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Making His Story Their Story: Teaching Hamilton at a Minority-serving Institution

In the summer of 2016, optimistic about a full-time teaching position at a minority-serving institution, yet unsure about what the U.S. election would mean for immigrants’ rights, I played the Hamilton soundtrack daily. Lin Manuel Miranda wrote the Pulitzer-prize winning musical inspired by Ron Chernow’s biography on the United States’ founding father because, he believed, Alexander Hamilton’s life embodied hip hop. My repeated listenings urged me to assign the musical as homework in my courses.

Colleagues with whom I engage on Twitter provided resources with which to begin. A public historian, Lyra Monteiro, wrote an important review for Public History,“Race-Conscious Casting and the Erasure of the Black Past in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton,” which provide one key angle of critique. Latinx Theater scholar and SO! writer Trevor Boffone created an online syllabus, #Syllabus4Ham,  that provided important critiques of the musical, news coverage of its growing popularity, and initial scholarly analyses of the cultural historical significance of the musical’s popularity.  Pedagogically, Miranda’s archival research in addition to his belief that Hamilton’s life embodied hip hop sparked an interest to bring the production to my gender and interdisciplinary studies classrooms.  While colleagues works’ inspired ways to discuss the musical in class, post-election coverage and the release of the Hamilton Mixtape provided more material to discuss. Teaching children of hip hop whose lives embody the struggle that Miranda made the central force behind his re-writing of Hamilton’s contribution to United States’ history, I wanted to develop lessons drawing on those relations.

By the spring 2017, I had done preliminary reading on the syllabus Boffone provided and replaced the musical with the Mixtape as my car ride soundtrack. When organizing my syllabus, I assigned tracks from the mixtape against the musical’s soundtrack with the intent of assigning students excerpts in both both my introductory Gender Studies course and Interdisciplinary Research Methods courses, but with a unique twist for each class. Gender Studies engaged with the content contextualized by discussions of immigration and citizenship. I assigned my Research Methods course  Monteiro’s critique of race-consciousness of the musical against the mixtape and the musical. While students were in solidarity with Montiero’s argument, I invited them to consider Miranda’s original intent, the mixtape, which may have informed the themes Miranda prioritized.

Few of them had heard of the musical before my class and less had heard of the mixtape. Their limited exposure necessitated historicizing both Miranda’s career and the evolution Hamilton’s, which begins with 2009 Miranda’s White House performance.  Miranda, invited by President Obama to perform a song from his previous hit In the Heights, instead decided to introduce his new project, a mixtape based on Alexander Hamilton.

Through discussion, I proposed that the students consider that the production, in 2009 envisioned as an album, served as a strategic catalyst to bring attention to his forthcoming mixtape. That attention evolved into encouraging Miranda to produce the musical; it would take a few more years till the intended mixtape was produced. Even though produced later, I speculated that the mixtape thematically benefited from the popularity of the musical because the musical’s focus on Alexander Hamilton rewrites the context of the mixtape.

Teaching  Hamilton the musical and the mixtape felt politically necessary at a minority serving institution in this historical moment of anti-immigrant, and anti-black sentiment. Having, in the past, worked with other youth to mobilize youth empowerment through hip hop, Hamilton provided an avenue in which I could discuss its political potential because of its popularity not only in spite of it. In breaking down Miranda’s cultural and political significance,  I summarized the evolution of awards he and the musical’s cast had won as well as the preliminary cast’s reflections on participating in Hamilton, along with what it means to have the success of the musical produce a wider audience for the mixtape.

After more than a semester working with students who grow frustrated with the traditional research paper and because of my own work producing research-based fiction and poetry, teaching the musical and mixtape provided an important example of research-based art. Because some students approach interdisciplinary research methods not understanding the possibilities of the relationship between art and research and some students are unsure of how to connect learning outcomes to their aspiring performance careers, I find teaching Miranda’s work remains necessary. Further, Miranda provides an avenue through which I could relate to students because of our shared interest in music as well as our conflicted relationship with consuming hip hop.

Teaching a student population that is 25% Latinx and who are either directly or indirectly affected by immigration policies, my students related, often quite deeply and intimately, to the message of the song. I watched their faces as they listened, particularly to “Immigrants (We Get the Job Done),” and their kinesthetic responses showcased what many of us ache for our students to experience: wonder, appreciation, and the illumination of insight.

I then guided them to hone in specifically on Puerto Rican rapper Residente rapping about the Mexican immigrant struggle in Spanish, emphasizing how he sonically and rhetorically urges a Latin pan-ethnicity while using his U.S. citizenship privilege to historicize border crossing Mexicans.  Residente’s lyrics create an opportunity to discuss Puerto Ricans’ cultural reality of being perceived as immigrants while being legally defined as citizens,  all the while calling back to the lyrical connection to the “Battle of Yorktown” from the musical.

