Welcome to week four of our February Forum on “Sonic Borders,” a collaboration with the IASPM-US blog in connection with this year’s IASPM-US conference on Liminality and Borderlands, held in Austin, Texas from February 28 to March 3, 2013. The “Sonic Borders” forum is a Virtual Roundtable cross-blog entity that will feature six Sounding Out! writers posting on Mondays through February 25, and four writers from IASPM-US, posting on Wednesdays starting February 6th and ending February 27th. For an encore of weeks one through three of the forum, click here. And now, Tavia Nyong’o reviews Courtesy the Artist’s The Meeting, courtesy of Sounding Out! –JSA
Last October 2012, in tandem with the New York launch of the retrospective art show Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960-1980, curated by Kellie Jones and running through March 11, 2013, MoMA PS 1 invited the sounds and images of Black Power into their courtyard Performance Dome for a Sunday afternoon collaborative arts project called The Meeting curated by Courtesy the Artists. Courtesy the Artists is the collaboration of Malik Gaines and Alexandro Segade: two-thirds of the core members of the L.A.-based performance art collective My Barbarian (the third is Jade Gordon). For The Meeting, recently transplanted New Yorkers Gaines and Seagade opted to curate a gathering of local artists, dancers and musicians they wanted to get to know better, such as LaTasha Diggs, niv Acosta, and Samita Sinha.
Curation as collaboration was the ethos behind The Meeting in PS1; Gaines and Segade were much more than masters of ceremony, but performed alongside the artists and musicians they invited. At times The Meeting felt more like a jam session than anything else, following the improvisatory and ensemblic ethos of experimental jazz. Performance piece as musician’s jam was indeed a fitting form, given that the afternoon was built around Seize the Time, a 1969 album of agit-prop cabaret recorded by activist, musician, and erstwhile Black Panther leader, Elaine Brown.
Each participant in The Meeting was invited to respond, in their chosen art form to a song from Brown’s album or another aspect of her legacy that moved them. And move them it did. If music held the event together — from Charles Gaines on the piano and drums to Matana Roberts on a haunting saxophone solo to Geo Wyeth closing down the evening with an astonishing version of “Seize the Time” intermixed with “Age of Aquarius” from the musical Hair — poetry, polemic, video, and dance sent it spinning off into a dozen scintillating tangents.
What those intersecting and diverging responses to Brown’s album shared was a concern with how the past resonates in the present, how a historical call might not always be muted over time, but sometimes amplified by its repetition across time. Given the predominance of the visual in contemporary culture — nowhere more glaring, perhaps, than in institutions devoted to visual art — what do we make of the role of the aural as a medium through which to register the reverberations of a past? The Meeting was held in a temporary structure, literally vestibular to the permanent edifice of the museum. Is the ear a similar vestibule to the institutions of culture, and, if it is, then wherein might the power of that vestibular flesh, as Hortense Spillers once named it, lie?
On Seize the Time, the mercurial Brown transposed the black revolutionary urgency of the 1960s into a musical idiom that sounded remarkable even in its day. It is slightly bemusing to settle into the jazzy opening of the title track “Seize the Time” with the knowledge that Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On and Curtis Mayfield’s Super Fly were just around the corner. Certainly, despite their shared sonic defiance of American racism, Brown’s didactic sprechegesang would never be mistaken for Nina Simone’s soulful alto. Closer to the sonic mark would be singer-songwriters like Carole King, Janis Ian and Joni Mitchell, artists who broke the mold for women in pop in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Consider the rhetorical and musical twists and turns of the first verse of “The End of Silence,” a song that manages equal parts women’s liberation and black nationalism without ever teetering into blaxploitation supervixen territory:
Have you ever stood
In the darkness of night
Screaming silently you’re a man?
Have you ever hoped
That the time would come
When your voice could be heard
In the noonday sun?
Have you waited so long
Till your unheard song
Has stripped away your very soul?
Then believe it my friend
That the silence can end
We’ll just have to get guns and be men.
If The Meeting was a response to the call of that final line, it was one in which the shift from a single voice with backing band to a range of voices and positions was always audible. Some might call this postmodern fragmentation: dance choreographed to a repeating sample of Brown singing “freedom back,” a version of the album edited down to just the sequential instances of her singing the word “man,” played to projected images of every gun in the Panther arsenal she lists in her book. But these interventions arguably only expand our audition of the original album’s possibilities. More than 30 years on, The Meeting took advantage of Seize The Time’s musico-political incongruity to prise open new lines of affiliation between the past and our revanchist present. The question continuously hung in the air: How do we occupy our radical black and feminist legacies, especially given the fact that we cannot simply repeat those struggles in identical terms? How do we get freedom back?
The declamatory cadences of black rhetoric were as central to the way The Meeting sounded as was its music. LaTasha Diggs’s barnburning performances stopped the show to inform us that revolutionary pussy was out of stock. With Charles Gaines on drums and Matana Roberts on sax, Malik Gaines scatted excerpts from President Obama’s “race speech” while excerpts from speeches Elaine Brown had given to the Panthers were read. Since the context of Obama’s speech had been his own attempt to surrogate the justified anger of the Black Power generation with a message of reconciliation, re-mixing it in this context meant it no longer had the privilege of temporal succession over Brown, but black feminist rhetoric and the improvisatory sax could invaginate his rhetoric with an eternal recurrence of radical insurgence.
