Archive | Asian and Asian American Studies RSS for this section

Kawa: Rediscovering Indigeneity in China via Reggae

Kawa is a reggae group from Yunnan’s Ximeng, an autonomous county for the Wa people in the southwest of China, bordering Myanmar. When I learned about Kawa’s story in 2016, I was first intrigued by the geographical similarities between Yunnan and Jamaica: both regions are characterized by tropical climates, lush vegetations, and perhaps most prominently, proximities to marijuana plantations. Outsiders often associate the musical style of reggae with a stereotypical “laidback” lifestyle projected onto these locales. Known as “Yunnan Reggae,” Kawa’s music indeed exhibits some of the most characteristic elements of reggae music—slower tempos, remixed vocals, and repetitive chords falling on the offbeat.

“Yunnan Reggae”–Kawa

Recently I realized this climate connection was simplistic and reductive, and what I failed to grasp in Kawa’s music was far more important—a notion of indigeneity manifested through reggae’s generic elements. In Steven Feld’s “From Schizophonia to Schismogenesis: The Discourses and Practices of World Music and World Beat” in 1995, he noted the affinity of many indigenous cultures for reggae music. “Its [reggae] perception by indigenous peoples outside the Caribbean as an oppositional roots ethnopop form has led to its local adoption by migrants and indigenes in places as diverse as Europe, Hawaii, Native North America, Aboriginal Australia, Papua New Guinea, South Africa, and Southeast Asia” (110). In the 1970s, “roots” reggae translated the everyday lives of Jamaicans as well as their Rastafarian spirituality into a stark resistance to racial oppression, economic inequality, and colonial capitalism that they had experienced in history. The music was deeply embedded in the Jamaican culture. Around the same time, however, engineers and producers in Jamaica–many of them Chinese and Chinese-Jamaican–began to experiment with remixing reggae songs, contributing to an adaptive style of pop music as well as its international popularity.  Therefore, against the global market force for “a world music,” reggae was quickly adopted to preserve indigenous cultures, remixing a wide range of ethnomusical elements.

But note that Feld’s list did not include East Asia. In fact, indigeneity as a discourse has been largely absent in this region. Taiwan is perhaps the only exception, where the Austronesian peoples have claimed their indigenous status and political rights. Japan and the Koreas are often considered as the most ethnically homogeneous countries in the world. And China, while officially acknowledging its ethnic diversity, never thought its internal migration of the Han majority as a potential threat to its ethnic minorities and indigenous cultures. I grew up in the southwest of China in the 1990s, when the internal migration of ethnic groups was already a norm. I could not remember if “indigeneity” meant anything even remotely political. I could not remember if the cultural traditions of ethnic minorities were meant to be tied up to the land on which they are/were practiced. What I do remember is that there are regions where the ethnic minorities concentrate and in which they integrate.

This post examines how the Chinese reggae group Kawa introduces an indigenous discourse through the sonic elements of reggae. In their performances, Lao Han often opens with a statement about being an indigenous ethnic minority. Most members of the group have non-Han Chinese backgrounds—Wa, Hani, Aini, and Hui. And even the name Kawa refers to the Wa people in their own language.

Kawa always find the most innovative ways to incorporate ethnic elements into their interpretations of the genre. In “Yunnan Reggae,” for example, sampled vocals from Wa people, lyrics written in Wa language, and traditional Wa instrumentation all work together to portray living cultural traditions closely associated with the Wa ethnic identity. However, it is the intimacy with the land Kawa expresses in their music that foregrounds their indigenous sentiments.

Although the entirety of the lyrics consists of two lines, the song “Red Hair Tree” reveals an indigenous life dwelling on the land—in its neighborhood, locality, and proximity.

Such a huge red hair tree

Hitting the wooden drum sounding dong dong

“Red Hair Tree” resembles a labor song narrating the mundane activities of logging and drum crafting. The first line describes the tree’s size, invoking a reverence for its sublimity. The glistening red color contributes to the plant’s vibrant animacies. As Ai Yong explains, “If you have chatted with the elders on the A Wa Mountains about this land, you will see an extraordinary beam of light glistening in their eyes, carrying endless assurance and reverence” (translated by Meng Ren). The second line translates that reverence into a more intimate whispering. Due to the Wa people’s animist beliefs, the red hair tree’s spirit is reincarnated in the wooden drum. The “dong dong” sound then embodies an invocation of the natural spirits. “The Wa ancestors believe, where there is the red hair tree, there is god’s blessing. In the past, the tall and robust red hair trees surrounded all Wa villages.” As Ai Yong continues to explain, the natural spirits are called for protection in exchange for the people’s worship.

“Red Hair Tree” is not the first time when reggae prompted the Han Chinese to confront questions about migration and indigeneity, however. It is often forgotten that the Chinese diaspora in Jamaica contributed to the development of reggae. Stephen Cheng’s “Always Together (A Chinese Love Song)” in 1967 is a rare yet symptomatic example of how the Chinese imagined indigeneity through remixing reggae.

