In her recent biography of Roland Barthes, Tiphaine Samoyault describes the quality of his speech through what Barthes had called the “grain of the voice,” a quality that “bears witness to a past able to act in the present, a continued memory, a recollecting forwards” (13). The voice, and perhaps most importantly, its potentialities, has been theorized in the realms of critical theory, philosophy, psychoanalysis, and more recently sound studies, as a property that although commonly enacted remains mysterious, beyond the realm of simple intelligibility. Licia Fiol-Matta’s The Great Woman Singer: Gender and Voice in Puerto Rican Music (Duke University Press: 2016). brilliantly engages many of these theoretical genealogies yet takes an analysis of the voice in surprising new directions. Her focus, as the title indicates, is the career of four “great” Puerto Rican women singers whose careers encompassed a great part of the Twentieth Century. In addition to the theoretical trajectories Fiol-Matta engages, the book is also a welcome addition to the growing field of Latina/o sound studies. Indeed, Latina/o studies’ intersection with sound studies has produced a range of provocative and essential new work that that aim to re-situate how we understand the sonic in Latina/o America.
Once a field dominated by musicologists and historians, sound studies has opened for interdisciplinary scholars new avenues to study the ways in which music and sound intersect with the formation of transnational Latinidad. In particular, many of these studies tend to be anti-canonical, reframing established histories of Latina/o American sounds through expanded forms of listening offered by sound studies. Similarly, listening in new ways to the historical record has allowed scholars in these fields to investigate lesser studied sites or to reframe well established archives. In recent years, we have seen a wealth of exciting (sound) studies that turn our attention and our ears to apprehend how the sonic creates, and often exceeds, forms of knowledge central to these fields. Books such as Deborah R. Vargas’ Dissonant Divas in Chicana Music: The Limits of la Onda [check the SO! Reads review by Wanda Alarcón], Alexandra T. Vazquez’s Listening in Detail: Performances of Cuban Music, Ana Maria Ochoa-Gauthier’s Aurality: Listening and Knowledge in Nineteenth-Century Colombia, and Dolores Inés Casilla’s Sounds of Belonging: U.S. Spanish Language Radio and Public Advocacy [check the SO! Reads review by Monica De la Torre] to name a few, have re-centered Latina/o and Latin American studies along the lines of the sonic. Departing from (although indebted to) earlier studies of Latina/o American musical forms, this body of work invites us, borrowing Vazquez’s term, to listen in detail not only to the official record, but to the sonic keys and codes hidden beyond official canons of the continental soundscape. In these projects, as in Fiol-Matta’s work, sound is engaged not only in relation to those who produce it but also those of us who must engage in an expansive project of listening.
The “great” woman singer of the title carries multiple valences for the author. It refers of course to the greatness of these singers but also to the ideological strictures that have dictated the very way these singers were received, written about, and interpreted in a larger public sphere that in the book encompasses the continental landscape. Fiol-Matta argues that to conceive of a singer as both great and a woman creates a central divide that forces our listening of female singers into roles dictated by the nation, record companies, fans, and others. In order to challenge this ideological strait-jacked The Great Woman Singer proposes that these great female singers deployed what she calls the “thinking voice,” a form and theory of vocality that turns to a range of theories, primarily psychoanalysis and philosophy, to read the very cultural history of Puerto Rican music during the greater part of the last century.
Fiol-Matta listens in detail to the careers of four singers, Myrta Silva, Ruth Fernández, Ernestina Reyes, and Lucecita Benitez, who throughout their prolific careers were forced to balance their preternaturally gifted voices and defiant public personas against a sexist and homophobic industry and culture that sought to discipline them. In some ways, the histories and careers of each of these singers might seem at first glance to cast them as probable tragic protagonists in a Douglas Sirk melodrama, female figures who are pitted against but ultimately succumb to larger societal forces. A gifted storyteller, Fiol-Matta does provide the reader vivid portrayals of the many challenges that each of these singers faced, yet she pairs these biographical sketches with keen theoretical insight to illuminate how their thinking voice stood against their time. Thus, what emerges throughout The Great Woman Singer is not only a loving portrait of these women, but also a theoretical model that grasps how their extraordinary voices, as well as their performative command of the stage, were able to exist in relation to the weight of the state, culture, and history. Among the book’s most exciting strengths is the encounter between the historico-biographical and a series of deeply theoretical arguments that build throughout. Fiol-Matta deftly combines (to name a few) archival research, cultural history, psychoanalytic theory, queer and feminist theories, close reading, and interviews the author conducted in the course of writing the book.
Although her stated goal is to develop a theory of the thinking voice, Fiol-Matta does so by mining the complex interactions between music’s deployment in the service of state projects, audiences both local and transnational, record companies, the cultural and social history of particular sounds, and the personal and professional lives of the singers themselves. At times such a comprehensive approach feels overwhelming, digressing often from a chapter’s main points to small details of a singer’s oeuvre for example, but this move results necessary to fully illustrate the enormously complex terrains these singers had to navigate. Indeed, the contextual elements of the book provide neophytes to the Puerto Rican and Caribbean sonic landscape the tools to grasp how the voice emerges often against the demands of institutional and cultural forces. However, the driving force of these chapters is an invitation to listen along, so as I read through Fiol-Matta’s chapters I listened along to these voices, enveloping my reading and my listening.
The Great Woman Singer begins with an emblematic moment in the history of Puerto Rican music that helped establish the island’s sonic relation to the rest of Latin America: Lucecita Benítez’s winning performance of “Génesis” at the First Festival of Latin Song in the World. Previous to this moment Puerto Rico, and Lucecita, had occupied a marginal space in the Latina/o American imaginary, but in her performance of composer Guillermo Veneers Lloveras’ song, Benítez reset the script for both.
As Fiol-Matta writes, “no scripts were available to subordinate her and tame her eruption. She was not feminine. She did not sing softly or croon about heterosexual love. She claimed the masculine prerogatives of expressing social and political ideas outside of marriage and motherhood, eschewing the roles that her managers sought to implant in her earliest persona” (3). These opening moments will serve as a refrain through different voices, keys, timbres, and moments throughout the book. The Great Woman Singer, however, is not only a feminist retelling of history, or as Fiol-Matta writes, “It is not a survey of women in music or a tracing of resistance by women to the strictures of music making. My interest in the female pop music star is about querying instances where singularity erupts despite heterosexism and misogyny, through the vehicle of voice” (4). To listen to women seriously, she indicates, is to move away from facile narratives of gender and onto an investigation of what their voice did against the weight of history itself. Like the grain of the voice that began this review, the vocal performances that the book delves into appear to scramble the temporal markers that would contain it.
A central concept in the book is the notion that the voice itself must be understood as a form of thought. As Fiol-Matta writes, to examine the thinking voice of the great woman singer in its historical specificity is a way of thinking gender itself, “a critical theorization of voice and gender, with an anchor in psychoanalytic thought without being exclusively psychoanalytic.” (8). Her approach to the voice functions as the methodology that guides the reader, proposing forms of listening that often escape normative listening practices. Central to the book’s argument is the relationship between music and the state. Indeed, Fiol-Matta refers to the state’s investment in music as a form of “mandated enjoyment” but as she writes, “I unpack enjoyment’s dependency on the performing, female body and detail when, how, and why various forms of control short -circuit, despite their certainty of managing women” (10).
