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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.

DJ Irene

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.

Vintage photo of Arena, 1990s, Image by Julio Z

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 AngelesHe is on the board of the Association for Jotería Arts, Activism, and Scholarship (AJAAS) and Friends of AfroChicano Press.

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Music Meant to Make You Move: Considering the Aural Kinesthetic– Imani Kai Johnson

Black Joy: African Diasporic Religious Expression in Popular Culture–Vanessa Valdés

Unapologetic Paisa Chingona-ness: Listening to Fans’ Sonic Identities–Yessica Garcia Hernandez

 

 

 

My Time in the Bush of Drones: or, 24 Hours at Basilica Hudson

Ed. Note: We wanted to run this piece in advance of the Basilica Hudson’s SoundScape event taking place this Friday, September 14 – Sunday, September 16, 2018.  Our Amplifying Du Bois at 150 forum will return next week.

“But why?”

Three weeks into a new semester and I am packing for another weekend of irresponsible travel. Irresponsible financially (because air travel on a graduate stipend is a decadence rarely rewarded) and irresponsibly professionally (because missing an annual department event, grading in a car, and sleeping on the ground for two days is a string of realities that stand sternly opposed to anything like good sense). I am doing all this in order to attend Basilica Hudson’s Soundscape: a wide and ranging line up of musicians and artists whose aesthetic commitments fall, shall we say, considerably aslant from the pop-cultural median. I am doing all this because of something that happened last year at this place, something I am still trying to work out. And this means, amongst concerned colleagues and family and friends, I’m again hearing that familiar, stuttering articulation of disbelief. Phrased, with equal parts confusion and concern, they rejoin:

Why?

This question first started popping up late last March. It came repeatedly, unblinkingly, and, I should add, not-unreasonably. What’s more, this was, in a very real way, my fault. For I had failed to develop a pithy ready-to-hand account of precisely why I was to travel from Chicago to New York City and New York City to Hudson, only to sleep on a thin mat on the concrete floor of a converted foundry while listening to loud, sustained bursts of noise (with varying degrees of harmonic familiarity) for an unbroken period of 24 hours.

Instead, I had only an intuition that failed to pass even the slightest of critical muster: Basillica Hudson’s 24-HOUR DRONE festival seemed weird and extreme and like something might happen there. On this basis, it seemed like a good thing to do.

I can now state with some clarity (though still lacking anything like critical poise) that something did in fact happen there, and it was indeed a good thing to do. Though what that “something” was remains frustratingly elusive.

24-Hour Drone, Image by Alt

This piece thus began as a review, but ended necessarily quite differently. The conventions of a review call for evaluation and normative judgement; they require statements regarding the quality of an event or object. I can offer very little in this vein. I’m still trying to wrest from memory something stubbornly mute and fleeting — still trying to figure out what it was, precisely, that happened there.

The drive up remains clear enough in memory. The usual crackle of reunited conversation between dear friends long-separated by geography; a decision not to listen to the then-new Grouper album (we would have enough heart-dragging ambient texture in the coming hours, we concluded); the sounds of Brooklyn passing into that hushed early-Spring upstate on Route 84. We at one point, for reasons that need not become articulate, listened to the Gin Blossoms. But as we pulled into the graveled parking lot a sense of anticipation and confusion returned. What was this thing?

To begin, we might reasonably call it an event.

Basilica Hudson — an upstate New York-based non-profit for the arts that puts on the event annually — admirably describes it thus:

An immersive event and all-encompassing experience, 24-HOUR DRONE is a roving, international series presented by Basilica Hudson and Le Guess Who?, featuring musicians and sound artists experimenting within the spectrum of drone to create 24 hours of unbroken, uninterrupted sound.

Through this expanded programming, 24-HOUR DRONE strives to break down barriers across borders, offering an opportunity to connect diverse musical communities and traditions, offering a localized snapshot of DRONE within the larger context of an imagined universal sound.

The language here should scan as familiar to anyone accustomed to reading music and arts press. Roving, experimental, barrier-breaking, border-crossing: these terms all call up a restless energy, the excitement of the wholly new, the different, the thoroughly non-normative. As it turns out, all these attributes turn out to be more-or-less (if uninterestingly) true.

24-Hour Drone, Image by Alt

Over the course of the day and night, I heard the ethereal saxophone of PAUL, the whipping clangor of Pharmakon, and — I want to emphasize this — the absolutely breathless New Castrati, January Hunt’s exceptional and mournful work living up to her billing elsewhere as “synth, drones, and the annihilation of man.” A sentence above, though, still merits pause: “a localized snapshot of DRONE within the larger context of universal sound.” Roving energy and shattering experiment here take shape as a snapshot, the whirring and calamitous universal stalling for a moment in a discrete particular. 24-HOUR DRONE attempts to lends form to what was too diffuse to be seen.

