and Concrete Roses in a Mad City: Kendrick Lamar’s “Mortal Man” Interview with Tupac Shakur

"Shot by Drew: Kendrick Lamar" by Flickr user The Come Up Show, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

I’ve been hesitant to write about Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 album To Pimp a Butterfly (TPAB) because there are layers to the shit. Sonic, cultural, and political layers that need time to breathe and manifest. Some of those layers are pedagogical. For example, Brian Mooney brilliantly paired the album with Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye to help students work through themes of Black consciousness and self-love. Mooney’s lesson plan garnered Lamar’s attention and a recent visit with Mooney students. Lamar’s open grappling with art and blackness throw him into heavy debates about his worth as a cultural and even literary icon. Yet Lamar’s formula of introspective angst – the use of battling his own demons to shed light on broader American society – pulls me to think about how Lamar and TPAB fit into a long standing trajectory of Black folks’ self-examination in art as a frame for larger critiques of racial politics in American society.

Screenshot of album cover

Screenshot of album cover

I’m drawn to TPAB’s outro of the final track of the album “Mortal Man.” “Mortal Man” sonically invokes Lamar’s struggle to assume a position as a gatekeeper of a branch of hip hop that focuses on Black community and self-actualization. The track includes a sample from a 1994 Tupac Shakur interview with Swedish music journalist Mats Nileskär. Lamar positions himself as the interviewer, asking a different set of questions that engages Shakur about walking the fault lines of fame, fortune, and Black consciousness in this current cycle of hip hop. The construction and execution of the interview revisits the lines between hip hop’s collective and generational responsibilities via Lamar and Shakur’s interaction. Their conversation moves from creative (and creating) political protest to larger philosophical questions within hip hop: self-consciousness, mortality, and death. Lamar parallels his angst with Tupac using his voice, with Tupac himself heralded as hip hop’s martyred t.h.u.g. with a conscience. In this contemporary moment where Black men’s mortality and worth is attached to being a thug and a problem, Lamar poses Shakur in “Mortal Man” as a keystone for connecting popular scripts with cultural expectations of Black masculinity and agency in the United States.

The song “Mortal Man” launches the interview. The track can be considered a double sample – it uses Houston Person’s cover of Fela Kuti’s song “I No Get Eye for Back.” Lamar’s voice is clear but the background track soft and subdued, forcing the listener to pay full attention to Lamar’s voice, which interrogates what it takes for one to be loyal or respected in mainstream America. Percussion (bass kicks, acoustic drums, soft piano chords) and bass guitar chords annotate Lamar’s solemn lyrical delivery. A horn and woodwind medley – lead by Houston’s tenor sax playing – punctuate Lamar’s chorus:

When the shit hit the fan, is you still a fan?

When the shit his the fan, is you still a fan?

Want you to look to your left and right, make sure you ask your friends

The instrumental accompaniment is soft and steady, suggesting Lamar’s question is a continuous negotiation or checklist for one’s proclamation of loyalty and respect. Lamar’s repetition of “when the shit hit the fan is you still a fan” addresses his fanbase and the followers of other notable Black cultural and creative leaders. They, like Lamar, are usefully flawed – whether by accusation or self-proclamation – and use their flaws to further their cause. Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Moses, Malcolm X, and Michael Jackson all exhibited social-cultural and political agency for (Black) folks. Yet they also suffered scrutiny and disregard because of their personal lives or less-than-respectable experiences.

Malcolm X at Queens Court. Source=Library of Congress. New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c11166 Author=Herman Hiller, World Telegram staff photographer

Malcolm X at Queens Court. Source=Library of Congress. New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c11166 Author=Herman Hiller, World Telegram staff photographer

I am especially intrigued by Lamar’s reference to Malcolm X as “Detroit Red,” a nickname X had as a young hellraiser before his conversion to Islam. Lamar’s reference to X in his youth here speaks to larger questions of respectability, Black youth, and protest. Detroit Red is young, flawed but influential, similar to Lamar and other young Black folks leading protests in this contemporary moment. Lamar’s roll call suggests a struggle with the question of authority, both as a creator of Black culture and how his music implies a larger struggle of contemporary Black agency and angst. Interviewing Tupac brings Lamar’s struggle to a head, evoking Shakur’s voice as a culturally recognizable authority of hip hop’s commercial progress and cultural process. The trope of a flawed nature as a departure point for creative expression and agency is a theme that runs throughout TPAB and the rest of Lamar’s musical catalogue.

