In an article for Pitchfork, music critic Adam Ward reminisces about digital music files that sound as if they’re “being played through a payphone,” and calls the extreme compression of the low-quality MP3 “this generation’s vinyl crackle or skipping CD.” The crackles, hisses, and compression that characterize such sound files are what I term “encoded materiality.” Focusing on the encoded materiality of the digital helps us to reconfigure our approach to sonic media, understanding how the compression of early MP3s and tape hiss remind us not only of lost fidelity, but also of the richness of exchange. These warm and stubborn sonic impurities, having been encoded in our digital listening formats and thus achieving repeatability and variability, act as persistent reminders that we can think diaspora beyond melancholy and authenticity, sidestepping the questions of purity and loss that so often characterize dialogues in the field of diaspora studies.
In Mechanisms, his work on electronic textuality, Matthew Kirschenbaum proposes a “material matrix governing writing and inscription in all forms” composed of four elements: “erasure, variability, repeatability, and survivability” (xiii). The defects of sonic technology that become encoded in digital files are one such type of inscription. Tape hiss and other recording accidents–such as Casey Kasem ruining your attempt to tape record the first Western song you fell in love with after leaving Hong Kong by fading the outro and butting in with his banter–achieve repetition and survival during the digital encoding process, becoming a welcome reminder of time and place. Such materiality helps us to better understand the politics of diaspora. It clues us in to how the elements of textual encoding (erasure, variability, repeatability, and survivability) become embedded within diaspora’s complex logic.
To think through these complex moments of exchange, let me offer a story about my experience with tape hiss. I grew up listening to music touched by this particular sonic grain: a ground level of noise upon which my sonic experiences were built. After I received my first iPod in 2005, I connected a tape player to the input of my computer, recorded a stack of tapes, and then manually split them into MP3s—pseudo-piracy committed in earnest. A few weeks ago, I dug up these same files and put them on my phone, once again returning the buried albums to their former glory on a constant rotation playlist. I keep returning to these particular files, rather than finding the now easily available digital versions, because I admire the survivability of their materiality. The materiality of these tracks allowed me to trace the complexity of my own history—the tape hiss is just as much a part of this history as the songs themselves.
After first moving to Canada from Hong Kong, my family and I established ourselves by unswervingly performing the same routine each weekend. We would have late lunch at our favorite dim sum restaurant, drive around for a bit, and then relax at home; there wasn’t much to do in the ex-urbs of Toronto. On those drives, we listened to selections from a stack of cassette tapes in the glovebox of our old Pontiac Bonneville. Sally Yeh’s 1987 album Blessing was on constant rotation and received its fair share of wear. This was one of the tapes I recorded to my computer, destined for digitization.
Because I hit the record button a few seconds early, my MP3 of Sally Yeh’s Blessing begins with a few seconds of silence. It’s enough to trick me into thinking that the song isn’t playing. In a quiet enough spot, I can hear that it’s actually tape hiss. No matter where I am, on the road or in the shower, my mind fills in the blank with the thick ker-chunk of the cassette entering that Pontiac stereo right before that familiar tape hiss would fill the car, always giving us a few sometimes-needed, sometimes-awkward moments of silence before the music started. The sonic texture of that tape stems from its material nature as plastic and metal. The hiss itself is due to the size of the magnetized particles on the plastic. Because of these sounds, the song tells its own story. It recalls our shared sonic and material experience as I migrate it from device to device.
Before Blessing made its way into our car, it was one of the few cassette tapes that my parents carefully packed into a dozen cardboard boxes and shipped by sea to Canada in the late 1980s. This was in the midst of the countrywide protests in China that led to the events at Tiananmen Square. That insistent ker-chunk of plastic on metal that my brain inserts every time I play the MP3s keeps my experience of the music grounded in this earlier history, too. Strange that a fluffy pop song would remind me of the serious political strife taking place on the doorstep of a Hong Kong nervously awaiting its “handover.” This sonic anchor’s ability to recall to me these snippets of history, both personal, national, and transpacific has been crucial in the development of my own diasporic identity. Listening to this particular recording of Blessing helps me to keep track of my self and my history.
The act of withdrawal that many of us perform in order to interface with our sonic technologies, as Alexander Weheliye shows in his reading of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man in Phonographies, can play a powerful role in understanding one’s own racial subjectivity. Weheliye focuses on the scene in which the titular narrator-protagonist retreats to a subterranean cave-like space to listen to Louis Armstong’s recorded, disembodied voice in complete solitude. He asserts that the narrator builds his own subjectivity through a recognition of the self by projecting that self onto Louis Armstrong’s “vocal apparatus,” that is, his voice coming through a phonograph (143). “The phonograph’s ability to disconnect the singing voice from its face, or rather to replace it with a technological visage, further heightens its materiality, which impels the protagonist to imbue Armstrong’s voice with a surplus of signification” (Weheliye 145).
