In Spring 2017, I brought Houston-based playwright/performer Josh Inocéncio to my campus—the University of Houston—to perform his solo show Purple Eyes (for more on the event, see “Campus Organizing, or How I Use Theatre to Resist”). Purple Eyes is what Inocéncio calls an “ancestral auto/biographical” performance piece which explores his upbringing as a closeted gay Chicano living in the midst of the cultural heritage of machismo. Following a legacy of solo performance storytelling aesthetics seen in John Leguizamo’s Freak and Luis Alfaro’s Downtown, Inocéncio plays with memory to understand how the United States and Mexico have influenced his family and his own identity formation. Moreover, Purple Eyes explores the intersections of queerness and Chican@ identity alongside the legacy of machismo in his family (For more on the play, see “Queering Machismo from Michoacán to Montrose”).
During my Intro to LGBT Studies course following the performance, students discussed issues of representation and how many of them had never seen a queer Latin@/x play or performance, with some of them having never seen a live play. Many students picked up on how Purple Eyes foregrounds the intersections of race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality. While these discussions were indeed fruitful, what struck me most was how both classes harped on Inocéncio’s use of different linguistic registers. Put simply, what stayed with them was how the performance sounded. My students obsessed over the Spanish in the play, leading me to question why this group of students at a Hispanic-Serving Institution in a city that is over 40% Latin@ had so much trouble whenever Inocéncio spoke Spanish, or the sounds of Latinidad.
In what follows, I discuss how my students heard Purple Eyes. While the play is predominately in English, Inocéncio often code-switches into Spanish and German to more accurately embody particular family members. This blog adds to previous research by Dolores Inés Casillas, Sara V. Hinojos, Marci R. McMahon, Liana Silva, and Jennifer Stoever on the relationship between the Spanish language and non-Spanish speaking Americans. Indeed, my students racialized the Spanish in Purple Eyes while completely disregarding the German in the play. Why?
Drawing from sociology, racialization is the process of imposing racial identities to a social practice or group that might not have identified in such a way. Typically, the dominant group racializes the marginalized group; i.e. Latin@s in the U.S. become racialized by the mainstream. Even so, Latin@s are not a race, but are an ethnic group. Yet, I argue that non-Latin@ Americans view Latin@s through a lens of race which often becomes a sonic one, in which language becomes one of the most overt identity markers. In terms of Spanish, while many races and ethnicities speak the language, in the United States it is often viewed as a way to mark Spanish-speaking Latin@s as Other. In this way, language plays a fundamental role in shaping mainstream ideas about race. According to Dolores Inés Casillas, “For unfamiliar ears, the sounds of Spanish, the mariachi ensemble, and/or accented karaoke all work together to signal brownness, working-class,” and as Jennifer Stoever argues, the sounds of Latinidad indicate “illegality” in the U.S.
Drawing from the intersections of race, language, and racism, the relatively new academic field Raciolinguistics has emerged as a means to explain how people use language to shape their identity (For more, see Raciolinguistics: How Language Shapes Our Ideas About Race). Branching off from Raciolinguistics, I am most interested in exploring how the mainstream hears languages and racializes what they are hearing. The result is that Spanish is seen as Other, meaning that monolingual U.S. listeners hear Spanish-speakers as inherently different and a threat to a mainstream United States cultural and, more importantly, national identity.
Reflecting Inocéncio’s cultural multiplicity, Purple Eyes features English, Spanish, and German strategically used at different moments in the play to reflect the temporality, positionality, and relationship to language of each character that Inocéncio inhabits. While the chapter on his father is entirely in English, the final chapter focusing on Josh himself opens with a monologue in Spanish in which the performer narrates the events of the FIFA World Cup before finally announcing to the crowd that the epilogue is Inocéncio’s journey of young love and heartbreak on his journey of queer discovery. This moment features the longest extended use of Spanish in the play. The remaining Spanish is sprinkled in as Josh code-switches between the two languages for added cultural specificity.
While some of my Spanish-speaking students appreciated hearing a play that reflected their linguistic identities, monolingual English speakers in my class claimed that the Spanish confused them and made it difficult for them to follow certain parts of the play. After several students echoed these thoughts, a student from Mexico without full fluency in English comprehension told others about how her experiences were the exact opposite. She had trouble following some of the parts in English since she is still learning the language. I then pivoted the conversation to discuss how my English-dominant students approached the play with the assumption that English is the norm and a performance on a university campus should reflect this. Case in point: several told me that the show should have been subtitled.
But what was most telling was the following exchange. After several expressed confusion over the Spanish, one particularly woke student from Nigeria raised her hand and said: “I haven’t heard anyone say anything about the German in the play and not being able to follow the play during the German part.” She then noted how, in the United States, Spanish is racialized whereas German is not. In fact, most of the students did not even recall German in the play. Admittedly, the play features far more Spanish than German, but the scene in which Inocéncio speaks German occurs while dramatizing his Austrian grandmother’s abortion. As Inocéncio (as Oma) frantically repeated “Ich kann nicht” (I can’t), my students had no trouble; to use some Millennial vernacular, it was with Spanish that they “couldn’t even.” Arguably, this is the most intense scene in the performance and one that my students wanted to discuss. That the majority of them understood this scene without fully registering the German, coupled with their confusion over lines spoken in Spanish, speaks to not only how race and ethnicity impact how languages are heard in the United States. German is viewed as familiar and accessible whereas Spanish is immediately heard as foreign, i.e. undesirable, not welcome here.
As the Latin@ population continues to grow and the Spanish language becomes an increasingly present reality in U.S. everyday life, audiences must consider possibilities not grounded in an English-only narrative. My experiences with Purple Eyes are not unique. I have witnessed and heard many stories about audiences at mainstream theatre companies who have struggled whenever a play included Spanish. While I don’t claim to have the answers to address this across the nation, as an educator, I question what tools I can give my students to help prepare them for sonic experiences outside of their comfort zone and, specifically, how they become aware of subconscious racialization practices. What will they hear? And, more importantly, how will they react?
Featured Image: Still from Purple Eyes (Ojos Violetas), with permission from Josh Inocencio who retains copyright.
