Our traditional disciplinary boundaries lend themselves to curricular divisions that separate the arts, humanities, and social sciences. Even in interdisciplinary formations, such as Ethnic Studies or American Studies, it is common to have some courses focus on social problems and histories of oppression, while others explore the literature, music, and art of marginalized communities. Although scholars have long recognized what George Lipsitz describes as culture’s ability to allow people to “rehearse identities, stances, and social relations not yet permissible in politics,” it can be challenging to teach about the material dimensions of politics, inequality, and social hierarchy and at the same time incorporate discussions of artistic practice and cultural production separate from or subordinate to the formal realm of politics.1
This roundtable explores the many challenges and insights stemming from pedagogical approaches that bridge the arts, humanities, and social sciences by bringing together scholars who use various approaches to teach about the intersections of music, politics, and race. Music, in particular, figures prominently in what Robin D.G. Kelley calls the “freedom dreams” of the black radical tradition and in the yet-to-be-realized worlds Josh Kun describes as “audiotopias.”2
The contributors share examples of the ways they incorporate music, listening assignments, and other forms of creative engagement in the service of broad social justice commitments in the classroom. They address the various ways in which music and politics are co-productive and interdependent. In other words, what do students learn from studying music that they might miss in traditional courses about race, political formation, and inequality? And correspondingly how can more rigorous and sustained attention to processes of racialization and political struggle help them rethink established paradigms in music history and ethnomusicology. Finally, the contributors consider how teaching music and politics together in this way might forge vital connections on campus in a time when critical studies of race and gender as well as the arts and humanities are coming under increasing attack.
For three years at the University of Oregon, Loren Kajikawa and I co-taught a course titled “Music, Politics, and Race” that focused on the intersections of political structures and cultural production, primarily in California. By way of background, my training is in Ethnic Studies, American Studies and in political histories of race and racism; at Oregon I was jointly appointed in Political Science and Ethnic Studies. Loren Kajikawa is a musicologist and ethnomusicologist who teaches and writes about a number of genres, particularly hip hop. The course developed out of our shared interests in California history and the articulation of racial hierarchies and anti-racist resistance, particularly as understood through music and other forms of cultural production. Music for us is a site that reveals the ways that the state has long produced forms of racial domination through liberal conceptions of rights, progress, and multiculturalism, even as it’s also been the source of important oppositional thought, analysis, and collective action.
Our co-taught course was cross-listed with both the School of Music and Dance and the Department of Ethnic Studies, and it was part of a broader grouping of General Education courses we conceptualized with a group of colleagues in several units organized around the theme of “Justice, Difference and Inequality.” The course had an enrollment of about 100 students, drawing from Ethnic Studies and other majors in the College of Arts and Sciences as well as music majors and minors, many of whom had a background in performance.
In addition to the themes and aspirations discussed below, the course also featured visiting presentations and performances by artists, including jazz pianist and composer Jon Jang, the Grammy-winning L.A. group Quetzal, and composer and bassist Tatus Aoki and dancer and choreographer Lenora Lee. A series of visiting scholars also addressed the class, including Jeff Chang, sociologist Josh Gamson (author of The Fabulous Sylvester), and other scholars of music, politics and social formations, such as Oneka LaBennett, Joseph Lowndes, and Lisa Gilman.3
Broadly, the course conceptualized racial formation and cultural production in California as intertwined and relational processes that have always been co-productive and co-constitutive. The course explored these themes across a range of sites, figures, and periods, including the multiracial neighborhood of Boyle Heights in East Los Angeles in the 1940s and 1950s; the life and career of the singer Sylvester, who was born and grew up with the Black Church in South Los Angeles before becoming an international pop star and disco icon in 1970s and 1980s San Francisco and an important figure in the emerging LGBT movements of the period; and the life, music and politics of the country singer Merle Haggard, who was born in Bakersfield, California, and whose 1969 hit “Okie from Muskogee” indexed the complex regional and national realignments taking place in U.S. politics of the 1970s.4
Part of what we hope to contribute is thinking about how team teaching and cross-disciplinary teaching might serve as a pedagogical intervention, particularly the ways it allows us to take the work that music does seriously. My appointment at Oregon was in a school of music. And so it was a space that’s separate institutionally and tends to conceive of music as an end in and of itself. The standards by which excellence is judged, which are themselves a statement about what music is supposed to be accomplishing, can often be quite disconnected from the kinds of conversations that are happening at a conference like American Studies. And so for me, working with Dan on this class was a great way to become more connected to political work across campus and to engage with students in ways that are meaningful to me because we were teaching an ethnic studies course whose stated purpose is to help students understand inequality and resistance.
As someone based in Ethnic Studies and Political Science who wasn’t trained in popular music studies or musicology, my default in the past had often been to use music in my teaching in more derivative ways. I might use music to change the dynamic of the class or introduce students to an important artist within an historical period, situating it as a reflection or representation of some social or political dynamics rather than as a site of theorization, meaning-making, and social formation in its own right.
But through this co-taught class I gained a whole new set of insights into ways that we can understand music and cultural production as a critical site from which to evaluate wide-ranging dynamics of power and social formation.
For example, in the early part of the course we talk about the development of California in the early twentieth century as a kind of white settler paradise—a framework used by boosters, realtors, developers, railroad companies and other private interests—to attract migrants to the state from the Midwest and East Coast. California was portrayed as a utopian space free of the ills of racial and ethnic mixing and urbanization. Los Angeles was the whitest Protestant city in the country in the early twentieth century, and there are a whole series of historic images from magazines, housing brochures, and other publicity materials that make this imaginary visible.
But we also share and discuss sheet music from the period that does similar work in a different register. Drawing on images and lyrics reproduced in Josh Kun’s book Songs in the Key of Los Angeles, we have the students look at and listen to a 1924 recording of Al Jolson’s “California, Here I Come” to think about the sonic imaginary that also produces this effect.5 We then discuss early Mexican migration, settlement and labor during this period, labor the state desperately needed to enact the infrastructure and profit necessary to develop California in this way but a dynamic that always troubled the dream of a white utopia. In this context, they listen to and learn about a corrido titled “El Lavaplatos” (The Dishwasher) recorded by the duo Los Hermanos Bañuelos in Los Angeles in 1930 that satirizes the distance between the rich life promised to Mexican migrants enticed to come to California and the suffering and exploitation they ultimately endure as manual laborers.6 The music here, in conjunction with a discussion of the wave of “repatriation” from California to Mexico during the Great Depression, helps students understand the long history of contradictory incorporation and expulsion that has defined the experiences of Mexican workers across most of the twentieth century.
Building on this work, we then turn to a discussion about the long histories of racial segregation in Los Angeles since the 1940s. Through the use of racially restrictive covenants, discriminatory lending and zoning practices, and federal subsidies for racially homogenous suburbs, the city remained deeply segregated even as it grew more diverse. In my own work, I use demographic maps to illustrate the persistence of racial segregation across this period, and the various efforts of realtors, elected officials, and homeowners to defend these patterns of segregation at the same time insisting that they held no racial animus or vested interest in discrimination; they were only defending their “property rights.”7
These patterns of discrimination and segregation are critical to understand, particularly in a state that has long prided itself on being progressive, forward-thinking and inclusive. At the same time, the maps representing these patterns of segregation, which show the firm borders around the neighborhoods where Black and Brown Angelenos were permitted to rent and buy property, conceal as much as they reveal. Visually, the segregated neighborhoods of South Los Angeles and East Los Angeles are then often read as places of desperation, failure, and social death, particularly for students who only know those places through popular media depictions. At best, they evoke a paternalistic sympathy; at worst a racialized fear of danger and violence.