So, modestly, in lieu of aesthetic judgement, a proposition: the value of Basilica Hudson’s 24-HOUR DRONE is to offer space to sound.

Indeed, for an event so centrally concerned with sound, 24-HOUR DRONE is as much about the Basilica — a converted nineteenth-century cathedral-esque foundry — as it is about sound. And for good reason: the Basilica has been beautifully repurposed — gutted of its original use and re-asserted as an malleable and improbably elegant arts space. Hundred-plus foot ceilings dwarf individual bodies, it’s begrimed upper windows modulate the midday sun into a speckled and hazy sepia, and the elaborate truss-work grids the scene in an industrial domework. The Basilica is a work of architecture meant to imagine and hold, however briefly, those fleeting shards and fragments of something yearning toward a “universal sound.”

24-Hour Drone, Image by Alt

Though even as stunning a work of architecture as the Basilica can only ever confer a loose limit. These fragments are always clamoring for a more robust scene, always threatening to join the broader universal that awaits. Sound passes through walls, vibrates along concrete, penetrates skin and mingles among bodies. Spaces focalize sound’s capacities for the social and ethereal, by preserving and witnessing its constitutive ephemerality. Different spaces draw our attention to sound’s actually-existing materiality: a materiality that doesn’t quit, one that loosens our grip on our more ready-to-hand material worlds.

Grasping this materiality is not easy; it is maybe impossible. What possible cognitive torque will allows us to grasp at this overtopping universal? One option, it seems, is sheer brute force.

The term “endurance” rightly comes up repeatedly in press-documents and FAQs. For the event is knot of time and space (24 hours at the Basilica) which commands an attention to sound as a given, but sounding too as demanding an economy of attention wholly strange–a fidelity to sound that is without end. Limning out these ambitious parameters, to reign sound in, if for only a moment, requires something added.

Space, then.

Sonic spaces have a familiar, if knotty, history. Cathedrals invoke a beatific space, trussed by elaborate ornament and a spiritualized verticality. Music festivals inscribe traditions of sound and histories of capital — crowds and power, in Gina Arnold’s felicitous adaptation of Elias Canetti. Dwellings and offices, cafes and bars. Spaces arrange us in sound, and sound among us.

24-Hour Drone, Image by Alt

DRONE, then, is a provocation to think about sound — to think it over time, and to do so in a necessarily rarified space. This provocation worked; but I felt it only at an extreme limit.

At the twentieth hour (8 AM) I needed coffee. I had slept (kind of) through the night, rose to a bell ceremony, and walked immediately, groggily outside. As I passed through the door frame into the dewy and drizzly upstate morning, the sound — as if from a vacuum — muted and was voided of weight. I walked through the mostly empty streets.

These empty streets were, as it turned out, raucously loud. Distant cars motoring across country byways, the buzzing of a streetlight long past its prime; my tinnitus — a steadily pitched pulse acquired in those irresponsible salad days standing too-close to a crash cymbal — reminding me of all I may one day not hear. These sounds were, quite suddenly, clamoring for my attention, demanding my thought, straining for distinction. The espresso machine, the door hinges, the bathroom sink. Floorboards and rain and leaves and the Hudson and, and, and.

I walked back, not a little unsettled.

I had breakfast outside the venue among gravel-scraping shoes and overheard conversation.

Finally, I went back inside for what turned out to be the final act: Dronechoir Syllaba. The scene remains hauntingly clear.

A grouping of women entered, dressed entirely in white, each with one earbud in-ear, the other hanging loose. Some, if not all, had a length of yarn tied around their waist and dragging along the ground behind them a screw, nail, metal implement, which, as they walked produced a fragile, slender tone. They congregated in the center of the room and produced a careful and lush chord, its density piling up toward the far reaches of the ceiling. Slowly, the chord broke apart.

Dronechoir Syllaba, Basilica Hudson, 2018, Image by #noamplification

But, then, that’s not true.

I should say: slowly, the women moved apart, the chord remained, stretched and pitched against new and different coordinates, inhabiting the Basilica’s elastic space in a new configuration. Notes moved, their bearers slowly pacing around the exhausted and supine bodies of Droners along the floor.