The first chapter examines the career of Myrta Silva, who enjoyed a long and fruitful career partly because of her mastery of a number of genres, the guaracha and the bolero primary among them. Fiol-Matta puts forward a notion of “cynical ethics” that we can find in Silva’s voice, “a virtuosity that José Esteban Muñoz has linked to queer artistry: the brilliant, conceptual staging of negativity and failure” (19). The height of Silva’s prominence came during the 1940s, her most prolific and successful period. She was an extraordinary figure who interjected herself into traditionally masculine realms, “her positioning was simply unheard of” (21). In the 1950s Silva returned to Puerto Rico from New York, becoming a major figure across media. Fiol-Matta lingers in particular on the excesses of Silva’s body, who in the arc of her career went from a youthful singer to a “sexual bombshell,” eventually to be known as “nuestra gordita,” a figure who had lost the sexual appeal of her youth but who remained iconic in spite of these sexist castings of her body. The chapter listens to Silva’s signature song “Nada.”
The song’s lyrics are self-referential; Silva refers to herself as “nada,” a way of expressing that she does “not want to be looked at/I don’t want to be told what to do, to be touched, spoken to, or be invited to sing/Nothing, I will no longer be called Myrta.” When listening to the song, Silva’s virtuosity becomes immediately apparent as the furious velocity of her voice charges the lyrics in equal amounts with sensuality and negation. As an ostensibly queer artist, this performance of “Nada” signals Silva’s refusal to be coopted by the desires of her male onlookers. As Fiol-Matta makes clear, this positioning is essential to understand the very career of Silva’s body as she morphed from the sensuous “Myrta” to the nearly desexualized “Chencha” later in her career. But her voice “[breached] the distance between signifier and signified and between her persona and person” (33).
The following chapter focuses on Ruth Fernández, one of Puerto Rico’s most prominent black singers. She “entered the star orbit of the music establishment as an exception: the first female lead of any orchestra in Puerto Rico, and also the first black star body in Puerto Rican culture” (67). Blackness, in this chapter, becomes entangled with the question of being itself, with Fernández’s voice a rejoinder that comes into existence against a racist and sexist cultural landscape. Throughout the chapter we hear how Fernández was from her childhood relegated to the sidelines because of her blackness, sometimes quietly, often through the loud marker of “ugliness.” But as with the rest of her case studies, Fiol-Matta shows that Fernández’s trajectory defies any simple narrative that would see her career as a personal triumph against this racism.
Her vocal performance leaps beyond the racist narratives assigned to her blackness although she always had to negotiate them. As the author states, “while Fernández was a pop music singer, she possessed a voice of great volume and color, was naturally virtuosic, and, although not trained, reflected a preference for classically inflected singing that she probably learned or was steered into in school” (68). This education, however, was in itself the result of colonial programs that sought to “civilize” Puerto Rican bodies, but “in this colonial context, her voice opened a gap in the available symbolics of music” (68). The virtuosic register of Fernández’s voice pushed against the racial logics imposed upon Puerto Ricans of African descent, even when descriptions of it understood her blackness as the provenance of her mighty instrument. The chapter is especially attentive to how Fernández’s aural and visual presentation collided and colluded to create a racial sensorium. What emerges in the chapter is a set of difficult negotiations that tether between the official reception of blackness embodied by Fernández’s career and the ways in which the voice, through its signifiers, evades and expands upon those official programs of racial legibility. To approach the black sensorium of Fernández’s career, Fiol-Matta intimates, we must listen past the stories of triumph, hearing as well the wounds that her voice could never quite heal.
The book turns next to Ernestina Reyes, “La Calandria,” Puerto Rico’s foremost interpreter of the jíbaro genre, or music from the countryside. Her fame was unparalleled, “over the course of two decades, she recorded an uncommonly large number of tracks for a woman, a feat made all the more remarkable because she routinely received sole or main billing, collaborated with the very best vocalists of the country music genre, and was as a matter of course backed by master country music cuatro players, certifying her revered standing” (121). But Reyes’s career serves as a gateway to investigate Puerto Rico’s difficult relationship to the figure of the jíbaro, a symbol of the nation’s countryside, a figure equally admired and derided.
As Fiol-Matta explains, “the Puerto Rican genres of plane, bomba, and jíbaro music became explicitly aligned with the national-popular visions that rewrote music history as a racialized narrative of predominantly Hispanophile origins [that] exalted the peasant figure and relegated Afro-Puerto Ricans to a heritage role” (125). Fiol-Matta posits these distinctions as zoe or “bare life.” But, “compared to the Afro-Puerto Rican subject, the symbolic country dweller lived on, however spectrally, while the descendant of slaves faded away as a relic of the past” (125). Calandria was difficult to classify within the racial spectrum of the jíbaro genre, she is consistently described as “dark-skinned” against the figure’s supposed whiteness as she “astutely navigated this extimacy and understood the contradictory affordances of the nothing” (133). Fiol-Matta sees Calandria’s career as an encounter with the “nonplace” in her performance of a figure, the female jíbaro, that did not readily exist in the cultural imaginary. She “learned to convey the ‘rustic’ via well-traveled techniques of rasp and nasality; she also recurred to the shrill tone, which sounded uneducated to the middle classes, a fact that she must have been well aware of” (135). Indeed, Calandria managed a successful career because of the ways in which she disguised her virtuosity through improvisation, playing both in order to create her figure as a singer. Fiol-Matta is attentive to the genre’s own ambivalent place in the Puerto Rican sonic imaginary, teetering between the folksy and the popular, providing readers with a rich history of the demands of iconicity.
The final chapter returns to Lucecita Benítez and most fully develops the concept of the thinking voice. Listening to Benítez’s powerful performance of “Génesis,” the performance that begins the book and serves as its concluding guide, feels overpowering even with decades standing between its moment and the present. It embodies the thinking voice, “an event that can be apprehended through but is not restricted to music performance. It exceeds notation, musicianship, and fandom, although it partakes of them all. No artist owns the thinking voice; it cannot be marshaled at will or silenced when inconvenient. Its aim is not to dazzle or enthrall, although it may do so” (173).Benítez alongside the other singers in the preceding chapters, doesn’t so much possess this voice as much as she wields it, an encounter between prodigious talent and deep technicality. In the case of Lucecita, perhaps the greatest champion of the Puerto Rican sonic imaginary, the expansiveness of the thinking voice took her from her beginnings as a teen superstar to embrace the seismic political calls toward liberation in the 1960s and 70s, and even sustained her as she became a popular balladeer in the dusk of her career. Fiol-Matta explains, “her deep register was truly wondrous and unique in the constellation of all Latin American and Spanish-speaking singers, not just women” (177). Lucecita did not emerge unscathed, however. As her recordings and performances took on an increasingly defiant tone, aligning herself with the Cuban revolution and Black liberation, she was blacklisted, her career momentarily suspended. As an older figure, her final career incarnation was as a diva never declared such in part because of her butchness. She never turned her back on her political leanings, but adapted to the necessities to continue her career. The chapter’s conclusion is particularly evocative as Fiol-Matta discloses her own disillusionment at this final phase, attending concerts “waiting for the real Lucecita to come back” (224).
