This post is dedicated to the memory of Amiri Baraka, who passed away on January 9, 2014 in Newark, New Jersey.
I began writing this post while my wife, Sarah, was at a conference on writing curriculum for high school literature. Over the phone one night she asked how to help students better understand the language of Shakespeare, and at a loss for suggestions (not only because I don’t study early modern drama), I recalled my own adolescent struggles with Macbeth, Hamlet, and Julius Caesar. I recalled well-intentioned teachers who gave me recordings, telling me that they would help me get an “ear” for Shakespeare’s language—yet all I remember, maybe all I learned, while listening to the Caedmon recording of Macbeth on vinyl, was that, to my mid-1990s ear, Shakespeare (anachronistically) sounded like Star Wars (which appeared 15 years after the 1960 Caedmon album).
My high school confusion has not completely faded when it comes to the sound of recorded poetic language, even more so when the notion of the poet’s voice is thrown into the mix. As opposed to verse recited by actors (the Caedmon Macbeth featured Anthony Quayle), or the sound of the syllables when we read a poem silently to ourselves, I find it tough to parse the idea of the sound of the poem in terms of the poet’s voice because “voice” is a slippery category—a constructed one, contingent upon the given historical moment of inscription and reception. It is tough because this idea of the sound of the poem, located in the voice of the poet, gets complicated with sonic technologies where voice is subject to the shifting conditions of fidelity.
The act of listening to recorded poetry thus poses particular analytic challenges, which become more complex when the politics of identity are brought to bear on these questions of voice and poetry. As a site for identity production, the recorded poetry performance projects a mediated voice that is a potential self. The “sound” of this poetic subjectivity is different from recording to recording, even of the same poem. In an effort to work through these complexities, this post takes up three different recordings of Amiri Baraka’s poem “Black Dada Nihilismus,” which offer variations in delivery and performance that each depend upon the social, political, and aesthetic dimensions of the soundscape that each recording is embedded within.
“Black Dada Nihilismus” is an excellent opportunity to consider the overlapping challenges of voice, performance and the politics of identity in recorded poetry. Published in the early 1960s, this poem was written before Baraka’s shift in politics, which was precipitated by the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965, yet the poem anticipates the intersection of aesthetics and politics during the Black Arts Movement in the late 1960s into the 70s. This shift can be tracked in the sonic details of the first two recordings, made in 1964 and 1965. In the third version, a 1993 remix by DJ Spooky, we can hear how this shift reverberates beyond its historical moment.
In a statement of poetics included in Donald Allen’s classic 1959 anthology The New American Poetry, Baraka (then Leroi Jones) asked: “HOW YOU SOUND??” How a poet’s poem sounded mattered most for him: “you have to start and finish there … your own voice … how you sound” (425). Primarily referencing the poem on the page, he wasn’t whistling in the dark: often thought of as a vocal performance of language, poetry has a long history with sound. One thread of this history is the Homeric tradition of an “oral poetics,” a tradition where, as Albert Lord notes in The Singer of Tales, socialized performances of poetry were simultaneously modes of composition. The feel of language in the body remained inseparable from the poetry that relayed the heroic tales of the ancient world. In The Sounds of Poetry, Robert Pinsky offers a similar account of sound and voice, suggesting that the “sound” of language, the sensuous play of speech, is the material for poetic composition. Or as Charles Bernstein has it in Close Listening, “poetry needs to be sounded” because it is a way to understand it better (7).
Poetry is often said to be difficult—but how would a poet’s “sounding” of a poem help a listener better understand it, as Bernstein suggests? How is the recorded voice resonating in air different from inert marks on a page? What is the status of that difference? Why or how would the sound recording signify differently than the poem on the silent page? In short, is listening easier than reading? My answer to the final question is a resounding “no.” For me, the challenge is how to consider the recorded poetry performance in both formal and aural terms so as to remain tuned in to the aesthetic and the poetic as well as the social and historical dimensions of a particular poet’s work. This is not easily done.
“Black Dada Nihilismus” was first published in The Dead Lecturer (1964) and later included in Transbluesency (1995). Written in two parts, it asserts a black aesthetic by critiquing the dominance of (white) light in Western art and suggesting a connection between this light, ethnic violence, and religious ideology. This is how the poem opens:
.Against what light
is false what breath
sucked, for deadness.
Murder, the cleansed
purpose, frail, against
God, if they bring him
Bleeding, I would not
forgive, or even call him
black dada nihilismus.
