Tag Archive | The Sonic Color-line

Can’t Nobody Tell Me Nothin: Respectability and The Produced Voice in Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road”

It’s been ten weeks now that we’ve all been kicking back in our Wranglers. allowing Lil Nas X’s infectious twang in “Old Town Road” to shower us in yeehaw goodness from its perch atop the Billboard Hot 100. Entrenched as it is on the pop chart, though, “Old Town Road”’s relationship to Billboard got off to a shaky start, first landing on the Hot Country Songs list only to be removed when the publication determined the hit “does not embrace enough elements of today’s country music to chart in its current version.” There’s a lot to unpack in a statement like that, and folks have been unpacking it quite consistently, especially in relation to notions of genre and race (in addition to Matthew Morrison’s recommended reads, I’d add Karl Hagstrom-Miller’s Segregating Sound, which traces the roots of segregated music markets). Using the context of that ongoing discussion about genre and race, I’m listening here to a specific moment in “Old Town Road”— the line “can’t nobody tell me nothin”—and the way it changes from the original version to the Billy Ray Cyrus remix. Lil Nas X uses the sound of his voice in this moment to savvily leverage his collaboration with a country music icon, and by doing so subtly drawing out the respectability politics underlying Billboard’s racialized genre categorization of his song.

Screenshot, “Lil Nas X – Old Town Road (Official Movie) ft. Billy Ray Cyrus”

After each of Lil Nas X’s two verses in the original “Old Town Road,” we hear the refrain “can’t nobody tell me nothin.” The song’s texture is fairly sparse throughout, but the refrains feature some added elements. The 808-style kick drum and rattling hihats continue to dominate the soundscape, but they yield just enough room for the banjo sample to come through more clearly than in the verse, and it plucks out a double-time rhythm in the refrain. The vocals change, too, as Lil Nas X performs a call-and-response with himself. The call, “can’t nobody tell me nothin,” is center channel, just as his voice has been throughout the verse, but the response, “can’t tell me nothin,” moves into the left and right speaker, a chorus of Lil Nas X answering the call.  Listen closely to these vocals, and you’ll also hear some pitch correction. Colloquially known as “autotune,” this is an effect purposely pushed to extreme limits to produce garbled or robotic vocals and is a technique most often associated with contemporary hip hop and R&B. Here, it’s applied to this melodic refrain, most noticeably on “nothin” in the call and “can’t” in the response,

After Billboard removed the song from the Hot Country chart in late March, country star Billy Ray Cyrus tweeted his support for “Old Town Road,” and by early April, Lil Nas X had pulled him onto the remix that would come to dominate the Hot 100. The Cyrus remix is straightforward: Cyrus takes the opening chorus, then Lil Nas X’s original version plays through from the first verse to the last chorus, at which point Cyrus tacks on one more verse and then sings the hook in tandem with Lil Nas X to close the song. Well, it’s straightforward except that, while Lil Nas X’s material sounds otherwise unaltered from the original version, the pitch correction is smoothed out so that the garble from the previous version is gone.

In order to figure out what happened to the pitch correction from the first to second “Old Town Road,” I’m bringing in a conceptual framework I’ve been tinkering with the last couple of years: the produced voice. Within this framework, all recorded voices are produced in two specific ways: 1) everyone performs their bodies in relation to gender, race, ability, sex, and class norms, and 2) everyone who sings on record has their voice altered or affected with various levels of technology. To think about a produced voice is to think about how voices are shaped by recording technologies and social technologies at the same time. Listening to the multiple versions of “Old Town Road” draws my attention specifically to the always collaborative nature of produced voices.

In performativity terms—and here Judith Butler’s idea in “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory” that “one is not simply a body, but, in some very key sense, one does one’s body” (521) is crucial—a collaboratively produced voice is a little nebulous, as it’s not always clear who I’m collaborating with to produce my voice. Sometimes I can (shamefully, I assure you) recognize myself changing the way my voice sounds to fit into some sort of, say, gendered norm that my surroundings expect. As a white man operating in a white supremacist, cisheteropatriarchal society, the deeper my voice sounds, the more authority adheres to me. (Well, only to a point, but that’s another essay). Whether I consciously or subconsciously make my voice deeper, I am definitely involved in a collaboration, as the frequency of my voice is initiated in my body but dictated outside my body. Who I’m collaborating with is harder to establish – maybe it’s the people in the room, or maybe my produced voice and your listening ears (read Jennifer Stoever’s The Sonic Color Line for more on the listening ear) are all working in collaboration with notions of white masculine authority that have long-since been baked into society by teams of chefs whose names we didn’t record.

“Tools in a Recording Studio” by Flickr user Carol VanHook (CC BY-SA 2.0)

In studio production terms, a voice’s collaborators are often hard to name, too, but for different reasons. For most major label releases, we could ask who applied the effects that shaped the solo artist’s voice, and while there’s a specific answer to that question, I’m willing to bet that very few people know for sure. Even where we can track down the engineers, producers, and mix and master artists who worked on any given song, the division of labor is such that probably multiple people (some who aren’t credited anywhere as having worked on the song) adjusted the settings of those vocal effects at some point in the process, masking the details of the collaboration. In the end, we attribute the voice to a singular recording artist because that’s the person who initiated the sound and because the voice circulates in an individualistic, capitalist economy that requires a focal point for our consumption. But my point here is that collaboratively produced voices are messy, with so many actors—social or technological—playing a role in the final outcome that we lose track of all the moving pieces.

