After a rockin’ (and seriously informative) series of podcasts from Leonard J. Paul–a three part “Inside the Game Sound Designer’s Studio”– our summer Sound and Pleasure series keeps giving you the good stuff, this week with SO! Regular Regina Bradley, making it rain. . . with some serious knowledge. What is the connection between sound and enjoyment, and how might black women’s sexual freedom be manifested via sound? –-JS, Editor-in-Chief
At fifteen, while in church service, I learned how to clutch pearls after hearing a woman moan during the altar call.
It was not a “Jesus done found and saved me” moan, either. A friend forgot to turn his cell phone off for church. As the church prayed, his phone started to ring. It was not the usual digital beeping or quick calypso ring tone. His phone calls were annotated by a woman’s moan during sex. She moaned from his cell phone to pick up the call. Each ring the woman moaned louder and adamant until she hollered like she was just saved. The kids in the back snickered as the ushers – including my grandmother – silently and angrily screened each pew to see who would pick up the phone. Quaking church ladies and my grandmother’s wide-eyed glare and heaving chest suggested they were about to pass out from embarrassment. Wringing their white gloved hands and grabbing at their pearl necklaces in angst, they looked everywhere but at each other: the back of a man’s head, the cross at the front of the church, the stain glass windows. A flush of warmth entered my cheeks and neck as I tried to contain my laughter and creeping embarrassment. I was embarrassed for my grandmother and the ladies of the church because I was aware of the unspoken rule that women – especially middle-class black women – don’t do sex. Being embarrassed of sex is proper and “ladylike.”
Ashon Crawley’s contextualization of the praise and worship in Black Pentecostal church as a sonic public zone is useful for using sound to complicate the church as an erotic space. Crawley’s suggestion of sound as a “vessel. . .for the exchange of ecstasy and ecstatics” collapses the more tangible notions of gender and respectability via physical displays –i.e. the quaking church ladies and clutching pearls – to recognize the overlap of moaning as a marker of sexual joy, moaning as a form of praise and worship, and moaning as an indicator of shame. Crawley’s observations bring to mind Helga Crane’s run in with the storefront church in Nella Larsen’s Quicksand. It is not the physical aspect of the church and its embodiment of respectability that draws Helga into the space. Rather, it is the singing, weeping, and moaning – the sonic elements of praise and worship–that parallel her own suppressed sexual frustrations. Her weeping is not necessarily a “come to Jesus moment” but rather a sonic release acknowledging her sexual agency.
Looking back at when this dude’s phone went off in church, I realize the bulk of discomfort in acknowledging sexual pleasure exists in how it sounds. The woman’s moan highlighted an alarming reality for the women at my church: pleasure was being presented outside of its respectable physical and sonic boundaries. I wish to identify what I call sonic pleasure politics to address new developments in 21st century southern gender identity politics. Sonic manifestations of pleasure point to a younger generation’s rearticulation of sexuality as a site of agency and self-definition in an otherwise suppressed southern experience.
As a southern black woman, I’ve always been struck by the anxiety sex and pleasure invoked in the women in my life. Sex and pleasure were never articulated in the same breath, as sex was a wifely duty and responsibility for procreation. Pleasure was never synonymous with sexual joy, even when I snatched whispers of conversation about sex from my elders. Moreover, I was taught that sex (or even an interest in it) would plummet my stock as a good girl and put me in the ranks of “fast-tailed” girls who used sex as a desperate plea for attention. Nope, sex – pleasurable sex – was always for men’s gratification. Aside from the abstinence manifesto – “just don’t do it, chile” – for women, enjoying sex was the devil’s work. Respectable sex was quiet, for marriage, and never discussed outside of the house.
Sound as a signifier of sexual pleasure is considered by many to be counterintuitive because of the history of sexual trauma associated with black women’s bodies in the south. Reading sex as a genesis point of southern black women’s pleasure and empowerment is a difficult undertaking. The forced silence of slave women’s rapes and other physical violence that took place on southern soil parallels the silence that is deemed to be necessary for survival in a racist society. Further, the far-reaching residual effects of black women’s inferred lacking virtue lurk in how black folks navigate their southern experience and identities. Conservative attitudes towards sex in the southern black community are no doubt associated with the constructed attempts to humanize and validate blacks outside of hypersexual scripted blackness.
