Our Punk Sound series implicitly argues that sound studies methodologies are better suited to understanding how punk works sonically than existing journalistic and academic conversations about musical genre, chord progressions, and/or genealogies of bands. Alexandra Vasquez’s sound-oriented work on Cuban music, for example, in Listening in Detail (2014) opens up necessary conversations about the “flashes, moments, sounds” in music that bear its meanings and its colonial, raced, classed, and gendered histories in material ways people can hear and feel. While retaining the specificity of Vasquez’s argument and the specific sonic archive bringing it forth, we too insist on “an ethical and intellectual obligation to the question: what do the musicians sound like” (12) and how do folks identifying with and through these musical sounds hear them?
In this series, we invite you to amplify varied historicized “details” of punk sound–its chunk-chunk-chunk skapunk riffs, screams, growls, group chants, driving rhythms, honking saxophones–hearing/feeling/touching these sounds in richly varied locations, times, places, and perspectives: as a pulsing bead of condensation dripping down the wall of The Smell in Downtown LA (#savethesmell), a drummer making her own time on tour, a drunk sitting too near the amp at a backyard party, a queer teenager in their bedroom being yelled at to “turn it down” and “act like a lady[or a man]”. . .and on and on. Today’s essay is by the amazing and prolific Chris Chien. Join Chris as he questions the the uneven intersection of racial and sexual vocalization in punk’s legacy.
–Aaron SO! (Sounding Out!) + Jenny SO! (Sounding Out!)
Eddy is white, and we know he is because nobody says so. – Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark
We just celebrated the 4th of July, which is really just national Fuck the Police Day… I bet that during the Revolutionary War, there were songs similar to mine. — Ice-T, interview in Rolling Stone, August 1992
I think it’s real important that us as Americans recognize the fact that we have a lot of violence inherent in us, you know, it’s like part of our culture; it’s part of our art, you know, the 1950s, the great artists, like [Jackson] Pollock and [Willem] de Kooning, and we should work now, now that wars are over to not be ashamed to put violence in our art; I have a lot of violence in my art — Patti Smith, interview from Rock My Religion
In a 2015 interview with Terry Gross on NPR, Toni Morrison recounts the time her father threw a drunken white man down the stairs because he thought the man was coming for his daughters. She concluded that it made her feel protected. Gross circuitously questions this rationale, implying that her father’s act, his black violence, must have been terrifying for Morrison and her sister to see. Morrison responds, “Well, if it was you and a black man was coming up the stairs after a little white girl and the white father threw the black man down, that wouldn’t disturb you.” Chastised, Gross adds, “I think it’s a product of being in this, like, not-very-violent, working-class, middle-class family where I didn’t see a lot of violence when I was growing up, so any violent act would probably have been very unnerving to me.” Gross’ response to Morrison’s childhood memory of black fatherly love and protection, coded to elevate her white, middle-class upbringing, left me wondering: whose violence is acceptable, and whose is not?
This question remains pressing in today’s climate. In the past year, state-sanctioned violence against indigenous, black, brown, queer and trans people, which has run like rich, nourishing marrow through the backbone of this country, is once again being openly and actively fomented throughout the public sphere by the figures at the apex of state power. In reaction, antifa anarchist groups, responsible for the much-publicized #PunchANazi meme have revived the use of black bloc tactics; along with the rise of “left-leaning” gun clubs, these responses have given renewed currency to the notion of arming up to fight back out of fear, disgust, and rage.
Olympia queer and trans hardcore band G.L.O.S.S. embodies many of these impulses, especially in their most recent (and now final) EP, Trans Day of Revenge. Through calls to direct action and explicit violence, the band rages against every oppressor that has ever crossed its path. On the whole, popular and critical reception to the EP has been positive, even celebratory, due in part to the preceding lineage of music criticism in which the violence of hardcore music is neutralized or intellectualized because of the implicit whiteness of the genre. And, in mirroring both critical and popular reactions to the work of Black Lives Matter and other black social movements, the calls to direct action in rap and hip hop are either discredited or disavowed. In other words, certain white genres of music, and the violence therein, appear to require intellectual analysis or even possess an inherent rationalization. (Dan Graham’s seminal video essay Rock my Religion is an early example of this foundational project in the history of intellectualizing rock.) The mutation into either incredibility or physical threat, on the other hand, accompanies music produced by certain racialized subjects—in America, almost always the black musician. By looking at the critical reception to G.L.O.S.S.’ Trans Day of Revenge, I will examine the dynamic that celebrates the white voice, especially when it calls for violence, as righteous and “metaphysical,” exemplified by the Patti Smith interview in the epigraph (note the use of the uninterrogated second person), and condemns the voice of black rage in rap and hip hop, for its “thuggery.” To question this dynamic is not specific to G.L.O.S.S. but is meant to denaturalize the uneven musical imaginary that supports the white ‘voice’ and smothers the black, as symptomatic of the way in which the political horizons of black political action are foreclosed in favor of righteous white action.
