Tag Archive | Amiri Baraka

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

I don’t worry about the look of it so much. Choreography comes later, when I’m putting together a piece. I’m into the sound; for me, when I’m hittin’, layin’ it down, it’s all about the sound. –Savion Glover, My Life in Tap

It has been a little over a year since Amiri Baraka passed, and still I hear the echoes of his presence. I am especially attentive to the ways his work has been carried on by those involved in recent black uprisings in Ferguson, New York City, and Baltimore. Powerful political poetics that have emerged from these events include work by Danez Smith, Claudia Rankine and the many contributors to blackpoetsspeakouttumblr.com.

And yet, part of what I’ve witnessed in the streets, actual physical spaces of public protest against police violence and systemic racial oppression, is an example of what Thomas DeFrantz has termed “corporeal orature,” or the ability of bodies to resonate throughout public space and shift political discourse. In these moments, the body talk of protesters is not simply the sound of clattering feet through city streets, but a commitment to the ways in which physical gestures can speak truth to power. I am especially interested in connecting Baraka’s legacy to the larger conversation about the aural kinesthetic that Imani Kai Johnson has proposed, and in teasing out the various dimensions and potentials embedded in that category.

Image from Ferguson Protests, 2014

Dance at Ferguson Protests, 2014, Image by Shawn Semmler

For me, Savion Glover exemplified the lingering sound of Baraka’s spirit in his tap dance at his memorial service. Whenever I listen to the recording—which still brings tears to my eyes—I am reminded of the abundant sense of joy, sadness, and love that characterized Baraka’s service. Listening to Glover’s dance is an aural kinesthetic experience, like watching a comet pass across the night’s sky. I am reminded, too, of the way I clamored to record that moment, to keep a piece of the poet alive on my iPhone even after his public passing. And indeed, that performative sound of feet tapping, that measured excess of the body produced through movement, has kept Baraka alive for me; like his groundbreaking work, it is powerfully resistant to the proper rubrics of any one discipline except, perhaps for the study of sound itself.

So, this post then, is about tap dance and its ability to sound out Baraka’s name and life. But in a larger context, the intricate vibrations of Glover’s performance facilitate a deeper understanding of the relationship between sound and mourning, and a kind of mourning that is particularly African American, that is to say, American. It is a mourning that exists beyond the word, written text, or image and a sound practice that enables the bereaved to make a joyful noise and a mournful one at the very same time. So I ask, how do you write a eulogy with the body? How do you perform an embodied love? What does Black love and a reverence for Black life sound like? Sometimes, the answer is tap.

Audio Clip of Savion Glover’s Dance at Amiri Baraka’s Funeral, 18 Jan 2014

The dance explodes on stage like a burst of light. It begins with something approximating a drum roll – and then hard slow taps, hammering away like someone at a typewriter, I imagine, or a train gaining steam.

It is coming.

Slow, insistent and strong, with a little riff now and then, a little picking up of speed here and there. It is coming on louder now, that explosive thing, the tension you are noticing. He is doing the thing. And then there is that skillful, smooth, strong tap. Glover is at work, y’all.

Savion Glover at Work, Image by Flickr Users Raquel and Soren

Savion Glover at Work, Image by Flickr Users Raquel and Soren

As a tribute to Baraka, Glover’s dance bears numerous stylistic implications. Among them, I understand the rhythm of Glover’s tap as the rhythm of writing, an aesthetic that complicates the way his dance can be understood as a manifestation of the black vernacular. Sketching out the early connections between her son’s artistry and the percussive taps of the keyboard, Yvette Glover says. “‘I was working for a judge, as an assistant, when I was pregnant with Savion…And when I would type, and the carriage would automatically return, he’d walk, he’d follow it, in my stomach. You could see him move” (39). He does it still. In the audio clip, Glover’s footwork evokes the dexterity of Baraka’s language, all the while telling a story of its own.

Savion Glover's Shoes

Savion Glover’s Shoes, Sadler’s Wells, 2007, Image by Tristram Kenton

But what about the intensity of the dance, its crescendo toward the end of the service, a flurry of percussive steps beside Baraka’s coffin? Baraka himself reminds us this particular musicality is so necessary here. In his discussion of “Afro-Christian Music and Religion” in Blues People, Baraka notes that in Black diasporic religious services, “the spirit will not descend without a song” (41). Glover’s dance takes place at a moment in the service when emotion exceeds the power of language, but not sound. He uses his body as an instrument of sound in its fullest sense. His performance is a choreography of embodied sound: full-on and at-once body poetry, mourning and tribute.

Elucidating the use of his body as an instrument of sound, Glover declares:

It’s like my feet are the drums and my shoes are the sticks[…]My left heel is stronger, for some reason, than my right; it’s my bass drum. My right heel is like   the floor tom-tom. I can get a snare out of my right toe, a whip sound, not putting it down on the floor hard, but kind of whipping the floor with it. It get the sounds of a top tom-tom from the balls of my feet. The hi-hat is a sneaky one. I do it with a slight toe lift, either foot, so like a drummer, I can slip it in there anytime. And if I want cymbals, crash crash, that’s landing flat, both feet, full strength on the floor, full weight on both feet. That’s the cymbals. So I’ve got a whole drum set down there (19).

Combining his body’s drumbeat with the tic of Baraka’s keystrokes, Glover embeds the pattern of Baraka’s life in this tap dance, communicating it with the kind of deep and reverential love you are taught to have for your elders when you are young, appropriate and deep.

amiribarakafuneral2But as powerful as his body-poetry is, Glover’s silences are also key. In those inaudible spaces, Glover spreads out his arms, offering up the dance in a gesture of expansive love; the immensity of the silent gestures mirroring the immensity of Baraka’s life. He holds it out as a gift towards the audience, bows his head, too.

In moments of sound and silence, the audience calls out to Glover the way they would a preacher. At these moments, the dance becomes a call and response akin to the way Baraka’s life’s work was a call and response. A call to respond. A call to take what was given to you and make it mean. Listeners to the dance are called up out of themselves. We are changed by the dance and by the listening.

Tap tap tap.