The protestant love, wide windows,
color blocked to Modrian, and the
ugly silent deaths of jews […]
Through critique the poem develops the connections between aesthetics and racial dominance and violence. These connections take on different inflections in each recorded version of the poem, and with each inflection another aspect of them is amplified.
The first version is a bootleg of a reading at the Asilomar Negro Writers Conference that was held in Pacific Grove, California, in early August, 1964.
In addition to the preamble, where Baraka explains some of the poem’s key terms such as Dada, which he describes as a movement in France (rather than Germany or Switzerland), another sonic detail that marks this as “live” is at the 2:59 minute mark when we hear the flap of a turning page, reminding us that Baraka is treating the poem as a script in these recordings. In this version, the opening lines are sharply delivered, the voice fully pausing at the linebreaks and acutely pronouncing the hard vowels (e.g. “sucked”). Against the continuous background hush of the original reel-to-reel recording, Baraka punches his words into the air, as if trying to find a rhythm between these harder vowels and the softer ones that often denote the poem’s object of critique (e.g. “light”).
The next version is off the A side of New York Art Quartet and Imamu Amiri Baraka (ESP Disk 1965), where the poem’s rhythm is immediately established by the musical accompaniment.
Between the first recording and this one a shift began in Baraka’s development as a poet. The assassination of Malcolm X pushed him to think even more about race, politics, and art. In this version the opening lines, delivered with punch and pause in the bootleg, take on a different register when juxtaposed with the smooth coolness of the quartet. Overall, though, the poem is delivered more militantly here. In the first version the opening lines are delivered forcefully, but ultimately this forcefulness subsides over the course of the reading. The opposite is the case in this studio version that slowly builds to the apex of the poem, the point of most force, this stanza:
and chant, scream,
and dull, un
In the bootleg, the turn of the page—between “earthly” and “hollering”—interrupts this stanza, and Baraka hesitates and slowly finds his way toward the poem’s close, while in the studio version, the musical accompaniment reaches a fevered pitch here, making it feel as if it is at the edge of the scream that it names. This prepares us for the closing litany of names of black figures of “black dada nihilismus,” which goes like this:
For tambo, willie best, dubois, patrice, mantan, the
For Jack Johnson, asbestos, tonto, buckwheat,
In the final version, which is DJ Spooky’s remix of the second one, included on the CD Offbeat: A Red Hot Soundtrip (TVT Records 1996), this litany feels more like the outro (that is meant as) against Spooky’s beats and moody reverb.
An aspect of the poem amplified in the remix is the stanzas leading up to the apex stanza of the “black scream.” In a series of tercets that open the second section, the speaker addresses the experience of racial oppression and a growing need to strike back:
The razor. Our flail against them, why
you carry knives? Or brutaled lumps of
heart? Why you stay, where they can
reach? Why you sit, or stand, or walk
in this place, a window on a dark
The “why” is significantly amplified in the remix, forcing us to hear the ironic indictment of the oppressive “light,” not as audible in the other two tracks, explicit in Baraka’s tercets.
The original recordings of these versions of “Black Dada Nihilismus” are each in a different format: vinyl LP, tape-to-tape reel, and CD. I have been working with digitized versions, so the way I am hearing these recordings—through a smooth digitized MP3 file or Youtube clip—is not the same as the crackle of a needle running an LP’s groove or a nearly noiseless laser tracing a CD. These variations in format mean that the different ways these versions individual signify—their respective “sounds”—are flattened out by compression. Despite this loss of material context, Baraka still sounds different in each of these tracks. Each version of Baraka’s poem offers us another iteration of his “voice,” and the poem, but listening to each of them does not necessarily provide a better understanding of it. We are, though, given different sonic experiences that depend upon the purpose of Baraka’s performance, the listener imagined during the reading, and the voice enunciated through the mediated environment.
Some of the voice details do remain consistent across these recordings. For example, the delivery of one of the poem’s most memorable phrase—“Hermes, the/the blacker art”—that occurs toward the close of the poem’s first section is steadily delivered in a lower register, in the hush of an aside, and might be taken as the motif of each of these variations.