But what happens if we redraw the maps to also foreground areas of musical and artistic production and political mobilization? If you listen to Lionel Hampton’s hopping 1940 track “Central Avenue Breakdown,” a tribute to the famed jazz district that was at the heart of Black Los Angeles, you get a much different perspective on the life worlds that flourished even during this period of exclusion. At the same time racially restrictive housing covenants were taking hold of the region, Central Avenue was a thriving hub for Black artists performing for multiracial audiences. Hampton was part of a long tradition of innovative, diverse, and influential musicians rooted in Black LA that have had a profound effect on the city’s life and identity.8
Similarly, we see that the city of Pacoima in the northwest San Fernando Valley—for decades the only city in the Valley where many black and brown people were permitted to buy or rent homes—was also home to the famed musician Richie Valens. Valens’s parents were Mexican, and he grew up listening to and playing mariachi music, flamenco guitar, R&B and jump blues in multiracial Pacoima. Valens’s most famous hit, “La Bamba” was an adaption of a son jarocho folk song.9 We introduce the class to both Valens’s recording as an expression of the hidden history of multiracial Los Angeles, and then return to the song in a more contemporary recording by the East L.A.-based Las Cafeteras titled “La Bamba Rebelde.”10 And we assign excerpts from Gaye Theresa Johnson’s Spaces of Conflict, Sounds of Solidarity: Music, Race, and Spatial Entitlement in Los Angeles to help students deepen their understanding of how music has served as a site of resistance to exclusionary practices.11
One of my favorite examples to discuss with students is Don Cheto, the fictional character created by radio personality Juan Carlos Razo. Portrayed by Razo as a loud-mouthed 65-year-old man, he hosts a radio and television show, and he even appears as a character in the Grand Theft Auto video game series. Through his entertaining on-air persona and musical parodies, he’s become an icon for Spanish-speaking immigrant communities. Right after the financial crash of 2009, for example, he released a song and music video called “La Crisis” (The Crisis).12 The song blends the sounds of Banda music with hip hop, while Don Cheto raps in Spanish about being so poor that he has to steal toilet paper from the bathroom at McDonalds. In other words, he establishes a connection to working class Latinos through a humorous approach to their shared struggles.
Although it’s possible to see Don Cheto as unique and separate from the other artists and historical periods that Dan has just talked about, through teaching we began to realize that these musicians and musical forms were all interconnected historically through what George Lipsitz calls popular music’s “long fetch.”13 In fact, Don Cheto is speaking to folks in parts of Los Angeles that have long existed as spaces of contact between Black and Brown Angelenos. Follow Central Avenue south from Downtown and you can see that many of the neighborhoods that were once predominantly Black are now predominantly Latino. The history of racial segregation that shaped L.A. in the middle of the twentieth century actually helps us to make sense of Don Cheto’s musical hybridity.
Through these and other examples, we want our students to see the everyday cultural and political labor and exchanges that have built and shaped the city in the face of many decades of racist and nativist exclusions.
And as Dan has said, coming from Political Science and Ethnic Studies, he’s appreciated how centering a class on music allows him to avoid the implication that communities of color are always places of desperation and failure. I want to turn now towards a discussion of what sustained attention to histories of exclusion and subjugation offers to traditional approaches in music.
Music history courses tend to be organized around periods and genres: “Music in the Romantic Period,” for example, or “History of Rock and Roll.” But for “Music, Politics, and Race,” Dan and I adopted a thematic approach, which isn’t as common in departments of music. And being freed from the traditional paradigms for organizing a course led me to think about teaching in new ways and making new connections that have enriched the discussions I have with my students.
Let’s consider an example. In my hip hop history course, when I discuss N.W.A and the history of so-called gangsta rap, the natural place to start has been to trace a lineage from East Coast rappers like KRS-ONE (Criminal Minded) and Schooly D (“PSK”) to West Coast upstarts like Ice-T and then eventually Eazy-E and N.W.A. But when Dan and I taught “Music, Politics, and Race,” we actually ended up getting to N.W.A through disco star Sylvester. We didn’t consciously plan it that way. The first time we did it, it was purely coincidental. However, it ended up shifting students’ discussion of gangsta rap in important ways.
In the unit on disco, we ask a provocative question: “Can disco change the world?” And we assign Joshua Gamson’s great biography of Sylvester titled The Fabulous Sylvester. And Sylvester’s background fits into the long history we are engaging in the class. He’s born in South Central Los Angeles and grows up in the same segregated neighborhoods that we’ve discussed in previous lectures. He moves to San Francisco in the late ‘60s and joins this crazy experimental theater group called the Cockettes. And then he goes on to become one of the biggest disco stars of the 1970s and an iconic presence in gay San Francisco. Gamson says that if Harvey Milk (the first openly gay person elected to the SF Board of Supervisors) was president of the Castro district, Sylvester was definitely its first lady.
When we first ask if disco can change the world, some students laugh because they imagine the genre as apolitical, frivolous, and superficial. But by the end of the unit, we convincingly make the case that there is no gay liberation movement without what was happening in San Francisco’s dance clubs. We show them this amazing picture of Harvey Milk and Sylvester together and ask them to think about the relationship between music and politics that it suggests. For gay people to be able to come out in public and demand recognition and civil rights through events like Gay Freedom Day or to create a community that would elect Harvey Milk to the Board of Supervisors, you have to create what Gaye Theresa Johnson calls a sense of “spatial entitlement.” And disco played a big role in fostering that.
We also assigned an essay by Benjamin Shepard that theorizes play as world-making. Shepard demonstrates that disco is very much about fantasy and play, and Sylvester was a cross-dressing singer, who had this great falsetto voice. His attention to fashion, to the way he presented himself both musically and sartorially, these are all things that we can think of as what Shepard calls “liberatory play”: a way of trying on and rehearsing identities that resists hegemonic understandings of race, gender, and sexuality.14 So in this way disco demonstrates the importance of creativity and pleasure to political change.
So this unit on Sylvester and the Gay Liberation Movement brings us to N.W.A. What we realized immediately was how this juxtaposition forced us and our students to have a discussion about hip hop music that’s more intersectional than it might be in a genre-based hip hop history class. We still connected N.W.A’s music to contemporary politics, to the war on drugs and the corresponding spike in incarceration rates for African Americans. But rather than seeing N.W.A as just a reflection of these conditions, just as street reportage, students were more prepared to understand gangsta rap as a form of liberatory play. They could see how the members of the group were participating in a form of self-fashioning, something akin to what Sylvester was doing.
In fact, Dr. Dre began his music career with a group called The World Class Wrecking Cru, which was associated with L.A. Electro. Electro was a mobile DJ scene that was closely related to disco and early hip hop. It was a world of fantasy, sex, and play. Dre used to wear shiny sequined jackets and a stethoscope around his neck. But with gangsta rap, a whole new idea about authenticity emerged that eschewed the flamboyance of Electro, and it was based on this very macho image of blackness. And after Dr. Dre broke with N.W.A and Eazy-E, he gets attacked for his past with the Wrecking Cru. Eazy-E called him out for wearing mascara and eyeliner and even featured a pre-N.W.A picture of Dre on one of his album covers as a way of questioning Dre’s masculinity and authenticity as a rapper. It’s misogynistic and homophobic stuff. And Ice Cube did the same thing against Dre when he left the group.
In any case, getting to N.W.A through disco allows students to see how gangsta rap’s critique of the criminalization of black youth and the LAPD’s repressive policing depended on the way they played with gender and sexuality. As an example, let’s listen to their most famous track.
[Plays N.W.A, “Fuck Tha Police”]
I wanted to get to this lyric—“I don’t know if they fags or what; search a nigga down and grabbing his nuts”—because that really cuts to the heart of it: how homophobic language could form a part of N.W.A’s critique of police brutality. And after a unit on Sylvester and disco, that line jumps out at our students, who have really come to empathize with Sylvester and his fans in a way that might not be the case when I’m teaching a class focusing more strictly on hip hop.
The real benefit of this approach, however, is not just calling attention to homophobia in hip hop. It’s recognizing all of the things that N.W.A and Sylvester have in common. When Josh Gamson visited and spoke to our class, one of the things he said was, “I’m interested in how people take things that stigmatize them, the very things that should hold them back, and use them to achieve stardom.” And in Sylvester’s case, this is pretty easy to see. He’s a cross-dressing Black man in 1976. By most common forms of logic, he shouldn’t have been a star, right? He should not have been as successful as he was. And yet he found a way to turn those things that marginalized him into a lever for himself and for his community. And you can see the parallel between Sylvester and what a group like N.W.A did with stereotypes about drugs and gangs in Compton and South Central Los Angeles. They took the ways that Black youth were criminalized and turned it into an advantage. And we ask our students to discuss whether this counts as a form of liberatory play.
