Speaking “Mexican” and the use of “Mock Spanish” in Children’s Books (or Do Not Read Skippyjon Jones)
Cinco de Mayo. ‘Tis the season when many Americans don sombreros, order their frozen margaritas, and, God help us, speak “Spanish.” We are well used to hyper Anglicized renditions of “amigo,” “adios,” and happy hour specials brought on by the commercialization of Cinco de Mayo. The holiday celebrates a significant event in Mexico’s history – the battle of Puebla and victory over France in 1862 – through narrowing ideas about language, culture, and tequila. That said, let’s not just blame Cinco de Mayo for the disconcerting use of Spanish. Unfortunately, the incessant use of phrases such as “ay caramba” and “no problemo” are heard much, much earlier in contemporary children’s books.
The New York Times recently published the startling figure that just 93 of the 3,200 children’s books published in 2013 were about African American children. Within these few 93 texts, African American children all-too-often read about themselves within the past tense, in reference to slavery and civil rights legacies. Children of color are left to identify with the adventures and imaginative stories of white characters amid white settings. Aptly characterized as an, “apartheid of children’s literature,” two moving first-person accounts from Walter Dean Myers and Christopher Myers detail the significance of incorporating more characters of color for all readers. One major effect of this dearth of representation, according to Christopher Myers,
…is a gap in the much-written-about sense of self-love that comes from recognizing oneself in a text, from the understanding that your life and lives of people like you are worthy of being told, thought about, discussed and even celebrated.
Just as significant, is the number of children’s books about Latino children from the 2013’s trove of 3,200 books: 53. That’s 5-3. As a reminder, the United States Census tallied 53 million Latinos in the United States, representing the nation’s youngest demographic (children!).
However, perhaps worse than the actual lack is the rise of stereotypic in-your-face representations of race within children’s books – award-winning ones, actually – and their role in teaching children troubling ideas about race, language, and “difference.”
My name is Skippito Friskito. (clap-clap)
I fear not a single bandito. (clap-clap)
My manners are mellow,
I’m sweet like the Jell-O,
I get the job done, yes indeed-o.
Case in point: Skippyjon Jones, a Siamese cat that pretends to be a Chihuahua superhero. Skippyjon speaks English, but his super hero alter ego speaks in Mock Spanish in his recurring and imaginative quests. Speaking “Spanish” in hyperanglized fashion recasts Skippyjon from an English-speaking (white) cat to a Spanish-accented (brown) dog. His auditory performance of Mexicanness, what Reina Prado considers “sonic brownface,” reeks of white privilege as he code-switches from cat/white/English to dog/brown/”Spanish.” What’s worse, as a children’s book, directed at those between the impressionable ages of 4-8, Skippyjon encourages both adult readers and young readers to read out loud and perform sonic brownface. Listening to the book’s trite word choice (amigos, adios, frijoles), fake Spanish (indeed-o, mask-ito) and embellished accents (“ees” for is) trains the ear on how to speak “Mexican,” presumably, of course, for the listening amusement of non-Mexicans.
“I am El Skippito, the great sword fighter,” said Skippyjon Jones.
Apparently, these tried and true tactics sell quite well. This award-winning children’s book character, by Judy Schachner, has spawned into a lucrative empire that includes fourteen books, a coordinating plush toy figure, online webisodes of the books’ stories, CDs of Schachner reading out loud, the obligatory Ipad app, a starring role in the department store Kohl’s “We Care” charity campaign in 2012, and get this, a children’s musical. Of course, Skippyjon is not really recognized as a book series about Latinos (like fellow television darlings, Dora the Explorer, Handy Manny, or Dragon Tales) yet it taps into every flinching stereotype we know of, and should avoid, about Mexicans. Equating Mexicans and Mexican tales to the canine of a Chihuahua is hardly new but it does not make it less problematic.
For instance, in the inaugural self-titled Skippyjon Jones book, the cat’s adventures take place “far, far away in old Mexico.” Much like the perpetual placement of African Americans in the past tense within children’s books, situating Mexico in the imaginative past reinforces perceptions of all-things-Mexican as distant, foreign, and old. Skippyjon and his chimichangos – his sidekicks (good guys) –set out to save their rice and beans from Alfredo Buzzito and Bumblebeeto Bandito (bad guys). Zorro-esque masks, swords, fiestas followed by siestas, fellow Chihuahuas, piñatas, plenty of cacti, and lots of clap-clap cues frame the rice-and-bean rescue. His adventures, book after book, via a Skippito brown identity sends a disquieting message about power and privilege. Skippito, even when masked, still plays the role of Great White Hero to the masses of “Mexican” dogs.