Not everyone is comfortable with this mess. For instance, a few years ago long-time David Bowie producer Tony Visconti, while lamenting the role of technology in contemporary studio recordings, mentioned Adele as a singer whose voice may not be as great as it is made to sound on record. Adele responded by requesting that Visconti suck her dick. And though the two seemed at odds with each other, they were being equally disingenuous: Visconti knows that every voice he’s produced has been manipulated in some way, and Adele, too, knows that her voice is run through a variety of effects and algorithms that make her sound as epically Adele as possible. Visconti and Adele align in their desire to sidestep the fundamental collaboration at play in recorded voices, keeping invisible the social and political norms that act on the voice, keeping inaudible the many technologies that shape the voice.

Propping up this Adele-Visconti exchange is a broader relationship between those who benefit from social gender/race scripts and those who benefit from masking technological collaboration. That is, Adele and Visconti both benefit, to varying degrees, from their white femininity and white masculinity, respectively; they fit the molds of race and gender respectability. Similarly, they both benefit from discourses surrounding respectable music and voice performance; they are imbued with singular talent by those discourses. And on the flipside of that relationship, where we find artists who have cultivated a failure to comport with the standards of a respectable singing voice, we’ll also find artists whose bodies don’t benefit from social gender/race scripts: especially Black and Brown artistsnon-binary, women, and men. Here I’m using “failure” in the same sense Jack Halberstam does in The Queer Art of Failure, where failing is purposeful, subversive. To fail queerly isn’t to fall short of a standard you’re trying to meet; it’s to fall short of a standard you think is bullshit to begin with. This kind of failure would be a performance of non-conformity that draws attention to the ways that systemic flaws – whether in social codes or technological music collaborations – privilege ways of being and sounding that conform with white feminine and white masculine aesthetic standards. To fail to meet those standards is to call the standards into question.

So, because respectably collaborating a voice into existence involves masking the collaboration, failing to collaborate a voice into existence would involve exposing the process. This would open up the opportunity for us to hear a singer like Ma$e, who always sings and never sings well, as highlighting a part of the collaborative vocal process (namely pitch correction, either through training or processing the voice) by leaving it out. To listen to Ma$e in terms of failed collaboration is to notice which collaborators didn’t do their work. In Princess Nokia’s doubled and tripled and quadrupled voice, spread carefully across the stereo field, we hear a fully exposed collaboration that fails to even attempt to meet any standards of respectable singing voices. In the case of the countless trap artists whose voices come out garbled through the purposeful misapplication of pitch correction algorithms, we can hear the failure of collaboration in the clumsy or over-eager use of the technology. This performed pitch correction failure is the sound I started with, Lil Nas X on the original lines “can’t nobody tell me nothin.” It’s one of the few times we can hear a trap aesthetic in “Old Town Road,” outside of its instrumental.

In each of these instances, the failure to collaborate results in the failure to achieve a respectably produced voice: a voice that can sing on pitch, a voice that can sing on pitch live, a voice that is trained, a voice that is controlled, a voice that requires no intervention to be perceived as “good” or “beautiful” or “capable.” And when respectable vocal collaboration further empowers white femininity or white masculinity, failure to collaborate right can mean failing in a system that was never going to let you pass in the first place. Or failing in a system that applies nebulous genre standards that happen to keep a song fronted by a Black artist off the country charts but allow a remix of the same song to place a white country artist on the hip hop charts.

The production shift on “can’t nobody tell me nothin” is subtle, but it brings the relationship between social race/gender scripts and technological musical collaboration into focus a bit. It isn’t hard to read “does not embrace enough elements of today’s country music” as “sounds too Black,” and enough people called bullshit on Billboard that the publication has had to explicitly deny that their decision had anything to do with race. Lil Nas X’s remix with Billy Ray Cyrus puts Billboard in a really tricky rhetorical position, though. Cyrus’s vocalsmore pinched and nasally than Lil Nas X’s, with more vibrato on the hook (especially on “road” and “ride”), and framed without the hip hop-style drums for the first half of his versedraw attention to the country elements already at play in the song and remove a good deal of doubt about whether “Old Town Road” broadly comports with the genre. But for Billboard to place the song back on the Country chart only after white Billy Ray Cyrus joined the show? Doing so would only intensify the belief that Billboard’s original decision was racially motivated. In order for Billboard to maintain its own colorblind respectability in this matter, in order to keep their name from being at the center of a controversy about race and genre, in order to avoid being the publication believed to still be divvying up genres primarily based on race in 2019, Billboard’s best move is to not move. Even when everyone else in the world knows “Old Town Road” is, among other things, a country song, Billboard’s country charts will chug along as if in a parallel universe where the song never existed.

As Lil Nas X shifted Billboard into a rhetorical checkmate with the release of the Billy Ray Cyrus remix, he also shifted his voice into a more respectable rendition of “can’t nobody tell me nothin,” removing the extreme application of pitch correction effects. This seems the opposite of what we might expect. The Billy Ray Cyrus remix is defiant, thumbing its nose at Billboard for not recognizing the countryness of the tune to begin with. Why, in a defiant moment, would Lil Nas X become more respectable in his vocal production? I hear the smoothed-out remix vocals as a palimpsest, a writing-over that, in the traces of its editing, points to the fact that something has been changed, therefore never fully erasing the original’s over-affected refrain. These more respectable vocals seem to comport with Billboard’s expectations for what a country song should be, showing up in more acceptable garb to request admittance to the country chart, even as the new vocals smuggle in the memory of the original’s more roboticized lines.

While the original vocals failed to achieve respectability by exposing the recording technologies of collaboration, the remix vocals fail to achieve respectability by exposing the social technologies of collaboration, feigning compliance and daring its arbiter to fail it all the same. The change in “Old Town Road”’s vocals from original to remix, then, stacks collaborative exposures on top of one another as Lil Nas X reminds the industry gatekeepers that can’t nobody tell him nothin, indeed.