Glover’s performance shows us how his specific blend of African and European dance traditions exists in a spiritual and artistic dimension. There is a religious explanation for this, too. In African DanceKariamu Welsh-Asante explains the function of the African funeral dance in definite terms:

All African dances can be used for transcendence and transformational purposes.   Transcendence is the term usually associated with possession and trance. Dance is the conduit for transcendent activities. Dance enables an initiate or practitioner to progress or travel through several altered states, thereby achieving communication with an ancestor to deity and receiving valuable information that he/she can relate back to the community. Repetition is key to this process as it guides the initiates, or dancers, through the process of the ceremony. The more a movement is repeated, the greater the level of intensity and the closer a dancer gets to the designated deity or ancestor. Transformation means to change from one state, or phase, to another (16).

Glover certainly brought us close to Baraka. And yet, I would go a step further to suggest that this is, above all, blues dance. As such, it reveals continuing relevance of social dance and movement to Baraka’s political legacy. Baraka and Glover work directs us towards the propulsive nature of black social/percussive dance forms. These sonic gestures clarify the ways black life matters, impacts the public sphere and policy. The politicized nature of Black Arts Movement performances and the performative elements of contemporary Black protest are still linked through sound. Politicized Black aesthetics continue to offer us multiple opportunities to witness the convergence of sound and movement. Ras Baraka, affirms this in his own eulogy for his father:

Have you seen black fire it burns deep it never goes out you can try and extinguish it but it never goes out it never goes out it never goes out only up or out as in broad as in multiply as in blues black base of the fire dancing flickering at times but never all the way gone dancing flickering at times but never all the way gone…

The power of the dance, of the Black Movement to move is still with us.

Protestors dance to a community band, Baltimore, MD, 28 April 2015, Photo by Adrees Latif/Reuters

Protestors dance to a community band, Baltimore, MD, 28 April 2015, Photo by Adrees Latif/Reuters

Featured Image, Screen Capture of Savion Glover dancing by JS

Kristin Moriah 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 critical work can be found in Callaloo, Theater Journal, TDR  and Understanding Blackness Through Performance (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). Moriah is completing a dissertation on African American literature and performance in transnational contexts at the CUNY Graduate Center. Her research has been funded through grants from the Social Science and Humanities Council of Canada, the Freie Universität Berlin and the Graduate Center’s Advanced Research Collaborative. She is a 2014-15 @IRADAC_GC Archival Dissertation Fellow and spring 2015 Scholar-in-Residence at the NYPL Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Sometimes she tweets via @moriahgirl.

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Sound at ASA 2014

The 2014 American Studies Association meeting will be held in Los Angeles, an appropriate setting for this year’s theme, “Fun and the Fury: Dialectics of Pleasure and Pain in the Post-American Century.” The conference, which will take place from November 6-9, will offer panels of interest to Sound Studies scholars. The City of Angels has long served as a muse for artists and thinkers interested in creating innovative worlds. Los Angeles is a place of experimentation and futuristic transformation, or as Norman Mailer called it, a constellation of plastic. Part of Mexico until 1848, Los Angeles is a global metropolis that embodies the keen contradictions of national and capital in the 21st century, often exposing the nuts and bolts that hold together these structures. Fun, fury, and the “dialectics of pleasure and pain” are useful for conceptualizing the sharp contrasts that characterize the city of LA itself. A panel on Sunday, Central Avenue Breakdown: Gender, Race, and Coming of Age in a Los Angeles Jazz Community, will discuss the historical complexities of the city of Los Angeles by way of the African American entertainment district of Central Avenue (Sunday 2:00-3:45).

This year’s ASA program features an increase in sound and music-related papers in comparison to last year’s conference in Washington, D.C., which was concerned with the logic of debt. The upswing is partially due to the 2014 theme, which emphasizes the production of alternative spaces that counter repressive forces. As the program committee, comprised of co-chairs J. Jack Halberstam, Fred Moten, and Sandra Soto, writes, “The critical power of ‘fun’ in this unconventional convention theme seeks nothing less than the reimagining of possibility, impossibility, probability and freedom.” Sound Studies is already geared toward thinking about how careful listening can offer new ways of being-in-the-world, so the increase in music-themed panels this year is not surprising. As music scholars and listeners have long insisted, music is foundational to embodied experiences of pleasure and fun. Music’s ability to transport listeners and to cultivate collectivity makes it uniquely relevant to discussions of pleasure.

"So Much Noise" by Flickr user Doran, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 http://www.flickr.com/photos/dopey/9260000239

“So Much Noise” by Flickr user Doran, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

One notable exception to the musical focus is the second of the two ASA Sound Studies Caucus panels, “The Racial Politics of Listening: ‘Accents,’ Hate Speech, and Language in the U.S. Media,” which will take place on Saturday from 2:00-3:45. Featuring Dolores Inés Casillas, Sara Hinojos, Marci McMahon, and SO! Editor-in-Chief, Jennifer Stoever, The panel will examine the role of speech and auditory cues in constructing racial representations. An individual paper by Craig Eley in the Environment and Culture Caucus panel Ecologies of Pleasure and Pain: Deviance, Destruction and Desire in Environmental History, entitled Psychologically Ultimate Seashores: Natural Sound, Personal Pleasure, and Recording Technologies is also worth mentioning (Sunday 10:00-11:45).

This year’s call for papers asked for participants to formulate creative modes for presenting their work, and Sound Studies scholars are stepping up. The first panel hosted by the ASA Sound Studies Caucus (Saturday 10:00-11:45) is an exciting listening dialogue entitled “Power Ballads and Blurred Lines: Songs from the Boundaries of Fun.” The commentators, Jeff Chang, Alice Echols, Evelyn McDonnell, Oliver Wang, and Rubén Martinez, will each play a song and discuss how pop music that is treated as harmless fun may nevertheless speak to social dynamics in real and important ways. A roundtable on Music, Fashion and the Power of (Queer) Nightlife (Friday 12:00-1:45) will include scholars of nightlife as well as party promoters and DJs, discussing the possibility for belonging in subcultural “nightworlds.”

