The forum’s inspiring research by scholars/practioners Wanda Alarcón, Yessica Garcia Hernandez, Marlen Rios-Hernandez, Susana Sepulveda, and Iris C. Viveros Avendaño, understands music in its local, translocal and transnational context; and insists upon open new scholarly imaginaries. . .
Current times require us to bridge intersectional, decolonial, and gender analysis. Music, and our relationship to it, has much to reveal about how power operates within a context of inequality. And it will teach us how to get through this moment. –MHP
Chicana punk is a Chicana feminist punk rock subculture within a subculture and a countercultural formation. Although ‘Chicana’ identity is typically thought of as a politicized Mexican-American woman shaped by Chicana/o politics, I recognize that there are varying participants that constitute this subculture, its scenes, and/or communities. Punk is in constant movement and formation, especially as its participants come in and out of the scene, contributing to and reshaping the subculture. The same can be said about Chicana punk.
Chicana/o and Latina/o studies cultural theorist Michelle Habell-Pallán notes in Loca Motion: The Travels of Chicana and Latina Popular Culture that punk is a “site of possibility” (150), a mode in which Chicanas and Latinas challenge the status quo and “disrupt fixed notions of Chicana identity framed by the dominant culture” (153). Thus, Chicana punk is constituted through different subjectivities, experiences, and imaginings (specifically Chicanisma, or Chicana feminist ideologies and consciousness formations rooted in the Chicana Feminist Movement) that continue to be pertinent for young women in punk today.
In this post, I explore an etymology of “core” and the relationship of this term to Chicanas and Latinas immersed in hardcore punk. I ask: How is “core” theorized as a conception of “home” within Chicana punk? Drawing from Chicana feminist theorist Gloria Anzaldúa’s notion of “making face, making soul” and the sound and performance practice of Los Angeles based Latina/o hardcore punk band ATRAKO, I frame core as home, while considering how a Chicana punk listening practice of hardcore emerges.
ATRAKO is Samahara (Vocals), Irvin (Guitar/vocals), Suzy (Bass), and Cindee (Drums). Although ATRAKO was made up of both Chicanas and non-Chicana Latina/os in 2012, their participation in Chicana punk spaces, events, and adoption of Chicana feminist ideologies help to constitute Chicana punk subcultures more broadly. ATRAKO illustrates this through their performance on Feburary 27, 2015 at Xicana Punk Night. This was to be one of their last shows before their split on July 5, 2015 at the Riot Grrrl Carnival annual musical fundraiser event held at The Smell, an all-ages-volunteers-run, do-it-yourself art and music space. Xicana punk night was a community fundraiser event for Nalgona Positivity Pride, “a Xicana-Brown [and] Indigenous project that focuses on intersectional body positivity, eating disorders awareness and cultural affirmation.” ATRAKO’s lyrics also address issues of gender, racial, and environmental violence; and resonate with Chicana feminist critiques. Moreover, they exemplify how Chicana subjectivities are reconfigured and ‘sounded out’ through hardcore.
Hardcore is a style of punk music and aesthetics that arose in the early 1980s in varying urban geographies including Southern and Northern California, Washington D.C. and New York City, with intensified musical characteristics that differ from the 1970s punk movement. Hardcore is characterized by its aggressive aesthetics typically depicted by its fast sonic tempos, short song lengths, and gritty confrontational vocals. Despite the queer Chicana/o influences on the sound of hardcore by punk artists such as Alice Bag and Kid Congo Powers, it has remained predominantly represented by white, heterosexual, masculine figures of middle class suburbia, epitomized by Keith Morris, Henry Rollins, and Ian MacKaye. But what happens when Chicanas and Latinas engage hardcore? By focusing on the relationships Chicanas and Latinas forge through hardcore, especially in relation to Chicana punk subcultural formations, I argue we can reconfigure hardcore narratives. It is also important to note that not all participants that engage Chicana punk necessarily identify as Chicanas. Yet non-Chicana/o identified Latina/os are entangled and implicated within Chicana punk subculture through their participation and co-production of Chicana punk spaces.
