But to love this turf is love hard and unrequited.
To love L.A. is to love more than a city
It’s to love a language.
–“L.A. Love Cry” (1996) by Wanda Coleman
Los Angeles, an enigmatic metropolis to many who arrive here with a dream in hand and hope for a better tomorrow, still challenges historians, artists, and troubadours on how to best represent it. Poet Wanda Coleman, born in Watts, captures the pain and wonder of loving this city in “L.A. Love Cry.” Because the city is “hard and unrequited” one must also be willing to love its nuances and see it as“more than a city.” To love this city, “it’s to love a language,” a cultural immersion that goes beyond the seeming ease of words into the complexities of sound and rhythm.
Through a Museum Studies course I teach at Claremont Graduate University entitled Welcome to L.A., I introduce students to varied texts in which scholars and artists challenge the imaginaries created by outsiders, boosters, and apocalyptic cinema. Instead, the course readings present how we in L.A. actively engage with one another by fostering communities of creative praxis. For the students’ final project, they curate and develop educational programming for an exhibition at a local museum or art center. On May 3, 2012, this semester’s project, re : present L.A., opens at the newly-renovated Vincent Price Art Museum (VPAM) located on the East Los Angeles College Campus. Showing works from over thirty artists from May 3-July 27, re : present L.A serves as an extension of the conversations we had in class, not only celebrating the interconnectedness of our communities but encouraging new associations and encounters within the visual and resonant space of VPAM’s Community Focus Gallery. For a look at the Virtual Exhibit Catalogue, click here.
In each exhibition for Welcome to L.A., I try to include something that challenges myself to think outside the white-box, per se, of the gallery. Given that we had read several texts that highlighted in the importance of music to build and uplift communities of color in Los Angeles, it was both important and necessary for me to include sonic elements in re: present LA that exhibits L.A.s vibrant musical legacy as intermingled with and fundamental to its visual culture. Among the challenges to document the cross-cultural connections between ethnic communities in Los Angeles is how to unpack what Anthony Macias calls “the cultural networks” that facilitated these exchanges through the music scenes at music halls, clubs, youth centers and record stores in Mexican American Mojo (10-11). Studies done by George Lipsitz, Macias, and Victor Viesca, provide readers a means to understand how the music in Los Angeles is much more than entertainment; it is political; it is a lifestyle; it defines spaces of multicultural interactions. In How Racism Takes Place, Lipsitz points out how integral the reclamation of space defined the political outlook and music in Horace Tapscott’s Arkestra based in South L.A. Viesca’s research documents the rise of an East L.A. rock sound, post-Los Lobos, that was defined by the activism of the Zapatista Movement and California’s Prop 187 through the work done at the Peace & Justice Center, Self-Help Graphics, and Regeneración.
Therefore, in order to engage both the history and the sound of Los Angeles’s musics with the city’s visual representations, I invited Rubén Funkhuatl Guevara from Ruben & The Jets, is a multi-threat musician, performer, writer, and producer, and Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman (of Binghamton University, Sounding Out!, and of course, Riverside, CA) to curate playlists for a “sound booth,” which will consist of a stationary iPod™ Nano that gallery visitors can use at their leisure. The classic circular wheel allows the viewer to advance tracks or play the playlists on shuffle. Headphones will be set up so that the viewer can either focus on their listening experience or, listen while viewing the artwork around them. Since the gallery is relatively small, the pieces on the opposite wall are recognizable though are distant. In addition, Maya Santos of Form Follows Function will screen their short documentary on Radiotron, a youth center that presented Hip-Hop shows during the 1980s.
Guevara’s playlist Los Angeles Chicano Rock & Roll is included in the exhibition thanks to the Museum of Latin American Art. Stoever-Ackerman’s playlist Off the 60, unites the two spaces of East L.A. and Riverside through a mix of intra- and trans-cultural musical experiences. Guevara’s rock & roll selections highlight many of the bands that emerged in East L.A. Both the musical listings and the liner notes for the sound presentations will be accessible on the re:present L.A website when the exhibit goes live on May 3rd, 2012.
