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.
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.
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.
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.
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“How Many Latinos are in this Motherfucking House?”: DJ Irene, Sonic Interpellations of Dissent and Queer Latinidad in ’90s Los Angeles
How Many Latinos are in this Motherfucking House? –DJ Irene
At the Arena Nightclub in Hollywood, California, the sounds of DJ Irene could be heard on any given Friday in the 1990s. Arena, a 4000-foot former ice factory, was a haven for club kids, ravers, rebels, kids from LA exurbs, youth of color, and drag queens throughout the 1990s and 2000s. The now-defunct nightclub was one of my hang outs when I was coming of age. Like other Latinx youth who came into their own at Arena, I remember fondly the fashion, the music, the drama, and the freedom. It was a home away from home. Many of us were underage, and this was one of the only clubs that would let us in.
Arena was a cacophony of sounds that were part of the multi-sensorial experience of going to the club. There would be deep house or hip-hop music blasting from the cars in the parking lot, and then, once inside: the stomping of feet, the sirens, the whistles, the Arena clap—when dancers would clap fast and in unison—and of course the remixes and the shout outs and laughter of DJ Irene, particularly her trademark call and response: “How Many Motherfucking Latinos are in this Motherfucking House?,” immortalized now on CDs and You-Tube videos.
Irene M. Gutierrez, famously known as DJ Irene, is one of the most successful queer Latina DJs and she was a staple at Arena. Growing up in Montebello, a city in the southeast region of LA county, Irene overcame a difficult childhood, homelessness, and addiction to break through a male-dominated industry and become an award-winning, internationally-known DJ. A single mother who started her career at Circus and then Arena, Irene was named as one of the “twenty greatest gay DJs of all time” by THUMP in 2014, along with Chicago house music godfather, Frankie Knuckles. Since her Arena days, DJ Irene has performed all over the world and has returned to school and received a master’s degree. In addition to continuing to DJ festivals and clubs, she is currently a music instructor at various colleges in Los Angeles. Speaking to her relevance, Nightclub&Bar music industry website reports, “her DJ and life dramas played out publicly on the dance floor and through her performing. This only made people love her more and helped her to see how she could give back by leading a positive life through music.”
DJ Irene’s shout-out– one of the most recognizable sounds from Arena–was a familiar Friday night hailing that interpellated us, a shout out that rallied the crowd, and a rhetorical question. The club-goers were usually and regularly predominately Latin@, although other kids of color and white kids also attended. We were celebrating queer brown life, desire, love in the midst of much suffering outside the walls of the club like anti-immigrant sentiment, conservative backlash against Latinos, HIV and AIDS, intertwined with teen depression and substance abuse.
From my vantage today, I hear the traces of Arena’s sounds as embodied forms of knowledge about a queer past which has become trivialized or erased in both mainstream narratives of Los Angeles and queer histories of the city. I argue that the sonic memories of Arena–in particular Irene’s sets and shout outs–provide a rich archive of queer Latinx life. After the physical site of memories are torn down (Arena was demolished in 2016), our senses serve as a conduit for memories.
As one former patron of Arena recalls, “I remember the lights, the smell, the loud music, and the most interesting people I had ever seen.” As her comment reveals, senses are archival, and they activate memories of transitory and liminal moments in queer LA Latinx histories. DJ Irene’s recognizable shout-out at the beginning of her sets– “How Many Latinos are in this House?”–allowed queer Latinx dancers to be seen and heard in an otherwise hostile historical moment of exclusion and demonization outside the walls of the club. The songs of Arena, in particular, function as a sonic epistemology, inviting readers (and dancers) into a specific world of memories and providing entry into corporeal sites of knowledge.
Both my recollections and the memories of Arena goers whom I have interviewed allow us to register the cultural and political relevance of these sonic epistemologies. Irene’s shout-outs function as what I call “dissident sonic interpolations”: sounds enabling us to be seen, heard, and celebrated in opposition to official narratives of queerness and Latinidad in the 1990s. Following José Anguiano, Dolores Inés Casillas, Yessica García Hernandez, Marci McMahon, Jennifer L. Stoever, Karen Tongson, Deborah R. Vargas, Yvon Bonenfant, and other sound and cultural studies scholars, I argue that the sounds surrounding youth at Arena shaped them as they “listened queerly” to race, gender and sexuality. Maria Chaves-Daza reminds us that “queer listening, takes seriously the power that bodies have to make sounds that reach out of the body to touch queer people and queer people’s ability to feel them.” At Arena, DJ Irene’s vocalic sounds reached us, touching our souls as we danced the night away.