Despite its obvious rocksteady overtone, the song combines a wide range of Chinese elements. It opens with a pronounced bass line coupled by the guitar and then the accented drum beat. Although this rhythmic beat is reminiscent of typical reggae songs, the music flow is somehow disrupted by the sudden appearance of the male vocal. Stephen Cheng sings in Mandarin. His chest voice meanders across a wide range, registering a sonority that is more often heard in Chinese opera than in reggae songs (or pop music in general). His delivery accentuates on the extended vowels, exaggerating the dramatic ups and downs of the tonal language—Mandarin Chinese. In fact, the music is adapted from a well-known Taiwanese folk song “Green is the Mountain (Gao Shan Qing).” On the surface, it is a romantic love story. It depicts the scenic landscape of the mountains and waters of Alishan, which the Taiwanese indigenous Tsou people traditionally inhabit. Through a metaphorical parallel, the romantic love between a young Tsou couple is embodied in the companionship between the mountain and the water, which resonates with its English title “Always Together.”

Indeed, “Green is the Mountain” was written by the Han Chinese who fled to Taiwan during the Chinese Civil War, and it is often criticized for romanticizing the experience of the indigenous peoples who were forced to move into the mountain. When the song is rendered into reggae by Cheng, however, it re-contextualizes this imagined indigeneity as a diasporic yearning to restore the lost connections between land and culture. “Always Together” was produced by Byron Lee, a Chinese-Jamaican who founded the renowned ska band Byron Lee and the Dragonaires. As record producers, sound system owners, or band managers, numerous Chinese-Jamaicans like Lee contributed “Chinese elements” to reggae during its formative years. In return, reggae carries on the tradition of cultural remix, always opening itself up to local adaptions.

Reggae has always been an eclectic music form. As we have seen, both examples combine a wide range of musical elements from different cultures—from ethnic minorities in China to Chinese and African diaspora in Jamaica. Despite almost a half century apart, the two reggae songs foreground a discourse on indigeneity that is shaped by the migration of people and the mixing of culture. Despite the most generic “pop” elements, the local adoption of reggae reveals an attempt to comprehend the relationship between ethnic identity, cultural practice, and the land. Understood in this way, Kawa’s reggae music becomes an important voice in understanding ethnic differences and indigeneity in today’s China.

Featured Image: Screen Shot from “Kawa: Chinese Yunnan Reggae Band”

Junting Huang is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Comparative Literature at Cornell University. His research areas include literary studies, film/media studies, and sound studies. His dissertation project “The Noise Decade: Intermedial Impulse in Chinese Sound Recording” examines the figure of noise in contemporary Chinese literature and new media art. It analyzes how noise is conceptualized through the recorded sound as a materializing force that indexes the shifting social relations in the 1990s.

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

Decolonizing the Radio: Africa Abroad in the Age of Independence– Samantha Pinto

“Everyone I listen to, fake patois…”– Osvaldo Oyola

Radio de Acción: Violent Circuits, Contentious Voices: Caribbean Radio Histories–Alejandra Bronfman

SO! Reads: Hiromu Nagahara’s Tokyo Boogie-Woogie: Japan’s Pop Era and Its Discontents

When times are tough and people are feeling sad, they might need space to be calm, to reflect, and to heal. For example, in the United States following September 11, 2001, Clear Channel (now iHeartMedia) suggested keeping a number of “aggressive” artists, such as Rage Against the Machine and AC/DC, off the airwaves for a while to provide the nation with one group’s version of a calming sonic space. However, this suppression couldn’t hold;  at a certain point, the pilot light re-ignited, and Americans wanted to turn the gas up high, to feel the heat, to extravagantly combust themselves out of the Clear Channel rut.  Explosive tracks followed those tragic times in 2002–from Missy Elliott’s “Lose Control” to DJ Snake and Lil Jon’s “Turn Down for What” to Miley Cyrus’ “We Can’t Stop” to Daft Punk’s “Lose Yourself to Dance”–resonating over the airwaves and web browsers and dance floors. So whose idea of a healing sonic space prevails? For how long? Who decided what healing looks and sound like? And who decides the time for healing is finished?

Hiromu Nagahara is a historian who has examined how music was used during a transformative era in Japanese history. Nagahara’s book, Tokyo Boogie-Woogie: Japan’s Pop Era and Its Discontents (Harvard UP, 2017), focuses on the ryūkōka popular music produced “primarily between the 1920s and the 1950s” (3), which is different from the hayariuta music of the Meiji (1868-1912) and Taishō (1912-1926) periods or the kayōkyoku ballad songs post-1970. One of Nagahara’s central concerns with popular music is how it furthered the nation-building endeavor of the 1920s and 1930s. Another concern is how censorship was implemented and policed through the wartime era and beyond. Nagahara’s stance on censorship in Japan is that state powers such as the Japan Broadcasting Corporation (Nihon Hōsō Kyōkai, NHK), public powers such as music critics, and self-censorship are responsible for the limitations put on artistic productions. This stance is in concert with scholars such as Jonathan Abel and Noriko Manabe, although unfortunately Nagahara’s book doesn’t discuss Manabe’s work on the censorship of music addressing the Daiichi Fukushima disaster.