Then all of the Chimichangos went crazy loco.
Several of Schachner’s Skippyjon books have received notable accolades including, for instance, the 2004 E.B. White Read Aloud Award and a spot on the coveted “Teachers’ Top 100 Books for Children” by the National Education Association in 2007. The former comes with an adorning gold seal on future editions of honored books. A sampling of the series’ laudatory press, from the E.B White Read Aloud press release, “Peppered with Spanish expressions and full of energized fun, SkippyJon Jones is not only entertaining for the listener, it’s also enjoyable for the reader.” And from the author’s webpage: “Each of my adventures are ay caramba, mucho fun but they’re educational too!” The insinuation that the Skippyjon Empire teaches Spanish not only ignores the richness of Spanish but it also feeds popular ideals that Spanish is an “easy” and “fun” language to learn.
Schachner’s recurrent use of “Spanish,” in particular, not only structures the silly narrative adventures of Skippyjon as he imagines himself to be Skippito but the racialized language play has also become the hallmark element of Skippyjon. Written and read out loud by parents and teachers, some of Skippyjon’s signature phrases include “Holy Guacamole!” and “Holy Frijoles!” – textbook examples of Jane Hill’s renowned writings on Mock Spanish (or fake, incoherent Spanish uttered and deemed “funny” by non-native Spanish speakers). Because we already hold native Spanish-speakers (U.S. Latinos) with such little regard in the first place, Mock Spanish done for laughs, as argued by Hill, comes quite easily. Carmen Martínez-Roldán takes the Skippyjon Jones series to task in necessary detail; see her analysis of Mock Spanish in the equally troubling, Skippyjon Jones in the Doghouse. Her emphasis on the cultural representations of Mexicans vis-a-vis language in children’s books supports my tirade against this cat/dog. Martínez-Roldán found that several teachers, particularly those from the Southwest, expressed a sense of inexplicable uneasiness to these books. Amazon ratings are (painfully) positive for Skippyjon, yet, according to Martínez-Roldán, those who expressed low ratings were “accompanied by lengthy explanations, mostly related to misrepresentations of Mexicans and the poor use of Spanish.” Her research calls for more diversity within children’s literature but, central to this essay, reminds us that U.S. Latinos hold both a personal and political relationship to Spanish.
Anthropologist Bonnie Urciuoli explains how Spanish, when overheard in designated public spaces (think: Cinco de Mayo or Mexican restaurants) is safely “ethnified,” yet Spanish is regarded as out of place or “racialized” when heard as bilingual announcements at local grocery stores or school sites. When heard by monolingual English speakers outside of its designated spaces in the U.S., Spanish carries “racialized” connotations such as “impoliteness” and “danger.” The insistence many American employers place on speaking English and prohibiting non-English language conversations at workplaces, for instance, speaks to the public boundaries imposed on Spanish and Spanish-speakers. (Yes, Whole Foods. I am looking at you.)
Jane Hill’s provocative argument, built from Uricuolli’s writings, examines Whites’ use of Spanish (Mock Spanish). Unlike Latinos, who learn early on to self-monitor where and how they speak English and Spanish, non-native speakers of Spanish do not carry this same burden, according to Hill. In fact, they have the privilege of speaking grammatically incorrect Spanish, in hyper Anglicized Spanish, or mockingly (by adding a stupid “o” or prefacing a phrasing with “el”) without surveillance.
Then, using his very best Spanish accent, he said, “My ears are too beeg for my head.
My head ees too beeg for my body. I am not a Siamese cat… I AM A CHIHUAHUA!”
In addition to overplayed colloquial expressions, Schachner demarcates a racial line with “visual accents” (“beeg” for big) (see Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman, Priscilla Peña Ovalle and Sara V. Hinojos). In line with Uricuolli’s ideas, even Skippito’s English is accented and marked while in “Mexican” character. Readers stammer through “ees” and “beeg” in an effort, as prepped, to use their “very best Spanish accent.” The practice teaches children that accents are performative and easy to take on and off rather than hear accents as indicative of someone’s larger family histories of migration and culture.