But it is this final desire, unfulfilled, that perhaps provides the impetus for a book invested often in reconciliation. Throughout their careers, all four singers performed songs in which they were the explicit protagonists, calling out (and to) their publics, who often chose to ignore these calls in spite of their fascination with the singers. It’s a position familiar to those of us who have declared ourselves fans only to feel like we have been let down by the object of our fascination. And yet what Fiol-Matta proposes with the thinking voice is not simply a mode of reparative reading that restores her (and our own) fandom, but a serious analytic that blurs the distinction between the listening to and the thinking with. Fiol-Matta knows that this is an especially important move when it comes to female singers, whose careers and personas are used to obscure the difficulty they demand from the listener. The Great Woman Singer then provides us with a guide to listen anew and in new ways.
Featured Image: Screen Capture of Ruth Fernández by SO!
Iván Ramos is assistant professor of LGBTQ studies in the department of Women’s Studies at the University of Maryland. He was previously a University of California President’s Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Ethnic Studies at UC Riverside.He received his PhD in Performance Studies with a Designated Emphasis in Women, Gender, and Sexuality from UC Berkeley. His first book, Sonic Negations: Unbelonging Subjects, Inauthentic Objects, and Sound between Mexico and the United States, examines how Mexican and U.S. Latino/a artists and publics utilized sound to articulate negation in the wake of NAFTA. Iván’s broader research investigates the links and slippages between transnational Latino/a American aesthetics in relationship to the everydayness of contemporary and historical violence. In Fall 2016, he was a member of the “Queer Hemisphere: América Queer” Residential Research group at the University of California Humanities Research Institute at UC Irvine. His writing has appeared in several journals including Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory, Studies in Gender and Sexuality, and ASAP/Journal. He has articles forthcoming in the catalog for the exhibition Axis Mundo: Queer Networks in Chicano L.A., sponsored by the Getty Foundation, and the anthology Turning Archival from Duke University Press.
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SO! Reads: Dolores Inés Casillas’s ¡Sounds of Belonging!–Monica De La Torre
SO! Reads: Roshanak Khesti’s Modernity’s Ear–Shayna Silverstein
Author’s note: In line with the ethics of listening considered below, I’ve chosen not to embed the videos of police violence that I discuss. But I’ve linked to them when available for readers who’d like to see/hear their content.–Alex Werth
“I’m scared to death of these police.” Dave Chappelle’s voice—pitched down, but nonetheless recognizable—calls from the speakers, cutting through the darkness of Oakland, CA’s Starline Social Club. It’s closing night of the 2016 Matatu Festival of Stories, an annual celebration of Black diasporic narratives, technologies, and futures routed through the San Francisco Bay Area. King Britt—an eclectic electronic pioneer and producer, and former DJ for Digable Planets—has landed with the third version of “To Unprotect and Subserve: A Sonic Response.” (It was first performed after a march for Mike Brown in Ferguson in 2014.) I can barely see Britt, his solemn look bathed in the dim glow of electronic consoles and the red-and-blue pulse of police lights. “First money I got,” Chappelle continues, “I went out and bought me a police scanner. I just listen to these mothafuckas before I go out, just to make sure everything’s cool. ‘Cause you hear shit on there: ‘Calling all cars, calling all cars. Be on the lookout for a Black male between 4’7” and 6’8”.’” With this double invocation, Britt invites us to listen. Specifically, à la Chappelle, he invites us to listen back—to attune to the agents of a racialized security state that, from ShotSpotter to CIA surveillance, profile and police the world’s sonic landscapes.
This essay considers the ethical effects/affects in King Britt’s work of sampling what I call the sonic archive of police violence. From Oakland to Ferguson, the Movement for Black Lives has raised critical questions about the mass surveillance of Black and Brown communities, the undemocratic control of data in cases of police misconduct, and the use of smart phones and other recording devices as means to hold the state accountable. But the failure to indict or even discipline cops in police killings where audio/video evidence was not only available but overwhelming, from Eric Garner to Tamir Rice, casts doubt upon the emancipatory power of simply recording our race-based system of criminal (in)justice. And when re-presented ad nauseum on the news and social media, these recordings can retraumatize those most vulnerable to racist state violence. Indeed, at a discussion among Black artists at Matatu, each panelist admitted to limiting their exposure to what poet Amir Sulaiman called “e-lynching.”
What, then, can we learn from Britt about the praxis and politics of listening back when the circulation of what KRS One dubbed the “sound of da police” is now daily, digital, and ubiquitous? How can we make sense of audio recording when it’s come to signal repression, resistance, and painful reprisal all at the same time?
Back in the darkness of the club, Chappelle’s voice dissolves into a conversation between Darrin Wilson and a dispatcher from the Ferguson Police, who sends him to find the body of Mike Brown—a “Black male in a white t-shirt,” reportedly “running toward QuikTrip” with a stolen box of Swishers. The optimistic waves of sound that open the piece resolve into a throbbing pulse of 1/32nd notes that sounds like a helicopter. Britt begins to loop in other elements: a low bass tone, a syncopated stab. With kicks and reverb-heavy snares, he builds a slow, head-nodding beat (60 bpm) that coalesces around the vocal sample—swaddling, softening, and ultimately subsuming it with high-pitched legato tones. The synths are sorrowful. But the mesmerizing beat embraces listeners in their mourning.
This act of listening to the state differs from the one parodied at the start. Chappelle attends to the police scanner as a form of precaution, checking whether it’s safe for him to enter a realm where he can be marked as criminal (“Staying in the crib tonight! Fuck that!” he concludes). But Britt’s sonic bricolage is more therapeutic than protective. He uses repetition, reverb, and improvised melody to score a sonic altar—to open space, rather than control time—where we can meditate on the archive of police violence with the intention to heal. “Sometimes to push through the trauma we need to experience it in a different context,” he tells me over email. “There is room for healing within the chords and sounds that are carefully curated.” Britt thus reactivates the pathos buried inside this archive—reclaiming what Susan Sontag, in “On Photography,” recognizes as an “ethical content” of representational form that can fade from careless repetition (21).
After removing the loops one-by-one, until the helicopter sound is all that remains, Britt releases a new sample into the mix. It’s audio from a cell-phone video taken in 2013 by two Black men as they’re harassed by White cops during a stop-and-frisk in Philadelphia (Britt’s hometown). He scores the somber scene with dissonant organs and an offbeat percussive note that reminds me of stress-induced arrhythmia—a heartbeat out-of-place, aggravated, precarious . Vibrating with anxiety, the soundscape temporarily snatches listeners from mourning, demanding that we listen in witness, instead.