The musical accompaniment to the “Mortal Man” song fades out and against a backdrop of silence Lamar begins to recite what he states is an unfinished piece. He begins, “I remember when you was conflicted,” which implies he is talking to himself or talking to someone else. The background silence that leads to Lamar and Shakur’s conversation is as telling as the conversation itself, sonically alluding both to Lamar’s ‘quiet’ struggles of self-affirmation and the possibility that someone other than the audience is listening. The quiet is Lamar’s moment of clarity; the listeners are with him at his most vulnerable moment. He uses the silence to focus attention on himself and without the ‘outside noise’ of others’ beliefs and impressions of his music and purpose.

“2Pac” By Flickr user
Tupac Amaru Shakur, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Although the interview takes place over 20 years earlier, Tupac’s answers are clear and ‘live.’ Shakur’s initial voice is pensive and calculating – he sounds like he is thinking through his responses as he speaks – but later sounds more relaxed, laughing and talking louder and faster. The decreasing formality of Shakur’s answers suggests his increasing comfort with the interviewer as well as confidence in his own answers (and ultimately in sharing his beliefs). Lamar’s use of Shakur’s voice serves as the ultimate form of crate digging, using an obscure (or rare) radio interview sample to create his own voice in hip hop. Lamar’s engagement with Shakur serves memory as a cultural archive and as a cultural production. He not only preserves Shakur’s legacy in his own words but uses Shakur as a departure point for how to blur acts of listening for hip hop fans in a digital age.

The act of listening takes center stage for the interview. The interview is presented as an informal sitdown, reminiscent of what takes place during studio sessions: artists share new material and garner advice from veteran artists. Both rookies and veteran artist listen for new perspectives and listening for suggestions to approach a topic or track. Listening here shows Lamar’s awe and respect of Shakur’s perspective and artistry but also hints at how his conversation with Shakur is ultimately a conversation with himself. Lamar starts the conversation with an unfinished piece about his angsts regarding commercial success and how it conflicts with his creative process. He then moves on to asking Shakur about how he grapples with his creative and political consciousness. The listening work taking place here is critical and archival: without Lamar’s (and Lamar’s audience) interest in Shakur’s creative process his voice loses authority and ultimately its power.

Image From NY Daily News

Image From NY Daily News

Tupac’s sonic ‘resurrection’ signifies his lasting effect in hip hop while serving as a springboard for Lamar’s own pondering about the purpose of his music and the burden of its success. Unlike the visual representation of Shakur via hologram at the 2012 Coachella Music Festival, Lamar’s use of Tupac’s sonic likeness offers an alternative entry point for engaging Tupac’s work outside of his rapping. For example, much of Shakur’s social-political work takes place in his poetry i.e. his collection of poetry The Rose that Grew from Concrete. Further, the ‘thingness’ of the hologram, a physical and technological manifestation of hip hop fans’ and artists’ revering of Tupac’s image and death, makes me think about the type of work the hologram was expected to perform as compared to the sonic ‘ghostliness’ of Tupac’s voice on Lamar’s track. If, as John Jennings suggests, the hologram manifested Tupac as a “ghost in the machine,” how does Tupac’s voice work as a ghost in the machine? On a visceral level hearing Tupac’s voice in conversation with Kendrick Lamar stirs feelings about whether or not he is dead or alive and his immortality as a hip hop icon.

Where the Coachella hologram visualized Tupac Shakur spirit, “Mortal Man” sonically evokes his spirit and the connection between his (im)mortality and storytelling. Lamar says: “Sometimes I be like. . .get behind a mic and I don’t what type of energy I’ma push out or where it comes from.” Shakur responds “because the spirits, we ain’t really even rappin’, we just letting our dead homies tell stories for us.” Listening to Shakur’s use of “we” out of historical context – the interview took place in 1994, 21 years before “Mortal Man” – suggests that Tupac himself is among the dead. He is a “dead homie” and telling a story that Lamar himself is trying to relay to his audience and himself. Yet the lingering possibility of Tupac’s mortality – most embodied in Tupac’s silence after Lamar’s discussion of the significance of a caterpillar to the album – is a powerful moment of protest. Shakur’s quiet and Lamar’s attempt to “call him back,” signifies a period in the conversation. Lamar is left to fend for himself, fighting a “fight he can’t win.” There is also the possibility that his exchange with Shakur is “just some shit he wrote,” an unfinished idea and story that he is still figuring out. Lamar’s rendering of Tupac’s voice makes me think about the DJ Spooky statement “the voice you speak with may not be your own.” Tupac’s ghostly voice and Lamar’s search for his own voice blend to present Tupac as a mouthpiece for not only himself but Lamar.

