CBMR Presents Black Vocality II
Cultural Memory, Identities, and Practices of African-American Singing Styles
by Lauren Eldridge
As I boarded the Metra commuter rail on a crisp Tuesday morning in November, I was reminded of a propensity to shut out black noise. As I watched suited businessmen hastily put on noise-canceling headphones, I began wondering about the sounds that they were avoiding. I heard the normal chatter of black female workers who commute from Chicago’s suburbs to its epicenter, but I heard nothing that was aurally offensive during the thirty-minute train ride at eight in the morning. I was on my way to attend the second Black Vocality symposium, which the Center for Black Music Research at Columbia College Chicago produced during November 18–19 in the college’s Concert Hall. The contemporary urban sounds I heard during my commute stayed with me during the symposium while its presenters and participants explored older yet similar sounds and music of black culture as represented in contemporary films, recordings, and performances.
Black Vocality II: Cultural Memory, Identities, and Practices of African-American Singing Styles was designed by Gianpaolo Chiriacò (University of Salento, Lecce, Italy), who is a former CBMR resident fellow, supported by funding from the Marie Curie-International Outgoing Fellowship. This symposium and its predecessor that was held in September 2013 provided opportunities for path-breaking conversations between scholars, performers, journalists, and artists about African-American voice and meaning. Like the 2013 symposium, the 2014 symposium was organized in four panel sessions and a performance, but with an added film screening and a workshop. The collegial and mutually supportive atmosphere facilitated an ongoing dialogue between the program presenters and the attendees, which often continued in the lobby and over meals, interrupted only by the intermittent hustle to stay warm in the midst of the season’s first cold snap.
Before the symposium was officially opened by Chiriacò, Rosita Sands (Acting Chair, Music Department, Columbia College Chicago) welcomed the symposium attendees and advised them to pay close attention to Zora Neale Hurston’s “lords of sounds and lesser things.” Interdisciplinarity, a hallmark of black vocality, was featured in the opening session, which focused on the singing voice in the 2013 Steve McQueen film Twelve Years a Slave. Robert Hanserd (Columbia College Chicago) served as the session chair. Katrina Dyonne Thompson (Saint Louis University) offered her reflections on the “complicated entertainment” of black singing and performing artistry in a presentation titled “Black Performances as Expressions of Power in 12 Years a Slave and other Slave Narratives.” Her presentation drew heavily on the fantastic resource that she published in 2013, Ring Shout, Wheel About: The Racial Politics of Music and Dance in North American Slavery (University of Illinois Press). It also provided rich context for the next two presentations, which focused on performances in the film. Chiriacò started his paper, “Voices and Silence in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave,” by juxtaposing a post-release press conference with Steve McQueen and the following quote from his Academy Award acceptance speech: “everyone deserves not only to survive, but to live.” He proceeded to theorize about the meaning and violence of silence in the film, as the principal character Solomon Northrup must maintain silence in order to evade destruction. Silence is survival, but singing is living, and these ideas prove to be helpful in an analysis of the film’s reception and McQueen’s navigation of public relations. Johari Jabir (University of Illinois at Chicago) then dove deeper into Toni Morrison’s construction of “the sound that broke the back of words” with a close reading of Northrup’s broken silence in the song and scene “Roll Jordan Roll.” Jabir’s presentation, “Conjure and the African-Meta-Voice in Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Performance of ‘Roll Jordan Roll,’” pulled the discussion of the film into a broader debate of the function of black sacred music and black performativity.
We returned after lunch to a beatboxing workshop presented by vocalist and performer Napoleon Maddox. Several Columbia College undergraduate students were present for the workshop, which morphed into a collaborative chronology of black vocality, linking beatboxing practices to early scat artists and later bebop singers. American Beatboxer documentary producer Rich McKeown, who was a symposium presenter, produced a short video about the beatboxing workshop, which is featured in the Gallery section at the end of this page.