A vast archive of recorded poetry exists. Mid-century recording projects by Caedmon and Folkways made “voices” of well-known poets, such as Robert Frost and Dylan Thomas, available for mainstream consumption. More recent anthologies and series like Poetry Speaks and The Voice of the Poet suggest that the “voice of the poet” still holds appeal. The proliferation of online sound archives such as Penn Sound and From the Fishouse further attest to an ongoing investment in recording, storing, and making available sound files of poets reading their work. And this fascination with the “sound” of poetry is not limited to mainstream cultural spheres or web-based archives. Several scholarly collections on this convergence of sound, voice, and poetry such as Bernstein’s already-mentioned Close Listening, Adelaide Morris’s Sound States, and Marjorie Perloff’s and Craig Dworkin’s The Sound of Poetry/The Poetry of Sound have appeared over the last decade.
The idea of the sound of the poem, located in the mediated voice of the poet, therefore remains relevant today. In many of these instances, however, the poet’s voice falsely takes on an authoritative “aura,” as Walter Benjamin used that word in his (recently re-translated) “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility.” Benjamin uses “aura” to talk about authenticity in art and how that is lost when images (or sounds) can be reproduced and widely distributed, and this is not a bad thing: “technological reproducibility emancipates the work of art from its parasitic subservience to ritual. To an ever-increasing degree, the work produced becomes the reproduction of work designed to be reproduced” (24). When Benjamin’s concept is applied to recorded poetry, two key points emerge. First, the “sound” of a poet’s voice is the product of technological conditions. Second, just as a book editor makes aesthetic judgments based on a perceived audience, a listener is imagined when a poetry performance is recorded. Too bad I didn’t know this in high school.
Featured image: “Paula Varjack” by Flickr user Very Quiet, CC-BY-SA-2.0
John Hyland recently completed his dissertation on sound, poetics, and the black diaspora, titled “Atlantic Reverberations: The Sonic Performances of Black Diasporic Poetries,” at the University at Buffalo, SUNY. His poems, essays, and reviews have appeared (or are forthcoming) in a range of journals, such as The Journal of Postcolonial Writing, College Literature, and Borderlands. Recently, he has enjoyed performing with the Buffalo Poets Theater and co-edited a special issue of the poetry journal kadar koli on the relationship between violence and the expressive arts.
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The problem of the voice has been at the center of sound studies for generations, but seldom has the knot of aesthetic and philosophical concerns — of vocal mechanics, of ontology, of desire — that “the voice” raises been brought to bear on a particular voice. As a result, ironically, a terrain deeply fascinated by materiality is often approached through abstraction. To amend this problem, what better case study could there be than Orson Welles, whose voice was without question one of the signature dramatic instruments of the twentieth century, and today retains a compelling power to instruct, to hypnotize and beguile.
As SO!’s last full installment in From Mercury to Mars, a six-month series commemorating the radio work of Orson Welles we’re doing with Antenna, we are honored to present one of the most insightful writers on cinema, Murray Pomerance of Ryerson University, who has prepared a special essay focusing on the question of Welles’ voice. Writer and editor of more than a dozen books, Pomerance’s own voice has been crucial in how contemporary scholars, critics and fans have thought about the cinema for decades, and we’re elated to have him help us to wrap up the series.
What you’re about to read, ladies and gentlemen (a little razzle-dazzle, why not?), is something never attempted before, to my knowledge: a study of Orson Welles’s voice itself — not what it does, how it was used, or what it “represents,” exactly — but a study that tries to get at what Pomerance calls “that instrumentation [Welles] cannot prevent himself from employing except by silence.”
It’s the voice that sticks to every thought about Welles, the voice through which everything else in his radio work passes, and ultimately the voice that continues to outlast him.
“I know that the thing I do best in the world is talk to audiences.”
Orson Welles to Bill Krohn (“My Favorite Mask is Myself: An Interview with Orson Welles,” The Unknown Orson Welles 70).
Most radio listeners across America knew the voice of George Orson Welles, a voice particularly adept for broadcasting, before they saw what he looked like. Even when he appeared, staring wrinkle-browed and wide-eyed from page 20 of the Los Angeles Times the day after “War of the Worlds” or hiding under the thick eyebrows and beard of Capt. Shotover from George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House, as framed by Paul Dorsey for the cover of Time May 9, 1938, they had to “fit” the picture to the sound (that is, one or more of his many sounds). The tall, doughy body generally produced a soft baritone—“I think it would be fun to run a newspaper”; “tomorrow is . . . forever”—worn at the edges like an heirloom tablecloth, thick as bisque, or evanescent as an Irish field seen distantly in foggy light.
