Happy 6th Blog-o-Versary Team SO!
This year was tough, y’all. We know it. You know it. 2014-2015 was a year of rolling up sleeves, raging against the machine, typing furiously into the night, blocking the trolls, crying tears of frustration and anger, organizing heated meetings, fitting shoulders uncomfortably to various wheels while questioning exactly why and for whom, hugging our folks closer while unfriending Facebook “friends” like mofos, facing the millionth revision—or worse, the next police shooting, and the next and the next.
All of us have reeled at one time or another at what sometimes seemed like a Niagara Falls of quicksand: mounting challenges, unexpected setbacks, pay and budget cuts (if you had a budget to begin with), hashtag memorials, calculated attacks, haters far more malevolent than your basic Taylor Swift variety, general piling on, restrictive and invasive university policies, less jobs/more adjuncts, and racist, sexist, and classist aggressions, macro, micro and everywhere in between.
But to quote one of my favorite poems from Langston Hughes, especially in these times, we are STILL HERE. And that really is everything. We can move mountains with that. We can. And, to cite the ethos of the Sounding Out! Editorial Collective: We remain committed, undaunted,
AND. WE. CLAP. BACK.
Here, for example, is SO! regular writer, Cornell Science and Technology Studies PhD Candidate, and producer Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo performing as her (m)other brain rapper SAMMUS at Ithaca Fest in May 2015, where she debuted her powerful new song protesting state violence against black people, “Three Fifths,” produced by DNilz for the upcoming independent film “Rodney.”
Sammus closed her performance with a stirring sonic memorial to the unarmed black men and women who have been murdered by police in the U.S. over the last 20 years, as well as a call to action for white listeners to acknowledge their complicity in the “law and order” state and the agency they have to end the deadly terror of white supremacist policing.
Sammus’s music and lyrics have long inspired the SO! crew to keep on pushing–you’ll hear another of her songs on our mix–but especially this year. We talked a lot about how and why SO! continues to matter, specifically how can the collective labor here that seeks to understand sound as a medium of power be useful in struggles to make #blacklivesmatter once and for all, for example, or to end violence against transpeople? To dismantle debilitating gender stereotypes about women? To stop the marginalization and exploitation of immigrants and undocumented workers in the U.S.? And how to push the boundaries of US-centric sound work with local and/or comparative research from other countries–and vice versa? This year, we redoubled our collective efforts to produce top notch applied scholarship that intervenes in the challenges of our contemporary moment, not just the field of sound studies.
Not that we don’t plan to keep on pushing interventions there as well. Team SO! spent a lot of time earlier this year reflecting, in real time, on our origin story for an article we co-authored for the new Digital Sound Studies anthology edited by the Soundbox Crew (forthcoming on Duke University Press, digital entries already live here). We were grateful for the opportunity to articulate the politics of our founding and why SO! remains so vitally important to us (and we hope to you). Here’s an exclusive sneak peek of our upcoming chapter “The Pleasure (is) Principle: Sounding Out! and the Digitizing of Community”:
When we met in a humid apartment in upstate New York to plot a sound studies blog back in 2009, one of our key goals was to provide indelible visibility to the top-notch contributions we knew were being made to sound studies by scholars of color, graduate students, junior scholars and other groups marginalized in/by academia, so that their role in building this growing field could not be erased, ignored, silenced, hijacked, buried, or claimed by others better positioned by social and institutional privilege and its attendant cultural capital to gain conference spots and find publishers for their work. There is solidarity in the affects produced by giving voice, making visible, and, above all else: listening. Because connections undeniably matter, we decided to build our own, and to do so in a way that celebrated the people and the scholarship perpetually at the fringes of most fields, but especially those involving technology and music.
Through the experience of collaboratively reviewing our history and together calling a new creation into being once again, we realized—on an entirely new frequency—how Sounding Out! and the community it kindles consistently sustains the three of us through stormy times: personally, professionally, and politically. I am not sure if it clicked in while scowling through the umpteenth revision or LMAO-ing through yet another Hangout, but we all came around to the truth that the right kind of work, performed with your ride-or-die people, can energize rather than enervate, center rather than scatter, and make you want to keep on pushing, especially when being pushed. For us, it never has been just about sound.
