On January 10th, 2017, A24 + AFROPUNK + Wordless Music + Spaceland presented Moonlight at the historic Million Dollar Theater in Downtown Los Angeles with the Wordless Music orchestra as live accompaniment. The oldest and once-largest theater in LA, The Million Dollar has a capacity of around 2000 people. Reviewers Shakira Holt and Chris Chien attended separately, but were brought together on Facebook via SO! editorial magic for a discussion on the sonic valences of the film and the entire event experience.
Shakira Holt is a Southern Cali-based high school lit teacher with a doctorate in English from the University of Southern California. She’s deeply interested in the intersections of race, religion, sexuality, class, and politics. This is her second piece for SO!; Her first, “‘I Love to Praise His Name’: Shouting as Feminine Disruption, Public Ecstasy, and Audio-Visual Pleasure,” was published five years ago. Moonlight was on her winter break to-do list in December 2016, but the SO! call for a reviewer of the LA showing intrigued and excited her. Jenkins’s film was taking critics and general audiences by storm and already meant so much to so many people. She approached the screening with a healthy respect and desire to do it justice, walking into the Million Dollar Theatre the night of January 10th completely “fresh,” with scarcely more than trailers and the film’s sponsored social media posts as background.
Chris Chien is an American Studies and Ethnicity graduate student at the University of Southern California, and is doing research on early Asian gay and lesbian organizing in North America, and these social movements’ place within contemporary transpacific, diasporic narratives of a liberalizing Asia, particularly Hong Kong. He has previously written on Sounding Out! about the sonic materiality of diasporic feeling through the relic of the cassette tape, and has an upcoming article on righteous white violence in the music of trans-hardcore band G.L.O.S.S. He hadn’t seen Moonlight or even a trailer before this screening, but heard from many people he respects that it was magical. When SO! ed-in-chief JS reached out after seeing him post about attending on FB, he immediately embraced the idea of a conversation with Shakira.
The special screening of Moonlight in Los Angeles was an enjoyable and important, though mixed, experience. The live music, engineered to perfection, formed a seamless auditory union with the film’s other music; the live orchestra was much more of a visual cue for those attendees who could see the pit than a sonic one. However, the exclusion from live performance of non-orchestral music, especially those genres hailing from African American and Latin American creative spheres, detracted from the event, setting it somewhat amiss. Certainly, the screening paid fitting tribute to classical musicians who make those lush swells and accents happen in film. In truth, however, the screening succeeded most where it would have in a typical screening—in the story itself and in its manifold deep and broad significances.
Chris Chien: Just to start off: this was an event. It was drizzling that day, which, let’s be real, felt a little magical in Los Angeles. Seeing the lineup that snaked around the block full of stylish folks dressed in their finest, freshest outfits made it seem like postmodern opera. I had never watched a film in the presence of so many other people but I can say that a collective viewing experience of that scale contributed to the filmic magic.
Shakira Holt: Agreed. Walking through that soft Los Angeles rain up to and then through the crowds made the screening feel momentous and special.
CC: Inside, it was thrilling to soak in the collective affect: ecstatic applause that filled the cavernous space as well as sniffles, sobs, and laughter during certain scenes but looking back, I would’ve preferred a more intimate viewing experience. The attendees around us came in late, talked, and checked their social media throughout the movie (yes, actually). Director Barry Jenkins did say during the Q&A afterwards that it was the largest viewing audience in North America, so perhaps a little chaos is to be expected! Of course, the major selling point of the event for my group was the live orchestral accompaniment to the film. We were up in the nose-bleeds, though, so we struggled to notice when the orchestra kicked in. We also couldn’t see the pit from our seats, and tended to just assume they were playing when there were strings in the film score. So to us, the orchestra was a bit of a non-event.
SH: I was down on the floor with the orchestra and could see the pit fairly well, but I completely get your point. Taken with a scene, I would often forget about the live music until movement in the pit would attract my eye, which was always slightly jarring in a really meaningful way. We forget about the work of folks whose labor provides the musical idiom of film we simply expect to be there. Frankly, it was always with a bit of guilt that I would be brought to remembrance of the presence of the musicians who were that critical contribution to the experience I was having.
CC: You’re so right! It’s interesting that to get the effect, there had to be a visual accompaniment, which speaks to both our ocular-centrism and how we’ve been conditioned to take (sound) labor in film for granted. I also recall Jenkins giving a shoutout to the sound engineer for rigging a custom sound system in the theater space in order for the film sound and orchestral sound to work together properly. He was really gracious in pointing out the unseen labor that you mentioned.
SH: So I’d like your thoughts on that opening scene which features extended Liberty City street dialect.
CC: KPCC’s John Horn, the host of the post-screening discussion with the cast and crew (Barry Jenkins, Nicholas Britell, Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes), asked a question about the “Liberty City dialect” in the opening scene of the film. His question assumed that “we” couldn’t understand the dialect of that scene, when clearly, his use of “we” assumes a lot about the audience—I’m sure there were folks in the crowd that could understand perfectly what was going on!
