“Along with the idea of romantic love, she was introduced to another–physical beauty. Probably the most destructive ideas in the history of human thought. Both originated in envy, thrived in insecurity, and ended in disillusion.”
― Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye
What would happen to the future of white supremacist patriarchy if [hegemonic] white [fe]males were choosing to form serious relationships with black females?
So Mashable releases a video (Monday, September 14) of this adorable and sassy little white girl named JoJo. JoJo is having a logic and YouTube-adorable argument with her Dad explaining how she is NOT a princess.
JoJo: “No! Don’t ask me any questions, I just need <indistinguishable>.
Dad: I wanna call you my princess.
JoJo: NO! You cannot call me your princess, o-KAY DAD!?!
So you can see how from the viewers standpoint we must fix JoJo. She cannot be denied her “rightful” place in the habitus — the “trained capacities and structured propensities to think, feel and act in determinant ways, which then guide them’ (Wacquant 2005: 316, cited in Navarro 2006: 16)” — of hegemonic femininity, fantasy and seduction, can we now?!?
Her dad tries to convince her otherwise. She IS a princess, he insists in one way or another. Here, her dad–used by his own habitus of hegemonic daddy-hood and masculinity — denies his daughter her sense of agency, unintentionally–we are all creatures of our habitus of the structures that keep the logic of hegemonic masculinity and femininity in place.
Agency The capacity of individuals to act independently.
The idea that children can be seen as independent social actors is core to the development of the new paradigm for the study of children and young people that emerged in the social sciences in the 1970s. It underscores children and young people’s capacities to make choices about the things they do and to express their own ideas. Through this, it emphasizes children’s ability not only to have some control over the direction their own lives take but also, importantly, to play some part in the changes that take place in society more widely. As Mayall describes it, a focus on children’s agency enables exploration of the ways in which children’s interaction with others ‘makes a difference — to a relationship or to a decision, to the workings of a set of social assumptions or constraints’ (Mayall, 2002: 21 quoted in Allison James & Adrian James, Key Concepts in Childhood Studies, Sage Key Concepts, 2008: 9).
Then along comes Katy Perry using her millions of followers on Twitter to do the same. In the name of cuteness, Katy will usurp this little girl’s agency to insure she fits the norm and gets the bracelets JoJo argues distinguishes her from a real princess. All little girls should want to be a princess and get the diamond bracelet, right?!?!
The last thing girls need are more myths about having someone one else buy the jewels that make you whole or someone else who comes to save you from the fate of second class citizenship. Let’s just deny JoJo’s healthy agency and replace it with money and jewels. Patriarchy wins!
Let a Girl Be a Girl: On Her Own Terms
JoJo: I said don’t ask me anything OR don’t talk. You can talk AFTER. [long pause as she looks at the TV and gathers her thoughts. Dad interjects]
Dad: OK, it’s my turn to talk. [what lesson is she and the audience of girls watching learning from the subtle cooptation of her request.]
JoJo is on to something! Don’t let them seduce you, oh great one, with jewels. Daddy, pay attention! Let your girl grow up to be her own definition of self. Let her be an assertive, independent, a social actor with her own voice and her own actions with your loving support and protection.
But Katy Perry has to go and start a Kickstarter campaign for her to get the bracelets. PU-LEEEZ!! IT’S NOT ABOUT THE JEWELS, Katy! Stop messing around with the myths and mental maps of reality that seduce girls into subservience to body and beauty politics.
This girl gets it on some brilliant level as a child. Don’t mess with that!! Both the dad and Katy Perry feed into this enculturational process where girls are taught patriarchal femininity where girls should be selfless in order to have relationship. As Carol Gilligan notes in the video below, without a self you cannot be in relationship.
IT’S BIGGER THAN BRACELETS, KATY!
Having a female celebrity singer, a mega star, use her platform and privilege (and in this case white privilege) to help a girl whose intentions are very clear sends the wrong message in my book. I applaud Perry’s good intentions but the road to hell is already well-paved by such paternalistic moves in the name of male as well as female celebrities. How about helping raise millions for a cause in JoJo’s name that’s bigger than bracelets?? That could make her a princess of a whole different sort.
There are millions of girls right here in the US (let’s not go white savior on Africa or Southeast Asia for just a minute) who she could help; millions of marginalized girls of color and poor white girls would get more bang for those bucks. Let’s start thinking impact not celebrity diamonds for JoJo. Queens and princesses — the real ones — use their power to help the people who need it most.
This moment of lifecasting on YouTube by JoJo’s dad under the username Lomelino Kidscould have been (and still may be) a stepping stone to a kind of feminist stance about being beautiful and ordinary in an extraordinary way that is NOT about the body or mere beauty. Carol Gilligan reminds us that feminism actually is a liberation movement to free democracy from patriarchy. Women and men, girls and boys are not free if patriarchy is the structure of our lives, the order and measure for our success.