Trevor Boffone is a Houston-based scholar, educator, writer, dramaturg, producer, and the founder of the 50 Playwrights Project. He is a member of the National Steering Committee for the Latinx Theatre Commons and the Café Onda Editorial Board. Trevor has a Ph.D. in Latin@ Theatre and Literature from the Department of Hispanic Studies at the University of Houston where he holds a Graduate Certificate in Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality Studies. He holds an MA in Hispanic Studies from Villanova University and a BA in Spanish from Loyola University New Orleans. Trevor researches the intersections of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and community in Chican@ and Latin@ theater and performance. His first book project, Eastside Latinidad: Josefina López, Community, and Social Change in Los Angeles, examines the textual and performative strategies of contemporary Latin@ theatermakers based in Boyle Heights that use performance as a tool to expand notions of Latinidad and (re)build a community that reflects this diverse and fluid identity. He is co-editing (with Teresa Marrero and Chantal Rodriguez) an anthology of Latinx plays from the Los Angeles Theatre Center’s Encuentro 2014 (under contract with Northwestern University Press).
REWIND!…If you liked this post, you may also dig:
“Don’t Be Self-Conchas”: Listening to Mexican Styled Phonetics in Popular Culture*–Sara V. Hinojos and Dolores Inés Casillas
Deaf Latin@ Performance: Listening with the Third Ear–Trevor Boffone
If La Llorona Was a Punk Rocker: Detonguing The Off-Key Caos and Screams of Alice Bag–Marlen Rios-Hernández
slab god, Paul Wall’s latest project, surpasses many recent rap releases via its stripped down sound, minimalistic in a non-trendy, monastic sort of way. Sonically, slab god is solemn, thoughtful and surprisingly provocative, especially in the context of Wall’s entire discography (his early material with the Color Changin’ Click, for example, was much more lighthearted and playful). Wall professed, “it’s just something that I wanted to do differently. All the music in Hip Hop right now sounds the same and I wanted to do something that didn’t sound like what was coming out right now, so that’s why I came with this.” Unlike many of Wall’s projects based mostly on freestyles, Slab god took several years to produce.
As soon as Wall recorded “Swangin’ in the Rain,” the first song arranged for slab god back in 2010, he wanted to make the whole album sonically in line with the single: “music to put in the car and bump and ride to.”
SLAB= Slow, Loud, AND BANGIN’, see: Houston Car Culture
In 2012, Wall embarked on his second beginning by releasing No Sleep ‘Til Houston, his first mixtape as an independent artist again, after departing from his eight year relationship with Atlantic Records. For Wall, that was his opportunity to get back to his roots. Committed to this conviction, he disregarded his mainstream momentum in order to “make music not tainted with outside influence from the music industry.” So, pursuant to the title No Sleep ‘Til Houston, Wall followed this self-prescribed antidote until he reintroduced himself to the city where he started, Houston, Texas.
After Wall felt reconnected, he dropped #Checkseason in 2013. Like many of Wall’s projects, it was about getting money; Wall said, “it was meant to be like a motivation mixtape. When you are on your hustle you pop it in.” And in 2014, Wall dropped Po Up Poet, which was according to Wall, titled after “a nickname one of my boys gave me because I’m always talkin’ ‘bout drankin’, po-in’ up, and leanin’.” To Wall, “the lean culture has taken over globally. There’s Brazilian rappers talking about lean. There’s German rappers talking about lean.” [ed.’s note to Paul Wall: Sounding Out! has talked about lean. See Kemi Adeyemi’s “Straight Leanin’: Sounding Black Life at the Intersection of Hip-hop and Big Pharma” (Sept. 2015)]. As a response, Wall released Po Up Poet, “to claim something for Houston.”
I met up with the enterprising Paul Wall while he was in New York City promoting slab god and had the opportunity to “grill” Wall about his new slab sonics for Sounding Out!. In what follows, Wall explains the oral transmission of slab culture, the sonic tension between regionalism and globalism, and Houston Hip Hop. Wall explored some fascinating concepts, namely, how the stimuli for slab god consisted of a jambalaya of subtropical weather and hyper-local Houston folklore along with the pursuit of fun, money, and aesthetics. He also explains how his new sound makes clear that he is a full-on “slabagogue.”
Douglas Doneson: This album took you several years to make. You recorded “Swangin’ in the Rain” in 2010.
Paul Wall: When we did the song “Swangin’ in the Rain,” immediately, it was special to me. It is my favorite song that I have ever personally made.
Another thing is that there has never been a song about rain and slabs or anything screwed up related with rain. Sometimes when it rains the radio plays the rain mix, where all the songs have a rain theme. In L.A., I recorded “Swangin’ in the Rain,” [and] it rained, and of course it never rains in L.A. I just remember thinking, man it’s a blessing these artists don’t even realize because they get free radio play every time it rains. You know what I am saying? So I was like it would be dope if there was a rap song, especially like a Houston type of themed rap song having to do with rain because it rains all the time in Houston. So shit, you get lucky with a jamming song about rain in Houston, there is going to be a lot of radio play.
After I made the song, I was like man I am going to make a whole album like this. So I went to the studio and [it] went to a folder. I have a few different types of folders. I have one where it is songs about money, another folder where it is mostly songs about drank and syrup, and another where it is mostly songs about cars, because that is what I rap about the most, getting money, driving cars, jewelry, and lean. So those are my different folders.
When “Swangin’ in the Rain” came out, I wanted to make a whole album like that: music for the car, music to put in the car and bump and ride to. If you have a journey or you have to ride across town or ride home from work or wherever, this is something I’ll want to put in. It is riding music.
DD: Who are some of the featured artists?
PW: On slab god some of the features I got are definitely a lot of H-Town collaboration on there, starting off with my boy Dead End Red, Sosa Man, Le$, Devin the Dude, Curren$y, Burner, and Snoop Dogg.
DD: I was surprised to see DJ Chose on there. Tell me more about that collaboration.