I wasn’t one of them, unfortunately, but I was drawn to the politics of that move. The refusal to translate, and the insistence on the authenticity of that voice, which necessarily separates a particular portion of the audience because of knowledge they don’t have, and often are comfortable having. Jenkins also talked at length about the specificity of time and place too. He insisted on representing Liberty City in all its particularities and refused the notion of Moonlight’s wide or universal intelligibility or relatability.
SH: Right. He was very clear about his determination to tell one specific story. Now, on one level, I see it, I get it, and I applaud it. However, on another level, I know that narratives are successful only to the degree that they mine a set of specifics to unearth truths that are universal. I think I’d be hard put to find anyone who would argue against the statement that even in the specificity which Jenkins rightly champions, Moonlight is deeply informed by a powerful universal quality.
CC: And both Ali and Sanders said during the discussion that they felt their embodiment of their respective characters was meant to be relatable to a wide audience. At the same time, Jenkins added that he hoped his method of narrative specificity would inspire other marginalized people to go out and do the same for their own stories, so perhaps he’s more concerned with universal methods than narrative details.
I’m only realizing now that the film just does so damn much, based on how the actors and director imagine their art reaching out to various audiences. One of the most immediate ways is through the use of diverse musical signposts. Others have commented on the gorgeous Barbara Lewis track “Hello Stranger” that Kevin plays on the diner jukebox, (and we could certainly spend all day jumping into the rabbit holes that all the disparate songs on the soundtrack take us to), but I wanted to ask if you had any thoughts on the use of the classic Mexican huapango song “Cucurrucucú Paloma.”
SH: Yes, I did. In a rather convoluted way, I connected that song to the character of Juan, so I’ll back my way into my thinking. The character of Juan is a very special character for me. I don’t think I’ve come across another like him; in fact, I see him as a new type: a trans-American father figure of the African diaspora. Juan is a Cuban native and thus functions as a reach-out to–a gesture towards, a signifier of—Cuba, of course, and, by extension, the rest of the Caribbean, which are American locations not typically identified by their Americanness. I see that Mexican track, “Cucurrucucu Paloma,” as an extension, not of Juan precisely, but of his function. This song is a reach-out to Mexico as another American location that is typically not acknowledged as American. In all truth, it is often imagined and imaged as distinctly anti-American. Through these reach-outs, both characterological and musical, this film initiates a conversation between the U.S. and other parts of the Americas which have been figuratively lopped off from their American identities simply because they fall outside of the United States, which is now almost singularly synonymous with America.
Another layer to this, of course, is that the film makes these reach-outs to different parts of the Americas in the specific context of New World blackness, which automatically invokes the slavery which once covered the Americas and produced the enduringly racist economic and social structures from which Juan, Black, and entire communities like Liberty City are largely excluded.
CC: The film is definitely able to telescope some of most intimate and specific concerns into the widest transnational frames. It’s also interesting that we took different things from Jenkins’ use of that song. I didn’t recognize it during the film, but there was a familiarity to the subdued arrangement. My friend mentioned after that it was the same version by the Brazilian composer and singer Caetano Veloso that Wong Kar-Wai uses in Happy Together (1997) (Jenkins has elsewhere talked at length about the influence of Wong), a film about the fraught relationship between two gay Hong Kong Chinese men living in Argentina.
For Wong, the song, mixed with the sound of crashing water from Iguazu Falls in Argentina, signals characters in the midst of a crumbling relationship reaching back to happier times. In Moonlight, it works in a parallel manner, as an affective and sonic cue that envelops Black and Kevin in the very moment of living a future happy memory: the act of reuniting as adults and cruising around their hometown. The sonic touchstone of “Cucurrucucú Paloma” injects a sense of cosmopolitanism in Happy Together, which opens with shots of the lovers’ passports, but does so referentially in Moonlight through its gesture to global cinema.
SH: Precisely. The reach-outs, as we’re calling them, add such depth and such complex meaning to this film in so many different directions. They are in large measure directly responsible for this film’s richness and importance and intellectual and emotional heft. The film redounds with the boundary-shattering cosmopolitanism you mention because it is obsessed with the ways in which entities and forms which don’t typically speak to one another can be placed in conversation with one another and thus enabled to reach conversance with one of another.
Cinematically, as you mention, this U.S. film, overarching in its Americanness, speaks directly to those of Wong Kar-wai musically, visually, thematically, narratively. This thread of conversation and conversance, operative in so many ways and on so many levels, cannot be overstated.
Characterologically, this happens in all of the film’s main relationships but most significantly between Black and Kevin, whose relationship is always characterized by both speech and silence, which serve as conduits for the conversance, or intimacy, they share.
CC: Yes! I love your reading of silence as a form of intimate conversance. It’s such a great way to think about how both people and cultures, putatively “worlds apart,” are in fact always talking to one another. I’ve also seen some writing on the prominent use of classical music, some of which suggested its “incongruousness” to the story, which I’m sure are based in part on problematic assumptions and associations.