However, the sonic dimension of sex and pleasure in the south goes largely without analysis even though sound is a primary space in which recognition of sexual and nonsexual pleasure takes place. Consider blues women and, more recently, women in [southern] hip hop culture. The sounds of women’s giggles and moans as representative of sexual pleasure in bass music and the heavy use of moaning in the work of Trina, Jacki-O, Khia, Erykah Badu, Beyoncé, and Missy Elliott points to a need to recognize sound as a reservoir of pleasure, raunchiness, and sexual work—what I call “sonic pleasure politics.”
Studies of sonic pleasure including those of Robin James contextualize pleasure via the technical production of sound to induce a particular set of cultural and visceral responses. However, I ground my theorization of sonic pleasure politics in the growing body of scholarship offered by the “Pleasure Ninjas” collective consisting of Joan Morgan, Brittney Cooper, Treva Lindsey, Kaila Story, Yaba Blay, and Esther Armah. They utilize pleasure as a site of healing and reclamation of black women’s identities. Morgan’s interrogation of pleasure as a form of survival, for example, is especially useful in thinking about how southern women’s sexuality stems from the trauma of the transatlantic slave trade. She suggests pleasure’s palpability as an alternative space to reclaim slaves’ humanity. The Pleasure Ninjas’ construction of pleasure lends credence to my theorization sonic pleasure politics as a space for mediating the historical implications of abusive sexual power and the use of sexual pleasure as a form of resistance in the south.
Situating women’s pleasure in southern hip hop is messy as it reflects both men’s investment in women as objects of pleasure – i.e. bass music – and women’s subversion of this expectation of their sexuality a way to express themselves. For example, Lil Wayne’s lyrical affirmation of his sexual prowess via cunnilingus in songs like “Pussy Monster,” “She Will,” and “Lollipop” parallels singer Joi’s demonstration of pleasure as a form of sexual consent via the use of (presumably her) moans and sounds of cunnilingus on her popular song “Lick.” Sonic pleasure politics become a workspace for bridging the south’s historical construction of [black] women’s sexuality-as-respectability and the recent, more fluid form of younger women’s embrace of sex-as-empowerment heard in southern popular culture.
Sonic Pleasure Politics and Strip Club Culture
A primary space for teasing out the multi-layered significance of sounds and sexuality in southern hip hop is the strip club. The production of sonic and visual representations of strip clubs are inextricably linked: bass heavy musical tracks keep time with the “clapping cheeks” of exotic dancers. Further, the loudness of the strip club denotes patrons’ attempts to drown out the world while pivoting off of the fantasy of sexy women dancing, moaning, and sexually gesturing for their entertainment. The dominance of strip clubs in southern hip hop contribute to the erotic map(s) of a younger generation of southern black women. My contextualization of strip clubs as a cartographic point of interest pivots off of Kaila Story’s description of erotic maps as an entry point for recognizing black women’s sexual agency. Erotic maps are the touchstones through which people address sexual pleasure. Story uses black women’s social-historical narratives to map out black women’s use of sexuality as a measure of self-definition. These maps are complex as they are intertwined with historical-cultural biases and cultural preferences frequently outside of black women’s experiences.
Strip club anthems, like Memphis rapper Juicy J’s “Bandz a Make Her Dance,” riff on the sonic and physical components of strip club culture. The bass kicks complement what sounds like clapping hands, a signifier of strippers’ clapping butts. Juicy J talks at length about his love of the strip club, distinguishing between “real” and fake strip clubs by the amount of nakedness and strippers wrangling for high-paying patrons’ bands of money. The snapping sound of rubber bands holding wads of cash together authenticates the duality of the women’s sexual posturing as physically pleasurable for men and profitable – economically pleasurable – for women. “Bandz a Make Her Dance” is grounded in the appeal of strip clubs as spaces of empowerment for black men. From this perspective, the clapping heard across the track could also signify the snapping of rubber bands against money to sonically signify men’s power as a strip club patron. Yet the physical and sonic presence of black women’s bodies – i.e. grunting as they maneuver and climb the dancing pole – also makes strip club culture a useful space to pivot southernness and sonic pleasure.