While there may be a seeming disconnect between music criticism and the politics of activism, radical hip hop’s roots in Black Power movements and hardcore and punk’s roots in the politics of white disaffection of the 1970s have both been well-documented. These political-sonic genealogies bind these respective genres to their racialized origins and mark the political stakes of G.L.O.S.S.’ message and its critical reception. The primary difference between the two genres is that the former genre was racialized from the start while the latter remains “unmarked” to this day, despite its early, close connection to white supremacy as documented by, among others, influential rock critic Lester Bangs. Even fascinating work that links and critiques American machismo and hardcore violence completely occludes the valence of race in discussions of masculinity. A closer look at the critical reception to Trans Day of Revenge will help to tease out the ongoing influence of the racialized origins of these two genres on contemporary music and political movements.
To be clear, it is not my intent to moralize the use of violence in leftist social movements. It would be foolish to deny the trans and queer rage that permeates Trans Day of Revenge, and which G.L.O.S.S. literally embody as an apt and poignant expression of a life lived under state-sponsored brutality and domestic abuse. No where is it more poignant than the opening, which is inaugurated with squealing feedback, dense, chugging guitar, and then a strained scream from lead singer Sadie Switchblade: “When peace is just another word for death, it’s our time to give violence a chance!” The four songs that follow, totaling a mere 7 minutes, all tap into the well-established tradition of nihilistic vengeance in G.G. Allin’s “Violence Now—Assassinate the President,” direct aggression in antifa punk in Oi Polloi’s seminal “Pigs for Slaughter” and “Bash the Fash,” and hardcore staples such as Black Flag’s “Police Story” and The Dicks’ “Hate the Police,” which center on booting (or shooting) oppressors in the face. More than that, however, G.L.O.S.S. is intent on smashing the culture of respectability and pacifism of LGBT politics, singing, “Your calls for peace are ignorant and basic / Self-appointed leaders / Who put you in charge?”
In a glowing review that invokes Jose Esteban Muñoz’s Cruising Utopia, Brad Nelson of Pitchfork insists that, “At its best, hardcore is personal; it tends to erase the spatial distinctions between performer and audience, until there is a primordial flow of bodies, ideas, and energy.” Putting aside the cognitive dissonance of quoting Muñoz in a review of an album that urges the use of outright violence, Nelson espouses the grounding liberal, “post-racial” ideology that informs many contemporary conceptions of punk and hardcore. And in doing so, Nelson papers over the racialized history of hardcore while quickly conflating the specificity of state-sanctioned anti-black violence, which G.L.O.S.S. is explicit about, with generalized notions of state oppression. Other reviewers have similarly intellectualized the band’s explicit incitements to violence. Embedded within these glowing reviews, all of which fail to mention the white racial position from which the band speaks and celebrate their calls to violent action, then, is the assumption that white violence is inherently justified because it’s so rare. Put simply, if it’s happening, it’s happening for a good reason. Contrast this with perception that direct action and (self-defensive) violence in both black activism and music reveal some corruption of being, such as an essential “violent character” or the well-worn notion of a savage nature.
It is certainly possible to argue for trans and queer ways of knowing and creating art that evade these hetero-masculinist histories but this does not seem to be the case here: many reviewers cite the band’s positive influence on hardcore as both genre and scene, work that the band themselves seem invested in. Such interventions in the scene, then, compel us to recognize that the band’s message is channeled through the generic conventions of hardcore, which prime listeners to appreciate the role of violence as a necessary outcome of and antidote to oppression. The main progenitor of this narrative is Black Flag’s Damaged, which invokes the chaotic, uncontrollable violence of white male angst in songs such as “Damaged I.” (Golden Age country music provides an apt analogue with its generic figure of the violent, romantic white outlaw.) Though G.L.O.S.S. rails against murderous gender and sexual violence, they do so by asserting their position in the tradition of white rage that made Black Flag and Minor Threat the deified figureheads of hardcore—though admirable of gender-nonconforming and transfolk to do this work, this tension of lineage is neither addressed nor resolved. In this way, the violent implications of the genre, along with the issue of a privileged white voice, are absorbed and normalized—just a part of the scene.
