Black Vocality Symposium Review
Gianpaolo Chiriacò, CBMR resident fellow, curated the two-day symposium “Black Vocality: Cultural Memory, Identities, and Practices of African-American Singing Styles,” in which scholars, performers, and composers collaboratively investigated African-American singing styles in relation to cultural memory and identity. Sponsored by the Center for Black Music Research at Columbia College Chicago, the University of Salento, the Columbia College Department of Music, and the European Union’s Marie Curie-International Outgoing Fellowship, the event was held in the Columbia College Concert Hall during September 24–25, 2013. In each session, presenters explored the intellectual history of black vocality, the creative processes through which vocal artists identifying as black engage, as well as the global circulation of vocal practices identified as black. Organized into four panels and a concert, participants examined the vocality of gospel music, popular music, improvisation, sound poetry, storytelling, and vocal techniques of contemporary artists.
At the heart of the symposium’s activities was the task of defining “black vocality,” as it figures in the United States, in a way that at once embraces the past and present experiences of African Americans and the relationships between performativity, subjectivity, and the body. This review foregrounds what presenters offered as a way to answer the questions: What is “black vocality”? What is the significance of “black vocality” as an arena of inquiry and practice? How does one study and/or practice it? Chiriacò and CBMR executive director Monica Hairston O’Connell opened the event presenting the framework of “black vocality” as the “entirety of vocal possibilities” related to modern constructions of racial difference. They each referred to the work of musicologist Eileen Southern, as well as literary scholar Farah Jasmine Griffin, in problematizing the concept of “black vocality” as an essentialist model of African-American vocal practices and suggested that the symposium would serve as a “conduit of initiation” into understanding black vocality during a moment in which public imaginations of post-racialism abound.
Black Vocality—Gospel Music and Popular Music
Alisha Lola Jones (University of Chicago) discussed gendered sound in contemporary gospel music-making, focusing on African-American countertenors. Her ethnographic case study with vocalist Patrick Dailey (Boston University) argued that hearing gender ambiguity in vocal sounds signifies socio-cultural anxieties provoked by non-normative uses of the body. Jones explored the role of bioacoustics, with the use of laryngeal scoping, for example, in uncovering how African-American countertenors’ vocal styles are voluntarily and involuntarily produced, and asserted that the singing activities of these countertenors exemplify how black vocality symbolizes black personhood. Following Jones’s presentation, countertenor Patrick Dailey performed a baroque aria, a concert spiritual, and a hymn to illustrate how his singing in Baptist churches of the American south inspires his vocal approach, regardless of genre. Katherine Meizel (Bowling Green State University), drawing from her recent book Idolized: Music, Media and Identity in American Idol (Indiana University Press, 2011), investigated the use of melisma (also called vocal run, or vocal riff) in discourse about black vocality, namely how it has been re-racialized as “black” in twenty-first century popular music. She said that singers’ use of melisma acts as a “racialized, nationalized symbol heard as a sonic embodiment of blackness and Americanness, and a technology of individuality.” Sharing multiple examples of singers’ use of melisma when covering popular songs, Meizel showed how American Idol judges hear melismatic improvisation as an aggressive alteration of a predictable melody—disrupting the “authentic” vocal blackness desired by American Idol audiences—“a fulcrum upon which American narratives of love and theft balance.”
Black Vocality—Improvisation, Poetry, and Storytelling
Like Hairston O’Connell and Chiriacò, Nathan Bakkum (Columbia College Chicago) also presented Griffin’s work, recalling how cultural representations of “the stranger,” or the unknown, and “the ancestor,” or the familiar, historically shape the experiences of African Americans migrating from the rural American south to northern urban spaces. Investigating the tension between the known and the unknown is crucial, Bakkum argued, for understanding (vocal) improvisation among African-American singers, in that this tension poeticizes “meaningful cycles of difference.” Vocalists and pedagogues Bobbi Wilsyn (Columbia College Chicago) and Fabrizia Barresi (Paris), along with vocalist Maggie Brown (Chicago), art therapist Veronica Precious Bohanan (Chicago), vocalist Tim’m West (Chicago), and dancer Sage Morgan-Hubbard (Columbia College Chicago) demonstrated Bakkum’s interpretation of Griffin’s argument.
Through interactive presentations, each offered personal narratives about how their early vocal involvement—in the Baptist and Pentecostal church, at home, in jazz clubs, at school—influences their current vocal work and vocal philosophies. Notably, Barresi stressed how vocality offers a medium through which she reconciles her family’s Afro-cosmopolitan movement between Italy, France, and Tunisia. Voice “provides consistency and repetition” important in Bohanan’s treatment of trauma and, for West, vocality is a site through which he critiques black church culture’s historical and current struggle to embrace queer presence.
In a performance and in a discussion of their work, vocalists and composers Mankwe Ndosi (Minneapolis) and Pamela Z (San Francisco) elucidated how they vocally express themselves independent of the commercial and institutional expectations of African-American vocalists. Pamela Z challenged the identification of her singing as making use of “extended vocal techniques” by posing the question—extended from what? “Within the community of artists and audiences that I consort with,” she explains, “it means something. I do have a tendency to bristle a bit with the term, even though I use it. It’s a bit of a Eurocentric term. It assumes that Western singing styles are ‘normal’ and everything else you do with your voice is ‘extending’ the voice.” Ndosi stressed the importance of how she hears sounds of the everyday as musical. Challenging Western vocal aesthetic ideals, she says “As a singer, I am not always looking to make pretty, beautiful sounds. I want to use my voice as an expression of the full range of human experience.” Chiriacò proposed that Z and Ndosi point towards vocality’s utility for social transformation, exemplified in how Ndosi and Z’s social practice and creative lives are inseparable.
The symposium successfully exemplified a method through which scholars, performers, and composers can collectively denaturalize “black vocality” and bring contestations about subjectivity and performativity into relief. A timely event, this symposium will continue to contribute to the burgeoning field of voice studies and will usher destabilized considerations of “black vocality” into postcolonial futures.