"Hotel Bonaventure" by Flickr user S. N. Johnson-Roehr, CC BY-NC 2.0

“Hotel Bonaventure” by Flickr user S. N. Johnson-Roehr, CC BY-NC 2.0

This year there are a number of notable African American Studies panels, including After the Rain: Vanguardist Jazz in the Seventies (Thursday 10:00-11:45) organized in memory of Amiri Baraka, Stomp, Swerve, Rattle, and Roll: Fun and Pleasure as Political Resistance in American Blues Music (Thursday 4:00-5:45), What Words Can’t Do: Instrumentals, Identity, and Interpretation (Sunday 10:00-11:45), and Pleasure, Pain, Politics, and Performance: Black Women Artists and Their Fans (Sunday 12:00-1:45). The category of pleasure provides a framework for panels on The Aesthetics of Pleasure in California Funk (Sunday 10:00-11:45) and Performative Pleasures of Blackness: The Creation, Consumption, and Conflict of Pleasurable Blacknesses. Sound scholars also continue to investigate transnational modes of listening, in panels such as The Transnational Movements of Hip-Hop (Thursday 12:00-1:45), Fugitive Preludes: Chicana/o Popular Music and the Neoliberal City (Friday 10:00-11:45), and Performing Decolonial Aesthetics and the Politics of Pain and Pleasure in Music Across the Americas (Friday 12:00-1:45).

Two years ago, Jennifer Stoever mentioned that work in the field of Sound Studies was entering a period of reflection and becoming more nuanced and robust with sub-fields starting to develop. It is clear from this year’s program that the field is both broadening and deepening its focus. After two years of official recognition under the ASA Sound Studies Caucus and three years after the publication of Sound Clash, the special issue of American Quarterly, scholarship on sound in American Studies is developing in a myriad of ways and is coming into its own as a field.

Jump to THURSDAY, November 6
Jump to FRIDAY, November 7
Jump to SATURDAY, November 8
Jump to SUNDAY, November 9

Featured image: “Carmaheaven” by Flickr user waltarrrrr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Please comment to let SO! know what you think–both before and after ASA 2013.  If we somehow missed you or your panel in this round up, please let our Managing Editor know!: lms@soundingoutblog.com

Meghan Drury is a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate in the Department of American Studies at the George Washington University. She received an MA in ethnomusicology from UC Riverside in 2006. She is currently working on a dissertation tentatively titled “Aural Exotics: The Middle East in American Popular Music 1950-2011.” This project examines the interplay between popular music and American cultural representations of the Middle East from the mid-20th century to the present, illustrating how music and sound acted a means of consolidating and disseminating a range of ideas about Middle Eastern culture in the American mainstream. She is particularly interested in the way that sound increased the visibility of Arab Americans both before and after 9/11, offering a space for negotiations of identity. More broadly, Meghan’s interests include sound studies, U.S.-Middle East cultural relations, and Arab American cultural performance. 

 

"Echo Park September 2010" by Flickr user Calvin Fleming

“Echo Park September 2010” by Flickr user Calvin Fleming

THURSDAY, November 6th, 2014

8:00 am – 9:45 am

Religiosity and Altered States
Westin Bonaventure, Los Feliz (L1)

—Richard Cullen Rath, University of Hawai’i, Manoa (HI)
Dangerous Fun in Puritan New England: Mary Ross and the Singing Quakers

Riots, Radios, and the Historical Record: Mass Media and Crisis in Twentieth American Literature and Art
Westin Bonaventure, San Bernardino (L1)

—Hadji Bakara, University of Chicago (IL)
Guernica on the Radio: Anti-Fascism, Mass Media, and the Emergence of Human Rights Activism

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10:00 am – 11:45 am

Playing with Rules: Having Fun and Keeping Order in Mid-Century Racial Liberalism
Westin Bonaventure, San Fernando (L1)

—Yusuke Torii, Setsunan University (Japan)
S. I. Hayakawa’s Jazz Credentials and Racial Liberalism in Mid-Century America

—Masayoshi Yamada, Doshisha University (Japan)
Jazz, Fans, and the Pleasure of Listening during Turbulent Times

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After the Rain: Vanguardist Jazz in the Seventies (in memory of Amiri Baraka)
Westin Bonaventure, San Gabriel C (L1)

CHAIR:
Ronald Radano, University of Wisconsin, Madison (WI)

PAPERS:
Paul A. Anderson, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor (MI)
“Thunder Blossoms Gorgeously”: Abstracting the Pastoral in Marion Brown’s Georgia Trilogy

Robert Maclean, The College of Wooster (OH)
Ensemble After Eventuality: Neoliberalism and the Duo Form

Brent Hayes Edwards, Columbia University (NY)
Notes Toward a “Loft” History of Jazz

COMMENT:
Ronald Radano, University of Wisconsin, Madison (WI)

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12:00 pm – 1:45 pm

Fun in Public: The Cultures of Amateur Labor
Westin Bonaventure, Palos Verdes (L1)

—Alexander W. Corey, University of Colorado, Boulder (CO)
Impulsive Triads: Frédéric Chopin, Amateur Pianists, and The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man

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The Transnational Movements of Hip-Hop
Westin Bonaventure, Santa Monica D (L3)

CHAIR:
Alexander Weheliye, Northwestern University (IL)

PAPERS:
Lenna Tayseer Odeh, University of California, San Diego (CA)
Acts of Sumud: Exploits of Resistance Through the Palestinian Hip-Hop Youth and Political Prisoner Movements

Najwa Mayer, Yale University (CT)
Muhammad was a punk rocker: Seeking Faith, Fun, and Form in Taqwacore

Elliott H. Powell, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities (MN)
The Sounds of Afro-South Asian Pleasure: Hip Hop, 9/11, and South-South Connections

Halifu Osumare, University of California, Davis (CA)
Play and Pain in Black Atlantic Hip-Hop: Hiplife in Ghana as Case Study

COMMENT:
Alexander Weheliye, Northwestern University (IL)

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2:00 pm – 3:45 pm

alt. Black Musical History
Westin Bonaventure, San Gabriel C (L1)

CHAIR:
Courtney Michael Brown, California State University, Fullerton (CA)

PAPERS:
Matthew Hayden Anthony, Pennsylvania State University, Harrisburg (PA)
I Got Country Roots: Race, Identity and Black Country Singers in the 1970s

Kreg Abshire, Johnson & Wales University (CO)
On Sonic Nostalgia: Making Sense of alt.country’s Hip Traditionalism

Keith D. Leonard, American University (DC)
Who Stole the Soul: An Avant-Garde History of the Dark Room Collective

Christa Holm Vogelius, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa (AL)
The Jennie C. Lee Archive and the Silent Musical History of the Tuskegee Institute

COMMENT:
Courtney Michael Brown, California State University, Fullerton (CA)

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The Choreography of Protest
Westin Bonaventure, Santa Barbara B (L1)