For children unfamiliar with Mexicans and Latinos, these books cast Spanish with archaic imageries of Mexican bandits and modern-day Frito Banditos. Spanish is not used as a language to communicate given its incoherence. Instead, Schachner uses Spanish to laugh at Skippito and by extension, Mexicans and Latinos in the U.S.; its runaway success is indicative of how “funny” Spanish and Mexicans continue to be to White and/or monolingual English speakers.
For Latinos, these books plant early attitudes about their own language differences. For children positioned as the family translator or struggling to maintain a bilingual, bicultural existence, these books teach children to shun their accent and those of their families. These books are clearly not for my two kids, whose young ears are already familiar with their grandmother’s Spanish-accented English and their own mother’s English-accented Spanish.
“Vamos, Skippito- or it is you the Bandito will eato!”
Reading children’s books out loud and listening to race through scripted accents sends troubling messages about “difference” at an early age. Educators have long argued that children’s books serve as both mirrors and maps to affirm and inspire readers’ identities, experiences, and future motivations. True. But I would also argue that the woeful absence of more diverse children’s tales mirrors a number of campaigns directed at working-class, communities of color; namely, our nation’s shaky commitment to universal preschool, lack of public support for Women Infant and Children (WIC) and Food Stamp programs, and outdated approaches to parental leaves (six measly weeks). In particular, Skippyjon Jones is a kid’s rendition of grownup racial and language politics, a pint-size version of NAFTA and English-only propositions presented for five-year old audiences. These policies, like the woeful crop of contemporary books, do little to provide a map for the livelihoods of children of color. Instead, Skippyjon’s use of language, a reincarnation of Speedy Gonzalez normalizes English, white characters (even in brown drag), and helps keep Cinco de Mayo antics alive.
NOTE: On 5-8-14, the author added a passage to this article to reflect the relationship of her work to Carmen M. Martínez-Roldán’s “The Representation of Latinos and the Use of Spanish: A Critical Content Analysis of Skippyjon Jones” published in The Journal of Children’s Literature (2013).
Featured Image by Flickr user The Long Beach Public Library, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Dolores Inés Casillas is an assistant professor in the Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies and a faculty affiliate of Film & Media Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She writes and teaches courses on Latina/o sound practices, popular culture, and the politics of language. Her book, Sounds of Belonging: U.S. Spanish-language Radio and Public Advocacy will be published this fall by New York University Press as part of their Critical Cultural Communication series.
REWIND!…If you liked this post, you may also dig:
Sonic Brownface: Representations of Mexicanness in an Era of Discontent-reina alejandra prado saldivar
This month Sounding Out! inaugurates a four-part series slated to appear on the Thursday stream into May entitled “Radio de Acción”: Broadcasting in Latin America and the Caribbean, edited by Cornell Assistant Professor in Comparative Literature Tom McEnaney.
Tom has been a key contributor to SO! over the years — check out his articles on Orson Welles and Twin Peaks, two excellent and vivid pieces I wish I could’ve written. We’re excited to have Tom as our guide to the many frequencies of Latin American and Caribbean radio, helping us “tune North American antennas South for a while,” as he proposes in his series introduction below. Gather round, dear listeners, I think the transmission’s about to start …
– SCMS/ASA Special Editor Neil Verma
It’s difficult to keep the radius of radio within national boundaries. Or so it has often seemed in the Americas. The first Argentine broadcast, on August 27, 1920, transmitted a performance of Wagner’s Parisfal that accidentally reached ships in Brazil. Border radio in Spanish and English has bled across the frontiers between Mexico and the United States since at least the early 1930s. And if listeners from Alabama to Washington State tuned their shortwave receivers right in the early 1960s, they would have heard the exiled civil rights activists Robert F. and Mabel Williams’ famous tag line: “You are tuned to Radio Free Dixie, from Havana, Cuba, where integration is an accomplished fact.”
In Spanish, “radio” can mean the sonic broadcasting it denotes in English, but also radium, the spoke of a wheel, a radius (and the bone of the same name), an orbit, or a sphere of influence. Our series title, Radio de Acción, plays on an inter-linguistic pun, which takes the “radius of action” or “area of operations” the phrase connotes in Spanish, and thinks of radio broadcasting as changing the cultural, historical and political fields it engages through particular types of “radio action.”