To theorize Chicanas’ and Latinas’ participation in hardcore, I consider an etymology of core–specifically its articulation as ‘heart’ and as ‘coring,’ that is, “the act of removing a core or of cutting from a central part.” These meanings help me to conceptualize core, and by extension, hardcore as home. As early hardcore punks began to distinguish themselves from 1970s punk, they formed new punk scenes, subjectivities, and sound. These new social formations offered new generations of punks another mode, or set of tools, to contest the status quo and articulate new social conditions, like for instance, Reaganism in the 1980s. But more than anything else, hardcore was the result of a new generation of punks creating a niche for themselves, that is, a “home,” within the broader punk movement. Thus, the formation of hardcore was an act of “coring” that produced a new site of belonging. I view these articulations of “core” further, alongside Anzaldúa’s framework and metaphor “making face, making soul” (i.e. making heart). This framework enables me to theorize hardcore as home in Chicana punk.
In Making Face/Making Soul, Anzaldúa writes, “‘making faces’ is my metaphor for constructing one’s identity” (xvi). In Light in the Dark/Luz en lo Oscuro, she extends this idea stating “The heart es un corazón con razón, with intelligence, passion, and purpose, a ‘mind-full’ heart with ears for listening, eyes for seeing, a mouth with tongue narrowing to a pen tip for speaking/writing” (153). Within Anzaldúa’s theorizations, “heart” is rendered a part of one’s conocimiento, a self-reflective awareness of how one is cultivating an identity and generating consciousness formations. But through this self-reflective process, one is also creating notions of home and belonging.
Through the notion of coring, self-reflective processes become about de-hearting, decentering and/or disrupting what is presumed to be foundational (i.e. what is central/core), in order to refashion. In other words, coring is a process of making anew. Hardcore demonstrates “coring” in its formation, as it emerged from the early punk movement yet reconfigured its notion of punk sound, style, and identity. In a way, punk ripped out its heart to start anew as hardcore. Similarly, Chicana punk has cored and reconfigured notions of punk and hardcore sound, style, and identity. For instance, ATRAKO offers a queer Chicana feminist representation that disavows dominant hardcore punk portrayals. They spit out lyrics in Spanish only, and use metaphorical language and visuals in their lyrics and album covers addressing gendered violence in relation to environmental abuse. Furthermore, while embodying hardcore’s “traditional” characteristics, ATRAKO dramatizes hardcore sound by performing a more melodic dissonance. The music compliments the lyrical narrations and arguably enacts a call-and-response to the sung lyrics posing its own sonic narration.
The song “Madre” (2014), which translates as “mother,” exemplfies this as the guitarist begins with a lamenting introductory verse, followed by thumping drums and a grito reminicent of a battle cry. In the first chorus Samahra blurts out:
ya es tiempo de entender
quien te dio la vida
es la muxer la encarnación
la esencia de la tierra
ya es tiempo de entender
quien te dio la vida
es la muxer quien tiene el poder. (Madre, 2014)
As Samahra is singing, the drums, guitar, and bass sound out a response to the chorus’s statements. This sonic accompaniment articulates a “coring” of hardcore music through the queer brown bodies animating this sonic experience, the exclusively Spanish lyrics and narrative, which centralize women and their relations to the natural world through the figure of mother, as well as a spiritual activism–what Anzaldúa called “a spirituality for social change” (323). In other words, the song presents all things that are not typically represented in American hardcore. ATRAKO tears up hardcore to make it anew and to speak to their experiences, politics, and identities, creating a “home” for themselves in hardcore.
In addition, Chicana punk reconfigures Chicana feminist politics, experiences, and subjectivities. Punk artists and bands such as ATRAKO articulate, or rather (re)articulate, Chicana feminist discourses through the platform of punk, and more specifically, hardcore. ATRAKO demonstrates a reconfiguration of Chicana feminisim through their sonic expression which shapes a listening practice of Chicana feminist theory and praxis through a “coring” of hardcore. As ATRAKO presents Chicana feminist discourse through non-traditional avenues and hardcore style, they bring visibility to Chicana feminist experiences and subjectivites within punk subcultures. Moreover, given the ethnic heterogeneity of the band, ATRAKO demonstrates how Chicana feminist politics is engaged by non-Chicana Latinas, particulatly punks, who help shape these politics just as much as they are impacted by them. ATRAKO’s hardcore sound reveals how Chicana and Latina punks engage and reconfigure Chicana feminist discourses, positing the political potentiality punk offers Chicana feminism. In considering the conceptual framework of making heart, or rather making ‘core,’ Chicana punk, as exemplified by ATRAKO, sounds out a process of deconstruction and reconstruction.