—Sarah Ehlers, University of Houston (TX)
The Joys of the Picket Line: Reading the Rhythms of the Left

—Robert Michael Zecker, Saint Francis Xavier University (Canada)
A Mandolin Orchestra Could Attract a Lot of Attention: Interracial Fun with Radical Immigrants, 1930–1954

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Empire of Funk: Hip Hop and Representation in Filipina/o America—A Roundtable
Westin Bonaventure, Santa Barbara C (L1)

CHAIR:
Dawn Bohulano Mabalon, San Francisco State University (CA)

PANELISTS:
Roderick Labrador, University of Hawai’i, Manoa (HI)
Mark Villegas, University of California, Irvine (CA)
Mario “Nomi” De Mira, Artist
Stephen Bischoff, Washington State University, Pullman (WA)

COMMENT:
Dawn Bohulano Mabalon, San Francisco State University (CA)

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On Athletes and Outlaws: Asian Americans in Popular Culture and the Pleasures of Recognition
Westin Bonaventure, Santa Monica C (L3)

—Douglas S. Ishii, University of Maryland, College Park (MD)
Not about race, per se: Dave Boyle’s Asian American Music Film

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4:00 pm – 5:45 pm

Love and Rage: Cultural Strategies in Postwar U.S. Anarchism
Westin Bonaventure, San Bernardino (L1)

—Shon MeckFessel, University of Washington, Seattle (WA)
From a Disavowal of Commitment to a Commitment of Disavowal: (Non)Left Positionalities in 1980s Post-Punk and Anarchy-Punk

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Alternative Economies of Pleasure in Contemporary Southern Working-Class Cultures
Westin Bonaventure, San Pedro (L1)

—Nicholas Neil Gorrell, University of Mississippi (MS)
Economies of Scarcity and Abundance in Contemporary Southern Blues

—Anne Gessler, University of Texas, Austin (TX)
Second Lines, Creative Economies, and Gentrification: Music Cooperatives in Post-Katrina New Orleans

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Stomp, Swerve, Rattle, and Roll: Fun and Pleasure as Political Resistance in American Blues Music
Westin Bonaventure, Santa Monica A (L3)

CHAIR:
Daphne Brooks, Yale University (CT)

PAPERS:
Mark Anthony Neal, Duke University (NC)
“Let Me Bang Your Box”: The “Erotic Life” of the Blues

Sonnet Retman, University of Washington, Seattle (WA)
Memphis Minnie’s Jukebox Blues

Kimberly Mack, University of California, Los Angeles (CA)
“That Natural Blues Man Look”: Black Elvis and the Demythologization of the Black Blues Figure

R. J. Smith, Independent Scholar
Calling All Freaks!: The Licentious Blues Spirit of the Rent Party and the Buffet Flat

COMMENT:
Adam Gussow, University of Mississippi (MS)

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**Wildness: The Fun and the Fury of Anarchy**
Westin Bonaventure, San Gabriel C (L1)

CHAIR:
Mel Y. Chen, University of California, Berkeley (CA)

PAPERS:
Peter Coviello, Bowdoin College (ME)
The Wild Less Than the Good: Erotics and Biopolitics in Thoreau

Jack Halberstam, University of Southern California (CA)
‘Wildness at the End of the World’

Tavia Nyong’o, New York University (NY)
William Blake’s Wild America

COMMENT:
Mel Y. Chen, University of California, Berkeley (CA)

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"Busker (street musician) #2" by Flickr user Sunny Lapin, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

“Busker (street musician) #2” by Flickr user Sunny Lapin, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

FRIDAY, November 7th

8:00 am – 9:45 am

Feeling Queer
Westin Bonaventure, San Gabriel B (L1)

—Elias Krell, Northwestern University (IL)
Mixing Sound: Technologies of Fem(me)ninity and Mixed Race in Kelly Moe

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Life-Writing, Musical Lives
Westin Bonaventure, San Gabriel C (L1)

CHAIR:
Ulrich Adelt, University of Wyoming (WY)

PAPERS:
Nassim Winnie Balestrini, Karl-Franzens-University (Austria)
Fun, Fury, Fans: Affective Strategies in Intermedial Hip-Hop Life Writing

Mercy Romero, Sonoma State University (CA)
Two Lives in Music

Petra Rivera-Rideau, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (VA)
The Pleasures and Pains of Love: Listening to La Lupe and Ivy Queen

Jessica Elaine Teague, University of Nevada–Las Vegas (NV)
Charles Mingus and the Serious Fun of Jazz Autobiography

COMMENT:
Ulrich Adelt, University of Wyoming (WY)

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**Caucus: War and Peace Studies: Reconsidering the ‘R and R’: Dialectics of Violence and Pleasure in Militarism**
Westin Bonaventure, Santa Anita B (L1)

—Patricia Stuelke, University of Massachusetts, Boston (MA)
You’re a Criminal as Long as You’re Mind: The U.S. Invasion of Panama and the Sounds of Bad Romance

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**ASA Program Committee: Uncontrolled Substances/Altered States**

Westin Bonaventure, Level 1, San Bernadino

—Josh Kun, University of Southern California (CA)
The Musical Más Allá: Narco/Necro/Anarco

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10:00 am – 11:45 am

Fugitive Preludes: Chicana/o Popular Music and the Neoliberal City
Westin Bonaventure, San Gabriel C (L1)

CHAIR:
Christina Zanfagna, Santa Clara University (CA)

PAPERS:
Wanda Alarcón, University of California, Berkeley (CA)
Variations on a Theme: Performing América on the National Stage

Jonathan Gomez, University of California, Santa Barbara (CA)
Teen Post to Rainbow Alley: Facing Unexpectancy with Unexpectant Punk Rock Social Spaces

Kurt Newman, University of California, Santa Barbara (CA)
Undoing the Math: Chingo Bling, the “Not-All,” and the Politics of Parody

COMMENT:
Christina Zanfagna, Santa Clara University (CA)

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Willful Subjects: Action, Agency, and Politics
Westin Bonaventure, San Anita B (L1)

—Neil Roberts, Williams College (MA)
It’s Bigger than Hip Hop: Decoding the Trayvon Martin Event

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12:00 pm – 1:45 pm

Music, Fashion and the Power of (Queer) Nightlife
Westin Bonaventure, Los Cerritos (L1)

CHAIR:
Madison Moore, King’s College London (England)