In fact, to return to “Fuck Tha Police,” the concept behind the song is that it’s a trial. It’s a mock courtroom scene with the police on trial where N.W.A members are serving as the judge, prosecuting attorney, and expert witnesses. They’re using this song to playfully invert power relations in ways that are creative and humorous, even though these are serious life and death realities.
So for me, being able to teach in this kind of interdisciplinary context, focused on race, politics, and music as opposed to feeling hemmed in by genre or period, has given me space to think more creatively about the political work that music does. How do musicians play with race and gender conventions? When is this play a source of resistance? When is it not?
These questions are critical, especially in times of political crisis. Although it is tempting to question the importance of cultural production with so many lives at stake, “Music, Politics, and Race” teaches that musical activity can have tangible consequences. By providing small pockets of freedom where musicians and fans can think creatively and challenge the status quo, music enacts alternate worlds and keeps alive collective visions of more just and equitable realities.
Drawing on a course I teach entitled, Women in Hip Hop, my discussion situates Black women’s musical performances not only as flashpoints for articulating contemporary political debates, but also as co-constitutive of the intersections of raced and gendered politics. My example is Janet Jackson’s 1986 song and video “Nasty” and their central place in the viral response to the final 2016 presidential debate between Donald J. Trump and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in which Trump called Clinton “such a nasty woman.” I examine Jackson’s “Nasty” as illustrative of how Black women’s musical performances have long engaged the sexual politics with which Clinton grappled in the 2016 presidential campaign.15
Before discussing “Nasty,” a bit about my “Women in Hip Hop” course: The course posits that some of the most heated debates surrounding feminism, politics, and Black women are framed within the broad contours of hip hop. “Women in Hip Hop” explores how women are portrayed in hip hop music and culture, addressing women both as consumers and producers. It is informed by interdisciplinary texts that analyze misogyny in hip hop music and music videos, while also looking at how both mainstream and peripheral women artists use hip hop to affirm their sexual power, articulate Black feminism, and create spaces for their artistic expression. The course utilizes Black feminist theory, performance studies, and queer of color critique to complicate the ways in which women, gender, and sexuality are represented in hip hop music. While our analyses center on music that fits squarely within the hip hop genre, the class also attends to related musical traditions which have informed hip hop, including Blues, R&B, Rock, and many others. The course employs ethnographic, historical, sociological, literary, and interdisciplinary texts to delineate the political contradictions and tensions that examples such as “Nasty” illuminate.
I usually begin each class by playing a song or a music video that is related either to the readings assigned for that day, or to an event being debated in the news or on social media. The ways in which Janet Jackson’s song “Nasty” became intertwined with the 2016 presidential election provided just the sort of pedagogical example upon which the course relies.
Hillary Clinton supporters linked Janet Jackson’s “Nasty” to Clinton after Donald Trump disparaged her on October 19, 2016, during the final presidential debate.16 Trump’s gendered affront came in the form of an interruption just as Clinton referenced the Republican nominee’s avoidance of paying his income taxes: “We need to put more money into the Social Security trust fund,” she argued, “That’s part of my commitment to raise taxes on the wealthy. My Social Security payroll contribution will go up, as will Donald’s, assuming he can’t figure out how to get out of it.” As Clinton made her comment, the nationally televised debate captured Trump leaning in to his microphone, pointing his index finger and shaking his head as he interjected, “Such a nasty woman.”
The response on social media and in the popular and political press was swift. Supporters shot off tweets proclaiming, “A nasty woman’s place is in the White House.”17 Many of these tweets included memes juxtaposing Clinton’s face onto Jackson’s iconic cover for her album 1986 “Control,” on which the song “Nasty” appeared. The “Control” album cover depicted Jackson, posed in front of a bright red background and dressed in a long, black, buttoned-down, shoulder-padded blazer, with matching pants, gloves, and headband. Jackson is standing with her legs close together, her left leg slightly bent in front of the right, her left arm resting casually on it, the other arm is tucked behind her back. With her thick, long, black curly hair piled in a messy up-do that cascades down the right side of her face, Jackson looks straight ahead; her mouth is turned down and her expression is forlorn but resolute. To the left side a blue trapezoid graphic tapers downward, almost looking like an exclamation mark. At the top it reads, “Janet Jackson” and at the bottom, “Control.” Jackson’s photo is outlined in a bright yellow graphic that traces along her hair and down the contours of her blazer, accentuating its buttons. The image squarely places Jackson’s hair within African American styling practices and situates her fashion within the “power suit” trend of the 1980s that sought to establish women’s authority within the traditionally male-dominated corporate and political realms.
Versions of the meme superimposed Clinton’s smiling face in place of Jackson’s sullen countenance. The effect is a “whiteface” erasure of Jackson; Clinton now appears to be wearing Jackson’s cascading curly locks along with her power blazer—appropriate attire for a candidate whose reliance on the pantsuit became fodder for popular commentators and for satirical spoofs on Saturday Night Live. The hairstyle, however, smacks of racial appropriation on Clinton, whose own conservative blond coiffure is comparatively subdued. “Racial appropriation” emerges as a controversial term and topic every time I teach “Women in Hip Hop.” Students are accustomed to debating, for example, whether or not white artists can and should freely perform Black music. But Clinton supporters’ use of Jackson’s image opens up the debate to encompass questions about gender, sexuality, Black women’s labor and political inequality. Some versions of the meme imposed the word “Nasty” in graffiti-style lettering over Clinton’s (read: Jackson’s) torso and replaced the blue trapezoid with Clinton’s campaign logo; a letter “H” in which the center line becomes an arrow. While some women of color commentators saw the meme as in poor taste at best, and indicative of a troubling example of whitewashing a Black woman’s image at worst, Clinton supporters ran with it, and various versions proliferated on Twitter. The originator of the meme, Ted Rutherford, reportedly subsequently apologized, saying, “My perception as a white man prevented me from seeing the potential for harm to people of color, whose detriment has long been the benefit of white people like me.18 Still, an NPR story entitled, “#MemeOfTheWeek: Nasty Woman, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and Janet Jackson,” proclaimed that Jackson’s song had “become the soundtrack to one of the night’s most memorable moments.”19 Tweets and T-shirts superimposing Clinton’s face onto the “Control” cover went viral not just immediately after the debate, but also at the Women’s March on Washington in January of 2017. Thus, Rutherford’s apology, and the subsequent use of the “Control” imagery at the Women’s March provided concrete examples which students can employ to interrogate how white allies can and should engage with Black cultural products.
The ways in which the viral Twitter hashtag #NastyWoman superimposed Clinton on Jackson’s image, song and video, considered alongside Clinton’s defeat, reveal much about the tensions and contradictions between white feminism and Black women’s “feminist musical masterworks,” such as Jackson’s “Control” (Sanders). Following the debate, numerous YouTube comments alongside the “Nasty” video proclaimed: “Madame President, if you’re nasty.”20 The many YouTube comments connecting the video with Clinton suggest that her supporters re-watched the video in wake of the debate. Indeed, the music streaming service, Spotify, reported that streams of “Nasty” spiked 250% after the presidential debate.21 Clinton’s supporters had turned to Jackson’s song and its video in response to Trump’s comment. They seemed to have re-imagined Clinton as having rebutted Trump by appropriating Jackson’s signature line, “It’s ‘Mrs. Clinton’ if you’re nasty,” during the debate. Only she hadn’t. For all of the political gumption that linking Clinton with Jackson evoked, it was only much later, during the publicity tour for her book, What Happened, that Clinton publicly pondered whether she should have responded not only when Trump called her “a nasty woman” but also when he stalked her from behind as she spoke during the presidential debates.