Acknowledging language’s role in widening or narrowing that radius, the four posts in this special series help tune our ears to a diversity of voices from Latin America and the Caribbean. Over the next few months Radio de Acción will explore the multilingual history of radio in the Caribbean, an Aymara / Spanish talk show in Bolivia, a Cuban-born writer’s radio dramas produced in German, and the Spanish / English radio program Radio Ambulante, which its creators describe as “This American Life, but in Spanish, and transnational.” Featuring posts from Alejandra Bronfman, Karl Swinehart, and Carolina Guerrero, our series sets out to turn North American antennas South for a while.
I’m especially excited to begin the series by welcoming University of British Columbia History Professor, Alejandra Bronfman, whose extraordinary story of radio in the Caribbean below serves as an ideal overture to Radio de Acción. Don’t move that dial.—
The most striking example of radio’s power in the political dramas of the Caribbean took place in Havana, Cuba in March of 1957. A group of student activists opposed to the Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista’s regime attempted to assassinate him and simultaneously occupied one of Havana’s most popular stations, Radio Reloj. Locking out the broadcasters, who usually spent the day reading the news and announcing the time every minute on the minute, the activists declared Batista’s death, and their victory. It may be that their plan depended precisely on the uncertainty they created. Whether Batista was actually dead mattered less than the reaction they hoped to incite with their declaration. Batista did not die that day; the students’ plot was foiled; and the attempt ended in death for most of the assailants. However, the failure was only temporary—another group of radio rebels would overthrow Batista less than two years later—and the 1957 takeover cemented radio’s undisputed role as bearer of truth and center of power.
In this post I consider radio’s relationship to violence in connection to its creation of truth, mendacity and illusion. Radio publics in the Caribbean emerged amidst conflict, and, as the 2000 assassination of the Haitian broadcaster Jean Dominique suggests, there is still much at stake in their existence as arbiters of political practice and cultural affiliation.
In the earliest years, radio competed for attention in Caribbean soundscapes full of talk and music rooted in the legacies of slavery. In Haiti, a US occupation (1915-1934) coincided with the development of wireless technology by the US military. Military officials understood the potential of wireless for communication among ships. When US marines landed in Port-au-Prince in 1915, they immediately landed a radio set as well. Although wireless linked the marines to their passing ships, it was not yet a cultural medium sustaining a connection to familiar songs and voices. Haiti was a confusing, disorienting place for many of them: some were disappointed to have been sent there rather than the European front of WWI, others raised in the American South were appalled at the power and status of Haitians of African descent. As remembered by one marine, the sound of Haiti could terrify: “No movies, no radio, none of the features of civilized life to which he was accustomed… Drums boomed continuously. …the drums seemed to him to be the voice of the evil one, always booming in his ears, threatening him, tempting him.”
Most confusing of all was the language. 90% of Haitians spoke Kreyol, which is not French, and not like anything the marines had probably heard before. Documents of the occupation record their efforts to turn what they heard as noise into comprehensible signals. They understood how crucial it would be to obtain information from market women, whose perambulations through the countryside, in weekly walks from their villages to market towns, allowed them to gather news and gossip. If they could convince these women to become informants, and then use radio to relay crucial knowledge between strategic points–the terrain was difficult, with paths rather than roads and frequent rain and flash flooding made travel unpredictable—they might somehow begin to locate and crush insurgencies. The installation of radios signaled the Marines’ efforts to exercise control and insert themselves into these circuits of talk and rumor. But results were paltry. Documents from the early phase of the occupation speak to unreliable technology, lack of knowledge about how to use it, its burdensome heft (radio sets had to be hauled by donkeys through the dense forests), and frequent sabotage.
They also speak to desperation and macabre inventiveness in the face of fear. Some Marines discovered that they could try getting the ‘truth’ out of Haitians in novel ways. They applied wires from radio sets to Haitian people’s bodies, and shot electric current through them during interrogation sessions, hoping to use their “new media” to simultaneously terrorize bodies and extract information from them. Electrotorture enacted, literally, the relationship between technology, the production of knowledge and imperial violence.