At surface level Lamar resurrects and interviews Tupac Shakur because of regional ties to West Coast hip hop and a nearly standard declaration in rap of Shakur’s influence and fandom. He is arguably the most celebrated and iconic figure in hip hop. Shakur’s untimely death and open struggles with seeking balance between fame and personal responsibility mold him as hip hop’s shining prince. Shakur’s family ties with the Black Panther Party – a member of the Panthers once called him an “eternal cub” – positioned him to use hip hop as a mouthpiece for contemporary Black protest. But Shakur’s branding of protest and hip hop was messy, in part because of a working understanding and maneuvering of his image as controversial and commercially successful.

“KENDRICK LAMAR” by Flickr user
Pemberton Music Festival (Credit: Andy Holmes), CC BY-NC 2.0)

The “Mortal Man” interview signifies sound’s ability to usefully bridge past and present social, cultural, and political moments. Lamar’s sonic evoking of Tupac Shakur demonstrates hip hop as a space of Black youth political protest. Lamar uses sound to render hip hop temporality and re-emphasize Black popular culture as a departure point for recognizing contemporary Black angst. The shrinking mediums of spaces available to indicate why and how #BlackLivesMatter position the sonic as a work bench for engaging race relations in a deemed post-racial era. The “Mortal Man” interview serves as a blueprint for connecting hip hop to longstanding conversations about Black protest as a (messy) cultural product.

Featured image: “Shot by Drew: Kendrick Lamar” by Flickr user The Come Up Show, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Regina Bradley recently completed her PhD at Florida State University in African American Literature. Her dissertation is titled “Race to Post: White Hegemonic Capitalism and Black Empowerment in 21st Century Black Popular Culture and Literature.” She is a regular writer for Sounding Out!

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I Been On: BaddieBey and Beyoncé’s Sonic Masculinity — Regina Bradley

Saving Sound, Sounding Black, Voicing America: John Lomax and the Creation of the “American Voice”— Toniesha Taylor

Como Now? Marketing “Authentic” Black Music— Jennifer Stoever

Sonic Connections: Listening for Indigenous Landscapes in Kent Mackenzie’s The Exiles

"chavez ravine"

In April 2015, ten American Indian extras walked off the set of Adam Sandler’s new film The Ridiculous Six, a spoof on the classic Magnificent Seven (1960), in protest over the gross misrepresentation of Native cultures in general, and in particular over its insults to women and elders. Allison Young, a Navajo actress who participated in walking off, stated, “Nothing has changed. We are still just Hollywood Indians.” Young is referencing a long history of the film industries’ construction of stereotypical American Indians by non-natives created to entertain non-natives.

Still from the movie. From http://www.arthousecowboy.com

Still from the movie. From http://www.arthousecowboy.com

Within this long history exists a rare film, Kent Mackenzie’s 1961 The Exiles, re-restored and re-released in 2008 by Milestone Films. The Exiles is one of the few 20th century films that feature urban American Indians; it follows three main Native narrators from dusk to dawn as they experience the joys and struggles of urban life. Without an official score, this black and white docudrama places sound against haunting 35 millimeter black-and-white images of a downtown Los Angeles landscape. This mis-en-scène creates what Mackenzie (the white screenwriter, director and producer) asserts is “the authentic account of 12 hours.” The voiceovers of Homer Nish, a Hualipai from Valentine, Arizona who recently moved to Los Angeles after fighting in the Korean War; Yvonne Walker, originally from the White River Apache reservation in San Carlos, Arizona who first moved to the city to work as a domestic; and Tommy Reynolds, who is identified only as Mexican-Indian and is portrayed as a comedic playboy and the life of the party; narrate the intimate, day-to-day lives of urban American Indians.

In this post, I consider what we can hear if we pay close attention to how the director incorporates the narrators in a kind of Indigenous soundscape. Mackenzie’s soundscape bring together voices as well as music. The collage of sounds traces the journeys of American Indians to and from Los Angeles in the mid-twentieth century. The sonic connections in The Exiles provide a cacophony of histories of forced movement, transit, and re-making spaces as Indigenous at the same time that it perpetuates important historical silences. I borrow Chickasaw scholar Jodi A. Byrd’s term from The Transit of Empire: Indigenous Critiques of Colonialism (2011), cacophony—or “discordant and competing representations” and experiences— and apply it to the sounds that inform the indigenous space represented through the film.