His sound was just slightly adenoidal, but burnished, like eighteenth-century mahogany furniture. Listening to Welles, indeed, one felt raised to a cultural height, where the light could gleam more purely and satisfyingly than elsewhere. His enunciation was crisp and precise, never failing. David Thomson types his voice as “word-carving” (Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles 239). He breathed through, rather than around, his speech so that phrases would rise and fall with the body’s natural, “automatic” move to futurity; breathed with an overt will to reach the end of the phrase, of the sentence, of the story. In this he made talk the stuff of life. He was fond of long breaths and wordy deliveries, letting his stresses fall on vowels more often than not, as in singing Schubert. While as a performer he could produce any vocal gesture—hilarity, mockery, snideness, bitterness, pomposity—these clothed rather than inhabiting the voice, which was always, inevitably, excruciatingly, heart-rendingly clear and blunt. He had the ability to persuade us that what he said came from his heart, rather than a performer’s toolkit.
Even the great John Barrymore, whose voice was an orchestra—the Barrymore whom Welles called “a golden boy, a tragic clown grimacing in the darkness, gritting his teeth against the horror” and who at the opening of Citizen Kane told a radio announcer that Orson was the bastard son of Ethel [Barrymore] and the Pope (Welles and Bogdanovich, This Is Orson Welles 24)– did not unfailingly invoke such sincerity. So it came to be, later in Welles’s life, that when on a talk show he told his host a story or gave her a lecture—cigar in hand he informed Dinah Shore in 1979 that her audience was not an audience, for example, because they had not paid to be there–one came to believe every syllable; and when he made F for Fake he counted on this vocal credibility, this urgently private and confessional key, to convey convincingly what had only been fabricated to convince. The convincing could be potent, and at the supremest level: Richard Wilson reports that it was after hearing “records of the Mercury’s radio production of The Magnificent Ambersons” (not, note, after reading a scenario) that George Schaefer, President of RKO, “gave Orson the okay for that film” (“It’s Not Quite All True,” Sight & Sound, Spring 1970, 191).
If it is one thing to discourse upon how the voice is structured into a performance, a broadcast, a staging, invoking, to take a case, shunting, audiopositioning, overdubbing, personalizing (see Verma, Theater of the Mind 140; 35-45; 185), it is quite another to stand before, to confront, the voice. In one case we wonder what can happen to the voice, in the other we ask of the voice what it is. Orson Welles’s voice, not what he says, not what he means, not who he is pretending to be, but that instrumentation he cannot prevent himself from employing except by silence . . .? What is the voice which one takes for granted in quoting his dialogue, as though what he says were equivalent to his saying it? And given that Welles is now silent, can the reader who never heard him be brought to a sympathetic understanding through any form of argument or description? Youtubing him for the first time, what does one hear, that Welles repeatedly brought forward through the frame of his instrumentality and the agony of his breath? An urgent desire to be heard, certainly. Listen to this, listen to me, listen harder. Spitting words, or giggling like a little child.
Language as we speak it need pay no fealty to the speaker’s attitude toward—feeling about—what he says; the words have the power to contain both meaning and feeling, but it is not a requirement that they be enunciated, emphatically shifted, or turned to self-consciousness in the event that the speaker finds them, apt, silly, or simple. The voice is beyond the words. It is something for which we can have a taste. Taste “cannot be rendered by anything other than itself,” suggests Leroi-Gourhan, it is a “[part] of our sensory apparatus [that] must always remain infra-symbolic” (Gesture and Speech 281). Thus, the trick about voicing text for microphone is to pronounce, not utter. One must put some faith that English will hold meaning without the addition of the voice; so that—as regards meaning–in voicing one expresses a humble self-deprecation in the face of something greater than oneself.
Welles’s voice is filled to the brim with this humility, this self-deprecation, this ease, this insouciant presence. The words sound out, no matter their shape. And so: “The cuckoo clock!” as a punch line in that lengthy, magnificent speech of Harry Lime’s in the Viennese Ferris wheel in The Third Man. “KOO-koo.” With Welles’s great dignity (massive girth) and profound experience, this kindergarten word gives him over to self-mockery, disidentification; but Harry Lime just says it, with a little elevation of tone for comic punch, and a lifted eyebrow, since the cuckoo clock is a most unexpected answer to the question of what the Swiss can claim to have produced after five hundred years of peace.