If we situated the role of a “princess” from the historical GPS that dictionaries entries provide, the oldest definition is first, we might see how the structure of a princess’s power has devolved over time.
Full Definition of PRINCESS
1 archaic : a woman having sovereign power
2: a female member of a royal family; especially: a daughter or granddaughter of a sovereign
4: one likened to a princess; especially: a woman of high rank or of high standing in her class or profession <a pop music princess>
Merriam Webster Online also positions first and foremost on its site before this chronological rendering:
a usually attractive girl or woman who is treated with special attention and kindness
JoJo has everything she already needs and learning about other notable princesses or queens other than the fictional Disney versions would be a real asset. Learning about Nefretiti, who was considered one of the most powerful women to ever rule, Marie Antoinette, who rose to the throne at 14, Queen Liliuokalani of Hawaii or Queen Noor of Jordan would be more beneficial than bracelets from a Kickstarter campaign. But that is not what JoJo is being enculturated into. YouTube’s media ecology will amplify a totally different intention that JoJo asks — back to the seduction of the jewels.
Dad: I’m a king
JoJo: No, you’re not! You’re a dad
I skimmed the reactions to the video and most have little to do with JoJo’s agency and more to do with reasserting the normative expectations where we romantically seduce little girls into a focus on their bodies and how they adorn them. Read: Isn’t she cute trying to break the chains of patriarchy but it ain’t that serious. She’ll grow outta that with the help of Daddy,Katy, Kickstarterand the crown achievement of some jewels. This makes it all about the jewels and adornment not the substance and character of an independent or interdependent girl or woman.
Ok, I should be writing my article on Mirrors, Monsters and Webcams and marginalized girls on YouTube, but this got me. #feelingsnarkytoday #backtowork
Have a look out these two remarkable YouTube videos about feminism. They helped me resituate some of my own thinking.
Dr. Carol Gilligan Defines Feminism and Patriarchy
“Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”
― Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed
In my previous post inspired by learning that the Juicy J Scholarship site on WSHH has gone down, I shared lessons 1 and 2:
Lesson #1 Websites containing YouTube videos can disappear.
Lesson #2: Capture everything that is meaningful while you work with online media.
These were more tech oriented lessons that a new digital ethnographer of YouTube must consider in collecting data online. Here’s part 2 of the post. It was way too long to subject you to in one sitting.
This set of lessons speaks more to my upcoming political sociology course. I needed a thrust for the semester. Some way to make it both real and relevant. I call this the “going public” part of every course I teach. It usually involves 1) sharing whatever we learn with people outside the academy, 2) collaborative learning, and 3) often but not always a publication of work in the public sphere.
A Relevant Pedagogical Aside:
Check out my curated op-eds by Baruch students from 2011 released on MLK day that year, dedicated to James Baldwin, titled Could You Be the Bigger Nigger?on Scribd.com (View count: 7700+). Check it out and please rate it if you like it the idea and/or the project and share it with both teachers and students in high school and college!
On to the final three lessons I learned doing a digital ethnography of twerking on YouTube.
Lesson #3: Stop and Think! Find Other Solutions When Data Goes Missing
This past Saturday, I had just shared with a sister in Harlem about my aims for my political sociology course that starts next week. In the conversation, I convinced myself that studying the Juicy J site was a perfect plan for the semester. Stop and think. What could I do that would be equally engaging and how could I use it still to teach my political sociology course? What about involving all 36 students in the sociological analysis of the 67,000 videos results that are yielded by a search of “Juicy J scholarship contest” on YouTube’s massive archive?
OK 67,000 is too large, but we can choose a significant sample of say 200 contest videos. Maybe some other sociology or anthropology professor could do the same and we could compare and contrast our methods and results.
What fascinates me about the idea is that my students and I can collaborate to study and analyze the political sociology of the contestests’ submissions (where they all women? all cisgendered?) while we learn and study from a new textbook by Dobratz, Waldner and Buzzell titled Power, Politics and Society: An Introduction to Political Sociology (2012).
I may no longer have access to the top-rated and most-popular videos in Juicy J’s contest, but there still remains a huge pool of valuable and meaningful data on YouTube that will allow us to study on race/ethnicity, gender/sexuality, socioeconomic class and social-class values, and age relative to adolescent black girlhood, youth dance culture and the exploration of emerging adulthood through embodied musical practices among black and non-black women. The top-rated videos would have added a real powerful dimenstion to the study that students might find fascinating but all’s well because of YouTube.