Nagahara greatly contributes to the English-language scholarship on Japanese music critics; those interested in how Theodor Adorno similarly addressed German sociopolitical issues through music criticism will find both the parallels and the divergences mapped in Nagahara’s work fascinating. The biggest takeaway for this reader, however, was the book’s tracing of Japan’s shifting class formations through these decades. Nagahara shows that Japan evolved from an infamously strict class-caste system into a middle-class society into a society that “increasingly saw itself to be classless” (212) all in the span of a century, and that music and the nation’s burgeoning media industry played pivotal roles in this transformation.

Movie Poster for Tokyo March, 1929, wikimedia commons

Specifically, Nagahara argues that the commercialization and industrialization of music in Japan were natural outcomes of the nation’s shift toward capitalism in the Meiji period. While the “gradual transformation of music, and art in general, into ‘consumer goods’” (64) in Germany signaled the “long-term decline of German middle-class culture” for Theodor Adorno, it actually signaled the opposite for Japan. Nagahara notes that, prior to the Meiji period, the Tokugawa shogunate (1603-1868) “idealized and mandated the separation of different status groups – in particular the division between members of the ruling samurai class and those who were deemed to be ‘commoners’” (21). Therefore, when the Japanese public bought an unprecedented 150,000 copies of “Tokyo March” (“Tokyo kōshinkyoku”) in 1929 and when records produced in 1937 were selling half a million, it became clear that “luxury goods” (18) such as phonographs and records were no longer simply for the ruling elites of Tokugawa-era wealth. Instead, Japan’s former commoners were marching toward capitalism with a middle-class cultural dream on the horizon.

As a period study, Nagahara doesn’t try to tie things up nicely – that’s not often how history works. As such, Nagahara concerns himself with the politicization of media in Japan, and he extends his discussion of pre-war popular music up through the 2000s with quick references to Pokémon and AKB48. However, there is a missed opportunity here in that Nagahara never references the Daiichi Fukushima disaster and the subsequent outpouring of popular music that responded to the public and private-sector management of the catastrophe.

This would have fit perfectly in the “The Television Regime” subsection of the book’s conclusion, and it would have added greatly to what Nagahara recognizes is a “significant dearth of scholarly analysis of the inner workings of popular song censorship in the last decades of the twentieth century” (218) and beyond. This reader would be excited to read more by Nagahara if he were to take up this task. I learned so much about the context and reception of pop music in Japan from Tokyo Boogie-Woogie, and this book would help any reader better understand one of the largest and most influential music and media scenes in the world today.

Featured Image: “Vintage Hi-Lite Transistor Radio, Model YTR-601, AM Band, 6 Transistors, Made In Japan, Circa 1960s” by Flickr User Seah Haupt, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Shawn Higgins is the Academic Coordinator of the Undergraduate Bridge Program at Temple University’s Japan campus. His latest publication is “Orientalist Soundscapes, Barred Zones, and Irving Berlin’s China,” coming out in the 2018 volume of Chinese America: History and Perspectives.

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

SO! Reads: Janet Borgerson and Jonathan Schroeder’s Designed For Hi Fi Living–Gina Arnold

SO! Reads: Susan Schmidt Horning’s Chasing Sound: Technology, Culture and the Art of Studio Recording from Edison to the LP— Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo

SO! Reads: Jonathan Sterne’s MP3: The Meaning of a Format–Aaron Trammell

Sonic Contact Zones: An Interview with DJs MALT and Eat Paint in Koreatown, Los Angeles

On Sunday, February 21, Atlanta-based hip-hop photographer Gunner Stahl will be DJing at a raw space being built at 4317 Beverly Boulevard in Los Angeles’ Koreatown as part of the Red Bull Music Festival. Red Bull suggests that many of the photographer’s artistic subjects, such as Tyler the Creator, Playboi Carti, Lil Uzi Vert, Gucci Mane, and/or The Weeknd might make guest appearances during his set. This star-studded stage with financial backing from the drink that gives you wings will stand across the street from Vilma’s Thrift Store, DolEx Dollar Express, Gina’s Beauty Salon, and Botanica Y Joyeria El Milagro. Tickets are a modest $15. At first glance, the location choice might seem odd; why not the legendary Wiltern Theater just down the street on Western? Or why not set up a stage inside MacArthur Park? Those are definitely options, and many performers do grace the stage of The Wiltern for fans in Koreatown and the greater Los Angeles area. However, for those who know Los Angeles’ Koreatown gets down, discounted snacks and pedicures a stone skip away from millionaires sounds just about right.