I highlighted Miranda’s rhetorical strategy in building a song around one line that contexts changes across either song. The “Battle of Yorktown” centers on the contributions of immigrants to gaining freedom. During the lecture, I drew connections between the lyric that would become a song and the lyric subtly referencing the lack of freedoms for black people who were enslaved in the U.S. I asked about the parallels before explaining them, using the intentionality behind creating and compelling a racially diverse cast to script a narrative about who could and who had built the United States.  What does it mean to hear these voices emanating from this cast, telling this story?

Pedagogically, teaching music in either course served the intent of reimagining the purpose and potential of sound, whether from a musical or a mixtape, as a site of critical thinking.  Popular musicians’ cultural authority slowly decenters the white fragility I have come to expect from difficult conversations such as the ones Hamilton and The Hamilton Mixtape allow me to have.    Furthermore, the call-and-response between the mixtape and the musical work address the silence of the unrecognized, exploited, and/or enslaved labor that continues to build this country.  For my students, hearing musicians they like or who perform in their favorite genre, speaking truth to power about poverty, struggle, and not being thought of as good enough shifted not only our classroom energy, but many students’ perspectives. 

Teaching the Hamiltons helped my student population make sense of their “invisible” status in the U.S. and want more than what’s expected. They gained something in being able to hear their stories in the classroom—not just read them on the page—but hear them from people who look and sound like them. Hungry for more material that speaks to their disenfranchisement, my students wondered why more songs that sound the complex beauty of our resilience and struggle are not on the radio.  They wanted to know how they can ask for more. 

Featured Image: Screen capture from “Immigrants (We Get the Job Done)” remix video

Erika Gisela Abad, Ph.D, is a Queer Latina poet, born and raised in Chicago. She received her PhD in American Studies in 2012. Since completing her degree, she has worked as: a customer service associate and a scheduler at a phone interpreter call center, head counselor for a caddy program affiliated with a high school scholarship fund, field director for an education policy campaign, an oral historian and ethnographer. Since August 2016, she has been a full time assistant professor teaching gender studies. Twitter: @lionwanderer531; @prof_eabad

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Moonlight’s Orchestral Manoeuvers: A duet by Shakira Holt and Christopher Chien

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

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Sounding Out! Podcast #13: Sounding Shakespeare in S(e)oul

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Sound and Pedagogy 3Listen. I’m hearing Shakespeare. Taking four of Shakespeare’s tragedies (Macbeth, Othello, Hamlet, King Lear), I hear Shakespeare in and around another anachronistic soundscape – the blues. The space of this sonic experience will be YOGIGA Expression Gallery, a performance space in Hongdae, a popular art and club scene in Seoul, Korea, on January 26, 2013, in their 불가사리 : 실험/즉흥 발표회, or Starfish: Experimental/Improvisational Performances. The performers will include: Carys Matic on percussion, 황서영 (Hwang Seo Young), reading, and myself on the alto sax. Melding the blues and Shakespeare, this project involves my writing short, page-length poems in contemporary English that contain a line from a Shakespeare play, as well as the play’s main ideas. Part of my task is bedding the Shakespeare passage in an English that is lyrical, but untimely, in part so as to re-produce the strangeness of the Bard. These lines are then laid across a bit of percussion built out of the playing of Shakespeare’s books – literally. The rhythmic foundation is thus established upon a thing that didn’t exist properly in Shakespeare’s time, yet is so central to Shakespeare today. And finally, I use an alto saxophone and blues scales to improvize a bit of blues along with the percussion and the reading. In short, I’m queering Shakespeare by placing him in a blues bed, punctuated by the pounding of books, and dressed up in a Korean, female voice.

CLICK HERE TO DOWNLOAD: Sounding Shakespeare in S(e)oul

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Brooke A. Carlson is an Assistant Professor of English Literature at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul, Korea. His areas of concentration include Early Modern Drama, English Renaissance, World Literature, Composition, Gender/Race, and Sound. He writes on early modern notions of subjectivity, class, and capitalism, and has published most recently on Jonson and Milton.

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

Image by Flickr User Pere Ubu

Image by Flickr User Pere Ubu

Sound and Pedagogy 3In teaching the many interrelated and complicated aspects of the Civil Rights movement, Black Power, and the Black Arts Movement, the challenge for me is to help students understand the “facts” of this period, and to simultaneously destabilize the teleological historical narrative these “facts” seem to suggest.  In a pedagogical context, sound helps fill in the gaps that fall outside of the knowledge produced–and contained within–certain archival accounts of black cultural and political history. While crucial, having students listen to the gaps, can be daunting, especially in our current historical moment, as the decades-long push against identity politics has been solidified by the recent (re)election of the nation’s first black president, Barack Obama.  This point demands more elaboration than I can provide here, but the critical pedagogical issue it raises within the province of black studies, is that it is becoming increasingly difficult to consider black political culture outside of the sedimented lines of American pluralism and black radical thought.  