Before you could even see the parade of styles in the parking lot, you could hear Arena and/or feel its pulse. The rhythmic stomping of feet, for example, an influence from African-American stepping, was a popular club movement that brought people together in a collective choreography of Latin@ comunitas and dissent. We felt, heard, and saw these embodied sounds in unison. The sounds of profanity–“motherfucking house”–from a Latina empowered us. Irene’s reference to “the house,” of course, makes spatial and cultural reference to Black culture, house music and drag ball scenes where “houses” were sites of community formation. Some songs that called out to “the house” that DJ Irene, or other DJs might have played were Frank Ski’s “There’s Some Whores in this House,” “In My House” by the Mary Jane Girls, and “In the House” by the LA Dream Team.
Then, the bold and profane language hit our ears and we felt pride hearing a “bad woman” (Alicia Gaspar de Alba) and one of “the girls our mothers warned us about” (Carla Trujillo). By being “bad” “like bad ass bitch,” DJ Irene through her language and corporeality, was refusing to cooperate with patriarchal dictates about what constitutes a “good woman.” Through her DJing and weekly performances at Arena, Irene contested heteronormative histories and “unframed” herself from patriarchal structures. Through her shout outs we too felt “unframed” (Gaspar de Alba).
Dissident sonic interpellation summons queer brown Latinx youth–demonized and made invisible and inaudible in the spatial and cultural politics of 1990s Los Angeles—and ensures they are seen and heard. Adopting Marie “Keta” Miranda’s use of the Althusserian concept of interpellation in her analysis of Chicana youth and mod culture of the 60s, I go beyond the notion that interpellation offers only subjugation through ideological state apparatus, arguing that DJ Irene’s shout-outs politicized the Latinx dancers or “bailadorxs” (Micaela Diaz-Sanchez) at Arena and offered them a collective identity, reassuring the Latinxs she is calling on of their visibility, audibility, and their community cohesiveness.
Perhaps this was the only time these communities heard themselves be named. As Casillas reminds us “sound has power to shape the lived experiences of Latina/o communities” and that for Latinos listening to the radio in Spanish for example, and talking about their situation, was critical. While DJ Irene’s hailing did not take place on the radio but in a club, a similar process was taking place. In my reading, supported by the memories of many who attended, the hailing was a “dissident interpolation” that served as recognition of community cohesiveness and perhaps was the only time these youth heard themselves publicly affirmed, especially due to the racial and political climate of 1990s Los Angeles.
The 1990s were racially and politically tense time in Los Angeles and in California which were under conservative Republican leadership. At the start of the nineties George Deukmejian was finishing his last term from 1990-1991; Pete Wilson’s tenure was from 1991-1999. Richard Riordan was mayor of Los Angeles for the majority of the decade, from 1993- 2001. The riots that erupted in 1992 after the not guilty verdict for the police officers indicted in the Rodney King beating case and the polarizing effect of the OJ Simpson trial in 1995 were indicative of anti-black and anti-Latinx racism and its impacts across the city. In addition to these tensions, gang warfare and the 1994 earthquake brought on its own set of economic and political circumstances. Anti-immigrant sentiment had been building since the 1980s when economic and political refugees from Mexico and Central American entered the US in large numbers and with the passing of the Immigration Reform and Control Act in 1986, what is known as Reagan’s “Amnesty program.” On a national level, Bill Clinton ushered in the implementation of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in the military, which barred openly LGB people from service. In 1991, Anita Hill testified against Clarence Thomas’s nomination to the United States Supreme Court due to his ongoing sexual harassment of her at work; the U.S. Senate ultimately browbeat Hill and ignored her testimony, confirming Thomas anyway.
In the midst of all this, queer and minoritized youth in LA tried to find a place for themselves, finding particular solace in “the motherfucking house”: musical and artistic scenes. The club served a “house” or home to many of us and the lyrical references to houses were invitations into temporary and ephemeral sonic homes. Counting mattered. Who did the counting mattered. How many of us were there mattered. An ongoing unofficial census was unfolding in the club through Irene’s question/shout-out, answered by our collective cheers, whistles, and claps in response. In this case, as Marci McMahon reminds us, “Sound demarcates whose lives matter” (2017, 211) or as the Depeche Mode song goes, “everything counts in large amounts.”