SH: Right. There is a decidedly poignant conversation between this black, male, gay, urban narrative and orchestral music, which is a noteworthy choice. And yes, there are other musical genres represented in the film, but Jenkins seems especially to venerate orchestral music above the other genres. I mean, he did single it out for the live music screening, which necessarily raises its profile above the hip-hop, the R&B, the huapango.
In fact, in the wake of the special screening, those other genres, though important, might be interpreted as intervening on or interrupting the ongoing, and seemingly more important, conversation underway between the black, male, gay, urban narrative and orchestral music. In this context, we might see the prominence of the classical music as a rhetorical bid for the inclusion of this black, male, gay story in a distinctly white, Western cultural canon—not as a quest for whiteness per se but rather as a quest for the ontological normativity which whiteness has long enjoyed.
Perfectly supporting, perhaps even enabling, this conversation between this narrative and classical music is the very telling–quite political, really–application of the “chopped-and- screwed” mixing technique to the classical music in the score. That orchestral music, which is generally perceived as the music of the white elite classes–music, which, even when it is composed and produced in the US, still reads as distinctly European in origin and orientation–should be handled in the same way as the chopped-and-screwed masterpieces of people such as DJ Screw, OG Ron C, and Swishahouse, is more than just a little funny. It is deliciously subversive and, given the political moment, downright democratic and egalitarian.
In a piece for SO, Kemi Adeyemi discusses how the technique was created in Houston by the late DJ Screw in the latter years of the 20th century as a sonic representation of the “loosened, detached body-feeling” of the (black male) body under the influence of the substance lean. Adeyemi explains how lean, a mixture of codeine and sweet soda or juice, has become a chief coping mechanism especially of hip-hop-identified black males trapped in their unrelenting contention with aggressive racist assault that is usually directly responsible for their premature deaths via what Adeyemi identifies as the “discursive entanglements of race, labor, and drugs…in the neoliberal state.”
The “chop” part of chopping and screwing involves adding rhythmic breaks of repetition into a song, hearkening back to the turntable mixing of classic hip-hop. Playing off of Adeyemi’s analysis, I read this chopping as auditory representation of the inescapability of the pace of modern life, particularly the beat of life in a lethally racist context that will not be denied. The “screw” aspect involves the slowing of the song’s overall tempo, which transmogrifies the original track into a plea for more time just to be and for more space to be unmoored from all the dangers poised to assail the black body.
Dave Tomkins, in a piece for mtv.com, quotes composer Nicholas Britell who wonders at the seeming magic of chopping and screwing to “open up all these new harmonics and textures…[and also to] stretch and widen out” phrases and words, enabling the listener to “marinate in the words more.” Britell notes that chopping and screwing the orchestral music of Moonlight’s score produced similar effects, explaining, “The same thing happens for the music, when it goes into those lower-frequency ranges. The sound becomes a feeling.” Tomkins points out that the “feeling” is often one of dread or coming doom that is distinctly black, male and urban, which dovetails Adeyimi’s discussion of chopping and screwing’s origins and cultural context. The film, then, forces the Eurocentric elite into conversance with blackness that is also gay, urban, Southern, hip-hop-identified, and beset by a range of lethal pressures.
Moreover, the orchestral music, in its chopped-and-screwed state, becomes a critical conveyance of deep meaning of the narrative. In the January 10th post-screening discussion, Britell emphasized how chopping and screwing produced “those lower-frequency ranges” by dropping the pitches of each instrument so that each was made to sound like another, deeper, more resonant one. This sonic masking speaks directly to the film’s central issues of voice, true identity, and intimacy.
Discussion between director Barry Jenkins and composer Nicholas Britell discussing “chopping and screwing” the score of Moonlight (starts at 4:10).
CC: The selection and transformation of music in Moonlight is definitely doing something to challenge all sorts of normative assumptions. And not just cultural assumptions either but our understanding of the experience of music and film altogether. Jenkins said in a separate discussion that the insertion of silence/music reflects Chiron’s consciousness, what he calls the “cogno-dissonance” of being Chiron. The idea of turning inward in the face of trauma was important to Jenkins. He and the sound crew apparently used surround sound and played with mixing to unbalance the audience’s sonic perception as a way to simulate this experience of trauma, which I think may have been less apparent in this particular theater setup. The thoughtful play on the phenomenology of sound shows us that music, at least in the Moonlight universe, is the substance of life.
SH: Yes. Music in this film is of the utmost importance, making direct and often very strong comment on every aspect of modern life, even to the point of marking trauma by speaking the unspeakable. As we’ve discussed before, various musical genres are put to the task of translating, interpreting, expressing life and its traumas.