The events prompted me, like many others, to revisit the song “Nasty” and its video. While in the section that follows, I deconstruct parts of the video, in the classroom, I encourage students to offer their own interpretations before adding my insights. The video begins with a prelude: An exterior shot of a cinema with the marquee heading “NASTY” opens the frame as Jackson, accompanied by two young women, enters the movie theatre. A line of male moviegoers confronts the three women with objectifying stares and taunts. In blatantly phallic symbolism, the usher, also a man, directs the beam of his large flashlight from Jackson’s movie ticket, up over her torso and onto her displeased face as she hands him her ticket. From here the all-male group follows Jackson and her friends into the theater, where, as the film starts, they gather around the women, harassing them with lines such as, “You know you want me,” and “What you doin’ after the movie?” As one man sits beside Jackson and runs his hand along her thigh, she pushes his hand aside, and leaps to her feet yelling, “Stop!” The next frame shows Jackson now standing, center stage, in front of the in-progress movie, as she strikes a wide-legged stance and thrusts one arm defiantly over her head. She utters the song’s famous opening line, “Gimme a beat!” and breaks into an impassioned dance routine. The fellow moviegoers stop and gasp, just as the characters in the film freeze and break the Fourth Wall, appearing to look beyond their place in the film and onto Jackson dancing on the stage. Then, Jackson executes an acrobatic inter-textual backflip, catapulting herself from the theater’s stage into the movie’s street scene, where she seamlessly falls in step with an ensemble of male dancers. From there Jackson, dressed head-to-toe in black, including an oversized, shoulder-padded blazer, masterfully commands as lead dancer and singer in various street scenes in which she, the lone woman amongst a multiracial troupe of male dancers, rebuffs want-to-be suitors. The video’s (and the song’s) most memorable moment comes when, seated in a convertible beside a man, she belts out, “I’m not a fool. I just want some respect. So close the door if you want me to respond. ‘Cause ‘Privacy’ is my middle name, my last name is ‘Control’ [getting out and slamming the car door] No, my first name ain’t ‘Baby,’ it’s ‘Janet,’ ‘Miss Jackson’ if you’re nasty!”22
Overtly a demand for respect from men in the realm of romantic relationships, we can also contextualize the song and the album on which it appeared (Jackson’s third studio album) within the performer’s personal struggle for control over her career and her quest for independence from her family and professional managers.23 And the students who take “Women in Hip Hop” become adept at recognizing both the intimate and the industry-derived forms of sexism with which women artists contend. But “Nasty” is, of course, about so much more. The lyrics and video imagery, coupled with Jackson’s flawlessly executed iconic moves, brilliantly choreographed by Paula Abdul, situate the performance within the sexual politics of consent and street harassment. The video revisits its inter-textual set-up at minute 3:22 from the perspective of the two friends who accompanied Jackson into the theatre24—an indication of the feminist gaze. They bop their heads from side to side as they watch Jackson and the men on the screen, and sing along with her line, “Nasty boys don’t mean a thing.”
Along with other chart-topping singles, such as “What Have you Done for me Lately,” “Nasty,” has endured as a feminist rallying call. It also firmly situated Jackson’s role as a musical innovator and as a trailblazer for what would be later termed, “hip hop feminism.”25 These songs, and the album on which they appeared, demonstrated Jackson’s facility at fusing hip hop, R&B, industrial music, and dance music to usher in the New Jack Swing sound popularized in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Jackson would go on, in collaborations with hip hop artists, such as Chuck D, Heavy D and later, Missy Elliott, to further blur the boundaries between R&B, Funk, Pop, and Hip Hop. Arguably, “Nasty” and other songs on “Control” set the foundation for 1990s R&B and hip hop artists like Queen Latifah and TLC, and later ensembles like Destiny’s Child, all of whom explored the intersections of sexual politics and gender inequality. And for our purposes, Jackson wore the pantsuit long before Hillary Clinton—her costuming connotes that Miss Jackson could have well stepped out of the boardroom and onto the city street.
Situating this video as a precursor to contemporary hip hop feminism underscores how Black women’s musical performances have long infused the popular consciousness with feminist critiques of patriarchal control. And in the classroom, I strive to expose students to the longue durée of Black women’s cultural and political resistance music. Following Daphne Brooks we can see Jackson’s work as “creating a particular kind of black feminist surrogation, that is, an embodied cultural act that articulates black women’s distinct forms of palpable sociopolitical loss and grief as well as spirited dissent and dissonance.”26 And while “Nasty,” is not overtly about grief, it does echo sociopolitical loss and dissent at a time in which Black women’s political voices were marginalized. Unfortunately, white politicians were not heeding Black women musicians’ political critiques in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It was just six years after Jackson released “Control” that President Bill Clinton had his infamous Sister Souljah Moment.27 We might suggest that the “Clicktivism” evidenced in linking Hillary Clinton with Jackson produced a “reverse Sister Souljah Moment” for the second Clinton to run for the presidency—while Bill felt he had to distance himself from Souljah, Hillary’s camp did not speak out against the linking of Jackson and their candidate.
There is another critical moment against which we should contextualize Clinton supporters’ use of Jackson’s work: the infamous “nipplegate” incident from the 2004 Super Bowl Halftime Show, in which the white pop/R&B singer Justin Timberlake exposed Jackson’s nipple during a performance televised live to 143.6 million viewers. Attempting a planned tear-away of only the outer layer of Jackson’s leather costume, Timberlake famously ripped off the costume and the bra beneath it, briefly exposing the singer’s jewelry-clad nipple. Also known as the first “wardrobe malfunction,” “Nipplegate” had disastrous consequences for Jackson’s career; she was blacklisted, blamed, and fined (although the fine was later voided). Timberlake distanced himself from Jackson in the wake of the incident and did not come to her defense. “Nipplegate” is the reason we now have a timed delay with live broadcasts—it sparked stricter FCC regulations. In an ironic echo of Jackson’s album title, the exposure of a Black woman’s nipple prompted the FCC to execute stricter control over what viewers could see.28 While Timberlake’s career skyrocketed following the incident, Jackson’s success waned. However, Jackson seemed finally vindicated when fervor for her music and for “Control” resurfaced once again more recently, amidst criticism for Timberlake, when in February of 2018, he returned to perform at the Super Bowl Halftime Show.29
If we recall “nipplegate,” the use of Jackson’s music and imagery in 2016 represents a stunning reversal. The performer’s song and imagery were employed as a political mouthpiece, aimed to talk back to Trump’s misogyny. In the final push of Clinton’s campaign Black women and hip hop artists were deployed to rally the base of African Americans who traditionally vote for Democratic candidates. From Michelle Obama, to Beyoncé (who delivered stirring speeches and star-studded political rallies, respectively), to Janet Jackson, Black women propelled Hillary Clinton in the final push of the 2016 presidential election.30 They articulated what she couldn’t, working at the intersection of gender, age, and race to shine a light on Trump’s misogyny and fire up young voters of color.
The ways in which Jackson’s song and image were used to contest Trump’s misogyny obscured the troubling race/gender realities of the 2016 election’s voting demographics: 52% of white women voted for Donald Trump, while 94% of Black women voted for Hillary Clinton (CNN).31 It seems that while white Clinton supporters embraced the powerful political symbolism conveyed in Jackson’s artistry, white women voters dragged their feet when it came to damning Trump’s sexism at the ballot boxes. In my teaching, the utilization of Jackson’s image and music to contest Trump emerges as an effective pedagogical example for prompting students to reflect on the intersection of sexism, racism, politics and music.
In the classroom, I would conclude the above discussion with the following questions aimed at eliciting student debate and dialogue: How can we understand the viral association of Jackson’s album cover and Clinton’s campaign slogan within the historical context of Black women’s labor facilitating the freedoms white feminists have been able to enjoy? Mary Lambert, the director of “Nasty,” is a white woman. Does this complicate claiming the video as a Black feminist text? Can we situate “Nasty’s” feminist critique within the political discourses of Black women politicians, such as Shirley Chisholm and Maxine Waters? Why were/are such women able to say what Clinton could not? Although many white women evoked “Nasty” and helped fuel the “Nasty Woman” hashtag, more than half of white women voters chose Trump on Election Day. What do you make of this? What might a national feminist presidential campaign schooled in Black women’s political interventions from the start look like? Might such a campaign have won over the white women who voted for Trump?