"Bunker Hill 1968" by Flickr user Laurie Avocado (CC BY 2.0)

“Bunker Hill 1968″ by Flickr user Laurie Avocado (CC BY 2.0)

The narrators are part of a large population of American Indians who moved from rural reservations to urban centers after WWII. Due to the federal government’s mismanagement of Native tribes’ land and resources, and the genocidal abandonment of treaties made with tribes, the late 1950s and 1960s were times of dire economic and social conditions on reservations. The influx of Native Americans to cities also came because of assimilation campaigns in boarding schools, military service and the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ “Termination Era” policies (1940s –1960s) that intended to terminate the state’s bureaucratic relationships with Native tribes. Relocating Native populations from reservations into cities where work was available year-round was a key aspect of the Termination Era policies. According to Norman Klein (The History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory), areas near downtown Los Angeles, including Bunker Hill where the film is primarily shot, were multi-racial neighborhoods in economic decline and therefore became relocation sites for American Indians. Importantly, both Klein and Mackenzie are silent about the prior forced removal of Tongva on that very same location that began in the 1840s.

The audio track of The Exiles contradicts the stereotypical American Indian sounds featured in Hollywood movies. The film’s contemporary mainstream Hollywood releases included sounds such as the whooping sounds of “hostile Indians” in John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), the broken English spoken by the “Apache” in Delmer Daves’ Broken Arrow (1950), and stereotypes played out in John Sturges’ Magnificent Seven (1960). In the soft Southwestern Native lilt of Yvonne’s voice, the way that Homer and others add “you know?” to the end of almost every sentence they utter, alongside the rhythm of the casual banter and tenor of the men’s laughter, I hear a potential sonic archive of American Indians that talks back. For example, in a short clip when Tommy and his friends enter Café Ritz, an Indian bar, Thomas calls out over the loud rock and roll music as he passes people at the bar. Tommy shifts easily between English (“What’s happening there, man?”), Spanish (“Gracias amigo, ¿cómo estas?”), and Dine (“Yá’át’ééh. E la na tte?”). Careful attention to the cinematic soundscape provides access to voices of discontent and resiliency, practices of building and maintaining multilingual multi-tribal Indian spaces, and the flow of American Indians between reservations and multiple cities.

Understanding the sounds and the silences of The Exiles as a cacophony offers a way to appreciate how the film both perpetuates stereotypes but also provides insights into the urban American Indian experience. Mackenzie’s construction of Homer Nish and American Indian men continues a myth that it is individualized behavior that keeps Indians from the American Dream. (In his 1964 masters thesis, “A Description and Examination of the Production of The Exiles: A Film of the Actual Lives of a Group of Young American Indians” Mackenzie states outright that he believes they are responsible for the mess they created). The Exiles portrays American Indian men reading comic books, listening to rock and roll, hanging out at bars instead of working, and taking rent money away from their suffering women and children to gamble. These formulaic images of Native Americans are informed by a long history of visual, literary and legal representations of American Indians that compose Indian men as either savage, infantile and emasculated. But if we listen to the banter and laughter in the bar scenes and at home, we also hear the caring intimacy of camaradrie. The cacophony of sound provides a counterbalance to the visual representations.

 

The Voiceover and Realism

Mackenzie uses dialogue to direct the visual and sonic narrative of the docudrama’s soundscape. Ironically, this collaborative low budget project that stretched on for three and a half years has minimal original dialogue. They could not afford sound techs on site, so the most obvious sonic evocation of realism Mackenzie explores is asynchronous sound performed in a studio months later. In Mackenzie’s master’s thesis he writes that, to construct dialogues (they often voiced their lines with a group of people around), “people would joke around a lot” while “everybody was drinking beer” (76). The filmmaker did not find that dialogue on larger budget feature films at the time were “lifelike” and believable. He writes that people

seldom spoke of important matters directly; they seldom spoke clearly or coherently when they did speak and their everyday language was full of overlaps interruption and communications through looks, gestures and shrugs. Many sentences made the end understood. …What a person said seemed less important than how he said it. (73)

Here, it becomes clear that the “realism” Mackenzie pursues is more about a style of filmmaking rather than about an authentic rendering of Native American everyday life. If he found the actors performing lines too dramatically Mackenzie states he “would blow the scene apart by asking for more casual and apparently pointless lines” (73). He created a specially mediated recording of the people, downtown Los Angeles and the time period. In other words, he pursued realism: he did not seek to fully capture real experiences.

Tommy Reynolds and Homer Nish in Kent Mackenzie's THE EXILES (1961).