Figuring out these connections between sound, capital, culture, ethnicity, and art in LA’s Koreatown has been a popular pursuit in recent years. The year was 2014. The place was The Park Plaza Hotel on the outskirts of Los Angeles’ Koreatown. The people performing were TOKiMONSTA (Jennifer Lee), Far East Movement (Kevin Nishimura, James Roh, Jae Choung, and Virman Coquia), Dumbfoundead (Jonathan Park), and others. The reporter was Erik Kristman for Vice Media’s Thump. In the article titled “SPAM N EGGS Festival Was a Window to LA’s Multiculturalist Underground Movement,” Kristman proclaims: “Koreatown’s spectrum of sound, a culture hidden beneath its mid-Wilshire scenery, is no doubt one of the few remaining jewels of the LA underground.”

In Club Cultures: Music, Media, and Subcultural Capital (1996), Sarah Thornton writes that DJs “play a key role in the enculturation of records for dancing, sometimes as an artist but always as a representative and respondent to the crowd. By orchestrating the event and anchoring the music in a particular place, the DJ became a guarantor of subcultural authenticity” (60). Asian American DJs performed in Koreatown, so the electronic music and hip hop they mixed was enculturated not only with a Los Angeles neighborhood flair but also with an ethnic twist.

Park Plaza Hotel, Taken by Flickr User Cathy Cole (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The Park Plaza Hotel, now The MacArthur, has its own important history as a venue as well. Built in the 1920s by prominent Los Angeles-based architect Claud Beelman, the building has hosted the racially exclusive Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, night clubs such as Power Tools with attendees such as Andy Warhol, and has been a site of numerous films and music videos such as Kendrick Lamar’s “Humble” (2017). It survived the demolishing of similar Art Deco buildings during the 1980s. It survived the 1992 Los Angeles riots following the acquittal of four police officers who beat Rodney King and the killing of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins by Soon Ja Du, the Korean-born convenience store owner of Empire Liquor on 91st Street and Figueroa Avenue. It survived, if not flourished, in the subsequent gentrification of the Wilshire Center area with eager real estate agents and endowed buyers who are made nostalgic by the building’s Art Deco façade. The right DJs playing in a prime spot such as The MacArthur could definitely guarantee a level of Los Angeles subcultural authenticity for attendees. But what kind of authentic? And was that something anyone was trying to go for?

Kristman’s caricaturization of Koreatown certainly reveals how this visage of authenticity affected him. In his words, Koreatown is a diamond waiting to be mined. Koreatown is hidden. Koreatown’s “spectrum of sound” takes the singular verb “is,” meaning it functions as a unified, indistinguishable whole. Kristman has “no doubt” about his analysis of his authentic trip to Koreatown.

The openers of Spam N Eggs that night were two techno DJs and producers named MALT (Andrew Seo) and Eat Paint (Vince Fierro). Together, they run the Los Angeles-based Leisure Sports Records. We met at the Seoul-based coffeehouse Caffé Bene in Los Angeles to share misugaru lattes and talk about Kristman’s statement.

“I definitely wouldn’t call ‘Koreatown’ very underground,” says Vince. “It’s certainly become a new social center to LA’s night life, and there was a time when there was a feeling of great potential for a solid underground movement. But sadly, there have not been any significantly artistic home-grown breakthroughs coming from K-Town.”

Vince continues: “Rather, it serves as a new landing pad for the very commercialized Korean hip-hop and EDM cultures in Los Angeles. These genres dominate the K-Town club landscape. Unfortunately [pause] to me, anyway [pause] it’s success not won with any kind of daring artistry or underground legitimacy but rather with familiar aesthetics and neon lights.”

“[Los Angeles] helps them, too,” adds Andrew. “They’ll close off streets and bring in vendors because it gets people out spending money. A lot of the Korean stars come out for these events, but the thing is [pause] what kinds of people are these events attracting? Obviously, Koreans, or people that are fans of Korean music. I think Korean people here have a lot of pride, and they see that there is a rise in the culture and the area’s popularity and they’re jumping on that. They’re trying to make it bigger and better. If you walk around Koreatown, you’ll see gentrification happening everywhere.” He references the Wilshire Grand Center, the Hanjin Group-owned skyscraper that stands taller than any other west of the Mississippi, and its surroundings as evidence.

Urban studies carried out by Kyonghwan Park and Youngmin Lee, Kyeyoung Park and Jessica Kim, and others on Koreatown’s fraught relationship with surges of capital have made similar acknowledgments in wonderful detail. These surges are not evenly distributed among clubs; there are many more “secret” dimly-lit rave spots that pop up throughout the district than there are widely advertised above-ground clubs in Koreatown. Even relatively established clubs such as Union at 4067 West Pico Boulevard or Feria at 682 Irolo Street were not glamorous (and both have closed since the time this recent interview was conducted); they are surrounded by predatory lending offices and abandoned shops. Andrew gave me the address of an upcoming rave spot in Koreatown; it was basically under an apartment complex.

“I think they just want to bring what they build in Korea over here because that’s how they do it over there,” adds Andrew. “They just have apartments and then clubs and restaurants underneath or underground. It’s kind of like how Tokyo is.”