More than a black and white photo or a stern historical lecture from the elders, the “heightened materiality” of the digital format, a type of “technological visage” cathects my own diasporic history most forcefully to the sonic anchor of tape hiss because it acts as a “voice without a face” in the same way as the phonographic Armstrong. But despite the privacy of the phonographic listening act in this scenario, Weheliye suggests that
the phonographic listening modality also bears the traces of sociality… since the listening subject is drawn out of him/herself by encountering the technologically mediated sounds of other subjects—we might even go so far as to suggest that the phonograph itself functions as a subject, especially in its interfacings with various humans. (165)
So it is with similar sonic technologies that can encourage the “eschewing [of] the social” such as iPhones, CDs, and, yes, cassette tapes. Like Ellison’s narrator interfacing with the mechanical apparatus that conveys Armstrong’s voice, the insistent “defects” kept on the digital file keep the mechanism of its delivery at the fore, allowing me first to understand that diasporic feeling of dis-ease—and to imagine beyond it.
What I gain from the digital yet still stubbornly material tape of Blessing is not any overt lyrical or thematic gesture to a diasporic subjectivity on the artist’s part, but rather an induction into what Giorgio Agamben calls, “the idea of an inessential commonality, a solidarity that in no way concerns an essence” (18), or perhaps a community based on “belonging itself” (84). Likewise, Weheliye’s “diasporic citizenship coarticulate[s] the national and transnational instead of playing a zero-sum game with political identification” (369). If diaspora is defined by the perpetual desire to seek an imagined originary point of true identity that inevitably leads to melancholy, as psychoanalysis maintains, tape hiss and other encoded materialities turn the gaze away from the mists of origin, validating instead the development of diasporic identity in the aftermath of emigration. Of course, loss and melancholy are legitimate psychic aspects of the diasporic experience, as persuasively demonstrated by scholars such as David Eng, Shinhee Han, Anne Anlin Cheng, but they neither define the whole experience nor are they mutually exclusive to it. It is in this way that we can think of diaspora as a community of belonging by becoming.
A consideration of the stubborn ways that materiality is encoded in the digital helps us to think of diaspora as more than psychic fait accompli—it is also a ‘coming community’ characterized by the process of belonging. Kirschenbaum’s matrix provides the right foundation for a study which considers how material inscriptions are related to our diasporic lives. The inscription that defined my diasporic becoming came from the cassette tape that travelled across the ocean in a boat for five weeks, escaped erasure, survived repeated playings, became digital, and lives on now as a hissing reminder of our history of emigration. What else may we find about our own becoming and belonging if we attune our ears to the encoded materialities of sonic diaspora?
Featured image “Decayed Cassette” by darkday @Flickr CC BY.
Chris Chien is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of English at the University of Southern California working variously in the areas of sound, diaspora and transpacific studies, all with a distinctly queer bent. He completed his M.A. in English Literature at Loyola Marymount University and his Honors B.A. in English Literature and Latin at the University of Toronto. Chris has presented papers on angelic gender fluidity in John Milton’s Paradise Lost and post-colonial affect in the work of Herman Melville and Amitav Ghosh at the Rocky Mountain MLA and South Atlantic MLA conferences respectively. He is currently developing a paper that examines the performativity of diaspora, masculinity, and the capitalist ethos in Eddie Huang’s memoir Fresh Off the Boat and its adaptation as an ABC sitcom.
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It may seem a little crazy to take Das Racist seriously. Their songs are deep in the realm of the ridiculous, but I can’t help but feel that “Combination Pizza Hut/Taco Bell” is a commentary on how the compression of urban space is shaped by our relationship to consumption. Close-reading of their songs provide repeated evidence for the underlying tenor of seriousness in that absurdity—even if they’re being playful about it. As one of my favorite Das Racist songs says, “we’re not joking / just joking / we are joking / just joking / we’re not joking.” (For those who need help parsing, no, they are in fact, not joking). Take for instance Das Racist’s “Fake Patois” off of their free downloadable “mixtape” Shut Up, Dude! (2010). This satirical and intelligent exploration of the sounds of authenticity and their relationship to the reggae-hip hop dyad uses fake patois itself, working off an ironic tension that is as troubling as it is funny—and it’s also a banging song.
The “patois” used in American hip hop is clearly meant to be Jamaican-sounding, mixing elements of Jamaican creole language with a generous sprinkling of terms specific to Rastafarian English. The sounds of “fake patios” are a stylistic choice, reinforced through a dancehall reggae cadence of rapid-fire clipped words, rapped melodically. “Fake Patois” recalls the role of reggae in identifying an authentic origin for hip-hop. And certainly the connection cannot be denied. That Kool Herc brought Jamaican DJ culture with him to the Bronx is originary, and Run D.M.C brought it up in 1984’s “Roots, Rap, Reggae” (featuring Yellowman). If you want a more detailed mapping of a particular reggae meme’s journey through hip hop, check out Wayne Marshall’s fantastic essay on the subject, which demonstrates that even when contemporary artists think they are paying homage by imitating their rap fore-bearers they are also unknowingly paying homage to the influence of Jamaican music on American rap.