PW: I met him a while back and I did a song with him before for one of his projects. You see the passion in him; he really looks at what he is doing as art. I ain’t going to lie; we all looked at it like it was a hustle. We didn’t look at it from an artistic aspect of music; we all looked at it like this is something we do for fun and we are going to go hustle it and make some money off of what we do for fun. But with DJ Chose, you could see the way he records; his style is artistic and a little different. I had wanted to work with him for a while. This is one of those things where you’ve got to get him on the right song. You get him on the right song and he’s going to kill it. That’s what he did.
DD: As far back as I can remember, even back in the Color Changin’ Click days, your rhymes have generally been lighthearted and playful, but slab god, especially your verse on “Crumble the Satellite” is confrontational. A line that stuck out to me the most is, “and just because your shirt say it, that don’t make you trill.” What’s going on here?
PW: Well, number one, I wanted to drop some bars, some quotables, where you’ve got to rewind it, [and ask] “what he say,” “he said what?” You know, some of them type of quotables. It took a little time because that’s not stuff you freestyle, that’s something you think about because it’s got to be said right and wording has to be right. It’s more work and I’m not scared of hard work. It’s more time in the studio perfecting things and getting it right.
I ain’t going to lie, I did my verse first, and I didn’t know where to take the song. I just knew the beat was jamming. When I heard the beat it kind of reminded me of “Still Tippin’” with the bass, the drums, and I always remember my boy T Farris telling me when we did “Still Tippin,’” “go in there and freestyle.” So I heard that in the back of my head and it sounded like “Still Tippin,’” so I went in there and did a little freestyle and I was talking about a bunch of random shit. My verse wasn’t a 12 or a 16 bar verse. It was like a 24 bar verse. Originally, it was going to be just me and I wasn’t even going to put a hook on it. I was going to leave it like a freestyle. But at the end when I said, “crumble the satellite,” I said you know what I’m going to call it that and then I sent it to Curren$y and Devin to jump on and both of them boys came right on with it.
DD: The title of your newest album is slab god. What is a slab god?
PW: I was going to call it Slab Life. I wanted to call it something slab related and I didn’t want to call it Slab King, because Lil’ Keke and Corey Blount are Slab Kings, so I didn’t want to say that like I was trying to take their throne. Someone gave me the nickname, they said, “you are the slab god.” I was like, you ain’t lying, I am. I done had over 20 slabs, so shit. I kept [god] with a lower case “g” because I didn’t want to be blasphemous. People are still like, “you are going to hell for that.” I’m like man, shit. I didn’t make nothing difficult. I’m not saying I’m the almighty God. I am also not saying I am the slab god. I am one of several slab gods. There are lots of other people in Houston who are slab gods. We are carrying on the culture, carrying on the torch for the slab. We are just trying to hold it down.
PW: It is a fluid list. It is always changing. New technologies come, [now] there are new Halo Oracle headlights you can get installed, but three years ago you couldn’t get that. Same with the Ghost Lights on the door; when you open the door up and the lights shine on the ground. They weren’t available two years ago. The checklist keeps getting bigger.
You’ve got to make it your own. That’s the other thing about a slab, is it’s your personal upgrade. There are definitely a few must haves like, you’ve got to have the Texan Wire Wheels Swangas, the ‘84s; there are several different sizes and variations. But you’ve got to have Swangas and you’ve got to have Vogue tires. If you don’t have Vogue tires and you just have regular black tires or something than nah, it’s no deal. You’ve got to have candy paint on it, music in the trunk, some people put tint on it, some people leave it without tint, and a front grill in the front—that’s a must.
On the older cars you put a hood ornament on it like a woman in the front or something. But on the newer cars you don’t really do that too much. We also put a fifth wheel on the back, which is just a spare tire or rim on the back, but you can’t use it, it’s not for practical purposes, it’s for decoration. We put hydraulic pumps on the fifth wheel and on the trunk, so when you hit the switch, the trunk opens up and you got neon lights showing in there with a word or phrase. You’ve [also] got [to have] speakers in there, and that’s pretty much it. Some slabs have convertible, some have a sun roof, and maybe the other thing about slabs is you’ve got to bang Screw. You’ve got to jam Screw in the slab.
DD: It seems like a lot of slab culture is passed down by oral tradition through the O.G.s and Slab Kings such as Corey Blount. In your song “Top Diine” off of slab god, you say, “Texas Ed taught me how to drive extra patient.” Who is Texas Ed?
PW: Man! He going to LOVE that you said that! [Laughs]. That’s my boy [who] I went to elementary, junior high, and high school with. “Top Diine,” I did with Happy Perez. He produced that track and we did that song four years ago or maybe five years ago, so that’s a nice one that we’ve been sitting on for a while [that] we’ve been waiting to put out. But, Texas Ed is my homeboy. We grew up together. He lived in a neighborhood next to mine. When I was in high school, he was one of the ones riding slab, so he was one of the forefathers before me who showed me how to do it.
DD: On your song “Forever Hustle” off of slab god, each line in your verse is like a new phrase ripe for Houston Hip Hop adoption. Drop a few of your favorite lines and talk to me about them.
PW: With that song I wanted to do a flip on word play. First of all, I thought that beat was just jamming so hard and I was like whatever I do to this, I better not fuck up this jamming beat. That’s really what I was thinking. But other than that it, the hook kept coming to me. I don’t know what I was going through at the time, but I heard Slim Thug say one time in a rap, “man I’m going to do this for 10 more years, I ain’t never falling off.” So, shit, that made me realize that as long as there are things I want, [and] as long as I want these things, then I’m going to have to hustle for them. There is no lottery ticket, where you never have to work again. As long as Cadillac makes cars, I’m going to want one. That’s my dream car. My dream car is whatever the newest Cadillac is. As long as they got Swangas and Vogues to put on them I’m going to be putting them on. You know what I’m saying? [Laughs].
I really wanted to do a word play- “I’ma sip mud, ‘til I’m in the mud,” “I’ma sip syrup, until I’m in the dirt.” The rhyme scheme wasn’t a normal bar for bar rhyme; I broke it up in halves and did different shit. “I’ma let the trunk wave, ‘til I’m in the grave,” and “I’ma bang Screw, ‘til I join him,” all that man, shit. It was just something different I wanted to do.
DD: Tell me about your special connection to Slab culture.