The video reveals that the police tear the two men apart, pinning them to the cruiser. But the violence of the encounter is verbal as much as physical. The cops’ language and tone become increasingly abusive as the men contest their treatment in a sounding of agency that Regina Bradley, writing about Black women, calls “sonic disrespectability.” Philip Nace, the more audible of the officers, embodies a double bind built into what Jennifer Lynn Stoever calls the “sonic color line.” He threatens one of the men when he speaks out (“You’re gonna be in violation if you keep running your mouth when I split your wig open.”). But he turns around and ridicules him when, instead, the man refuses to speak (“You don’t know what we know…Right? Right?! What, you don’t hear now?”). As Stoever notes, the demand that African Americans speak when spoken to, but in a way that sounds their submission to Whites, is a feature of anti-Black oppression stemming from the “racial etiquette” of slavery (30-32).
Britt’s manipulation of vocals speaks to the centrality of sampling in hip-hop. According to Tricia Rose, hip-hop artists have long prioritized the sample as a way to recognize and renovate a communal repertoire of songs and sounds (79). And given the realities of anti-Black oppression in the U.S., this repertoire has often entailed the “sound(s) of da police.” From sirens to skits to verses, rappers and producers have remixed the sounds of the state to characterize, caricature, and critique the country’s criminal justice system. But Britt’s trespass on the state’s sonic sovereignty differs from classics like “Fuck tha Police,” in which N.W.A. conducts a mock trial of “the system.” Whereas N.W.A. reappropriates the rituals of legal testimony and judgment to condemn the police (“The jury has found you guilty of being a redneck, white-bread, chicken-shit mothafucka.”), Britt’s musical re-mediation of police violence favors grief over moralizing, dirge over indictment.
In this vein, the musical/ethical demand to witness waxes but then wanes. The soundscape becomes more and more dissonant until the vocals are consumed by a thunderous sound. Suddenly, the storm clears. Britt hits a pre-loaded drum track (136 bpm) with driving double-time congas and chimes over a steady sway of half-time kicks. He starts to improvise on the synth in an angelic register, revealing the impact of his early encounters with Sun Ra on his aesthetic. The catharsis of the scene is accentuated by the sporadic sound of exhalation. This sense of freedom dissolves when the beat runs out of gas…or is pulled over. In its stead, Britt introduces audio from the dashboard camera of Brian Encinia, the Texas State Trooper who arrested Sandra Bland. Encinia and Bland’s voices are pitched down and filtered through an echo delay, lending an intense sense of dread to his enraged orders (“Get out of the car! I will light you up!”).
Here, I sense the affective resonance of dub. Like the musicians on rotation in Michael Veal’s Dub, Britt manipulates the timbre and texture of voices in a way that demands a different sort of attention from listeners who, like me, may be desensitized to the sonic violence of the racialized security state as it’s vocalized and circulated in and between Ferguson, Philly, and Prairie View. Britt reworks the character and context of the vocals into a looping soundscape, and that soundscape sends me into a meditative space—one in which the vibes of humiliation and malice “speak” to me more than Encinia’s individual utterances as an agent of the state. According to Veal, the pioneers of dub developed a sound that, while reverberating with the severity of the Jamaican postcolony, “transport[ed] their listeners to dancefloor nirvana” and “the far reaches of the cultural and political imagination” (13). Now, conducting our Matatu, Britt is both an engineer and a medicine man. Rather than simply diagnose the state of anti-Black police violence in the American (post)colony, he summons a space where we can reconnect with the voices (and lives) lost to the archives of police violence amid what Veal refers to as dub’s Afro-sonic repertoire of “reverb, remembrance, and reverie” (198).
What Sontag once wrote about war photography no doubt holds for viral videos (and the less-recognized soundscapes that animate them). Namely, when used carelessly or even for gain, the documentary-style reproduction of the sonic archive of police violence can work to inure or even injure listeners. But in Britt’s care-full bricolage, sampling serves to literally re-mediate the violence of racialized policing and its reverberations throughout our everyday landscapes of listening. It’s not the fact of repetition, then, but the modality, that matters. And Britt draws upon deep traditions of scoring, hip-hop, and dub to sonically construct what he calls a “space to breathe.”
Featured image of King Britt’s performance courtesy of Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi for the Matatu Festival of Stories.
Alex Werth is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Geography at UC Berkeley. His research looks at the routine regulation of expressive culture, especially music and dance, within the apparatuses of public nuisance and safety as a driver of cultural foreclosure in Oakland, CA. It also considers how some of those same cultural practices enable forms of coordination and collectivity that run counter to the notions of “the public” written into law, plan, and property. In 2016, he was a member of the curatorial cohort for the Matatu Festival of Stories and is currently a Public Imagination Fellow at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. He lives in Oakland, where he dances samba and DJs as Wild Man.
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Music to Grieve and Music to Celebrate: A Dirge for Muñoz— Johannes Brandis
Here at Sounding Out! we like to celebrate World Listening Day (July 18) with a blog series. This year, we bring your attention to the role of listening when it comes to the sounds of the K-12 classroom, and by extension, the school.
Any day in a K-12 school involves movement and sounds day in and day out: the shuffling of desks, the conversations among classmates, the fire drill alarm, the pencils on paper, the picking up of trays of food. However, in many conversations about schools, teaching, and learning, sound is absent.
This month’s series will have readers thinking about the sounds in classrooms in different ways. They will consider race, class, and gender, and how those aspects intersect how we listen to the classrooms of our past and our present. More importantly, the posts will all include assignments that educators at all stages can use in their classrooms.
Time’s up, pencils down, and let’s listen to Shakira Holt‘s playlists, compiled by three of her high school graduates. –Liana Silva, Managing Editor
This past school year, in my roles as a high school teacher who likes what music can do for the classroom environment and as a Link Crew Coordinator who oversees student leaders as they host a mixture of freshman-only and schoolwide events, I frequently found myself sternly censoring black female student contributions to musical playlists. Although I emphasized the criterion of “clean” with increasing exasperation, my students just did not seem to get it. Strangely overlooking “ni**a,” “f***,” and “s**t,” they brought me songs, which, if played, would have gotten me called into the principal’s office, literally. When they triumphantly approached me with “clean” versions, they typically cast not a moment’s thought towards the lyrical content of drugging, drinking, fighting, and sexing, topics no less hazardous for campus play. Clearly, my students and I were working from battling notions of “clean.”For them, “clean” was a concept fully bound up in and therefore fully resolved by language alone; in their view of things, to excise the problematic language was to expel the problem. For me, however, “clean” also included ideas such as “not sipping, smoking, popping, or shooting anything,” “not beating, kicking, hitting, shooting, or stabbing anyone,” as well as “not offering a play-by-play of actual or desired intimate activity.” Then there were some of the songs’ seemingly innocuous but just as troubling projections of sad, turbulent, co-dependent visions of love which often turn on the most toxic, tired iterations of normative gender expectations and almost always wound me up to deliver long, moralistic speeches on relationships.