However, there is one genre that is quite noticeably absent from this film. The absolute avoidance of the black church and its music is striking and lands a deft blow to a site within African American culture that has been stridently anti-gay despite its own embrace of rich, abundant LGBTQ artistic and cultural contribution. The reproach is so fierce, the black church is not allowed to exist in the film even on the plane of the lamest obligatory church tropes with which we are all too familiar. There is no Sunday service, no booming, looming vestmented preacher, no hymn-humming, Scripture-quoting grandma—not even a religious crisis set to a chopped-and-screwed Mahalia Jackson or Clara Ward track. The closest we get to religion is the swimming lesson as Juan, the trans-American father of the African diaspora, baptizes Little in the waters of the Middle Passage and teaches him how to survive in them. The context here is much more cultural and historical than it is religious. This thoroughgoing circumvention of the black church and gospel music in a film that traffics in reach-outs connotes nothing less than obdurate, unreprievable censure.
CC: This avoidance is especially interesting in light of the long history of gospel influence in the artistry of founding Black queer artists like Little Richard and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. And the exclusion of the Black church and its sonic registers interacts provocatively with the foregrounding of hip hop in Black’s arc since that genre has been characterized in some quarters as homophobic (though that critique can be reductive and itself plagued by racialized stereotyping).
SH: And in some instances, it has been homophobic, though that seems to be changing with the times and their increasing embrace of both the black secularism and the openness towards diverse black sexualities which Moonlight celebrates.
CC: So, what do you think you will remember most about this night, and this singular performance?
SH: This night is one that I think I’ll always love and remember for many reasons–the moody weather, the dinner beforehand with my old friend, Dr. Ruth Blandon, the buzzing excitement of the crowds, our spotting the amazing Mahershala Ali seated just across the aisle from us, the tour de force film, the panel discussion afterwards–but perhaps one of the greatest reasons will be that sense of overwhelming connection I felt that night. It was simply electric. I don’t know about you, but I felt deeply connected to the city itself that night, to Los Angeles–especially old, historic, LA, the LA that my grandmother moved to as a five-year old back in 1940. My grandmother will be 82 this coming September, so she’s still very much here in the flesh, but I felt especially close to her, or really, to what I imagine was her five-year old self. Thinking about her precipitated a connection to that old theatre. I wondered how many times she had been there, or knowing her penchant for mischief, how many times she had snuck in.
And then, in a more diffuse but not less important way, I felt a kinship with all the strangers in the theatre, gathered there that evening for a single purpose. So it is fitting to me that an event celebrating a film which devotes itself so thoroughly to “reach-outs,” as we’ve called them here, to these critical, radical conversations in pursuit of conversance, would have also so generously provided me an opportunity to experience my own, very personal reach-outs and connections. What about you?
CC: Absolutely agreed. I don’t have as much of a connection to this city as you, being part of the dreaded transplant-class, but it speaks to the power of events such as this that I feel it more. There’s something to our exchange, too, that speaks not only to the importance of the film, but also, in this time of threatened funding to the arts, the critical nature of collective enjoyment and, indeed, production of daring new art by queer people of color.
The film reaches out and touches folks who don’t often get that experience and there’s no better example of this than the closing sequence. The film ends with Black talking to Kevin about the absence of intimate touch in his life and then a moment of the beautiful silent conversance that you pointed out earlier. The parting shot is of the most tender contact, over which we hear the sound of crashing waves. This visual-sonic collage suggests that the act of gay black men touching is elemental, almost tectonic—at once basal but also a force of nature; at once deeply individual (the actual final image is a dive inward, of young Chiron looking back at us from a darkened beach), but also an image of ceaseless, living tenderness, like the rolling waves on the Liberty City shores. I think the two thousand people in the room that night, both of us included, however differently we may all have perceived it, felt that touch.
Featured Image: Screen capture of Alex Hibbert as Little from Moonlight Trailer by JS
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The slaves who were ourselves had known terror intimately, confused sunrise with pain, & accepted indifference as kindness. – Ntozake Shange, Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo
Sanford. Baltimore. Chicago. Staten Island. Charlotte. Cleveland. Oakland. Austin. Los Angeles. The Bronx.
Despair in the United States is nothing new. It is neither an emotion confined to the neatly-drawn borders of this land nor is it experienced more acutely by any one group of people. The vast discrepancy between the results of the popular vote and the electoral college’s selection of Donald Trump as forty-fifth president of the United States amply reveals despair to be an sentiment viscerally experienced by a wide swath of people in this country, irrespective of race, ethnicity, gender, class, or sexuality.
Such despair has been ignored, however, by those who have caused and who continue causing the suffering of peoples of both indigenous and, later, African descent. We are taught that men from what we now recognize as Europe arrived in this hemisphere in the late fifteenth century, settling initially on a strip of earth in the Caribbean Sea that would become the first site of massacre and genocide, acts which unleashed, if one lends credence to the narrator of Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, the fukú, the “Curse and the Doom of the New World.” The narrating voice himself characterizes the curse not in the actions of death, but in the “screams of the enslaved, [..] the death bane of the Tainos, uttered just as one world perished and another began […]” (1). The fukú resonated through the sounds that these human beings made.
Not a house in the country ain’t packed to its rafters with some dead Negro’s grief. – Toni Morrison, Beloved
The State’s unwillingness to hold George Zimmerman responsible for the murder of Trayvon Martin–and its subsequent refusal to hold any police officer accountable for the hundreds of deaths they have caused–has galvanized the United States in the last four years. Hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children alike have taken to the streets, as #BlackLivesMatter, a true and succinct sentence, has roused ghosts of the past who have never left us, who have always been present, accompanying us on this journey.