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Featured image, and all images in this post: screenshots from “Lil Nas X – Old Town Road (Official Movie) ft. Billy Ray Cyrus” posted by YouTube user Lil Nas X

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Justin aDams Burton is Assistant Professor of Music at Rider University. His research revolves around critical race and gender theory in hip hop and pop, and his book, Posthuman Rap, is available now. He is also co-editing the forthcoming (2018) Oxford Handbook of Hip Hop Music Studies. You can catch him at justindburton.com and on Twitter @j_adams_burton. His favorite rapper is one or two of the Fat Boys.

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Black Joy: African Diasporic Religious Expression in Popular Culture

Inspired by the recent Black Perspectives “W.E.B. Du Bois @ 150” Online Forum, SO!’s “W.E.B. Du Bois at 150” amplifies the commemoration of the occasion of the 150th anniversary of Du Bois’s birth in 2018 by examining his all-too-often and all-too-long unacknowledged role in developing, furthering, challenging, and shaping what we now know as “sound studies.”

It has been an abundant decade-plus (!!!) since Alexander Weheliye’s Phonographies “link[ed] the formal structure of W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk to the contemporary mixing practices of DJs” (13) and we want to know how folks have thought about and listened with Du Bois in their work in the intervening years.  How does Du Bois as DJ remix both the historiography and the contemporary praxis of sound studies? How does attention to Du Bois’s theories of race and sound encourage us to challenge the ways in which white supremacy has historically shaped American institutions, sensory orientations, and fields of study? What new futures emerge when we listen to Du Bois as a thinker and agent of sound?

Over the last two months, we have shared work that reimagines sound studies with Du Bois at the center. Pieces by Phillip Luke SinitiereKristin MoriahAaron Carter-ÉnyìAustin Richey and Julie Beth Napolin move us toward a decolonized understanding and history of sound studies, showing us how has Du Bois been urging us to attune ourselves to it. To start the series from the beginning, click here.

Readers, today’s post by Vanessa Valdés closes our series: she explores the limits of Du Bois’ echo chamber metaphor within the context of a Black diaspora that looks past the white gaze and within its spiritual practices for recognition.

–Jennifer Lynn Stoever and Liana Silva, Eds.


In “The Concept of Race,” the fifth chapter of his autobiography Dawn of Dusk (1940), W. E. B. Du Bois theorizes the psychological damage of caste segregation using the metaphor of the echo chamber. He writes of being imprisoned within a mountain, looking out, speaking “courteously” and yet remaining unnoticed: “the passing throng does not even turn its head, or if it does, glances curiously and walks on” (66). As per Du Bois’s imagery, white supremacist segregation renders Black subjects ultimately unintelligible, even to themselves, as they “may scream and hurl themselves against the barriers, hardly realizing in their bewilderment that they are screaming in a vacuum unheard and that their antics may actually seem funny to those outside looking in” (66). Du Bois railed against the irreparable harm that results from legal and cultural separation of people on the basis of race; he focuses on the interactions between Black communities and a dominant white supremacist society, highlighting the damage inflicted by Black peoples upon Black peoples themselves when they continually attempt to prove their humanity to a white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchal imperialist population in control of socioeconomic political systems within the United States and in fact throughout the Americas.

What then? Du Bois presents a vision in which there is no room, literal or figurative, for resistance to this seemingly pervasive surveillance that, in the words of Jennifer Stoever in The Sonic Color Line: Race and the Cultural Politics of Listening (2016), renders peoples of African descent “soundproofed yet hypervisible, constantly on display for the curiosity of the white gaze” (260). If there continues to be a search for acceptance, for recognition and acknowledgement of one’s humanity on behalf of “the white gaze,” what happens when it does not come? This essay presents a select history of musicians who, irrespective of a white audience, and in the face of a seemingly flattened definition of Blackness that is limited to an adherence to the Black (Christian) Church here in the United States, instead channel their multiple identities by invoking the orishas of the religion of Regla de Ocha. In it are aspects of Black culture that remain, in the words of E. Patrick Johnson in “Black Performance Studies: Genealogies, Politics, Futures,” “illegible and unintelligible to the undiscerning eyes and ears, and perhaps minds, of some scholars.” These artists resist the urge to explain, defying an unspoken dictate that their art must be completely comprehensible to all who interact with it. They draw from source material that for millions internationally is a viable source of inspiration on its own terms, without elucidation.

“Diasporic Genius Apprenticeship Program (D-GAP)” by Flickr user Diasporic Genius, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Known alternately as Santería, Yoruba, Lucumí, and Ifa, this religion, like others of the African diaspora in the Americas, call for their practitioners—formal initiates or simply those who show respect and affinity—to achieve balance on the paths to their destiny. According to Regla de Ocha, human beings, like the nature that surrounds us, are sparks of the divine made manifest; practitioners interact with the environment in order to reach said equilibrium through intoned supplications. While associated primarily with Black populations of the Hispanic Caribbean, those who are faithful are found throughout the hemisphere and in fact, throughout the world.

In the anglophone world of Black music here in the United States, critics have written about the multiple influences of gospel on the development of rhythm and blues and other musical genres, as made patently evident in Aretha Franklin’s homegoing services as well as Peter Guralnick’s Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom (1986). Within the luso-hispanophone audiences in this hemisphere, there has been a similar inclusion of African diasporic religious music within popular genres. Prayers and chants within popular music and literature reflect systems of knowledge that have undergirded communities of African descent for centuries on both sides of the Atlantic and throughout this hemisphere. Those who know, who can see and hear those resonances, for them, there is no regard for the understanding of a dominant white audience; it is simply not for them. And it is here, in the knowledge that these works invoke systems of being that are inaudible and unappetizing to mass consumption, where one can wrestle out of the echo chamber.