PW: For one, it is something that is ours in Houston. There are other places like Austin [and] we generally say Texas, but there’s a lot of places in Texas where they don’t ride slab. There’s not too many people in Dallas that ride slabs, maybe outside Austin, maybe San Antonio, and maybe a few other places; a couple of people in Madisonville, and some of the smaller towns, but as a whole, we try to say Texas, but it is really more of a Houston thing.
The greatest things to me in the world are the most local things. You know when you go to certain areas of the world and they got that cuisine? There is nothing like eating a cheese steak in Philly, there is nothing like going to Louisiana and eating some creole food or Cajun food, and there is nothing like going to Texas and eating some Tex-Mex. With these types of things the localized aspects of it are always the best. It’s something that we got that’s our own and the fact that the rest of the world don’t ride makes it even more special to me because if everyone else did I wouldn’t want to because it was just be something everybody else is doing. That sense of Texas pride is instilled in you when you come from Texas. Texas history from when you were in school, to “everything is bigger in Texas,” to all the companies that come from Texas that are so Texas proud like Blue Bell, and stuff like that. Everybody is so Texas proud. They just teach you that sense of pride in Texas, so our car culture is no different.
The Screw music is another thing that’s ours that came from Texas so, it’s part of that culture and goes right along with the slab culture, so it’s like something I take a lot of pride in because its comes from where we are from, so I want to represent it that much more, you know what I am saying?
Sometimes I might be riding somewhere and there might be somebody, like an old person who don’t like my car and they might give me a dirty look or something and that makes me smile because it reminds me that this is not for everybody and this is something that is just ours. Like my album, I know this album is jamming, so if somebody says they don’t like it then hey it might not be their type of music, or maybe they hate it, or maybe they listened to the wrong album, but I know it’s not because I ain’t do my thing right. Same thing with my car, I know my car looks good. I’m not saying that it’s the best. There are definitely things I should improve, but I know my shit is clean. So if someone else don’t like it then that just means it’s not for them, or they are just a hater, or whatever, but that’s cool because it’s for me, you know what I’m saying?
DD: In an interview you recently did with Devi Dev on KHOU Houston, Texas, you state, “the best artists ever in the world have always been true to their local culture, local style, and local sound.” However, a lot of music critics claim that one reason Houston artists have a hard time popping off is because they won’t let go of their close connection to their culture, isolating themselves from audiences outside of Texas. How has this so-called language barrier affected you?
PW: What the critics have said has been one of the main obstacles of Texas artists achieving super main stream success. We’ve achieved mainstream success but not to a level of a Jay-Z or where Lil’ Wayne is now. We got to where Lil’ Wayne was 10 years ago, you know what I’m saying? We all made it to that level. But none of us made it to the level where Lil’ Wayne is at now! Partially, they are right because [of] Texas culture, a lot of people don’t have any clue what we are talking about. Therefore, when they hear us talking about it, its gibberish or it’s another language, so people are ignorant to what we are saying, when really we might be dropping some hella-fied metaphors, and similes, and bars that are real lyrical. People don’t take it like that because they hear the accent; they hear the slang references, or the culture references that are different than their culture so they just look at it as being bullshit. For instances, if Tupac came out right now and was rapping Russian, I don’t think he’d be looked at as the greatest rapper ever because most people wouldn’t understand what he was saying. But since he spoke in English, we understood what he was saying. So our culture is like speaking Russian.
DD: I love how you brought that up. You transport the Houston sound to other regions. I’m fascinated with your trip to Poland to work with Kazcor. How’d that come about?
That’s dope you asked me about that. Kazcor will be excited about that. This is my dream job. Growing up in Houston, a lot of us never left the neighborhood. I have friends who still, have never left the North Side of town or the South Side of town. You don’t drive past the Galleria, the Galleria is as far as you go. [DD note: Gu raised his hand and indicated he rarely leaves his neighborhood. Everyone laughs] The first time he left the South Side is probably when we went out of town somewhere. There’s a lot of people like that so, that’s how we are brought up in Houston. We just stick to our own area and that’s it and the only reason we’d travel to the other side of town is to go to AstroWorld or something.
The Polish flag and the Texas flag are a lot similar. The only difference I think is the star. So I always wondered if my fan base in Poland was big because the flag is kind of similar. We find excuses or reasons to associate with people for whatever reason. So anyway, a guy I know grew up in Russia, but he moved to Chicago, then he moved to Milwaukee, and then when the recession hit, he and his family moved back to Poland. They went to their family business, which was the slaughter house business and he was just homesick one year for Christmas and was like man, “I am homesick and you were my favorite rapper, so I am going to bring you to Poland and do a concert.” He wasn’t a concert promoter or nothing like that. He wanted to have a dope concert and he was homesick. So I went out there and for me being able to travel around the world to different places like that is a once in a lifetime opportunity, especially when I’m going to these places and literally, I know people who haven’t crossed I-10 in their life; the only time they crossed I-10 was to go downtown to court.
Poland is dope. Some parts of Europe, they speak English, but in Poland, nobody spoke English. It was not an English speaking country; English wasn’t their first language, English wasn’t their second language, [and] English wasn’t their third language. But man, I was inspired by their Hip Hop scene over there. The first time I went, Kazcor, had beef at the time with another rapper, and he performed right before me, and his whole performance was like 50 Cent at Summer Jam, bringing out a blow up doll, doing skits, all related to his beef with another Polish rapper. I was like damn; the beef history of Hip Hop is traveling. I was inspired by that.
They had their own producers out there; rappers, rap scene, rap culture, and DJs and none of them were at all familiar with what was going on in America. It’s not like you know, when Texas is popping now its popping out there, if Atlanta music is popping, its popping out there. It’s not even like if it’s popping, a few months later it’ll be popping there. No man, whatever was going on in America, they didn’t even know who they were. When I would talk to people, I’d be like [have you] heard of this person or that person? They’d say, “nope.” I was inspired that they were completely out of touch with what was going on in Hip Hop in America but, yet and still Hip Hop in Poland was thriving, healthy, and they had their own award shows.
DD: Another example of you bringing the Houston sound to another region is you Screwed and Chopped the album Haunted Cities, by California based rock-rap group The Transplants. Whose idea was that?