This post is not a reflection of the music that has served as a soundtrack to these protests, though there are articles that have done so, such as this one, this one, and this one. These pieces do not include the extensive list of articles that address perhaps the most widely-viewed piece of protest music thus far, Beyoncé’s “Formation” video, a scarce offering of which can be found here, here, and here. Instead, it is an essay inspired by the sounds of the protesters themselves, the noises made by the minds, bodies, and spirits of the men, women and children who have taken to public spaces and sometimes commercial zones in order to confront and object to the protections applied to those who kill men, women, and children, often of African descent.
Listen to Los Angeles in 2013. . .
. . .to Houston in 2014. . .
. . .to New York City in 2014. . .
. . .and to Charleston in 2015. . .
. . .
In his pivotal Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance (1996), Joseph Roach characterized New Orleans and London as urban centers marked by two simultaneous, consistent acts: appropriation by white people and white power structures of the cultures of the peoples they have violently marginalized, and then, at the same time, a clear distancing from those very cultures and peoples. Although now in its twentieth year of publication, Roach’s theorization of the circum-Atlantic world remains vastly underutilized in scholarly circles—particularly in sound studies, where it should have special resonance– and has become increasingly critical to our understanding of this historical moment, as it “insists on the centrality of the diasporic and genocidal histories of Africa and the Americas, North and South, in the creation of the culture of modernity” (4). With this configuration, Roach accomplishes two feats simultaneously: first, he decentralizes the United States as the focal point of studies about the so-called New World, instead, placing on equal footing all of the histories and cultures of the Americas. For this scholar of the literatures of the Americas, particularly those written by men and women of African descent, Roach’s is a critical gesture that facilitates comparative work across national boundaries.
Second, and most importantly, Roach emphasizes the role of murder, rape and the destruction of whole cultures indigenous to the American and African continents in the foundation of the nations of this hemisphere. Ta-Nehisi Coates is perhaps the most recent writer to remind us that the most potent legacy of such modernity, racism, “is a visceral experience, that is dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth” (Between the World and Me, 10). That which we know as “modernity,” itself a deeply flawed construct that remains in need of serious revision, was born of broken backs, mutilated limbs, hushed middle-of-the-night tears of indigenous and African peoples. Moans and sighs, whispers and wails, cries and screams, they are the musical score of this hemisphere’s American experiment.
The slaves who were ourselves aided Indigo’s mission, connecting soul & song, experience & unremembered rhythms –Ntozake Shange
In the face of a populace accustomed to ignoring the wailing of mothers who have buried their children, who have disregarded their dignity and the weight and shape and taste of their loss, men, women, and children have mobilized. They have made manifest that which communities of peoples of African descent have spoken of and have documented since the founding of this nation. As Roach has utilized the term performance, the literal rituals of mourning by communities of African heritage not only commemorate those who have recently passed but they also invoke the spirits of those who have long borne witness to such violence. Throughout his study, Roach distinguishes between a European heritage that begins to segregate the living from the dead during the Enlightenment (50), and more traditional cultures, particularly African ones, where spirits mingle with their human counterparts. While written texts may not, and often do not, adequately commemorate the loss of lives deemed marginal to the larger society, performance itself – chants, wails, songs – serve not only to memorialize but also as gestures of restoration.
Protesters and activists are no longer satisfied with the well-established decree that we should wait for a distant moment for a more perfect realization of the United States’s many promises. No, instead, they have identified this as the historical moment in which those oaths are to be fulfilled. They have walked, marched, and stomped through streets, on sidewalks, parks, churches, filling malls and transportation hubs with their bodies as testimony. They have repossessed and redefined spaces once thought of as simply neutral, transparent space as Katherine McKittrick refers to it in Demonic Grounds, revealing the fault-lines of difference based on class, race, gender, and sexuality in this society (xv). They have done so manipulating sound, both recycling chants used through the decades to protest injustice and, at times, simply occupying space, without a word uttered.
The silence waged in the 2014 protest in Grand Central Terminal after the non-indictment of Daniel Pantaleo in the murder of Eric Garner does not represent erasure, but rather a purposeful demonstration of the willful humanity of those unwilling to forget.
They quiet themselves. They replace the sounds of unfettered pain and grief with its absence, until all that you hear is the mechanized announcement of train schedules. The contrast is stark: the moment highlights what Claudia Rankine has identified as the condition of black life in Citizen, that of mourning (145), against a backdrop of technological advancement, that which has been built on the backs of and through the physical, emotional, and intellectual labor of black life. Here, the members of this community enact what has been called a “die-in”: simulating the physical positioning of bodies in caskets, they force onlookers to confront an uncomfortable truth about the history of this country and of the nations of this hemisphere.