“Gospel singers” by Flickr user Elin B, CC BY 2.0

In this series for Sounding Out!, Aaron Carter-Ényì has written about Du Bois’s theories on sound; on his musical transcriptions in The Souls of Black Folk (1903); the African retentions of the Gullah-Geechee population (1903); and the resonance of the drum within African music itself The World and Africa (1947). However, Du Bois did not look to a growing Spanish-speaking population that had migrated from the Hispanic Caribbean, particularly Cuba and Puerto Rico, that would also provide him evidence of the continued African heritage. As historian Nancy Raquel Mirabal writes in Suspect Freedoms: The Racial and Sexual Politics of Cubanidad in New York, 1823-1957 (2017), these men and women were working-class economic migrants, the majority of whom were of African descent: Black Cubans and Puerto Ricans arrived in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, immediately impacted the musical scene. This would give way to the explosion of musical forms popularized here, including conga, mambo, rumba, cha-cha-cha, and later, salsa. (See César Miguel Rondón, The Book of Salsa: A Chronicle of Urban Music from the Caribbean to New York City, 2008.) All of these musical forms grow out of religious African music; the rhythms of religious ceremonies provide the literal foundation out of which these genres flourish. Practitioners can parse out these inflections; those without this knowledge simply engage. Those who know, know; those who make the music do so without consideration for exposition.

A 1950s U.S. audience witnessed Lucy Ricardo visit her husband Ricky at the club and sing “Babalu”; backed by his orchestra, it was originally a hit for Desi Arnaz in 1947 on RCA Victor records.  In a later episode, Ricky would be backed by his young son, in an effort to demonstrate the continued influence of his Cuban heritage. Hector Lavoe’s “Aguanile” (1978) remains a classic both within his catalog as well as the larger genre of Salsa’s golden era of the 1970s; his labelmate Celia Cruz’s “A Santa Barbara” is a remake of Celina González and Reutilio Jr.’s 1949 hit of the same name. In this century, Carlinhos Brown released “Aganjú” in 2003, a year after his compatriot, Bebel Gilberto found success with her version in Brazil. In the United States, a remix of Gilberto’s adaptation was featured on the soundtrack of the HBO show Six Feet Under. In the last minute of their first hit, “River” (2015), the Ibeyi break their allegorical ode to the Oshun by making plain the entity to which they sing. On the same release, they sing to the entity associated with transformation in a song of her name, “Oya.”  Daymé Arocena begins her 2017 release, Cubafonía, with “Eleggua,” he of the crossroads.  Beginning with their 2015 debut “3 Mujeres” Ìlé have consistently brought together religious music with current soul and hip hop to larger audiences.

As these examples attest, there is at play an ethics of representation that is often misunderstood by non-practitioners of these religions; it is one that privileges confidentiality over explication. In a post-Enlightenment world that places emphasis on logic and reason, there exists a demand that everything be explained, be made legible. And yet, not everything is for everybody. Matters of spirit do not easily co-exist within Cartesian epistemological systems that demand bifurcation between the head and the heart. Within African diasporic religions – not only the ones mentioned here but also others including Palo Monte, Vodou, Obeah, Macumba, Candomblé – there is respect for the seemingly inexplicable. There is room for the miraculous, for that which can be found outside the realms of what has been deemed reasonable by systems of European thought. There is room for faith. And it is this kind of faith that practitioners of these Black religions – artists and scholars alike – respect when they refuse to explain the source of their joy, a joy I like to call “Black joy.”

Beyoncé’s Lemonade (2016) fits into this oeuvre; here, the world’s biggest pop star produced a work of art grounded in Black experiences of the Caribbean basin, including her family’s U.S. Southern Black heritage in Texas and Louisiana. While notable for a great many features, for some the most invigorating part was the incorporation of visual allusions to sacred entities well-known to and easily recognized by practitioners of West African and African diasporic religions throughout the Americas. (For a sample of the analyses that emerged, see here, here, and here.) The inclusion of these markers situated Beyoncé firmly within this long tradition of the ability of Black artists in this hemisphere to employ imagery, particularly that related to religious traditions outside of orthodox Christianity, as a means by which to invoke more full, three-dimensional expressions of racial, gendered, and sexual identities. In Oshun’s Daughters: The Search for Womanhood in the Americas (2014), I wrote about how women writers from United States, Cuba, and Brazil, writers such as Audre Lorde, Ntozake Shange, Cristina García, Nancy Morejón, and Conceição Evaristo, among others, all reference entities from these religions as a means by which to include complex portraits of womanhood in their work.

“Gospel” by Flickr user Geoffrey Froment, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

To return to Du Bois’s echo chamber, the invocation of these entities allows practitioners to leave the mountain; there is no gazing to a mainstream culture for whom these prayers may be unintelligible. There is little consideration of explaining every element; again, those who know, know. They recognize a greater significance of the images, and are able to acknowledge allusions to whole systems of thought that are foundational to Black expressive cultures. These artists move forward accordingly. In 1926, The Nation published Langston Hughes’s “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” and his words continue to resonate: “We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear to shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. [..] We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves.” The white gaze of which Du Bois writes has no power in this formulation; instead, there is a turn away from the dominant white supremacist culture toward the richness that Black cultures offer. There is no flinging up against the metaphorical glass, no exhaustion in continued attempts to get them to acknowledge our humanity. They simply do not matter.

In her first novel, Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo (1982), Ntozake Shange writes: “Drums and chanting ran thru the lush backwoods of Louisiana. Sassafras liked to think the slaves would have been singing like that, if the white folks hadn’t stolen our gods. Made our gods foreign to us […]” (214). The work of these artists suggests that These gods open up so many other possibilities for Black lives in the United States. These entities remain with those who choose to see, hear, and feel their presence, and even with those who don’t. They tried to make our gods foreign to us: they failed.