A choir member approached me, holding out her free earbud. I shook my head, wearing a nervous grin. She insisted; I put it in. Playing quietly in that tinny bud was a reference tone for me to share. I looked at her as though I didn’t understand, and she smiled as if she did. Insisting. I managed a small hum, off-kilter and out of tune, before handing it back to her. Looking around, I saw the relationship I had repeated among others across the room. The chord kept mutating — dilating and contracting, swelling and receding, different tones calibrated along moving spatial coordinates. The choir returned to formation in center.

At noon, silence.

Everyone was smiling, dazed, like milkdrunk babies or punchdrunk lovers. We had slept amongst each other, passing a night in a shared space, while sound had enwrapped and enraptured us. We had borne witness to valences of sound hitherto under-noticed. We had joined a choir, if only for an offkilter moment in a space out-of-joint.

Dronechoir Syllaba, 24-Hour DRONE, Image by Andrew LaVallee via Instagram

***

We thought, my traveling companion and I, we thought the car ride back to the city would be for silence. For what else could you thirst after 24 such hours in the heart of sound? But this turned out to be deafening uncomfortable, weird. We were, in our own private ways, estranged from sound. Which is really another way of saying we were in different relation to sound and to the spaces it fills. There, a foundry. Here, a car. We put on, in lieu of silence, a little slice of magic, the condensation of all groove and beat, the most organized flash of pop brilliance this side of 1980. We of course put on Thriller.

As we roiled down the road to this joyous whispered desire — wanna be startin’ somethin’, got to be startin’ somethin’ — in a vehicle not made for dancing, the force of the Drone event began to take shape.

So, again: why?

To give attention to what we all already share — space and sound, history and music. To be adrift but not asleep in it all.

As for what happened?

I’ll try to grasp that next year.

Featured Image by Alt

Robert Cashin Ryan is a PhD candidate in the department of English at the University of Illinois-Chicago. He has written in various places about literary form and formalism, the relationship between Herman Melville and Charles Dickens, and Christmas as an intellectual problem. He curated and introduced a gathering of essays on music, sound, and noise for Post-digital forthcoming from Bloomsbury 2019.

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SO! Amplifies: Feminatronic

 

“Music More Ancient than Words”: W.E.B. Du Bois’s Theories on Africana Aurality

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

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

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

Readers, today’s post by Aaron Carter-Ényì delineates two central strands in Du Bois’s work that have proven key to what we now call sound studies–the historical and affective meanings that sound carries as well as its ability to travel great distances through time and space.

–Jennifer Lynn Stoever and Liana Silva, Eds.


I know little of music and can say nothing in technical phrase, but I know something of men, and knowing them, I know that these songs are the articulate message of the slave to the world. – W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (1903, p. 253)

W. E. B. Du Bois claimed to “know little of music,” yet his writings offer profound insights into aurality, foreshadowing the transdisciplinary of sound studies, by connecting language, music, sonic environments and aural communication. Du Bois published the souls of The Souls of Black Folk in 1903, less than a decade after becoming the first African American to receive a PhD from Harvard in 1895. In it, he addresses the color line, reflected in the policy of “separate but equal,” forming arguments that continue in Black Reconstruction in America. He also introduces themes that reappear in his later works including The World and Africa (1947), which formed the seeds of Afropolitanism and many modes of enquiry of Sound Studies. This short essay explores two concepts in Du Bois’s writings: that melodies may last longer than lyrics as cultural retentions; and, that drummed language may travel further than spoken language as communication.

By the time Du Bois published The Souls of Black Folk, what he termed the “Sorrow Songs” (alternatively Slave Songs or Spirituals) had entered the popular canon of American song. As incipits (or epigraphs) for each essay in the book, he entered the songs into a new literary and scholarly canon, ultimately changing the concept of what a book could be by fusing language and music in a new way. Even in a divided society following the U.S. government’s disinvestment in Reconstruction and the sharp uptick in lynching and other forms of racial terror, the “Negro folk-song” could not help but have a profound impact “as the most beautiful expression of human experience born this side the seas” (Souls XIV), particularly due to the efforts of Fisk’s Jubilee Singers. Du Bois’s choice to include musical transcriptions without lyrics at the opening of each essay in Souls reflects a view of melodies as having a life–and a value– of their own.

Du Bois paired a quote from “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage ” by Lord Byron with a musical citation from the African American spiritual “The Great Camp Meeting” to open Chapter III, “Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others.”

Although Du Bois’s work quite clearly accounts for the development of what has usually been called the African American oral tradition, the concept of an oral tradition is credited to Harvard comparative literature scholars Milman Parry and Albert Lord, who popularized the term in American scholarship by establishing a binary theory of orality and literacy, that not only pitted the two against each other, but implied that they were hierarchical, evolutionary phases of “culture” (1960). This divide both widened and became more nuanced with Walter Ong’s recognition of “secondary orality” (1982), acknowledging that aspects of orality persist in literate societies.