The histories of radio played out in different registers elsewhere in the Caribbean. While Haiti eventually acquired a broadcasting station in 1926, there was no local radio in Jamaica until 1939.. British colonial officials, distracted by their bloated empire and feeling the economic pinch in any case, had no appetite for building a local station, though Kingston’s residents frequently called for one. While wealthy residents of Jamaica who could afford shortwave receivers had the world at their fingertips—the BBC, US programs, music from Cuba’s powerful stations—the majority of Jamaicans listened instead to their own voices in songs and popular theater, mostly in Jamaican patois.
As the British Empire relegated Jamaica to the margins, capital, people, and many sounds came from the US. Indeed, strapped British officials conscripted amateur radio operators and their US-bought equipment for state purposes. When passing British ships needed to test communications, they asked amateurs to donate their time and expertise. The most prominent of those, the New Yorker John Grinan, achieved some fame in the ham radio world for his experiments with shortwave radio. A participant in the first exchange of transatlantic signals, and one of the operators who helped relay Tom Heeney’s 1928 boxing match against Gene Tunney between New York and New Zealand (via Jamaica), Grinan lent his technological expertise to the British. When striking Jamaican workers cut telephone and telegraph lines amidst labor unrest in the summer of 1938 colonial officials, lacking access to wireless equipment, asked amateur operators like Grinan to police the rebellion, relaying whatever information they could from their rural stations to Kingston.
In the aftermath, colonial officials hoped the new radio station, created with equipment donated by Grinan, would provide a means of calming the unruly masses through educational broadcasting. But the new station’s programming was so dull, and receivers were so expensive and so unreliable, that few listened. It was only in the late 1950s, through the contributions of people like the actress, writer, and radio personality Louise Bennett that the sounds of patois eased radio’s participation into voluble soundscapes long populated by sound systems, music and talk.
As Bennett joked and chided in patois and local musicians like Bob Marley finally got air time, their performances rescued radio from its elitist roots and people finally tuned in.
By that time in Cuba, both the government and its opposition knew that controlling radio meant wielding power, or at least creating the illusion of that power. Cuba’s commercial ties to the US meant that it took part in its neighbor’s vociferous radio culture. Ads, radios, programs and music crisscrossed the Atlantic and shaped transnational listening. By the 1930s, a large radio public tuned in regularly to radionovelas, music and news available throughout the day. So it seemed to make perfect sense when governments claimed airspace to propagate messages and dissenters tampered with communications networks or deployed underground broadcasts—often from outside of Cuba—to convey their discontent. It was this radio world in which students decided that in order to topple a dictator you needed to occupy a radio station.
Understanding Caribbean radio as a regional history—defined more by circuits and soundwaves than national borders—brings new dimensions to bear on radio histories more generally. Spanning the Caribbean allows me to think about how various listening publics came to be and the contingent nature of those publics. Imperial politics, machines—as instruments of curiosity, desire and violence—and voices converged and diverged in distinct ways to conjure particular publics in particular moments. In order to overcome disturbing origins, radio needed to take part in pre-existing publics. In Jamaica, the inclusion of programs in patois resuscitated a feeble medium. The voices of people like Louise Bennett rendered radio a welcome attraction rather than a patronizing nuisance. In Haiti, radio publics also grew as Kreyol radio plays replaced US-sanctioned programming. Francois Duvalier understood that he could use radio to appeal to many people, drawing them in with celebrations of Haiti’s African roots and Kreyol language. When he became dictator soon after, the publics were already captive. On the other hand, Cuba did not have such a stark linguistic divide. So as soon as radio blanketed the country it could take part in fuelling political rifts. Listening in Cuba meant choosing sides, as all sides spoke through the radio. As the oppositional 1950s turned into the revolutionary 60’s, the battle of voices—the Voice of America, the Voice of Martí, the Voice of Fidel, continued. Understanding the region as a transfer point for empire and capital places the Caribbean at the center of many aspects of the history of communications technologies. It also colors that history with troubling tones whose listeners are long overdue.