It is important to note the predominantly queer and trans performance modalities through which the Meeting posed–if not fully answered–its questions regarding freedom in a contemporary context. Brown’s refrain “we’ll just have to get guns and be men” took on a new connotation when juxtaposed against the queer and trans bodies and voices in performance.
Here history revealed itself as palimpsest: images and icons were superimposed one upon the other to create dense, freighted symbols of masculinity and femininity. In a refrain originally meant to rally radical black women towards the community leadership roles tendentiously claimed by men, the gun was much more than a ‘phallic symbol.’ As Kara Keeling recounts in The Witch’s Flight (an important book containing a shrewd analysis of Seize the Time):
The appearance of the [Black Panther Party] allowed for the recognition of the black man in the Black. But this need not be understood as precluding black “females” from appearing in blacks with guns, nor does it necessarily indicate an inherent connection between “men” and “males.” What is perhaps most innovative about the BPP’s cinematic appearance is that it threw into doubt the validity of the common sense that linked “man” with “male” with “masculine” (85).
For Keeling, the innovative disruption of white supremacist racist sense — congealed in stereotypical images of black men and black women — set the stage, formed the backing track, for the historical emergence of queer and transmasculinities.
Transgender dancer and choreographer niv Acosta rhythmically ran his body against the cushioned seating of the performance dome, to the rhythmic sampling of “freedom back.” The phrase was curiously ambiguous: what actual historical freedom could Brown have possibly exhorted the panthers to claim? What imagined freedom do we think we can reclaim via our remixing of Black Power? The power of Acosta’s performance was to embody that question as a lived and livable improvisation.
The degree to which a musical legacy such as Brown’s can or should be appropriated beyond a black context was also pointedly staged that afternoon, perhaps most self-consciously by Alex Segade’s rendition of “The Meeting” — which Brown once called the Party’s anthem — in Spanish. Segade’s version captured the melodrama and romantic longing, staging the historical interconnections between black and brown power in California as a hall of mirrors and fleeting glances.
Geo Wyeth brought the house down with a funky final number that had the audience on the edge of their seats, perhaps awaiting the promised nudity a sign at the entrance warned the performance would contain. Wyeth’s onstage costume changes were anything but a striptease, however, as he instead fused the militancy of Seize the Time with the sexual revolution of Hair in an incompossible auditory portrait of the legacy of “the Sixties.” His performance left the audience with the emphatic reminder that it is less his generation’s challenge to prove adequate to the past than it is to retrieve from history’s shroud the pulsating star of their own desires.
[The Meeting included Simone Leigh, Samita Sinha, Matana Roberts, Charles Gaines, Malik Gaines, Adam Pendleton, niv Acosta, LaTasha Diggs, Xaviera Simmons, Jarrod Kentrell, Alex Segade, and Geo Wyeth].
Tavia Nyong’o is Associate Professor of Performance Studies at New York University, where he writes, researches and teaches critical black studies, queer studies, cultural theory, and cultural history. His first book, The Amalgamation Waltz: Race, Performance, and the Ruses of Memory (Minnesota, 2009), won the Errol Hill Award for best book in African American theatre and performance studies. Nyong’o has published articles on punk, disco, viral media, the African diaspora, film, and performance art in venues such as Radical History Review, Criticism, TDR: The Journal of Performance Studies, Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory, Women Studies Quarterly, The Nation, and n+1. He is co-editor of the journal Social Text.
I never meant to write about radio. Film, video, music, the Internet, television even– but radio had not made a dent in my scholarship or teaching, for embarrassing reasons: it seemed nostalgic even to think about it. It was a residual technology, obsolete even at mid-century, I thought.
And then I stumbled onto the transcripts of “Africa Abroad,” part of The Transcription Centre archives at The Harry Ransom Center.
I was doing research on African American playwright Adrienne Kennedy when two of the fantastic staff at the HRC (Molly Schwartzburg, now Curator at the UVA Special Collections Library, and archivist Gabby Redwine) shared their working African Collections finding aid with me. The description of The Transcription Centre caught my eye, as a radio and public media presence across Africa and the metropolitan diaspora at mid-20th century, whose work included the short variety radio program Africa Abroad (1962-1965) as well as Arts festivals and other cultural events based in London and headed by a former BBC employee. Africa Abroad, a variety show dedicated to the music, art, theatre, literature, and politics of Africa and the African diaspora, offers a compelling glimpse at Independence-Era Africa and some of the technologies that made it, briefly, the center of contemporary diaspora politics.
