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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.

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Hearing Change in the Chocolate City:  Soundwalking as Black Feminist Method

Since its inception at the World Soundscape Project in the 1970s, soundwalking has emerged as a critical method for sound studies research and artistic practice. Although “soundwalking” now describes a diversity of activities and purposes, critical discussions and reading lists still rarely represent or consider the experiences of people of color (POC). As Locatora Radio hosts Diosa and Mala have argued in their 2018 podcast about womxn of color and the sound of sexual harassment in their everyday lives and neighborhoods, sound in public space is weaponized to create “sonic landscapes of unwelcome” for POC.

While we often think of soundwalks as engines of knowledge production, we must also consider that they may simultaneously silence divergent worldviews and perspectives of space and place.  In “Black Joy: African Diasporic Religious Expression in Popular Culture,” Vanessa Valdés explored alternate conceptions of space held by practicioners of Regla de Ocha, epistemologies rarely, if ever, addressed via soundwalks. “Within African diasporic religions . . . including Palo Monte, Vodou, Obeah, Macumba, Candomblé – there is respect for the seemingly inexplicable,” Valdés remarks, “there is room for the miraculous, for that which can be found outside the realms of what has been deemed reasonable by systems of European thought. There is room for faith.”  Does current soundwalk praxis—either as research method, public intervention, artistic medium, field recording subject, or pop culture phenomenon—impose dominant ideas about space and knowledge production as much as—if not more–they offer access to alternatives? Are there alternate historiographies for soundwalking that predate the 1970s? Can soundwalks provide such openings, disruptions, and opportunities without a radical rethinking? What would a decolonial/decolonizing soundwalk praxis look and sound like?

Soundwalking While POC explores these questions through the work of Allie Martin, Amanda Gutierrez, and Paola Cossermelli Messina. Today, Allie Martin kicks off the series with a powerful reframing of the soundwalk as a black feminist methodology.  —JS


In July 2018 I visited Oxford, Mississippi for the first time, to attend a workshop on conducting oral histories.  Upon walking with a friend back to our accommodations on the University of Mississippi campus, we heard a voice calling to us from far away, up a hill somewhere.  It was a catcalling voice—that much I definitely recognized—but I also felt sure that I heard the word “nigger.”  My friend, who is also a black woman, heard the taunting sounds of the voice but not that word specifically.  Herein lies one of the difficulties of black womanhood: I was unable to distinguish which of my two most prominent identity markers (blackness and womanhood) the speaker was using to harm me in that moment.  I found it ironic that I came to Mississippi to learn best practices for listening to people’s stories, but could not hear my own story, could not say for sure what had happened to me.

In the time since that visit, I have come to embrace the speculative sonic ephemerality of black womanhood and utilize it on my soundwalks.  Soundwalks are a popular method for understanding the everyday sonic life of a place.  Reminiscent of Michel de Certeau’s “Walking in the City,” soundwalks offer the kind of embodied experience missing from other more static soundscape recordings. I argue here that soundwalks can operate as black feminist method, precisely because they allow me to center the complex, incomplete sonorities of black womanhood, and they are enough in their incompleteness.  One of our foremost thinkers on black feminism, Patricia Hill Collins, has argued that black women’s knowledge is subjugated (1990).  I understand this to mean that my knowledge is tainted somehow, too specialized or not specialized enough, and not considered fit for application by a broader audience.  Soundwalks as method, though, rely on my own subjugated knowledge.  What did I hear?  Black feminism centers and humanizes black women, and I utilize soundwalks to humanize myself in a soundscape that would otherwise disregard my sonic perceptions in favor of white hearing as the default standard of sound.

I began soundwalking in Washington, DC as a part of my dissertation project, which explores the musical and sonic dimensions of gentrification in the city. Gentrification is often considered in visual terms, meaning that a neighborhood is considered gentrified because new coffeeshops, bike lanes, and dog parks make it “look” different from what was once there.  I recognize these new additions as important markers of gentrification, but what do they sound like?  And what do these sonic markers reveal about the sonorities of race?