Numbers mattered at a time when anti-immigrant sentiment was rampant, spawning white conservative sponsored legislation such as Prop 187 the so-called “Save Our State” initiative (which banned “undocumented Immigrant Public Benefits”), Prop 209 (the ban on Affirmative Action), and Prop 227 “English in Public Schools” (the Bilingual Education ban). Through these propositions, legislators, business people, and politicians such as Pete Wilson and his ilk demonized our parents and our families. Many can remember Wilson’s virulently anti-immigrant 1994 re-election campaign advertisement depicting people running across the freeway as the voiceover says “They keep coming” and then Wilson saying “enough is enough.” This ad is an example of the images used to represent immigrants as animals, invaders and as dangerous (Otto Santa Ana). As Daniel Martinez HoSang reminds us, these “racial propositions” were a manifestation of race-based hierarchies and reinforced segregation and inequity (2010, 8).
While all of this was happening— attempts to make us invisible, state-sponsored refusals of the humanity of our families—the space of the club, Irene’s interpellation, and the sounds of Arena offered a way to be visible. To be seen and heard was, and remains, political. As Casillas, Stoever, and Anguiano and remind us in their work on the sounds of Spanish language radio, SB 1070 in Arizona, and janitorial laborers in Los Angeles, respectively, to be heard is a sign of being human and to listen collectively is powerful.
Listening collectively to Irene’s shout out was powerful as a proclamation of life and a celebratory interpellation into the space of community, a space where as one participant in my project remembers, “friendships were built.” For DJ Irene to ask how many Latinos were in the house mattered also because the AIDS prevalence among Latinos increased by 130% from 1993 to 2001. This meant our community was experiencing social and physical death. Who stood up, who showed up, and who danced at the club mattered; even though we were very young, some of us and some of the older folks around us were dying. Like the ball culture scene discussed in Marlon M. Bailey’s scholarship or represented in the new FX hit show Pose, the corporeal attendance at these sites was testament to survival but also to the possibility for fabulosity. While invisibility, stigma and death loomed outside of the club, Arena became a space where we mattered.
For Black, brown and other minoritized groups, the space of the queer nightclub provided solace and was an experiment in self-making and self-discovery despite the odds. Madison Moore reminds us that “Fabulousness is an embrace of yourself through style when the world around you is saying you don’t deserve to be here” (New York Times). As Louis Campos–club kid extraordinaire and one half of Arena’s fixtures the Fabulous Wonder Twins–remembers,
besides from the great exposure to dance music, it [Arena] allowed the real-life exposure to several others whom, sadly, became casualties of the AIDS epidemic. The very first people we knew who died of AIDS happened to be some of the people we socialized with at Arena. Those who made it a goal to survive the incurable epidemic continued dancing.
The Fabulous Wonder Twins
Collectively, scholarship by queer of color scholars on queer nightlife allows us entryway into gaps in these queer histories that have been erased or whitewashed by mainstream gay and lesbian historiography. Whether queering reggaetón (Ramón Rivera-Servera), the multi-Latin@ genders and dance moves at San Francisco’s Pan Dulce (Horacio Roque-Ramirez), Kemi Adeyemi’s research on Chicago nightlife and the “mobilization of black sound as a theory and method” in gentrifying neighborhoods, or Luis-Manuel García’s work on the tactility and embodied intimacy of electronic dance music events, these works provide context for Louis’ remark above about the knowledges and affective ties and kinships produced in these spaces, and the importance of nightlife for queer communities of color.
When I interview people about their memories, other Arena clubgoers from this time period recall a certain type of collective listening and response—as in “that’s us! Irene is talking about us! We are being seen and heard!” At Arena, we heard DJ Irene as making subversive aesthetic moves through fashion, sound and gestures; Irene was “misbehaving” unlike the respectable woman she was supposed to be. Another queer Latinx dancer asserts: “I could fuck with gender, wear whatever I wanted, be a puta and I didn’t feel judged.”
DJ Irene’s “How many motherfucking Latinos in the motherfucking house,” or other versions of it, is a sonic accompaniment to and a sign of, queer brown youth misbehaving, and the response of the crowd was an affirmation that we were being recognized as queer and Latin@ youth. For example, J, one queer Chicano whom I interviewed says:
We would be so excited when she would say “How Many Latinos in the Motherfucking House?” Latinidad wasn’t what it is now, you know? There was still shame around our identities. I came from a family and a generation that was shamed for speaking Spanish. We weren’t yet having the conversation about being the majority. Arena spoke to our identities.
For J, Arena was a place that spoke to first generation youth coming of age in LA, whose experiences were different than our parents and to the experiences of queer Latinxs before us. In her shout-outs, DJ Irene was calling into the house those like J and myself, people who felt deviant outside of Arena and/or were then able to more freely perform deviance or defiance within the walls of the club.