Additionally, these continuous processes of reconstruction in punk and more specifically Chicana punk, are made possible though the cultivation of practices and cultural productions of its active participants. For instance, ATRAKO’s sound stems from a variety of musical influences that might not necessarily be typically associated to or rendered Chicana or Chicana affiliated (such as metal, punk, and hardcore). Yet, their coring practices reconstruct hardcore as a Chicana genre. In addition, events such as Xicana Punk Night illustrate how Chicana punk subculture is constituted by varying participants who enact and identify with Chicana feminist politics in one way or another. ATRAKO’s participation at this show, as well as other non-Chicana Latina attendees, highlights how a Chicana punk space and genre is generated through a structure of feeling that extends across ethno-national identities. It might be suggested that the term “Latino punk” may best describe this structure of feeling; however, the fact that participants continue to specify the genre and spaces as “Chicana” or “Xicana” punk complicates such general descriptions.
The theoretical basis I have presented here is a stepping-stone for thinking about Chicana punk listening practices and what can be imagined through Chicana punk sound. Considering the etymology of “core” through the context of hardcore, I have argued that one way of imagining Chicana punk sound is through a reconfiguration and articulation of home. ATRAKO offers a new way to conceptualize how Chicana punk subculture and sound is constituted through varying Latina/o identities and non-Chicana subjectivities, and how it is also a site of home, belonging, and community for such participants, culminated through the act of listening. Listening is performative here, in the sense that it is a part of the “coring” process of hardcore, as Chicana feminist praxis is enacted through hardcore sound. The connection between “core” and listening practices in Chicana punk echoes a structure of feeling and political potentiality that emanates from the scene, music, and sound, exceeding their subcultural formations. Participants engage this structure of feeling, shaped by processes of making anew, that functions as a site of belonging that speaks to new Chicana subjectivities, politics, and experiences in hardcore.
Featured Image: ATRAKO live–via https://atrakopunx.bandcamp.com
Susana Sepulveda is a PhD Student in the Department of Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Arizona. Her developing dissertation project engages Chicana feminist studies, cultural studies, subcultural studies, and sound studies. She focuses on consciousness and subject formations in Chicana punk subcultures, emphasizing the importance of punk for understanding Chicana identities, subjectivities, consciousness, politics, and representations. Susana’s research has received support from the Barnard Library, the American Association of University Women (AAUW) of Arizona, the Women Studies Advisory Council (WOSAC), as well as numerous conference associations including the American Studies Association, the Cultural Studies Association, the National Women’s Studies Association, and Feminisms & Rhetorics. She earned her M.A. in Gender and Women’s Studies at UA, and her B.A. in Feminist Studies and Latin American and Latino Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. In addition to her scholarship, Susana is the founder and organizer of the annual music fundraiser event Riot Grrrl Carnival, a punk musician in the Los Angeles based punk band Las Sangronas y El Cabron, zinester, and creator of the zine series “La Sangrona.”
REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:
G.L.O.S.S., Hardcore, and the Righteous White Voice – Chris Chien
If La Llorona Was a Punk Rocker: Detonguing The Off-Key Caos and Screams of Alice Bag – Marlen Ríos-Hernández
Riot-Grrrl, Punk and the Tyranny of Technique – Tamra Lucid
On January 10th, 2017, A24 + AFROPUNK + Wordless Music + Spaceland presented Moonlight at the historic Million Dollar Theater in Downtown Los Angeles with the Wordless Music orchestra as live accompaniment. The oldest and once-largest theater in LA, The Million Dollar has a capacity of around 2000 people. Reviewers Shakira Holt and Chris Chien attended separately, but were brought together on Facebook via SO! editorial magic for a discussion on the sonic valences of the film and the entire event experience.
Shakira Holt is a Southern Cali-based high school lit teacher with a doctorate in English from the University of Southern California. She’s deeply interested in the intersections of race, religion, sexuality, class, and politics. This is her second piece for SO!; Her first, “‘I Love to Praise His Name’: Shouting as Feminine Disruption, Public Ecstasy, and Audio-Visual Pleasure,” was published five years ago. Moonlight was on her winter break to-do list in December 2016, but the SO! call for a reviewer of the LA showing intrigued and excited her. Jenkins’s film was taking critics and general audiences by storm and already meant so much to so many people. She approached the screening with a healthy respect and desire to do it justice, walking into the Million Dollar Theatre the night of January 10th completely “fresh,” with scarcely more than trailers and the film’s sponsored social media posts as background.