All of us walk on land soaked in the blood of those who have made our lives easier and more convenient. The men and women at Grand Central make manifest what Roach terms surrogation: in the chasm left by death, they offer a replacement, one that both evokes those who have died and disturbs the complacency of survivors themselves (2). The performance serves to confront those who dare say that the violence of genocide and enslavement of past generations should remain in the past; no, these men and women and the spirits they invoke respond. Time is not linear, as we have been taught. For past, present, and future are temporal constructs used to service oppression and domination; this will no longer do.
Here, in this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. – Toni Morrison
We bear witness to the reclamation of grief, of lives cut short at the hand of a government charged with protecting those human beings who inhabit its borders, at least theoretically. While, as Roach surmises, “memory [may be] a process that depends crucially on forgetting” (2), we hold space to those dedicated to not forget, to instead excavate the silences, breathe life into those histories, remembering that the stories we have heard, the pages we have read, were once human beings. We create “counter-memories” as challenge and testimony, as a sacred pledge to those who are no longer present physically in this realm (Roach 26). We recall the cultures and practices of those who lived before the written form was a tool of exclusion, when remembrance was a practice of community.
American culture, in the hemispheric sense, incorporates all such rituals, across generations; as Roach notes, it is performance that “works on behalf of living memory, by bringing the parties together as often as necessary” (138). No longer consigned to the past, the spirits of those killed by the state are revived, their existences in the human plain celebrated. They are not defined by how they died but instead by how they lived. While literacy of the written form can separate, sound and gesture more effectively bypass the fictions of difference based on race, ethnicity, gender, class, and sexuality. Cities of the Dead amplifies how “performance can articulate what otherwise may not be properly communicated” (161).
It’s so magic folks feel their own ancestors coming up out of the earth to be in the realms of their descendants – Ntozake Shange
We say their names. We say their names: Eleanor Bumpers. Anthony Báez. Sean Bell. Aiyana Stanley-Jones. Tyisha Miller. Oscar Grant. Rekia Boyd. Trayvon Martin. Tanisha Anderson. Renisha McBride. Eric Garner. Yvette Smith. Tamir Rice. Sandra Bland. Freddie Gray. Korryn Gaines. Akia Gurley. Alton Sterling. Philando Castile. Micah Jester. Deborah Danner. Walter Scott. Michelle Lee Shirley.
The list, tragically, grows, and still we say their names. We do so as an act of remembrance. As an offering. As peoples of African descent around the world do in times of ceremony, in the name of ritual. We remember those who have come before us, who have birthed this current historical moment of awakening here in the United States. We say their names.
And, as the sounds of their names said aloud echoes, we pray. Ashé.
Vanessa K. Valdés is associate professor of Spanish and Portuguese at The City College of New York; she is the editor of Let Spirit Speak! Cultural Journeys through the African Diaspora (2012) and The Future Is Now: A New Look at African Diaspora Studies (2012) and the book review editor of sx salon. She is the author of Oshun’s Daughters: The Search for Womanhood in the Americas (2014). The title of this essay is inspired by Josh Kun’s Audiotopia: Music, Race, and America, where he writes that his book is “focusing on the spaces of music, the spaces of songs, and the spaces of sounds” (25).
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Malcolm Gladwell, who recently wrapped the first season of his podcast Revisionist History, has been on a roll lately. Not a particularly endearing one, though. I’ve been trying to locate his nadir, but it’s not easy with so many options to choose from. Is it in the New Yorker, when he condescendingly exclaims “Of course not!” in response to whether Caster Semenya should be allowed to compete in the 800-meter at the Olympics? He follows up with the assertion that no track-and-field fan disagrees with him, as if the complexity of gender identification is somehow best left to a majority appeal. Or is it in Revisionist History’s Episode 9, “Generous Orthodoxy,” when he chides Princeton students protesting the use of Woodrow Wilson’s name around campus? Calling one student “angry”—a loaded word to lob at a black woman—and surmising she would later “regret her choice of words,” Gladwell advises the students to instead threaten to leave the university if their requests aren’t honored. Why? Because otherwise “every crotchety old Princeton alum” wouldn’t believe they actually care about the university.
For those keeping score, that’s Gladwell, who spent an entire other episode of his podcast lamenting that we don’t “capitalize” people’s educational potential well enough, counseling black students to separate themselves from an Ivy League education as a way to make a point about a pro-segregationist president. Gladwell’s seventh episode, “Hallelujah,” where he discusses musical genius, is not obviously about the kind of systemic inequalities he bumbles in the Semenya and Princeton examples. But the conclusions he draws about genius and the anti-pop aesthetic judgments he claims are informed by the same bad gender and race politics that would put a person’s gender identification in other people’s hands and place the burden of sacrifice on the aggrieved in matters of racial injustice.
