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Sonic Salvation: A Story of How Listening Can Change Over A Lifetime

By the age of six, I could circumscribe my world in song. I was not particularly precocious — my world was just small. Ultimately, it would be fractured by its own rebellious genesis.

Two genres of folk music marked out the poles of my preciously tiny planet. Heaven’s jubilee rang in one ear: a cappella gospel, sturdily founded upon the biblical injunction to make melody in the heart. In the other ear, however, was the music of the devil himself: alcohol-drenched, two-stepping, hell-raising honky-tonk, enticing one to sin not just in the heart, but with the entire body. Together, they formed an eternally reciprocal refrain: Saturday night sin prompted Sunday morning renewal. There was little room for anything else, particularly dissent.

Sunday morning resounded with four-part harmony based on a shape-note system of musical notation, widely referred to as Sacred Harp. We sang again at our Sunday evening and mid-week services. Throughout the year, we also hosted regional “singings,” bringing together folks from other congregations, swelling our own sound by double. It was an easy form of music to learn by design, with its origins in early 19th-century America. Its strongest base was in the American South, and I inherited at least two generations’ worth of experience. It set the tone for my interactions with the world for the first three decades of my life.

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Taken at the Sacred Harp Museum by Flickr user Lance McCord, CC BY 2.0

Musicologists have documented and analyzed Sacred Harp thoroughly, with Alan Lomax having had a particular fascination for it. He considered it as not only an extension of four-square Anglo forms but also as the crossroads where the Reformation met the Democratic Experiment. In Lomax’s view—expressed in a 1982 interview at the Sacred Harp Convention at Holly Spring, Georgia—European migration to colonize America broke the established authority of the church, leaving every person to forge a singular relationship with God. This supposition harmonizes perfectly with the views of the congregational church I attended. We had no hierarchy, no choir, no piano. Every man, woman, and child added their voice, as best they knew how, to raise an egalitarian song of praise. Songs such as “This World is Not My Home,” “The Glory Land Way,” and “Blessed Assurance” exemplify the form: simple rhyme schemes; closely-yoked shifts in harmony and rhythm; and southern gospel’s initial shunning of poly-rhythms or syncopation.

For me, Sacred Harp music created an immersive and experiential soundscape; emotionally and spiritually motivating, it was the sound of temporal and eternal life.  Like our singing style, our church service presented a model for our lives outside the sanctuary. “Trust and Obey” was a frequently sung hymn—and it summed up our approach to life in all matters. Obedience was expected, deviation discouraged.

Worlds away from my sheltered existence, leaders of the Civil Rights Movement embraced a cappella singing as a powerful means to encourage, motivate, and activate. In the 2009 documentary Soundtrack for a Revolution, U.S. Representative and civil rights icon John Lewis said, “It was the music that created a sense of solidarity.” His a cappella community was connected to the church and the streets, challenging the status quo, and seeking greater brotherhood. Mine was by the book, increasingly authoritarian, very narrow in scope and population.

Sacred Harp Singing, Bloomington, Indiana, Image by Flickr User Jennifer Jamison (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

To us, the New Testament authorized one and only one instrument for offering songs to God: the unaccompanied human voice. The root of this belief was a concise motto coined in the early 1800s by Alexander Campbell, a leader in the Second Great Awakening: “Where the Scriptures speak, we speak; where the Scriptures are silent, we are silent.” Applying this principle, then, the apostle Paul, in his epistles to the Ephesians and the Colossians, encouraged Christians to sing. But nowhere did he or another New Testament writer suggest using an instrument. This silence equals prohibition. It sets its own reality, ignoring abundant biblical evidence to the contrary: the Old Testament presents many examples of instruments used in worship, as does the New Testament’s Book of Revelations.

Our a cappella song service was, therefore, more than a sound—it was a belief system, a worldview in which other sounds or ideas were alien. We applied Campbell’s principle across-the-board, backing ourselves into corners: slaves were to obey their masters; wives were to submit to their husbands; children were to be fully subject to their parents. Questioning authority, let alone defying it, was strongly condemned by Paul in his letter to Christians in Rome: “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.”