So, yeah, I teach the OutKast class that went viral.32 I feel like I have to give a little bit of context about why I picked OutKast, besides them being my favorite group ever in life and my unhealthy obsession with André 3000.
I’m from Albany, Georgia, a small city in the southwest corner of the state. I found myself in an interesting position being that I was in the academy and a post-civil rights Southerner, yet never having had in-depth conversations about Southern rap artists. I recognized that in order for me to be considered a “hip hop scholar,” I had to be familiar with bi-coastal rap and the scholarship that accompanied it. And I was like, “This ain’t even my bag.”
So, I studied and learned about East Coast and West Coast artists who I listened to in passing, but was unable to give equally critical attention to those artists that I listen to on a daily basis. Additionally, as a scholar, I have a couple of things going against me: I am a Southern Black woman who wants to focus on the contemporary South. I asked myself, why not use OutKast because they were the soundtrack of my coming-of-age in the South and I’ve often thought of myself being an outcast in the academy. The way that I think about things does not fall into line with the normal, traditional narrative of what is and what is not considered to be an academic discipline.
I’d like to start my remarks by reading just a little bit from the introduction of the book that I’m working on, Chronicling Stankonia, which I hope will give a bit more context about how I introduce OutKast as a scholarly subject to my students.
[Reading] I first fell in love with OutKast at the age of 14 in the summer of 1998, right before my freshman year of high school. I had recently moved to live with my grandparents and my father in Albany, Georgia, a small city in the southwest corner of the state. Albany was much smaller than my previous residence in Northern Virginia—shout out to the DMV. But I wasn’t completely unfamiliar with Albany. I knew that my name was not Regina, but Mr. and Mrs. Barnett’s granddaughter, that church on Sunday meant staying for Sunday school and regular service, and that the heat in Albany didn’t understand personal boundaries.
I transferred to Southside Middle School in the last grading period of the year, and people didn’t let me forget that. I was a bit apprehensive about letting my guard down. I was mercilessly bullied at my former school and working through guilt of leaving my brother and sister behind with their dad in Northern Virginia. My schoolmates laughed at my accent and fast enunciation. I learned quickly, shorty was shawty, girl was guh, back was bike, which is very Albany. And in addition to being my folks’ granddaughter, I was described as that tall small high-yellow girl, and later as Gina Mae. Gina Mae happened on accident as a joke, meant to tone down my northeastern-ness and officially dub me a Southern girl. “We gone get you right,” my new classmates said, often with a wink and a drawn-out laugh.
Another thing about Albany is that it’s known as the crowning failure of the civil rights movement, which means that Dr. King tried to share his dream of equality and white folks was like, “Nah.” So, you know, without Albany you wouldn’t have had the rest of the civil rights movement—your Birminghams, your Selmas—because Dr. King had said in multiple autobiographies that because he failed in Albany that was a good reason for him to revamp his approach to what civil rights meant.
Hip hop was my personal and cultural transition into being Southern. It was not until a decade later that I would find the language to articulate or even recognize that my fondness for Southern hip hop, and particularly OutKast, was a segue into a larger question of where the South fit into not only hip hop culture, but contemporary American society in general.
The Black American South seldom has room to expand past three major historical moments—the Antebellum Era, Jim Crow, and the modern civil rights movement. Now Southerners take comfort and pleasure in being able to restrict Black identities to these touchstones of Southern-ness because of their accessible narratives, the romanticization in mainstream American culture of this kind of plantation lifestyle that all Black folks are supposed to be traumatic and unsaveable, a reflection of southern blackness’ lagging agency outside of a white imagination. In the same way that the American South embraces being a regional poltergeist, living with and benefitting from the haunts of the past, southern Black folks too were haunted by white people. Southern Blacks are expected to cower in the shadows of racism, succumb to their innate backwardness, and live in daily terror simply for being Black in the South. They are seldom their own complex and autonomous selves. Without fuss, Black folks are believed to fall in tow with Southern white experiences (which, for the record, just really pisses me off to no end, but I can’t put that in the book).
This extends from the Antebellum era to modern times, with Southern Black folks continuously fighting to carve room for themselves to speak their truth to power, even amidst the struggles of the twentieth century civil rights movement, itself an effort to depart from white supremacy and the social-cultural constructs that supported it. White folks and their reactions were not far from center. The deemed legibility of Southern Black respectability politics aside, the movement sustained itself across the region because of the promise of not only Black civil rights but also white assimilation into the efforts that these rights would be better for everybody. That didn’t happen. I write that April 5, 1968, the day after the assassination of Dr. King, starts the post-civil rights era. National attention on the Black South goes silent. This radio silence happens because folks don’t have the language, nor the audacity, to think about Southern Black folks after the movement.
So, as somebody who was born and living after the formally organized movement, I was in my feelings. I started to think about how hip hop helps us work through race, identity, and region and how they intersect in contemporary American popular culture. OutKast often came to the forefront. Let me clarify that I don’t suggest OutKast was the first southern hip hop group to exist because they weren’t, but they were the first hip hop group to be recognized as southern, and be denounced as southern, because of the 1995 Hip Hop Source Awards. Because they won for their first album, Southernplayalisticadillacmusik—say that three times fast—and they literally got booed off the stage.33 Their rejection at the awards opened up room for them to experiment and find their lane in hip hop. Basically, if you don’t want us to be part of a bicoastal hip hop aesthetic, we’re going to make our own aesthetic.
Still, when I talk about these things with my students, I have to tell them that I don’t think that hip hop’s presence in the South is the sole marker of its contemporary experiences. It is, however, a catalyst for thinking about how to extend those conversations past traditional paradigms of academic inquiry and popular culture that folks are very much comfortable with. And, more specifically, thinking about the ways that OutKast intentionally removes a white gaze from the center of how they express their southern-ness. This frequently makes me think about my own approaches to academic studies like Southern Studies, where white scholars are hurt because like OutKast—and many other Black southerners—I’m not thinking about a William Faulkner or Flannery O’Connor. And then, when you say, their interpretations of the South don’t apply to me or my experiences, the baffled response usually parallels “Oh, my God, you have just completely disrupted everything.” The disruption of everything is what OutKast intentionally tries to do.
The first time I taught the OutKast class was at Armstrong State University (now Georgia Southern University Armstrong campus) in Savannah, Georgia, a small, teaching-intensive liberal arts college. And now that I’m at Kennesaw State University in Kennesaw, Georgia, which is about 30 minutes north of Atlanta and a bit bigger R3 school, I hope to teach in the spring 2018 semester. I am working through revisions to the class that reflect students actually being in close proximity to the Black hole that is Atlanta [laughs].
The way I have set up the class is addressing each album as a unit. For example, we start the class with the first Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik as a framework for thinking about the city of Atlanta as not only a contemporary city in the South but a hip hop city. This is important, because Atlanta’s image in the early ‘90s looked to present the city as pristine, upper middle class, and Black, and R&B. Hip hop was not the desired soundtrack for the moves Atlanta was trying to make, such as winning the bid for the 1996 Olympics. Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik reflected the Atlanta still grappling with the legacies of the civil rights movement and newer terrors like the Atlanta child murders, which really continues to haunt Atlanta even today. Maurice Hobson’s book Legend of the Black Mecca is a great historiography of the city’s climb to international status. It’s interesting how OutKast’s discography parallels Atlanta’s rise.34 For example, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik reflects Atlanta during its climb to power, and their second album, ATLiens, parallels Atlanta’s prominence—you know, when Atlanta became “the ATL.” Then, that pinch of Atlanta hip hop swag was co-opted by white marketing for the city, and Atlanta is now was “the A.” We ran out of letters.
So what I usually start with is probably one of my favorite songs on Southernplayalisticadillamuzik because I’m the teacher and I can play my favorites and get away with it, which is “Git Up, Git Out.” I’m going to play a little bit of it real quick. I’ll also intentionally play the uncensored version because we’re grown and I want students to grapple with their ideas of music, censorship, etc.