Featured image: “Woman dancing African dance in the street, São Paulo downtown” By The Photographer [CC BY-SA 4.0], from Wikimedia Commons

Vanessa K. Valdés is associate professor of Spanish and Portuguese at The City College of New York; she is the editor of Let Spirit Speak! Cultural Journeys through the African Diaspora (2012) and The Future Is Now: A New Look at African Diaspora Studies (2012) and the book review editor of sx salon.  She is the author of Oshun’s Daughters: The Search for Womanhood in the Americas (2014). 

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Troubling Silence: Sonic and Affective Dispossessions of the African Slave Trade–Michelle Commander

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“I Dreamed and Loved and Wandered and Sang”: Sounding Blackness in W.E.B. Du Bois’s Dark Princess

Inspired by the recent Black Perspectives “W.E.B. Du Bois @ 150” Online ForumSO!’s “W.E.B. Du Bois at 150” amplifies the commemoration of the occasion of the 150th anniversary of Du Bois’s birth in 2018 by examining his all-too-often and all-too-long unacknowledged role in developing, furthering, challenging, and shaping what we now know as “sound studies.”

It has been an abundant decade-plus (!!!) since Alexander Weheliye’s Phonographies “link[ed] the formal structure of W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk to the contemporary mixing practices of DJs” (13) and we want to know how folks have thought about and listened with Du Bois in their work in the intervening years.  How does Du Bois as DJ remix both the historiography and the contemporary praxis of sound studies? How does attention to Du Bois’s theories of race and sound encourage us to challenge the ways in which white supremacy has historically shaped American institutions, sensory orientations, and fields of study? What new futures emerge when we listen to Du Bois as a thinker and agent of sound?

Over the next two months, we will be sharing work that reimagines sound studies with Du Bois at the center. Pieces by Phillip Luke Sinitiere, Kristin Moriah, Aaron Carter-Ényì, Austin Richey,Julie Beth Napolin, and Vanessa Valdés, move us toward a decolonized understanding and history of sound studies, showing us how has Du Bois been urging us to attune ourselves to it. To start the series from the beginning, click here.

Readers, today’s post by Kristin Moriah looks at Du Bois’s novel Dark Princess, and explores the relationship between sound and freedom in the text.

–Jennifer Lynn Stoever and Liana Silva, Eds.


Summer is come with bursting flower and promises of perfect fruit. Rain is rolling down Nile and Niger. Summer sings on the sea where giant ships carry busy worlds, while mermaids swarm the shores. Earth is pregnant. Life is big with pain and evil and hope. Summer in blue New York; summer in gray Berlin; summer in the real heart of the world!

W.E.B. Du Bois, Dark Princess (1928)

 

“Malcolm X BLVD” by Flickr user Alex Proimos, CC BY-NC 2.0

It is summer in Harlem now. Thick blankets of heat roil the city, and the pavement shimmers. Even the most die-hard city dwellers try to create distance between themselves and the noisy streets where political tensions threaten to boil over this season, as they always seem to. Airy tunes are often sung in vain here. More often than not, summer in New York City can be characterized by the sounds of the protests Julie Beth Napolin writes about so powerfully. At the moment, many of those protests are directed towards immigration detention centers and against forced family separation policies. Harlem, long a nexus for African diasporic and Latinx immigration and culture, has become a site of forced migration for migrant children separated from their families at the U.S. border and relocated to foster shelters like East Harlem’s Cayuga Center. Thus, contemporary nostalgia for Harlem as a site of creative freedom can be belied by reality.

But is there another place like this, not here, where one can go? An urban metropolis where one can be more attuned to sounds of the city and cries for justice? Where summer sings songs of freedom? Historically, there have been other options, especially for black travelers and migrants, and those options can tell us much about the way African American writers have conceptualized the relationship between sound and freedom. There was a strong correlation between sound and travel for African American intellectuals and performers during the Harlem Renaissance. During the brief period between Reconstruction and World War II, Europe, particularly Berlin, presented African Americans who traveled abroad with opportunities to hear and be heard differently. In The Sonic Color Line (2016), Jennifer Stoever has argued that W.E.B. Du Bois’s attention to the problem of the color line should inform our understanding of the centrality of sound in U.S. racial formations. But what happens to perceptions of the sonic color line once you cross the U.S. border? How have African American writers reflected on the sonic color line from a distance? W.E.B. Du Bois’s 1928 novel Dark Princess is an ideal place to begin exploring these questions.

Cover of Dark Princess, fair use

W.E.B. Du Bois fictionalized the experience of traveling to Berlin at the turn of the 20th century. As a whole, his work on travelling in Europe while black contributes to the discourse around race and sound by illustrating the importance of sounding blackness to political discourse. Du Bois continually accounted for sound in both his prose and fiction about his European travels during the early 20th century. For instance, in his autobiography Darkwater, Du Bois writes “as a student in Germany, I built great castles in Spain and lived therein. I dreamed and loved and wandered and sang; then after two long years I dropped suddenly back into ‘nigger’—hating America!” (16). Here and elsewhere, Du Bois portrays singing, performing, and listening–or what I identify here as sounding blackness–as crucial activities that foster intellectual development, creativity, and political awareness. In “Death Wish Mixtape,” Regina Bradley observes that contemporary instances of sounding blackness in popular culture are often linked to commodification and death. But the act of sounding blackness can be pliable, even as it signifies keen political awareness. In the Harlem Renaissance, sounding blackness was linked to black internationalism. In Du Bois’s work, sounding blackness involves testing the limits of blackness abroad and making African American culture audible by introducing blackness into political discourse for progressive purposes.