An example of establishing black women’s sonic pleasure narratives in strip clubs is singer Rihanna’s panning of “Bandz a Make Her Dance” titled “Pour It Up.” Although Rihanna is a pop singer from the “Global” South, she sonically signifies if not subverts southern hip hop gender politics via sampling the instrumental from Juicy J’s record. The majority of “Pour It Up’s” instrumental accompaniment is a subdued if not washed out sample of “Bandz a Maker Dance” that helps highlight Rihanna’s voice. The clarity of Rihanna’s voice “garbles” the accompaniment in the sense it is background noise to her narrative of enjoying herself and taking pleasure in the bodies of other women present in the club. The accompaniment serves as a brief nod to Juicy J’s initial intentions of crafting the strip club as a sexual space but ultimately uses the track as a testament to her own pleasure narrative.
In particular, Rihanna’s sing-song holler before the chorus “All I see is signs…all I see is dollar signs,” points to a subversion of the hypermasculinity in strip club culture to establish her own pleasure in a similar space. Parallel to Juicy J’s indulging of exotic dancers via throwing bands of money, Rihanna enjoys herself at the strip club using other people’s money:
Strip clubs and dolla’ bills (Still got mo’ money)
Patron shots can I get a refill (Still got mo’ money)
Strippers going up and down that pole (Still got mo’ money)
4 o’clock and we ain’t going home (Still got mo’ money)
Bands make your girl go down (Still got mo’ money)
Lot more where that came from (Still got mo’ money)
In particular, Rihanna’s verse not only demonstrates an alternative viewpoint of black women’s bodies in the strip club but destabilizes the idea of the strip club – and intercedes on the understanding of southern hip hop – as a heternormative hypermasculine space. The line “bands make your girl go down” alludes to not only a possible sexual encounter by Rihanna or for the girl in question but doubly signifies upon the potential for pleasure via the strip club culture for women and the hypersexuality of Juicy J’s track. “Pour it Up” reflects the messiness of [southern] hip hop gender politics because it builds upon the reputation of the strip club as a site for men’s pleasure to excavate women’s dancing as pleasurable for their own purposes. In addition to Rihanna’s sonic signifying of strip club culture, the “Pour It Up” reveres pole dancing as an art form rather than an exploitative practice. Rihanna’s pleasure in watching the dancers perform parallels the exertion of joy – and consent – that the dancers exhibit in their movement.
Trekking back to the sexy moaning phone in church, the sonic cue of sexual pleasure and joy conflicted with the gender norms associated with southern black women’s identities. Consideration of sonic pleasure narratives stirs discussion of the unarticulated experiences of southern black womanhood that may be overlooked in favor or a larger, more conservative, and familiar narrative of sex as tool of victimization. Sonic pleasure politics makes room to remap the contemporary southern social-cultural landscape as a complex yet living space of cultural production and sexual freedom.
Regina Bradley recently completed her PhD at Florida State University in African American Literature. Her dissertation is titled “Race to Post: White Hegemonic Capitalism and Black Empowerment in 21st Century Black Popular Culture and Literature.” She is a regular writer for Sounding Out!
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Managing Editor’s note: This post is the first in a three-part Sounding Out! series on deafness, Sound Studies, and Deaf Studies during February 2012.–LMS
Growing up I attended many religious services. As an adult I attend church services less often, but it still stands out to me that sound is an essential part of the traditional Christian religious service. Participation depends upon listening, responding, and singing. If the service (or mass, as I knew it growing up in the Catholic faith) reminds us we are a community of people with common religious beliefs, our participation in the rituals is a manifestation—a ratification if you will—of our belonging to that community. (Last month David B. Greenberg talked in our podcast series about how sound—specifically listening to religious services while on the road—allows Christian truck drivers to feel like they are a part of a community of faith.) In addition to singing and responding, there are several sound metaphors that imbue the experience of being a churchgoer: the references to the Word of God, discussions of how God will listen to our prayers, the insistence that we need to listen to what God was trying to tell us, even a parent’s admonishment that one sit still and be quiet while the preacher talks…in sum, to be a practicing Christian requires a lot of listening.