Indeed, not a single review so much as gestures towards the band’s race, which, as Toni Morrison suggests, codes the neutral as white (whether this is true to their “actual race” or not is not the point—it’s a matter of perception). This is all the more glaring as multiple songs encourage fighting racist police violence against black trans women; yet this message inhabits a continuum of hardcore and punk that has long held an equivocal relationship with white supremacy, which has often been positioned as either a simple matter of white male disillusionment or edgy nihilism. And while there has certainly been anti-racist music in hardcore, the message becomes mixed by veneration of and apologias for songs such as Minor Threat’s “Guilty of Being White” and Black Flag’s “White Minority.” This muddled message appears in G.L.O.S.S.’ work as well. During the opening track, Switchblade screams: “anti-racist doesn’t mean non-racist!” The lyric may be a riff on a Guardian video by Marlon James in which he insists that “non-racist doesn’t mean anti-racist.” He asserts that non-racism (non-action, moral statement of belief) is inadequate since it does not prevent racial violence. Instead, one must go further and adopt an anti-racist (active) stance. G.L.O.S.S.’ inversion of James’ formulation in the context of hardcore and punk, however, reads with an added bit of irony: if even active anti-racist action does not preclude one from holding racist views, then this highlights the submerged racial dynamics of voice that hold up G.L.O.S.S.’ violent aesthetic and that elude the onslaught of sloganeering that shape their lyrics.
Certainly G.L.O.S.S. screaming the refrain “black lives don’t matter in the eyes of the law!” is critical work being done to highlight anti-black violence and their commitment to addressing oppression of all kinds. But it does not preclude them from criticism for benefiting from structural racism, which includes enjoying the unquestioned privilege of being feted for advocating extreme violence rather than, say, being placed on an FBI watchlist. Simply put, the band has the option of espousing this violence from a position of relative safety, especially from state-sanctioned repercussion and harassment. These unnuanced lyrics make it all the more difficult to square some of their anti-racist lyrics with their intersectional politics. The generic bounds of hardcore dictate crafting lyrics like volleys of missiles, and here such pithy concision becomes an easy conflation of anti-black, anti-queer, anti-trans, and anti-femme oppressions that threatens, ironically, to erase the hard work and frequent clash of axes of oppression in the formation of transversal alliances rather than support it.
If the new hardcore that G.L.O.S.S. spearheaded intends to responsibly involve itself in social justice, the lyrics must move beyond sloganeering. The continued submersion of the multiple and complex intersections of race in white activism is an elision that performs its own form of silencing, a repression of a black voice that has long and often erupted into righteous anger and violence. Scholar Tricia Rose provides an extensive history and analysis of this dynamic in in Hip Hop Wars. In addition to Rose, many scholars from Houston A. Baker to Nelson George, have noted the deep indebtedness of early gangsta rap and radical hip hop (Public Enemy and dead prez, for example) to the tradition of anti-passive philosophies of Malcolm X, the Black Panthers, and earlier pre-Civil Rights movement radicals. Due to these genre’s callback and conscious inhabitation of the genealogy of the black resistance in order to address the historical nature of their continued material oppression, critical responses to this music focus largely on the music’s racial aspects (unlike G.L.O.S.S., or hardcore music in general). Consequently, the condemnation of violent action against oppression rather than celebratory accreditation is always couched in the fear of the black voice and active body.
This dynamic is nowhere clearer than the press’ reaction to Ice-T’s side project Body Count, which featured the controversial song “Cop Killer.” Ice-T has stated that the album as a whole was meant to actively invoke the sonic cues of not only hardcore but metal (also known for its troubled relationship to white supremacist politics) the mainstream media applied the label of “rap” to it in order to identify the violence as both gendered and racialized, that is, more closely with a black, male genre of music, with all that that entails to American society. Ice-T’s transgressive identification of black genres of music in the epigraph, “music like mine,” with the originary, rebellious violence of the Revolutionary War speaks to the divide within the American imaginary between “justified” revolutionary, white violence, and corrupted black violence. He observed:
There is absolutely no way to listen to the song “Cop Killer” and call it a rap record. It’s so far from rap. But, politically, they know by saying the word rap they can get a lot of people who think, “Rap-black-rap-black-ghetto,” and don’t like it…They don’t want to use the word rock & roll to describe this song. (qtd. in Rose 130)
In contrast to criticism of heavy metal, Rose, in Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America, explains, “The terms of the assault on rap music are part of a long-standing sociologically based discourse that considers black influences a cultural threat to American society” (130). She explains, young fans of rap are themselves in concert with the music, ready agents of destruction whereas heavy metal is a threat to the fans, young white males, inherently innocent but in danger of corruption. Put simply, the dynamics of racialized music criticism reflect the attitudes of society writ large: the dismissal of the righteousness of violence in black genres of music mirror the same in black social movements or personal survival.