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“The One and Only Lefty Frizzell” by Flickr user Thomas Hawk, CC BY-NC 2.0

Alternately, classic honky-tonk’s twangy resistance seemed to defy the innovations and complexity of modern life. As I was growing up, the sinful songs of Ray Price, Lefty Frizzell, Webb Pierce, and George Jones flowed like wine from my family’s record collection and radio settings. Songs of murder, drunkenness, alienation, revenge, adultery, and the workingman’s blues are staples of the honky-tonk catalog. Its celebrated ethic of “three chords and the truth” favored a rural do-it-yourself ethic. My church’s music was both challenged and validated by this unlikely and unruly roommate; honky-tonk was a matched bookend for Sacred Harp.

For in the background of many of those honky-tonk sounds, whether they were about larceny, war, or revenge on the boss, I heard the same harmony that filled my church. In the 1950s or so, southern gospel groups such as the Jordanaires, Blackwood Brothers, and the Statler Brothers, began backing country music artists including Johnny Cash, George Jones, Tammy Wynette, and Gary Stewart. Their sonic presence lent an almost holy sanction to the commission of sin, as if Jesus and Satan met after-hours to share a drink and balance the books.

This sonic emulsification of sin and salvation formed my youthful identity and bracketed a very small existence. My world consisted of very gendered personal struggles: man vs. temptation; man vs. alcohol; man vs. boss; woman vs. womanizer. The solution provided for these struggles was always the same: the efficacious grace of God. All failings and victories were personal, not structural or systemic. The fight against personal sin was the only fight.

Southern gospel music and honky-tonk have enjoyed an institutional relationship since the founding of the Grand Ole Opry in 1920s, sanctioning the blending of reprobation and redemption. Though initially politically ambivalent, the Opry listed towards social conservatism during the 1960s—Johnny Cash’s nascent social awareness notwithstanding. In 1970, however, the Opry and the industry it represented found itself an unlikely accessory to Richard Nixon’s “southern strategy.” He declared October 1970 to be Country Music Month, and a few years later blessed the Grand Ole Opry with its first presidential visit.

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Screen capture from Billboard’s “Roy Acuff Teaches President Nixon the Yo-Yo at the Grand Ole Opry” (1974)

Politically conservative messages had entered country airwaves during the late 1960s, epitomized, if not pioneered, by Bakersfield stalwart Merle Haggard. His “Okie From Muskogee” ridiculed hippies, dope smokers, draft dodgers, long-hairs, flag burners, and college activists, all within a 3-minute single format. Though ostensibly written as a joke, it struck a chord among conservative, Christian, country music fans. Sensing a market, Haggard followed up with the flag-waving “Fightin’ Side of Me,” wherein he further shames pacifists.

These songs contained the truth as I believed it in grammar school: protestors, adulterers, and dope smokers were all in defiance of God. Haggard’s refrain in “Fightin’ Side”—“if you don’t love it, leave it”—made sense to me, and was safely non-challenging. Conveniently, the religious body of which I was a member had, a generation prior to me, actively opposed pacifism.

A world composed only of personal demons, however, leaves little room for social issues. Being so long accustomed to seeing the sin in man left me unable to recognize the sin in the system. Sam Cooke’s great risk in recording “A Change is Gonna Come,” for example, was lost on me, even though we both shared a battle between religious and secular personas.

I never heard his call to address greater systemic problems such as racism, audibly or socially. Even as I entered my 20s, my white patriarchal religious sonic defense system kept the freedom struggles of people of color at bay. Even if dissenting sounds managed to sneak through–Marvin Gaye’s struggles in “Inner City Blues” for example—I quickly dismissed them as exaggeration or the natural outcome of personal sin. I could not process a sound which conflicted with my God-given world view.  I saw only men and women avoiding their duty and surrendering to temptation.

My mother frequently said that the lives portrayed in honky-tonk songs were not her life. But in another sense, those desperate lives, and the more hopeful ones portrayed in gospel music, were our lives collectively. We were part of a greater social identity: Southern, white, Fundamentalist, change-averse, full of latent conflicts. Those sounds, rich with heritage and lived-in context, formed us. In other words, our vernacular limited our hearing. Our world was formed within a fixed sonic boundary, and we ignored, resisted and sometimes even combatted discordant sounds.