PANELISTS:
Ananya Jahanara Kabir, King’s College London (England)
Matthew D. Morrison, Columbia University (NY)
Victor P. Corona, Fashion Institute of Technology (NY)
Gregory Alexander, Artist
Loren Granic, Artist
Amy Cakes Danky Dank, Artist

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High on Crack: Surveillance, Loss and Addiction in Black Communities
Westin Bonaventure, San Fernando (L1)

—Andreana Clay, San Francisco State University (CA)
“Kick in the Bass”: Sonic Navigation of Pleasure and Pain in Crack Lyrics

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Performing Decolonial Aesthetics and the Politics of Pain and Pleasure in Music Across the Americas
Westin Bonaventure, San Pedro (L1)

CHAIR:
Jaime Cardenas, Seattle Central Community College (WA)

PAPERS:
Marie “Keta” Miranda, University of Texas, San Antonio (TX)
Polka Dawgs: Tejana/o Dance as Pleasure in Response to Racial and Class Subordination

Marco Cervantes, University of Texas, San Antonio (TX)
Third Root Poetics Through Hip Hop Aesthetics: Performative Autoethnographies and Musical Empowerment

COMMENT:
Jaime Cardenas, Seattle Central Community College (WA)

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2:00 pm – 3:45 pm

Twelve Years a Slave: Sounds and Spectacles of Slavery
Westin Bonaventure, Santa Anita A (L1)

—Paul Fess, City University of New York, Graduate Center (NY)
“The most excruciating noise”: Power Structures of Music in Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave

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4:00 pm – 5:45 pm

Bittersweet: Remaking the Exhibit “American Sabor: Latinos in U.S. Popular Music” for the Smithsonian Institution
Westin Bonaventure, San Gabriel A (L1)

CHAIR:
Juan Flores, New York University (NY)

PANELISTS:
Marisol Berrios Miranda, Independent Scholar
Shannon Dudley, University of Washington, Seattle (WA)
Njoroge Njoroge, University of Hawai’i, Manoa (HI)
Victor Hugo Viesca, California State University, Los Angeles (CA)

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We’re Listening: Surveillance Technologies and Non-Private Publics
Westin Bonaventure, Santa Monica B (L3)

CHAIR:
Gus Stadler, Haverford College (PA)

PAPERS:
Andrew Hamsher, University of Texas, Austin (TX)
Controlling Fantasyland: Surveillance and Freedom in Transmedia Storyworlds

Jason Farman, University of Maryland, College Park (MD)
Creative Misuse as Resistance: Surveillance, Mobile Technologies, and Locative Games

Brian Hochman, Georgetown University (DC)
Eavesdrop Nation: The Rise of ‘Private Ear’ Wiretap, 1959-1974

Stephen Knadler, Spelman College (GA)
Kerry’s OMG Washington: Re-Scandalizing Racial Surveillance in the Obama Era

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"2nd Street Tunnel, Los Angeles -- Dec 30, 2010" by Flickr user Ray_from-LA, CC BY 2.0

“2nd Street Tunnel, Los Angeles — Dec 30, 2010” by Flickr user Ray_from-LA, CC BY 2.0

SATURDAY, November 8th

8:00 am – 9:45 am

Indigeneity and Difference
Westin Bonaventure, Santa Barbara B (L1)

Elizabeth Sine, University of California, San Diego (CA)
Native Jazz: Radical Multiraciality and the Politics of Desire in an Age of Global Crisis

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10:00 am – 11:45 am

Caucus: Sound Studies: Power Ballads and Blurred Lines: Songs from the Boundaries of Fun
Westin Bonaventure, Santa Barbara C (L1)

CHAIR:
Eric Weisbard, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa (AL)

PANELISTS:
Jeff Chang, Stanford University (CA)
Alice Echols, University of Southern California (CA)
Evelyn McDonnell, Loyola Marymount University (CA)
Oliver Wang, California State University, Long Beach (CA)
Rubén Martínez, Loyola Marymount University (CA)

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2:00 pm – 3:45 pm

Caucus: Sound Studies: The Racial Politics of Listening: “Accents,” Hate Speech, and Language in the U.S. Media
Westin Bonaventure, San Fernando (L1)

CHAIR:
Isabel Molina-Guzman, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (IL)

PAPERS:
Sara Veronica Hinojos, University of California, Santa Barbara (CA)
Reading Lupe Vélez, Mexicanness, and Her Fiery “Accent”

Dolores Inés Casillas, University of California, Santa Barbara (CA)
Inglés Sin Barreras, Rosetta Stone, and the Politics of Language Learning

Marci McMahon, University of Texas, Pan American (TX)
Staging the Sound of Citizenship in Josefina Lopez’s Detained in the Desert

Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman, State University of New York, Binghamton (NY)
“You. Got. To. Un. Der. Stand”: Rachel Jeantel, “Reasonable” Listening, and the Sonic Color-line

COMMENT:
Isabel Molina-Guzman, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (IL)

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To Be Young, Global, and Black: The Global Circulations of Blackness and Americanness
Westin Bonaventure, San Pedro (L1)

CHAIR:
Jeff K. Chang, Stanford University (CA)

PAPERS:
—Samir Meghelli, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (IL)
Rapping and Race-ing Across the Atlantic: Hip Hop and Racial Politics in Postcolonial France

—H. Samy Alim, Stanford University (CA), Shaheen Ariefdien, Independent Scholar (South Africa)
Whaddup, San?: Hip Hop, “Colouredness,” and the Construction of Khoisan Identity in Post-Apartheid South Africa

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4:00 pm – 5:45 pm

Racial Meanings and Musical Performance in Film: Uses of Folk, Calypso, and Jazz in Films, 1944–1965
Westin Bonaventure, Beaudry B (L1)

CHAIR:
Kevin Gaines, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor (MI)

PAPERS:
Geoffrey Jacques, Independent Scholar
Jazz, Film, and the Black Hipster

Shane Vogel, Indiana University–Bloomington (IN)
Trinidad Goes Hollywood: The Ersatz Epistemology of the Calypso Craze

Judith E. Smith, University of Massachusetts, Boston (MA)
Using, and Being Used by Hollywood: Harry Belafonte on Film, 1953–1959

Jacqueline Stewart, University of Chicago (IL)
The Cry of Jazz and The Corner: Filming Music of Everyday Black Life in Chicago