Chris Chien is an American Studies and Ethnicity graduate student at the University of Southern California, and is doing research on early Asian gay and lesbian organizing in North America, and these social movements’ place within contemporary transpacific, diasporic narratives of a liberalizing Asia, particularly Hong Kong. He has previously written on Sounding Out! about the sonic materiality of diasporic feeling through the relic of the cassette tape, and has an upcoming article on righteous white violence in the music of trans-hardcore band G.L.O.S.S. He hadn’t seen Moonlight or even a trailer before this screening, but heard from many people he respects that it was magical. When SO! ed-in-chief JS reached out after seeing him post about attending on FB, he immediately embraced the idea of a conversation with Shakira.
The special screening of Moonlight in Los Angeles was an enjoyable and important, though mixed, experience. The live music, engineered to perfection, formed a seamless auditory union with the film’s other music; the live orchestra was much more of a visual cue for those attendees who could see the pit than a sonic one. However, the exclusion from live performance of non-orchestral music, especially those genres hailing from African American and Latin American creative spheres, detracted from the event, setting it somewhat amiss. Certainly, the screening paid fitting tribute to classical musicians who make those lush swells and accents happen in film. In truth, however, the screening succeeded most where it would have in a typical screening—in the story itself and in its manifold deep and broad significances.
Chris Chien: Just to start off: this was an event. It was drizzling that day, which, let’s be real, felt a little magical in Los Angeles. Seeing the lineup that snaked around the block full of stylish folks dressed in their finest, freshest outfits made it seem like postmodern opera. I had never watched a film in the presence of so many other people but I can say that a collective viewing experience of that scale contributed to the filmic magic.
Shakira Holt: Agreed. Walking through that soft Los Angeles rain up to and then through the crowds made the screening feel momentous and special.
CC: Inside, it was thrilling to soak in the collective affect: ecstatic applause that filled the cavernous space as well as sniffles, sobs, and laughter during certain scenes but looking back, I would’ve preferred a more intimate viewing experience. The attendees around us came in late, talked, and checked their social media throughout the movie (yes, actually). Director Barry Jenkins did say during the Q&A afterwards that it was the largest viewing audience in North America, so perhaps a little chaos is to be expected! Of course, the major selling point of the event for my group was the live orchestral accompaniment to the film. We were up in the nose-bleeds, though, so we struggled to notice when the orchestra kicked in. We also couldn’t see the pit from our seats, and tended to just assume they were playing when there were strings in the film score. So to us, the orchestra was a bit of a non-event.
SH: I was down on the floor with the orchestra and could see the pit fairly well, but I completely get your point. Taken with a scene, I would often forget about the live music until movement in the pit would attract my eye, which was always slightly jarring in a really meaningful way. We forget about the work of folks whose labor provides the musical idiom of film we simply expect to be there. Frankly, it was always with a bit of guilt that I would be brought to remembrance of the presence of the musicians who were that critical contribution to the experience I was having.
CC: You’re so right! It’s interesting that to get the effect, there had to be a visual accompaniment, which speaks to both our ocular-centrism and how we’ve been conditioned to take (sound) labor in film for granted. I also recall Jenkins giving a shoutout to the sound engineer for rigging a custom sound system in the theater space in order for the film sound and orchestral sound to work together properly. He was really gracious in pointing out the unseen labor that you mentioned.
SH: So I’d like your thoughts on that opening scene which features extended Liberty City street dialect.
CC: KPCC’s John Horn, the host of the post-screening discussion with the cast and crew (Barry Jenkins, Nicholas Britell, Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes), asked a question about the “Liberty City dialect” in the opening scene of the film. His question assumed that “we” couldn’t understand the dialect of that scene, when clearly, his use of “we” assumes a lot about the audience—I’m sure there were folks in the crowd that could understand perfectly what was going on!
I wasn’t one of them, unfortunately, but I was drawn to the politics of that move. The refusal to translate, and the insistence on the authenticity of that voice, which necessarily separates a particular portion of the audience because of knowledge they don’t have, and often are comfortable having. Jenkins also talked at length about the specificity of time and place too. He insisted on representing Liberty City in all its particularities and refused the notion of Moonlight’s wide or universal intelligibility or relatability.
SH: Right. He was very clear about his determination to tell one specific story. Now, on one level, I see it, I get it, and I applaud it. However, on another level, I know that narratives are successful only to the degree that they mine a set of specifics to unearth truths that are universal. I think I’d be hard put to find anyone who would argue against the statement that even in the specificity which Jenkins rightly champions, Moonlight is deeply informed by a powerful universal quality.