But much earlier than these texts, Du Bois offers an alternate theory of how orality and literacy work, and even concepts similar to secondary orality, in the last essay of Souls, “XIV On the Sorrow Songs.” Notably, he describes his earliest experience with African music via a song that “travelled down” from his “grandfather’s grandmother”:

The songs are indeed the siftings of centuries; the music is far more ancient than the words, and in it we can trace here and there signs of development. My grandfather’s grand-mother was seized by an evil Dutch trader two centuries ago; and coming to the valleys of the Hudson and Housatonic, black, little, and lithe, she shivered and shrank in the harsh north winds, looked longingly at the hills, and often crooned a heathen melody to the child between her knees, thus:

The child sang it to his children and they to their children’s children, and so two hundred years it has travelled down to us and we sing it to our children, knowing as little as our fathers what its words may mean, but knowing well the meaning of its music (254).

Du Bois makes no mention of a spoken oral tradition throughout Souls. In fact, quite the contrary. In this passage, he implicitly argues it is not the meaning of the words, but the meaning of the music that survived the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Instead of an “oral tradition”, Du Bois identifies four steps in the development of American Sorrow Songs: (1) African; (2) “Afro-American”; (3) blending of “Negro and Caucasian” (a creolization); and (4) songs of white America influenced by the Sorrow Songs (256). The search for continuity between African and American culture has been a quest for many, including African-born scholars such as Lazarus Ekwueme. It is clear that melody (both pitch and rhythm) is the most idiosyncratic element of a piece, more so than lyrics, and is the most durable when a people and their culture experience extreme duress. As language (and certainly the meaning of the language) can fade (or be violently submerged)  in diaspora, melodies can often hold fast, and be held on to.

At an early date (1903), Du Bois already arrives at a point that is now a consensus: the Gullah-Geechee communities of the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia have closely retained African practices, such as the ring shout.

Gullah-Geechee ring shout performed by McIntosh County Shouters (Carter-Ényì, Hood, Johnson, Jordan and Miller 2018)

Du Bois states that the Sea Island people are “touched and moulded less by the world about them than any others outside the Black Belt” (251­–2). The Language You Cry In (1988), traces a Gullah song passed down back to its origins in Sierra Leone. Though separated by 200 years and 5000 miles, the melody was immediately recognizable to Baindu Jabati, a woman of the village, Senehum Ngola, even the lyrics were “strikingly similar.”

Sheet Music, “Old Folks At Home,” A project of the Digital Scriptorium Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, Duke University

The Gullah-Geechee are exceptional because of their linguistic retentions, documented by Lorenzo Dow Turner in his 1949 book. The preservation of linguistic features was possible because of relative isolation, but as Du Bois notes, this source of African music is fundamental to American music in steps (2), (3) and (4), of which he offers famous examples of each. It is the recognition of the crossing of the African and African-American influence across the racial divide into the music of white America, in songs such as Stephen Foster’s “Old Folks at Home” (more popularly known as “Swanee River”) that was the most controversial. Du Bois approaches this matter cautiously: “One might go further and find a fourth step in this development…” (256), but then goes full force: “a mass of music in which the novice may easily lose himself and never find the real Negro melodies” (257).

Racist musicologist George Pullen Jackson (1874-1953) fought hard against the position that white hymnody had been influenced by black spirituals for much of his career. In “White and Negro spirituals, their life span and kinship” (1944), he argued just the opposite, that black spirituals were derivative of white hymnody and conducted an early corpus study to prove it. William H. Tallmadge, in “The Black in Jackson’s White Spirituals” (1981), summarizes Jackson’s findings:

Jackson, after examining 562 white items and 892 black items, found only 116 pairs which he thought demonstrated tune similarities, and of these 116, only 70 pairs actually prove to have had a valid melodic relationship… These seventy items represent slightly less than eight percent of the 892 black spirituals (150).

Jackson could not find the empirical support for his claim to of primacy (perhaps supremacy) of white spirituals, even with some ample confirmation bias. In fact, his findings fit well into Du Bois’s account, particularly his identification of step 3 in the development of the Sorrow Songs: “blending of Negro music with the music heard in the foster land” (256). Essentially, it took a nearly a century for musicology to recognize what Du Bois laid out in 1903.