Here are some thoughts about how I intend to link the study of hip-hop music videos and twerking videos around the following chapter themes. Would love comments and other ideas if you’d care to share. Here’s what I am thinking:
Chapter 1 Power
C. Wright Mills wrote (1959: 181): “Power has to do with whatever decisions men make about the arrangments under which they live, and about the events which make up the history of their times…men are free to make history but some are much freer than others.” (Dobratz et. al, 3).
In the social settings of online always-on media, what kinds of power do black girls/women twerking have and what kind of power (economic, social and structural) do the owners in the recording industry who produce hip-hop videos via VEVO or the owners of social media distribution sites like WSHH and YouTube have around these women’s user-generated content?
Chapter 2 Role of the State In this chapter, democracy is discussed after distinguishing the nation from the state. “Markoff (2005) contends that there is a great deal of variation in ‘democratic’ nations, with some having widespread violations of civil liberties [my concern is about minors and black girls] despite holding free elections and others so ineffecient at providing basic government services that they are termed low quality democracies” (Dobratz et. al, 47).
From a class-based view of the state, the FCC once monitored public airwaves like radio and TV to protect minors from harm by advertisers and content creators. Since YouTube or WSHH are privatized entities, they are not bound by any laws to protect minors from harm, and you cannot make a request based on the FOIA — Freedom of Information Act — for such a privatized company to share its data or the ‘user-generated’ data it used to promote the contest or to hide incriminating data affecting the politics of youth culture, gender, or patriarchal abuses in the corporate personhood of capitalism)
Chapter 3 Politics, Culture & Social Processes This chapter includes a discussion of the “faces of ideology” Are black girls and other non-black girls the faces of ideology in hip-hop–with their asses?)
Chapter 4 Politics of Everyday Life: Political Economy
This chapter deals with the Welfare State: “all people in American society benefit from these programs” (Dobratz et. al, 130). Corporate welfare is called “wealthfare” or “phantom welfare”. How much money does the record industry make from hiphop and from YouTube’s music videos, which occupies 90% of its most-watched videos? The other part of the welfare system “has been referred to as public assistance programs that are funded through general government revenues” (ibid.) from the income of the working classes of Americans often legislated through Congress or state-level government.
How are changes in public assistance programs for college student loans and the feminization of poverty among college-age mothers apparent among the user-generated videos submitted for the Juicy J contest? Check this submission video of a black woman sharing what it means to have to “pay outta pocket” (1:40″) for college.
The remaining chapters offer similar correspondences that we could make between the twerking videos and hte politics of power, people and the state in our society:
Chapter 5 Politics of Everyday Life: Social Institutions and Social Relations Chapter 6 Political Participation Chapter 7Elections and Voting Chapter 8 Social Movements Chapter 9 Violence and Terrorism Chapter 10 Globalization
I believe having students learn to how to make their own assessment and perhaps a powerful argument about the impact of music and hyperconnectivity on the Always On Generation, how entertainment information overload and hyperstimulation of explicit mainstream hip-hop video content by distributors like the always-on VEVO and WSHH in tandem with viral twerking videos always available as user-generated content that girls and women upload themselves may (or may not) suggest, using various methods, a kind a sociologial warfare being waged on girls and all youth via linguistic violence (Gay 1997). We will see.
Lesson #4: Stay Calm and Keep Love Alive
In the past, perhaps a sign of naivête from my own feminine insecurity in a patriarchal world, I’ve wanted to get mad and turn off when things like this happen. I turn away. Jump on the bandwagon and fight! Or make snap judgments without assessing the problem at hand as if media is always evil even in the age of YouTube. Immersive ethnographic study requires staying power. So, I’m stickin’ and stayin’ but I am trying to catch my faux pas’s too. This digital ethnomusicological research on twerking has a robust potential to say some things that aren’t easy to find, say or see in our society around black popular music cultures.
Last year I had my snap judgements about Lil Wayne’s viral YouTube video released on Valentine’s Day titled “Love Me.” I have written about what I learned after some analysis in a forthcoming chapter of a book on Obama and Hip-hop edited by Travis Lars Goma and Erik Nielsen. I was amassed at the social impact this media may be having on girls. The YouTube video had amassed over 63 million within four months, which seems big but is dwarfed by videos by white male rappers in the mainstream. Yet this traffic is not insignificant. To date, it has yielded over 100 million views in just under a year. What was noticable then based on YouTube statistics up through June 2013, when the format changed–another lesson in capturing things–was how they revealed that females ages 13-17 and 18-24 lead in its audience demographics not males 13-17. Males 18-24 came after the two female demographics. Gives credence to the hook in the song: “Long as my bitches love me. I don’t give a f#ck about no haters, long as my bitches love me.” The music industry trades on this seduction of girls.