Feeling every bit the forty-year old school marm that I am, I remain abundantly clear on my objections to these songs for general classroom and campus use. However, I confess that my effectual silencing of these young women never sat quite right with me. It nagged me with worries over what I was really refusing to hear, to make space for by shutting off the voices of these young black women in this way.
However outré, daring, or trouble-making I may fancy myself as a scholar and thinker, when placed within the K-12 context, I am, it turns out, your average, workaday campus censor. I hypocritically feign alarm at cussing. I fake-clear my throat with loud ahems whenever that blue talk ventures into the X-rated. While I fully respect the creativity and naughtiness of student-to-student speech and spend a good bit of time pretending not to hear what is meant to be conversation among peers, there is a limit I feel compelled to enforce. Whenever the volume grows too loud for me to pretend not to have heard or when the word choice becomes spectacularly adventurous, the expectations of the classroom/campus setting demand my intervention. Dutifully, I step in as judge and censor.
Nor is this a singular feature of schools. Places and spaces of all kinds depend heavily upon the extent to which both occupants and itinerants adhere to place-based expected modes of behavior and speech. It is important to note that even when enforced and observed by people of color, these behavior and speech norms remain overwhelmingly middle-class and white in origin and character, which can lead to interesting, sometimes alarming, and even deadly implications for people of color who enter “allegedly public” spaces without observing these norms, as Jennifer Lynn Stoever points out. In the Introduction to The Sonic Color Line: Race & the Cultural Politics of Listening, Stoever argues that in failing to act or speak in ways that reflect the place-based expected modes of behavior and speech governing such spaces, people of color frequently run the risk of falling prey to what she calls “white Americans’…implicit, sometimes violent, control over…an ostensibly ‘free,’ ‘open,’ and ‘public’ space” (2). This risk, as Stoever illustrates, often exposes non-compliant people of color to condemnation, confrontation, and even bodily harm.
The collision of place/space, race, and gender is a natural element of life in the U.S. and has become a regular and needful facet of contemporary national discourse. In a brilliant analysis of this collision as it took place in the 2013 George Zimmerman trial, Regina Bradley explores how the presence of Rachel Jeantel laid bare the way in which enforcement of place-based norms is often racialized and gendered. Rachel Jeantel is the young black woman whose body, comportment, and speech set off waves of derision and controversy as she testified in court regarding the last living moments of her close friend, Trayvon Martin. Bradley recalls how critics ignored Jeantel’s anguish, her grief, and her trauma in order to train excessive focus on her “refusal and inability to conform to expected cultural and aural scripts of black womanhood within the confines of the courtroom.” The courtroom’s “cultural and aural scripts of black womanhood” demand overt demonstrations of respect, if not outright intimidation, passivity, and general humility in tone and demeanor which would typically compensate for any deviations from Standard American English speech norms. Jeantel’s speech played only by the rules of what Brittney Cooper has called “her own particular, idiosyncratic black girl idiom” as created by her “Haitian and Dominican working-class background, her U.S. Southern upbringing, and the three languages—Haitian Kreyol…Spanish, and English—that she speaks,” and not by the rules of SAE. Thus lacking both the gentle mien expected of black women in court and an acceptable mainstream speech pattern, Jeantel suffered a broad range of brutal racist, classist, and sizeist critiques centering not only on her attitude and her speech, but also on her weight, her skin tone, her hair, and her general unfitness for public consumption.
Like the courtroom, the K-12 classroom and campus are place-based contexts that possess their own “expected cultural and aural scripts.” These scripts prescribe and police such speech elements as volume, tone, syntax, diction, and content. Like courtrooms and other spaces, the K-12 classroom and campus can easily become oppositional, and sometimes downright antagonistic, towards the young black female people who occupy these spaces while speaking their “own particular, idiosyncratic black girl idiom[s].” The idiosyncrasies of their idioms can so completely transgress the K-12 cultural and aural script that these young black female people often lose the right of being heard altogether, of achieving any attention at all beyond opprobrium for their transgressiveness. Bradley writes pointedly of Jeantel, “Her emotionally charged question ‘are you listening?’ jolted not only [George Zimmerman’s attorney, Don] West but those watching the trial. Were we listening? What were we listening for?” I find overwhelming resonance here because when I reframe my students’ playlists and song choices as alternative types of “idiosyncratic black girl idiom,” I must also reframe myself as an agent of what Bradley calls “hyper-respectability,” a source of censure and scorn. I must then answer Jeantel and Bradley’s questions honestly: For most of the year, I was not listening to my black female students. Too preoccupied with listening for speech that matched the cultural and aural scripts of the K-12 classroom and campus, I repeatedly silenced idiosyncratic black girl idiom, enacting an all too-frequent response to black female voices.
This sin against my students becomes even clearer when I consider it in the context of terms set forth by Robin James in “How not to listen to Lemonade: music criticism and epistemic violence.” James discusses at length how music criticism can inflict great violence upon “black women’s cultural and creative work” by “recentering [white] men as authorities and experts.” When white men are recentered as omniscient, innately generic, and consummately universal arbiters of culture and artistry, cultural and creative work emerging from outside of their personal and cultural frames of reference become subjected to filters, demands, and expectations often inapplicable or inappropriate to the work but especially to the black female experiences and vantage points from which that work arises. Hence the “epistemic violence” of which James’ title speaks. Without difficulty, I can replace James’ “black women’s cultural and creative work” with Cooper’s “idiosyncratic black girl idiom,” or even have my own go at it with “black female vision and voice.” I can then also substitute James’ “recenter[ed white] men with “recentered elder/teacher/agent of hyper-respectability.” Having done so, I arrive once again at the epistemic and ontological violence I enacted upon my students—for good reason, of course, but to the same unfortunate end.
My intention is not to intimate that I should have green lighted their every choice and let their music go blaring from the loud speaker at lunch while high school kids enjoyed our classic recess days, during which big kids actually had fun at lunch, dancing and tossing the football (girls, too!) and jumping double-dutch. In retrospect, I see now that there was a way to keep that aural space PG-13 AND to listen deeply to the songs that mattered most to these young women, to hear not only what the songs were saying to them but more importantly to hear what they were saying through the songs. I am saddened that I could have been generating ways throughout the year to center and amplify the very black female student voices I stifled and silenced far too often, for far too long.
This post is an attempt at redemption for all my huffy exasperation and my quickness to relieve them of the aux cord this school year. Enlisting the help of the three seniors (now graduates) who bore the brunt of all my aux cord snatching, I have set about putting things right. I asked them to compile playlists of their top five songs, along with the lyrics. I then asked these young women either to come in and speak with me about their songs or to submit written commentary about the music they chose. I took off all restrictions and encouraged them to select whatever songs their hearts desired.
When I first imagined the critical value of engaging in this project, I figured that I might be able to mine their playlists and commentaries for some Patricia Hill Collins-esque crystallization of black female thought as it exists at this moment, late in the second decade of the new millennium, among high school seniors on the cusp of black womanhood in a country which remains steadfastly anti-woman, anti-black, and anti-black woman. That is indeed a worthy project and one which deserves completion. For this post, however, I simply want to listen to my students at long last. I want to listen closely, and I want to listen deeply. I want others to listen to them, too.