Rowhouses in the Shaw neighborhood, image by author

I have taken up the sonic exploration of gentrification, drawing inspiration from Jennifer Stoever’s Sonic Color Line and Regina Bradley’s exploration of the criminalization of black sound.  As SO! writer and ethnic studies scholar Marlén Rios Hernandez has noted in her work on racial and spatial shifts in early punk in 1970s Los Angeles, it is crucial to work on “delinking gentrification as exclusively spatial and analyzing it as also a sonic force of expulsion.”  Having spent time researching the auralities of gentrification in DC, I understand it to be a process that silences poor and marginalized populations while amplifying the concerns of those privileged enough to have the ear of the DC Council and developers.  Gentrification displaces musicians and music genres, while increasing tensions around music and noise in “public” space.  More than these changes, though, gentrification changes the soundscape of the city.

My soundwalks focus on the Shaw neighborhood in the Northwest quadrant of DC, part of the fastest gentrifying zip code in the country. Before the explosion of development, Shaw was a cultural hub of black DC, only blocks away from the U Street Corridor, formerly known as Black Broadway.  From Pearl Bailey to James Brown, prominent black entertainers frequented the neighborhood because they were unable to perform in or have accommodations in other areas of the city.  As the neighborhood shifts and transforms, the soundscapes grow louder with new nightclubs and quieter due to increased reporting of noise violations.  The neighborhood diversifies in terms of languages, increases in siren whoops, and new sounds appear, such as the beep of a dockless scooter.  Shaw has seen a concomitant increase in property values, community gardens, and bars; a Whole Foods is set to open in the neighborhood by 2020.

[The recording here is of a soundscape at 7th street and Florida Avenue NW, a busy intersection at the north edge of Shaw.  Recorded on a mid-September afternoon, you can hear go-go music (DC’s indigenous subgenre of funk), engines idling, and the whoop of a siren.  In the past two months, this intersection has become a battleground for cultural erasure, as artists, activists, and councilmembers attempt to legitimize the go-go music that has been playing in the area since 1995.]

During the day, Shaw oscillates between a quiet neighborhood and a busy city space.  Traffic, horns, and sirens are frequent, yet so are the sounds of children at recess and old men chatting outside on their stoops or outside of corner stores.

Conducting soundwalks as a black woman in this gentrifying neighborhood is a curious space to tarry in.  I am in some ways an outsider as a non-resident, mindful of who and what I record at any given moment because part of what makes gentrification such a tense and terrifying process is the lack of control that residents (particularly renters) have regarding their futures, and often their presence too.  I am also an insider, a black woman in this space where being a black woman is not (yet) anything out of the ordinary.  In fact, as the months went on, more of my recordings feature me speaking to people on the street, some I had come to know and some still strangers to me.

One of my favorite interactions on a soundwalk came early on, in late February of 2018.  I was running late for an interview, listening intently to what was going around me, when I walked past a black man, seemingly in his 30s, on a narrow sidewalk.  The exchange went something like this:

Man: Whoa, whoa, why you running up on people?

Me: My bad, my bad!

Man: It’s okay.  Hey sis, you know how to make grits?

Me: [laughing], Nah, I don’t know how to make grits.

Man: What about pancakes?

Me: Yeah, I can make some pancakes.

Man: Ayyyee, I’m tryna get some breakfast!!

Me: I don’t know about all that!

The exchange, not quite a catcall but not quite comfortable either, consistently faded in volume, because during the entire time we spoke, I continued to walk away from him.  I was in a position of wanting to speak, because I know the politics of being an outsider in a gentrifying neighborhood and not greeting folks as you walk by.  However, I also know the dangers of being a black woman walking alone, and so I negotiated a lighthearted exchange while making my way to my destination.  My soundwalks, then, act as a sonic record of gentrifying space as well as my attempts to keep myself safe.

Shaw from a rooftop perspective, Image by author

These moments also inform the contours of my dissertation project on hearing gentrification in DC.  The larger project involves passive acoustic recording in the same neighborhood, a methodology that entails creating a large amount of short soundscape recordings over a long period of time.  Understanding both my soundwalks and passive acoustic recording as black feminist method allows for the consideration of multiple sonic perspectives of the neighborhood, rather than one record.  When once describing passive acoustic recording to a colleague at a digital humanities workshop, they celebrated the idea that I would be able to “objectively” hear what was occurring in the neighborhood, instead of relying only on pieced together accounts from community members.