So “Stay Calm and Keep Love Alive” because the most damaging war of revolution is not being waged simply between “these thighs” as Sarah Jones once rapped (learn about how a recording of this poetry was banned by the FCC back in 2001). The actual war is being waged over our minds and our attention. A soft head in this sense will make for a tougher life esp. as the feminization of poverty widens. The mental slavery of women continues in new ways on YouTube in my opinion.
NOTE: If you’re looking for a broader context on sex, gender and desire in commercial music videos, broadening the analysis beyond black artists or hip-hop, check out Sut Jhally’s DreamWorlds III. Here’s a clip. These issues are not limited to hip-hop not music and any rapper using tired old argument about sexism exists in the broader public needs to move on.
Please like or comment. Engagement is a pathway to higher learning. The views in my head require feedback to know whether it makes senses beyond my internal logic.
Quote 1: “My dad always said this to me. A hard head makes a soft ass, meaning being stubborn and not listening makes life harder for you than it has to be. At the fine age of 41, I’m learning to not make the same mistakes over and over.” – A blogspot post from a black man
RapGenius.com, owned by three non-black men, is a site where members annotate rap lyrics in a vernacular way. It’s sort of rap lyrics “Wikipedia,” but unlike the crowd-sourced encyclopedia there isn’t a taskforce of volunteers distinguishing what information is merely entertainment information vs. meaningful fact. Despite my point, I do like the annotation for the familiar black vernacular expression from my own childhood. Ludacris flips the former meaning to go where all things in patriarchal hip-hop goes these days…to sex but the user’s annotation explains the former meaning well:
“A hard head make a soft ass” is a phrase familiar to the Southern part of the U.S. It means that hard-headed children (children who don’t listen to authority) have a tender behind, in that, whippings will hurt more because they will get more of them.
Those corporal lessons makes may or may not lead to change. Negative reinforcement can kill the spirit of learning. Fear was planted in my psyche with only a few ass-whoopins or beatings which we never violent but adjusted to the circumstance accordingly – fear of getting avoiding getting caught was lesson number one. I didn’t learn to unravel what I had actually done wrong and prevent that.
The lessons I am learning online doing digital ethnmusicology are learned the hard way–from trial and error or loss of access whenever things are taken off a site or some info is no longer accessible.
Conducting ethnographic research on black girls on YouTube comes with pitfalls: the data you study that contains girls twerking, talking and creating content, can be deleted, removed or simply lost to if someone didn’t pay for their annual domain fees.
I NEED SCHOLARSHIP (JUICY J’S WSHH SITE)
Today I went to WSHH site that featured the Juicy J contest videos to continue previous study and analysis of the top-rated and most popular videos ranked there. I posted an image of the site in a previous post after the winner of the $50K, Zaire Holmes, was announced. Her 15 minutes of fame has been reduced to the fact that she did not twerk by Juicy J himself rather than the fact that she as a single mom going to college wants to become a doctor. These are examples of the #patriarchalbargains we make according to Gloria Steinem who arguably justified Miley Cyrus’s twerking.
I’m writing this post instead of attending the annual celebration of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. national holiday in Brooklyn, (and yes I heard the about an image of King being featured in a twerking event advert but that is a case of entertainment info vs meaningful fact to the work I am doing at the moment. #focus). I got sidetracked, stopped in my tracks, when I went to the WSHH site for the contest and found this:
I didn’t go to Brooklyn because of the possible implications of this for my online research.
It seems that WSHH took down the site (if I returns let me know) that had that brilliant “Juicy J is not grading your work” line. And set of ranked videos I was planning of studying. It was a convenient way to create a sample of the videos online. (Bet WSHH won’t take down Sharkisha but that’s another story for another conversation.)
This lack of access is potentially meaningful though I can’t say how yet and it may turn out to be nothing more than entertaining news. But what if the NOT FOUND page suggests that Juicy J’s gettin’ “protection” from incrimination around the controversy? So it was written. Now it is gone! I may never verify such a suspicion.
But this thing has taught me a few lessons. Lessons I’m learning from my participant-observation and ethnographic study of YouTube. I’d like to share these lessons with any other twerkologists or YouTube ethnographers, too. So here we go.
Lesson #1 Websites containing YouTube videos can disappear.
Videos can be made private or removed from YouTube preventing further viewing. And if a distributor like WSHH or the media handlers behind rap mogul Juicy J with a net worth of $20 milliion thinks it best to “scrub” or remove a site despite their stand for a kind of radical openness they can and will.