Is it necessary if one is hearing the actor’s voice to consider his every line of dialogue? What he says is so unimportant next to the fact that he is saying it. In F for Fake (1973) he gives us Elmyr de Hory’s recipe for an omelette: “Steal two eggs”: but that first word is pronounced at length, shall we say “Hungarian style”? “Steeeeeal two eggs,” and with a growl, a feline growl. The speaker approves, thinks it hilarious, this recipe, but is also dutiful in trying to capture the way Elmyr, the Hungarian art forger, speaks, and thus thinks. Speaking is thinking. That’s “El-meeeer.” In voweling as he does, that is to say, reveling in the vowels, stressing them, privileging them as golden roots of speech, Welles makes a voice that is theatrically expansive, the raconteur’s exaggerations of effect and fact embedded in exaggerations of fundamental sounds. Peter Von Bagh: “Welles is the last important raconteur of tales” (“Some Minor Keys to Orson Welles,” The Unknown Orson Welles 5). The vowels open us, open our receptivity and tap our wellspring of sensibility. They are not technical, not bitten or chewed, not tongued against the palate, in brief, not tooled and machined through the body’s hard flesh but instead summoned in and thrown from the body as organ. “El-meeer”: all a kind of pretense, this apparently being Hungarian, this embedding Elmyr inside the voice, as any good raconteur will do with his prize character.
Joseph McBride becomes rapturous about a scene in the film outside the Chartres cathedral, in which, as he puts it, Welles speaks in his own voice, “dropping all pretense and facetiousness to deliver a magnificent soliloquy on the transcendent reality of art” (Orson Welles 189). Careful, I think: the form of the soliloquy instantly downgrades all enunciation into sincerity. We may think of Welles’s tendency to deliver every speech as though it were a soliloquy — to tell us, as Simon Callow notes the announcer taught on The Campbell Playhouse, “a great human story, welling up from the heart, brimming with deep and sincere emotion” (Orson Welles: The Road to Xanadu 419)—and the “magnificence” of the dialogue, carefully written to seem “magnificent,” augments our tendency to adore the voice that speaks it. Yet we do adore that voice, and adoration is part of the cinematic effect. As to whether this is Welles’s own voice: I never met him.
Or can we think for just a moment of the singsong most frequently attributed to Welles, vitiated, almost dead: the word “Rosebud” in Citizen Kane. Ohhh-uh. Not “Rrrose-bbuddd” but “Rohhhhhz-buhd.” Billy Budd. Billy Rose. We can hear Joe Cotten (Jedediah Leland) say it, harsh, grating, perfunctory, pushing the “b”; and Everett Sloane (Mr. Bernstein), with emphasis on the “s”: “rose-bud.” A day hasn’t gone by he doesn’t remember that girl, but what’s Rosebud? Paul Stewart (Raymond)? Everything a question out of his mouth, even the time of day. Life a question, relations a question, existence a question. “Rosebud?” he hardly gives a breath to say it.
But Welles breathes it, with an expulsion of air that seems thick with embodiment: gigantic air, fulsome air, the air of the past lasting on through a winter memory preserved under glass. Again: not the meaning of the word, its tinny echo, what it connotes, how it is grammatically constructed, but what people feel when they say. It is certainly not—anticlimax of anticlimaxes—the thing itself, whose name Rosebud is. Inside Welles, in his organ of speech, in the interior of interiors, Rosebud is a future waiting to emerge. “With youthful exuberance, Welles was after a special space concept of his own,” writes Von Bagh, “a very personal dramaturgical form, a kind of relief of sound space which then, in the miraculous turn of Citizen Kane, was elevated into a kind of relief or multi-dimension of visual space” (5).