PW: I met Skinhead Rob and Travis Barker in the Atlantic offices right when I signed to Atlantic. Of course I knew who Blink 182 was, but I met both of them and they were both cool as a fan. After that, I started researching more of their music and got familiar with it and it was dope.
Skinhead Rob was the one who was like, “man, why don’t you do a Screwed and Chopped version of this? There never been anything like this done before.” First of all, if something has never been done, I’m already like “yep, I’ll do it.” And it was also jamming, so we were on the same level. It was easy to do. So when Skinhead Rob put that play in motion, I was like, hell yes. I am proud of that one, man.
DD: On slab god you mention Jacka. I was wondering who that is and if you feel comfortable talking about him.
PW: For sure. He’s a rap artist from the Bay. He was in a group called the Mob Figaz. My boy Husalah is on the album too, he’s in the group Mob Figaz. Jacka got killed a few months ago, this year. He was a real close friend of mine. Before I had even met him, I was a big fan of him. Matter of fact, my boy Skinhead Rob turned me onto him. Skinhead Rob turned me on to a lot of underground music. He turned me on to Mac Dre, Andre Nikatina, the Mob Figaz, Jacka, Husalah, Mitchy Slick, and to a lot of West Coast artists.
But, Jacka, I still remember meeting him, when the All Star Game was in Houston, 2006 Super Bowl. I remember meeting Jacka; somebody in the club saying in the microphone, “shout out to the Jacka, Mob Figaz in the house.” I was like, “what? Where is he at? I got to meet him.” I just asked somebody who I knew from the Bay, I was like, “bro, is Jacka in here? Where he at?” He said that’s him over there. So I went up to him and was like, “bruh, I fuck with your shit.” Because I really did jam his music like that. I think he was taken back like, “man are you for real or are you just like saying this?” And I said, “nah, bruh.” I was quoting lyrics and quoting lines, dropping bars, like I really fuck with you. He was literally one of my favorite rappers, especially at the time and still now.
I get stuck in my personal zone where I only listen to a few artists, and he was one of them for sure. He just was a good person and that’s how we met [and] over the years we did other things, shows, songs, we got an album together, it hasn’t come out yet, but we’ve been working on that. We really have two albums together.
Something I always admired about him was how he preached gems in his music. In his music, he’ll drop a spiritual gem that will make you reevaluate your relationship with God and in his raps he would inspire people to be better. And one thing that I always loved about him, anytime I ever would be with Jacka he would always have me feeling like I could conquer the world. He was a hell of a pep talker and a lot of people I know who knew him say the same thing. That was my boy. He got killed [and] I just wanted to do a song for him, dedicate it for him, let the whole world know, and more specifically, put people in Texas on to him because he reminds me of a Z- Ro type of artist. Z- Ro will say God related things or spiritual things to help better yourself sometimes [and] you’ll be like damn this boy Z- Ro is deep. And that’s just kind of how the Jacka is.
DD: Is there anything else you want to share with us?
PW: slab god is in stores now. Houston Oiler is on the way.
Featured Image: Paul Wall, his slab, and the white cup, Photo by Mike Frost
Douglas Doneson writes about Houston rap music. He has written for The T.R.O.Y. Blog, Complex, Noisey, and God is in the TV.
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“This is Your Body on the Velvet Underground“–Jacob Smith
“The (Magic) Upper Room: Sonic Pleasure Politics in Southern Hip Hop“–Regina Bradley
Culture Jamming and Game Sound: An Interview with foci + loci–Skot Deeming and Martin Zeilinger
This September, Sounding Out! challenged a #flawless group of scholars and critics to give Beyoncé Knowles-Carter a close listen, re-examining the complex relationship between her audio and visuals and amplifying what goes unheard, even as her every move–whether on MTV or in that damn elevator–faces intense scrutiny. In the coming Mondays, you will hear from Priscilla Peña Ovalle (English, University of Oregon), Liana Silva (Editor, Women in Higher Education, Managing Editor, Sounding Out!), Regina Bradley (writer, scholar, and freelance researcher of African American Life and Culture), and Madison Moore (Research Associate in the Department of English at King’s College, University of London and author of How to Be Beyoncé). Today, we #wakeuplikethis with Kevin Allred (Women and Gender Studies, Rutgers), who refuses to let us fast forward past the understated and discomfiting video track “No Angel.”–Editor-in-Chief Jennifer Stoever
Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot to death by white police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri on August 9, 2014, for no apparent reason [see author’s note below]. While the fact that the death of unarmed black men (and women and trans people) at the hands of those in power is, sadly, no unique occurrence, as Melissa Harris-Perry – among countless others – have pointed out, Brown’s death has sparked nation-wide outrage and protests about police brutality, racial injustice, and severely decreased resources for impoverished communities.
In the New York Times’ reportage on Brown’s death, reporter John Eligon found it appropriate to characterize the teenager as “no angel,” as if any amount of alleged wrongdoing or possible character flaws on Brown’s part somehow justified his murder. Both Eligon and the Times were called out on social media and in traditional publications such as the Atlantic, and, while the press quickly apologized, the phrase’s familiar interpellation of victims – especially when they are people of color – as “no angels” lingered: a journalistic gaze born of sympathy with white authority that invalidates an individual’s life, tarnishes their memory, and even rewrites histories.
A powerful counter discourse challenges these racist narratives, however; one we can hear in the dissonant sonics of Beyoncé Knowles-Carter’s “No Angel,” a song that anticipates–and adamantly refutes–the racist notion that people who live, and quite possibly die as Michael Brown did, are anything but valuable.