[Plays OutKast’s “Git Up, Git Out”]35
So even though we didn’t hear OutKast [Big Boi and Andre 3000] in that particular excerpt, “Git Up, Git Out” is really interesting for me because it highlights the challenges of not having access to or failing to fulfill the idealistic expectations of the civil rights movement generation. I believe it is a deeply inherent and southern thing that education or “schooling” is the means to success. But the song suggests “Nah, not really.” Even if you do everything that you’re supposed to do, you still have to face the particular challenges of being young, southern, and Black.
But the song especially speaks to the idea of struggle, right? Especially when you think about southern. So it’s not the struggle, but a struggle, and how that works in terms of not only the de-romanticization of education as an access point, but also this understanding about not working (culturally, economically, politically) through that anxiety of failing the elders. So you have this tension that exists between older generations and younger generations of southerners who feel like, “I got my ass whipped for you; so you need to just, you know, get your act together and do right. And then the southern younger folks respond with, “I appreciate you getting your ass whupped, but it didn’t fix everything.”
So that’s where I get this theorization of southern hip hop when I say “the mountaintop ain’t flat.” We can be on the mountaintop faced with this idealistic understanding of racial equality and all of that good stuff. But it’s not a straight or calm terrain in terms of we can go from point A to point B, and everything’s all smooth and gravy and dandy. That’s why hip hop is so important because they repeatedly point out that the civil rights movement didn’t fix everything. So it’s not necessarily working against what the folks in the movement were trying to do, but it’s more like trying to make room to speak to those newfound circumstances and challenges that affect younger generations that weren’t around previously.
The thing about OutKast that’s great is they start in Atlanta. They acknowledge and recognize the South as this regional, physical space. And then when they get rejected at the Source Awards, they start becoming more conceptual with their music. So they move away from these kind of standard definitions of southernness and southern black identity. Atlanta is in the northern part of the state but with ATLiens, Atlanta becomes Atlantis, and they move it to where Savannah is on the coast.36 This move is intentional because Big Boi has roots in Savannah. And then you ultimately get to Aquemini, and Stankonia, which is nearly completely void of the physical boundaries of what it means to be southern.37 The sonic and even lyrical experimentation reflects OutKast’s changing ideas about their status as southerners. And they do that very well. They’ve been adamant about their growth as artists and not trying to sound the same because they’re evolving, constantly evolving. So I challenge students to think about what that means, what does it mean for us to think about the South as constantly evolving, particularly for Black folks?
With that being said, I want to play this last clip because I feel like my time is coming to an end. If we can do “Aquemini” from the Aquemini album because that song always gets me in my feelings, and it’s Sunday, so we can have a little bit of church.
[Plays OutKast’s “Aquemini”]
The interesting thing about Aquemini besides it being like my favorite album ever [laughs] is in terms of how that album marks them moving past this idea of southern-ness, which is the literal removal of physical boundaries associated with southern experiences. It’s a South-ness, which I theorize is the sociocultural conceptualization of southern life without the restrictions of physical regional affiliation. And it’s really interesting how Big Boi and André are putting themselves in conversations on opposite sides of the spectrum. On the one hand, you have Big Boi who’s talking about this really contemporary kind of understanding about what it means to be southern and embracing that idea of a “dirty” South, right? And then you have André, who’s more introspective, which is often how it all happens. And because he pulls more from his inner thoughts people think he’s better than Big Boi, but that’s a whole ‘nother conversation for another day.
But Andre’s talking about how he is embracing change without losing sight of the past and how he’s considering himself in the present and future. This idea of two-ness is not only associated with him being a Gemini, which is where you get the “mini” from Aquemini, right? But also that two-ness in terms of like a double consciousness in how he thinks about himself as a contemporary southerner coming out of Atlanta. He talks about the child murders. He talks about the idea of when the civil rights heroes eventually die. What happens when we run out of space to talk about the civil rights movement?
Reading between the lyrics is what I challenge my students to do. We have these tough listening activities, where they don’t just listen for lyrics, because that’s boring. When you talk about hip hop in class, you can use lyrics, but students are challenged to actively listen to the sonic representation, the sonic markers of how we update these conversations about the South, particularly when you think about the influence of production teams like Organized Noize. You wouldn’t have southern hip hop without Organized Noize. And it’s interesting to see how with the Aquemini album, Organized Noize starts to take a back seat, because OutKast is starting to produce for themselves with the arrival of Earthtone III, comprising OutKast and David “Mr. DJ” Sheats. Their transition to producers is completed with their fourth album, Stankonia. Where Organized Noise only produce two or three tracks on Stankonia, the rest is Earthtone III, which is sonically distinctive from Organized Noize’s distinctly funk-influenced production.
All that to say it’s really interesting to think about how OutKast presents multiple threads of sonic and lyrical articulations of what the South could be because there isn’t just one South. There are multiple Souths. For those of us who grew up in Albany, it’s different than folks who grew up in Tallahassee, Alabama, Mississippi, or Texas, because those influences are different. Yet we’re all having this conversation about what southern-ness is, because we articulate what that stuff means in hip hop, using hip hop to update conversations about the South. So, that’s a bit of insight into how I approach OutKast pedagogically and in my research. OutKast is a group that is ripe for theoretical framework. They are not just a hip hop group.
When we have conversations about hip hop, part of our conversation needs to be how we can theorize these groups and not just listen to them in passing. Radical listening, which falls in line with radical revision, is important when thinking about the connections between regions in the South—and in hip hop. We’re currently in an intriguing moment where we question whether or not hip hop even needs regional affiliation now because it’s at the point where you really don’t have to have these conversations because we have social media. It doesn’t matter if you want to sound like you’re from Atlanta and you’re really from New York— ahem, Desiigner—then artists can do that now. There’s no need to have that hyper-awareness of regional identity today like it was 20, 25 years ago, but I want to have that kind of conversation. I want to push students to seek out the possibilities and the musical historiographies within hip hop, and OutKast is a great way to do that. Thank you.
I want to begin by recognizing that we’re all on indigenous land here. And we’re on the land that was originally the territory of Potowatami and Peoria, Kaskaskia and Kankakee tribes, and a number of other peoples whose sovereignty was not extinguished in the making of the Chicago Treaties in 1820s and 1830s.
I teach at the University of Illinois, and I’m in a somewhat unusual position, I think, with respect to folks here at ASA because I teach in a large school of music, which primarily has a conservatory attitude. But it’s also within a comprehensive R-1 university, where I have strong links to the humanities. In addition to the School of Music, I have appointments in African American Studies and Anthropology, and a connection with the American Indian Studies Department, which was devastated a number of years ago by the so-called “unhiring” of Steven Salaita as well as a broad-scale attack, I think, on Indigeneity as a framework for work not only at our university but in many universities.
So my teaching is entirely for the School of Music. But I’m also trying to do work that is connecting these various threads of my professional life. And my students for the most part are undergraduate music majors. So they are students who are not necessarily already engaged with the kinds of questions that I might want them to be. Many of my students and colleagues there are people who, for the most part, like to think that music is a special object, that it’s set aside from the rest of life and the world and so forth. And I like to use this work in part to develop in them the notion that music is powerful and important, in ways that I think it is to them, and to help them actually see this as something that makes music more powerful and not something that makes music less.
The latest pedagogical issue for me is the ongoing presence of cartoon native music in sporting events. The university is, I think, being at best ambivalent about fully getting rid of our racist mascot. And their excuse for continuing to play this music, which is that we are afraid we will lose millions of dollars of donor money if we stop playing it, is even spoken aloud in these meetings. Numbers between six and ten million dollars are what they’re looking at losing, and there’s this fear here. But they say, “Well, the guy doesn’t show up in the outfit and dance anymore. It’s just music. Music doesn’t mean anything. Music isn’t political. It’s just music. It just makes people feel good.” And I find that deeply frustrating. And so part of trying to teach that music does in fact mean something is also about trying to have some sort of intervention into the very real ways in which we, the university—and I have to say we, right? Because this thing is a part of the University of Illinois School of Music, and I am one of its faculty members—continue to produce these things and reproduce them week in and week out.