A certain delicious theatricality flavors much of what we hear from Welles, the sort of tone that caused Ernest Hemingway, as legend has it, to berate him for the “too flowery” delivery of narration in Joris Iven’s The Spanish Earth (1937) and inspire the slur that he was nothing but a “‘faggot’ from the New York theater” (McBride 204). Welles, of course, put up his dukes. But while I don’t think Orson Welles’s voice is ever flowery, it often floats up onto an imaginary British promontory, especially, in certain precise dramatic circumstances, with the effete (but feigned) pronunciation of the “high R.” (“High” as in Upper.) September 9, 1936 for the Columbia Broadcasting System, playing Hamlet: “‘Tis an unweeded garden/ That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature/ Possess it merely (I.ii.339-41): on the East Coast we would say GARR-dn, with the “r” emerging from a mouth where the tongue is lifted back (and possibly also the lower lip), but Welles gives us “GAH-dn” with the lazy tongue staying put:
Lazy: there is very frequently a sense of his lazy mouth, as though everything he says is obvious, yet he takes pleasure in the words dribbling in their channel through his mouth. His is not the striven-for, aggressive, punchy, muscular articulation of Jimmy Stewart. “An unweeded gahh-dn,” and it is possessed “meehh-ly.” To actually say the r is to try too hard, so there is something aristocratic, perhaps condescending about the style. Was it this provoked Hemingway so much? Welles’s Jean Valjean in his 1937 “Les Miserables” doesn’t talk this way at all, shows it as affectation. His is a deeper vocality— André Bazin suggests that Orson was encouraged, young, to make his voice “prematurely deep” (Orson Welles 5)—and is charged with his own masculine version of Californian vocal fry, thus seeming not only distinctively eroded, ruined, portentous, and artfully combative (in a way that we can hear as well in his insert into Manowar’s “Dark Avenger” track), but elevated in social status as well (see Ikuko Yuasa “Creaky Voice: A New Feminine Voice Quality for Young Urban-Oriented Upwardly Mobile American Women?,” American Speech 85: 3, 317). The voice of a prophet who has talked too much (perhaps to no avail).
By the middle of 1938 on “The Shadow,” Welles’s Lamont is climbing again, intoning like a bassoon but persisting in naming a ship the “Stahhh of Zealand” in an episode entitled “The Power of the Mind.” When you wish upon a “stahhhh,” you are high enough to be above wishing. Anglicism here, too, in the soft “u” sound of “news”: “The Shipping Nyews.” And hints of a “freighter” carrying “general cahhh-go.”
Dropping down to the common level again December 9, 1938 for “Rebecca” with Margaret Sullavan, but only for a fragmentary moment—“Yer not afraid of the fyew-chuh?”—before another ascension, “You’re cheap at ninety pounds a yee-ahhhh,” or “An empty house can be as lonely as a full hotel, the trouble is that it’s less impehhh—sonal.” Then when the play is done he tells his eager, and by now intimately proximate, listeners that the “STAR of ‘Rebecca’ is standing “beside me at the microphone”: “staRR,” and “mike-Ro-phone.”
In “The Hitchhiker,” September 2, 1942, he mentions a “licence number”: “num-beRR.” But for “The 39 Steps” on The Mercury Theater, August 1, 1938, he had gone for a breathy and plummy emphasis on vowels: “In the blue evening sky, I saw something . . .” spoken as “In the BLOO eeevning SKAH-eee.”
If it was true, as Charlton Heston reported, that “Orson has a marvelous ear for the way people talk” (James Delson “Heston on Welles: An Interview,” Focus on Orson Welles 62), he both relied and did not rely upon that ear, bringing out of himself a sound that was now from a street corner, now from a temple, now from an impossibly high aerie where experience is pure. That voice carried more in the imagination than in the atmosphere, and perhaps this is why it echoes so unendingly inside his listener’s desire.
* with thanks to Tom Dorey, Jeffrey Dvorkin, Bill Krohn, Sarah Milroy, Neil Verma
From Mercury to Mars is a joint six-month venture between Sounding Out! and Antenna at the University of Wisconsin. The fifteenth and final post, by radio historian Jennifer Hyland Wang, is coming on Antenna in a few weeks.
To catch up on the series, check out our preceding posts.
- Here is “Hello Americans,” Tom McEnaney‘s post on Welles and Latin America
- Here is Eleanor Patterson‘s post on editions of WOTW as “Residual Radio”
- Here is “Sound Bites,” Debra Rae Cohen‘s post on Welles’s “Dracula”
- Here is Cynthia B. Meyers on the pleasures and challenges of teaching WOTW in the classroom
- Here is Kathleen Battles on parodies of Welles by Fred Allen
- Here is Shawn VanCour on the second act of War of the Worlds
- Here is the navigator page for our #WOTW75 collective listening project
- Here is Josh Shepperd’s post, “War of the Worlds and the Invasion of Media Studies”
- Here is Aaron Trammell‘s remarkable mix of the thoughts of more than a dozen radio scholars on “War of the Worlds.”
- Here is our podcast of Monteith McCollum‘s amazing WOTW remix
- Here is “Devil’s Symphony,” Jacob Smith‘s study of the “eco-sonic” Welles.
- Here is Michele Hilmes‘s post on the persistence and evolution of radio drama overseas after Welles.
- Here is A Brad Schwartz on Welles’s adaptations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
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.