This article develops the concept of “affective authenticity” to explore the experiences and reception of US-based African migrant musicians in the 1960s and 1970s. Based on interviews, archival sources and musical analysis, we trace the migration stories of South African singer Letta Mbulu and the ways in which she negotiated conflicting demands for “authenticity” in her musical performances on the American stage. Affective authenticity represents a heterogenous, explorative sound, reflecting pan-African politics and aesthetics that created the very conditions for African and African American musical collaborations. This aesthetic was countered with expectations for “scientific authenticity:” an ethno-linguistically circumscribed performance that catered to colonial ears and conceptualized African musics as insular, ancient and unchanging – an aesthetic held and policed primarily by (white) music critics. Through analysis of the Yoruba hymn Ise Oluwa (1927) and its “translations” in Mbulu’s performance on the soundtrack for the television show Roots (1977), we show the careful balance of voices, texts, instruments, and rhythms African migrant musicians perform in order to adhere to conflicting demands for authenticity, and the rebuke they experience when they transgress them. We also place conceptualizations of affective and scientific authenticity applied to popular music in broader discourses occurring during the height of the civil rights movement in the United States, the decolonization of Africa, and the entrenchment of the apartheid regime in South Africa.

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