In the opening epigraph of the novel Dark Princess, at the beginning of this post, a summer journey begins with a song in the wake of tragedy. Written during the height of the Harlem Renaissance, in W.E.B. Du Bois’s Dark Princess, African American hero Matthew Towns travels to Europe to heal himself from racism’s psychic wounds, macroagressions, and foreshortened career prospects. Like Du Bois, Towns seeks respite from the systemic racism he encounters in the U.S. educational system, in this case at the University of Manhattan, a fictional Harlem medical school that is a stone’s throw from the City University of New York’s City College. In other words, Towns is a refugee of American racism.

Matthew Towns experiences new forms of freedom when he travels abroad. Fin-de-Siècle Berlin’s ambiguous racial boundaries allow Matthew Towns to practice American citizenship, perform an unfettered African American identity, and act as a spokesperson for the first time. Faced with the question of whether African diasporic “blood must tell,” or reveal its weaknesses through inarticulate discourse, Towns boldly asserts that it won’t tell “unless it is allowed to talk. Its speech is accidental today” (22). He begins to advocate for African Americans using various performative modes. Du Bois depicts Towns as what Alex Black might term a “resonant body,” a performer who uses embodied sound to shape the viewers’ perceptions of his or her humanity. In Berlin, Towns becomes a resonant body who sounds blackness outside the boundaries of the American color line in an attempt to ameliorate conditions for African Americans at home. As such, Towns echoes Du Bois’ insistence on the importance of song to the African American tradition and socio-political ambitions in The Souls of Black Folk (1903). Thus, Dark Princess picks up on the sonic themes Du Bois proposed in his earlier works.

As Du Bois’s novel unfolds, readers learn how Berlin could both confound and appeal to the African American imagination as a utopic site of black performance. Towns sings to a multi-ethnic group of elite political activists at a dinner party in Berlin. Invited by Princess Kautilya of Bwodpur, at first, “Matthew felt his lack of culture audible, and not simply of his own culture, but of all the culture in white America which he had unconsciously and foolishly, as he now realized made his norm” (24). Initially, American racism prevents Towns from sounding blackness and participating in global discourses around race and freedom. And yet, at the same party in Berlin, Towns is also overcome by the memory of Negro spirituals. He becomes a resonant body by reclaiming black working-class sensibility and pride: “it was as if he had faced and made a decision, as though some great voice, crying and reverberating within his soul, spoke for him and yet was him” (23). For Matthew Towns, sounding blackness abroad is not just personally empowering; sounding allows him to imagine himself as a key contributor to larger social movements and, potentially, black liberation. In both examples, the acts of hearing, verbalizing, and singing are depicted as necessary modes of political awareness and engagement. Without access to these sonic forms, Matthew is divorced from meaningful political participation.

Eventually, Matthew finds his way into the conversation by making a powerful argument for the cultural achievements of African Americans, or “the black rabble of America,” (26) by way of Negro Spirituals: “silence dropped on all, and suddenly Matthew found himself singing. His voice full, untrained but mellow, quivered down the first plaintive bar…” (26). It is the most striking instance of black performance in the novel:

The blood rushed to Matthew’s face. He threw back his head and closed his eyes, and with the movement, he heard again the Great Song. He saw his father in the old log church by the river, leading the moaning singers in the Great Song of Emancipation. Clearly, plainly he heard that mighty voice and saw the rhythmic swing and beat of the thick brown arm. Matthew swung his arm and beat the table; the silver tinkled. (25)

Du Bois continues: “He forgot his audience and saw only the shining river and the bowed and shouting throng […] Then Matthew let go of restraint and sang as his people sang in Virginia, twenty years ago. His great voice, gathered in one long deep breath, rolled the Call of God” (26).

Towns’s newfound ability to sound blackness in Berlin, or in other words vocalize African American claims to citizenship and freedom, stand in contrast to his earlier inability to respond coherently to Northern racism in New York City, where he is left “sputtering with amazement” at his exclusion from a medical school at which he has rightfully earned his place. In that instance, Matthew is rendered speechless. When “his fury had burst its bounds” it resulted in not a stream of invectives or vain pleas for justice, but a physical response. He throws “his certificates, his marks, and commendations straight into the drawn white face of the Dean” (4). Afterwards, isolated and alone, he stalks New York City.  If there is a distinct sonic dimension to this flight from discrimination, readers are not privy to it. The sounds of Matthew’s footsteps, and cries of righteous indignation, fade into the background of Harlem’s streets. They are perhaps indiscernible amidst the ebb and flow of any number of similar city sounds and experiences. In this instance, Du Bois seems to suggest that the sound that emanates from physical gestures loses potency in certain urban contexts.

When Matthew Towns returns to Harlem, we are told that it’s with a renewed ear and life purpose. Standing on Seventh Avenue, with City College to his left, “he turned east and the world turned too – to a more careless and freer movement, louder voices and easier camaraderie” (41). From the sounds of church music to the accents of West Indian immigrants, he is much more attuned to the city’s diverse African diasporic presence. Hearing these African diasporic connections in a new way, he is fueled for black leadership and political activism.

Thus, Towns’s experiences sounding blackness abroad are a pivotal step in his political awakening and activism on U.S. soil. In locating the project of sounding blackness between Harlem and Berlin, Du Bois’s fiction makes space for the privileged summer traveler, the forced migrant, and immigrant. All are bound by the desire for social progress on local and global scales. Finally, I argue that the dynamic relationship between sound, space, justice and travel that Du Bois maps out has striking relevance to contemporary political and ethical crises. As in Dark Princess, justice in the here and now can be measured by the ability to sound aloud and effect social change the world over and on street corners.