Within this soundscape, I had never heard of any march from Selma to Montgomery, not from church, family, the radio, or, sadly, even school. The larger movement of which it was a part—perhaps the biggest social movement of the 20th century—was inaudible and therefore irrelevant to me. When I did begin to hear of protests against white racial violence, I could only condemn anyone who defied authority. I did not know what to say about authority which abused the people. Raised to function in a law-and-order world, I could only repeat the Apostle Paul’s instruction that we all must obey authority or incur the wrath of God.

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“Selma Protesters Met By Police: 1965” by Flickr user Washington Area Spark, CC BY-NC 2.0

But thankfully, sound travels in subversive ways, such as through the transmitters of listener-supported community radio.

I found Dallas’ KNON completely by chance. Commuting to work through the city’s legendary rush hour, I’d get fidgety. While searching the dial, I heard a familiar song in an unfamiliar arrangement. I don’t recall the song now, but do remember its force: a honky-tonk classic played through a stack of Marshall amps, turned up to the proverbial ’11.’ Perhaps it was Leon Payne’s Lost Highway as rendered by Jason and the Scorchers—anarchistic, upending, challenging, it still carried enough familiarity to keep me listening. I stayed tuned in for the next song, then another. When the DJ, Nancy “Shaggy” Moore, signed off her show, I gave a listen to the next show—at least until they said something a bit too dissonant.

But the next day, I tuned in to Shaggy again. And I listened a bit longer when the next show came on. And even longer the day after that. Dallas at that time was wracked by racial strife, some of it focused on the politicized deaths of two police officers, one white and one black, in separate incidents. I had tuned out the duplicity, but KNON gave me reason to reconsider. City council member Diane Ragsdale, an African-American woman representing one of the city’s most trod-upon districts, refused to let the issue go. KNON provided the venue for her to express her outrage unmitigated, and to explain the inconsistencies in a way that an entitled white male suburbanite, such as I, could understand.

Tim Rice suggests that we are not free agents in the creation of our identities—but given the right stimuli, we will resist, to the point of rebellion, the personhood prepared for us.  The latent heretical ethics of Sacred Harp and Honky-tonk finally responded to the sonic stimuli flowing through the breach, triggering an insatiable devil’s advocacy: “Prove yourself to me,” I said to everything I had once believed, religious faith included. St. John wrote in his First Epistle: “Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God.” This was to be the last biblical directive I would follow.

My radical shift in musical listening also greatly impacted my political, and cultural beliefs and listening practices, something which continued throughout my life. For example, I ended my professional career as well, having understood the devastating effects that high tech industries have on the environment and workforce. I traded a six-figure salary for minimum wage in foodservice. Not once have I looked back.

“Kitchen Music” by Flickr User David Blaine (CC BY 2.0)

Kitchen work comes with immersive sound: machines hum and sometimes roar; the radio blasts through the static; humans must shout to be heard. Working throughout the western US, in a variety of independent restaurants, I learned to understand and speak Spanish. I participated in defying a language ban placed on my colleagues by an overbearing owner: I noted that she forbade speaking in Spanish, but not singing in Spanish. So sing we did, about needing a potato peeler, taking out the trash, and what we were going to do over the weekend.

As I worked my way up the ranks and crossed the country from California to Manhattan, I listened to the stories told me by immigrants from Mexico, Guatemala, Dominica, Morocco, South Africa. They shared their music with me, via radio, iPod, cassette, or any object we could plug into an overcooked boom box. Every song and conversation has pulled me into greater participation in their lives and the systemic issues faced by most of the world around me.

Dismantling one’s identity, regardless of how deliberately it is done, happens amidst lots of noise: illusions shatter, idols crash to the ground, walls tumble into rubble. Dissent comes in myriad expressions, and for me, it has come via my own three-chords-and-the-truth and through a multimedia socially-progressive dining event which I call Peace Meal Supper Club. Its very raison d’etre is to illuminate dissonance on issues such as the right to sanctuary, our diminishing seed supply, the plight of the rural poor, and other devastating threads of intersectionality. Music is a critical component of each event, as Otis Taylor, Lila Downs, and Caetano Veloso share playlist space with Manecas Costa and Majida El Roumi Baradhy. Old favorites like “Sixteen Tons” get their say, as well—for behind that song’s well-earned swagger is a system of devastating intersectional oppression that demands our action.