But I wanted to talk about a different thing than that. I teach a number of courses that deal with specific genres or topics in African American and indigenous music. I do a course on Blues. I’m teaching a graduate course on Thelonius Monk right now. Now there’s two other courses that I’m really excited about that are really intersecting courses in a certain way. I kind of always hope that students will take both. One is on Black transnationalism in the long twentieth century, which is to say going back to about the 1890s, and the other is on indigenous cosmopolitanism in Australia and Melanesia. I say they’re intersecting in a significant way because this also ties into my own research, which deals with the interconnections between diasporic Black people and indigenous people who also use the term Black to describe themselves in Australia, Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, and Melanesia. In a certain way, this is not exactly American Studies. Both of these classes are playing on the notion of the Archipelagic in American Studies, the idea of seeing American Studies as actually tying together these linkages of spaces throughout the world in a certain way.
Also, these classes engage the oceanic turn in Area Studies, the turn away from just a terrestrial notion of areas—Africa, Asia, Europe, North America, Latin American—to one that is more based around ocean basins as spaces of travel, contact, intersection, and so forth. I’m trying to get through that. I’m also trying to get students to think through theories of race with this, right? Winant and Omi’s historical trajectory of racialization and theories of settler colonialism. I don’t want to focus too much on Patrick Wolfe’s work on settler colonialism. I’m actually pushing back in certain ways against his work. But it’s very much a political economy of race. And that is, I think, very much what that project was trying to do to describe racialization as a political economy. I’m also drawing on indigenous scholars like Kauanui, Diaz, and Clint Bracknell in Australia, who are working on settler colonialism and on theorizing race through that.
So I picked two examples that I wanted to play for you, both of which I think showcase things that surprised my students, which is a kind of pedagogical tactic, right? Which is to say, “Did you expect that?” And then they say, “No.” And so, “Alright, let’s read through that; let’s figure that out.” The first of these is the song “Ngarra Burra Ferra,” a song in the Yorta language from what’s now the state of Northern Victoria on the border between Victoria and New South Wales in southeastern Australia. It’s a field recording I made in 2012 with three women—Beverly Briggs, Laurel Robinson, and Naomi Mayers. We were talking at where they work at the Indigenous Health Services in Red Fern, the aboriginal neighborhood in Sidney. And they sang this for me.
The women singing are all near retirement age now. This is a song they remembered from their childhood, a song that has profound significance to them. It’s also a song that was used in a movie that was made about their lives as younger women when they were in their late teens and early twenties. They had an all-girl soul group called the Sapphires, which had toured American bases in Vietnam singing R&B hits of the day. The movie is loosely based on their life story. And it’s used in the film as a kind of centerpiece. They are missing home and they call home, and their mother says, “You know what I want to hear.” And then they sing this for her, and it transitions to a shot of the community back at their home in Cummeragunja watching a broadcast of Martin Luther King, Jr. giving the mountaintop speech, and the news of Kennedy’s assassination. So it’s used to explicitly link indigenous life and Black politics.
This is the sheet music. But the song is actually a song that was initially a hit in the 1890s for the Fisk Jubilee Singers. It’s the song “Turn Back Pharaoh’s Army.”38 This was translated into Yorta by Beverley Brigg’s grandmother probably. There’s some question about who exactly made the translation. Anyway, the song’s translation really cuts to the chase. They only sing the final two stanzas, which are the two that really get to the point of it: Moses parting the water, the children passing over, and importantly—the ending point here—Pharaoh’s army trying to follow them and being drowned.
It’s significant for a whole bunch of reasons. Partly it is this description of doing violence to the oppressor, partly because water is sort of central to the cosmology of the Yorta people. They are riverine people, and the idea of crossing the water is important because the community of Cummeragunja was one of the very first communities to have organized opposition to the system of removal in indigenous Australia. And they organized by leaving the mission settlement that they had been removed to, and crossing over the Murray River where it was located into space that they were not meant to occupy. So the crossing of water actually is a multifaceted and excellent thing for them.
I teach this to students partly to get them to think about the many ways in which music can become powerful and politically and significant. Also to talk about what, in fact, the trajectory of F.J. Loudin and the Fisk Jubilee Singers actually was, and to think about the ways in which not only does this have an impact for indigenous people, but this is a story about indigenous cosmopolitanism as an indigenous intersection with and embrace of things from outside of Australia, and things from outside of a local language based, land-based sort of system. But also because it was really important in the development for Loudin in particular of a global perspective on politics of Blackness, and the idea of what it was to be a Black politically committed artist. He went on after this. He actually stayed in Australia for about six years. The Fisk Jubilee Singers also took side trips to New Zealand, where they interacted extensively with Maori people. They worked directly with indigenous people. Loudin went on to become a delegate to the First Pan-African Congress in London, and I think that the experience of being among different Blacknesses, if you will, was really significant for them. Orpheus Myron McAdoo, who’s not shown in this picture, was a member that actually stayed on and created his own Black theory in Sidney, which focused on both Jubilee songs, such as these kinds of spirituals, but also on some pop entertainment songs and started hiring Aboriginal people to be members of his choir. So there’s a real history of performance intersections.
OK, so that’s the earliest part. That’s the 1890s portion of this thing. But I also want to play another song. This is a music video by Airileke Ingram. It’s a song called “Sorong Samari.”39 I won’t play all of it. But you’ll get a sense of where things are at.
[plays music video]
Sorong and Samarai are two cities on the far eastern and western edges of the Island of Papua. West Papua, as it says at the beginning, is a colonized space. It is a state within Indonesia, and there are brutal murders. There are death squads actively dispossessing and, in fact, eradicating indigenous people in that place today. There is a ban on discussing this for news media. So music is how people can find out about these things. Music does political work in this space, specifically by being able to speak. And being able to speak in ways that the Indonesian government doesn’t love but also is not able to explicitly repress. And although they reach outside of West Papua, I spoke with Airileke, and he said that their biggest audience is in West Papua right now. And they know that because they have data on where the hits are coming from on YouTube. So they know that they do in fact have a West Papuan audience.
Airileke is from Papua New Guinea, not from West Papua. What I’m trying to do for students with this material is not only to make a case about what’s going on right now, but also to make a case about why you need a history of understanding this to know what’s happening. That, in fact, there’s a reason that this is one of a whole series of reggae tunes about West Papua independence, and the reason for that is that there is in fact an indigenous cosmopolitanism that goes back centuries. And this is a place that has been written about by anthropologists, mostly in terms of isolation and antipathy. But in fact it is a space that has been networked, connected, and international in significant ways since at least the sixteenth century. There was a framework for the incorporation of reggae that wasn’t about colonialism but that was about something else.
The other thing I’m trying to get at here in both of these cases is about racial connections and racial formations that aren’t solely or directly about whiteness or about colonialism. There are Black-Black, or Black-indigenous connections that are in some ways facilitated by the colonial presence, but are in fact also significantly separate from it, and they are operating in a different kind of way. I think this helps push against some of the racial formation literature, and the settler colonialism literature, both of which share a problem because whiteness still remains the pivot point through which aspects or discussions of race can happen. I’m trying to get at that.
One other thing to add in terms of having students read and think through this is the question of what sort of music itself can add to discussions of racial politics that aren’t just decoration, right? More than just a fun way to hear a political thing. And that’s why I’m reading Dylan Robinson, a scholar who works at Queens University in Canada and who’s writing a lot about what he calls aesthetic action and the power of affect. The idea being that these things are not just a political economy, but that they are in fact also processes that happen through aesthetics and happen through feelings. Alright, I’ll leave it at that.
QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
I’m wondering the extent to which “liveness” plays into your teaching. You all were talking about bringing artists into the classroom, right? But then, we kind of understand what happens when we’re listening to music in our bedroom, for example. What we may or may not say, right? It’s like the song is playing. We hear some lyrics coming from the audience, and then on certain parts of the song, silence. There’s a lot to be said there about the politics or intentions of what you choose to say in public, what you choose not to say in public. So how do you incorporate “liveness” within your classroom, and then how does that influence the kind of projects that the students are then able to create?