So this year, for our 6th Blog-o-Versary, our theme, “Keep on Pushing,” honors the fact that sound can be both a balm and a motivator for years like this one and for times when the news is ENOUGH but we need to keep going. We also want to express our respect and gratitude for all the heavy lifting, daily grinds, and labors of love, pleasure, and sometimes frustration—both Tweeted and unsung—of ourselves and our ever-growing community of readers, writers, Twitter Followers, Facebook friends, Link sharers, survey respondents, sticker distributors, folks who archive us, writers who cite us, teachers who assign us, and peeps who talk us up and give word of mouth. We are all putting in work in a thousand and one ways, big and small, to make this community bigger, badder, and deffer each and every year. And *that’s why we are still here.
Thank you and here’s to lucky number seven in 2016!
Liana’s back!!: We had a bit of a personnel shuffle last summer, but in the end the stars aligned and we got Liana back. She edited this year’s February forum on gender and voice (which you can check out here) and selected the tracks for this year’s mixtape for the second year in a row. Outside of Sounding Out! she’s been publishing more, getting her break in the Houston Chronicle online column Gray Matters, developing a column for Chronicle Vitae, and working on a book proposal due later this year. You can keep up with her writerly adventures on Twitter: @lianamsilva
INDEXING: We told you this year was all about the grind. We are working hard over here to make SO! more searchable. With 400 posts and counting over 6 years, we recognize that finding what you need grows more challenging every Monday. This spring, we debuted an alphabetical index of all of the themed series and forums and soon we will have completed full indexes by author soon and title soon, as well as some themed lists for teaching and general inquiry.
MLA INDEX IS UP AND RUNNING!: For folks privileged to have access to the Modern Language Association’s digital bibliography—perform a search for Sounding Out! and you will find links to all of our posts categorized as “articles.” The index is also searchable by author. Now we are officially, as Hammer would say, 2 legit 2 quit.
WE KEEP ON PUSHING THE ENVELOPE: Now that sound studies is increasingly becoming canonized and institutionalized, we feel it is increasingly important to continue looking for new avenues of interest and inquiry and to experiment with the form of the blog and podcast. This year we debuted a series of online sonic installations by artists and thinkers such as Salomé Voegelin (“Sound Art as Public Art”), the Berlin arts collective La Mission who performed a full series of sound and video installations in honor of José Esteban Muñoz for our Round Circle of Resonance series, and sound artists Sonia Li, Mendi + Keith Obadike and Anne Zeitz and David Boureau. We also began a new running series called “SO! Amplifies,” which allows us the opportunity to scout out innovative organizations, artists, installations, exhibits, community engagement projects, radio programs, etc. and bring them to your attention.
THURSDAYS STILL ON POINT! Special Editor Neil Verma has continued to rule the Thursday airwaves with his specially curated series of guest editors emphasizing sound and media. For a rundown of 2014’s programming see his excellent year in re-hear post from November 2014. Right now we are in the midst of the “Sonic Shadows” series with more excitement to come! And of course, Multimedia editor Aaron Trammell continues to curate an exciting and innovative open format podcast series on the last Thursday of every month. This year’s Blog-O-Versary mix is our 45th podcast!
RELAX! DON’T DO IT!: This year SO! started doing its part to promote healthier work habits by taking a week off here or there. We hope that, rather than disappointing our avid Monday morning readership, we have encouraged our community to stop and gather strength too (or at least to explore our extensive back catalog. 400 posts!). SO! is a marathon rather than a sprint and we are just getting started.
SPEAKING OF. . .
WE’RE ALWAYS LOOKING FOR NEW FOLKS FOR TEAM SO! Don’t forget we have our latest Call For Posts on “Sound and Affect” up and running with a deadline of August 15th. Please submit a pitch and/or spread the word!!
Highlight Reel: See what’s new with SO! authors and community members this year! Congratulations everyone (and don’t forget to keep those cards and letters coming!).
- Regina Bradley was selected as a 2016 Nasir Jones HipHop Fellow, Harvard University. She is also and incoming Assistant Professor of African American Literature at Armstrong State University in Georgia.
- Steph Ceraso finished her first year as an Assistant Professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Her audio-visual project, “A Tale of Two Soundscapes: The Story of My Listening Body,” appeared in the open access collection Provoke! Digital Sound Studies and her article, “(Re)Educating the Senses: Multimodal Listening, Bodily Learning, and the Composition of Sonic Experiences,” was featured in College English. She gave talks at Duke University, The University of Virginia, UCLA’s “Inertia: Sound, Media, and the Digital Humanities” Conference, the Conference on College Composition and Communication, and MITH (Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities). Ceraso was also interviewed by The Guardian about teaching the podcast Serial. You can find more about her work and current book project at www.stephceraso.com.