Released almost 9 months before Brown was killed, Beyoncé’s “No Angel” cannot explicitly be called a response, but the ghosts of black men–living and dead, unfairly judged and mistreated–haunt the entire song. “No Angel” begins with a slow-burning 4-count beat; a low, synthesized, slightly off-kilter kick drum sets the tone for the song while an eerily-lilting high-pitched synthetic warbling noise simultaneously pours out of the speakers. The sound, reminiscent of feedback, drifts between pitches for four painstakingly slow measures before Beyoncé’s vocals kick in. When they do, what we hear is unusual. Her voice reverberates in a breathy, almost too-high falsetto that sounds nothing like the soaring powerhouse vocals of “Halo” or “I Was Here;” nothing like the precise, punctuated staccato of “Single Ladies” or “Run The World (Girls);” and certainly nothing like any of the other songs on BEYONCÉ. Sonic and musical contradictions abound. Neither the kind of impressive falsetto showing a wide range, nor necessarily immediately pleasing to the ear, Beyoncé’s voice is forced. . .and it haunts. Further, the vocals seem to cut the time signature of the song in half, effectively doubling its pace. Its tempo, cadence and vocal dynamics signal “No Angel” as a very different kind of Beyoncé song, one forwarding a sonic and political statement over radio-readiness.
Admittedly, “No Angel” was not initially one of my favorite songs on Beyoncé’s new album. In fact, when teaching this song, most of my students – even the hardcore Beyoncé fans – admit sheepishly to skipping through it because of a feeling of discomfort mainly related to Beyoncé’s vocal delivery. But after a few listens, something clicks: “No Angel” is not supposed to be pleasant, easy listening, but rather it jars and unsettles, just like the impact of news of another unarmed black person killed by white police. We are neither supposed to immediately identify with the audio of “No Angel,” nor possibly even like it.
All about dissonance, the song’s innovation fuels itself with inconsistency and contradiction. Vocally speaking, there are incongruities between the highs and the lows (the bass and the treble or the bass and the soprano), and the abrupt shifts in pacing—the slow pace both in opposition to and contained within the faster pace of the song. Even the stretched and breathy falsetto Beyoncé puts on for most of the song strikes a dissonant chord. Simply put, dissonance is tension, and neither the sonic nor the political tension ends here.
Here’s the thing: we know Beyoncé’s voice doesn’t usually sound like it does on “No Angel.” It is a conscious manipulation. And when coupled with the refrain:
You’re no angel either baby
her voice even becomes a kind of accusation. If Michael Brown is “no angel;” if Beyoncé herself, as the singer and also as a black woman in a racist U.S. society, is also initially “no angel” then, Eligon in the NYT as Brown’s accuser and, by extension, we as the listeners, become “no angel either.” What’s more, Beyoncé ‘s delivery is so deliberately overdone that she can be heard taking deep breaths in between each word of the chorus – something most singers would attempt to hide. Beyoncé chooses instead to push it to the forefront of the recording, audibly projecting each word toward the listener; in effect, slapping us in the face with each syllable, driving that message/accusation straight home.
However, while this forum may be dedicated to the sonic qualities of Beyoncé’s work, I don’t believe we can completely divorce the sonic from the visual for “No Angel,” or anything on BEYONCÉ, as it was specifically marketed and publicized as audio and visual album. BEYONCÉ visual music experience is nothing knew to Beyoncé herself. As far back as Dangerously In Love, Beyoncé forwarded her belief “that harmonies are colors” on an interlude toward the end of the album. For her latest album, she went so far as to strike an exclusive deal with iTunes in which the album was only available as a complete package for the first week of its release – singles could not be purchased separately nor without videos (and vice versa). It would be a disservice to ignore the visual depiction of “No Angel,” directed by @LilInternet and its synaesthetic fusion of sound and sight.
Just as the sonic qualities of the song provoke discomfort, unexpected imagery confronts the eye. First, the video is quite simply not about Beyoncé. She is rarely shown. Instead, Houston street culture and its struggles and poverty, represented largely through the faces of people of color, takes center stage. The video features mainly black men, although there are some images of black women throughout; a stark moment showing black women– raced and sexualized as “no angels”–working as strippers reveals an industry driven not by the agency/desire of the strippers themselves, but rather by the failures of capitalism that often offer few profitable choices to poor women other than sex work (as evidenced in the highlighting money shots/literal shots of money). But the video celebrates the lives of all theses alleged non-angels by showing small moments of happiness – a father smiling with his son; young boys flashing the peace sign with their fingers; sweet glances between lovers, community members proud to show off their jewelry and cars for the camera–redirecting the viewer’s attention to the structural inequality framing many of the images, provoking more voyeuristic viewers to reflect on their own responsibility and complicity in the systems that create poverty and segregation in the first place. Simultaneously, members of the Houston community–as well as diasporic Houstonians–can see themselves represented, even celebrated in the video, as opposed to the usual cinematic vilification and denigration of these very same bodies as “no angels.” Many Houston hop-hop legends appear in the video as well: Bun B, Scarface, Willie D, Z-Ro, and of course Beyoncé herself.
When the camera does linger on Beyoncé, it juxtaposes her iconic image–associated with the wealth and power of her celebrity status–with everyday people of her Houston hometown, including its most impoverished. Beyoncé, the residents, and the city itself stare the viewer down – actively challenging us to see both life and death, both living people and memorials to those, such as Michael Brown, who have died too young. The dissonant tension between life and death, encapsulated in Beyoncé’s voice and the video’s mirroring visuals: the high and the low; the rich and the poor; and the fraught gap in between.
Beyoncé tries to bridge this gap, both visually, through her self-representation in Houston, and sonically, particularly the moment when the refrain “you’re no angel, either. . .baby” finishes and she swings her voice down out of falsetto, into her more powerful full-out throat voice. It is assuredly no coincidence that during those moments she repeats the word “no,” over and over again. With that “no,” she objects to mainstream news vilification, anticipating and objecting to Michael Brown’s characterization as “no angel.” Her voice shifts from the high-falsetto – a sound serving the dual purpose of exposing the above dissonance AND acting as a caress to black communities in Houston, and Ferguson, and on and on – and moves into the heavy throat-voiced complaint and objection. “No, you will not treat my people this way. No, you will not treat ANY people this way,” her sound testifies. And, for viewers not represented in the video, that “you” is them–and she means that realization to feel uncomfortable. Beyoncé’s vocal dissonance and visual images force a confrontation with this accusation: it is not Michael Brown and those represented and celebrated in the video who are “no angels,” but the rest of us who fall short.
So, if we are “no angels, either” what do we do about it? Do we skip the track? Do we sit in front of our computer with the visual evidence of the failure of the American Dream staring us down as we groove to Beyoncé’s vocals? Do we turn off the news coverage in Ferguson, MO and pretend it’s not happening? Beyoncé’s voice provokes these uncomfortable questions and more: What does inequality sound like? What does hope and/or resolution/reparation sound like? Are they the same sound? This is a Beyoncé more in line with artists such as Nina Simone, who famously used her voice to express political critique, and not always in the most “pleasant” ways. “No Angel” is Beyoncé’s audio-visual “Strange Fruit,” positioning her alongside some of the most political and innovative protest singers of our time.
Author’s Note: At the time of Brown’s death, I had already been submitted this article. Due to the eerie coincidence between Beyoncé’s song “No Angel” and Eligon’s characterization of Michael Brown in the New York Times noted during the review process, I reworked the article to bring the two into conversation – which, in fact, they always were, even though I didn’t know it at the time.
Kevin Allred is a musician, activist, and teacher, currently at Rutgers University, where he teaches a signature course he created: “Politicizing Beyoncé.” He lives in Brooklyn, NY with his boyfriend and two elderly dachshunds. Join the Politicizing Beyoncé community at www.facebook.com/politicizingbeyonce. You can also find Kevin at www.kevinallredmusic.com and www.politicizingbeyonce.com.
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Welcome to week three of our February Forum on “Sonic Borders,” a collaboration with the IASPM-US blog in connection with this year’s IASPM-US conference on Liminality and Borderlands, held in Austin, Texas from February 28 to March 3, 2013. The “Sonic Borders” forum is a Virtual Roundtable cross-blog entity that will feature six Sounding Out! writers posting on Mondays through February 25, and four writers from IASPM-US, posting on Wednesdays starting February 6th and ending February 27th. For an encore of weeks one and two of the forum, click here. And now, get up and get ready for Marcus Boon, because there’s no parking on the dance floor at Sounding Out!–JSA
What borders remain when it comes to thinking about sound today? The field of sound studies has exploded in so many far-flung directions in the last few years. However, I argue that what is still somewhat off limits in the field is a consideration of the ontological status of sound: in other words, what it means to understand our own being in the world as a sonic phenomenon. Out of attempts to approach this sonic ontology, comes the realization that there are prohibitions, perhaps universal ones, on thinking about sound in this way, and from that emerges what I call the politics of vibration.
For those, such as myself, who have grown up as a part of sonic subcultures, it is not difficult to ponder sonic ontologies, for the simple reason that many of the most intense and powerful experiences we have had have occurred on dance floors or at clubs, as DJs, musicians, clubbers and/or listeners. I still remember the moment of first hearing Funkadelic’s “One Nation Under a Groove” blasting through the speakers at a Pop Group gig at the Electric Ballroom in London in the late 1970s: tumbling polyrhythms, polyphony, polysexuality, polyeverything. The feeling was: “wow, the universe contains this! And it contains other people who know what it is!” And contrary to the warnings of Slavoj Zizek concerning the “autistic jouissance” to be found at the limits of language, here we all were: high; the histories of Afrodiasporic displacement and solidarity echoing off the walls; our own implication in those histories illuminated; flickering between utopia and shame.
To quote Eric Satie: “When I was young they told me: You’ll see when you’re fifty. I’m fifty. I’ve seen nothing.” Me too. But I’ve heard a lot and I still experience that same power of sound in more or less the same way. If anything, sound’s power is more intense and surprising, each time it appears. Partly because I have learned how to be a social being through sound—how to love and be loved—enabling me to be more open to its impact than I was as an awkward youth. It makes me sad the way in Canada and elsewhere in el Norte people seem to lessen their involvement in the more intense aspects of sound cultures as they hit 30 or 40. It makes me sad that my four-year-old son rarely gets to hear a real sound system. I look for music at carnivals, weddings, community centers, on the beach. . .anywhere that those age barriers are ignored. Even as a DJ, I increasingly look for new or different kinds of publicness than that of club or dancehall.
Still, I do wonder. Was the movement into sonic subcultures that my generation (and those that followed) made–especially in the UK where music (and intoxicants, and immigration) were one of the few escape routes from the brutalities of Thatcherism–a mistake, precisely because we accepted as ontological, a structure that in fact was smoothly integrated into the operations of late capitalism? From the Factory and Paradise Garage to Berghain or Ministry of Sound. . . how will history look on the era of the mega-club?
Although one could argue that the Internet put an end to the idea of subculture, since it breaks down the locality and secrecy around which particular subcultural communities grow, in fact what seems to be happening is an acceleration in the generation and dissolution of subcultural formations. Hip-hop has adapted very quickly to the internet. The cassettes or CD-Rs sold out of DJ Screw’s record store in Houston, Texas, for example, morph into the world of online mixtapes, Youtube clips and Twitter battles; the gray market availability of samples sounds a lacuna of time, appearing for a day on a hosting site rather than flying below the radar in some particular geographical location. At the same time, sonic subcultures are expanding around the world. If Jacques Attali was right that sound is prophetic, then #idlenomore was announced by Ottawa Native dubstep crew A Tribe Called Red; Tahrir Square by Chaabi and North African hip-hop.
In his book 1989, Joshua Clover describes popular music in the period of neo-liberal globalization as the sound of ideological containment. It’s true that popular music is full of ontological claims about sound, of music that celebrates setting us free. . .but which fails to actually do so. A quote from Ray Brassier just came up on my Twitter feed:
If true, this would suggest that the intensity of moments of sonic jouissance does not necessarily mean anything in terms of ontology or the truth about what’s Real. It could be entirely delusional.
All of which might be true. We might come to realize that, to put it in Heideggerian terms, we’ve been thrown into this, and that maybe there’s not much difference between being thrown and being played. But somehow I think people on dancefloors already know this. The dramas of seduction, commitment and loss are at the core of disco, and many other kinds of popular music too. To quote the disco classic “Lost in Music” by Sister Sledge (later covered by post-punks The Fall):
We’re lost in music; caught in a trap.
No turning back. We’re lost in music.
We’re lost in music. Feel so alive.
I quit my nine-to-five. We’re lost in music.