Our responses are dissident sonic interpellations in that they refuse the mainstream narrative. If to be a dissident is to be against official policy, then to be sonically dissident is to protest or refuse through the sounds we make or via our response to sounds. In my reading, dissident sonic interpellation is both about Irene’s shout out and about how it moved us towards and through visibility and resistance and about how we, the interpellated, responded kinetically through our dance moves and our own shout outs: screaming, enthusiastic “yeahhhhs,” clapping, and stomping. We were celebrating queer brown life, desire, love in the midst of much suffering outside the walls of the club. Arena enabled us to make sounds of resistance against these violences, sounds that not everyone hears, but as Stoever reminds us, even sounds we cannot all hear are essential, and how we hear them, even more so.
Even though many of us didn’t know Irene personally (although many of the club kids did!) we knew and felt her music and her laughter and the way she interpellated us sonically in all our complexity every Friday. Irene’s laughter and her interpellation of dissent were sounds of celebration and recognition, particularly in a city bent on our erasure, in a state trying to legislate us out of existence, on indigenous land that was first our ancestors.
In the present, listening to these sounds and remembering the way they interpellated us is urgent at a time when gentrification is eliminating physical traces of this queer history, when face-to face personal encounters and community building are being replaced by social media “likes,” and when we are engaging in a historical project that is “lacking in archival footage” to quote Juan Fernandez, who has also written about Arena. When lacking the evidence Fernandez writes, the sonic archive whether as audio recording or as a memory, importantly, becomes a form of footage. When queer life is dependent on what David Eng calls “queer liberalism” or “the empowerment of certain gay and lesbian U.S. citizens economically through an increasingly visible and mass-mediated consumer lifestyle, and politically through the legal protection of rights to privacy and intimacy,” spaces like Arena–accessed via the memories and the sonic archive that remains– becomes ever so critical.
Voice recordings can be echoes of a past that announce and heralds a future of possibility. In their Sounding Out! essay Chaves-Daza writes about her experience listening to a 1991 recording of Gloria Anzaldúa speaking at the University of Arizona, which they encountered in the archives at UT Austin. Reflecting on the impact of Anzaldúa’s recorded voice and laughter as she spoke to a room full of queer folks, Chaves-Daza notes the timbre and tone, the ways Anzaldúa’s voice makes space for queer brown possibility. “Listening to Anzaldúa at home, regenerates my belief in the impossible, in our ability to be in intimate spaces without homophobia,” they write.
Queer Latinxs coming across or queerly listening to Irene’s shout out is similar to Chaves-Daza’s affective connection to Anzaldúa’s recording. Such listening similarly invites us into the memory of the possibility, comfort, complexity we felt at Arena in the nineties, but also a collective futurity gestured in Chaves-Daza’s words:. “Her nervous, silly laugh–echoed in the laughs of her audience–reaches out to bring me into that space, that time. Her smooth, slow and raspy voice–her vocalic body–touches me as I listen.” She writes, “Her voice in the recording and in her writing sparks a recognition and validation of my being.” Here, Anzaldúa’s laughter, like Irene’s shout-out, is a vocal choreography and creates a “somatic bond,” one I also see in other aspects of dancers, bailadorxs, remembering about and through sound and listening to each other’s memories of Arena. Chaves-Daza writes, “sound builds affective connections between myself and other queers of color- strikes a chord in me that resonates without the need for language, across space and time.”
In unearthing these queer Latin@ sonic histories of the city, my hopes are that others listen intently before these spaces disappear but also that we collectively unearth others. At Arena we weren’t just dancing and stomping through history, but we were making history, our bodies sweaty and styled up and our feet in unison with the beats and the music of DJ Irene.“ How Many Latinos in the Mutherfucking House?”, then, as a practice of cultural citizenship, is about affective connections (and what Karen Tongson calls “remote intimacies”), “across, space and time.” The musics and sounds in the archive of Arena activates the refusals, connections, world-making, and embodied knowledge in our somatic archives, powerful fugitive affects that continue to call Latinx divas to the dancefloor, to cheer, stomp and be counted in the motherfucking house: right here, right now.