The episode “Hallelujah” revolves around two songs that Gladwell argues reached their peak of genius years after they were initially recorded: “Deportees Club” (1984) by Elvis Costello and “Hallelujah” (1984) by Leonard Cohen. In each case, Gladwell asserts that the first recordings were flawed but that they attained a certain beauty in later versions that reveals something about how genius works, though each attained that genius status by different routes. While Costello is responsible for the version of “Deportees Club” that Gladwell loves—he re-recorded it as “Deportee” in 1985 (it wouldn’t be released until 1995 on a re-issue of Goodbye, Cruel World)—“Hallelujah” would peak for Gladwell in a series of covers, most famously by Jeff Buckley (1994), performed by artists other than Cohen. Gladwell’s focus on the process by which a song reaches genius status is a riff on David Galenson’s Old Masters and Young Geniuses theory. Here, Costello and the litany of “Hallelujah” coverers display a process of genius called “experimental innovation,” where the first draft is never the final draft, and genius is only unlocked after years of work. I’ll return to Gladwell’s notion of musical beauty and how it relates to his bad politics momentarily, but I first want to unpack the theory of genius that enthralls him in this episode.
Galenson’s notion of genius is a binary, where some geniuses (“conceptual innovators”) are very young, decisive artists and others, like the “experimental innovators” responsible for “Deportee” and “Hallelujah,” are endless tinkerers who tend to reach their creative potential later in life. Gladwell uses the same paradigmatic examples that Galenson does to categorize geniuses; conceptual innovators are Pablo Picasso, while experimental innovators are Paul Cézanne. Curiously, Gladwell notes that this theory of genius may be best exemplified in music, but he doesn’t seem aware that music scholars have already laid out this same broad theory of genius with easy comps: Mozart the young genius and Beethoven the old master. Moreover, Gladwell doesn’t seem aware that this is a lousy theory of genius.
I’ve written elsewhere about genius myths, and there’s a rabbit hole of problematic ideas out there about classical music genius that run from benignly self-serving to violently racist. One critique is particularly useful for pushing back against Gladwell, as it highlights the gender and race problems with Gladwell’s approach to genius. Tia DeNora’s Beethoven and the Construction of Genius (1994) is a painstaking deconstruction of Beethoven’s genius. While DeNora’s argument includes a number of moving parts, it can be summarized as a demonstration of the way “genius” isn’t so much innate talent as it is a combination of several social and political ideals intersecting with a person’s talents or insights.
It was the 90s, when postmodernity crested in musicology, and the aim of DeNora’s analysis is quintessentially postmodern: undo the Great White Man myth to make room for other kinds of histories and notions of genius to be accommodated. If we understand Beethoven’s genius to be firmly rooted in a number of social and political attitudes—including the reflexive belief that only a white man could be a genius—that tipped in his favor, then we can understand that history isn’t telling us that only men or only white people can be geniuses; rather, history is showing its biases. This sort of deconstruction doesn’t really move the academic needle now—most college freshmen can articulate the Great White Man critique—largely due to the work of DeNora and other deconstructionists who effectively cleared the space for us to build other kinds of scholarship on top of their work.
Alas, though, the 90s truly must be all the rage right now, because Gladwell is wading right back into Great White Man territory. To be clear, he isn’t doing it on purpose, for whatever that’s worth. In Episode 9, the one where he counsels the black Princeton students to threaten to leave the school, he performs a whole Great White Man rant to establish his credibility as A Guy Who Gets It. But beyond understanding that there are too many things named after white men, Gladwell doesn’t indicate that he knows what the rub really is, that the name on a building or School is a tiny piece of a much bigger, systemic problem of race and gender. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, his ideas about musical genius betray his own tendency to set up hierarchies where Great White Men are always on top. So excuse me while I pump some air in my Reeboks, hitch up my Guess jeans, and douse myself in CK1; we have some 90s theory to attend to.
Gladwell doesn’t—and perhaps can’t—articulate what’s genius about the versions of “Deportee” and “Hallelujah” he reveres, and his assessment of the originals is similarly vague. About 1984’s “Deportees Club,” he exclaims, “Oh, god, It’s awful!” For Cohen’s 1984 “Hallelujah,” Gladwell borrows a line from Michael Barthel, who could’ve just as well been describing Gladwell’s podcast: “The entire performance is so hyperserious that it’s almost satire.” [Historiographic aside: Barthel, who is now a researcher for the Pew Research Center, seems to be the under-cited source for the “Hallelujah” history in both Gladwell’s podcast and Alan Light’s book on the song]. Gladwell may suffer a poverty of aesthetic language to describe what is or isn’t good about these songs, but by considering what he does and doesn’t like—what counts as genius or not for him—we can understand where his aesthetic allegiances lie.
Gladwell finds beauty in music whose emotional content is as stripped down as the acoustic guitar textures on the later recordings of “Deportee” and “Hallelujah.” The line he quotes from Barthel misses the point: Barthel likes the satirical nature of the original “Hallelujah” and finds the famous Buckley version—which becomes something of an ürtext for all the covers that came after it—an unfortunate telescoping of emotional range, a “Hallelujah” that only knows lament instead of the many “holy, broken, profane, transcendent” hallelujahs Cohen first explored. But all those hallelujahs, along with the “angry, loud, and upsetting” original “Deportees Club,” don’t seem to suit Gladwell, who prefers versions of the songs where both the emotional and musical content are as straightforward as possible.