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Featured Image: Image of a Stained Glass Crosley Cathedral, Image by Tubular Bob

Kevin Archer is a multi-media artist who left corporate security for a DIY life as a farmer, activist, educator, and chef. He’s planted gardens coast-to-coast, and washed his own sauté pans from Denver to Mendocino, Santa Fe to NYC, and random locations in between. Kevin’s current project is Peace Meal Supper Club, a series of immersive dining events which explore ecojustice, human rights, the capitalistic conquest of the seed and soil, and the power of progressive movements. He has written for Civil Eats, No Depression, Secular Web, and the Museum of Animals & Society. He has spoken on the intersection of food and social issues at numerous conferences within the Eastern US.

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tape reel

REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:

What is a Voice? – Alexis Deighton MacIntyre

“HOW YOU SOUND??:” The Poet’s Voice, Aura, and the Challenge of Listening to Poetry – John Hyland 

The Sounds of Anti-Anti-Essentialism: Listening to Black Consciousness in the Classroom – Carter Mathes 

The Listening Body in Death – Denise Gill

Instrumental: Power, Voice, and Labor at the Airport

Voices CarryWelcome to Voices Carry. . . a forum meditating on the material production of human voices the social, historical, and political material freighting our voices in various contexts.  What are voices? Where do they come from and how are their expressions carried? What information can voices carry? Why, how, and to what end?  Artist Asa Mendelsohn opens the forum with his critical and artistic work on the voice as an instrument of power. We are also honored that he lent Voices Carry a still from his work for our icon!–Jennifer Stoever


important, critical, foundational

Can we all do something about language here, and the frames that we use? […] We need to…stop already pre-redacting ourselves so that we can be quote ‘heard’ by these jackasses! They’re never gonna listen to us! — Mariame Kaba

Instrumental is a body of work featuring a series of vocal performances by airport security workers I filmed at the San Diego International Airport. The work takes up Mariame Kaba’s provocation, that those currently in power are never going to listen. How might relations of power be reordered around a voice? If voices are instruments, operating at once through a body and as a body, what kind of instrument is a voice of authority?


T

In September 2017, my proposal to produce a version of this project is accepted as part of a yearlong program curated by and for the San Diego International Airport. In October I put out a call for participation to airport security workers, in search of singers to perform songs of their choosing in front of a camera. There are emails with curators and security managers, logistics, parameters. I film over the winter and install a version of the work as a public art project in the spring, the first year of my medical gender transition.

When we meet at the far end of Terminal 2 in January, T is a combination of nervous and enthusiastic I wasn’t expecting. He’s so jittery that I almost tell him to stop and rest. I link my sneaking feeling of shame to an assumed position of authority, having arrived like this, multiple cameras, my university affiliation.

But while nervous, T’s also brimming, lighting up. His name tag catches gold light, bouncing against his gray Air Traffic Officer uniform.

T proposes two songs. Neither are in languages that he speaks in his daily life and he keeps forgetting words.

“Cómo te voy a olvidar”

How am I going to forget you?

T says he learned the song from a former partner. He says girlfriend. He says he always felt self-conscious he couldn’t speak more Spanish. I guess that his family are Afro-Caribbean Spanish-speakers. I’m wrong. He’s also wrong about where I’m from. San Francisco, right?

T likes to sing karaoke. A coworker heard him and the rumor started going around: T has a beautiful voice. T’s voice is a soft instrument. In the airport, it is easily swallowed by environmental noise.

I film with T a second time, again meeting the last two hours of his ten-hour shift. He starts tired, nervous: stopping and restarting a song. Slowly, he warms up, dancing a cumbia. I sing with him when he forgets a line. We allow ourselves to take up more space in this quiet zone beyond the Air Canada counters. T dances with a moving chair.


Where will your next adventure take you?

Men in construction vests come in and out of a door beneath a banner: “Go Somewhere.” Construction is in process to expand the space occupied by border security.

Working in security means exercising jurisdiction over how other people move, who can move where, and with what freedom. What kind of freedom or movement is possible between us while someone is watching (an institution, a camera)?