- Stuart Fowkes’ Cities and Memory hit the 700 mark in terms of numbers of sounds, with more than 150 contributors and now over 200,000 listens. They’ve run open call sound project every few months, which have included: Oblique Strategies: more than 50 artists reimagining field recordings using Eno and Schmidt’s oblique strategy cards for inspiration; Quiet Street: a sound map of the city of Bath that was installed as part of the Fringe Arts Bath festival; Sound Waves: for World Listening Day 2015, a sound map and edited piece looking at the role water plays in our lives; and Dreamland: a commission by the Dreamland amusement park in Margate, UK, to reimagine the sounds of a theme park.
- Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo passed her Ph.D qualifying exams and has just returned from a research trip to Congo. She also has recently had the opportunity to put together some music and a sound installation for a stage play that will premiere at the National Black Theatre Festival in Winston Salem in early August 2015. The organizers have put together a fundraising campaign via Indie Gogo; they’re trying to raise $15,000, right now they’re just shy of $10,000–please join SO! in supporting her work here. As Sammus, she went on her first tour with rapper Mega Ran which included a performance at the SXSW festival in Austin, TX. You can follow her on Twitter (@sammusmusic) or listen to her music, including her latest releases at http://sammusmusic.bandcamp.com/.
- Kristin Moriah’s article on Uncle Tom’s Cabin/Onkel Tom’s Hütte was recently published in Lateral, the Cultural Studies Association’s online journal. She will be presenting a paper entitled “Singing Books: The Curation of Sound in Sissieretta Jones’s Scrapbook” at the 2015 American Studies Association convention in Toronto.
- Visual Editor Will Stabile is still out there every day, making it happen. He asked that we not worry about him. We still check in on him regularly though.
- Justyna Stasiowska put together for the international conference “Post-technological experience. Art-Science-Culture” (Poznań 23-27 October 2014) the presentation “Soft machine – somaintrument,” on modes of programming perception in Maryanne Amacher’s instalations. She also presented “Ephemeral performance or how does sound smell,” focused on programing a synaesthetic expierience in Ephemera and creating a new academic format during “Fluid Sounds” (lectures, perfomances, performances and audio papers in Amager 18-21 June 2015). Lastly, she created a sound mix for a drag queen-inspired performance called Valentine Tanz, which focused on being a performance artist. The episode (the project is a series of performances), that she worked on juxtaposed the ballroom queer scene aesthetic with Marina Abramovic’s work on trying to deconstruct persona of a performer.
- Kyle D. Stedman is co-editing a digital collection on sound and writing pedagogy. If you’re interested on submitting an idea for how you use sound in the classroom, read the CFP or listen to the audio version at the Soundwriting Pedagogies project page. He also podcasts every month or so at Plugs, Play, Pedagogy, a show about teaching writing and rhetoric in the 21st century, which led to a workshop and presentation on academic podcasting at the 2015 Computers and Writing conference.
- Jennifer Stoever published three articles this year, “Fine-tuning the Sonic Color-line: Radio and the Acousmatic Du Bois” in Modernist Cultures, “‘Just Be Quiet Pu-leeze’: New York’s Black Press Fights the Postwar ‘Campaign Against Noise,’” in Radical History Review, and “Toward a Civically Engaged Sound Studies, or (Re) Sounding Binghamton,” in the Proceedings of Invisible Places / Sounding Cities. Sound Urbanism and Sense of Place (you can download the full volume here). She was also named an Engaged Teaching Fellow by the Binghamton Center for Civic Engagement and enjoyed the hell out of herself co-teaching a radio arts course with filmmaker and Sound Artist Monteith McCollum. They produced an accompanying live radio show (listen here!).
- Aaron Trammell will defend his dissertation in September 2015 and will begin a two year postdoctoral fellowship at the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Southern California.
Neil Verma has had a busy year: the WOTW article ran in Velvet Light Trap, published a chapter on noir in Kiss the Blood of My Hands, wrote an article on Wyllis Cooper in the Journal of Sonic Studies, did a review about Sean Borodale’s “Mighty Beast” in RadioDoc Review, wrote an article on Game of Thrones in Critical Quarterly, did a short piece on listening in Lang’s Hangmen Also Die in Cine-Files, then this post on using podcasting to study podcasting in Antenna. He also co-programmed the conference Sonic Boom: Sustaining Sound Studies here at Northwestern, and did Network Director stuff for the Library of Congress RPTF.