CC: And both Ali and Sanders said during the discussion that they felt their embodiment of their respective characters was meant to be relatable to a wide audience. At the same time, Jenkins added that he hoped his method of narrative specificity would inspire other marginalized people to go out and do the same for their own stories, so perhaps he’s more concerned with universal methods than narrative details.
I’m only realizing now that the film just does so damn much, based on how the actors and director imagine their art reaching out to various audiences. One of the most immediate ways is through the use of diverse musical signposts. Others have commented on the gorgeous Barbara Lewis track “Hello Stranger” that Kevin plays on the diner jukebox, (and we could certainly spend all day jumping into the rabbit holes that all the disparate songs on the soundtrack take us to), but I wanted to ask if you had any thoughts on the use of the classic Mexican huapango song “Cucurrucucú Paloma.”
SH: Yes, I did. In a rather convoluted way, I connected that song to the character of Juan, so I’ll back my way into my thinking. The character of Juan is a very special character for me. I don’t think I’ve come across another like him; in fact, I see him as a new type: a trans-American father figure of the African diaspora. Juan is a Cuban native and thus functions as a reach-out to–a gesture towards, a signifier of—Cuba, of course, and, by extension, the rest of the Caribbean, which are American locations not typically identified by their Americanness. I see that Mexican track, “Cucurrucucu Paloma,” as an extension, not of Juan precisely, but of his function. This song is a reach-out to Mexico as another American location that is typically not acknowledged as American. In all truth, it is often imagined and imaged as distinctly anti-American. Through these reach-outs, both characterological and musical, this film initiates a conversation between the U.S. and other parts of the Americas which have been figuratively lopped off from their American identities simply because they fall outside of the United States, which is now almost singularly synonymous with America.
Another layer to this, of course, is that the film makes these reach-outs to different parts of the Americas in the specific context of New World blackness, which automatically invokes the slavery which once covered the Americas and produced the enduringly racist economic and social structures from which Juan, Black, and entire communities like Liberty City are largely excluded.
CC: The film is definitely able to telescope some of most intimate and specific concerns into the widest transnational frames. It’s also interesting that we took different things from Jenkins’ use of that song. I didn’t recognize it during the film, but there was a familiarity to the subdued arrangement. My friend mentioned after that it was the same version by the Brazilian composer and singer Caetano Veloso that Wong Kar-Wai uses in Happy Together (1997) (Jenkins has elsewhere talked at length about the influence of Wong), a film about the fraught relationship between two gay Hong Kong Chinese men living in Argentina.
For Wong, the song, mixed with the sound of crashing water from Iguazu Falls in Argentina, signals characters in the midst of a crumbling relationship reaching back to happier times. In Moonlight, it works in a parallel manner, as an affective and sonic cue that envelops Black and Kevin in the very moment of living a future happy memory: the act of reuniting as adults and cruising around their hometown. The sonic touchstone of “Cucurrucucú Paloma” injects a sense of cosmopolitanism in Happy Together, which opens with shots of the lovers’ passports, but does so referentially in Moonlight through its gesture to global cinema.
SH: Precisely. The reach-outs, as we’re calling them, add such depth and such complex meaning to this film in so many different directions. They are in large measure directly responsible for this film’s richness and importance and intellectual and emotional heft. The film redounds with the boundary-shattering cosmopolitanism you mention because it is obsessed with the ways in which entities and forms which don’t typically speak to one another can be placed in conversation with one another and thus enabled to reach conversance with one of another.
Cinematically, as you mention, this U.S. film, overarching in its Americanness, speaks directly to those of Wong Kar-wai musically, visually, thematically, narratively. This thread of conversation and conversance, operative in so many ways and on so many levels, cannot be overstated.
Characterologically, this happens in all of the film’s main relationships but most significantly between Black and Kevin, whose relationship is always characterized by both speech and silence, which serve as conduits for the conversance, or intimacy, they share.
CC: Yes! I love your reading of silence as a form of intimate conversance. It’s such a great way to think about how both people and cultures, putatively “worlds apart,” are in fact always talking to one another. I’ve also seen some writing on the prominent use of classical music, some of which suggested its “incongruousness” to the story, which I’m sure are based in part on problematic assumptions and associations.