However, just as black feminist thought amplifies my “tainted” knowledge, it also mutes the authoritative “objective” knowledge of a rooftop recorder.  The sounds of the stationary recorder placed on a rooftop at 7th and Florida are as partial and positioned as the recordings of my footsteps as I move around the neighborhood.  As I continue to walk, be it through the unfamiliarity of Mississippi or my hometown DC, I do so with the reassurance that what I hear is enough.

Featured Image: Shaw From Above, by author.

Allie Martin is a PhD Candidate at Indiana University in the Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology.  Her dissertation project explores the musical and sonic dimensions of gentrification in Washington, DC, using a combination of ethnographic fieldwork, archival research, and soundscape recordings.  Originally from the Washington, DC, metropolitan area, she received her BAs in music performance and audio production from American University.  

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Can’t Nobody Tell Me Nothin: Respectability and The Produced Voice in Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road”

It’s been ten weeks now that we’ve all been kicking back in our Wranglers. allowing Lil Nas X’s infectious twang in “Old Town Road” to shower us in yeehaw goodness from its perch atop the Billboard Hot 100. Entrenched as it is on the pop chart, though, “Old Town Road”’s relationship to Billboard got off to a shaky start, first landing on the Hot Country Songs list only to be removed when the publication determined the hit “does not embrace enough elements of today’s country music to chart in its current version.” There’s a lot to unpack in a statement like that, and folks have been unpacking it quite consistently, especially in relation to notions of genre and race (in addition to Matthew Morrison’s recommended reads, I’d add Karl Hagstrom-Miller’s Segregating Sound, which traces the roots of segregated music markets). Using the context of that ongoing discussion about genre and race, I’m listening here to a specific moment in “Old Town Road”— the line “can’t nobody tell me nothin”—and the way it changes from the original version to the Billy Ray Cyrus remix. Lil Nas X uses the sound of his voice in this moment to savvily leverage his collaboration with a country music icon, and by doing so subtly drawing out the respectability politics underlying Billboard’s racialized genre categorization of his song.

Screenshot, “Lil Nas X – Old Town Road (Official Movie) ft. Billy Ray Cyrus”

After each of Lil Nas X’s two verses in the original “Old Town Road,” we hear the refrain “can’t nobody tell me nothin.” The song’s texture is fairly sparse throughout, but the refrains feature some added elements. The 808-style kick drum and rattling hihats continue to dominate the soundscape, but they yield just enough room for the banjo sample to come through more clearly than in the verse, and it plucks out a double-time rhythm in the refrain. The vocals change, too, as Lil Nas X performs a call-and-response with himself. The call, “can’t nobody tell me nothin,” is center channel, just as his voice has been throughout the verse, but the response, “can’t tell me nothin,” moves into the left and right speaker, a chorus of Lil Nas X answering the call.  Listen closely to these vocals, and you’ll also hear some pitch correction. Colloquially known as “autotune,” this is an effect purposely pushed to extreme limits to produce garbled or robotic vocals and is a technique most often associated with contemporary hip hop and R&B. Here, it’s applied to this melodic refrain, most noticeably on “nothin” in the call and “can’t” in the response,

After Billboard removed the song from the Hot Country chart in late March, country star Billy Ray Cyrus tweeted his support for “Old Town Road,” and by early April, Lil Nas X had pulled him onto the remix that would come to dominate the Hot 100. The Cyrus remix is straightforward: Cyrus takes the opening chorus, then Lil Nas X’s original version plays through from the first verse to the last chorus, at which point Cyrus tacks on one more verse and then sings the hook in tandem with Lil Nas X to close the song. Well, it’s straightforward except that, while Lil Nas X’s material sounds otherwise unaltered from the original version, the pitch correction is smoothed out so that the garble from the previous version is gone.

In order to figure out what happened to the pitch correction from the first to second “Old Town Road,” I’m bringing in a conceptual framework I’ve been tinkering with the last couple of years: the produced voice. Within this framework, all recorded voices are produced in two specific ways: 1) everyone performs their bodies in relation to gender, race, ability, sex, and class norms, and 2) everyone who sings on record has their voice altered or affected with various levels of technology. To think about a produced voice is to think about how voices are shaped by recording technologies and social technologies at the same time. Listening to the multiple versions of “Old Town Road” draws my attention specifically to the always collaborative nature of produced voices.