I use sound as a pedagogical tool to help outline a middle ground–what Frantz Fanon refers to in The Wretched of the Earth as “zone of hidden fluctuation” (166)–based upon articulations of resistance and identity that refuse to be frozen in time.  Building on Paul Gilroy’s conceptualization of anti-anti-essentialism in The Black Atlantic, an idea of black consciousness that is flexible and moves between the insufficient terms of “essentialist” and “anti-essentialist,” I use specific pedagogical examples to suggest that teaching about race and sound is a rich, evolving, and productively interactive continuum.   The auditory sense opens up new terrains of knowledge and dynamically expands the possibilities for students to think through the intricate and multifaceted formations of black consciousness during the volatile years of the 1960s and the resonance of those years in our present.

The recorded presence of Martin Luther King, Jr., for example, represents an important aural site for engaging in reflexive pedagogy, because King’s tonality–the resonance of his voice–creates a certain familiarity and is pivotal to the construction of the American myth of the radical transformation of the civil rights movement and the idea of post-civil rights racial equality.  For many students, King’s sound signals the dream of, and the pathway towards, a unified America.  Conscious of how this idea of King reflects a linear understanding of civil rights as simply a desire for inclusion, I direct students’ attention to the sound of King’s last recorded speech in Memphis on April 3, 1968.  Given the evening before his assassination, this speech resounds with King’s deepening critical perspective on black struggle through its haunting concluding notes. I point out to my classes that King’s final years (1965-1968) were marked by his increasing focus on ideas of black resistance outside of the Civil Rights mainstream, including his  critique of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, and his radical rethinking of the possibilities for black economic and political self-determination.

Martin Luther King in 1968, Image courtesy of UIC Digital Collections

Martin Luther King in 1968, Image courtesy of UIC Digital Collections

Centered on the economic injustice and dehumanization of Memphis’s striking black sanitation workers, King’s speech details the need for the Memphis black community do more than simply boycott municipal entities, but rather articulate their resistance by boycotting prominent national brands such as Wonder Bread and Coca-Cola.  Against this background, I play segments (particularly the final minutes) of King’s speech, entitled, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.”

The acoustic dimensions of King’s final speech resonate with a social and political complexity that troubles the sonic memories many students have of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963.  The much more intimate and less overtly majestic soundscape of Memphis’ Mason Temple underlines King’s shift from national icon back to local, community activist.  The frequent audience shifts–applause, extemporaneous interjections, and silence–create a reverberating sonic energy that accumulates throughout the speech.  Rather than relying strictly on a call-and-response interpretation of the interactive exchanges between King’s voice and the audience’s response, I have students consider the non-linear ebbs and flows in King’s sound in this latest of moments (as Fred Moten would say, the totality of King’s tonality). For example, as King’s audience considers the weight of his analyses and what it means to articulate black resistance as “a dangerous unselfishness” that “puts pressure where it really hurts,” I identify moments of uncertainty, hesitation, and contemplative reflection that mark a non-linear interactive sonority between King and his audience.

Listening to King’s final thoughts offers a disturbing and disruptive emphasis on the stakes of breaking with entrenched modes of activist thinking. He concludes the speech with a series of prophetic thoughts on mortality as a cost of making a stand against “our sick white brothers.”  Set within the historical and ideological context I have sketched above, the delivery distinguishes the sound of King’s words.  As we listen I draw attention to King’s expression of a lack of fear in anything, any man, as King seems to convey an eerie foreknowledge of his murder and his irreverence in its face.

“I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” –Listen to the concluding two minutes

The apocalyptic sound of King’s concluding notes to this political sermon leaves much to contemplate.  From the mention of the potential threat posed to his life by “our sick white brothers,” through the speech’s last line, there is a tonal, timbral shift in his voice and demeanor. Through sound and posture, and the reaction of the audience to those factors, King’s affect seems to convey something more momentous occurring beneath the event’s surface dynamics.  King projects a confrontational edge through the sound of fearlessness in the face of mortality.  Did he know he was going to be killed shortly after giving this speech?  It’s a question that the peculiar tonality of his concluding lines raises for students.  If so, what does it mean to use the sermon as a site of prophetic, aural documentation of the fact that a force of transformation exists beyond the flesh and blood of leadership, a force that assassination can’t kill?  In the speech’s final synesthetic moment, I have the students listen and watch the shift that occurs in King’s demeanor as he closes, and the way that this shift culminates in an almost ecstatic moment as he delivers the final line: “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” His defiant turning away from the microphone is crucial as it amplifies the meaning of the voice, letting those watching know that, much like an emcee, King has just “served” white power with a delivery that will outlast the sniper’s bullet the following evening.