Featured Image: DJ Irene, Image by Flickr User Eric Hamilton (CC BY-NC 2.0)
Eddy Francisco Alvarez Jr. came of age in the 1990s, raised in North Hollywood, California by his Mexican mother and Cuban father. A a first generation college student, he received his a BA and MA in Spanish from California State University, Northridge and his PhD in Chicana and Chicano Studies from University of California, Santa Barbara. A former grade school teacher, after graduate school, he spent three years teaching Latinx Studies in upstate New York before moving to Oregon where he is an Assistant Professor in the Departments of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and University Studies at Portland State University. His scholarly and creative works have been published in TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly, Aztlan: A Journal of Chicano Studies, Revista Bilingue/Bilingual Review, and Pedagogy Notebook among other journals, edited books, and blogs. Currently, he is working on a book manuscript titled Finding Sequins in the Rubble: Mapping Queer Latinx Los Angeles. He is on the board of the Association for Jotería Arts, Activism, and Scholarship (AJAAS) and Friends of AfroChicano Press.
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The Theremin’s Voice: Amplifying the Inaudibility of Whiteness through an Early Interracial Electronic Music Collaboration
On an October evening in 1934, Clara Rockmore made her debut performance with the theremin, a then-new electronic instrument played without touch, in New York City’s historic Town Hall. Attended by critics from every major newspaper in the city, the performance not only marked the beginning of Rockmore’s illustrious career as a thereminist, it also featured the first known interracial collaboration in electronic music history. A sextet of Black male vocalists from the famous Hall Johnson choir performed a group of spirituals arranged by Johnson with Rockmore, whom the press—apparently unaware of her Jewish heritage—considered white. The collaboration was an anomaly: no other record exists of Black musicians performing with Rockmore (she toured with Paul Robeson in the 1940s, but no evidence has surfaced showing the two ever on stage together).
Though the Johnson Sextet’s performance with Rockmore is of intense interest to me as a historian, at the time the white press mostly ignored the collaboration. This is surprising given Johnson’s fame: his choir and work were critically acclaimed in productions including the 1930 Pulitzer-Prize-winning play The Green Pastures and the 1933 musical Run Little Chillun’. The Sextet’s spirituals were prominently featured in Rockmore’s debut, with four songs closing the program (“Stan’ Still Jordan,” “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “Water Boy,” and “O Lord Have Mercy On Me”) and “Old Man River” likely serving as an encore. Yet only two writers—one Black, one white—discussed the spirituals in any detail. Though brief, these two reviews can help us understand why most critics ignored the spirituals at Rockmore’s debut, and illuminate the role that race played in the reception of Rockmore’s career, the theremin, and electronic musical sound.
One of these reviews was by an anonymous critic writing for the New York Amsterdam News, the city’s highly influential weekly African-American newspaper. Though unidentified, the author was likely Black, given the source. The critic described Rockmore and the Sextet’s rendition of the song “Water Boy” as “particularly effective,” ascribing the theremin’s expressive power to its sonority: “the deep ’cello tone of the instrument was more than faintly reminiscent of the throaty humming of a Negro singer.” The white critic who wrote about the collaboration—Paul Harrison, in his syndicated column, “In New York,” that ran in several newspapers across New York State—seemed to corroborate the Amsterdam reviewer’s hearing, writing that the theremin had been “improved so that it now can be made to sound like the choral humming of a hundred Negro voices.” Remarkably, Harrison made the comparison without so much as mentioning the presence of the Johnson Sextet or the spirituals, erasing the very real presence of Black musicians in the performance.
These reviewers agreed that the theremin sounded like a Black voice during the spirituals. Yet Harrison used the comparison to disparage. His use of the word “improved” was clearly ironic, and the overall tone of his review was mocking (he described twenty-three-year-old Rockmore as “a lovely and graceful girl, but too serious about her new art”). The Amsterdam critic, meanwhile, compared the theremin’s tone to that of a Black voice to communicate the instrument’s expressivity—its beauty, emotion, and humanity. They validated their own hearing of the powerful performance by noting that the capacity crowd “hailed Miss Rockmore’s mastery of the theremin and demanded several encores.” Despite the contrasts, these pieces share something absent from nearly every contemporary theremin review: an explicit discussion of race and the theremin’s timbre. These seemingly anomalous takes, when understood in the context of the theremin’s broader contemporary reception history among (mostly white, mostly male) critics, can amplify what Jennifer Stoever identified in The Sonic Color Line as the “inaudibility of whiteness” in the history of the theremin and electronic musical sound (12).
When Rockmore performed as a soloist, critics tended to describe the theremin’s timbre in the context of western art music sonorities, making comparisons to the cello, violin, and classical voices. Reviewers frequently remarked on the instrument’s expressive powers, describing its tone as warm and rich, and writing of its “vivid expressiveness” and “clear, singing, almost mournful” tone. Many attributed the instrument’s expressivity to Rockmore’s skill as a trained classical performer, praising her repertory choices, musicianship, and technique.