COMMENT:
Kevin Gaines, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor (MI)

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Liberating Encounters: Cultural Consumption as Agent of Pleasure and Social Change in Contemporary Asian, Latin-American, and U.S. Popular Culture
Westin Bonaventure, San Fernando (L1)

—Patty Ahn, University of Southern California (CA)
Detours of Indebtedness: South Korean Pop Music and Neoliberal Logics of Race

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Arab Worlds: Then and Now
Westin Bonaventure, Santa Monica C (L3)

—Meghan E. Drury, George Washington University (DC)
The Belly of the Wail: Feminism and Arab Hybridity in 1990s World Music

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"Capitol Records Building" by Flickr user Wieland Van Dijk, CC BY-ND-SA 2.0

“Capitol Records Building” by Flickr user Wieland Van Dijk, CC BY-ND-SA 2.0

SUNDAY, November 9th

8:00 am – 9:45 am

Sports, Sex, and Music across the Pacific during the Cold War
Westin Bonaventure, Beaudry B (L1)

—Mari Yoshihara, University of Hawai’i, Manoa (HI)
Lenny Blows Up the World: Classical Musicians Play the Cold War

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Sonics of Black Excess, 1940s to 1980s
Westin Bonaventure, Los Cerritos (L1)

CHAIR:
Imani D. Owens, Princeton University (NJ)

PAPERS:
Brian Lefresne, University of Guelph Canada
A Fool in Space: Sun Ra the Jester at the Carnival

Charles McGovern, College of William and Mary (VA)
I Want a Lavender Cadillac: Fun, Excess and Labor in Black Popular Music, 1940–1970

Terrion L. Williamson, Michigan State University (MI)
Im Not Your Superwoman: Black Female Embodiment and the Sites of Social Intimacy

Brian Edward Jones, College of William and Mary (VA)
Big Fun with the Prince of Darkness: Miles Davis and the Death of the American Dream

COMMENT:
Imani D. Owens, Princeton University (NJ)

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10:00 am – 11:45 am

What Words Can’t Do: Instrumentals, Identity, and Interpretation
Westin Bonaventure, Los Cerritos (L1)

CHAIR:
Shana L. Redmond, University of Southern California (CA)

PANELISTS:
Shana L. Redmond, University of Southern California (CA)
Tsitsi Jaji, University of Pennsylvania (PA)
Guthrie Ramsey, Jr., University of Pennsylvania (PA)
Tamara Roberts, University of California, Berkeley (CA)

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The Pleasures and Pains of Hip Hop Listening: New Aesthetic Approaches
Westin Bonaventure, San Bernardino (L1)

CHAIRS:
Jill Toliver Richardson, City University of New York, Borough of Manhattan Community College (NY)

James Ford, Occidental College (CA)

PAPER:
Karen Jaime, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (IL), Jonathan Gray, City University of New York, John Jay College of Criminal Justice (NY), Candice Jenkins, City University of New York, Hunter College (NY), James Ford, Occidental College (CA)
The Pleasures and Pains of Hip Hop Listening: New Aesthetic Approaches

COMMENT:
Michael Jeffries, Wellesley College (MA)

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“All the Way Live”: The Aesthetics of Pleasure in California Funk
Westin Bonaventure, Santa Barbara C (L1)

CHAIR:
Laura Harris, Pitzer College (CA)

PAPERS:
Scot Brown, University of California, Los Angeles (CA)
“All the Way Live”: The Live Funk Aesthetic of Lakeside

Cheryl L. Keyes, University of California, Los Angeles (CA)
From Mademoiselle Mabry to Betty Davis: The Reigning Funk Diva from the Underground

Tony Bolden, University of Kansas (KS)
Are You Funkified?: The Choreopoetics of Pleasure in the Music of Sly and the Family Stone

COMMENT:
Laura Harris, Pitzer College (CA)

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**Caucus: Environment and Culture: Ecologies of Pleasure and Pain: Deviance, Destruction, and Desire in Environmental History**
Westin Bonaventure, Santa Barbara A (L1)

—Craig Eley, University of Wisconsin, Madison
Psychologically Ultimate Seashores: Natural Sound, Personal Pleasure, and Recording Technologies

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12:00 pm – 1:45 pm

Pleasure, Pain, Politics, and Performance: Black Women Artists and Their Fans
Westin Bonaventure, Palos Verdes (L1)

CHAIR:
Gayle Wald, George Washington University (DC)

PANELISTS:
Ruth Feldstein, Rutgers University, Newark (NJ)
Emily Lordi, University of Massachusetts, Amherst (MA)
Cherise Smith, University of Texas, Austin (TX)
Gayle Wald, George Washington University (DC)

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Performative Pleasures of Blackness: The Creation, Consumption, and Conflict of Pleasureable Blacknesses
Westin Bonaventure, San Fernando (L1)

—Danielle C. Heard, University of California, Davis (CA)
Feeling Good: Nina Simone and the Pleasures of Live Performance, Montreux 1976

—Scott Poulson-Bryant, Harvard University (MA)
The ‘Unruly Delights’ of the Great Black Way: Contradiction, Pleasure and Black Musicals of the 1970s

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Can Black Women Have Fun?: Beyond Mammies and Martyrs
Westin Bonaventure, San Gabriel A (L1)

—Margo Crawford, Cornell University (NY)
Erykah Badu’s Black Fantastic Re-invigoration of Black Cultural Nationalism

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2:00 pm – 3:45 pm

Central Avenue Breakdown: Gender, Race, and Coming of Age in a Los Angeles Jazz Community
Westin Bonaventure, Beaudry B (L1)

CHAIR:
Farah Jasmine Griffin, Columbia University (NY)

PAPERS:
Maxine Gordon, Fordham University (NY)
Dexter Gordon and Melba Liston: The ‘Mischievous Lady Session’, June 5, 1947, Dial Records

Monica Hairston-O’Connell, Columbia College (IL), Sherrie Tucker, University of Kansas (KS)
Revisiting Central Avenue through Melba Liston’s Oral Histories

Nichole T. Rustin, Independent Scholar
Playing with Dynamics: Racialized Masculinity, Jazz, and Coming of Age on 1940s Central Avenue

COMMENT:
Farah Jasmine Griffin, Columbia University (NY)

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What Beyoncé (and Her Stans) Can Teach Us About The Pleasures of Intersectional Identity
Westin Bonaventure, Santa Barbara A (L1)

CHAIR:
Deborah Paredez, University of Texas, Austin (TX)

PANELISTS:
Clare Croft, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor (MI)
Micah Salkind, Brown University (RI)
Kristen Warner, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa (AL)
Chelsea Bullock, University of Oregon (OR)
Deborah Paredez, University of Texas, Austin (TX)

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"DSCN9630" by Flickr user Carsten Titibach, CC BY 2.0

“DSCN9630” by Flickr user Carsten Titibach, CC BY 2.0

“HOW YOU SOUND??”: The Poet’s Voice, Aura, and the Challenge of Listening to Poetry

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This post is dedicated to the memory of Amiri Baraka, who passed away on January 9, 2014 in Newark, New Jersey.