If this “hidden, underground” Koreatown culture does exist, as Kristman suggests, then finding it requires ignoring the flashing lights of Spam N Eggs and seeking out the darker warehouse raves. It also requires a level of suspended disbelief that Koreatown is untouched by hipster gentrification and instead an embracing of a subcultural essence that goes beyond city architecture and real estate. The physical space of sections of Koreatown might not be as important as the potential for the production of space in terms of creating sonic contact zones.

sign in Koreatown, Los Angeles by Flickr User vince Lammin (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The zones created by artists such as Malt and Eat Paint are mobile and fleeting as they pop up whenever and wherever these DJs perform. Like Josh Kun famously put forward in his book Audiotopia: Music, Race, and America (2005), the music these musicians produce and mix has the ability to create audiotopias “of cultural counter that may not be physical places but nevertheless exist in their own auditory some-where” (2-3). Electronic music, and perhaps similarly this “jewel-like” spectrum of Koreatown sound, has the ability to implant identity into the buildings and surrounding neighborhoods. What once was a Mexican restaurant and is now abandoned becomes a pulsating techno club attracting those Angelenos who shy away from the more commercial scenes.

Perhaps Kristman was focusing more on the Asian American DJs themselves than the types of music they were spinning or The Park Plaza Hotel and its situation in Koreatown. As Asian Americans, these DJs represent and are representative of an authentic subculture to which Kristman bears witness. However, many artists shy away from or sometimes outright deny any racial or ethnic connections being made between their art and their identities. Andrew and Vince shared personal and well-known examples of ambivalent attitudes toward such labeling. Jason Chung, also known as Nosaj Thing, is one of the best-booked electronic performers today, flying around the world sponsored by Adidas or playing huge shows with Flying Lotus. Vince, who worked very closely with Jason just as his career was taking off, reflects on Nosaj’s rise: “Everyone here in K-Town thinks Nosaj Thing is a god. But if you ask him about his pride in being Korean, he won’t say anything.”

Andrew adds: “It’s just like how Qbert is for the Filipino community – that’s who Nosaj Thing is for Koreans today. When I went to South Korea to perform, they would ask me how I was affiliated with him, although I’m not really. South Koreans are amazed to see a Korean guy make it in the music industry in America with a sense of originality, not having to sell out.”

Both Andrew and Vince shift the conversation suddenly to Keith Ape and his debut as a trap music artist. Keith Ape’s success was due in part to spectacle (as the genre demands), to the power of hallyu promotion, but more so to simple respect from established artists such as Gucci Mane and Waka Flocka Flame. In a Noisey documentary about his first U.S. performance at South by Southwest (SXSW) in 2015, Keith Ape is translated as saying: “You know, I’m Asian. And I heard stories of how Asians are still looked at as outsiders in the States. And I heard it’s even worse when it comes down to hip-hop.”

While his successful Atlanta trap-style set at SXSW ultimately assuaged those fears of acceptance, for many beginning and working Asian American DJs and performers, this perceived and sometimes enforced musical barrier is daunting. While Andrew seemed to have his criticisms about how Korean promoters of Korean artists seem to be strictly focused on the commercial payoff of such events, he did not condemn their tapping into the United States market. Furthermore, he never mentioned that performing in the electronic music genre was either assisted or hindered by his ethnicity. Rather, much like Nosaj Thing, Malt lets the music do its work and create an audiotopia in which race and ethnicity are not under the spotlight. Literally, most of the shows Malt performs at do not feature the performer; the DJ is often in the dark, putting the focus almost exclusively on the music.

MALT, courtesy of Leisure Sports Records

Vince adds: “Korean American artists like Nosaj Thing and TOKiMONSTA and David Choe – all these people are doing their own thing. They’ve got these ‘don’t see me as Asian’ mottos, these ‘just think I’m dope’ vibes.”

Instead of searching for authenticity in the racial or ethnic identities of performers, Andrew is more interested in breaking stereotypes about the dangers associated with techno music, raves, and drug use. Andrew concludes: “I think first impressions are very, very important to Korean people. Looks are everything. South Korea is like the biggest plastic surgery country in the world. I went to Korea to visit my grandma, who I hadn’t seen in a long time, and all she would ask me was like, ‘Are you eating well? Look at your hair!’ Just purely about my looks. I was telling her, ‘Grandma! I run a label back in LA! I’m trying to be a musician!’ At our events, random Korean people walk by, they’ll come in for five seconds, listen to the music, and label it as ‘drug music,’ like something you listen to when you’re messed up. The same thing could be said about trap or EDM, right? But they don’t associate it with that. Hopefully, if the right timing comes, we can change that somehow.”

Featured Image: TOKiMONSTA by Twitter User Henry Faber, 2011 (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Shawn Higgins is the Academic Coordinator of the Undergraduate Bridge Program at Temple University’s Japan campus. His latest publication is “Orientalist Soundscapes, Barred Zones, and Irving Berlin’s China,” coming out in the 2018 volume of Chinese America: History and Perspectives.

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

How Many Latinos are in this Motherfucking House?”: DJ Irene, Sonic Interpellations of Dissent and Queer Latinidad in ’90s Los Angeles—Eddy Francisco Alvarez Jr.