Alongside celebrations of the theremin’s emotionally charged sonority was an opposing rhetoric of noisiness, one that critics employed to mark the theremin as sonically obnoxious. Early critics often complained about the “excessive” use of vibrato and portamento employed by thereminists, most of whom, like Rockmore, were (at least perceived as) white women. There is a practical explanation for this: if you’ve ever played a theremin, you know that without the use of these techniques, it is nearly impossible to locate pitches, or create even the impression of accurate intonation. Critics turned to identity politics to signal their displeasure with the instrument’s slippery chromaticism, taking a cue from the long history of linking copious chromaticism with bodies deemed sexually, racially, or otherwise aberrant. They compared the theremin’s timbre variously to that of a “feline whine,” a fictional Wagnerian soprano one critic dubbed “Mme. Wobble-eena” and “fifty mothers all singing lullabies to their children at the same time.” Such reviews used bodies and instruments assumed to be white and female as points of comparison: sopranos, violins, mothers (who were racially unmarked and thus by default white). To critics, the theremin was objectionable, was “other,” in a specifically white, specifically feminine way.
Critics were especially concerned with the theremin’s timbre, projecting onto it their hopes and anxieties about the potential impact of technology on their musical world. Since the theremin’s 1929 arrival in New York, critics had been assessing the instrument’s potential, treating it as a bellwether for technology’s impact on the future of music. Rockmore stoked this interest by claiming that her debut would “prove that the [theremin] may be a medium for musical expression.” Critics centered their hopes and anxieties about the promise and threat of electronic music in analyses of the theremin’s timbre, where the instrument could either be exposed as a fraud—a poor substitute for “authentic” “living” music—or celebrated as a breakthrough.
Discussions among New York’s white critics about the theremin’s musical promise unfolded specifically and exclusively with regard to the white western classical tradition. Just as Toni Morrison noted in her book Playing in the Dark that “the readers of virtually all American fiction have been positioned as white,” whiteness was the default for writers and readers of music criticism on the theremin (xii). Though most white critics at Rockmore’s debut never mentioned race, their tacit dismissal of the spirituals she performed with the Johnson Sextet reveals that race was a central organizing force in their assessments of the instrument. The brief reception history of the spirituals Johnson arranged for voice and theremin, wherein writers—listening to the instrument perform with Black voices—clearly heard the theremin’s tone as Black, is the exception that proves the rule: white critics, by and large, heard the instrument as sounding white.
Just as Morrison asked: “how is ‘literary whiteness’ and ‘literary blackness’ made, and what is the consequence of that construction,” we must explore the ramifications of the assumptions we’ve made about whiteness and electronic musical sound (xii). For it is not only critics of the 1930s who heard the theremin’s sound as white: most current histories continue to focus on and reify a predominantly white academic and avant-garde electronic music history canon. The Amsterdam critic’s hearing opens new possibilities for understanding the history of electronic musical sound. While popular perceptions often frame electronic musical sound as “lifeless” or emotionally “flat,” the Amsterdam critic’s comparison of the theremin to the voice opens our ears to alternative hearings of electronic musical sound as expressive, affective, even human. When we hear this aspect of electronic music’s sound, we can begin to account for histories that go beyond the white western cannon that dominates our understanding of electronic music history. We can populate such accountings with performers like Rockmore and composers like Johnson who worked and lived outside the boundaries we have traditionally drawn around electronic music history.
Dr. Madd Vibe (aka Angelo Moore) plays theremin in his band The Brand New Step, covering “Brothers Gonna Work it Out” Angelo Moore been playing theremin for over 20 years.
Featured Image: “Theremins are Dreamy” by Flickr User Gina Pina, (CC BY 2.0)
Kelly Hiser is co-founder and CEO of Rabble, a startup dedicated to empowering libraries to support and sustain their local creative communities. Kelly holds a Ph.D. in music history from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and embraces work at the intersections of arts, humanities, and the public good. She talks and writes regularly about music, technology, identity, and power.
“Music has always confounded value,” writes interdisciplinary artist and writer Jace Clayton in Uproot: Travels in 21st-Century Music and Digital Culture (FSG Originals, 2016, 22). Recounting his extensive international travels performing as DJ /rupture, Clayton presents a flow of cosmopolitan musical experiences that illustrate complex collisions between music and value around the world. Whether writing about homemade sound-systems in tropical clubs in Brooklyn, or about shellac preservation at the Arab Music Archiving and Research Foundation in Beirut, Clayton considers the technologies by which we make — and place value on — musical sounds in “a world where worth is created in radically different ways from what the market teaches us” (24).