Artist Gregg Bordowitz writes that “posing for the camera in advance of anticipated capture by the lens is a form of self-defense in the age of surveillance. It’s an act of self-authorship.” I don’t feel I understand fully what calls someone forward to perform. Is it a feeling they have something to share, a will towards “self-authorship”? I’m interested in not knowing where a performance starts and ends, not knowing when we become performers or our own authors, when we become complicit, exploited, when we are on or off the job. Most people work and are watched most of the time, without being heard: a series of performances delivered and received with varying degrees of care.


The sterile zone

The post-9/11 commercial airport in the United States is one among other types of places designed to reinforce a culture of surveillance and fear, to remind travelers the state has a say in their freedom of movement. A place designed to instill one kind of horror while thinly concealing another.

Spending time at the airport with people who spend a lot of time at the airport, the intricacy of the place unfolds, resembling what theorist Simone Browne calls a “security theater.” At moments SAN blurs into every other airport in the U.S. I’ve moved through or seen on a screen: streams of moving walkways, escalators — travelers wheeling bags, waiting, scrolling for ticket information on smartphones, scanning, travel-themed advertisements and watery public art commissions — a fragmented, moving stage.

From Asa Mendelsohn, Instrumental (2018)

The voice of the overhead announcement is an instrument of the airport security theater, summoning the stress of being read and misread, abused, glibly entertained, and sold overpriced breakfasts, while you are also in fear of missing something: everything that makes airports ultimate theaters for the machinery of the security state. As I edit footage from the airport, I become preoccupied by moments of tension between a singer’s voice and the voice of the overhead security announcement, instructing us about checkpoint procedures, orienting us, interpellating. A singer pauses to wait, or they continue, enduring the interruption. For a security worker vocalizing in uniform, does the space of the airport become an extension of their body? (Does their uniform matter?) In these moments of tension, it becomes more clear that a security worker’s performance as an extension of the airport’s body is an uneven one.


While SAN seems like any other airport in the U.S., there are points of exceptionality. SAN is much smaller than other airports serving international commercial flights. It is located centrally, widely accessible from much of the city. Checkpoint lines are rarely very long. SAN is, of course, primarily the port of entry for travelers with valid state identification and the ability to buy an airline ticket. These factors do not make SAN an equitable place to work, but they do add up to an effect: airport as sanitized space, a clean space, that, in my subjective experience, other airports aspire to but rarely achieve. A small feat of whitewashing, eighteen miles by car from the border crossing at San Ysidro. Friends have suggested about this project: “you would not have been able to do that anywhere else.” I would not have been granted access.

As I prepare to film at SAN, I’m sent mixed messages. Initially, a curator tells me I’ll be granted access to shoot in post-checkpoint areas of the airport, areas I learn that security workers call “the sterile zone.” Shortly before my first shoot, I’m told that, actually, it’d be too much work to get me clearance. I’m restricted to what are called “public” spaces, pre-security, outside the sterile zone.

From Asa Mendelsohn, Instrumental (2018)

Throughout this process, I wonder how I’m seen by people at the airport. I do not doubt that being white, small-bodied, and soft-voiced make me seem non-threatening. I’m a patient director. I smile at my own perversity. Staff approach me cautiously while I’m setting up and ask if I have a permit to be there, but always eventually smile back. A curator overlooks or disregards my pronouns, misgendering me in email correspondences and later in the interpretive text about the work. They eventually apologize.

How are my interests as an artist read? While “speaking up,” or “using your voice,” is often understood as a political right and responsibility of democratic process, appropriating someone else’s is at particular stake in art and documentary ethics. At the airport, I am seeking a form through which to acknowledge the ways we use each other’s voices and labor, to acknowledge the multiple zones within which we work at once.


Instrumentalized: used

A voice is always a shape and product of its body, and, at the same time, something other. Theorist Freya Jarman-Ivens writes: “As my voice leaves me, it takes part of my body with it — the sound of its own production.” The voice in your head that you claim as your own is never, physically, the same voice as that which lands in the ear of another, that you also claim as your own, as when you claim on the phone “it’s me.” Jarman-Ivens names this paradoxical, “looped” quality of the voice its “queerness,” traveling between bodies and between language and non- language.