I began writing this post while my wife, Sarah, was at a conference on writing curriculum for high school literature. Over the phone one night she asked how to help students better understand the language of Shakespeare, and at a loss for suggestions (not only because I don’t study early modern drama), I recalled my own adolescent struggles with Macbeth, Hamlet, and Julius Caesar. I recalled well-intentioned teachers who gave me recordings, telling me that they would help me get an “ear” for Shakespeare’s language—yet all I remember, maybe all I learned, while listening to the Caedmon recording of Macbeth on vinyl, was that, to my mid-1990s ear, Shakespeare (anachronistically) sounded like Star Wars (which appeared 15 years after the 1960 Caedmon album).

My high school confusion has not completely faded when it comes to the sound of recorded poetic language, even more so when the notion of the poet’s voice is thrown into the mix. As opposed to verse recited by actors (the Caedmon Macbeth featured Anthony Quayle), or the sound of the syllables when we read a poem silently to ourselves, I find it tough to parse the idea of the sound of the poem in terms of the poet’s voice because “voice” is a slippery category—a constructed one, contingent upon the given historical moment of inscription and reception. It is tough because this idea of the sound of the poem, located in the voice of the poet, gets complicated with sonic technologies where voice is subject to the shifting conditions of fidelity.

"Record Player" by DeviantArt user SomeAreLove, CC-BY-NC-ND-3.0

“Record Player” by DeviantArt user SomeAreLove, CC-BY-NC-ND-3.0

The act of listening to recorded poetry thus poses particular analytic challenges, which become more complex when the politics of identity are brought to bear on these questions of voice and poetry. As a site for identity production, the recorded poetry performance projects a mediated voice that is a potential self. The “sound” of this poetic subjectivity is different from recording to recording, even of the same poem. In an effort to work through these complexities, this post takes up three different recordings of Amiri Baraka’s poem “Black Dada Nihilismus,” which offer variations in delivery and performance that each depend upon the social, political, and aesthetic dimensions of the soundscape that each recording is embedded within.

“Black Dada Nihilismus” is an excellent opportunity to consider the overlapping challenges of voice, performance and the politics of identity in recorded poetry. Published in the early 1960s, this poem was written before Baraka’s shift in politics, which was precipitated by the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965, yet the poem anticipates the intersection of aesthetics and politics during the Black Arts Movement in the late 1960s into the 70s. This shift can be tracked in the sonic details of the first two recordings, made in 1964 and 1965. In the third version, a 1993 remix by DJ Spooky, we can hear how this shift reverberates beyond its historical moment.

In a statement of poetics included in Donald Allen’s classic 1959 anthology The New American Poetry, Baraka (then Leroi Jones) asked: “HOW YOU SOUND??” How a poet’s poem sounded mattered most for him: “you have to start and finish there … your own voice … how you sound” (425). Primarily referencing the poem on the page, he wasn’t whistling in the dark: often thought of as a vocal performance of language, poetry has a long history with sound. One thread of this history is the Homeric tradition of an “oral poetics,” a tradition where, as Albert Lord notes in The Singer of Tales, socialized performances of poetry were simultaneously modes of composition. The feel of language in the body remained inseparable from the poetry that relayed the heroic tales of the ancient world. In The Sounds of Poetry, Robert Pinsky offers a similar account of sound and voice, suggesting that the “sound” of language, the sensuous play of speech, is the material for poetic composition. Or as Charles Bernstein has it in Close Listening, “poetry needs to be sounded” because it is a way to understand it better (7).

"Le Roi Jones" by Flickr user UIC Digital Collections, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

“Le Roi Jones” by Flickr user UIC Digital Collections, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Poetry is often said to be difficult—but how would a poet’s “sounding” of a poem help a listener better understand it, as Bernstein suggests? How is the recorded voice resonating in air different from inert marks on a page? What is the status of that difference? Why or how would the sound recording signify differently than the poem on the silent page? In short, is listening easier than reading? My answer to the final question is a resounding “no.” For me, the challenge is how to consider the recorded poetry performance in both formal and aural terms so as to remain tuned in to the aesthetic and the poetic as well as the social and historical dimensions of a particular poet’s work. This is not easily done.

“Black Dada Nihilismus” was first published in The Dead Lecturer (1964) and later included in Transbluesency (1995). Written in two parts, it asserts a black aesthetic by critiquing the dominance of (white) light in Western art and suggesting a connection between this light, ethnic violence, and religious ideology. This is how the poem opens:

                                        .Against what light
is false what breath
sucked, for deadness.

                                        Murder, the cleansed
purpose, frail, against
God, if they bring him

                                        Bleeding, I would not
forgive, or even call him
black dada nihilismus.

The protestant love, wide windows,
color blocked to Modrian, and the
ugly silent deaths of jews […]

(Transbluesency 97)

Through critique the poem develops the connections between aesthetics and racial dominance and violence. These connections take on different inflections in each recorded version of the poem, and with each inflection another aspect of them is amplified.

The first version is a bootleg of a reading at the Asilomar Negro Writers Conference that was held in Pacific Grove, California, in early August, 1964.

Asilomar Conference Grounds, site of 1964 Negro Writers Conference

Asilomar Conference Grounds, site of 1964 Negro Writers Conference

In addition to the preamble, where Baraka explains some of the poem’s key terms such as Dada, which he describes as a movement in France (rather than Germany or Switzerland), another sonic detail that marks this as “live” is at the 2:59 minute mark when we hear the flap of a turning page, reminding us that Baraka is treating the poem as a script in these recordings. In this version, the opening lines are sharply delivered, the voice fully pausing at the linebreaks and acutely pronouncing the hard vowels (e.g. “sucked”). Against the continuous background hush of the original reel-to-reel recording, Baraka punches his words into the air, as if trying to find a rhythm between these harder vowels and the softer ones that often denote the poem’s object of critique (e.g. “light”).