Uproot is a narrative about the ways working musicians experience globalization. “Our music seems to sound the way global capital is — liquid, international, porous, and sped up,” the author writes (16). This homology between sound and economic processes echoes the theories of sociologists like Anthony Giddens and the late Zygmunt Bauman, both of whom argue that modern life is characterized by fluidity and fragmentation: employment is precarious, experience is mediated, and ethical decisions are full of ambiguity. These ideas clearly inspire Clayton’s narrative; that said, Uproot is not an academic publication. As Atossa Araxia Abrahamian writes at the Nation, the book evades genre, “at once travelogue and cultural ethnography, pop philosophy and memoir, a guide to contemporary music and a fanzine.”
The book begins with a discussion of the history of Auto-Tune. While Clayton’s claim that Auto-Tune was the “first truly new sound effect of the internet era” might be overstated, his distinction between “corrective Auto-Tune” and “cosmetic Auto-Tune” is useful, the first of many moments of clarity in parsing the ways we use and mis-use musical media today. “The robot voice signifies differently everywhere you go,” he writes, an observation that becomes central to the book (49). By refusing to take a deterministic stance toward technology, Clayton empowers the musicians he writes about, acknowledging the ways in which artists mold trends to their own regional and local purposes. Of collaboration with a violinist in Morocco, Clayton writes: “We may have thought similarly, yet our ‘default settings’ were so far apart as to be almost incompatible” (185).
Uproot offers intimate insights into a range of tools and techniques of production, such as compression artifacts, “refixes,” and dozens of music-making interfaces, including Clayton’s own “music software-as-art project,” Sufi Plug Ins.
Even language itself is conceived as a form of technological mediation, as when Clayton compares Arabizi — a phonetic spelling of colloquial Arabic — to the hybrid sounds of mahraganat music that the language is used to describe. Of these “wandering genealogies” that emerge from international conversations, Clayton suggests that any hybrid genre we can imagine likely already exists: “Accordions and African techno? It’s called funaná” (102). The book describes at least a dozen other music traditions and microgenres–some very old, some just coalesced–from dabke to zar, each the product of a unique fusion of vocabularies.
Clayton on Mazaher (182): “Umm Sameh, Umm Hassan, and Nour el Sabah: these three women are some of the only people in Egypt keeping zar alive.”
Clayton’s own prose style, replete with metaphor and fluent in informal language, mirrors the ethos of music production he explores in the book: eclectic, energetic, and bursting with detail. What better way to describe Auto-Tune’s effect than as liquification of sound into a “bright neon stream, as if a dial-up modem and a river have fallen in love” (53)? Clayton’s technological travelogue extends beyond aural sensation alone. This is a story of “sidewalk vendors, radios, mosque loudspeakers,” (106) but it is just as much about “jerk chicken, fish tea, goatskin soup” (73). When Clayton describes his surroundings, we can touch the orange blossoms and smell the cigarettes.
The book’s recurrent question is how DJ practices in different locations are both constrained and inspired by financial flows. In any context, Clayton argues, “[m]oney runs to the people with the least imagination” (24). Early on, he establishes this view that musical experience is priceless, more valuable than any profit derived from rhythms of supply and demand, which reward the wrong people. That said, Clayton isn’t naive about musicians’ inevitable need for income, and throughout the text, readers are asked to inhabit ethical dilemmas that artists encounter throughout the world. At one point, Clayton describes his own moral quandary when asked to perform in front of a giant Red Bull logo, a “glowing lump of techno-fascist DJ furniture.” Later, Clayton critiques the hegemony of “Red Bull patronage” and similar systems of support for artists who are desperate for funding (121). He makes clear his disdain for corporate sponsors, companies that “appear generous as they let us know that our music is literally worthless to them” (123).
A tradeoff emerges between pragmatism and idealism. Clayton pokes holes in the empty rhetoric of “authenticity” that marketers encourage and exploit, even as we sense that he hasn’t yet relinquished his belief in something essentially good about the human spirit. Listening is a powerful social practice that, in Clayton’s view, gives true meaning to music in a global economy that otherwise undervalues it. “The heavier the workaday grind to escape from, the more a party transports us” (73), he writes, suggesting that listeners extract their own surplus value.