Contra La Pared: Reggaetón and Dissonance in Naarm, Melbourne–Lucreccia Quintanilla

SO! Amplifies: The Women in L.A. Punk Archive— Alice Bag

“Most pleasant to the ear”: W. E. B. Du Bois’s Itinerant Intellectual Soundscapes

Inspired by the recent Black Perspectives “W.E.B. Du Bois @ 150” Online ForumSO!’s “W.E.B. Du Bois at 150” amplifies the commemoration of the occasion of the 150th anniversary of Du Bois’s birth in 2018 by examining his all-too-often and all-too-long unacknowledged role in developing, furthering, challenging, and shaping what we now know as “sound studies.”

It has been an abundant decade-plus (!!!) since Alexander Weheliye’s Phonographies “link[ed] the formal structure of W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk to the contemporary mixing practices of DJs” (13) and we want to know how folks have thought about and listened with Du Bois in their work in the intervening years.  How does Du Bois as DJ remix both the historiography and the contemporary praxis of sound studies? How does attention to Du Bois’s theories of race and sound encourage us to challenge the ways in which white supremacy has historically shaped American institutions, sensory orientations, and fields of study? What new futures emerge when we listen to Du Bois as a thinker and agent of sound?

Over the next two months, we will be sharing work that reimagines sound studies with Du Bois at the center. Pieces by Phillip Luke Sinitiere, Kristin Moriah, Aaron Carter, Austin Richey, Julie Beth Napolin, and Vanessa Valdés, move us toward a decolonized understanding and history of sound studies, showing us how has Du Bois been urging us to attune ourselves to it.

Readers, today’s post by Phillip Luke Sinitere offers a wonderful introduction to W.E.B. Du Bois’s life’s work if he is new to you, and a finely-wrought analysis of what the sound of Du Bois’s voice–through first hand accounts and recordings–offers folks already well-acquainted.

–Jennifer Lynn Stoever and Liana Silva, Eds.


In her 1971 book His Day is Marching On: A Memoir of W. E. B. Du Bois, Shirley Graham Du Bois recalled about her late spouse’s public lectures that “everyone in that hall followed his words with close attention. Though he read from a manuscript replete with statistics and sociological measurements, he reached the hearts as well as the minds of his listeners.” Shirley’s memory about W. E. B.’s lectures invites reflection on the social and political significance of what I call his “itinerant intellectual soundscapes”—the spaces in which he spoke as an itinerant intellectual, a scholar who traveled annually on lecture tours to speak on the historical substance of contemporary events, including presentations annually during Negro History Week.

Yet Du Bois’s lectures took place within and across a soundscape he shared with an audience. In what follows, I center the sound of Du Bois’s voice literally and figuratively to 1) document his itinerant intellectual labor, 2) analyze how listeners responded to the soundscapes in which his speeches resided, and 3) explore what it means to listen to Du Bois in the present historical moment.

***

Upon completing a Ph.D. in history at Harvard in 1895, and thereafter working as a professor, author, and activist for the duration of his career until his death in 1963, Du Bois spent several months each year on lecture trips across the United States. As biographers and Du Bois scholars such as Nahum Chandler, David Levering Lewis, and Shawn Leigh Alexander document, international excursions to Japan in the 1930s included public speeches. Du Bois also lectured in China during a global tour he took in the late 1950s.

W. E. B. Du Bois delivering a speech in front of a microphone during trip to China, circa 1959, Courtesy of the Massachusetts Digital Commonwealth, physical image located in Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries

In his biographical writings, Lewis describes the “clipped tones” of Du Bois’s voice and the “clipped diction” in which he communicated, references to the accent acquired from his New England upbringing in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Reporter Cedric Belfrage, editor of the National Guardian for which Du Bois wrote between the 1940s and 1960s, listened to the black scholar speak at numerous Guardian fundraisers. “On each occasion he said just what needed saying, without equivocation and with extraordinary eloquence,” Belfrage described. “The timbre of his public-address voice was as thrilling in its way as that of Robeson’s singing voice. He wrote and spoke like an Old Testament prophet.” George B. Murphy heard Du Bois speak when he was a high school student and later as a reporter in the 1950s; he recalled the “crisp, precise English of [Du Bois’s] finely modulated voice.”

One benefit of Du Bois’s long life was its intersection with technological advances in audio recording and amplification, the dynamics of which literary historian Jennifer Lynn Stoever insightfully narrates in The Sonic Color Line. This means that in 2018 we can literally listen to Du Bois’s voice; we can experience sonic dimensions of his intellect and sit with the verbal articulation of his ideas. For example, Smithsonian Folkways released two audio recordings of Du Bois: an April 1960 speech, “Socialism and the American Negro” he delivered in Wisconsin, and a 1961 oral history interview, including a full transcript. Furthermore, in his digitized UMass archive we can read the text of another 1960 speech, “Whither Now and Why” and listen to the audio of that March lecture.

The intersection of these historical artifacts texture understanding of the textual and aural facets of Du Bois’s work as an itinerant intellectual. They give voice to specific dimensions of his late career commitments to socialism and communism and unveil the language he used to communicate his ideas about economic democracy and political equality.