Alejandra Bronfman is Associate Professor of History at the University of British Columbia, where she teaches courses on Caribbean and Latin American history, historical theory and practice, race in the Americas, and media histories. She is currently working on two projects: A Voice in a Box: Media, Empire and Affiliation in the Caribbean, which records the unwritten histories of sonic technologies in the early twentieth century, and Biography of a Sonic Archive, which draws from the extensive career of Laura Boulton to interrogate the use of recordings in the making of a sonic, exotic Caribbean. http://alejandrabronfman.wordpress.com/
Featured image: “Cuba 1619 – 10th Anniversary of Radio Havana Cuba” by Flickr user Joseph Morris, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:
Decolonizing the Radio: Africa Abroad in the Age of Independence– Samantha Pinto
“Everyone I listen to, fake patois…”– Osvaldo Oyola
CLICK HERE TO DOWNLOAD: Wobbling the Speakerspace
SUBSCRIBE TO THE SERIES VIA ITUNES
ADD OUR PODCASTS TO YOUR STITCHER FAVORITES PLAYLIST
One last transmission from the Wobble Continuum series: a mix, for your listening pleasure. Mike D’Errico, Christina Giacona, and I spent our posts wobbling along the continuum of production, consumption, and re-sounding of music that incorporates some dubstep techniques as well as the patriarchal, colonialist culture in which that music reverberates. This mix pieces together some of those same sounds, though it isn’t hemmed in by any one genre. Though there is some theory to be found in these songs, my main goal was to offer an enjoyable set of loud, fast, music.
Many thanks to Neil Verma, Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman, Liana Silva, and Aaron Trammell for inviting us into Sounding Out!’s world with this series. And thanks to you for reading.
Now what are you waiting for? Download this mix and turn. it. up.
“Braves” – A Tribe Called Red
“Split the Atom” [Kito Remix] – Noisia
“The Force” – Tokimonsta feat Kool Keith
“Run the World (Girls)” [Kito Remix] – Beyonce
“Tightrope” [Oliver Nelson Remix] – Janelle Monae
“Bang Bang” [playplay Remix] – Missy Elliott
“Hold My Purse” – Njena Reddd Foxxx feat GooDLucK -
“Clemenstime” – Unsub
“NDNs from All Directions” – A Tribe Called Red
Justin Burton is a musicologist specializing in US popular music and culture. He is especially interested in hip hop and the ways it is sounded across regions, locating itself in specific places even as it expresses transnational and diasporic ideas.He is Assistant Professor of Music at Rider University, where he teaches in the school’s Popular Music and Culture program. He helped design the degree, which launched in the fall of 2012, and he is proud to be able to work in such a unique program. His book-length project – Posthuman Pop – blends his interests in hip hop and technology by engaging contemporary popular music through the lens of posthuman theory. Recent and forthcoming publications include an exploration of the Mozart myth as it is presented in Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus and then parodied in an episode of The Simpsons (Journal of Popular Culture 46:3, 2013), an examination of the earliest iPod silhouette commercials and the notions of freedom they are meant to convey (Oxford Handbook of Mobile Music Studies), and a long comparative review of Kanye and Jay Z’s Watch the Throne and the Roots’ Undun (Journal for the Society of American Music). He is also co-editing with Ali Colleen Neff a special issue of the Journal of Popular Music Studies titled “Sounding Global Southernness.” He currently serves on the executive committee of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music-US Branch and is working on an oral history project of the organization. From June 2011 through May 2013, he served as Editor of the IASPM-US website, expanding the site’s offerings with the cutting edge work of popular music scholars from around the world. You can contact him at justindburton [at] gmail [dot] com.
REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:
Sounding Out! Podcast #19: Solid Gold Summer– The Sounding Out! Crew
Sounding Out! Podcast #6: Spaces of Listening / The Record Shop– Aaron Trammell
Welcome back to “The Wobble Continuum,” a three part series here on Sounding Out!. When we last left you, Mike D’Errico had brought us to the intersection of patriarchal cultural norms, music production practices and aesthetics, and the Military Entertainment Complex. His particular focus was on the sounds and practices of brostep (be sure to check out D’Errico’s SO! Comment Klatsch from last week on gendered sounds, too), and some of those sounds leak through to today’s post from Christina Giacona. Giacona turns her ear to the group A Tribe Called Red in order to hear how they reappropriate and redress the sounds of colonization and racism.
As the series’ title suggests, her essay entails another journey to the low end, where things will once again get wobbly.