The transcripts of Africa Abroad document the progressive hope that theorists like Franz Fanon had for the revolutionary potential of radio in the hands of the (semi)proletariat with cheap access to both production and distribution networks. The background materials on the Centre document its inception as the brainchild of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, a CIA-funded effort to fund anti-communist, pro-democracy sentiment on the continent (a continent who was also being wooed by Russia and China at the time). Africa Abroad then stands as an attempt to rethink the relationship between politics and culture in a difficult, compromised time, self-consciously negotiating the media and mediated trade on Africa as a place and Africa as an international symbol. The radio program takes this moment of African celebrity and finds in it not teleology but proliferation, and a self-aware critique of ‘Africa’ and its public image as it is employed by the diaspora.
By the second installment of Africa Abroad on the 26th of April, 1962, what becomes the standard format of the programming emerges, one that begins to place culture as the center of diaspora identity—and politics. There is usually a musical lead—by the 4th installment to become the same “signature tune,” “African Waltz” by Canonball Adderley)—after an announcement of the location (London) and organization of the broadcast. The music and the site identification augurs the emphasis on the multiple and conflicting sites of the black diaspora that are performed within each episode and across the radio series as it continues, starting with an invocation of “Mother Africa”; in this particular episode, James Baldwin calls for the revision of the “American Negro” breaking free of representational binds via “the rise of Africa in world affairs,” then moving to a commentary on a Max Roach jazz piece by Nigerian Aminu Abdullahi that emphasizes the role of pan-African politics in Jazz music, then to a review of Ezekiel (later Es’Kia) Mphahlele’s book The African Image from a Nigerian literature Ph.D. in London, finally leading to a brief interview with Robert Resha, “one of the leaders for the ANC [African National Congress] which has been banned in South Africa, on the eve of his leaving London for a tour of African countries.” This eclectic mix becomes Africa Abroad’s signature format, and its particular concerns—that of the keen recognition that the world’s eyes are on Africa anew during this period of independence, and that Africa is starting to work as a symbolic geography of hope for African America as well as Caribbean emigres to Britain—are also those that inform the rest of its run.
While the range of listeners for Africa Abroad is still hazy—transcripts and recordings were made available across the continent, but there is no record of where they landed or when or if they aired—the way that even its material presence in London acted as a hub for political, literary, and cultural figures from Africa and the diaspora winds up as another meaningful site of contradiction. The programs’ circulation of major literary and cultural figures began to construct and map the canon of African authors we recognize today as the “fathers” of the African renaissance. That gendering is specific as it reflects the kind of access to travel, education, promotion, and connection that was required to be a recurring part of Africa Abroad’s brief run—with a limited number of women being sent to London for education in the time period, and even fewer representing those in privileged political exile. Though what amounts to a handful of women are interviewed on the program, rarely are women writers and thinkers featured beyond actresses. Such representation helped to solidfy a generation of African writers and politics that were defined by the questions of an elite, masculine imagination around what the continent, and art from the continent, should or could be—and this vision of diaspora art and politics circulated via the radio.
In other words, Africa Abroad was produced through and as a representation of the new celebrity of the continent, with the radio program serving as the ideal format to showcase and interrogate the global phenomenon of African Independence and as a harbinger of the postcolonial struggle for its resources that would ensue. As independence struggles adopt and adapt new technologies into forms of “combat,” to use Fanon’s terms from “This is the Voice of Algeria,” radio moves from strictly a medium of the colonizer to a tool, “a system of information, . . . a bearer of language, hence of message” (73). But it is also already “obsolete” by 1962 as a residual cultural form in the Western metropole, taken over in the mainstream by television. Hence, like the flexible political strategies of the Cold War that relied on more than just force, radio at this moment becomes both a tool of cultural revolution (and new-found global relevance) and one of stealth colonial influence. As a program rooted in the West but disseminated across and produced by African continental interests, “Africa Abroad” maintains the complex, contradictory desire of communication post World War II that media communications could both connect us all in a progressive intimacy or hail us into, effectively, sheep. Africa Abroad sounds out this tension in form and in content, through the radio.
As the range of scholars I’ve thankfully met post my encounter with radio attest to, this significant, one might say descendent, moment in radio history is constantly weighted by race, gender, and empire. Ivy Wilson is working on sound and the Transcription Centre on the actual recordings of Africa Abroad. Judy Coffin is mapping the complex work that radio did in the careers of Fanon, Simone de Beauvoir, and other intellectuals of the mid-century. Emily Bloom is tracing BBC radio alongside modernism’s literary pathways. This interdisciplinary community of scholars I’ve discovered alongside of radio signifies the important work being done to think through the possibilities for this medium after its dominant rise and into its political and cultural repurposing in the age of the Cold War—outside of the mainstream center at the same time that it serves to support and traverse new geographic and cultural fronts.
Featured Image: original from a BBC collection of images from the Ivory Coast, 1960s
Samantha Pinto is an Assistant Professor of English at Georgetown University. She is the author of Difficult Diasporas: The Transnational Feminist Aesthetic of the Black Atlantic (forthcoming from NYU Press) and is working on a new project on early black celebrity and human rights discourse. This research on radio is part of an in-process series of articles on institutional failure in the African Diaspora, Women’s Studies, and other critical sites of progressive political desire.