My sonic intervention in the white, often silent, spaces of the gallery was especially inspired by two recent precedents: the inclusion of the iPod™ in MEX/LA (2011) at the Museum of Latin American Art and Phantom Sightings (2008) at the Los Angeles County Art Museum. Both experiences invited me as a viewer to see the artwork through another sensory experience. The first time I saw music included in an exhibition not specifically about music (such as the Experience Music Project’s 2007 American Sabor: Latinos in U.S. Popular Music, or Marvette Peréz’s curation of ¡Azúzar! The Life and Music of Celia Cruz at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History) was LACMA’s Phantom Sightings, which garnered much critical acclaim and criticism due to the premise of presenting contemporary Chicano Art inspired ‘after’ the Chicano Movement. However, I want to focus on one aspect of the exhibition, a corner display with books that informed the curators’ conceptual approach and on the bookshelf was an iPod™. The iPod™ included playlists from some of the artists reflecting their inspiration for their artwork. I enjoyed listening and reminiscing while sitting in the gallery. However, I wanted the music to take more of a central role in the exhibition, especially because much of the artwork so obviously revealed traces of Los Angeles’ musical influences, partly due to the recent generation of artists who actively engaged in subcultural expressions and referenced it in their art. For example, as Ondine Chavoya describes in the Phantom Sightings catalogue, Juan Capistran’s The Breaks (2000) is a giclée print documenting the artist break-dancing on Carl Andre’s minimalist floor pieces. The guerilla performance then is presented through a series of twenty-five still images showing the various movements seen in how to break-dance books (125). Shizu Saldamando’s ink on fabric portraits of Siouxsie (2005) and Morrissey (2005) showcase how post-punk and new wave music from England is part of her life as an Angeleno (and that of her friends), yet the medium is reminiscent of pinto drawings. Saldamando also does portraits of her friends at clubs, backyard bbqs “documenting a world where identity is fluid” as Michele Urton describes in the catalog (197).
It would be another three years before MEX/LA would further marry music with art, now casting it in relation to the politics of Chicano and Mexican presence in Los Angeles. MEX/LA, among the many Pacific Standard Time exhibitions presented throughout Los Angeles, was among the best curated due to the range of artifacts representative of the city and the cultural production emerging in post-war L.A. Another striking element was the influence of Méxicano popular culture among Chicanos and vice-versa. As curator Rubén Ortiz-Torres, and associate curator Jesse Lerner write on the MoLAA website: “The purpose of the construction of a ‘Mexican’ identity in the South of California is not to consolidate the national unity of a post-revolutionary Mexico, but to recognize and be able to participate in an international reality, with all its contradictions and conflicts that this entails.” One of the ways this cultural exchange was embodied was in the playlists curated by Rubén Funkhuatl Guevara and Josh Kun that were prominently displayed alongside the artwork and heard in the interactive iPod™ “sound booths,” that invited viewers to sit on beanbags and listen. The music served to contextualize the art in relation to popular culture of the time. For example, Guevara presents a Chicano rock & roll genealogy that followed the chronology of the visual exhibit, 1930-1980, that begins with boogaloo and swing of the 1940s era culminating with the punk rock sounds of The Bags.
In both these exhibitions, the music served to complement the artistic elucidations of identity, race, and American popular culture seen in much of the artwork. The simplicity of the presentation was due to the inclusion of a familiar object like the iPod™. What is surprising is that more exhibitions have not incorporated more sonic elements to engage viewers’ other sensory experiences beyond the podcasts, or cell-phone audio listening tours set up at most major museums. While musical playlists can serve as another didactic component of an exhibition like the more established audio tours, I am arguing for a different use of sound in museum space, one that provides a wider sense of agency, connection, and encounter with the visual elements on display rather than a one-way transmission of information. In the cases of MEX/LA and Phantom Sightings, the inclusion of iPods™ provided a tool to understand the cultural production of a “post-Chicano movement” generation of artists while at the same time enabling an experience that recognized—and resonated with—my bicultural experience.