The next version is off the A side of New York Art Quartet and Imamu Amiri Baraka (ESP Disk 1965), where the poem’s rhythm is immediately established by the musical accompaniment.

Between the first recording and this one a shift began in Baraka’s development as a poet. The assassination of Malcolm X pushed him to think even more about race, politics, and art. In this version the opening lines, delivered with punch and pause in the bootleg, take on a different register when juxtaposed with the smooth coolness of the quartet. Overall, though, the poem is delivered more militantly here. In the first version the opening lines are delivered forcefully, but ultimately this forcefulness subsides over the course of the reading. The opposite is the case in this studio version that slowly builds to the apex of the poem, the point of most force, this stanza:

Black scream
and chant, scream,
and dull, un
earthly
hollering.

(Transbluesency 99)

In the bootleg, the turn of the page—between “earthly” and “hollering”—interrupts this stanza, and Baraka hesitates and slowly finds his way toward the poem’s close, while in the studio version, the musical accompaniment reaches a fevered pitch here, making it feel as if it is at the edge of the scream that it names. This prepares us for the closing litany of names of black figures of “black dada nihilismus,” which goes like this:

For tambo, willie best, dubois, patrice, mantan, the
bronze buckaroos.

For Jack Johnson, asbestos, tonto, buckwheat,
billie holiday.

(Ibid.)

In the final version, which is DJ Spooky’s remix of the second one, included on the CD Offbeat: A Red Hot Soundtrip (TVT Records 1996), this litany feels more like the outro (that is meant as) against Spooky’s beats and moody reverb.

An aspect of the poem amplified in the remix is the stanzas leading up to the apex stanza of the “black scream.” In a series of tercets that open the second section, the speaker addresses the experience of racial oppression and a growing need to strike back:

The razor. Our flail against them, why
you carry knives? Or brutaled lumps of

heart? Why you stay, where they can
reach? Why you sit, or stand, or walk
in this place, a window on a dark

warehouse […]

(Transbluesency 98)

The “why” is significantly amplified in the remix, forcing us to hear the ironic indictment of the oppressive “light,” not as audible in the other two tracks, explicit in Baraka’s tercets.

“IMG_0433″ by Flickr user Beyond Baroque, CC-BY-NC-SA-2.0

“IMG_0433″ by Flickr user Beyond Baroque, CC-BY-NC-SA-2.0

The original recordings of these versions of “Black Dada Nihilismus” are each in a different format: vinyl LP, tape-to-tape reel, and CD. I have been working with digitized versions, so the way I am hearing these recordings—through a smooth digitized MP3 file or Youtube clip—is not the same as the crackle of a needle running an LP’s groove or a nearly noiseless laser tracing a CD. These variations in format mean that the different ways these versions individual signify—their respective “sounds”—are flattened out by compression. Despite this loss of material context, Baraka still sounds different in each of these tracks. Each version of Baraka’s poem offers us another iteration of his “voice,” and the poem, but listening to each of them does not necessarily provide a better understanding of it. We are, though, given different sonic experiences that depend upon the purpose of Baraka’s performance, the listener imagined during the reading, and the voice enunciated through the mediated environment.

Some of the voice details do remain consistent across these recordings. For example, the delivery of one of the poem’s most memorable phrase—“Hermes, the/the blacker art”—that occurs toward the close of the poem’s first section is steadily delivered in a lower register, in the hush of an aside, and might be taken as the motif of each of these variations.

"Stage Microphone TTV" by Flickr user Keith Bloomfield, CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0

“Stage Microphone TTV” by Flickr user Keith Bloomfield, CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0

A vast archive of recorded poetry exists. Mid-century recording projects by Caedmon and Folkways made “voices” of well-known poets, such as Robert Frost and Dylan Thomas, available for mainstream consumption. More recent anthologies and series like Poetry Speaks and The Voice of the Poet suggest that the “voice of the poet” still holds appeal. The proliferation of online sound archives such as Penn Sound and From the Fishouse further attest to an ongoing investment in recording, storing, and making available sound files of poets reading their work. And this fascination with the “sound” of poetry is not limited to mainstream cultural spheres or web-based archives. Several scholarly collections on this convergence of sound, voice, and poetry such as Bernstein’s already-mentioned Close Listening, Adelaide Morris’s Sound States, and Marjorie Perloff’s and Craig Dworkin’s The Sound of Poetry/The Poetry of Sound have appeared over the last decade.

The idea of the sound of the poem, located in the mediated voice of the poet, therefore remains relevant today. In many of these instances, however, the poet’s voice falsely takes on an authoritative “aura,” as Walter Benjamin used that word in his (recently re-translated) “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility.” Benjamin uses “aura” to talk about authenticity in art and how that is lost when images (or sounds) can be reproduced and widely distributed, and this is not a bad thing: “technological reproducibility emancipates the work of art from its parasitic subservience to ritual. To an ever-increasing degree, the work produced becomes the reproduction of work designed to be reproduced” (24). When Benjamin’s concept is applied to recorded poetry, two key points emerge. First, the “sound” of a poet’s voice is the product of technological conditions. Second, just as a book editor makes aesthetic judgments based on a perceived audience, a listener is imagined when a poetry performance is recorded. Too bad I didn’t know this in high school.

“A Poem for Speculative Hipsters by Amiri Baraka” by Flickr user Shawn Calhoun, CC-BY-NC-2.0

“A Poem for Speculative Hipsters by Amiri Baraka” by Flickr user Shawn Calhoun, CC-BY-NC-2.0

Featured image: “Paula Varjack” by Flickr user Very Quiet, CC-BY-SA-2.0

John Hyland recently completed his dissertation on sound, poetics, and the black diaspora, titled “Atlantic Reverberations: The Sonic Performances of Black Diasporic Poetries,” at the University at Buffalo, SUNY. His poems, essays, and reviews have appeared (or are forthcoming) in a range of journals, such as The Journal of Postcolonial Writing, College Literature, and Borderlands. Recently, he has enjoyed performing with the Buffalo Poets Theater and co-edited a special issue of the poetry journal kadar koli on the relationship between violence and the expressive arts.  

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

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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