Across the spectrum of black musical genres, we see the same dynamic. Beyoncé, a master of combining maximalist visuals, nuanced political messages, and hyper-popular culture, was greeted with boycotts and protests after her performance at Super Bowl 50, which invoked a Black Panther aesthetic and, presumably, the group’s promotion of anti-passive and self-defense ideologies. Similarly, she faced a backlash to her music video for Formation, which was perceived as “anti-police” and resulted in an attempted nationwide police boycott of her Formation World Tour. Outside the strict confines of the music industry, black folks, especially black transwomen of color, are held to a different standard in eschewing the avenues of violent protest and activism—or even self-defense (see the tragic case of CeCe McDonald). In a seven-minute EP, G.L.O.S.S. highlights the continued violence against black transwomen in their work, which is positive, critical work. But the uneven reception of black political music by the American public proves just how fraught that project can be without full knowledge of one’s positions of privilege, or the history from which one speaks.
In the end, this issue of voice is about political horizons. G.L.O.S.S. is entirely future-oriented: Switchblade sings, “we break the cycle with revenge,” the band’s name stands for Girls Living Outside of Society’s Shit, and their first EP features a song called “G.L.O.S.S. (We’re from the Future).” But just how much do their actions refuse repetition?
Jose Muñoz was no stranger to witnessing and experiencing the horrors of anti-queer police brutality. In Cruising Utopia he recalls the brutality of riot police attacking a peaceful vigil after the murder of Matthew Shepard (while recognizing that “if Shepard had not been a pretty white boy, there would have been no such outcry”) (63). Muñoz fights against the violence of the “here and now,” the quagmire of political expediency, which is analogous to G.L.O.S.S.’ anger at the pragmatism of LGBT politics. Yet, in a very real way, violence at all costs can be considered a “political expediency” of its own for what occurs after violence? Is revenge and ultra-violence as sole response really “breaking the cycle”? In the rush to implement such violence, who is left by the wayside as we seize and assert our power? This is a question of effectivity, not morality.
For his part, Muñoz insists on breaking the cycle of the present by citing the use of “queer anger” through activism as public performance (64). This is the means toward utopian possibility, that imagines otherwise in a violent, repressive heteronormative present. But he stops short of arguing that queers must take up arms. The critique often levied against revolutionary utopian theorizing has been the obviation of the conditions of “the post-revolution” in favor of dreamy, uncritical rhetoric. Indeed, the same can be said here in the case of G.L.O.S.S. and all others who uncritically embrace not only outright violence but also intersectional politics blanched of much-needed nuance. As a vehicle to bringing trans and queer folk together, G.L.O.S.S.’ rage is a form of Muñoz’s ‘public performance’; they have poignantly invoked his “critical dissatisfaction.” But the generic bounds of hardcore preclude a nuanced conception of his “collective potentiality” (189), particularly one that is attentive to the racial hierarchies of voice. In short, there are yet songs to be sung. Though they have disbanded, we can thank G.L.O.S.S. for helping to set the stage.
Cover image is G.L.O.S.S. by Sid Sowder @Flickr CC BY-NC-ND.
Chris Chien is an American Studies and Ethnicity graduate student at the University of Southern California, and is doing research on early Asian gay and lesbian organizing in North America, and these social movements’ place within contemporary transpacific, diasporic narratives of a liberalizing Asia, particularly Hong Kong. He has previously written on Sounding Out! about the sonic materiality of diasporic feeling through the relic of the cassette tape, and has an upcoming article on righteous white violence in the music of trans-hardcore band G.L.O.S.S. He hadn’t seen Moonlight or even a trailer before this screening, but heard from many people he respects that it was magical. When SO! ed-in-chief JS reached out after seeing him post about attending on FB, he immediately embraced the idea of a conversation with Shakira.