The second session, “Politics and Practices of Black Vocal Performers in Chicago,” was chaired by Alisha Lola Jones (Indiana University at Bloomington), who presented a bit of her own research on black male performances of gender and sexuality in gospel performance. Her review of Richard Schechner’s “dark play” performance theory, in which everyone is a participant in a game of which not all participants are aware, was an ideal introduction to E. Patrick Johnson (Northwestern University), who offered a retrospective on some of his own performances in “Performing the Voice of Others: The Experience of Sweet Tea.” His book Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South: An Oral History (University of North Carolina Press, 2011) has been interpreted at over eighty college campuses in the form of a staged reading titled “Pouring Tea: Black Gay Men of the South Tell Their Tales.” Johnson reflected on the manner in which this staged reading “complicates the notion of voicehood.” He began his work on that project intending to feature other men’s voices, but realized that his own voice would gradually come to be included. At the conclusion of Johnson’s talk, vocal artist and activist Yaw Agyeman began to sing in his seat. He then slowly processed to the stage, intoning the phrase “working on this field for a long time.” His presentation, intended to review his work with the Rebuild Foundation and The Black Monks of Mississippi, expanded to review and extend the prior discussions of masculinity and performance.
The second day of the symposium was no less dynamic and featured two panel sessions, a documentary screening, and an evening musical performance. The first session of the day, chaired by Nate Bakkum (Columbia College Chicago), delved deeper into theories about voice. Mark Burford (Reed College) presented a paper titled “Sam Cooke and the Practices and Play of Voice,” which focused on the genre-defying agility of Cooke’s voice. James Falzone (Columbia College Chicago and the 2014–2015 CBMR Faculty Fellow) presented an analysis of Albert Ayler’s sound and voice on saxophone. Local vocalist Tammy McCann closed the session with a powerful lecture that featured her own singing voice and tied together the previous presentations by asking this question: “do artists still feel a societal responsibility because of blackness?” She identified iconic artists who represent the three primary genres in which she works—Marian Anderson in classical music, Mahalia Jackson in gospel, and Dinah Washington in jazz. Rich McKeown then screened his award-winning documentary American Beatboxer, after which he engaged the audience in a robust discussion of hip hop and commercial opportunity. Mark Burford returned to the front of the auditorium to chair the final panel, “What Do They Call Her? Nina Simone’s Vocality and Black Aesthetics.” Salamishah Tillet (University of Pennsylvania) served as a discussant and drew together the presentations made by Aaron Cohen (Olive Harvey College), Emily Lordi (University of Massachusetts at Amherst), and Napoleon Maddox.
Mark Burford returned to the front of the auditorium to chair the final panel, “What Do They Call Her? Nina Simone’s Vocality and Black Aesthetics.” Salamishah Tillet (University of Pennsylvania) served as a discussant and drew together the presentations made by Aaron Cohen (Olive Harvey College), Emily Lordi (University of Massachusetts at Amherst), and Napoleon Maddox. She explored the ramifications of the countless tributes to and representations of Nina Simone. Cohen began the session by highlighting Simone’s sense of humor, which is a little-known aspect of her personality. Lordi re-examined Simone’s work, using Audre Lorde and other literary figures as illuminating lenses. And Maddox closed the session by revisiting particular performances of his earlier work “A Riot Called Nina.”
Black Vocality II culminated in a performance titled “Channeling Nina: Honoring the Legacy of Nina Simone through Innovative Re-Interpretations.” This tribute to her legendary voice and persona, which featured performances by Allegra Dolores, LaShera Moore, Tammy McCann, Storie Devereaux, Napoleon Maddox, Yaw, and student vocal competition winner Ayanna Spaulding, was a fitting anchor for a symposium during which the participants worked to cultivate a respectful space in which black voices can be heard.
Conversations about American Beatboxer, compiled by producer Richard McKeown.
Photographs by Jonathan Mathias