Nina Simone, Image courtesy of Flickr User GlingG

Nina Simone, Image courtesy of Flickr User GlingG

I want to briefly point to two other examples that show additional ways in which sound complicates ideas of racial identity and expression during the 1960s.  When I teach Nina Simone’s composition, “Mississippi Goddamn,” (recorded live at Carnegie Hall in 1964), I ask students to consider the relationship between the distinctive sound of her voice and the ironic and critical elements of her lyrical meaning as this interaction creates a complex idea of radical black consciousness.  Composed in the aftermath of the murder of Medgar Evers and the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, Simone offers a musical, and more broadly sonic meditation on white supremacy.

Most students find the timbre of Simone’s voice, its grain (as Roland Barthes would say) and depth, immediately striking.  Her unique sonority and its context, greatly influence attempts by students to understand her reference to the song as simply a tune: “The name of this tune is Mississippi Goddamn” she says, and “This is a show tune, but the show for it hasn’t been written yet.”  Clearly it isn’t simply a tune, and the caustic quality of lines such as, “Oh but this country is full of lies/ You’re all gonna die and die like flies,” creates a critical depth through the sound of Simone’s commitment to a black radical perspective.  What does it mean, for instance, that Simone projects such sarcasm and biting critique to a predominately white audience at Carnegie Hall?  How might we hear the specific grain of her voice in this setting?  How does Simone’s projection of critical black sonic resistance, emerge at the conjuncture of anti-black racism and the beginning of legislative efforts under the Johnson administration to rectify racial inequality through civil rights bills?  What can be taken from the simultaneity and contrast that Simone projects her sound within?  I pose such questions to my students as a way of considering what it means to be committed to critical thought and social transformation that falls outside of the dominant lines of American national consciousness, and how the sound of such commitment, heard in the pitch and tenor of Simone’s voice, matters as a different kind of historical documentation.

In considering how the sound of music can offer an intervention within the formation of black political consciousness in the Black Arts Movement, I often use the 1966 recording of Amiri Baraka’s signal poem, “Black Art,” as it set to the experimental musical sounds of Sonny Murray’s ensemble (Murray-drums, Albert Ayler-tenor saxophone, Don Cherry-trumpet, Henry Grimes, Lewis Worrell-bass).  Having first read the poem, students then are able to hear it set to– and against–the unconventional instrumentation of Murray’s ensemble.

The musicians create an unconventional sonic context for Baraka’s reading that de-emphasizes and re-situates the apparent dimensions of black rage that seem to arise from verse that can “shoot guns,” through an almost carnivalesque, comedic, and off-kilter sound that troubles the linear expectations one might have of instrumentation amplifying the words on the page.  The dissonance between page and sound allows for useful pedagogical opening, in that it underlines the non-conformist, avant-garde aspects of the movement, and the fine line that artists such as Baraka were imagining between the intensity of black radical consciousness and the ability to articulate that standpoint outside of the expected forms of black cultural nationalism.

Image Courtesy of UIC Digital Collections

Image Courtesy of UIC Digital Collections

As these examples have shown, I incorporate sound into my pedagogical framings of black cultural and political identity as an opening through which students may expand their understandings of black consciousness and black political culture well beyond stagnant ideas of racial authenticity, while still preserving an understanding of the transformative and often radical possibilities that have been projected through black expression during the period.  It is the open space of sound that invests the project of black radical thought with the uncanny spontaneity of experimentation.  Having students understand ideas of expansiveness, asymmetry, and non-linearity as central to black cultural expression and critique–even as artists refuse to sacrifice an expressed political commitment to black resistance–begins to suggest ways for students to contemplate the intersection of identity politics with the unexpected, fantastic elements of expression that lie outside of more recent flattened diagnoses of black nationalism.  Teaching at the intersections of race and sound opens up new terrains of knowledge, dynamically expanding students’ abilities to think through the intricate and multifaceted formations of black consciousness during the volatile years of the 1960s and the resonance of those years in our present.

Carter Mathes is an assistant professor of English at Rutgers University.  He has completed a book manuscript entitled, Imagine the Sound: Experimental Form in Post-Civil Rights African American Literature, that focuses on the relationship between sound and literary innovation during the 1960s and 1970s.  He is co-editing a volume of essays on Black Arts Movement writer and critic Larry Neal; and also has essays in print or forthcoming on Toni Cade Bambara, Peter Tosh, and James Baldwin. At Rutgers, he regularly teaches classes focusing on African American literature, Twentieth-century literature, music and literature, and experimental writing.

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