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Here is a distilled introduction to the latest installment of Medieval Sound, Aural Ecology, by series co-editors Dorothy Kim and Christopher Roman. To read their previous introduction, click here. To read the first run of the series in 2016, click here. To read the full introduction to “Aural Ecology” and to read last week’s post by Thomas Blake, click here.
What is considered music, noise, or harmony is historically and culturally contingent. [. . .] The essays in “Aural Ecologies” address the issue of unharmonious sounds, sounds that often mark dissonant critical identities—related to race, religion, material—that reverberate across different soundscapes/landscapes. In this way, this group of essays begins to open up the stakes of Medieval Sound in relation to what contemporary sound studies has begun to address in relation to cultural studies, architectural and environmental soundscapes, and the marking of race through the vibrations of the body. —Dorothy Kim and Christopher Roman
While the raucous rancor of last year’s Super Tuesday was dominating network news and social networks—which, sadly, seems so long ago now—a quieter news story emerged from the tranquil fields of Lincolnshire: an Anglo-Saxon island has been discovered. Its artifacts are some of the most remarkable to have been found in recent decades; among these finds are writing utensils, game pieces, butchered animal bones, and other indicators of a sustained trading community.
The Guardian reported that surveys and software enabled the archaeologists to model the island in its contemporary landscape and seascape, revealing that it had once rested “between a basin and a ditch.”
This placement, the lead archaeologist continued, suggests that the site “was a focal point in the Lincolnshire area, connected to the outside world through water courses.” So if these reimagined waterways can show us how people saw the site, can they tell us how people heard it, as well?
I think so, especially because of the recent work on ancient acoustics in early churches. In February, The Atlantic published an article on the recent scholarly collaboration among an art historian-archaeologist, a music producer-engineer, and the founder of the USC Immersive Audio Laboratory (yes, it’s a real thing). This super-interdisciplinary team was able to “map the acoustic fingerprint of several [Byzantine] churches,” which were shown to have been deliberately “designed to shift a person’s sensory experience.” Now, the USC member explains, they can record a chant, “process it … and all of the sudden we have performances happening in medieval structures.” They can actually rebuild the sounds of our ancient past. [By the way, Allison Meier of hyperallergic reported on this story as well; her article provides links to the Escape Velocity podcast on Acoustic Museums, which is well worth a listen].
If they can recreate the lost sounds of ancient structures, and archaeologists can recreate early medieval topographies, then it stands to reason that the recreation of past landscapes, and even seascapes, might not be far behind.
But was sound different across the cooler, wetter climate of the early Middle Ages? Were the hearers’ auditory contexts drastically different in a pre-modern world? To what effect?
To me, what’s tantalizing about the Lincolnshire island is that it was on the border of the early medieval fenland—an area described by the 8th-century monk Felix as dense and undulating, “now consisting of marshes, now of bogs, sometimes of black waters overhung by fog, sometimes studded with wooded islands and traversed by the windings of tortuous streams” (Ch XXIV, trans Colgrave p 87). In such an aqueous environment, sound would have travelled well, staying close to the cool, dense air hovering over the waters.
In his prose hagiography, the Life of St Guthlac, Felix enshrines certain sounds in the wetland ecology of Guthlac’s surroundings. He does so most explicitly at the landing-place, where visitors must “sound a signal” to alert the hermit that they’ve arrived. But what was this signal, and why would Felix bother to emphasize such a mundane practice of alerting your host when you’ve arrived?
In monastic communities bells were used to sound the Daily Office to calling each member together in prayer. As moderns, we should remember that these bells—frequent, sonic interventions of everyday life—were rung on the shore, or in a church, or on monastic grounds rather than from the larger towers of later belfries (an exception to this is the early Irish Round Tower). These small hand-held bells “of hammered sheets or cast metal” which “would presumably have clanged or tinkled, rather than tolled sonorously across a distance” (Resounding Community, 103).
Bells were spiritual and supernatural; they could cleanse or curse, and were kept by clerics and lay people alike. They were sometimes sworn on, as if they were relics. Sometimes, they were made into relics. For more about early Irish bell traditions, click here and or/ here.
In Northwest Europe in the Early Middle Ages, Christopher Loveluck describes David Hinton’s work on a seventh-century smith found buried alone, “next to the marshland and waterways to the sea, with his tools, a bell, a fine seax and a silk-wrapped amulet” and therefore “emblematic of the transition from such ‘outsider’ itinerant artisan/merchants to the vibrant artisan and trading communities of the emporia ports.” Still, the“[p]erception of threat from itinerant ‘outsiders’ is emphasized in the late seventh-century Anglo-Saxon law code of Wihtred, by the obligation on non-local travellers and foreigners to announce themselves with bells or horns, prior to leaving principal roads or trackways to approach settlements.”