In performativity terms—and here Judith Butler’s idea in “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory” that “one is not simply a body, but, in some very key sense, one does one’s body” (521) is crucial—a collaboratively produced voice is a little nebulous, as it’s not always clear who I’m collaborating with to produce my voice. Sometimes I can (shamefully, I assure you) recognize myself changing the way my voice sounds to fit into some sort of, say, gendered norm that my surroundings expect. As a white man operating in a white supremacist, cisheteropatriarchal society, the deeper my voice sounds, the more authority adheres to me. (Well, only to a point, but that’s another essay). Whether I consciously or subconsciously make my voice deeper, I am definitely involved in a collaboration, as the frequency of my voice is initiated in my body but dictated outside my body. Who I’m collaborating with is harder to establish – maybe it’s the people in the room, or maybe my produced voice and your listening ears (read Jennifer Stoever’s The Sonic Color Line for more on the listening ear) are all working in collaboration with notions of white masculine authority that have long-since been baked into society by teams of chefs whose names we didn’t record.

“Tools in a Recording Studio” by Flickr user Carol VanHook (CC BY-SA 2.0)

In studio production terms, a voice’s collaborators are often hard to name, too, but for different reasons. For most major label releases, we could ask who applied the effects that shaped the solo artist’s voice, and while there’s a specific answer to that question, I’m willing to bet that very few people know for sure. Even where we can track down the engineers, producers, and mix and master artists who worked on any given song, the division of labor is such that probably multiple people (some who aren’t credited anywhere as having worked on the song) adjusted the settings of those vocal effects at some point in the process, masking the details of the collaboration. In the end, we attribute the voice to a singular recording artist because that’s the person who initiated the sound and because the voice circulates in an individualistic, capitalist economy that requires a focal point for our consumption. But my point here is that collaboratively produced voices are messy, with so many actors—social or technological—playing a role in the final outcome that we lose track of all the moving pieces.

Not everyone is comfortable with this mess. For instance, a few years ago long-time David Bowie producer Tony Visconti, while lamenting the role of technology in contemporary studio recordings, mentioned Adele as a singer whose voice may not be as great as it is made to sound on record. Adele responded by requesting that Visconti suck her dick. And though the two seemed at odds with each other, they were being equally disingenuous: Visconti knows that every voice he’s produced has been manipulated in some way, and Adele, too, knows that her voice is run through a variety of effects and algorithms that make her sound as epically Adele as possible. Visconti and Adele align in their desire to sidestep the fundamental collaboration at play in recorded voices, keeping invisible the social and political norms that act on the voice, keeping inaudible the many technologies that shape the voice.

Propping up this Adele-Visconti exchange is a broader relationship between those who benefit from social gender/race scripts and those who benefit from masking technological collaboration. That is, Adele and Visconti both benefit, to varying degrees, from their white femininity and white masculinity, respectively; they fit the molds of race and gender respectability. Similarly, they both benefit from discourses surrounding respectable music and voice performance; they are imbued with singular talent by those discourses. And on the flipside of that relationship, where we find artists who have cultivated a failure to comport with the standards of a respectable singing voice, we’ll also find artists whose bodies don’t benefit from social gender/race scripts: especially Black and Brown artistsnon-binary, women, and men. Here I’m using “failure” in the same sense Jack Halberstam does in The Queer Art of Failure, where failing is purposeful, subversive. To fail queerly isn’t to fall short of a standard you’re trying to meet; it’s to fall short of a standard you think is bullshit to begin with. This kind of failure would be a performance of non-conformity that draws attention to the ways that systemic flaws – whether in social codes or technological music collaborations – privilege ways of being and sounding that conform with white feminine and white masculine aesthetic standards. To fail to meet those standards is to call the standards into question.