Attending fully to the thoughts and words and feelings of black female people, is but one means of expressing a form of love I call philogynoir. Clearly, this term plays with and off of Moya Bailey’s misogynoir, which she defined upon its 2010 inception as a “the particular brand of hatred directed at black women in American visual & popular culture.” Philogynoir is my attempt to rise to the challenge of naming, which Bailey identified as essential to addressing social ills. She told Mic.com last year, “I think we have to refine language in a lot of different ways so we can actually come up with solutions that help the communities we want to address,” she said. “When you use language that’s generic or unspecific you can get at some of the problem, but not all of it.”
If misogynoir calls out racist-sexist hatred aimed squarely at black women so that that hatred can be challenged and ultimately eliminated, then the concept of philogynoir provides a name for conscious gestures of love towards those same people—words, acts, and artifacts of acknowledgement, admiration, and adoration which have the potential to neutralize and ultimately undo the effects of the hatred. Deep listening, as I imagine it, in its potential to affirm, to humanize, to dignify, and to amplify, can be activated as a powerful form of philogynoir.
Other than the chance to redress my teacherly wrongs, the greatest honor I experienced in this philogynoir project was the opportunity to attend to the hurts of my students by listening to their distress, their agony. To be sure, their playlists and commentaries demonstrate that the idiosyncratic black girl idiom is highly equipped to express a full range of feelings, thoughts, experiences, and yearnings, so I hesitate to make any move which might define and confine the black female experience or its idiosyncratic idiom only in terms of pain and trauma, especially when there is such little space for black girl pain beyond its most fetishized pop culture iterations. The pain and the trauma are there, however, and deserve witness and respect.
I call attention to the pain and the trauma in my students’ idiosyncratic black girl idiom because it is precious. These are sacred hurts, holy injuries—not because they were inflicted by a deity, but because where they touched the lives of these young women, they became creative forces, shaping the signs and symbols by which these young women will know and be known, by which they will call and be called. There is tragedy here, yes, and terrible misery—but there is also mystery and great, thrilling, healing power, as well. My fervent wish for these young women is that with time, they will come to embrace the mystery and to know healing in every hurting place. My prayer is that they will each, in time, wield that creative force of their own accord to make something beautiful and lasting in the genius of their own idiosyncratic black girl idiom.
What follows are the playlists, with commentary, of these three young black women (whose names I have changed), both bespeaking and spoken in the “idiosyncratic black girl idiom” of each individual young woman, articulating each unique voice and vision and innately honoring the experiences that have shaped them. I have included no critiques of the songs or even of their commentaries. For the time being, these playlists represent a sacred line in the sand across which I will not venture with critique.
I am simply listening now. I’m listening to them, and I’m listening for them…in solidarity and in love.
- Long Song Away by Kevin Ross
This whole song is jazzy, especially the intro. It’s about a girl in the rush of it all. I connected to it because I had so many responsibilities at home. I never had time for fun. My life was joyless. I was like a robot. I finally had to have a conversation with my mom and let her know that she would have to let me live a little and be young. There had to be some kind of fun in my life. This song is about slowing down and just letting the record play.
- Confidently Lost by Sabrina Claudio
This song speaks to me. I’ve been lost before and I got to a place where I was comfortable with my lostness. I love the part about “I don’t need you to find me cuz I’m not hiding anything.” This is a good soul/R&B song about how hard it is to figure out what will bring you fulfillment but that’s not a bad place to be. Being lost is not necessarily anything negative. It means you’re going somewhere.
- Redbone by Childish Gambino
This song makes me want to put on some skates and roll-bounce to it. A lot of people like the groove on this song, but they miss the deeper meaning. It’s telling people to wake up and be known for who you are. It has a lot of references to the Black Lives Matter Movement and the dangers involved in being black. When he says “scandalous” and “creep up on you,” he’s talking about police brutality and racism, especially with the president we have now, and when he says “greenlight,” that’s a code for “wake up” as in “be woke.”
- Location by Khalid
This one is about early teenage love and it’s talking about how we are all too attached to our electronics, so when he says “send me your location,” he’s talking about using the electronics as a way to get to face-to-face communication.
- Put It On Me by Jah Rule feat. Lil Mo & Vita
I like this song maybe because I was born in them days. It’s about a thug and his ride-or-die chick. I like the part when he says, “Every thug needs a lady.” But this song actually means more to me than just the song. In my family, I have many family members who have ties to gangs. I’m looking out for my little brother and doing everything I can to keep him from that life. One of the things we do is perform in the house. We always do this song, like we act it out and everything. So I always think of my brother when I hear this song, especially the part where he says, “Where would I be without you?” I’m that person for my brother. If I wasn’t there for him, he’d be in a gang. I also have a close friend who used to be affiliated, but she’s not anymore. I think about her on the part where it says, “A tear for a tear,” because when she cries, I cry.
- Coming Out Strong by Future & The Weekend
I chose this song because it reminds me that no matter what, I can never give up on myself even if I’m in a bad position in life.
- Do For Love by TuPac
I like this song because it tells a story and the way TuPac loves the girl and never gave up on her….I wish someone could do the same for me.
I chose these two songs by this particular singer because she talks about love in a different aspect compared to everyone else these days. Her take on love is different, like it’s more thoughtful and more mature. It’s not just sex and drama.
- Candy by Cameo
I chose this song because I just have to have some funk in my life. LOL
- Ride of Your Life by Tinashe
I like the beat of this song and it’s kind of catchy in a way.
- Habits (Stay High) by Tove Lo
I chose this song because after my first love broke my heart, I developed bad habits because my heart was traumatized.
- Kiss It Better by Rihanna
I wish someone could kiss my heart better, but it seems like everyone is the same.
- Party Monster by The Weekend
After my bad habits formed like having sex with no love interest hoping it would make me feel better some type of way….This song talks about sex, drugs, and waking up next to someone and not really knowing them.
- The Letter by Kehlani
“‘The Letter’ by Kehlani is featured on her album You Should Be Here. It was released in April of 2015. The song speaks on a loved one who abandoned Kehlani at a young age. She references her mother, and it goes through the motions of abandonment and feeling unwanted. In the song, she says,
Why bring me into the light?
Must have done something
To make you want to run and hide
Why oh why didn’t you just live your life?
And every girl needs a mother, and dammit, I needed you.
I chose this song because it was the first time I felt like I could personally and truly relate to art. My mother left my life when I was 15. Similar to Kehlani in the song, I had so many things going on in my head for years. But then I heard the song…and it said everything I didn’t know how to say at the time. I blamed myself like she did for a while, and I questioned her motives every day. My mother left during a crucial stage of my childhood, and it’s something I still don’t know how to recover from. The experience in this song plays a role in my story because it showed me that I’m not the only one, and that I had a choice to let the loss make me or break me. I chose for it to make me stronger.”