Shock sites like WSHH may be concerned that about the backlash from black women especially after the Crunk Feminist Collective post by Dr. Brittney Cooper and after the more recent corrosive public debate between Dr. Cooper (a black feminist historian and media studies scholar) and a Dr. Shayne Lee (a black male who is a sociologist, a bible scholar, and head of his department at Tulane University). It was during a segment on HuffPost Live panel via a Google Plus Chat on the topic “Do ‘Hood Sites’ Normalize Black Stereotypes?“.
Since we still live in a democracy, limiting as it may seem, where Black women are increasingly wielding considerable online power through social media to tackle images believed to do damage to their social group identity in the public sphere, WSHH’s concern would be valid. But once again, I may never verify such a suspicion.
Lesson #2: Capture everything that is meaningful while you work with online media.
Here’s some tech info that will be useful for anyone studying YouTube videos.
From now on I will capture screen shots of images and auto-add them to a DropBox folder. I will also download the videos and catalogue any as I watch from now on. I use WonderShareAllMyYouTube for that. I find it’s better than the Torrent Torch browser I also downloaded for that purpose. The Torch browser is not always effective in downloading videos.
I don’t know why the Juicy J Scholarship site is down, but studying those submissions that were voted on by the masses as the most popular and the most top-rated are now out of reach. Wondering how I might still access them? Anyone with any ideas please inbox me.
Would WSHH be loath to honor a request from a black feminist scholar or a digital ethnographer studying black girls and their online games? I wish I could learn the backstory. Not enough contacts in this world yet. I wish I had had the forethought to back that thang up (pun intended); to recover the valuable and meaningful data that I witnessed these last two months.
Later this week, I’ll share the other 3 lessons.
The other 3 of the 5 digital lessons spill over into the pedagogy (or androgagy for adults) I am designing for my political sociology course this Spring. If you recall, last Spring I focused on “political speech acts” in honor of the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington. Twerking will become a central piece in the new semester’s design.
“To separate them from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.” – Chief Justice Earl Warren in Brown v. Board of Education, 1954.
On May 17, 1954 [59 years ago today], the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a unanimous decision, ruling in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka that racial segregation in public educational facilities was unConstitutional. The case was brought on behalf of Linda Brown, a black girl from Topeka, Kansas, who had been denied admission to her local elementary school on the basis of her skin color.
At the time, public facilities were segregated based on the justification that a 1896 Supreme Court ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson that “separate but equal” accommodations in railroad cars conformed to the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection. But in Brown’s case, the all-white school she wanted to attend was closer to her home and was far superior to the all-black school that other children of her skin color and from her neighborhood were required to attend. For more read here.
Today, students of color and poor whites in industrialized countries like the UK or the US still struggle for access to the right to an education but it’s not skin color that limits most anymore. The film DEBT SLAVES gives us a view into the problems college students are facing today. I wish I could an embed it here but trust me — you want to what this short but engaging film by young film-maker Makeda Mantock in association with the Guardian and the National Union of Students
In the US it is said that there remains a 60% drop out rate for high school and 40% drop-out for college. Students today, who are emerging adults, have “money on our mind” and cope with being “burdens on parents and the state.” There’s little time to focus on a higher education that could solve the needs of society and dreams of our societies — the next generation. Who would have thought Dr. King’s Poor People’s Campaign would include college students?
Wonder if there will ever be a National Union of Students here in the “Untied” States of America (where separate but equal remains in higher ed in subtle and not-so-subtle ways)?
Please watch the short film DEBT SLAVES from the Intergenerational Foundation Young Film-makers’ short film competition.
What I love about this short film is its use of a personal poem (written and co-directed and co-produced by Havana Wellings-Longmore, performed excellently by several actors). It’s got a hip-hop and spoken word feel though in reality it’s scripted and performed with veracity. The flow and the passion is palpable and speaks to issues college and university students around the world are struggling for. #powertothepeople #educationforall
We just ended our spring semester at Baruch College-CUNY on Wednesday. After engaging and empowering 33 diverse emerging adults in my political sociology course to “go public” — to plan and launch public speech acts around issues they cared about for at least 20 people — I noticed we never once considered working together as one group, as a collective on one collaborative act. That would have been social power in a social setting. In any event, the class tracked over 400 courageous acts throughout the semester. Many if not all now feel empowered to express their freedoms and practice their civil rights like never before.
Unionizing efforts may seem long gone in higher ed but I just bet eventually these emerging adults are gonna surprise us all. I’ll be waiting!
“What seems to lie about in discourses of race concerns legitimacy, authenticity, community, belonging. In no small way, these discourses are about home” (Toni Morrison 1997, 5)
I am considering writing a book about my pedagogical philosophy of teaching and learning about the soul of black folks through micro-sociologies of a gendered “musical blackness.” After delving into teaching surveys of ethnomusicology, anthropology and lately sociology, I am realizing that my strength as a professor lies in teaching at the micro level of culture and music. To understand what I mean let me define both microsociology and musical blackness. First, let me share the view of sociology I am coming from.