Being that L.A. is a car culture moving to the rhythms of the radio waves, I’m always seeking to find synchronicity between music that feels me with joy and my work as a cultural worker. Part of my impetus to locate Los Angeles sonically in re : present L.A. was driven by the question: is it possible to capture my sonic landscape growing up in the city of Los Angeles that ranges from Hip-Hop – British Rock – Mexican Pop? The playlists curated by Guevara and Stoever-Ackerman are familiar to me personally. Stoever-Ackerman’s Off the 60, reminds me of the sounds of my youth, when KDAY and KROQ rocked the radio waves and my students banded together in my high school quad according to their favorite music – metal-heads, b-boys, alternative rock, and the cha-chas, who traveled across town every Friday night to Franklin High, where DJs spun L.A. disco. At home, the music was different. My mom and tías used to reminisce about their homeland every Sunday night through the variety show Siempre en Domingo, binding us to the t.v., religiously following the rising stars. Through the bi-lingual selections in Guevara’s Los Angeles Rock & Roll, there’s a familiarity of home and the music heard at backyard parties and quinceañeras.
By including my iPod™ nano, I bring together my lived experience as a cultural worker through the sounds of L.A. and activate the white walls of the museum. The playlists created by Guevara and Stoever-Ackerman serve to reflect the history of the community surrounding VPAM, as well capture the diversity of the city sonically re:presenting L.A. to our audiences. While the playlists can stand alone as audio curations in their own rights, I hope that they will engage audiences to rethink the relationship between music and art, and feel their lived experience inclusive within the museum.
reina alejandra prado saldivar is an art historian, curator, and an adjunct lecturer in the Social Science Division of Glendale Community College in Glendale, California and in the Cultural Studies Program at Claremont Graduate School. As a cultural activist, she focused her earlier research on Chicano cultural production and the visual arts. Prado is also a poet and performance artist known for her interactive durational work Take a Piece of my Heart as the character Santa Perversa (www.santaperversa.com) and is currently working on her first solo performance entitled Whipped!
It may seem a little crazy to take Das Racist seriously. Their songs are deep in the realm of the ridiculous, but I can’t help but feel that “Combination Pizza Hut/Taco Bell” is a commentary on how the compression of urban space is shaped by our relationship to consumption. Close-reading of their songs provide repeated evidence for the underlying tenor of seriousness in that absurdity—even if they’re being playful about it. As one of my favorite Das Racist songs says, “we’re not joking / just joking / we are joking / just joking / we’re not joking.” (For those who need help parsing, no, they are in fact, not joking). Take for instance Das Racist’s “Fake Patois” off of their free downloadable “mixtape” Shut Up, Dude! (2010). This satirical and intelligent exploration of the sounds of authenticity and their relationship to the reggae-hip hop dyad uses fake patois itself, working off an ironic tension that is as troubling as it is funny—and it’s also a banging song.
The “patois” used in American hip hop is clearly meant to be Jamaican-sounding, mixing elements of Jamaican creole language with a generous sprinkling of terms specific to Rastafarian English. The sounds of “fake patios” are a stylistic choice, reinforced through a dancehall reggae cadence of rapid-fire clipped words, rapped melodically. “Fake Patois” recalls the role of reggae in identifying an authentic origin for hip-hop. And certainly the connection cannot be denied. That Kool Herc brought Jamaican DJ culture with him to the Bronx is originary, and Run D.M.C brought it up in 1984′s “Roots, Rap, Reggae” (featuring Yellowman). If you want a more detailed mapping of a particular reggae meme’s journey through hip hop, check out Wayne Marshall’s fantastic essay on the subject, which demonstrates that even when contemporary artists think they are paying homage by imitating their rap fore-bearers they are also unknowingly paying homage to the influence of Jamaican music on American rap.
Das Racist’s “Fake Patois” speaks with a deep awareness of this tradition in rapping, but what may on the surface seem like an indictment of the “fake” nature of the adopted style is actually an example of what George Lipsitz called “strategic anti-essentialism” in Dangerous Crossroads. While critical of reckless appropriation of various ethnic musics by western whites, Lipstiz nevertheless sees this music as a way for individuals to express their identity through solidarity, sharing a respect for that music’s history as it is embedded in a framework of power. The song shows this respect through its knowledge, but also immediately calling out artists that have used the “fake patois,”—respected ones like KRS-One, but also “My man Snow,” a white Canadian performer of dancehall reggae. Snow is probably the quintessential example of the “fake patois,” as his 1993 break-out hit, “Informer” was for much of white America the first exposure to the sounds of dancehall reggae. Snow withstood attacks on his authenticity throughout his career and tried to shore it up through his incarceration narratives and associations with blacks of Caribbean descent.