SH: Right. There is a decidedly poignant conversation between this black, male, gay, urban narrative and orchestral music, which is a noteworthy choice. And yes, there are other musical genres represented in the film, but Jenkins seems especially to venerate orchestral music above the other genres. I mean, he did single it out for the live music screening, which necessarily raises its profile above the hip-hop, the R&B, the huapango.
In fact, in the wake of the special screening, those other genres, though important, might be interpreted as intervening on or interrupting the ongoing, and seemingly more important, conversation underway between the black, male, gay, urban narrative and orchestral music. In this context, we might see the prominence of the classical music as a rhetorical bid for the inclusion of this black, male, gay story in a distinctly white, Western cultural canon—not as a quest for whiteness per se but rather as a quest for the ontological normativity which whiteness has long enjoyed.
Perfectly supporting, perhaps even enabling, this conversation between this narrative and classical music is the very telling–quite political, really–application of the “chopped-and- screwed” mixing technique to the classical music in the score. That orchestral music, which is generally perceived as the music of the white elite classes–music, which, even when it is composed and produced in the US, still reads as distinctly European in origin and orientation–should be handled in the same way as the chopped-and-screwed masterpieces of people such as DJ Screw, OG Ron C, and Swishahouse, is more than just a little funny. It is deliciously subversive and, given the political moment, downright democratic and egalitarian.
In a piece for SO, Kemi Adeyemi discusses how the technique was created in Houston by the late DJ Screw in the latter years of the 20th century as a sonic representation of the “loosened, detached body-feeling” of the (black male) body under the influence of the substance lean. Adeyemi explains how lean, a mixture of codeine and sweet soda or juice, has become a chief coping mechanism especially of hip-hop-identified black males trapped in their unrelenting contention with aggressive racist assault that is usually directly responsible for their premature deaths via what Adeyemi identifies as the “discursive entanglements of race, labor, and drugs…in the neoliberal state.”
The “chop” part of chopping and screwing involves adding rhythmic breaks of repetition into a song, hearkening back to the turntable mixing of classic hip-hop. Playing off of Adeyemi’s analysis, I read this chopping as auditory representation of the inescapability of the pace of modern life, particularly the beat of life in a lethally racist context that will not be denied. The “screw” aspect involves the slowing of the song’s overall tempo, which transmogrifies the original track into a plea for more time just to be and for more space to be unmoored from all the dangers poised to assail the black body.
Dave Tomkins, in a piece for mtv.com, quotes composer Nicholas Britell who wonders at the seeming magic of chopping and screwing to “open up all these new harmonics and textures…[and also to] stretch and widen out” phrases and words, enabling the listener to “marinate in the words more.” Britell notes that chopping and screwing the orchestral music of Moonlight’s score produced similar effects, explaining, “The same thing happens for the music, when it goes into those lower-frequency ranges. The sound becomes a feeling.” Tomkins points out that the “feeling” is often one of dread or coming doom that is distinctly black, male and urban, which dovetails Adeyimi’s discussion of chopping and screwing’s origins and cultural context. The film, then, forces the Eurocentric elite into conversance with blackness that is also gay, urban, Southern, hip-hop-identified, and beset by a range of lethal pressures.
Moreover, the orchestral music, in its chopped-and-screwed state, becomes a critical conveyance of deep meaning of the narrative. In the January 10th post-screening discussion, Britell emphasized how chopping and screwing produced “those lower-frequency ranges” by dropping the pitches of each instrument so that each was made to sound like another, deeper, more resonant one. This sonic masking speaks directly to the film’s central issues of voice, true identity, and intimacy.
Discussion between director Barry Jenkins and composer Nicholas Britell discussing “chopping and screwing” the score of Moonlight (starts at 4:10).
CC: The selection and transformation of music in Moonlight is definitely doing something to challenge all sorts of normative assumptions. And not just cultural assumptions either but our understanding of the experience of music and film altogether. Jenkins said in a separate discussion that the insertion of silence/music reflects Chiron’s consciousness, what he calls the “cogno-dissonance” of being Chiron. The idea of turning inward in the face of trauma was important to Jenkins. He and the sound crew apparently used surround sound and played with mixing to unbalance the audience’s sonic perception as a way to simulate this experience of trauma, which I think may have been less apparent in this particular theater setup. The thoughtful play on the phenomenology of sound shows us that music, at least in the Moonlight universe, is the substance of life.