However, in Deaf culture (defined by music researcher Alice Ann Darrow in her article “The Role of Music in Deaf Culture: Implications for Music Educators” as “composed primarily of congenitally deaf adults who communicate through sign language rather than speech” but is not limited to them) this takes another shape. When I visited the Deaf International Community Church, located in Olathe, Kansas, I realized that deafness complicates what it means to listen, especially in terms of religious services.
The Deaf International Community Church (DICC) has been holding services in Olathe since 2010, according to journalist Dawn Bormann from Olathe News. They emerged from a deaf ministry at a local Baptist church, but are nondenominational. At the moment the DICC holds services at the Center of Grace, a rented space. The services are open to the deaf, the hearing impaired, and those who hear; however, the services are geared toward the deaf community.
As I walked into the Center of Grace in late January, I was surprised to be welcomed by sound. I heard and saw people talking and signing—sometimes at once. Music played loudly from within the temple, and parishioners milled about. I was not sure if I should walk in and not talk to anyone or if I should just act casual. I suddenly felt very subconscious about my sense of hearing. I found an empty pew toward the back—after all, I would be taking notes and didn’t want to interrupt—and sat there, observing my surroundings. Shortly after, Pastor Debbie Buchholz, one of the spiritual leaders of the DICC, walked over to me and introduced herself, putting me at ease.
When the service started, the same woman who had just spoken to me stood in front of the congregation, signing her words. In front of the crowd a voice interpreter spoke for Pastor Debbie. The effect was unexpected: the hands gave life to words, to sounds, to language while the disembodied (from my angle) female voice translated into sound what Pastor Debbie signed to the crowd. It took me a while to get used to the new sound of the pastor. I had only spoken briefly to Pastor Debbie, yet it seemed surreal to hear another voice speaking for her.
I meditated upon the fact that language is conceived in terms of the arbitrary relationship between signs and sounds. A letter sounds a certain way. Put letters together and you put sounds together. Letters (and their sounds) make words (a compilation of sounds) that designate an object. In this sense, sound is closely connected to making sense of the world. Even though we can create sounds with objects, our bodies are constantly creating sounds as well. The sounds of words come from our lungs out through our mouths and to our ears as they designate people, places, things, and ideas.
At the DICC service, sound—something that we conceive of as naturally emanating from bodies—was disconnected from language. In the Deaf culture language is transformed into hand gestures. Swinging a finger, shaking a hand, pushing down a palm, these small gestures stand in for sound— or stand apart from sound. Even though for me, growing up Catholic, participation came in the guise of listening to the priest, singing along with the congregation, and repeating the prayers, here participation came through hands. They sang with their hands, they prayed through their hands. Being in the DICC service reminded me of how natural and normal we take sound to be. In that space, I was suddenly very conscious of the sound of my voice, and of sound’s relationship to language.
This brings me to PhD student and Sound Studies scholar Steph Ceraso’s HASTAC blog post on listening with your whole body. In her post she uses an interview with percussionist Evelyn Glennie as a way to reflect upon listening practices and the ability to listen with more than one’s ears. Evelyn Glennie, according to Ceraso, engages in a restrictive sound diet where she sometimes, voluntarily, eliminates sound from her environment in order to become more aware to sound. Ceraso’s words on multimodal listening resonate with me, and put my visit to the DICC in perspective. The DICC service showed how deafness can make sound studies scholars reflect upon the role of sound in our society—and more importantly, how we listen and communicate.
Also, Ceraso’s ideas about multimodal listening make me think about what other ways the deaf congregation at the church listens. If listening is a form of spiritual/religious participation, multimodal listening accounts for how the parishioners participate in the service. The body, including the eyes, become a gateway into absorbing the message (the Word of God) and in that way demonstrate alternate ways of listening.
For this spiritual community, the need to worship in their own language brings them together, but so does the Deaf culture. During the service they prayed together for an end to discrimination against deaf people and hoped that God would help those newly born in deafness. As I prayed with them, I realized that the congregation comes to DICC not just for religious guidance but also for affirmation of their humanity and their culture. The space of the church is a place to recharge spiritually but also become socially empowered.
Liana M. Silva is co-founder and Managing Editor of Sounding Out! She is also a PhD candidate at Binghamton University.