The act of hearing Du Bois took place within and across his itinerant intellectual soundscape was rarely a passive activity, an experience toward which Shirley’s comments above gesture. Those who attended Du Bois’s lectures often commented on listening to his presentations by connecting visual memories with auditory recollections and affective responses.

John Hope Franklin, 1950s, while Chair of Department of History at Brooklyn College, Courtesy of Duke University

For example, the late black historian John Hope Franklin penned an autobiographical reflection about his first encounter with Du Bois in Oklahoma in the 1920s at 11 years old. At an education convention with his mother, Franklin commented on Du Bois’s physical appearance: “I recall quite vividly . . . his coming to the stage, dressed in white tie and tails with a ribbon draped across his chest . . . the kind I later learned was presented by governments to persons who had made some outstanding contribution to the government or even humankind.” He then referenced a sonic memory. “I can also remember that voice, resonant and well modulated,” Franklin wrote, “speaking the lines he had written on note cards with a precision and cadence that was most pleasant to the ear . . . the impression he made on me was tremendous, and I would make every effort to hear him in the future wherever and whenever our paths crossed.” While Franklin did not remember the speech’s content, his auditory memories deliver a unique historical impression of the sound of Du Bois’s intellectual labor—a “resonant and well modulated” inspirational voice to which Franklin attributed his own career as an intellectual and historian.

A few years after the Oklahoma lecture, Du Bois gave a February 1927 presentation on interracial political solidarity in Denver during Negro History Week. Two audience members penned letters to him in response to his speech. A minister, A. A. Heist, told Du Bois that his encouragement for interracial work across the color line was bearing fruit through community race relation meetings. Attorney Thomas Campbell’s letter, like Heist’s, confirmed the speech’s positive reception; but it also revealed captivating details about the soundscape. Campbell described the lecture as a “great speech” and a “remarkable address.” “I have never heard you deliver such an eloquent, forceful and impressive speech,” he gushed, to an “appreciative and responsive audience.” Although the speech’s text does not survive, from correspondence we learn about its subject matter and receive details about the soundscape and positive listener responses to his spoken words.

 

NAACP Pres W.E.B. DuBois speaks Third Baptist Church 1958, San Francisco

The observations of Franklin, Heist, and Campbell collectively disclose pertinent historical, gendered, and racialized dimensions of listening to Du Bois. These historical documents convey what rhetoric scholar Justin Eckstein terms “sound ontology,” the multifaceted relationship between speakers, words, listeners, and the intellectual, cultural, and affective responses generated within such sonic settings. In other words, within the context of each speech’s delivery listeners heard Du Bois speak and felt his words which generated embodied responses. At the intersection of Franklin’s visual and aural memories is a well-dressed regal Du Bois, a male black leader whose presence in Tulsa a handful of years after a destructive race riot perhaps represented recovery and resurrection, whose words and voice commanded authority. Similarly, recollections of a leading lawyer in Denver’s early twentieth-century black community lauded Du Bois’s role in fostering interracial possibility. Campbell’s admission was important; it documents how a male race leader and key figure in one of the nation’s most important interracial organizations, the NAACP, inspired through an impactful, moving, and persuasive lecture collaborative conversations across the color line. Given Du Bois’s stature as a national and international scholar and intellectual leader, Franklin, Heist, and Campbell perhaps expected him to dispense wisdom from travel and study. Nevertheless, the historical record documents an interactive soundscape that emanated from Du Bois’s presence, his words, and the listening audience.

Ethel Ray Nance, a black  educator and activist from Minnesota, first met Du Bois during the Harlem Renaissance. After she moved to Seattle in the 1940s, Nance helped to organize his west coast lecture tours and assisted with his United Nations work in 1945. Nance also assembled a memoir of her work with Du Bois, titled “A Man Most Himself.” Her reflections provide a unique personal perspective on Du Bois. She recalled meeting him at a reception held in his honor after a lecture in Minneapolis in the early 1920s. She described the larger soundscape of Du Bois’s lecture, especially how listeners responded to him. “The audience gave him complete attention,” she wrote, “they seemed to want him to go on and on. You could feel a certain strength being transmitted from speaker to listeners.”

Also in Minnesota, around the same time a young black college student named Anna Arnold Hedgeman heard Du Bois lecture at Hamline University. As she listened to a lecture on Pan-Africanism with “rapt attention,” Hedgeman wrote in her 1964 memoir The Trumpet Sounds, she noticed that Du Bois wore “a full dress suit as though he had been born in it” and commented that “his command of the English language was superb.” Hedgeman located her inspiration for a career in education and activism to hearing Du Bois speak. “This slim, elegant, thoughtful brown man had sent me scurrying to the library and I discovered his Souls of Black Folk,” she said.