For seventh-and eighth century people, then, bells sounded time, community, and stillness as well as place, strangeness, and travel. In either instance, the aural intrusion always betokened a human presence. And of course, these were some of the only sounds that weren’t naturally occurring; this might have been as close as they got to manmade sound pollution.
For Guthlac, sound was especially important because he could not see far from his earthen hermitage. Not having any need for a bell to sound the Daily Office, he nevertheless depended on some kind of signal for approaching visitors.
In one episode, distraught parents bring their once-possessed, now very ill son to Crowland in the hope that he might be cured. This is quite different from an earlier visitation from Wilfrid and Æthelbald, whom Guthlac knew personally, and with whom he might have traded correspondence. To me, this is the real test of Guthlac’s grace: will he help the neediest? The stranger? The tired, desperate parents? Does the bell, or whatever the signal is, proclaim their sameness or difference?
We can sense the tension in the passage, during their sounding of the signal and speaking to Guthlac:
Then when the sun rose in its splendour, they approached the landing place of this said island, and having struck the signal they begged for a talk with the great man. But he, as was his custom, burning with the flame of most excellent charity, presented himself before them…[and after hearing their story] immediately seized the hand of the tormented boy and led him into his oratory, and there prayed on bended knees, fasting continually for three days…(XLI, Colgrave 131).
The parents had expected to wait; they expected to plead on their son’s behalf. They expected a struggle to be heard. But—and I do think that’s a rather crucial autem in the Latin—Guthlac is eager to listen; the sound on the shore was enough.
What’s more, his cure is a series of utterances. He prays (aloud) for three days straight, without pausing to eat. And after ritually rinsing and breathing the “breath of healing” on the boy, the child, “like one who is brought into port out of the billows and the boiling waves, heaved some deep sighs from the depth of his bosom and realized that he had been restored to health”(XLI, Colgrave 131).
I’m a mom to an asthmatic toddler, so I find myself quite moved by this scene. I can imagine ringing the bell—the thing I might have heard in church, or had in my home; the signal by which monks were called to prayer and children inside for curfew—to make a sound for myself. I can imagine traveling with my husband to a strange place far from home, not knowing what would happen. I can imagine using something everyday for something extraordinary, and having the sound of my arrival echo with anticipation. If I were this mother, I would hear it bounce off the marshes and off the low-lying islands. The dawn would be warming the air above us, amplifying our sound. And I would be standing there, with my child wrapped in my arms, hoping to see someone emerge from a barrow; a man of God whose isolation and entrenchment was supposed to be part of his holiness.
The sound travels outwards to the hermitage and back with the hermit—the echo of her hope, meeting them at the shore. This is a soundscape and a landscape in which time seems still on the shore, but sped through in the oratory. Felix joins both sites, and both temporalities, with the simile of the boy as one rescued from shipwreck catching his breath as he washes ashore. The image recalls the sound of their arrival, and that first bell still seems to ring through this narrative of hope against all odds.
Wouldn’t it be great to hear that again?
Featured Image: Guthlac sailing to Crowland with Tatwin. © British Library, Harley Roll, Y 6, roundel 4, from Medieval Histories.com
Rebecca Shores is a Ph.D. candidate in English Literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her Dissertation is entitled “Bringing Saints to the Sea: Ships in Old English and Anglo-Latin Hagiography.”
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Audiotactility & the Medieval Soundscape of Parchment–Michelle M. Sauer
The slaves who were ourselves had known terror intimately, confused sunrise with pain, & accepted indifference as kindness. – Ntozake Shange, Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo
Sanford. Baltimore. Chicago. Staten Island. Charlotte. Cleveland. Oakland. Austin. Los Angeles. The Bronx.
Despair in the United States is nothing new. It is neither an emotion confined to the neatly-drawn borders of this land nor is it experienced more acutely by any one group of people. The vast discrepancy between the results of the popular vote and the electoral college’s selection of Donald Trump as forty-fifth president of the United States amply reveals despair to be an sentiment viscerally experienced by a wide swath of people in this country, irrespective of race, ethnicity, gender, class, or sexuality.