The aural tradition Du Bois describes, which includes various versions of songs and the steps of sorrow song development, is more sympathetic to Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s concept of “orature” than the Parry/Lord dichotomy. In “Notes towards a Performance Theory of Orature” (2007), Thiong’o points out that:

What is often arrested in writing is a particular version, a particular rendering, … as performed by a particular performers at a particular moment. Nature, then, in orature manifests itself as a web of connections of mutual dependence … in active communications within themselves and with others (5).

For example, the black and white spirituals with similar tunes in Jackson’s corpus both are and are not the same, which challenges the very notion of intellectual property (IP), and the flawed IP debate over spirituals that Jackson pursued. Even in a segregated society, under which racist laws separated the performers, a mutual dependence developed between black and white spirituals. Despite the affinity of the melodies and common heritage in the aural culture (and perhaps even common sources in either Africa or Europe), divisions were articulated in writing, through different hymnbooks and different words, once again supporting the veracity of Du Bois’s claim that the “music is far more ancient than the words.”

Waves on the Ghanaian Shore, Image by Flickr User Yenkassa (CC BY 2.0)

Later in his life, Du Bois’s attention turned more and more toward Africa. In The World and Africa (1947), he confronts colonialism and Eurocentric history, foreshadowing Afrocentrism and to some extent Afropolitanism. He also, very briefly, reprises his discussion of aurality, citing German musicologist and father of organology, Erich von Hornbostel, as affirmation of the virtues of both African and African American music from the 1928 article “African Negro Music”:

The African Negroes are uncommonly gifted for music-probably, on an average, more so, than the white race. This is clear not only from the high development of African music, especially as regards polyphony and rhythm, but a very curious fact, unparalleled, perhaps, in history, makes it even more evident; namely, the fact that the negro slaves in America and their descendants, abandoning their original musical style, have adapted themselves to that of their white masters and produced a new kind of folk-music in that style. Presumably no other people would have accomplished this. (In fact the plantation songs and spirituals, and also the blues and rag-times which have launched or helped to launch our modern dance-music, are the only remarkable kinds of music brought forth in America by immigrants (60).

Du Bois studied in Germany from 1892–94 before attending Harvard. According to Kenneth Barkin (2005), Du Bois’s “affection” for Imperial Germany has “remained a puzzle to historians” (285). Hornbostel too had a complicated relationship to Germany: though celebrated in his home country for much of his life, in 1933 he was forced into exile because his mother was Jewish; he died in 1935. The passage Du Bois cites from Hornbostel echoes some aspects of Souls XIV Sorrow Songs, particularly the centrality of the spirituals in American culture, but not all. In particular, “abandoning their original musical style … to that of their white masters” is incongruent with Du Bois’s earlier perspective. Though Hornbostel is clearly impressed with the musicality of black people(s), Hornbostel’s summary conclusions stated at the beginning of the same article do not mesh with Du Bois’s own (more insightful) work in Souls: “African and (modern) European music are constructed on entirely different principles, and therefore they cannot be fused into one, but only the one or the other can be used without compromise” (30).

Unfortunately, Du Bois does not contest Hornbostel with his narrative of continuity and “steps” of development from Souls. Du Bois recognized both the happenings and possibilities of creolization and syncretism in black culture of which Hornbostel only captures glimpses. Ultimately, despite a generally positive perspective on black music, Hornbostel’s position is one of not only continental, but racial, division, promoting segregation of musical practice as the only way. It is disconcerting that Du Bois cites this article and Hornbostel as a musical expert with its main argument when Du Bois identified the color line as the singular issue of the twentieth century.

In The World and Africa, Du Bois goal is a bit different: in the pursuit of repositioning Africa and moving towards both a corrected history and post-colonial future, there were stranger bedfellows than Hornbostel. A more pristine vision of recasting Africa and Africana aurality is found on the same page (99), in Du Bois’s mention of an astonishing form of music as communication, the talking drum: “The development of the drum language by intricate rhythms enabled the natives not only to lead in dance and ceremony, but to telegraph all over the continent with a swiftness and precision hardly rivaled by the electric telegraph” (99).

The recent intellectual current within African studies, Afropolitanism, is embodied in Du Bois’s juxtaposition of African tradition with modernity. A recent book on West African talking drums by Amanda Villepastour, Ancient Text Messages of the Yorùbá bàtá drum also draws an analogy to telecommunication. While Du Bois’s brief 1947 account is only a single sentence, Villepastour’s lengthy 2010 account confirms Du Bois conjecture was not a metaphor or empty comparison, the talking drum and telegraph share the same utility, and while we are keeping track, the talking drum came first and is a lot more efficient in terms of infrastructure.