Das Racist’s “Fake Patois” speaks with a deep awareness of this tradition in rapping, but what may on the surface seem like an indictment of the “fake” nature of the adopted style is actually an example of what George Lipsitz called “strategic anti-essentialism” in Dangerous Crossroads. While critical of reckless appropriation of various ethnic musics by western whites, Lipstiz nevertheless sees this music as a way for individuals to express their identity through solidarity, sharing a respect for that music’s history as it is embedded in a framework of power. The song shows this respect through its knowledge, but also immediately calling out artists that have used the “fake patois,”—respected ones like KRS-One, but also “My man Snow,” a white Canadian performer of dancehall reggae. Snow is probably the quintessential example of the “fake patois,” as his 1993 break-out hit, “Informer” was for much of white America the first exposure to the sounds of dancehall reggae. Snow withstood attacks on his authenticity throughout his career and tried to shore it up through his incarceration narratives and associations with blacks of Caribbean descent.
Das Racist doesn’t limit their list to musicians, and their choices highlight the different ways patois is put to work. For example, they mention Miss Cleo of psychic phoneline fame, who claimed to be from Jamaica, but is an actress and playwright from Seattle. Through her patois the Miss Cleo character sold the authentic origins of her mystic powers. Das Racist seems to be suggesting that the use of the patois sound in songs is selling something as well, even as they use it to sell their own song.
Similarly, the lyric, “Even Jim Carrey fuck with the patois,” makes reference to the actor’s parody of Snow’s “Informer.” While “Imposter,” is clearly meant to call out Snow’s lack of ‘blackness,’ Carrey’s mocking “Day-O” and his characterization of dancehall lyrics as “gibberish” also underlines a disdain for the music form itself. While potentially problematic, Snow’s performance is clearly born of an earnest appreciation of dancehall reggae. The parody, on the other hand, despite its comedic intent, does not have the performer’s genuine affect to mitigate its buffoonish mimicry.
Das Racist’s song also reveals a degree of comedic intent. The use of autotune highlights the artificiality of the sung patois. Their straight delivery of ridiculous references (“Crunch like Nestle. . .Snipe like Wesley”) and their use of repetition to re-emphasize the absurdity of their performance is funny. They revel in the dumb fun of referencing Half-Baked—when Dave Chappelle, posing as a Jamaican, is asked what part of Jamaica he is from and he replies “right near the beach.” Das Racist’s demonstrated mix of absurdity and awareness destabilizes their position as a means to open up a field of possibilities. It does not set limits by associating authenticity with a singular origin, but rather to establish it as a connection with an ongoing tradition.
The song continues to question the stability of the authentic by calling out two singers with a “real” patois, Shabba Ranks and Cutty Ranks, for their past homophobic songs and comments. Das Racist sings, “Your M.O. Is ‘mo / Me say no thanks.” That “’mo” is short for “homo,” and that “no thanks”serves to distance them from the popular examples of male Jamaican artists whose homophobia has been linked with a hypermasculine ideal played out through violent fantasy—whether it’s Shabba’s defense of Buju Banton’s “Boom Bye Bye” or Cutty’s “Limb By Limb.” Their apologies attempted to connect their bias with their “culture,” trying to excuse their ideas in terms of how they authentically inform their problematic songs. In this lyric, Das Racist is implicitly rejecting homophobia as a litmus for authenticity, while playing with a homophobic term. In other words, for artists like Shabba and Cutty to defend homophobia in reference to a “realness” in their music is suggesting that bias against gays is a precondition for making “real” music.
For me, the broader question that emerges from this interrogation of “fake patois” is: to what degree can a variety of popular music sound choices (singing style, melodic influence, etc that are associated with a particular culture or nationality) be similarly destabilized or revealed as “fake”? The Beatles sang like fake Americans, imitating their favorite (mostly black) artists, and Green Day have sounded like fake Brits, identifying with some authenticating element found in the sound of English punks. What ground does this destabilization open up? What possibilities for connection does it provide and what framework can we use to discuss it when the results seem problematic?
Lipsitz writes, “In its most utopian moments, popular culture offers a promise of reconciliation to groups divided by power, opportunity and experience,” and Das Racist certainly seems to be doing their best to critically fulfill that promise. Their self-conscious undermining of their position and their willingness to simultaneously suggest that there may be something problematic with mimicking patois–while highlighting that so-called authentic identities are sutured together into a particular kind of sounded performance–articulates a bond through an identification, not a singular origin. In doing so, Das Racist suggest a network of identities bound by points of solidarity, making room for South Asia in the Black Atlantic by way of the Caribbean.
Osvaldo Oyola is a regular contributor to Sounding Out! and ABD in English at Binghamton University.