- Keep Ya Head Up by Tupac
“Keep Ya Head Up” by Tupac was featured on his album Strictly for My N.I.G.G.A.Z. which debuted in February of 1993. This song talks about a lot of issues in today’s society but particularly women’s roles. He speaks on rape culture and women’s rights.
I wonder why we take from our women
Why we rape our women — do we hate our women?
I think it’s time to kill for our women
Time to heal our women, be real to our women
And since a man can’t make one
He has no right to tell a woman when and where to create one
So will the real men get up?
I know you’re fed up, ladies, but keep ya head up
I chose this song because it relates to my womanhood. Tupac speaks on our lesser value in today’s society and our mistreatment. Women are allowed to be raped without any repercussions and we are constantly STILL fighting for our own rights, even today.
- 1st of Tha Month by Bone Thugs-n-Harmony
“1st of Tha Month” by Bone Thugs-N-Harmony is featured on their 1999 Eternal album. The song centers around receiving welfare checks in lower income areas and how the community rejoices.
Wake up, wake up, wake up
It’s the 1st of the month
So get up, get up, get up
So cash your checks and come up
I chose this song because I know that feeling, of not having much to eat all month. Sometimes you could feel that emptiness and you resort to doing things you wouldn’t normally do if you weren’t put in that situation. Getting those checks brought solace to my household. That economic struggle made me who I am, and made me appreciate so much. But the 1st of the month… The whole hood would feel that deposit.
- Weary Blues by Louis Armstrong
“Weary Blues” by Louis Armstrong was released in the year of 1925 and is featured on his Jazz Collected album, collaborating with Hot Five and Hot Seven. The song feels like soul. With the rhythm, all the way to the emotion, you can feel celebration. I chose this song because it reminds me of Louisiana itself. It reminds me of Mardi Gras, the crawfish, the Southern lingo. It reminds me of my Southern culture which plays a huge role in my life.
- Wishing by Edo G feat. Masta Ace
“Wishing” by Edo G and Masta Ace is featured on Edo G’s album, My Own Worst Enemy, which released in 2004. The song speaks about problems reflected in the system, that need to be addressed. Being lied to by presidents, lack of healthcare, blacks being murdered, drugs, and many other issues. In the first verse Masta Ace says,
I wish the president would stop lying
Black babies would stop crying
And young brothers would stop dying
I wish the police would stop killing
Politicians stop stealing and acting like they not dealing
When they know they got bricks in the street
I’ve chosen this song, because it speaks about problems that often are ignored that go on within my community. It also speaks about political corruption, which is something I care about. These issues affect me as an American because they are American issues. Being black and low income, you are subjected to a lot of different deprivations. This song highlights them and throws up a red flag. For change.
Featured image: “Afro Punk Fest 2013” by Flickr user J-No, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Shakira Holt is a lifelong Los Angeles resident and teaches literature on the secondary level. She earned a doctorate degree in English from the University of Southern California and works primarily in the area of black women’s literature and culture. o
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Less than two weeks after a suicide bombing killed 22 people at the Manchester Arena following an Ariana Grande concert, the singer was back on stage in the city. She capped her three-hour One Love Manchester benefit concert with the 2015 single, “One Last Time,” which had found its way back into the UK Singles chart in the days following the blast. It was technically a solo performance, but Grande was joined on stage by the many artists who had already held the mic that day. At one point she was too overwhelmed to sing, and the audience took over for her. Grande’s occasional loss of voice is moving to watch. Throughout the concert, she would frequently struggle to speak, mostly sticking to short introductions of singers and a variation of “Thanks for being here; I love you so much,” her voice often cracking or sounding uncharacteristically pinched, the tears barely held at bay. Until “One Last Time,” she could always find her full voice through song, but as dusk settled on the city and the concert drew to a close, Grande could no longer sing through the weight of the moment, so the community she’d called together so she could “see and hold and uplift” them lifted her.
Benefit concerts and the products surrounding them—as well as the critiques that target them—have become familiar fare since the 1984 Band Aid recording of “Do They Know It’s Christmas” spun off to form 1985’s Live Aid, a multi-site concert event complete with commemorative souvenirs and the performance of the USA For Africa single, “We Are the World.” Skeptical accounts of benefit concerts fall like crumbs from Marx’s beard: they’re capitalism deployed as band-aids on problems capitalism created; they’re opportunities for celebrities to enhance their brands; they’re colonial; they’re neo-colonial; they’re exaggerated performances of wokeness intended to absolve people of their complicity in systems of violence. As communal rituals in response to tragedy, though, benefit concerts also function as metaphorical keystones that hold the tension of competing emotions, politics, and sounds. Listening to music emerges as a form of self-care, but that act may not sound the same for different people. Looking at the case of Grande’s One Love Manchester, I will map self care in the context of this contemporary moment by filtering the Manchester concert through Cheryl Lousley’s feminist analysis of benefit concerts (2014). Specifically, in order to highlight what’s different about One Love Manchester, I’ll start with Lousley’s attention to the way feminized compassion is performed through benefit concerts as an outward-facing love. Here, Grande performs the same kind of feminized compassion but shifts the focus of the benefit to an inward self-care. But not all selves experience care or self-care the same way. I’ll end by listening to Grande’s “One Last Time” alongside Solange Knowles’s “Borderline” (2016) in an effort to situate those sounds in contemporary politics that shape who has access to what kind of care.
Cheryl Lousley, in “With Love from Band Aid: Sentimental Exchange, Affective Economies, and Popular Globalism,” grants that benefit concerts aren’t just about fake feeling, but she doesn’t lose sight of capitalist and imperialist critiques. For her, benefit concerts are events “where feeling is validated, where space is made for feeling.” For her, if we allow that participants (whether organizers, performers, audiences) can be aware of the capitalism-fueled problems of benefit concerts but choose to be involved with them anyway, then we can access further dimensions of cultural analysis. In Lousley’s case, that includes gender and emotion, as she keys in on how the performance of feminized compassion and love creates an “affective economy” of “feeling too much.” When confronted with tragedy enormous enough to press the limits of the social imaginary, society looks for somewhere to put their big feelings and turn them into some kind of action. Benefit concerts like Live Aid invoke a moral imperative to give of one’s own wealth to someone who needs it, a public moral activism Lousley grounds in feminized emotional labor, a gendered compassion that extends to the entire nation. She demonstrates that public Anglophone discourse surrounding the Ethiopian famine leading up to Live Aid revolved around domestic scenes of feminized affect performed across gender boundaries. The affect of Live Aid, then, included a gendered performance of love and compassion turned outward, and this has been the template for numerous benefit concerts since, including Farm Aid (1985), Concert for New York City (2001), and Hope for Haiti Now (2010), among others.
The announcement of Ariana Grande’s One Love Manchester echoes Lousley’s idea of the benefit concert as a gendered performance of love and compassion. A skim of her Twitter post (which is a picture of a message longer than 140 characters) announcing the event reveals emotive terms and phrases throughout. Grande offers sympathy, compassion, admiration, solidarity, and, importantly, music, the latter in the form of a concert where she and her fans can feel too much together. What’s different about Grande’s benefit concert, though, is that it’s pitched not as an outward demonstration of compassion for others, but as an inward compassion for one’s self, what I call here “self-care”:
From the day we started putting the Dangerous Woman tour together, I said that this show, more than anything else, was intended to be a safe space for my fans. A place for them to escape, to celebrate, to heal, to feel safe and to be themselves…[The bombing] will not change that.