Yorùbá talking drummers in Ọ̀yọ́, Nigeria (Carter-Ényì 2013)

For those unfamiliar with them, here are some rough calculations regarding how talking drums work. Singing or shouting is about 80 decibels (dB) at one meter. Drumming is over 100 dB at one meter. This 20 dB differential means that a speech surrogate (like a talking drum) could travel up to 10 times the distance under the same environmental conditions. With those intensities at the source, a loud voice could travel one kilometer before becoming inaudible (at around 20 dB), while a drum could reach 10 km, easily communicating with the next village.

Hausa Talking Drum, Image by African Studies Library BU (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Within a regional network of drummers that “speak” the same language—such as in the Yorùbá-speaking region of southwest Nigeria—long distance communication was possible, and much earlier than the telegraph. A recent study (2018) by Frank Seifert and his colleagues on Amazonian Bora drumming, “Reducing language to rhythm,” finds minute timing variations represent the placement of consonants suggesting there is detail in speech surrogacy, beyond the representation of lexical tone previously documented. Seifert’s findings suggest that the “precision” Du Bois described is exactly what talking drummers have (throughout the Global South). Now the “swiftness” part may have been a bit exaggerated (electric signals travel much faster than sound waves).

Du Bois’s practiced a transdisciplinary study of sound and understood Africa as Afropolitan long before most of the West. In addition to foreshadowing the interdisciplinary moves of sound studies—which also connects sound to speech to music and examines their coexistence—Du Bois’s thinking also prefigures the current intellectual (and urban-cultural) vogue of Afropolitanism, which has to some extent displaced the Pan-African movement that drew Du Bois to Ghana.In a 2016 interview, Achille Mbembe positions Afropolitanism as a way “in which Africans, or people of African origin, understand themselves as being part of the world rather than being apart.”    Much like the African cultures he first encountered in melody in the nineteenth century and then heard firsthand as a contemporary when he moved to Ghana in 1961, Du Bois heard beyond Eurocentric disciplinary divides of music and language that served to portray African cultures as somehow always already outside of modernity, yet not the right color of “ancient.”  Du Bois wholeheartedly believed music could change the narrative of Black life, history and culture, a message first crooned to him as a child between his grandmother’s knees, to which he never stopped listening.

Housatonic River, Great Barrington Massachusetts, W.E.B. Du Bois’s Home Town. Image by Flickr User Criana, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Featured Image: Brooklyn African Festival Drum, 2010, Image by Flickr User Serge de Gracia (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Aaron Carter-Ényì teaches music theory, class piano, and music appreciation in Morehouse’s Department of Music.  He holds a PhD from Ohio State University (2016), was a Fulbright Scholar to Nigeria in 2013, and is a 2017 fellow of the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS). Recent scholarship appears in Africa (Journal of the International African Institute)EthnomusicologyMusic Theory OnlineOxford Handbook of Singing and Tonal Aspects of Languages; or is forthcoming in Performance Research and Sounding Out! He is the director of the interdisciplinary Africana Digital Ethnography Project (ADEPt) and is currently developing the Video-EASE Toolbox and ATAVizM. During the summer, he is a STEAM instructor for federally-sponsored student enrichment programs including MSEIPand iSTEM for which he provides workshops and courses in the Morehouse Makerspace.

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

Music Meant to Make You Move: Considering the Aural Kinesthetic–Imani Kai Johnson

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

Troubling Silence: Sonic and Affective Dispossessions of the African Slave Trade–Michelle Commander

 

“I Dreamed and Loved and Wandered and Sang”: Sounding Blackness in W.E.B. Du Bois’s Dark Princess

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

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

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

Readers, today’s post by Kristin Moriah looks at Du Bois’s novel Dark Princess, and explores the relationship between sound and freedom in the text.

–Jennifer Lynn Stoever and Liana Silva, Eds.


Summer is come with bursting flower and promises of perfect fruit. Rain is rolling down Nile and Niger. Summer sings on the sea where giant ships carry busy worlds, while mermaids swarm the shores. Earth is pregnant. Life is big with pain and evil and hope. Summer in blue New York; summer in gray Berlin; summer in the real heart of the world!

W.E.B. Du Bois, Dark Princess (1928)

 

“Malcolm X BLVD” by Flickr user Alex Proimos, CC BY-NC 2.0

It is summer in Harlem now. Thick blankets of heat roil the city, and the pavement shimmers. Even the most die-hard city dwellers try to create distance between themselves and the noisy streets where political tensions threaten to boil over this season, as they always seem to. Airy tunes are often sung in vain here. More often than not, summer in New York City can be characterized by the sounds of the protests Julie Beth Napolin writes about so powerfully. At the moment, many of those protests are directed towards immigration detention centers and against forced family separation policies. Harlem, long a nexus for African diasporic and Latinx immigration and culture, has become a site of forced migration for migrant children separated from their families at the U.S. border and relocated to foster shelters like East Harlem’s Cayuga Center. Thus, contemporary nostalgia for Harlem as a site of creative freedom can be belied by reality.