Increasingly, state terrorism marks the airport as a space in which people are alienated on the basis of identity. The anxiety that comes while waiting in line for your body to be scanned epitomizes that alienation. The invasive acts of being scanned, read and misread, are not one-way operations. Security personnel, particularly those whose classed, raced, and gendered bodies straddle multiple identifications and categories of oppression, occupy a tense space: at once agents of the security apparatus and subjects within it.

At the airport I am trying to represent realities in which a speaker’s voice changes and morphs with and through their body and environment. Through collaborations with non-professional actors — with people performing as versions of themselves — I am hoping to communicate the slip and stutter between performance and real life that José Esteban Muñoz might describe as “failure,” or an “active political refusal.” “Failure” is, as I understand Muñoz’s writing and legacy, an opening into another space of relating, a break from performative norms, from a performance of a norm, such as “real life,” or “gender.” Does the performance start when a security worker starts singing? When they become the airport? A worker? When they become a man?  


Featured image still from Asa Mendelsohn’s Instrumental.

Asa Mendelsohn is from New York. He makes performances and media projects that develop through a process of recording, writing, and collaboration. His work combines observational and narrative storytelling practices, often focusing on personal relationships and desire as ways to navigate seemingly inaccessible infrastructures, histories, and systems of power.

 

tape reelREWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:

Unlearning Black Sound in Black Artistry: Examining the Quiet in Solange’s A Seat At the Table–Kimberly Williams

Listening to the Border: ‘”2487″: Giving Voice in Diaspora’ and the Sound Art of Luz María Sánchez”-D. Ines Casillas

On Sound and Pleasure: Meditations on the Human Voice– Yvon Bonenfant

Cardi B: Bringing the Cold and Sexy to Hip Hop

In “Asesina,” Darell opens the track shouting “Everybody go to the discotek,” a call for listeners to respond to the catchy beat and come dance. In this series on rap in Spanish and Sound Studies, we’re calling you out to the dance floor…and we have plenty to say about it. Your playlist will not sound the same after we’re through.

Throughout January, we will explore what Spanish rap has to say on the dance floor, in our cars, and through our headsets. We’ll read about trap in Cuba and about Latinx identity in Australia. And because no forum on Spanish rap is complete without a mixtape, we’ll close out our forum on Thursday with a free playlist for our readers. Today we continue No Pare, Sigue Sigue: Spanish Rap & Sound Studies with Ashley Luthers’ essay on femme sexuality in Cardi B’s music.

Liana M. Silva, forum editor

“Ran down on that bitch twice” was all I heard in this tight, dark basement filled with black and brown bodies, sweat dripping everywhere from everyone. Girls danced all over, yelling and shouting lyrics as they clapped and pointed along to the fast, upbeat rhythm of the song, feeling their own sensations and pleasure from the vibe, and rapping with the catchiness of the repeated phrase, “Ran down on that bitch twice!” As everyone was jumping, the space around me shook because there was so much body movement and flow; it was lit. This wasn’t the first time I heard Cardi B, but dancing along to her song “Foreva” was definitely the first I remember hearing her. Since that dark basement party, I realized that the attitude and energy Cardi B invokes through her raps and lyrics is addicting.

Listening repeatedly to “Foreva,” and the rest of her debut mixtape Gangsta Bitch Music Vol.1, has attuned me to Cardi B as a stone cold, gangster bitch: someone who is fearless, tough on the outside and inside. She doesn’t hesitate; she doesn’t bluff. She gets straight to the point and lets you know that she will fuck you up if and when necessary. A ‘G’ she is, as some would say when describing a person who shows no fear and is always hustling—except that someone is imagined as a black male from the so-called ‘hood who affiliates with drugs, gangs, etc. The music itself reflects this gangster feel, through the hard trap sounds and beats in every track. Trap music as a style and subset of Hip-Hop, and arguably a genre on its own, originated in Atlanta, and has over time become mainstream all across the U.S. specifically within the Northeast region. Within Cardi’s performed, stone cold bitch lyrical persona, she embodies an aggressive femme sexuality, a racialized femme hunger for sex with black men, and an emotional depth that makes her endearing to listeners. Her embodiment of this multiplicity—stone cold attitude, femme sexual thirst, and emotional complexity—can be heard in her music, through the explosion of beats, rhythms, and lyrics that keep listeners hooked to the sound of her self-image. In other words, Cardi B’s sonic and lyrical movements work in tandem with her audio-visual construction of black, Caribbean, Bronx femme desire.