Tommy Reynolds and Homer Nish in Kent Mackenzie’s THE EXILES (1961).

Through interviews he guides the actors to talk about their everyday lives, their problems and their thoughts about life. Mackenzie used “improvised tracks” out of individual interviews in an attempt “to help preserve their point of view in the film.” He interviewed Homer, Tommy and Yvonne for several hours apiece, questioning and re-questioning them – not necessarily to document the subjects’ truths but “for emotional quality and general attitudes and feelings” (78). Despite his intentions, the voiceovers provide some context of the trials of everyday life and how the leads negotiated their belonging in a space far from home. Mackenzie’s realism builds a collage of soundscapes—voiceovers, background noise, music—to orchestrate a scene rather than simply document part of a 12-hour period of life.

 

Rock and Roll and Urban Indian Sounds

Mainstream “Hollywood Indians” are associated with a limited soundscape of drums and whoops, but Mackenzie’s use of contemporary rock and roll illustrates the complexity of the indigenous soundscape. Even though the film opens with the slow repetitive beating of the buckskin drums and a contextual opening monologue, after the drums stop it is the early surf music of Anthony Hilder and his five-piece band, The Revels, that drive many of the scenes. The music renders audible the many ways people tried to belong in new locations and within new cultures, juxtaposing the fast blast of the trumpet and guitar riffs of the Revels with the steady beat of the drum and shake of a turtle rattle.

Mackenzie continues this juxtaposition later in the film. Homer, alone on the street in front of a liquor store, opens a letter a bartender handed to him earlier in the evening. At the top of the letter is written “Peach Springs, Arizona” and tucked within the letter is a picture of an older man and woman. The camera focuses on the picture that dissolves and reemerges as a rural desert scene. The man from the picture sits beneath a tree with a girl and the woman, and rhythmically chants and shakes a rattle. There is no voice-over or dialogue; ceremonial singer Jacinto Valenzuela’s repeats a song multiple times without an English translation. The steady rattle of the dry seeds in the gourd are a sharp contrast to the pace of the Revels’ songs that saturates Homer’s earlier scenes.

Without guidance from a narrator, the scene is left to audience interpretation. The scene and its sounds could represent Homer’s sense of being displaced between times, or a homesick romanticized remembrance of family life: the moment quickly dissipates and Homer once again stands alone on a corner bathed in the streetlight. However, the music here could be a sonic connection that provides an alternative geography of indigenous space and place. Mackenzie’s collage of sound echoes the circuitous path of indigenous bodies and ideas of indigenous life in diasporas described in Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska scholar Renya Ramirez’s work in Native Hubs: Culture, Community, and Belonging in Silicon Valley and Beyond. The rattle and drum can instead signal a belonging to a community and people in a present that Homer carries within him. Through sound, Mackenzie connects Homer with his communities, traditions, and a sense of belonging regardless of spatial distance.

Mackenzie deepens this connection when he imbeds Homer in a place and community through the dancing and drumming on Hill X in the penultimate scene of the film sounds. When Homer talks about Hill X (formerly Chavez Ravine, then a site of the forced displacement of Mexican residents in Los Angeles in 1950-1952, now the site of Dodger Stadium) we hear his strategy for his own and his tribe’s collective survival. The shaking of the gourd in the desert and the dancing, singing and drumming of the 49 —lead by Mescalero singers Eddie Sunrise Gallerito and his twin cousins Frankie Red Elk and Chris Surefoot—shows a reclaiming of Los Angeles as indigenous land. Thus practices of sound and movement function as what Tonawanda Seneca scholar Mishuanna Goeman identifies as “remapping” of Indian space. Taken together with the beat of the drum, the bells and rock and roll compose the content of a Los Angeles indigenous soundscape.

exiles_poster1_lgThe Exiles registers contemporary American Indians in motion. Homer and his comrades reclaim Hill X as Indian land with song and dance over a century after the City of Los Angeles displaced the Tongva out of that same location. At the time of the filming, American Indians were also forced to move within Los Angeles- their homes on Bunker Hill soon demolished and replaced by high rises. Paying attention and critically re-listening to the sounds of The Exiles offers an alternative soundscape of Indigenous life.

 

Featured image: “chavez ravine” by Flickr user Paul Narvaez, CC BY-NC 2.0

Laura Sachiko Fugikawa holds a doctoral degree in American Studies and Ethnicity with a certificate in Gender Studies from the University of Southern California. Currently she is working on her book, Displacements: The Cultural Politics of Relocation, and teaches Asian American Studies at Northwestern University.

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