But is there another place like this, not here, where one can go? An urban metropolis where one can be more attuned to sounds of the city and cries for justice? Where summer sings songs of freedom? Historically, there have been other options, especially for black travelers and migrants, and those options can tell us much about the way African American writers have conceptualized the relationship between sound and freedom. There was a strong correlation between sound and travel for African American intellectuals and performers during the Harlem Renaissance. During the brief period between Reconstruction and World War II, Europe, particularly Berlin, presented African Americans who traveled abroad with opportunities to hear and be heard differently. In The Sonic Color Line (2016), Jennifer Stoever has argued that W.E.B. Du Bois’s attention to the problem of the color line should inform our understanding of the centrality of sound in U.S. racial formations. But what happens to perceptions of the sonic color line once you cross the U.S. border? How have African American writers reflected on the sonic color line from a distance? W.E.B. Du Bois’s 1928 novel Dark Princess is an ideal place to begin exploring these questions.

Cover of Dark Princess, fair use

W.E.B. Du Bois fictionalized the experience of traveling to Berlin at the turn of the 20th century. As a whole, his work on travelling in Europe while black contributes to the discourse around race and sound by illustrating the importance of sounding blackness to political discourse. Du Bois continually accounted for sound in both his prose and fiction about his European travels during the early 20th century. For instance, in his autobiography Darkwater, Du Bois writes “as a student in Germany, I built great castles in Spain and lived therein. I dreamed and loved and wandered and sang; then after two long years I dropped suddenly back into ‘nigger’—hating America!” (16). Here and elsewhere, Du Bois portrays singing, performing, and listening–or what I identify here as sounding blackness–as crucial activities that foster intellectual development, creativity, and political awareness. In “Death Wish Mixtape,” Regina Bradley observes that contemporary instances of sounding blackness in popular culture are often linked to commodification and death. But the act of sounding blackness can be pliable, even as it signifies keen political awareness. In the Harlem Renaissance, sounding blackness was linked to black internationalism. In Du Bois’s work, sounding blackness involves testing the limits of blackness abroad and making African American culture audible by introducing blackness into political discourse for progressive purposes.

In the opening epigraph of the novel Dark Princess, at the beginning of this post, a summer journey begins with a song in the wake of tragedy. Written during the height of the Harlem Renaissance, in W.E.B. Du Bois’s Dark Princess, African American hero Matthew Towns travels to Europe to heal himself from racism’s psychic wounds, macroagressions, and foreshortened career prospects. Like Du Bois, Towns seeks respite from the systemic racism he encounters in the U.S. educational system, in this case at the University of Manhattan, a fictional Harlem medical school that is a stone’s throw from the City University of New York’s City College. In other words, Towns is a refugee of American racism.

Matthew Towns experiences new forms of freedom when he travels abroad. Fin-de-Siècle Berlin’s ambiguous racial boundaries allow Matthew Towns to practice American citizenship, perform an unfettered African American identity, and act as a spokesperson for the first time. Faced with the question of whether African diasporic “blood must tell,” or reveal its weaknesses through inarticulate discourse, Towns boldly asserts that it won’t tell “unless it is allowed to talk. Its speech is accidental today” (22). He begins to advocate for African Americans using various performative modes. Du Bois depicts Towns as what Alex Black might term a “resonant body,” a performer who uses embodied sound to shape the viewers’ perceptions of his or her humanity. In Berlin, Towns becomes a resonant body who sounds blackness outside the boundaries of the American color line in an attempt to ameliorate conditions for African Americans at home. As such, Towns echoes Du Bois’ insistence on the importance of song to the African American tradition and socio-political ambitions in The Souls of Black Folk (1903). Thus, Dark Princess picks up on the sonic themes Du Bois proposed in his earlier works.