At the concert we can hear Grande model self-care for her audience as she struggles to maintain her composure and then gathers it through song, performing for herself the same kind of care she wants concert attendees to extend to themselves and their city.
Analyses and critiques of self-care generally start with Audre Lorde’s A Burst of Light quote, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare,” then contextualize how this quote functions for Lorde, a queer woman of color, differently than it does for the white women who have become the faces and consumers of #selfcare. Caring for one’s self when the world wishes to marginalize and destroy you is, indeed, warfare. And while white women suffer at the hands of the patriarchy, the long history of feminist movements also reveals that white women not only have access to privilege and resources unavailable to women of color, but also that they have wielded that privilege in ways that further marginalize and harm women of color. In other words, self-care means something different based on who the self is and—and Sara Ahmed has outlined this in characteristically brilliant terms—who else will show up to care for you. Intersectionality shows us that queer people and women of color and people with disabilities often must perform self-care because the world is not organized to care for them. “For those who have to insist they matter to matter,” Ahmed writes, “self-care is warfare,” a necessity for survival. What I want to explore below is how self-care can sound different based on who the self is and whether that self must “insist they matter to matter.”
Ariana Grande’s performance of “One Last Time” at One Love Manchester presents self-care for a self who also receives support from others. Here, Grande mirrors the collaborative nature of Live Aid by performing alongside other pop stars whose presence—confirmed relatively last-minute, almost certainly with a degree of effort to rearrange busy schedules, and without the usual compensation for their performance—tells Manchester and those harmed by the bombing that they matter. For “One Last Time,” many voices join together to provide “a safe space for [Grande’s] fans” to take care of themselves, and they, in turn, are able to take care of Grande when her voice escapes her. The underlying theme of many critiques of white feminist self-care is that it is frivolous, a market-driven excuse to indulge, a selfish pursuit of happiness for happiness’s sake. And sure, as with benefit concerts, capitalism is a big problem here, and sometimes we call something self-care when it really is just self-indulgence. But I’d like to suggest we can make a finer distinction that doesn’t require the oversimplification that comes with divvying up some actions or products as care and others as indulgence (or: Schick’s self-care marketing of a razor may be exploitative at the very same time the razor actually functions as a form of self-care for some), and this is one reason I find the One Love Manchester concert compelling. Manchester and the survivors of the blast and Ariana Grande and her touring team could absolutely use the safe space the concert is trying to create. As Lousley reminds us, the performed compassion of benefits isn’t simply fake feeling; the trauma Grande and the city and her fans experienced was real, and it’s especially audible in the moments Grande’s voice is pinched off mid-lyric. Let’s consider others who could use the safe space One Love Manchester is trying to create: victims of bombings and terror throughout the world. The music industry isn’t as eager to remind them that they matter. Self-care, it turns out, is easier for some to perform because the world is literally willing to invest in the care of those selves.
By contrast, Solange Knowles’s “Borderline (An Ode to Self-Care)” (from her 2016 album A Seat At The Table) is lyrically rooted in the black feminist work of community organizing and activism. The singer explains to her lover that she needs a night off so that she can have the resolve to go back out to the “borderline” and fight again. Self-care as warfare, indeed. The singer’s self-care has more than one purpose: it’s a time to remind herself that she matters, and it’s a time to restore the energy needed to go out and insist that her community matters. Instead of a bevy of pop stars lending their voices to create a safe space for her or an audience of adoring and grateful fans ready to take over if she can’t, Solange’s “Borderline” calls forth a more intimate setting. She multitracks her voice so that she collaborates and harmonizes with herself, with a faint doubling on the hook from Q-Tip, who is turned down in the mix and following Solange’s lead. “Borderline” is a mostly solo act of self-preservation that enables the singer to go out and create safe spaces for others.
This inward-to-outward focus of self-care is evident in the instrumentation. After a smooth piano-and-bass duet in the introduction, the kick drum enters at the 0:28 mark, overblown and rough around the edges. The effect sounds like oversaturation, where the signal’s gain is driven so that we lose some of the fidelity of its lower frequencies. This effect gives the kick a brighter timbre as the higher frequency overtones shine through and also muddies the lower frequencies so that they sound as if you’ve blown your car speakers and are getting noise in the mix that isn’t supposed to be there. The drum kit also includes a white noise sound (think “tsshhh”) that hits on the upbeat of the first, third, and fourth beats of each measure, joining the kick drum in creating a generally rough texture. This texture stands out because it sounds imperfectly mixed, like a sound engineer who messed something up. I hear in this a sonification of what Solange describes in her lyrics – a world that has frayed her edges, a world at war with her, a world disinterested at its best and hostile at its worst to the idea of her preservation. Hence, she pleas to retreat and preserve her own self.
The interlude that follows “Borderline” is the immediate payoff of this, as Solange sings with Kelly Rowland and Nia Andrews that she has “so much [magic], y’all, you can have it.” Then comes “Junie,” a fresh and energetic funk track that finds the singer back out on the activist grind after the night off that made it possible for her to return to the borderline.
As self-care proliferates in so many different practices performed by different selves, and as the term is emptied of meaning one hashtag at a time, one way we might track how power circulates through self-care is to listen to sonic representations of self-care. In Grande’s “One Last Time” performance at One Love Manchester we hear self-care staged and protected by cultural icons and government officials who assure attendees that their selves matter, while in Solange’s “Borderline” we hear self-care as an intimate, closed act that makes self- and community-preservation possible even when cultural icons and government officials refuse to participate in that preservation. In “One Last Time” we hear a community who shows up to help a singer when the world is hard, while in “Borderline,” we hear a singer having to reassure her own self that it’s okay to step away for a moment when the world is hard. By listening carefully in these moments, we can hear which selves are more readily recognizable as worthy of care—a chorus of voices surrounded and kept safe by heightened police presence—and which selves are more likely to have to perform care for themselves quietly or privately, for fear of retribution. Sound, in this instance, calls our attention to details that can let us more firmly hold onto a concept like self-care—a concept and series of practices that have been fundamental to the survival of black and queer women in a hostile world—that otherwise threatens to slip from our grasp. But hold on tight, and we just might make it back out to the borderline.
Featured image: Screenshot from Youtube video “Ariana Grande – One Last Time (One Love Manchester)” by user BBC Music
Justin Adams Burton is Assistant Professor of Music at Rider University. His research revolves around critical race and gender theory in hip hop and pop, and his book, Posthuman Rap, is available for pre-order (it drops October 2). He is also co-editing the forthcoming (2018) Oxford Handbook of Hip Hop Music Studies. You can catch him at justindburton.com and on Twitter @j_adams_burton. His favorite rapper is one or two of the Fat Boys.
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