Featured image: “Mapping Courage” by Flickr user Laurenellen McCann, CC BY-NC 2.0

Kristin Moriah is an Assistant Professor of African American Literary Studies in the English Department at Queen’s University. She is the editor of Black Writers and the Left (Cambridge Scholars Press, 2013) and the co-editor of Adrienne Rich: Teaching at CUNY, 1968-1974 (Lost & Found: The CUNY Poetics Document Initiative, 2014). Her work can be found in American QuarterlyPAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art, Theater Journal,  and Understanding Blackness Through Performance (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). Her research has been funded through grants from the Social Science and Humanities Council of Canada, the Freie Universität Berlin, the CUNY Graduate Center’s Advanced Research Collaborative and the Harry Ransom Center. In spring 2015 Moriah was a Scholar-in-Residence at the NYPL Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

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“Most pleasant to the ear”: W. E. B. Du Bois’s Itinerant Intellectual Soundscapes — Phillip Luke Sinitiere

The Noise You Make Should Be Your Own–Scott Poulson-Bryant

 

 

They Can Hear Us: Surveillance and Race in “A Quiet Place”

The family in A Quiet Place (2018) lives a life marked by incessant trauma. Invisible to the hunters who are far more powerful than they are, the family remains safe from direct assault as long as they remain unheard by the hunters, who can’t see them. But that same invisibility means the everyday mundanities of life become a constant struggle marked by the terror of the horrific death that will claim them should they make an errant sound. A trip to the pharmacy could prove fatal; a hungry child could summon the hunters and put in danger the entire family. When sketched out in these broad strokes, A Quiet Place, as Kathryn Adams Burton pointed out to me when we left the theater, summons terror from its viewers by depicting the kind of institutional surveillance and violence that endanger Black lives in the US, without one person of color in the entire movie. Thinking with Simone Browne’s Dark Matters (2015), Jennifer Stoever’s The Sonic Color Line (2016), and Jared Sexton’s Amalgamation Schemes (2008), I argue here that A Quiet Place places white characters in a non-white relationship with surveillance, which they overcome in a way that projects white ingenuity and strength and reinforces the centuries-old notion that those who live under the eye and ear of hyper-surveillance tactics do so because they deserve to and because they are not exceptional enough to evade those tactics.

 

surveillance screenshotThe Quiet family’s invisibility is literal: the creatures who hunt them have no sense equivalent to human vision and instead track their prey using hyper-developed listening abilities. They remain vigilant for the audible traces of their victims; sound is the thing that can put the family in trouble. Simone Browne highlights in Dark Matters the significance of visibility and invisibility in the history of antiblack surveillance in the US. Lantern laws in 18th century New York City stipulated that enslaved black and indigenous people must carry a lit lantern if they were in the streets after dark, a regulation that Browne understands as an act of “racializing surveillance,” a “form of knowledge production about the black, indigenous, and mixed-race subject” (79). Specifically, the knowledge created through the lantern laws marked bodies of color as “un-visible,” in need of illumination in order to be properly seen. And here “seen” slips into a couple of different meanings, encompassing not only the ocular but also the notion of “seeing” that connotes understanding and discernment.

The early technology of lantern surveillance, as well as the boundaries delineated by sundown towns, marked black, indigenous, and mixed-race bodies as untrustworthy, scheming, and therefore in need of ongoing surveillance that would make these bodies visible to the eye. At the heart of Dark Matters is Browne’s contention that the history and techniques of surveillance cannot be understood separate from their racializing work: “surveillance…is the fact of antiblackness” (10). So while the Quiet family is white, their relationship to the powerful beings that hunt them–an existence unseeable and unknowable apart from heightened measures of surveillance–appropriates signifiers of racialized surveillance in order to heighten the stakes of the movie’s characters.

feet sand screenshots

The family walks on sand in order to muffle their footsteps.

While Browne focuses primarily on acts of looking as mechanisms for violently enforcing the color line in Dark Matters, Jennifer Stoever traces the history of that same color line through listening practices. Stoever isn’t explicitly engaging surveillance studies the way Browne is, but her theorization of the “listening ear”–the social and political norms that shape how we hear race–includes surveillance acts that, like lantern laws, mark voices perceived to be non-white as always already ready to be monitored, bounded, and eliminated should they exceed their boundaries (13). For both Browne and Stoever, the act of surveilling uncovers a racializing sleight of hand: non-Whiteness is held up as that which stands out, though this racialization is proven backwards if we look and listen a bit closer. US looking and listening norms condition people to organize blackness and brownness and noise as aberrations against natural, invisible, inaudible whiteness, but it takes a good deal of white supremacist work to create this illusion (by “white supremacy,” I mean the social and political practices and institutions that reify and reward whiteness). Looking through brighter lights and sharper camera lenses at non-White subjects and listening through amplification devices and ubiquitous bugs to non-White subjects are both ways of drawing attention away from whiteness–the racialized construct that fuels US social, legal, and political praxis–and toward non-whiteness.

Stoever opens The Sonic Color Line by considering the violence visited upon Jordan Davis, Sandra Bland, and a Spring Valley High School student when each was considered too loud and unruly by white listening ears trained to surveil blackness. The Quiet family is listened to in the same way Davis, Bland, and the Spring Valley student were, in the same way non-whiteness has been surveilled in the US: with dire consequences for being too loud. But, by erasing black and brown bodies and histories from the screen, A Quiet Place divorces these surveillance tactics from their real-world context, where they work as tools of white supremacist systems to “fix and frame blackness as an object of surveillance” (Browne 7). Part of the fantasy of A Quiet Place involves “fixing and framing” whiteness as the objects of sonic surveillance practices that have historically worked to preserve and reward whiteness, not target it.

view of the far, screenshotWhile the Quiet family is subjected to antiblack surveillance techniques, they are otherwise marked as white–and not just based on what their skin color looks like. Farmers in a rural, hilly region of Upstate New York, the Quiet family navigates the apocalypse with a libertarian aplomb. They’re stocked and loaded when the government fails to protect its citizens, and they’re also aware of but not in collaboration with other survivors in the surrounding area. Operating outside the bustle of urban noise, which Stoever notes is marked as non-White by the listening ear, the Quiet family likely boasts generations of working class whites who benefited from the kind of social safety nets built by the New Deal, only to mistake the wealth those social programs built to be fully the fruits of their own hard work.

john krasinski watching screenshot

The father, played by John Krasinski, looks over their plot of land.