Das Racist doesn’t limit their list to musicians, and their choices highlight the different ways patois is put to work. For example, they mention Miss Cleo of psychic phoneline fame, who claimed to be from Jamaica, but is an actress and playwright from Seattle. Through her patois the Miss Cleo character sold the authentic origins of her mystic powers. Das Racist seems to be suggesting that the use of the patois sound in songs is selling something as well, even as they use it to sell their own song.
Similarly, the lyric, “Even Jim Carrey fuck with the patois,” makes reference to the actor’s parody of Snow’s “Informer.” While “Imposter,” is clearly meant to call out Snow’s lack of ‘blackness,’ Carrey’s mocking “Day-O” and his characterization of dancehall lyrics as “gibberish” also underlines a disdain for the music form itself. While potentially problematic, Snow’s performance is clearly born of an earnest appreciation of dancehall reggae. The parody, on the other hand, despite its comedic intent, does not have the performer’s genuine affect to mitigate its buffoonish mimicry.
Das Racist’s song also reveals a degree of comedic intent. The use of autotune highlights the artificiality of the sung patois. Their straight delivery of ridiculous references (“Crunch like Nestle. . .Snipe like Wesley”) and their use of repetition to re-emphasize the absurdity of their performance is funny. They revel in the dumb fun of referencing Half-Baked—when Dave Chappelle, posing as a Jamaican, is asked what part of Jamaica he is from and he replies “right near the beach.” Das Racist’s demonstrated mix of absurdity and awareness destabilizes their position as a means to open up a field of possibilities. It does not set limits by associating authenticity with a singular origin, but rather to establish it as a connection with an ongoing tradition.
The song continues to question the stability of the authentic by calling out two singers with a “real” patois, Shabba Ranks and Cutty Ranks, for their past homophobic songs and comments. Das Racist sings, “Your M.O. Is ‘mo / Me say no thanks.” That “’mo” is short for “homo,” and that “no thanks”serves to distance them from the popular examples of male Jamaican artists whose homophobia has been linked with a hypermasculine ideal played out through violent fantasy—whether it’s Shabba’s defense of Buju Banton’s “Boom Bye Bye” or Cutty’s “Limb By Limb.” Their apologies attempted to connect their bias with their “culture,” trying to excuse their ideas in terms of how they authentically inform their problematic songs. In this lyric, Das Racist is implicitly rejecting homophobia as a litmus for authenticity, while playing with a homophobic term. In other words, for artists like Shabba and Cutty to defend homophobia in reference to a “realness” in their music is suggesting that bias against gays is a precondition for making “real” music.
For me, the broader question that emerges from this interrogation of “fake patois” is: to what degree can a variety of popular music sound choices (singing style, melodic influence, etc that are associated with a particular culture or nationality) be similarly destabilized or revealed as “fake”? The Beatles sang like fake Americans, imitating their favorite (mostly black) artists, and Green Day have sounded like fake Brits, identifying with some authenticating element found in the sound of English punks. What ground does this destabilization open up? What possibilities for connection does it provide and what framework can we use to discuss it when the results seem problematic?
Lipsitz writes, “In its most utopian moments, popular culture offers a promise of reconciliation to groups divided by power, opportunity and experience,” and Das Racist certainly seems to be doing their best to critically fulfill that promise. Their self-conscious undermining of their position and their willingness to simultaneously suggest that there may be something problematic with mimicking patois–while highlighting that so-called authentic identities are sutured together into a particular kind of sounded performance–articulates a bond through an identification, not a singular origin. In doing so, Das Racist suggest a network of identities bound by points of solidarity, making room for South Asia in the Black Atlantic by way of the Caribbean.
Osvaldo Oyola is a regular contributor to Sounding Out! and ABD in English at Binghamton University.