Such despair has been ignored, however, by those who have caused and who continue causing the suffering of peoples of both indigenous and, later, African descent. We are taught that men from what we now recognize as Europe arrived in this hemisphere in the late fifteenth century, settling initially on a strip of earth in the Caribbean Sea that would become the first site of massacre and genocide, acts which unleashed, if one lends credence to the narrator of Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, the fukú, the “Curse and the Doom of the New World.” The narrating voice himself characterizes the curse not in the actions of death, but in the “screams of the enslaved, [..] the death bane of the Tainos, uttered just as one world perished and another began […]” (1). The fukú resonated through the sounds that these human beings made.
Not a house in the country ain’t packed to its rafters with some dead Negro’s grief. – Toni Morrison, Beloved
The State’s unwillingness to hold George Zimmerman responsible for the murder of Trayvon Martin–and its subsequent refusal to hold any police officer accountable for the hundreds of deaths they have caused–has galvanized the United States in the last four years. Hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children alike have taken to the streets, as #BlackLivesMatter, a true and succinct sentence, has roused ghosts of the past who have never left us, who have always been present, accompanying us on this journey.
This post is not a reflection of the music that has served as a soundtrack to these protests, though there are articles that have done so, such as this one, this one, and this one. These pieces do not include the extensive list of articles that address perhaps the most widely-viewed piece of protest music thus far, Beyoncé’s “Formation” video, a scarce offering of which can be found here, here, and here. Instead, it is an essay inspired by the sounds of the protesters themselves, the noises made by the minds, bodies, and spirits of the men, women and children who have taken to public spaces and sometimes commercial zones in order to confront and object to the protections applied to those who kill men, women, and children, often of African descent.
Listen to Los Angeles in 2013. . .
. . .to Houston in 2014. . .
. . .to New York City in 2014. . .
. . .and to Charleston in 2015. . .
. . .
In his pivotal Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance (1996), Joseph Roach characterized New Orleans and London as urban centers marked by two simultaneous, consistent acts: appropriation by white people and white power structures of the cultures of the peoples they have violently marginalized, and then, at the same time, a clear distancing from those very cultures and peoples. Although now in its twentieth year of publication, Roach’s theorization of the circum-Atlantic world remains vastly underutilized in scholarly circles—particularly in sound studies, where it should have special resonance– and has become increasingly critical to our understanding of this historical moment, as it “insists on the centrality of the diasporic and genocidal histories of Africa and the Americas, North and South, in the creation of the culture of modernity” (4). With this configuration, Roach accomplishes two feats simultaneously: first, he decentralizes the United States as the focal point of studies about the so-called New World, instead, placing on equal footing all of the histories and cultures of the Americas. For this scholar of the literatures of the Americas, particularly those written by men and women of African descent, Roach’s is a critical gesture that facilitates comparative work across national boundaries.
Second, and most importantly, Roach emphasizes the role of murder, rape and the destruction of whole cultures indigenous to the American and African continents in the foundation of the nations of this hemisphere. Ta-Nehisi Coates is perhaps the most recent writer to remind us that the most potent legacy of such modernity, racism, “is a visceral experience, that is dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth” (Between the World and Me, 10). That which we know as “modernity,” itself a deeply flawed construct that remains in need of serious revision, was born of broken backs, mutilated limbs, hushed middle-of-the-night tears of indigenous and African peoples. Moans and sighs, whispers and wails, cries and screams, they are the musical score of this hemisphere’s American experiment.
The slaves who were ourselves aided Indigo’s mission, connecting soul & song, experience & unremembered rhythms –Ntozake Shange
In the face of a populace accustomed to ignoring the wailing of mothers who have buried their children, who have disregarded their dignity and the weight and shape and taste of their loss, men, women, and children have mobilized. They have made manifest that which communities of peoples of African descent have spoken of and have documented since the founding of this nation. As Roach has utilized the term performance, the literal rituals of mourning by communities of African heritage not only commemorate those who have recently passed but they also invoke the spirits of those who have long borne witness to such violence. Throughout his study, Roach distinguishes between a European heritage that begins to segregate the living from the dead during the Enlightenment (50), and more traditional cultures, particularly African ones, where spirits mingle with their human counterparts. While written texts may not, and often do not, adequately commemorate the loss of lives deemed marginal to the larger society, performance itself – chants, wails, songs – serve not only to memorialize but also as gestures of restoration.