The independence and autonomy that the Quiet family demonstrates is not on its own a marker of whiteness, but the kind of wealth accumulation that makes non-collaborative survival possible is the kind that’s historically been more readily available to white folks in the US. It’s a history that is flattened, as is the history of the surveillance that shapes their lives. Their wealth simply exists, and viewers aren’t meant to wonder where it came from or at whose expense. Likewise, viewers learn very little about what the hunters are, where they came from, and why they’re here. The hunters just appear, terrifying sonic surveillers who carry signifiers of antiblack listening practices but who remain detached from the antiblack history of surveillance.

The racialized terror at the heart of A Quiet Place grows from the fear of being denied one’s whiteness, being subjected to the same controlling surveillance measures that have helped maintain the color line for centuries in the US. It’s a standard white sci-fi nightmare scenario where technologies spin out of control and subjugate all of humanity, white people included. It’s also a white exceptionalist fantasy, where whiteness–not just white people but the wealth and freedom created for white people by white supremacist systems–conquers the unconquerable. Jared Sexton’s Amalgamation Schemes can prove helpful here, as he outlines the way racial ideology has shifted in recent decades to permit multiculturalism so long as it preserves whiteness. While systems like slavery and segregation were buttressed by explicit white supremacy, where whiteness = good and non-whiteness = bad, contemporary racial hierarchies are maintained by conceding that multiculturalism = virtuous and race-based solidarity = problematic. Here, white supremacy cloaks itself in diversity, hybridity, mixedness and points to any group that coheres around racial identity as regressive.

give thanks screenshotFlattening history is crucial to that ideological shift. In order to maintain a racial hierarchy that tips in favor of whiteness, past violence and kleptocratic seizures of money, resources, and lives must be removed from the equation so that the kind of multiculturalism that Sexton critiques can proceed as if all who participate do so on a level playing field. Whiteness becomes “something equivalent to the…ethnicities and cultures of nonwhite immigrants and American Indians” (Sexton 66). The field, of course, isn’t level when white supremacy has funneled centuries of ill-gotten gains to whiteness, so this kind of multiculturalism is a way of gaming the system, mixing up racial signifiers so that white folks can take on just enough racial signifiers to blend into a racially diverse society without giving up the power and privilege that continues to give them a leg up.

A Quiet Place follows a calculus similar to the multiculturalism Sexton describes. First, the movie extracts emotional responses of terror and dread through a mixture of racial signifiers, subjecting white characters to forms of surveillance rooted in antiblackness. With no historical context to explain the forms of surveillance the hunters use or the characters’ previous relationships to surveillance, the Quiet family’s whiteness becomes just another ethnicity, a flattened way of being in the world divorced from the white supremacist context that funnels resources their way. Their privilege and power become as invisible to viewers as they are to the hunters. By masking that privilege, A Quiet Place clears space for a fantasy world where the white heroes have survived by virtue of being simply more clever, more resourceful, more brave, more everything than all the black and brown people who have, by implication of their absence from the film, been killed off by the hunters.

all white screenshotA Quiet Place, then, takes a family of multiculturally white characters and positions them in roles white characters have become accustomed to occupying: that of world saviors–some of them even martyrs. Here, hyper-surveillance is simply a fact of life, and those who are able to live life free of the dire consequences of that hyper-surveillance are able to do so because they are exceptional. By this logic, what protects you from the police is either your innocence or your guile, not your whiteness. What guarantees your safety when you publicly challenge government policies is the righteousness of your cause, not your whiteness. What allows you to move in the dark without a lantern or to listen to your music loudly in public spaces without being shot or to cross borders without fear is your inherent virtue, not your whiteness. And when surveillance is positioned as a fact of life, and when those who avoid the crushing consequences of surveillance are understood to do so because they are virtuously exceptional, then those who are targeted, hunted, and killed using hyper-surveillance tactics are understood to be deserving of their fate because they are not virtuous or exceptional enough to avoid it. This is the logic that frames slavery as a choice, that cages children at the border, that influences and fixes elections across the globe but takes umbrage when subjected to the same tactics.

 

One terrible irony of a movie like A Quiet Place is that its flattened hyper-surveillance context makes it incapable of seeing and hearing the deep and rich history of black and brown evasion of hyper-surveillance. There’s an ingenuity coursing through activities of evading surveillance–“looking back,” marronage, and fugitivity chronicled by writers including Sylvia Wynter, Franz Fanon, Katherine McKittrick, and Simone Browne, among others–an ingenuity that evades hyper-surveillance and simultaneously exposes hyper-surveillance as antiblack while arguing against the notion that it is simply a fact of life and signalling avenues to freedom. Instead of those stories, though, the white Quiet family whispers to us a familiarly unsettling refrain: the white Quiet family, alone, can eradicate these terrors. The white Quiet family, alone, can fix this. The white Quiet family, alone, are exceptional.

Featured image, and all images in this post are screenshots from “A Quiet Place ALL TRAILERS – Emily Blunt & John Krasinski 2018 Horror Movie” by Youtube user Flicks And The City Clips.

Justin Adams Burton is Assistant Professor of Music at Rider University. His research revolves around critical race and gender theory in hip hop and pop, and his book, Posthuman Rap, is available now. He is also co-editing the forthcoming (2018) Oxford Handbook of Hip Hop Music Studies. You can catch him at justindburton.com and on Twitter @j_adams_burton. His favorite rapper is one or two of the Fat Boys.

tape reel

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