Nowadays this audio-visual construction  is visible across her music and social media, but I want to focus on the image of her debut mixtape cover, Gangsta Bitch Music, Vol.1. This image hailed me and continues to hold me in thrall after lengthy meditations on it. In it, Cardi B sits in the backseat of a car, high-rise apartments peering through the back window, with her legs spread wide open. Between her legs, a big, black, faceless, tatted man gives her head as she casually drinks her Corona. The man’s back sprawls in the place where we might imagine Cardi B’s junk/pussy; he’s her bitch. The audacity of displaying her desire mid-sex-act intrigues me and does more than merely assert black femme sexual desire. The media blew up when Nicki Minaj did her lollipop photoshoot in which her legs are wide open, and her crotch is heavily exposed. But Cardi B’s mixtape cover has a different impact, because of the positioning of its vulgarity and audacity.

I’ve seen pictures of Nicki Minaj and Lil’ Kim where they’re half naked, open to giving men pleasure, and completely distorting the expectation of respectable black women to cover their bodies and assets. But what makes Cardi’s mixtape visual different even from Lil’ Kim’s and Minaj’s visual constructions is that it shouts power from the position often occupied by cis-male desire. Cardi B is seizing her own sexual power and gangster agency while she asserts her business hustle from the seated position of power that is often assumed by cis-male gangster rappers and performers. In the angle and composition of the mixtape image, we, as viewers, are positioned to look up at her as we witness her experiencing pleasure. She’s above us, and her chosen sexual object, who is a big black man, a figure whose masculinity is historically challenged by normative and respectability-obsessed society, and who is historically susceptible to being emasculated, is situated beneath her: there’s a troubling of power’s embodiment, specifically through sex, in this image. She’s visually insisting on getting play.

I connect Gangsta Bitch Mixtape Vol. 1’s cover image to the sounds, vibes, and lyrics of Cardi B’s tracks within the mixtape. In “Foreva,” for example, she raps, “Silly muthafucka who raised you/ a nigga with a pussy how disgraceful.” It’s at this point that we realize that the “bitch” that she “ran down on,” “twice,” is also a dude. In the lyrics, she alternates between beefing with trifling chicks and dudes; for Cardi, bitches breach a gender dyad. She raps from a masculine position as a femme, which ultimately illustrates her mixtape cover’s reversal of who is in the receptive and dominant position of sexual power. In “Foreva,” she’s talking down on black men the same way that most of these men speak on black women in the Hip-Hop industry. Cardi twists the normative misogyny and disrespect that is often demonstrated towards black women in Hip-Hop and instead uses that towards apostrophic black men. The lyrics of “Foreva” and the Gangsta Bitch mixtape cover both sustain this idea of Cardi B working within masculine tropes as a woman in the industry. On the mixtape cover, she is the one who is receiving pleasure, instead of giving it to a man. Lyrically and physically, she’s in a place where she’s on top, looking down on her subject/object of sexual desire, and inviting her audience to watch.

Sonically, “Foreva” and other tracks fits within the genre of trap music. Many of the songs in the mixtape have aggressive beats. The genre is characterized by a deep, hard mood created by the fast beat: Justin Burton describes it as “one of the most iconic sonic elements of trap is the rattling hihat, cruising through subdivisions of the beat at inhuman rates.” This is what we hear and feel from Cardi’s music itself. Specifically, the BPM for “Foreva” is 161 which fits into the range of typical Trap music. The way she sounds is what she embodies. The flow of “Foreva” tells us as listeners that Cardi B isn’t here to play and she damn sure won’t let anybody stop her from making her money. The rest of the music on the mixtape takes a similar route, in that these crisp rhythms speak to her power, her urban upbringing, coming from the Bronx, and her days as a stripper. She owns her sexuality and claims it through the music. The cover reflects this: she is poised and looking directly at us, her stone-cold persona manifested in how she also appears utterly unbothered by you, us, looking at her, looking at us.