SH: Yes. Music in this film is of the utmost importance, making direct and often very strong comment on every aspect of modern life, even to the point of marking trauma by speaking the unspeakable. As we’ve discussed before, various musical genres are put to the task of translating, interpreting, expressing life and its traumas.
However, there is one genre that is quite noticeably absent from this film. The absolute avoidance of the black church and its music is striking and lands a deft blow to a site within African American culture that has been stridently anti-gay despite its own embrace of rich, abundant LGBTQ artistic and cultural contribution. The reproach is so fierce, the black church is not allowed to exist in the film even on the plane of the lamest obligatory church tropes with which we are all too familiar. There is no Sunday service, no booming, looming vestmented preacher, no hymn-humming, Scripture-quoting grandma—not even a religious crisis set to a chopped-and-screwed Mahalia Jackson or Clara Ward track. The closest we get to religion is the swimming lesson as Juan, the trans-American father of the African diaspora, baptizes Little in the waters of the Middle Passage and teaches him how to survive in them. The context here is much more cultural and historical than it is religious. This thoroughgoing circumvention of the black church and gospel music in a film that traffics in reach-outs connotes nothing less than obdurate, unreprievable censure.
CC: This avoidance is especially interesting in light of the long history of gospel influence in the artistry of founding Black queer artists like Little Richard and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. And the exclusion of the Black church and its sonic registers interacts provocatively with the foregrounding of hip hop in Black’s arc since that genre has been characterized in some quarters as homophobic (though that critique can be reductive and itself plagued by racialized stereotyping).
SH: And in some instances, it has been homophobic, though that seems to be changing with the times and their increasing embrace of both the black secularism and the openness towards diverse black sexualities which Moonlight celebrates.
CC: So, what do you think you will remember most about this night, and this singular performance?
SH: This night is one that I think I’ll always love and remember for many reasons–the moody weather, the dinner beforehand with my old friend, Dr. Ruth Blandon, the buzzing excitement of the crowds, our spotting the amazing Mahershala Ali seated just across the aisle from us, the tour de force film, the panel discussion afterwards–but perhaps one of the greatest reasons will be that sense of overwhelming connection I felt that night. It was simply electric. I don’t know about you, but I felt deeply connected to the city itself that night, to Los Angeles–especially old, historic, LA, the LA that my grandmother moved to as a five-year old back in 1940. My grandmother will be 82 this coming September, so she’s still very much here in the flesh, but I felt especially close to her, or really, to what I imagine was her five-year old self. Thinking about her precipitated a connection to that old theatre. I wondered how many times she had been there, or knowing her penchant for mischief, how many times she had snuck in.
And then, in a more diffuse but not less important way, I felt a kinship with all the strangers in the theatre, gathered there that evening for a single purpose. So it is fitting to me that an event celebrating a film which devotes itself so thoroughly to “reach-outs,” as we’ve called them here, to these critical, radical conversations in pursuit of conversance, would have also so generously provided me an opportunity to experience my own, very personal reach-outs and connections. What about you?
CC: Absolutely agreed. I don’t have as much of a connection to this city as you, being part of the dreaded transplant-class, but it speaks to the power of events such as this that I feel it more. There’s something to our exchange, too, that speaks not only to the importance of the film, but also, in this time of threatened funding to the arts, the critical nature of collective enjoyment and, indeed, production of daring new art by queer people of color.
The film reaches out and touches folks who don’t often get that experience and there’s no better example of this than the closing sequence. The film ends with Black talking to Kevin about the absence of intimate touch in his life and then a moment of the beautiful silent conversance that you pointed out earlier. The parting shot is of the most tender contact, over which we hear the sound of crashing waves. This visual-sonic collage suggests that the act of gay black men touching is elemental, almost tectonic—at once basal but also a force of nature; at once deeply individual (the actual final image is a dive inward, of young Chiron looking back at us from a darkened beach), but also an image of ceaseless, living tenderness, like the rolling waves on the Liberty City shores. I think the two thousand people in the room that night, both of us included, however differently we may all have perceived it, felt that touch.
Featured Image: Screen capture of Alex Hibbert as Little from Moonlight Trailer by JS
REWIND!…If you liked this post, you may also dig:
Sonic Connections: Listening for Indigenous Landscapes in Kent Mackenzie’s The Exiles–Laura Sachiko Fujikawa
Enacting Queer Listening, or When Anzaldúa Laughs–Maria Chaves Daza