That Gladwell is drawn to the versions of Buckley’s “Hallelujah” and Costello’s later “Deportee” that feature an acoustic singer-songwriter coffeehouse vibe isn’t a coincidence. The villain in his account of genius is pop. Noting that both songs were initially recorded in 1984, he reminds us that year’s “biggest album” was Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” “pop music glossed to perfection…not a single stray note or emotion on that record.” “Thriller” was the final single from an album two years old, and it peaked at #4 on the Billboard Hot 100, so Gladwell’s definition of “biggest album” is suspect, but he’s looking for “the antithesis of ‘Deportee’ and ‘Hallelujah,’” so I’ll engage on his terms and zero in on his aesthetics by figuring out what he thinks is wrong with pop music like “Thriller.”
Gladwell offers a couple other assessments of pop aesthetics in his description of producers. Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, who co-produced the Goodbye, Cruel World album “Deporteees Club” appeared on, are the ill-fitting pop perfectionists who try to harness Costello’s sound but only manage to screw it up. Trevor Horn is the guy spending four weeks—“a month,” Gladwell bemoans—shaping a snare sound for Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Two Tribes” (1983). Whether it’s Langer and Winstanley, Horn, or Quincy Jones (who Gladwell doesn’t name but who produced “Thriller”), Gladwell has no space for the behind-the-glass work of sound design and sonic processing in his aesthetics of genius. He argues, citing Costello’s own assessment, that glossy pop perfection couldn’t capture the “dark, emotional, bitter songs, gritty and spare,” pouring out of Costello. For Gladwell, pop music production is the villain because it short circuits the true, raw emotion that he finds beautiful.
The problem with Gladwell’s aesthetics is that he’s mistaking his taste for genius, then reverse-manufacturing an explanation of genius that privileges a specifically white masculine mode of expression. “Glossy pop perfection,” in his estimation, covers up something beautiful, obscuring real emotion. But directly sharing one’s emotions—whether musically or politically—is more acceptable for some than for others. We need look no further than Gladwell for proof. If you’re Elvis Costello or Jeff Buckley singing laments? You’re a genius. If you’re a black woman protesting Woodrow Wilson at Princeton? You’re “angry.”In fact, the danger of directly expressing oneself underlies a wide array of black aeshetics, from Gates’s Signifying Monkey to Shana Redmond’s analysis of Janelle Monae’s “Cold War.” Redmond cites Darlene Clark Hines’s “Rape and the Inner Lives of Black Women in the Middle West” to highlight Monae’s engagement with “the acts of dissemblance that have long characterized black women’s participation in the public sphere” (398). Hines argues that Black women developed “a cult of secrecy, a culture of dissemblance” to protect themselves in public spaces, “creating the appearance of disclosure…while actually remaining an enigma” (Hines 915). It is Monae’s rupture of pop conventions—she breaks down and cries, dropping her lip synch even as the track plays on—that, on the one hand, creates the space for her to step outside of that culture of dissemblance and, on the other hand, marks the cover those pop conventions provide, the strategic, protective secrecy available under so much glossy pop perfection. In his 2002 “Feenin,’” Alexander Weheliye homes in on glossy pop voice-processing, the vocoders and filters (and, several years after his article, AutoTune) that render the R&B voice machinic, and contends that these processing techniques yield human desire that “can be represented only in the guise of the machinic” (39, emphasis mine). In other words, the gloss isn’t a bad thing. It’s a strategy that plugs technology into humanity in order to project ways of being beyond the white liberal humanist subject. In both Redmond’s and Weheliye’s analyses, the sound of pop, the glossy perfection that Gladwell holds up as the antithesis of genius, is employed by Black musicians to enable emotionality in a world that is otherwise hostile to such expression.
Gladwell’s bad aesthetics, his refusal to recognize beauty in pop music, is also bad politics. By holding up an aesthetic that prizes stripped-down, straightforward emotionality, a form of expression available to some but not others, Gladwell ends up in the same Great White Man genius bind DeNora and others unraveled in the postmodern 90s. So I’ll sum it up with a 90s phrase: genius is always already political. Denora argues—and Gladwell inadvertently demonstrates—that labeling artists as genius relies on politically volatile aesthetic judgments that reinforce existing power hierarchies, in this case along the lines of race and gender. Like his response to Princeton students and his armchair adjudication of Semenya’s gender identity, Gladwell’s theory of musical genius proves to be less a revision of history and more a revival of history’s worst politics.
Featured image: “Malcolm Gladwell” by Flickr user Ed Schipul, CC BY-SA 2.0
Justin D Burton is Assistant Professor of Music at Rider University, and a regular writer at Sounding Out!. His research revolves around critical race and gender theory in hip hop and pop, and his current book project is called Posthuman Pop. He is co-editor with Ali Colleen Neff of the Journal of Popular Music Studies 27:4, “Sounding Global Southernness,” and with Jason Lee Oakes of the Oxford Handbook of Hip Hop Music Studies (2017). You can catch him atjustindburton.com and on Twitter @justindburton. His favorite rapper is Right Said Fred.
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