- Alyxandra Vesey published three articles: “Mixing in Feminism.” Popular Music and Society (39) 4: 1-20; “Putting Her on the Shelf: Pop Star Fragrances and Post-feminist Entrepreneurialism.” Feminist Media Studies 15 (6): 1-17; and “Working for @LateNightJimmy.” Spectator: Performing Labor in the Media Industries 35 (2): 47-56. Also, as the graduate representative for the Women’s Caucus, she helped put on SCMS’s “Participatory Pedagogy” networking event and workshop at last spring’s conference in Montreal.
The theme for this year’s Blog-o-Versary post and mix was of course inspired by Curtis Mayfield and his early group The Impressions. Thank you for this sonic uplift!
Jennifer Stoever is co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of Sounding Out! She is also Associate Professor of English at Binghamton University.
Click here for Sounding Out!‘s Blog-O-Versary “Keep on Pushing” mix 6.0 with track listing
REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:
- 2014 #flawless 5.0 celebration and mix
- 2013 Blog-o-Versary 4.0: Solid Gold Summer Countdown!
- 2012 #Blog-O-Versary 3.0: Can’t Stop Won’t Stop (The Awesomeness)!
- 2011 “Awesome Sounds from a Future Boombox” 2.0
- 2010 First Blog-O-Versary party mix: A Celebration of Awesomeness
World Listening Day 2015: Mendi + Keith Obadike’s “Blues Speaker [for James Baldwin]” (2015) #WLD2015
For World Listening Day 2015, Sounding Out! is honored to debut Mendi + Keith Obadike’s new documentary video about their recent large-scale urban installation at The New School’s University Center in New York City, “Blues Speaker [for James Baldwin]” (April 2015), dedicated to writer and public intellectual James Baldwin (1924-1987). –JS
As Mendi + Keith describe, “For Baldwin sound, music, and the blues in particular were sources of inspiration. The multichannel sound art work meditates on a politics of listening found at the intersection of Baldwinʼs language and the sound worlds invoked in his work. It uses the glass façade of The New School’s University Center as delivery system for the sound, turning the building itself into a speaker. The 12-hour piece is created using slow moving harmonies, melodicized language from Baldwinʼs writings, ambient recordings from the streets of Harlem, and an inventory of sounds contained in Baldwin’s story ‘Sonnyʼs Blues.'”
“‘Blues Speaker’ celebrates James Baldwin’s keen understanding of the social role of the blues. In his important 1957 short story ‘Sonny’s Blues,’ the writer argued that attending to the blues required the listener to confront and accept both literal noise (sounds beyond the listener’s understanding) and ideological noise (elements of the lives of those whose journeys have taken radically different paths), and seek beauty and understanding. If this relationship to listening is specific to the blues — a form that takes its shape in response to the survival of black people in general and to the decisions of its craftspeople — then musicians who seriously engage the blues must hold a knowledge deeply important for humanity that lives in the music and extends beyond that medium.”–Artists’ Statement, Vera List Center for Art and Politics, The Year of James Baldwin Exhibition.
Mendi + Keith Obadike make music, art and literature. Their works include The Sour Thunder, an Internet opera (Bridge Records), Crosstalk: American Speech Music (Bridge Records), Black.Net.Art Actions, a suite of new media artworks (published in re:skin on M.I.T Press), Big House / Disclosure, a 200 hour public sound installation (Northwestern University), Phonotype, a book & CD of media artworks, and a poetry collection, Armor and Flesh (Lotus Press). They have contributed sounds/music to projects by wide range of artists including loops for soul singer D’Angelo’s first album and a score for playwright Anna Deavere Smith at the Lincoln Center Institute. You can find out more about them at http://obadike.com.
Caterpillars and Concrete Roses in a Mad City: Kendrick Lamar’s “Mortal Man” Interview with Tupac Shakur
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
REWIND!…If you liked this post, you may also dig:
I Been On: BaddieBey and Beyoncé’s Sonic Masculinity — Regina Bradley
Como Now? Marketing “Authentic” Black Music— Jennifer Stoever
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.
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.
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.
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.
The 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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