W.E.B. Du Bois on a country road in his own car, 1925, Courtesy of the Massachusetts Digital Commonwealth, physical image located in Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries

Broadly speaking, the listener responses mentioned above capture dimensions of Du Bois’s public reception at arguably the mid-life pinnacle of his career. He was in his 50s during the 1920s, an established scholar, author, and black leader. Yet due to shifting national and international conditions related to capital, labor, and civil rights during the Great Depression and World War II, his politics moved further left. He settled more concretely on socialist solutions to capitalism’s failures. This position became increasingly unpopular as the Cold War dawned. People still listened to Du Bois, but with far more critical and dismissive dispositions.

Page from W.E.B. Du Bois’s voluminous FBI file

Peering further into the historical record, part of Du Bois’s verbal archive and audible history resides in his FBI file. Concerned about his leftist political leanings, the Bureau had surveilled Du Bois starting in the 1940s by reading his publications, and dispatching agents or informants to attend his lectures and speeches. As the Cold War commenced, scrutiny increased. Redacted reports communicated his movements throughout the world in 1960, including a speech at the Russian Embassy in Washington, D. C. when he received the Lenin Peace Prize, and an address he gave in Ghana at a dinner celebrating that nation’s recent independence in 1957. The FBI file states that he received “an ovation as he rose to make a statement” about world peace and a more equitable distribution of resources. Similarly, the report from Ghana relayed that in his address he outlined two divergent world systems, “the socialism of Karl Marx leading to communism, and private capitalism as developed by North America and Western Europe.”

The bureaucratic construction of FBI reports reveals less about the audibility of Du Bois’s voice. However, unlike the listener reports presented above, the technical nature of bureaucratic communications offer a great deal more about the content of his speeches and thus documents another sense in which people—presumably FBI agents or informants—heard or listened to Du Bois as part of their sonic surveillance.

Du Bois’s audible history invests new meaning into his work as a scholar and public intellectual. Through John Hope Franklin, Shirley Graham Du Bois, and Anna Arnold Hedgeman we “see” Du Bois lecturing and speaking, in effect the public presence of a scholar we tend to know more readily through the printed words of his publications. With Thomas Campbell and Ethel Ray Nance—and from a different vantage point his FBI files—we “feel” the power of Du Bois’s words and the affective experience of his verbal constructions. Whether found in historical documents or narrated through vivid descriptions of the “clipped” aspects of his voice’s literal sound, investigating Du Bois’s audible history innovatively humanizes a towering scholar mostly readily known through his published words.

Attending to the audible and archival records of his life and times, we not only encounter the sonic dimensions of his literal voice, we observe how ordinary people listened to him and responded to his ideas. Some embraced his perspectives while others, especially during the Cold War, denounced his socialist vision of the world. Yet this is where the redactions in the FBI files ironically speak loudest: Du Bois’s ideas persisted, and survived. Scholars and activists amplified his words and retooled his ideas in service of black liberation, social justice, and economic equality.

W.E.B. Du Bois receiving honorary degree on his 95th birthday, University of Ghana, Accra, 1963, February 23, 1963,Courtesy of the Massachusetts Digital Commonwealth, physical image located in Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries

By literally listening to and sitting with an audible Du Bois today there’s an opportunity to mobilize affect into action, a version of what Casey Boyle, James J. Brown, Jr. and Steph Ceraso call “transduction.” Du Bois’s voice digitized delivers rhetoric within yet beyond the computer screen. It (re)enters the world in a contemporary soundscape. Hearing his voice produces affect and thought; and thought provokes action or inspires creativity. Such a “mediation of meaning” shows that contemporary listeners inhabit a soundscape with Du Bois. Whether a scholar listens to Du Bois in an archive, students and teachers engage his voice in the classroom, or anyone privately at home leisurely tunes into his speeches, time, space, and place collectively determine how wide and expansive the Du Bois soundscape is. Advancements in communication, digital and sonic technologies mean that across whatever modality his voice moves there’s a sense in which Du Bois remains an itinerant intellectual.

Phillip Luke Sinitiere is a W. E. B. Du Bois Visiting Scholar at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 2018-19. He is also Professor of History at the College of Biblical Studies, a predominately African American school located in Houston’s Mahatma Gandhi District. A scholar of American religious history and African American Studies, his books include Christians and the Color Line: Race and Religion after Divided by Faith (Oxford University Press, 2013); Protest and Propaganda: W. E. B. Du Bois, The Crisis, and American History (University of Missouri Press, 2014) and Salvation with a Smile: Joel Osteen, Lakewood Church, and American Christianity (New York University Press, 2015). Currently, he is at work on projects about W. E. B. Du Bois’s political and intellectual history, as well as a biography of twentieth-century writer James Baldwin. In 2019, Northwestern University Press will publish his next book, Citizen of the World: The Late Career and Legacy of W. E. B. Du Bois.  

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

Black Mourning, Black Movement(s): Savion Glover’s Dance for Amiri Baraka –Kristin Moriah

Saving Sound, Sounding Black, Voicing America: John Lomax and the Creation of the “American Voice”–Toniesha Taylor

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

“I Love to Praise His Name”: Shouting as Feminine Disruption, Public Ecstasy, and Audio-Visual Pleasure–Shakira Holt

 

%d bloggers like this: