World Listening Day 2015: Mendi + Keith Obadike’s “Blues Speaker [for James Baldwin]” (2015) #WLD2015
For World Listening Day 2015, Sounding Out! is honored to debut Mendi + Keith Obadike’s new documentary video about their recent large-scale urban installation at The New School’s University Center in New York City, “Blues Speaker [for James Baldwin]” (April 2015), dedicated to writer and public intellectual James Baldwin (1924-1987). –JS
As Mendi + Keith describe, “For Baldwin sound, music, and the blues in particular were sources of inspiration. The multichannel sound art work meditates on a politics of listening found at the intersection of Baldwinʼs language and the sound worlds invoked in his work. It uses the glass façade of The New School’s University Center as delivery system for the sound, turning the building itself into a speaker. The 12-hour piece is created using slow moving harmonies, melodicized language from Baldwinʼs writings, ambient recordings from the streets of Harlem, and an inventory of sounds contained in Baldwin’s story ‘Sonnyʼs Blues.'”
“‘Blues Speaker’ celebrates James Baldwin’s keen understanding of the social role of the blues. In his important 1957 short story ‘Sonny’s Blues,’ the writer argued that attending to the blues required the listener to confront and accept both literal noise (sounds beyond the listener’s understanding) and ideological noise (elements of the lives of those whose journeys have taken radically different paths), and seek beauty and understanding. If this relationship to listening is specific to the blues — a form that takes its shape in response to the survival of black people in general and to the decisions of its craftspeople — then musicians who seriously engage the blues must hold a knowledge deeply important for humanity that lives in the music and extends beyond that medium.”–Artists’ Statement, Vera List Center for Art and Politics, The Year of James Baldwin Exhibition.
Mendi + Keith Obadike make music, art and literature. Their works include The Sour Thunder, an Internet opera (Bridge Records), Crosstalk: American Speech Music (Bridge Records), Black.Net.Art Actions, a suite of new media artworks (published in re:skin on M.I.T Press), Big House / Disclosure, a 200 hour public sound installation (Northwestern University), Phonotype, a book & CD of media artworks, and a poetry collection, Armor and Flesh (Lotus Press). They have contributed sounds/music to projects by wide range of artists including loops for soul singer D’Angelo’s first album and a score for playwright Anna Deavere Smith at the Lincoln Center Institute. You can find out more about them at http://obadike.com.
Editor’s Note: Cars. Trains. Festivals. Music. Noise. Sound. The concept of the city is inherently aural. Cities are always thought of in opposition to quiet, to stillness. However, representing cities as noisy is not without its problems; in fact, one thing we have tried to do here at Sounding Out! is question what ideas of quiet and noise carry with them. They are social constructions, like race and gender. We cannot talk about urban sounds in a vacuum.
Cities are an essential part of the scholarly work I do; cities are also an intrinsic part of who I am. So when I started thinking about what I wanted February Forum #3 to be about, I felt it was time to edit a series on city sounds. This month Sounding Out! is thrilled to bring you a collection of posts that will change the way you hear cities. Regular writer Regina Bradley will discuss the dichotomy of urban and suburban in the context of sound (noisy versus quiet, respectively), guest writer Linda O’ Keeffe will take readers on a soundwalk of the Smithfield Horse Fair in Dublin, and CFP winner Lilian Radovac will share with us a photoessay on the sound installation Megaphóne in Montreal. The forum will prompt readers to think through ideas about urban space and sound. Are cities as noisy as we think they are? Why are cities described as “loud”? Who makes these decisions about nomenclature and why?
I’ll be kicking things off in the forum with a critical reading of sound in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, a play about African Americans in Chicago that still rings/stings true today. Take your headphones off and listen up because you might miss your train…—Liana M. Silva-Ford, Managing Editor
Lorraine Hansberry’s groundbreaking play A Raisin in the Sun starts with the Younger family waking up and getting ready for work. Ruth Younger wakes her son, Travis Younger, to get ready for school. Her husband, Walter Lee Younger, is as reluctant to get up as his son does. After a brief tense exchange with his wife, Walter Lee turns to the paper:
WALTER (…vaguely reads the front page) Set off another bomb yesterday.
RUTH (Maximum indifference) Did they? (Hansberry 26)
With those two lines, seemingly thrown in amid a marital spat, Hansberry evokes the last line of Langston Hughes’s poem “Harlem”: the aural image, in italics, Or does it explode? Inserting this poem as an epilogue, together with these lines in Act I, Scene 1, foreshadow the race riots of the 50s and 60s. However, these lines could easily fall out of earshot of the audience, or get swallowed up in the tension between Ruth and Walter Lee. In fact, the power of Hansberry’s play lies not just in her focus on the complexities of African Americans’ lives in then-contemporary Chicago, but that much of the action happens off stage, outside of the apartment. The audience must pay close attention to actually hear the story of urban racial violence. Sonic cues become an alternative to talking directly about the racialization of space.
Broadway audiences will soon get the chance to relive those opening lines when A Raisin in the Sun comes back to theaters later this year, starring Denzel Washington and Diahann Caroll. Contemporary audiences will encounter the Younger family’s struggles in the Southside of Chicago. In the play, Lena (Mama) Younger receives a life insurance check after the death of her husband, which lays bare the aspirations and desires of the characters: Lena wants a new home for the family, Beneatha wants to become a doctor, and Walter Lee wants to open up a business. Lena decides to use the money for a down payment of a home in a working-class neighborhood called Clybourne Park. (This neighborhood later inspired the 2010 Bruce Norris play Clybourne Park.) The only problem is that the neighborhood houses only whites. However, Broadway (and Hollywood for that matter) frequently stages revivals; why is A Raisin in the Sun still relevant?
Robert Nemiroff, in the Introduction to the 1994 Vintage Books edition of the play, recognizes that part of the allure of Raisin is that race relations are just as strained as they were in the mid-twentieth century. However, according to Nemiroff the play also holds sway because it holds a mirror up to very human emotions that go beyond race (13-14). James Baldwin, on the other hand, believes its staying power lies in how it showcased the raw fear African Americans felt (and still feel) in a racist society. He mentions in his Introduction to Hansberry’s autobiography To Be Young, Gifted and Black titled “Sweet Lorraine“,
In Raisin, black people recognized that house and all the people in it—the mother, the son, the daughter, and the daughter-in-law, and supplied the play with an interpretative element which could not be present in the minds of white people: a kind of claustrophobic terror, created not only by their knowledge of the house but by their knowledge of the streets. (xii)
Baldwin values the context that African American theatergoers brought to the play. For them, the play would already have a soundtrack of terror to go along with it, a soundtrack that African Americans knew by heart. White audiences, on the other hand, would not; they more than likely had to rely on what was on stage. Instead of staging the racial violence on Chicago’s streets, Hansberry renders audible the contours of racialized urban spaces through the people who become the focus of that violence.
Hansberry’s play was inspired by her family’s own situation in moving to Woodlawn in Chicago, which was for the most part white and middle class until the 1950s when racially restrictive zoning ordinances were struck done. In this neighborhood they faced violence and anger from their white neighbors, and were ultimately mandated to vacate the area. Carl Hansberry, father of the playwright, would take this case to the Supreme Court, which later overruled the injunction. George Lipsitz discusses the sociohistorical context surrounding A Raisin in the Sun in his book How Racism Takes Place (2011). He focuses on racialized spaces, and Chicago in Hansberry’s play is a prime example of that. Lipsitz points out, “[m]ore than any other single work of expressive culture, it called (and still calls) public attention to the indignities and oppressions of racialized space in the United States at mid-century” (Loc. 2747). For Lipsitz, A Raisin in the Sun didn’t just represent how race operated in urban spaces but took a stand against it. He states, “Hansberry’s play staged a symbolic rebuke of the white spatial imaginary” (Loc. 2883). In my reading of the textual references to talking, coupled with Hansberry’s choice to stage the play inside the apartment at all times, they call audiences to not just look but listen to how spatialized racism affected African Americans.
It is important to point out the sounds that theater-going audiences in the 1950s, many white and middle/upper-class, would not have heard in the play. A Raisin in the Sun evokes bombings (as seen in the quotation that started this piece), protests, and racial slurs. Although these sounds would be evocative and almost expected in a play about race and urban space in the 1950s, Hansberry stays away from those sounds. The only sounds Hansberry inserts in the stage directions are the sounds of music, children playing on the street, doorbells, and an alarm. In fact, the alarm clock opens the screenplay: “An alarm clock sounds from within the bedroom at right, and presently RUTH enters from that room and closes the door behind her” (24). The presence of alarms, in addition to the ring of the doorbell, is indicative of the busy city life: apartment buildings need bells to announce the arrival of someone downstairs, and alarms coax workers to get up. However, they are the only sonic indicators that Hansberry points out in her play. These sounds makes the apartment seem common, homely; they do not give way to what is happening in Southside Chicago—or in the United States, for that matter—at the moment.
The indications of the urban violence and racism outside of the Younger’s apartment door are in the interactions between the characters. However, it is not just in the events they describe but also in their speech. In that sense, when Hansberry inserts rhetorical cues such as “talking” and “listening,” they do not just refer to plot lines but also as a call for audience members to listen to what is being said (and what is not being said) in the play. For example, Hansberry introduces the three main characters in terms of their diction, their voices. Although this is to be expected in a playwright’s directions to the director, it is also an indication of the importance of speech in this play. Hansberry describes Walter Lee as “inclined to quick nervous movements and erratic speech habits–and always in his voice there is a quality of indictment.” Walter constantly vocalizes frustrations about being a black man in America—particularly his frustrations that his family second-guesses his aspirations. His voice carries the stern accusation against racism, but he seems unsure.
Beneatha and Lena also seem wary in their tone. When Hansberry describes Beneatha, she mentions
her speech is a mixture of many things; it is different from the rest of the family’s insofar as education has permeated her sense of English—and perhaps the Midwest rather than the South has finally—at last—won out in her inflection; but not altogether, because over all of it is a soft slurring and transformed use of vowels which is the decided influence of the Southside. (35)
Beneatha’s voice shows a confluence of speech patterns, but also a struggle. The description brings to mind respectability politics, which judge others based on their appearance or their speech patterns. When it comes to Lena, Hansberry describes her as such: “Her speech, on the other hand, is as careless as her carriage is precise—she is inclined to slur everything—but her voice is perhaps not so much quiet as simply soft.” (39). As with Beneatha, Mama’s voice signals a tension: carelessness versus precision. Her softness makes way for the hard truth often in the play. The tension in their voices point to the stress of experiencing racialized urban space. Walter Lee’s experience of racialized space comes from the point of view of a chauffeur for a white businessman, Lena experiences it as a Southern migrant (also, someone who fled the racial violence of the South only to find it again in the North), and Beneatha sees it in her interactions with black men: George Hutchinson, the upper class African American and Joseph Asagai, the international student from Nigeria.
The characters also reference talking in their dialogue. There always seems to be someone who does not want to listen or who feels they are not being heard. For example, when Walter Lee asks Lena about the insurance check that’s supposed to arrive, Lena chastises him: “Now don’t you start, child. It’s too early in the morning to be talking about money. It ain’t Christian” (Hansberry 41). Mama prevents Walter Lee from starting another conversation about his business ideas. In another scene, Walter Lee is annoyed that Ruth dislikes his late-night chat sessions with his buddies in their living room: “the things I want to talk about with my friends just couldn’t be important in your mind, could they?” (27). Later in the play, after Lena finds out Ruth put a down payment for an abortion, she tells Walter, “Son—I think you ought to talk to your wife…” to which he responds, “I can talk to her later.” I read these thwarted efforts to speak and be heard, as vocal metaphors for how African Americans were being ostracized and ghettoized in cities, especially when I consider that the play is set in Chicago.
However, the most pressing example of how talking is representative of racial relations in urban spaces is the visit of Karl Lindner, the representative of the Clybourne Park Improvement Association. Although violence had become an unsanctioned form of policing African Americans in urban space, in the play Hansberry opts instead to represent that violence through the presence—and the voice—of Karl Lindner. Initially, Lindner has the attention of Ruth and Walter Younger, and they listen to him talk about the virtues of Clybourne Parks’ neighbors. He gains their sympathy by invoking their sense of equality: “we don’t try hard enough in this world to understand the other fellow’s problem” (117). However, Lindner soon reveals his intentions: he comes bearing an offer to buy the house back from the Youngers to keep them from moving to the neighborhood. The Youngers show shock, to which Lindner replies, “I hope you’ll hear me all the way through” (118). His request is the request of the privileged though, and tries to make it seem like the Youngers are being unreasonable. In Lindner the audience hears the threat of white supremacy.
In A Raisin in the Sun, Hansberry focuses on rendering the city audible through the characters. Listening brings a deeper engagement with what is happening in the lives of the characters. Talking marks the bodies of the characters as sites of struggle, as microcosms for what is happening in Chicago in the 1950s—and what would happen later, as Lipsitz discusses in his book. In depictions of the city as noisy, it is often forgotten that part of that noise comes from human bodies, from people. Hansberry breaks through that noise by toning down the hum of the city on stage and focusing on making her audience listen to people. Perhaps a revival of A Raisin in the Sun can make a different generation of Americans tune in to how urban space continues to be racialized today.
Featured image: “VCRasin__DSC7414_Panorama” by Flickr user kabelphoto, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Liana Silva-Ford is co-founder and Managing Editor of Sounding Out!.
“Sound-politics in São Paulo, Brazil”-Leonardo Cardoso
Next month may mark the 30th Anniversary of the release of Michael Jackson’s Thriller, but chances are that if you are going to a Halloween dance party this year –or have since 1982–the musical highpoint of the night will still be when they play the title track. While thematically and sonically appropriate for Halloween getting down, there is more to the song’s sonic exploration of fear, both its “scary sounds” and the lyrical references to sound–the stolen scream, the creeping from behind–in the role of scaring an audience. There is startling disconnect between the scariness the song describes (and the stock sounds of classic Hollywood horror films it samples) and its ability to make something potentially scary palatable to a pop mainstream. It is not so much the elements of horror themselves that Michael Jackson’s song makes acceptable, but the potential scariness of sexuality for which it is a metaphor.
There is a long tradition of horror movies as metaphors for sexuality, in particular adolescent sexuality. Iconic examples include Michael Landon’s untrustworthy violent tendencies in 1957’s I Was a Teenage Werewolf (a film clearly being referenced in the opening to the John Landis-directed video for “Thriller”) or more recent incarnations like Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where sleeping with your boyfriend can literally lead to the loss of his soul.
While written by Rod Temperton, a white Briton, “Thriller,” as performed by Michael Jackson and produced by Quincy Jones, takes on the horrors of emergent sexuality via a racial lens. The pop song becomes self-referential, metaphorically about the very taboo thrills that have made young white people seek out black music, and their parents fear for the consequences. And while 1983 was a far cry from the 1950s-era outrage over white kids listening to and making their own “black” rock n’ roll, we also can’t forget that it was an era of a newly-launched MTV almost completely devoid of black artists (before hip hop’s explosion among young white males). It was largely Jackson’s popularity, in fact, that prompted MTV to finally include more black artists in its programming.
While references to race in “Thriller” may be oblique, the lyrical references to sex are fairly obvious. The menace of the sexual encounter is present throughout the song as it is in the genre—sex itself is thrilling, desirous despite its potential physical, emotional or even social dangers.The scariness of the late night creature feature on television becomes an excuse to “cuddle close together.” This comforting occurs “all through the night” and the singer “can thrill you more than any ghost would ever dare try” (and the use of “ghost” to make a distinction between it and the singer reverberates with racial meaning). There is a dichotomy present in the song, in that the speaker is both the comfort from the fear of violence, and potentially “the beast about to strike.” Of course “nothing can save you” from that beast, when it is also the figure you are counting on to save you to begin with.
Similarly, at the height of his popularity, Michael Jackson embodied a safe version of black male sexuality. (In contrast, consider Prince, who in the early 80s was putting it all out there with albums like Dirty Mind (1980) and Controversy (1981), and would not get anything remotely like Thriller success until 1984’s Purple Rain). Despite Jackson’s pelvic thrusts or his videos featuring dark alleyway dancing, he represented a form of sexless sexiness, as emasculated in the eyes of the public as his doll (as famously demonstrated by Eddie Murphy on SNL). Perhaps most indicative of that position was Jackson’s bringing Brooke Shields as his date to the 1984 Grammy awards, while having Emmanuel Lewis accompany them. At the time MJ’s Peter Pan latency meant that Brooke was safe from predation and Emmanuel Lewis was an innocent child-friend to the child-like entertainer. Michael Jackson’s persona would not be undone by the accusations of monstrous pedophiliac tendencies for another nine years. Like the Thriller-themed doll pictured, Jackson was safe for both children and mainstream America, despite his ability to be transformed into something ostensibly terrifying.
The song is arranged and produced by Jones to echo this dichotomy of safe danger. The bass groove is a creeping disco loop never arriving, but suggestive of the warning music of the slasher genre. The hook is introduced with a sudden and shocking chords on a synthesizer, like the title screen music of an old monster movie. The high-pitched synthesizer whine that warbles during Vincent Price’s rap emulates the sci-fi spookiness of a theremin. The availability of Vincent Price was a coup for Jones and Jackson—a well-known figure of the genre, but even by 1980s, he was already a throwback to an older and out-of-date notion of horror—known for his low-budget work in Roger Corman films like Masque of the Red Death (1964) and appearances on Scooby-Doo. Furthermore, the song is marked by stock creaks, footsteps, thunderclap, slamming doors, wind and howls, sounds that enter the realm of kitsch. The sound effects are so exaggerated and artificial as to undercut the sense of the scariness the song describes and potentially represents. It disguises the supposed threat of black sexuality so successfully that it is now performed at many a white American wedding.
The campiness of the song’s excess, both sonically and lyrically, takes the edge off the sexual desire—the very thrill the song is meant to evoke. Even John Landis’s vision of the song in his 14-minute long video that remixes the album track for cinematic effect, mixes its film-quality monster effects with a playfulness evident in Jackson’s multiple incarnations in the video. In the movie inside the dream inside the video narrative, he seems more concerned with teasing his date about how easily she is scared (and scaring her some more) than sleeping with her—but his mischievous grin signals an unspoken desire that comes alive in his date’s alternating desire and fear of him. The dangers of werewolves and zombies are always arrested to reveal a level of artifice, a gotcha moment for his date–and for the audience–that undermines any real risk.
The title track on what remains one of the best selling albums in history, “Thriller” evinces the ways in which Jackson and Jones figured out how to perfectly package and promote this tamed sexuality through their manipulation of sound. Sonically, the song (and other songs on Thriller such as “Beat It,” Billie Jean,” and “Wanna Be Startin’ Something”) evokes the tantalizingly forbidden and yet makes it accessible. The infectiousness of “Thriller”‘s groove, along with the appeal of pop hook sung by Jackson’s unmistakable voice, threatens possession of the listener but always allows for her to “change that number on your dial.” Part of what made this music broadly appealing (aside from Jackson’s obvious talent) is its success at dissembling, avoiding the backlash against the figure of “the black beast” rapist while subconsciously evoking the fear of it.
But there is a price to be paid for this sonic disconnection. There was certainly something horrific in Jackson’s physical transformation in the years that followed his Thriller apogee. Could it be that MJ’s desire to further improve on this formula led to what Richard Middleton describes in his book, Voicing the Popular (2006): a change from black child star to a “simulacrum of white middle-class woman” (128)? The extremity of such camp collapsed on itself, allowing that sexual anxiety to flow back through the disconnect his “safe” persona was supposed to shore up. Whatever fear that the sexless sexiness of Michael Jackson was actually a cover for queerness was brought to the fore because he stood accused of molesting little boys, allowing for a depiction of monstrousness that works across both gender and racial lines (and also highlighting a difference in attitude from when girls are the victims).
Jackson’s fall from grace may have come in the form of molestation accusations, but it still provides insight into the long history of fear of black America and black music that still lingers, proving that the mainstream’s love can turn to suspicion, even hate, in a heartbeat. Jackson’s broad appeal narrowed significantly when there was even a chance he wasn’t the sexless figure he appeared to be. As James Baldwin, whose writing and social criticism was always focused on the intersection of race and sexuality in America, wrote in 1985’s “Here Be Dragons” in regards to the hysteria of Michael Jackson’s popularity:
The Michael Jackson cacophony is fascinating in that it is not about Jackson at all. I hope he has the good sense to know it and the good fortune to snatch his life out of the jaws of a carnivorous success. He will not swiftly be forgiven for having turned so many tables, for he damn sure grabbed the brass ring, and the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo has nothing on Michael. . . Freaks are called freaks and are treated as they are treated–in the main, abominably–because they are human beings who cause to echo, deep within us, our most profound terrors and desires.
Osvaldo Oyola is a regular contributor to Sounding Out! and ABD in English at Binghamton University.