At times, Clayton’s observations could benefit from an engagement with ethnographic methods that can help mitigate fieldwork biases. For example, although the book does involve open discussions of gendered inequalities, they are limited in scope. At one point Clayton calls attention to “macho wrangling over propriety and womanhood” among managers and producers in Agadir, Morocco (52); he describes his own futile attempt to acquire a frank interview with female singers amid the patriarchal structure there. But despite Clayton’s awareness of gendered power dynamics, he does not critique the male musicians and producers who propagate such imbalances.
When female figures do appear, they are often treated as side characters. Rihanna, for example, is presented as exemplary of the business model of “singer as mouthpiece” (50), a person for whom others do the work. Clayton isn’t wrong to call attention to the large networks of employees that work behind any celebrity brand, but it is risky to do so at the expense of female workers, especially in the midst of a book that elsewhere describes women as decoration for the musical environments in which men perform what are presumably more important tasks. “Naked girls on pedestals [who] got their bodies painted” (19), “photoshopped young women” (49) and “demure girls” (49) all set scenes for tales of male creativity. This is not to critique how some women may choose to participate in music scenes, but rather to point out that women’s concerns and perspectives are not Clayton’s focus in these passages, nor in much of the book.
On Berber Auto-tune star Saadia Tihihit (49-50): “Like Justin Beiber or any child groomed to be a media star, Saadia Tihihit occupies a place at least initially defined more by the commercial strategies of those around her than by any desire for artistic autonomy.”
Comparably, Clayton’s conception of music and global inequality is sometimes uneven. Drawing stark divisions between the “civilized” and otherwise, he resorts to clichéd language when he writes of “backwater Uzbekistan” (31) and “war-torn Africa” (81). When he describes towns and villages near Casablanca where “ancient rhythms of life still hold sway” (33), he reproduces exoticizing tropes of African music. Elsewhere in the book, Clayton addresses musical accusations of fetishism, stating: “I know that Africans and blacks have been fetishized for centuries now, perhaps millennia. Who cares? You simply exist in all your complexity and let them deal with it. Fetishism is so vague” (84). He also critiques what he calls the “spectacle of a so-called ancient culture” (99) that is often at the heart of “world music” scenes, but then describes Appalachian musical performance as “the old-timey way with banjos and fiddles and washtub percussion” (32), opposing these practices against technological advancement, a false dichotomy that ethnomusicologists work to complicate, if not avoid.
Clayton brings these issues to a head during the book’s extensive discussion of “world music” as a marketing category. His commentary on the conundrums of appropriation surrounding figures such as Paul Simon, M.I.A., and Moby feels familiar, but he surpasses the usual analysis of these common case studies with more personal insights into “world music,” beginning with crate-digging excursions at record shops with deep international selections, such as the now-defunct RRRecords in Lowell, Massachusetts. Clayton contrasts his own on-foot exploration of foreign sounds with what he calls “World Music 2.0,” an internet-driven network of musical discovery based around the commodification of information and attention, in which middlemen reign supreme. His ambivalence is exemplified by this claim: “At its worst, World Music 2.0 offers the clubland equivalent of a package vacation. At its best, it propels some of the most exciting music in the world” (104-105).
The book’s ideas occasionally undermine themselves, but there is no question that the author ultimately intends to advocate for people on the margins. As Max Pearl has noted at the LA Times, Clayton consistently defends lo-fi, lo-tech, and lo-res sonic expression — that which is “distorted, homespun, libidinous” (80) — as valuable in its own right. Further, Sukhdev Sandhu has suggested at the Guardian that the book’s attention to homologies between “the movement of sounds and of migrant bodies” serves to recognize the struggles of global refugees and affirm their humanity.
Among Uproot’s many mentions of transport, readers never receive a clear statement about what, precisely, the relationship between music and motion is, or how exactly value emerges from that pairing. Rather than a weakness of the book, however, maybe such equivocation should be taken as an accurate reflection of the nebulous circumstances in which many of us find ourselves — creators and listeners who are regularly uprooted, usually at the mercy of those whom the money follows. Faced with this precarity, let Clayton’s enthusiasm for all sounds ground you.
Uproot is accompanied by an online Listening Guide that includes audio and visual examples of music from the book: http://www.uprootbook.com.
Elizabeth Newton is a doctoral candidate in musicology. She has written for The New Inquiry, Tiny Mix Tapes, Real Life Magazine, the Quietus, and Leonardo Music Journal. Her research interests include musico-poetics, fidelity and reproduction, and affective histories of musical media. Her dissertation, in progress, is about “affective fidelity” in audio and print culture of the 1990s.
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