As Du Bois’s novel unfolds, readers learn how Berlin could both confound and appeal to the African American imagination as a utopic site of black performance. Towns sings to a multi-ethnic group of elite political activists at a dinner party in Berlin. Invited by Princess Kautilya of Bwodpur, at first, “Matthew felt his lack of culture audible, and not simply of his own culture, but of all the culture in white America which he had unconsciously and foolishly, as he now realized made his norm” (24). Initially, American racism prevents Towns from sounding blackness and participating in global discourses around race and freedom. And yet, at the same party in Berlin, Towns is also overcome by the memory of Negro spirituals. He becomes a resonant body by reclaiming black working-class sensibility and pride: “it was as if he had faced and made a decision, as though some great voice, crying and reverberating within his soul, spoke for him and yet was him” (23). For Matthew Towns, sounding blackness abroad is not just personally empowering; sounding allows him to imagine himself as a key contributor to larger social movements and, potentially, black liberation. In both examples, the acts of hearing, verbalizing, and singing are depicted as necessary modes of political awareness and engagement. Without access to these sonic forms, Matthew is divorced from meaningful political participation.

Eventually, Matthew finds his way into the conversation by making a powerful argument for the cultural achievements of African Americans, or “the black rabble of America,” (26) by way of Negro Spirituals: “silence dropped on all, and suddenly Matthew found himself singing. His voice full, untrained but mellow, quivered down the first plaintive bar…” (26). It is the most striking instance of black performance in the novel:

The blood rushed to Matthew’s face. He threw back his head and closed his eyes, and with the movement, he heard again the Great Song. He saw his father in the old log church by the river, leading the moaning singers in the Great Song of Emancipation. Clearly, plainly he heard that mighty voice and saw the rhythmic swing and beat of the thick brown arm. Matthew swung his arm and beat the table; the silver tinkled. (25)

Du Bois continues: “He forgot his audience and saw only the shining river and the bowed and shouting throng […] Then Matthew let go of restraint and sang as his people sang in Virginia, twenty years ago. His great voice, gathered in one long deep breath, rolled the Call of God” (26).

Towns’s newfound ability to sound blackness in Berlin, or in other words vocalize African American claims to citizenship and freedom, stand in contrast to his earlier inability to respond coherently to Northern racism in New York City, where he is left “sputtering with amazement” at his exclusion from a medical school at which he has rightfully earned his place. In that instance, Matthew is rendered speechless. When “his fury had burst its bounds” it resulted in not a stream of invectives or vain pleas for justice, but a physical response. He throws “his certificates, his marks, and commendations straight into the drawn white face of the Dean” (4). Afterwards, isolated and alone, he stalks New York City.  If there is a distinct sonic dimension to this flight from discrimination, readers are not privy to it. The sounds of Matthew’s footsteps, and cries of righteous indignation, fade into the background of Harlem’s streets. They are perhaps indiscernible amidst the ebb and flow of any number of similar city sounds and experiences. In this instance, Du Bois seems to suggest that the sound that emanates from physical gestures loses potency in certain urban contexts.

When Matthew Towns returns to Harlem, we are told that it’s with a renewed ear and life purpose. Standing on Seventh Avenue, with City College to his left, “he turned east and the world turned too – to a more careless and freer movement, louder voices and easier camaraderie” (41). From the sounds of church music to the accents of West Indian immigrants, he is much more attuned to the city’s diverse African diasporic presence. Hearing these African diasporic connections in a new way, he is fueled for black leadership and political activism.

Thus, Towns’s experiences sounding blackness abroad are a pivotal step in his political awakening and activism on U.S. soil. In locating the project of sounding blackness between Harlem and Berlin, Du Bois’s fiction makes space for the privileged summer traveler, the forced migrant, and immigrant. All are bound by the desire for social progress on local and global scales. Finally, I argue that the dynamic relationship between sound, space, justice and travel that Du Bois maps out has striking relevance to contemporary political and ethical crises. As in Dark Princess, justice in the here and now can be measured by the ability to sound aloud and effect social change the world over and on street corners.

Featured image: “Mapping Courage” by Flickr user Laurenellen McCann, CC BY-NC 2.0

Kristin Moriah is an Assistant Professor of African American Literary Studies in the English Department at Queen’s University. She is the editor of Black Writers and the Left (Cambridge Scholars Press, 2013) and the co-editor of Adrienne Rich: Teaching at CUNY, 1968-1974 (Lost & Found: The CUNY Poetics Document Initiative, 2014). Her work can be found in American QuarterlyPAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art, Theater Journal,  and Understanding Blackness Through Performance (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). Her research has been funded through grants from the Social Science and Humanities Council of Canada, the Freie Universität Berlin, the CUNY Graduate Center’s Advanced Research Collaborative and the Harry Ransom Center. In spring 2015 Moriah was a Scholar-in-Residence at the NYPL Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

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

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

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

The Noise You Make Should Be Your Own–Scott Poulson-Bryant

 

 

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