This panel, by far, is my favorite to date. I was incredibly lucky to catch it at all. I meant to attend a book publishing presentation in the same room, but in true Ideologue form, I got sidetracked by outdoor book kiosks and the ever-ready-to-make-a-Bostonian-late T. I caught the final three minutes of the publishing presentation and decided to stay along for the following panel. Heavy hitters Emily Bernard, Leonard Brown, Tsitsi Ella Jaji, and William Banfield dug in their heels and engendered a conversation and Q&A about Black music and culture that was not to be missed. Lucky for you, you had your very own insider - moi.
Now, I love my obscure Icelandic composers and eardrum-defying, bass heavy rap like any reasonable pseudo-bourgie dork in their late twenties, but I grew up with Mahalia Jackson for lullabies and Al Green and James Brown at family barbecues in Chicago...and if Chicago knows anything, it's good music. Black Americans (and folks of the Diaspora worldwide) have an incredibly rich musical tradition, whether we're jukin' and steppin' to R&B in Chicago, playing music to accompany our Capoeira in Brazil, cuttin' loose in Barbados or chopping and screwing in Houston, we've taken our African roots and created genres unparalleled in their scope, influence, and ingenuity.
Leonard Brown gave us the soundbite of the session when he reminded us that "because of the contributions of African Americans through all that we know as Americana - not just in the United States of America, but hemispherically - most of what we consider aspects of culture in the Western hemisphere is sitting on an African platform."
I recently read the Huffington Post article about Israeli-born violinist Miri Ben Ari. She's been known to work with many rap artists, including Chicago's own Kanye West. While my favorite violinists happen to be of the Nathan Milstein, Jascha Heifetz, Schlomo Mintz sort, I can appreciate how Miri brings a very classic instrument to folks that would otherwise not be a fan. That said, the interviewer wanted to know how Ben Ari felt about "sounding Black". I've always found language like that highly offensive and problematic, but it provides an excellent opportunity to discuss the myriad ways that Black music and culture have contributed to our shared society. Given the range of nationalities and cultural identities of Diasporic Blackness, can we hold them all to one standard? Can an artform truly be called Black if it's played on European instruments or is heavily impacted by other traditions (for example, Negro Spirituals sung in Black US vernaculars of Standard English or Irish cadences in certain strains of Bluegrass and Blues)? If Blackness can be defined, can outsiders be deemed Black by proximity or mimicry? Does that proximity only qualify if the performer is a singer? If the performer is a violinist or guitarist, are they simply following the chords and time like their Black counterparts? To what degree is an outsider mimicking or playing into the tradition?
You see where I'm going with this. The questions are endless, but before you get to picking apart the intricacies of identity politics, the rules of belonging, and the history of appropriation, listen to the panel audio in its entirety. I think you'll find that it is a presentation worth listening to. I pose a question about the role that ethnomusicology plays during the Q&A (unfortunately, the mics weren't sensitive enough to pick up the question) and am answered by William Banfield and Leonard Brown.
*My audio sounds like Thor and Loki fighting a battle to end all battles, so here's a link to crystal clear audio recorded by the wonderful folks at the Boston Book Festival. You can find audio from other amazing BBF2012 presentations here.