Protesters and activists are no longer satisfied with the well-established decree that we should wait for a distant moment for a more perfect realization of the United States’s many promises. No, instead, they have identified this as the historical moment in which those oaths are to be fulfilled. They have walked, marched, and stomped through streets, on sidewalks, parks, churches, filling malls and transportation hubs with their bodies as testimony. They have repossessed and redefined spaces once thought of as simply neutral, transparent space as Katherine McKittrick refers to it in Demonic Grounds, revealing the fault-lines of difference based on class, race, gender, and sexuality in this society (xv). They have done so manipulating sound, both recycling chants used through the decades to protest injustice and, at times, simply occupying space, without a word uttered.
The silence waged in the 2014 protest in Grand Central Terminal after the non-indictment of Daniel Pantaleo in the murder of Eric Garner does not represent erasure, but rather a purposeful demonstration of the willful humanity of those unwilling to forget.
They quiet themselves. They replace the sounds of unfettered pain and grief with its absence, until all that you hear is the mechanized announcement of train schedules. The contrast is stark: the moment highlights what Claudia Rankine has identified as the condition of black life in Citizen, that of mourning (145), against a backdrop of technological advancement, that which has been built on the backs of and through the physical, emotional, and intellectual labor of black life. Here, the members of this community enact what has been called a “die-in”: simulating the physical positioning of bodies in caskets, they force onlookers to confront an uncomfortable truth about the history of this country and of the nations of this hemisphere.
All of us walk on land soaked in the blood of those who have made our lives easier and more convenient. The men and women at Grand Central make manifest what Roach terms surrogation: in the chasm left by death, they offer a replacement, one that both evokes those who have died and disturbs the complacency of survivors themselves (2). The performance serves to confront those who dare say that the violence of genocide and enslavement of past generations should remain in the past; no, these men and women and the spirits they invoke respond. Time is not linear, as we have been taught. For past, present, and future are temporal constructs used to service oppression and domination; this will no longer do.
Here, in this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. – Toni Morrison
We bear witness to the reclamation of grief, of lives cut short at the hand of a government charged with protecting those human beings who inhabit its borders, at least theoretically. While, as Roach surmises, “memory [may be] a process that depends crucially on forgetting” (2), we hold space to those dedicated to not forget, to instead excavate the silences, breathe life into those histories, remembering that the stories we have heard, the pages we have read, were once human beings. We create “counter-memories” as challenge and testimony, as a sacred pledge to those who are no longer present physically in this realm (Roach 26). We recall the cultures and practices of those who lived before the written form was a tool of exclusion, when remembrance was a practice of community.
American culture, in the hemispheric sense, incorporates all such rituals, across generations; as Roach notes, it is performance that “works on behalf of living memory, by bringing the parties together as often as necessary” (138). No longer consigned to the past, the spirits of those killed by the state are revived, their existences in the human plain celebrated. They are not defined by how they died but instead by how they lived. While literacy of the written form can separate, sound and gesture more effectively bypass the fictions of difference based on race, ethnicity, gender, class, and sexuality. Cities of the Dead amplifies how “performance can articulate what otherwise may not be properly communicated” (161).
It’s so magic folks feel their own ancestors coming up out of the earth to be in the realms of their descendants – Ntozake Shange
We say their names. We say their names: Eleanor Bumpers. Anthony Báez. Sean Bell. Aiyana Stanley-Jones. Tyisha Miller. Oscar Grant. Rekia Boyd. Trayvon Martin. Tanisha Anderson. Renisha McBride. Eric Garner. Yvette Smith. Tamir Rice. Sandra Bland. Freddie Gray. Korryn Gaines. Akia Gurley. Alton Sterling. Philando Castile. Micah Jester. Deborah Danner. Walter Scott. Michelle Lee Shirley.
The list, tragically, grows, and still we say their names. We do so as an act of remembrance. As an offering. As peoples of African descent around the world do in times of ceremony, in the name of ritual. We remember those who have come before us, who have birthed this current historical moment of awakening here in the United States. We say their names.
And, as the sounds of their names said aloud echoes, we pray. Ashé.
Vanessa K. Valdés is associate professor of Spanish and Portuguese at The City College of New York; she is the editor of Let Spirit Speak! Cultural Journeys through the African Diaspora (2012) and The Future Is Now: A New Look at African Diaspora Studies (2012) and the book review editor of sx salon. She is the author of Oshun’s Daughters: The Search for Womanhood in the Americas (2014). The title of this essay is inspired by Josh Kun’s Audiotopia: Music, Race, and America, where he writes that his book is “focusing on the spaces of music, the spaces of songs, and the spaces of sounds” (25).
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