C. Wright Mills The Sociological Imagination (1959): “The first fruit of this imagination—and the first lesson of the social science that embodies it–is the idea that the individual can understand her own experience and gauge her own fate only by locating herself within her period, that she can know her own chances in life only by becoming aware of those of all individuals in her circumstances. In many ways it is a terrible lesson; in many ways a magnificent one” (quoted in Dalton Conley 2011, 5).
And in the interest of time, let me quote from a useful definition of micro-sociology found on a credible and authored website WiseGeek.com:
Micro-sociology is a subspecialty of sociology, primarily dealing with how individuals initiate and respond to various societal environments, conditions, and interactions. Sociology, as an area of study, involves analysis of the social interactions and processes of an entire society, as well as those of each individual member of that society. Macro-sociology is the term used to describe the social processes of an entire society, as a whole. Alternatively, micro-sociology is the term used to describe social processes as they relate to the individual community member. Contextual use of the term micro-sociology may dictate a slightly different or more targeted definition.
In short, micro-sociology is the small-scale study of human behavior and the reasons behind certain behavioral choices. How various biological and psychological factors affect the interactions of the individual are the primary focus of this subspecialty. Experts who study micro-sociology and micro-sociological theories attempt to predict or provide an explanation of certain behaviors, based on interpretative analysis. Unlike macro-sociology, which bases theories on statistical data about an entire society, micro-sociology is based on how the individual makes sense of his or her world.
The ethnomusicological and historical study of the music of African Americans has been dominantly shaped by a form of musical colonialism where to justify its existence we look for great role models of music making. We want to know the Mozarts and Beethovens of bebop or hip-hop. The fugues and symphonies of the William Grant Stills and Mary Lou Williamses. The waltzes of black social or concert dances, the hoofing of early jazz and the line dances of contemporary black popular music. We codify the bests and the most popular from Duke Ellington to Jay-Z but we rarely seek to understand the sociological imagination that produced it all and in the storytelling in textbooks we musical scholars have tended to downplay “how individuals” shaped by social norms and forces initiate and respond to the societies we are from psychologically, emotionally, kinetically and even biologically, which may seem taboo, but where else does the spiritual elements of desires for getting down and making it funky come from but some biological realms that include our nervous system, brain and body — note here the latest research in biosociology and its relationships to sociology:
“Biosociology” (not to be confused with sociobiology) is to understand how the interaction of biological factors and other types of factors produces behavior.
Our biology has been socialized though the social structures sustained by institutions and constructs that once imagined and practiced become “real” and shape our physical and acoustic ecologies which in turn sustains our invented linguistic narratives. Biology, not in the way we once imagined, actually shapes an ethic of transactions between ourselves and others (more on that in due time).
CONTRIBUTING TO BLACK FEMINIST MUSICAL THOUGHT
This brings me to my unique linguistic contribution as a scholar–to musical blackness. In my prize-winning book The Games Black Girls Play: Learning the Ropes from Double-Dutch to Hip-Hop, I wrote to counter the general view that black people are born musical, born to dance, it’s in the blood. As a social scientist and ethnomusicologist, I used the musical games black girls play to uncover a new narrative of our musical ways as African Americans. One that factored in the history and experience of both dominant genders — females and males, and one that factored in the learned ways we think, feel, believe and behave, in other words, culture.
Because of the stereotypes and social discrimination found throughout our systems of learning in the U.S., I needed to let readers in on how we learned to be and become musically black. I didn’t and do not write to tell “the truth” but rather I see my role as a scholar and as a native ethnographer as one where we allow new ways of thinking that are as evolved and adaptable to our environments and ecologies are a seed is adaptable to different environments. And thus it is imperative to notice that some seeds cannot or no longer thrive in certain ecologies or that dysfunction stems from the ecology not the seed. How we view or perceive our environment is shaped by the cultural lens you were born into and as adults can refocus and change. So play is an essential part of a rigorous intellectual capacity to grow and develop as a critical thinker and we are much more interested in learning answers and stagnating our mental capacities to learn difference constantly. This is what I am out to accomplish as a scholar-teacher. Keep all this in mind as you explore my definition of musical blackness.