My students and I have these conversations about safe spaces and that really thin line between just saying something to say it and actually giving a critical edge to what you’re trying to say. The second part of that conversation is that a lot of us here are also sound studies scholars, so the act of listening itself is a political intervention in how students approach the classroom and getting them to realize that how you listen to something impacts your interpretation of what the message is. So there’s definitely that part of the “liveness.” Using myself as an example, the way that I was listening to OutKast at 14 is totally different from the way I’m listening to it today at 33. I’m listening for different things, right? In addition to that question of liveness that you’re talking about is the evolution of what that listening does. How do you evolve your listening, especially something that you enjoy, and then try to listen to it with that critical ear that is required for these kind of classes? Students often don’t think of themselves as critical listeners because they think, “Oh, we don’t have the degrees or the expertise.” And that presents a hindrance in terms of what that liveness does. I open each classroom session with a group discussion. I tell them, “I want you all to just talk about it amongst yourselves.” I don’t want to contaminate what they’re thinking because they think, “Oh, well, Dr. Bradley feels like this isn’t the right way to listen to it.” And that kind of takes away from the complexity of the conversations that we’re trying to have.
I start my Women in Hip Hop class with a Street Lit Novel by Sheri Sher called Mercedes Ladies. And Mercedes Ladies were the first all-female MC and DJ from the Bronx, not very well-known. And one of the reasons I started the course with that text is because it’s street lit and not well known, there seems to be a tendency to write it off as not real academic work.
So they see their biases about what they read, much less listen to, from the very beginning. And one of the times I taught the course, I was fortunate enough to get Sheri to come to campus. So by the time they read her novel, they of course fall in love with her, because she’s brilliant and a lot of the sexual politics and the kind of street harassment intervention that Janet’s negotiating in the “Nasty” video, Sheri does in real life, like being assaulted in her car when she was 16 years old in the Bronx by this creepy man. And so when this woman comes in and the students actually meet her, they’re able to see Black women musical artists as authority figures and able to see them as legitimate in ways they never would have, had they not read her novel, had they not seen her actually come into class. So having artists come to class ends up being the most powerful moments in the class. Like that’s where the students came alive. When Sheri shows up, they’re just absolutely floored by her.
I find this to be a provocative question for classes on hip hop. The majority of students I teach at the University of Oregon are white. They account for about 75 percent of the student body. I’m not black, and I’m teaching this hip hop class, right? And so it’s important to bring artists to class, and to do other things that challenge students because the primary way most students engage with hip hop music is through recordings in a private setting with their phones or computers.
So they may not even have to deal with all of the power and “liveness” implicit in the language they consume. I try to have frank conversations about the N-word, especially because it’s not something you can ignore in hip hop. And I think that’s the point. Listening to hip hop should make it very difficult to deny the history of racial oppression and the legacy of racism in U.S. society. So I try to use this as an opportunity for students to think about the power of language and how music is tied to histories of oppression.
You know, the longer that I teach these kinds of classes, students want to really embrace that whole color-blind, post-racial thing. And they’re like, “No! No, Dr. Bradley! That was way back when.” And I’m thinking to myself, 20 years ago is way back when?
We’ve had these conversations and it’s hard for students to articulate that they have this kind of inherent understanding of racial bias. Acknowledging and talking about that racial bias in public is such a taboo thing now that they’re like, “No, I’m not going to touch it. I’m going to just sit here and let it fester,” instead of actually speaking to it.
One example that immediately comes to mind, since we’re in Chicago, is the young white guy who assaulted a black woman security officer, and then when he turned around, he had on a hat with the logo of Chance the Rapper, who is this politically aware cat speaking against the same shit that he’s doing. It goes back to the idea that “it’s just music,” right? And that’s why the way that we engage students in our classes is so important. You have to show the receipts, so to speak, that this music doesn’t just pop up out of nowhere. Another interesting thing is that students want to relegate trauma to the distant past. I really had to get them to understand that slavery is not the only type of racial trauma. Let’s bring it up closer to the present. Let’s bring it up to the 1900s to the 1906 race riots in Atlanta. Let’s bring it up to the conversations that we’re having in Atlanta or wherever now. It’s just really fascinating to me how they want to historicize racial trauma. But only historicize it so far back that they don’t have to willingly engage it. And music is a way to push it back against them.
I’m also trained in anthropology, and I think the occupation of social space is a really important part of what we’re talking about. I also think about listening as really important, and that these things are in dialogue. And so I not only bring people in to perform but also have my students attend concerts and other kinds of performances. And often, in a majority white institution with overwhelmingly majority white classes, I often have students who have not had the experience of being the only white person in a room, or in some way occupying a space that they do not feel comfortable in or they do not feel easily that they own. So I teach a course on American indigenous music. And I do it in the fall, not the spring, because I can pick up the end of powwow season in the region, and we go to a couple of powwows and there’s a lot of work around being ethical guests and coming into a space and not being bad in that space, and learning how not to be the majority, right? Learning to be uncomfortable and thinking through and reflecting what that does for them and what that means. And I think that kind of experience for students can be really important and powerful.
I teach a hip hop culture and social change course. Most of my undergrads are between the ages of 18 and 20. I just turned 40, and there’s this whole tension around what’s considered good, real hip hop versus what’s being produced today. How do you handle that?
I also teach a large lecture class on hip hop and social justice at the University of Wisconsin, and I also organize it thematically. And I got a lot of ideas from each of you guys that I’m going to now incorporate, including Janet Jackson, who I now understand as one of the founders of hip hop feminism. I had always thought of her becoming hip hop-conscious with Rhythm Nation, when Chuck D came on her album. And that’s totally wrong as you’ve just shown me today. So thanks for that.
I connect the whole idea that hip hop itself is a rejection of the civil rights generation as opposed to a rejection of civil rights. [It is a rejection] of the limited ideology of civil rights that Martin Luther King himself rejected in his later life, as he developed a more robust critique of militarism, of class and capitalism. So instead of seeing hip hop as this generational thing, it is a reemergence of a more radical critique of white power.
So, to the point about generations in relation to hip hop, that kind of plays out in two ways I’m thinking of right now. One is sort of the generational divide between the students and me. And so I hear Janet saying, “Give me a beat,” and like that’s the jam, that sounds amazing to me, right? And my students hear that, and they’re like, “Oh, some of that sounds so antiquated.” And I even felt it in the room, going from Janet to OutKast, I was like, oh, man, yeah, it sounds really dated when juxtaposed to the works of OutKast. But so that happens. You know, when I start with Women in Hip Hop, one of the early listening examples I use is Roxanne Shante’s “Roxanne’s Revenge.” And when I was 14, Roxanne was 14. I knew all the words to that song. And I get that performance and I’m still like this is the best!
The other way that generation comes into my course is generational approaches to feminism. So I get a lot of students in the class who are feminists, and then when they’re introduced to Hip Hop Feminism, they’re like, wait a minute, no, that’s not what feminism looks like. So then we have to talk about the waves of feminism.
And I think there’s a lot of humor when I engage these intergenerational tensions. I make fun of myself all the time, and that makes students more comfortable with having disagreements with me. I think about OutKast as an intersectional point with ideas of feminism and how they grapple with that. Toni Cade Bambara has an awesome way of doing that. I also put them in conversation with other genres of music before that. Atlanta was a big funk place—funk music was supreme in Atlanta in the ‘70s and ‘80s. And I didn’t really realize that until I thought about my father who was very much a funk fan. Sleepy Brown’s dad was one of the lead singers in Brick, so no wonder he has that smooth live instrumentation and falsetto in his production with Organized Noize for OutKast. So being able to introduce those kinds of marginalized perspectives, because students think, “Oh, this is a hip hop class, so it’s only hip hop.” No, let’s tease this out further. Especially when you think about ideas of feminism, like putting OutKast in the conversation with folks like Tony Cade Bambara and her short story about the Atlanta child murders and showing the ways that folks try to impose these assumptions about what gender can and cannot do in southern spaces, particularly in southern hip hop. And finally embracing that the intersection between southern hip hop and feminism is messy. Blurring the binaries is so important when oftentimes, hip hop is not allowed to do that because we automatically want to just kind of spectralize it. It’s either highly misogynistic, or it’s just, you know, highly conscious. Like why can’t we live in the middle where you can be a little bit woke, a little bit messy, which is where most of us are, fans are anyway?