So, because respectably collaborating a voice into existence involves masking the collaboration, failing to collaborate a voice into existence would involve exposing the process. This would open up the opportunity for us to hear a singer like Ma$e, who always sings and never sings well, as highlighting a part of the collaborative vocal process (namely pitch correction, either through training or processing the voice) by leaving it out. To listen to Ma$e in terms of failed collaboration is to notice which collaborators didn’t do their work. In Princess Nokia’s doubled and tripled and quadrupled voice, spread carefully across the stereo field, we hear a fully exposed collaboration that fails to even attempt to meet any standards of respectable singing voices. In the case of the countless trap artists whose voices come out garbled through the purposeful misapplication of pitch correction algorithms, we can hear the failure of collaboration in the clumsy or over-eager use of the technology. This performed pitch correction failure is the sound I started with, Lil Nas X on the original lines “can’t nobody tell me nothin.” It’s one of the few times we can hear a trap aesthetic in “Old Town Road,” outside of its instrumental.

In each of these instances, the failure to collaborate results in the failure to achieve a respectably produced voice: a voice that can sing on pitch, a voice that can sing on pitch live, a voice that is trained, a voice that is controlled, a voice that requires no intervention to be perceived as “good” or “beautiful” or “capable.” And when respectable vocal collaboration further empowers white femininity or white masculinity, failure to collaborate right can mean failing in a system that was never going to let you pass in the first place. Or failing in a system that applies nebulous genre standards that happen to keep a song fronted by a Black artist off the country charts but allow a remix of the same song to place a white country artist on the hip hop charts.

The production shift on “can’t nobody tell me nothin” is subtle, but it brings the relationship between social race/gender scripts and technological musical collaboration into focus a bit. It isn’t hard to read “does not embrace enough elements of today’s country music” as “sounds too Black,” and enough people called bullshit on Billboard that the publication has had to explicitly deny that their decision had anything to do with race. Lil Nas X’s remix with Billy Ray Cyrus puts Billboard in a really tricky rhetorical position, though. Cyrus’s vocalsmore pinched and nasally than Lil Nas X’s, with more vibrato on the hook (especially on “road” and “ride”), and framed without the hip hop-style drums for the first half of his versedraw attention to the country elements already at play in the song and remove a good deal of doubt about whether “Old Town Road” broadly comports with the genre. But for Billboard to place the song back on the Country chart only after white Billy Ray Cyrus joined the show? Doing so would only intensify the belief that Billboard’s original decision was racially motivated. In order for Billboard to maintain its own colorblind respectability in this matter, in order to keep their name from being at the center of a controversy about race and genre, in order to avoid being the publication believed to still be divvying up genres primarily based on race in 2019, Billboard’s best move is to not move. Even when everyone else in the world knows “Old Town Road” is, among other things, a country song, Billboard’s country charts will chug along as if in a parallel universe where the song never existed.

As Lil Nas X shifted Billboard into a rhetorical checkmate with the release of the Billy Ray Cyrus remix, he also shifted his voice into a more respectable rendition of “can’t nobody tell me nothin,” removing the extreme application of pitch correction effects. This seems the opposite of what we might expect. The Billy Ray Cyrus remix is defiant, thumbing its nose at Billboard for not recognizing the countryness of the tune to begin with. Why, in a defiant moment, would Lil Nas X become more respectable in his vocal production? I hear the smoothed-out remix vocals as a palimpsest, a writing-over that, in the traces of its editing, points to the fact that something has been changed, therefore never fully erasing the original’s over-affected refrain. These more respectable vocals seem to comport with Billboard’s expectations for what a country song should be, showing up in more acceptable garb to request admittance to the country chart, even as the new vocals smuggle in the memory of the original’s more roboticized lines.

While the original vocals failed to achieve respectability by exposing the recording technologies of collaboration, the remix vocals fail to achieve respectability by exposing the social technologies of collaboration, feigning compliance and daring its arbiter to fail it all the same. The change in “Old Town Road”’s vocals from original to remix, then, stacks collaborative exposures on top of one another as Lil Nas X reminds the industry gatekeepers that can’t nobody tell him nothin, indeed.

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Featured image, and all images in this post: screenshots from “Lil Nas X – Old Town Road (Official Movie) ft. Billy Ray Cyrus” posted by YouTube user Lil Nas X

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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 now. 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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