Cardi B’s a freak. Clearly. (As if we didn’t know this.) But the way she visually and sonically expresses her sexual yearning is more complicated than the word freak can capture. The thing with Cardi B is, she’s not afraid. In fact, she doesn’t care about respectability. Even when she raps about making money or callin’ shots on someone, she never hesitates to slide in something sex-related because she knows she’s good at getting and giving play, both sexually and musically: “Fuck him so good he gonna want to spend all that/ Pussy got him on the jugg he gonna re-up and come right back.” If you read the lyrics from “With That,” you could think the lyrical subject is a male rapper, like trap’s Future or Gucci Mane. In fact, this song is a remake from Young Thug’s “With That,” which comes from his album Barter 6. Young Thug is one of the big faces in the Atlanta Trap music scene and his track “With That” reflects the life of a rapper like him. Poppin pills, stacking money tall, Thug knows he’s killing the game and shitting on these other rappers with his sounds–Cardi B echoes that bravado in her remake.

Drugs, sex, money, hustle: Cardi B, in a way, replicates the masculine attachment to these tropes. But we are not listening to an abstract, masculinist lyrical subject on her mixtape; we are listening to a black femme subject. So, this goes beyond ‘replication’, as we may wonder whether it has ever historically not been the case in the Americas that black women also had to hustle, grind, find stimulation to escape normative constraints, and take care of their sexual desires. Which is to say, black men are not the OG hustlers; arguably, black women are, and Cardi B channels that historical force in her audio-visual construction of a stone-cold bitch who knows how to get play, and still have feelings in a hatin’ ass world.

We’re introduced to this hard, stone cold Cardi B inside and outside of her music’s lyrics as she repeatedly performs that she is not at all ashamed of the fact that she used to be stripper, aka, someone who hustles hard. Her choice of the trap genre, as a black Latina, acknowledges the existence of that hustle theme within it—even honors it. Her refusal of shame and respectability affects that take a specific toll on black women in the Americas, circles me back to the welcoming aura she displays on the mixtape cover. She wants viewers to see her in her happy place; she wants us listeners to hear how good she is in bed; she wants the world to know she’s a freak. This is her way of fucking with the mythical construction of masculinity in Hip-Hop where cis-men are the most badass, aka, the “most political” subjects; she acts on her own urges and desires, which does a lot more than just show femme as “sexy.” She’s sexy and she’s cold and so is her music too: the kick drums, synth lines, and hihats make her sonically ominous and cold.

In one of Cardi B’s latest tracks, “Money,” I still hear echoes of “Foreva,” but I’m hearing so much more. I find myself paying as much attention to the audio as to the visual constructions that Cardi B’s generous yet cutting aesthetic offers: in the cover image for “Money,” we see her naked body, positioned in a way that shows off her peacock thigh tattoo, suggesting but keeping her junk from you. She’s wearing a plethora of gold watches, almost as if they’re long-sleeve gloves, and a gold hat, the shape of which channels both Beyoncé’s in “Formation” and Jeffery’s (aka, Young Thug) on the cover of Jeffery. Unlike the cover of the first mixtape, Cardi does not give us her hair in this image, and she does not give us her gaze; while she directs her face at the camera, the hat dripping with diamonds conceals her hair and her eyes from us—or, she is giving her gaze to herself, to the inward rewards of her hustle. The ice is cold, but the image is warm as a swarm of gold bling and golden light surrounds her.

Lyrically, on “Money,” she’s doing what she does best, rapping about her hustle, her money, and still managing to throw in a little something about her love for sex. Sonically, this is pure trap. We hear an orchestration of keyboards, brass, and drums. As for us, listening viewers, we not only consume her music, but also continue to take in everything Cardi B has to offer because it fascinates and pleases us. She returns our pleasure (in her pleasure) to us, and nothing less than that.

Featured Image: Still from “Cardi B ‘Foreva’ (Live) Choreography By- Hollywood”

Ashley Luthers is currently a Senior at Wesleyan University studying English and Economics. She has spent the past year researching and studying Cardi B inside and outside of the classroom. Her final senior essay revolves around Cardi B as a black femme artist in Hip-Hop through an analysis of different theories surrounding the black female body.

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What Feels Good to Me: Extra-Verbal Vocal Sounds and Sonic Pleasure in Black Femme Pop Music” -Robin James

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