Guest Editor Justin D. Burton
Since first contact, Native Americans have consistently needed to combat the European stereotypes that portray them as inferior and uncivilized. Barraged with echoes of the same handful of Native tropes since Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Shows, contemporary American society often treats the stereotypical Native American princess, chief, and savage as historical truths, represented recently in Johnny Depp’s portrayal of Tonto in The Lone Ranger. But it is not just the visual image of the Native American that has been stereotyped, so has their sonic sensibility. As documented in the film Reel Injun, Native languages and musics have consistently been “faked” by Hollywood with tricks like backwards English, pig-Latin, and Westernized imaginings of a ubiquitous Native music based on a pan-Indian society that never actually existed. Hollywood often uses Native American music to show a “primitive” society where music’s sole function is to prepare for war. However, the “Indian” drumbeat that accents the first beat of a group of four cannot be found in any traditional Native American or Aboriginal music.
While Native American-directed motion pictures such as Smoke Signals, Powwow Highway, and Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner finally gave agency to Natives in film, it was the all-Native DJ collective A Tribe Called Red’s self-released album and popularization of the Electric Powwow that directly challenges the perception of Native American music in modern society. In this post, I analyze the sonic composition of ATCR’s song “Braves,” exploring how A Tribe Called Red challenges North American stereotypes of Native Americans through the cultural re-appropriation of racist sounds.
After World War I, intertribal powwow gatherings served as a place to celebrate newfound unity among Native Nations returning home from the war. By the 1950s intertribal powwows had spread throughout North America. With the continued strength and importance of the powwow in contemporary Native society, urban Natives in locations like New York City and Ottawa, Canada, have begun to search for ways to create the same sense of unity in urban venues. In 2008, DJs NDN and Bear Witness formed the DJ collective “A Tribe Called Red” and began curating performances in Ottawa the second Saturday of every month called the Electric Powwow: a “wild party” focused on showcasing native talent and aboriginal culture. ATCR’s website describe the music as “ the soundtrack to the contemporary evolution of the powwow.“ Bear elaborates in an interview with NOW magazine, “[the Electric Powwow] was also about creating a space for our community within the club environment.” Hip-hop DJ and turntable champ DJ Shub was invited to join the group in 2010, and the trio spent the next two years evolving the sound of the Electric Powwow into a mash-up of powwow and First Nations music with contemporary club sounds including hip-hop, dubstep, and dance hall.
Much like Fela Kuti’s popularization of Afrobeat in the 1970s, made up of a combination of traditional Nigerian Yoruba polyrhythms with a blend of Western jazz and funk, and Reggaeton’s fusion of Caribbean rhythms with the aesthetics of American hip-hop in the 1990s, the Electric Powwow merges a historically traditional and non-syncretic music with popular and cosmopolitan music in a way that both honors cultural heritage and makes it relevant to a new generation. As NDN points out on Noisey, even their name follows this trend, simultaneously referencing the introduction of Nations at powwows and famous Afrocentric hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest. The Electric Powwow events are not just about the creation of a new genre of music, but they also serve as a site for ATCR to speak publicly about aboriginal issues and represent themselves as a contemporary face for the urban Native youth renaissance. ATCR’s music videos and live-show projections extensively sample racist imagery from movies and cartoons including old westerns, Back to the Future III, Bugs Bunny, and Disney’s Peter Pan. As a result of their audio-visual activism, the group has become the unofficial soundtrack for the Idle No More movement, which is attempting to reassert Indigenous sovereignty rights and previously signed treaties in Canada.
By taking both visual and sonic symbols that depict racist stereotypes out of their cultural contexts, ATCR draws attention to both the specific racism of each individual image and the ubiquity of racist stereotypes. In their track “Braves,” A Tribe Called Red takes on the U.S. baseball team the Atlanta Braves by remixing the baseball organization’s Tomahawk Chop anthem, itself adopted from Florida State University.
ATCR’s version transforms the innocuous-sounding chant by showcasing its core as a Hollywood-esque stereotype of Native American song. By re-contextualizing the anthem, “Braves” prompts listeners to reinterpret this facet of American sports culture as a racist pageantry of “savage violence.”