Musical blackness is an imagined “home,” constructed to represent a place of return, a place of social and political comfort. It is a learned place of inhabitance; an embodied dwelling that might be viewed as a protection from real and imagined threats. This kind of musical homework is not simply about a return to contemporary Nigeria or ancient Yorubaland imagined or constituted by the descendents of African slaves living in the United States. African Americans are embodying “home,” performig their affiliations and identification with the collective experience (and inherited socio-musical and cultural discourses) of blackness, as a result of perpetually confronting a kind of “homelessness” in this so-called New World dominated by descendants of Europeans, who themselves embody an imagined “home” in America at the expense of native Americans, who experience homelessness in a land that was [once] their own. “What seems to lie about in discourses of race concerns legitimacy, authenticity, community, belonging. In no small way, these discourses are about home” (Morrison 1997, 5; quoted from Gaunt 2006, 49)
Further elaboration is necessary to connect all this to the sound, setting and social significance of the music and soundscapes associated with African American musical discourse. Essential to the sociology (linking the personal to larger social histories), the epistemology (ways of knowing), and the ontology (ways of being) of a musical blackness is understanding the definition and uses of a “social construct.” We often banty about the notion that “race” is socially constructed, that is, that it is a social construct and too many hear that and jump to a conclusion that race is “not real.” It is imagined and therefore saying it is not real makes it disappear as a social force that is imbued in every social institution affected by colonialism and empire from “pajamas” (an Indian word appropriated into British and American languages while we never say a mumbling word about domination or exploitation of whites over people of color in a country that will now soon reach 1 billion in population and are still recovering in their post-colonial transactions) to the structural inequalities found in access to wealth, power and prestige globally relative to the performance, production, dissemination and consumption of music and music-making. THE PLAY OF RACE AND GENDER
In The Games Black Girls Play (2006), I state further:
We must realize that the practices and ideologies that socialize African American children or acculturate adults (of any ethnicity) into “black” ways of being musical are never mechanical reproductions of a distinct and unitary black musical identity. “Black” ways of approaching singing and chanting, moving and dancing, talking about and composing musical ideas (from lyrics to melodic and rhythmic improvisation) are a contemporary project. This project is always and already shaped by multiple, arbitrary, and shifting experiences–past and present–that are narrated as if sprung from one root, one point in time, one parent culture. Since the phenomenological experience of being musically black continues to register for African Americans [and others], scholars cannot, and should not, seek to erase its presence, because anti-essentialist rhetoric [or its latest manifestation as “post-racial”] wants to throw the baby (African American cultural identifications) out with the politically incorrect bath water (racial essentialism).
We don’t need another set of stories to usurp race as the myth producing African American alliances–following the argument by philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah–but we do need more intersecting narratives that overlap with the ones that privilege the most expressive and problematic, the most emergent, and the historical experiences of musical blackness as predominately male and masculine. While group solidarity is an important force with real political benefits, “it doesn’t work without its attendant mystifications….You cannot build alliances without mystifications and mythologies” (Appiah 1995, 106; quoted from Gaunt 2006, 49-50).
While black group solidarity through music has been a real and powerful agent in forging alliances–for example, to combat racism–it has rarely forged to combat sexism against African American women within black communities, popular culture, and the larger society. Subjugation of women’s gender politics stands in contradistinction to the fact that specific approaches to embodying rhythm or soul are primarily allied around the embodied public discourse of black musical bodies of men and women. But mythologies concerning male gender dominance in everyday life, as well as musical performance, tend to eclipse female participation and denigrate the feminine, so that even girls and women tend to overlook their own contributions and participation in sustaining the social practices that constitute black musical identity (writ large). Women and girls are not included among the master drummers or griots or, for instance, the corn shuckers to whom Roger Abrahams devotes an entire book, In his Singing the Master (1992), he attempts to trace the origins of African American national or cultural identity through musical practices associated with male slave labor. Often the exclusion of women and girls is not so overt.
My concern for the ways gender and the experience of girls and women intersect with masculinist readings of history and culture came about from my first teaching assignment in women’s studies. …Aversions to dealing with issues of women, gender and race disturbed me when I began teaching African American music, primarily because of my own gendered musical experiences as an African American women fascinated with studying hip-hop culture–perceived to be a predominately male and masculinist culture. From various “nonmusical” experiences in the classroom, I became convinced of a need to uncover the ways in which black musical identity as “black” or “male” is not a pure or finished product.
[Paul] Gilroy states that gender and sexuality have played a significant role in reducing the “untidy patterns of differentiation to black masculinity as the primary, if not sole, signifier of race in mass popular culture.
Sexuality and gender identity are the other privileged media that express the evasive but highly prized quality of racial authenticity. Their growing power in configuring contemporary notions of blackness raises once again the critical issue of how the complex dynamics of race and gender come together. In a situation where racial identity appears suddenly impossible to know reliably or maintain with ease, the naturalness of gender can supply the modality in which race is lived and symbolized….The popularity of [Jamaican] slackness and the more misogynist forms of hip-hop can be used to support this diagnosis. The chief effect of this unhappy situation is that today’s crisis of black social life is routinely represented as a crisis of masculinity alone. The integrity of the race is defined primarily as the integrity of its menfolk. (1993 a, 7; quoted in Gaunt 2006, 51).