Other examples are not lacking.
Perhaps sound and music border on a vibrational ontology, rather than being truly the core of one. This is why, as Michael Taussig, Jayna Brown, and others have suggested, they can be concerned with healing. Perhaps any practice that is meaningful — and sonic subcultures are certainly a matter of practice, as Julian Henriques indicates in his book Sonic Bodies — must necessarily work at the boundary of a space that it can never entirely inhabit as a practice, but which it can push one towards, and also receive one from. The anticipation, fear, desire before one goes out, for example, but also the blinding daylight, the sensation of cool air on exposed skin when one leaves a dancehall or a party.
Sound studies has not truly begin to explore these moments of exposure to and abjection from the vibrational core of sound. No doubt, Steve Goodman performed heroic work in Sonic Warfare—which sets out a proposal for a vibrational ontology in the midst of the commodification and militarization of the sonic —as have various explorations of the phenomenology of sound, such as those in Salome Voegelin‘s Listening to Noise and Silence. Yet in both cases, a full consideration of sonic ontology is in the end foreclosed. In Goodman’s case by Sonic Warfare’s emphasis on the militaristic applications of sound and vibration that are appropriated by sonic art and subcultures, which gives the violence of sound and vibration something like ontological status, while the aesthetic and cultural “uses” of the same have only a secondary, somewhat parasitic status. Conversely, in Voegelin’s work, an emphasis on the phenomenological rendering of the moment or event of sonic relationship forecloses a broader investigation of sonic ontology, because it “brackets” (to use Husserl‘s term) considerations beyond that of the subject-object relationship. In both cases, the sonic thing in itself, or indeed an ontology of vibration, risks being lost.
The recent turn to the speculative and to realism in philosophy has yet to make an impact in sound studies, despite the fact that the object of sound presents a provocative and very intimate entry point to that problematic. One of the more intriguing and improbable hypotheses emerging from the speculative realist movement is that of Quentin Meillassoux, who, in After Finitude, makes an argument that speculative knowledge of the real, unmediated by correlation with the Kantian subject, is possible through mathematics. It is roughly Alain Badiou‘s thesis in Being and Event too. As much as music is clearly about the contingency of sonic experience, there are strong arguments, going back to Pythagoras and beyond, about the relation of music to mathematics. Natural harmonics, rhythm: the elements of music express mathematical relationships. I am not interested in reducing music to a kind of vulgar scientism. But what if when we listen to music, we are exposed to a mathematical ontology and at the same time, the contingency of an unprecedented event? What if music is speculatively real? The word “speculative” here would refer not to philosophical propositions, but to the uncanny movement across subject/object individual/collective borders that the sonic matrix offers when “we” listen to “it.” Music not as the source of a speculative discourse on the real, but a speculative practice in which order and contingency meet.
Genres, styles form around places of cohesion, of transport, of passage. Not an instrumental mathematics (though it can be that too), but a speculative one that seeks out locations of collective affect, of resonance between micro and macro spheres. It matters little whether a specific knowledge of mathematics is invoked here, since many traditional musics find their way to structures that, according to scholars such Alain Danielou, already express mathematical relationships. And in this way, music and musicians can be said to participate in a sonic ontology.
Reluctantly perhaps. Ready or not. The question remains: how many institutional, historical, disciplinary, intellectual, social and political barriers remain in order that a cultural artifact like “One Nation Under a Groove” can be considered to have ontological significance? That is what I mean by the politics of vibration, and in terms of borders, it’s an important set of borders for researchers in sound studies to consider.
Much of my current work focuses on tropes of abjection in recent hip-hop and RnB music, notably that of Odd Future members Tyler, the Creator and Frank Ocean, artists like Azealia Banks, and a new generation of queer rap MCs emerging out of New York City such as Zebra Katz, Le1f and Cakes Da Killa. All of their work is bracingly obscene, funny, violent. . .a tumbling deck of cards of performances of gender, race, sexuality, class and more. Of course, cursing to a beat is nothing particularly new, but the way in which these artists multiply and collapse identities to an ever more minimal, humming beat perhaps is.
Katz’s remarkable “Ima Read” and its equally remarkable video is a case in point. Although Katz occasionally claims dryly that the song is “pro education,” the “reading” in question mostly refers to the drag queen balls of the Harlem ballroom/voguing scene of the late 1980s/early 1990s, where to read meant to verbally trash, i.e. abject, someone at a ball. The song is rapped by male and female voices, crisply denouncing a “bitch” who they are going to “take to college.” The violence of the song is ironic, as much a marker of queer community and Eros as of sexual difference, of racial and trans-racial solidarity as much as racialized violence. It is performed over a minimal beat with a humming, in-your-face bass drum that is the only recognizable tonal element.
Why make the leap to talking about ontology in discussing this admittedly awesome Youtube clip? Both Judith Butler’s famous elaboration of the performativity of gender, one of the bases of queer theory, and Katz and friends play with taboos concerning gender, sexuality and race in contemporary hip-hop emerge from that moment of the ballroom scene.
But what if Butler’s emphasis on performance actually covered up or abjected the ontological nature of experiments at the balls? Perhaps we need to rethink why the ultimate ball anthem is Cheryl Lynn’s “Got To Be Real.” What is sonic ‘realness’? In restoring the sonic dimension to the ballroom scene, and learning, from Zebra Katz, to face that constitutive abjection that Kristeva amongst others has pointed us towards, we can begin to feel for ourselves what a vibrational ontology is.
My thanks to Catherine Christer Hennix, Steven Shaviro, Kevin Rogers and Ken McLeod for conversations that helped me in thinking this through, and to Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman for luminous remix skills.
Featured Image by Flickr User depinniped
Marcus Boon is associate professor of English at York University in Toronto, and was a Fellow at Cornell’s Society for the Humanities in 2011-12. He is the author of The Road of Excess: A History of Writers on Drugs (Harvard UP, 2002) and In Praise of Copying (Harvard UP, 2010). He writes about contemporary music for The Wire. He is currently co-editing a book on Buddhism and critical theory, and a new edition of William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin’s The Third Mind. He is also working on a book entitled The Politics of Vibration.