The association of the “war chant,” the motion of the Tomahawk Chop, and the fact that these actions call for one team to attack all make it clear that American sports culture appropriates Native Culture as an example of “savagery” and “uncivilized” behavior. The Tomahawk Chop also forgoes the use of a language-based text entirely and instead chooses to use vocables that cannot be attributed to any particular Native nation, ceremony, or meaning. Like Hollywood’s use of backwards English and the war drumbeat to represent “Indians,” the Tomahawk Chop bears no resemblance to any real Native Nation’s music, acting as yet another imagined primitive stereotype that marginalizes actual Native American music.
On A Tribe Called Red’s SoundCloud page, “Braves”’s description reads, “We wanted to make a song for all the racist and culturally inappropriate sports teams that are still used today!” The group accomplishes this by creating dissonance between contemporary electronic drumbeats and the “traditional” paramilitary marching band arrangement of the “Tomahawk Chop.” “Braves” utilizes a standard dubstep song structure in 4/4 at 140 beats per minute that includes an intro, two main sections that include melodic materials, a breakdown/buildup section, a vocal “drop” which announces and is followed by the climax of the piece, and an outro that brings the track to a close. However, “Braves” does differ from other dubstep songs in the marked separation and interaction between the Tomahawk Chop samples performed by voices and marching band and the composed elements of the song performed as the Wub—a deep, wobbly synthesized sound—and accompanied by a HiHat cymbal pecking away at syncopated rhythms. Even though all the melodic content of “Braves” is based on variations of the Tomahawk Chop melody, ATCR never fully integrates actual samples of the Tomahawk Chop into the composition. The marching band and chant samples are treated as an unwanted and unexpected visitor to a party; they seem important at the entrance, but they are given an increasingly diminished role until they finally exit with a whimper.
Written as a protest against racist sports organizations to help convince them to stop using characterized ceremonies and mascots, “Braves” contains that struggle within the composition itself: dubstep, sounded as the Wub and HiHat, eventually renders the Tomahawk Chop sonically impotent. The “Tribe” drop, when ATCR marks the song by saying “tribe,” acts as the turning point in “Braves.” After this point the Wub and HiHat consistently overwhelm the sampled material. In a standard dubstep song, the tribe drop would be followed by the climax: the strongest, most complex musical section of the piece. However, the Tomahawk Chop sample that follows this drop is immediately swallowed up by a low-pass filter that rubs out the tune, starting with the highest pitched sounds, over the course of sixteen measures, heightening the lower end of the sonic spectrum. Only then does the true climax occur. The Wub and HiHat appear here for the first time without the sample band or vocalizations. After the “Tribe” drop, the samples of the Tomahawk Chop are either dominated by the Wub or swallowed up by low-pass filters and fades.
In this way, “Braves” acts as a three-minute sonic story of reappropriation. The marching band arrangement and vocables represent the common stereotypes of Native American music perpetuated by Western Culture. The Wub and HiHat act as disapproving commentary on these stereotypes. “Tribe,” the only word used in the entire song, not only sounds ATCR as a group, but also marks the point in the song when ATCR begins to create their own image of Native music while simultaneously disempowering the strength of the marching band.
Just like the rebel American marching band’s reappropriation of the song Yankee Doodle in the Revolutionary War, A Tribe Called Red employs irony: in order to get the song the audience has to understand the racism, and while that sort of understanding seems to represent a steep learning curve for a culture so saturated in racist stereotypes, it is also exactly the sort of understanding a multicultural nation needs in order to thrive. Like Afrobeat, Reggaeton, and the more recent alternative hip-hop group Das Racist, ATCR is an underground voice within American popular culture that speaks with reverence for its own traditions while challenging the popular perception of race relations and breaking new ground in contemporary art. “Braves” proves that the reappropriation of sonic space is a powerful tool in the fight for cultural agency.
Featured image: “ATCR 4” by Flickr user MadameChoCho, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Christina Giacona is the Director of the Los Angeles New Music Ensemble and Instructor of Music at the University of Oklahoma. Dedicated to performing and researching the music of her generation, Christina teaches courses in Native American, World, and Popular Music. Since founding the Los Angeles New Music Ensemble in 2007, Christina has commissioned and premiered over twenty new works for the ensemble; run an international composers competition, recorded three albums, and collaborated with DJs, MCs, animators, choreographers, projectionists, and film producers.
REWIND!…If you liked this post, you may also dig:
“Remixing Girl Talk: The Poetics and Aesthetics of Mashups”-Aram Sinnreich