Thus, we tend to remember the authenticity of the blues through Robert Johnson and Leadbelly, but rarely through blues women, possibly because their association with the mass mediation of “race” records would be read today as “selling out” to the commercial side of music. But remembering blues women would require us to think of critiquing race as well as gender in our analysis of music and the recording industry.
The masculinist focus of dominant jazz, swing, and hip-hop histories may, in fact, stem from a long-standing white fascination with perceptions of black masculinity. If the appeal of mainstream music histories is their ability to dispense models of black masculinity to white consumers through information and anecdotes [i.e., Robert Johnson is a core one] about black men who play jazz and white men who successfully play black music, then it is no wonder that all-women bands, both black and white, find themselves the subjects of separate histories with limited readerships (Gaunt 2006, 51-52).
A PRAXIS: PLAYING THE CHANGES OF SOCIAL NORMS
I am finding that I need more sociological theories in my musicological and ethnomusicological interpretations of musical blackness as a sociological phenomenon such as Robert Merton’s theories of social roles, role strain theory, social deviance including the five types or modes of individual adaptation to constructed social norms and culture including conformity, innovation, ritualism, retreatism, and rebellion.
The constructed histories of African Americans and their music, whether from the perspective of intellectuals or academics or from everyday philosophers and ordinary folk generally have tended to loosely and rather erroneously trade in Robert Merton’s theories of adaptation and social roles. Merton is the father of the term “role model” and during the 80s and 90s there were vigorous debate in all quarters about role models in the black community and in many ways, the deviant population must always have role models to rise up from the devalued position that the socio-political economy created for them as “slaves,” as “the proletariat” or working-class, from a Marxist perspective as emasculated men (i.e., “women”) estranged from their labour. The privatization of property separated men (women and children for that matter) from their land, the technology for tending to those lands and thereby the means of producing food and other stuffs for their own survival.
We have proceeded from the premises of political economy. We have accepted its language and its laws. We presupposed private property, the separation of labor, capital and land, and of wages, profit of capital and rent of land – likewise division of labor, competition, the concept of exchange value, etc. On the basis of political economy itself, in its own words, we have shown that the worker sinks to the level of a commodity and becomes indeed the most wretched of commodities; that the wretchedness of the worker is in inverse proportion to the power and magnitude of his production; that the necessary result of competition is the accumulation of capital in a few hands, and thus the restoration of monopoly in a more terrible form; and that finally the distinction between capitalist and land rentier, like that between the tiller of the soil and the factory worker, disappears and that the whole of society must fall apart into the two classes – property owners and propertyless workers.
Music for music’s sake, music as entertainment, the commercial production, distribution and consumption of mediated words, sounds, and images (even Facebook and other social media which appears to be of the people is owned by the property owning classes’ white sons) and thus music, music-making and musically constructed meanings are extracted from local workers, from their local meanings and relationships, to continue the estrangement of listeners, fans, readers and viewers, singers, instrumentalists and dancers from owning their own greatness, their own creations, their own culture.
All this came to mind as most of my ideas do. Just before I wake or as I am waking up. It’s my most creative time. From about 5:30 – 7am. If I don’t get up and write these days, it disappears into the current robbing of time found in a usual day.
It also came as I prepare for both a job interview and the delivery of a new course called “Ropes, Rhymes and Women in Hip-hop”. It’s a short winter intercession course at Baruch College-CUNY. There is less than a month to deliver and contribute to a problem in the fields of black feminist thought and black music studies while applying both anthro and sociological methods.
It occurred to me as I was asked to prepare a lecture for a course titled The Roots of Jazz that in this 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation I must link the social conceptions and uses of “roots” to a deeper understanding of what musical blackness means in the context of jazz. And I want to do my thang at the interview. Demonstrate my liberty and freedom as both a scholar and as a descendant of people once enslaved in this nation, whose labor was not compensated, whose songs were free, to tell a different story not often found in articles and textbooks that dominate jazz classrooms. Classrooms that people of African descent are and have always been a minority. But spaces in which musical blackness can be privileged.
That’s my intention and my wish. 2013 is about truly converting wishbones to backbones. Reminds me of a popular girls’ game-song:
Little Sally Walker Sittin in a saucer Rise, Sally, Rise Wipe your weapin’ eyes Put your hand on your hips And let your backbone slip!
I’ve been telling myself for too long that I have everything I need to succeed. But what I learned in 2012 is that requires peace of mind, wellness and space to think (rather than thought) on what I have. I need to re-read my own book, mine the diamonds. In my own work, I’ve archived many jewels. Time to reveal them.
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