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CBMR Digest is a publication of the Center for Black Music Research at Columbia College Chicago

ISSN # 2168-3301spring 2014 | Volume 27, No. 1

CBMR Announces Black Vocality Symposium 2 Will be Held in November 2014

The Center for Black Music Research announces that a second edition of the symposium “Black Vocality: Cultural Memory, Identities, and Practices of African-American Vocal Styles” will be held at Columbia College Chicago during November 18–19, 2014. The symposium is being curated by Gianpaolo Chiriacò as part of the research project ROTVOSCIAME, which is financed by the European Union and made possible by a partnership between the University of Salento (Italy) and Columbia College Chicago.

The first Black Vocality Symposium took place in September 2013 with the goal to create a dialogue among scholars and vocalists on ideas of black voices and black singing styles. The discussion positioned this specific vocal tradition at the intersection of gospel and popular music, jazz improvisation and cultural memory, and storytelling and free forms. At the same time, practices of black vocal styles—as analyzed in presentations, lectures, and audience discourse—examined possibilities to re-sound that tradition through the power of spoken word and using resources provided by new technologies.

The 2013 symposium engendered wide interest. Not only musicologists and vocalists, but also poets, students, videomakers, and performers of different kinds participated with enthusiasm. They generated a wide and ongoing discussion that can be deemed a polyphonic search for a broad definition, as any interpretation of black vocality requires new analytic approaches to understand the long traditions, their meanings, and how they have developed into contemporary practice. CBMR Executive Director Monica Hairston O’Connell commented on the necessity of analyses of this sort in her introduction of the symposium: “In a historical moment when the American dream plays out on American Idol, only the deep listener, the culturally aware, and the sonically literate will be able to understand—and appreciate—the difference between Mahalia and Mariah.”

Thematizations of voice have spread over several disciplines, and the topic of the singing voice recently proved to be a particularly prolific one in widely divergent areas such as philosophy, cultural studies, visual arts, physics, etc. At the same time, blackness still grapples to be recognized as a cultural value, and so does a vocality that can be defined as black. The Black Vocality symposia work to interpret, in Paul Gilroy’s words, “the screams, wails, grunts, scatting and wordless singing that appears in all these black cultures as both indicative of a struggle to extend communication beyond words and as a commentary on the inadequacy of language as a means for expressing certain truths. There are here meanings and feelings so potent, so dread that they cannot be spoken without diminution and trivialization.”1

By continuing the dialogue among scholars and performers, Black Vocality 2 will move beyond such diminution and trivialization in order to delve into these “meanings and feelings,” their representation and their perception, and the many ways in which black vocality still signifies and embodies a means of empowerment and commitment. The power of black voices is the ability to create a space where people, regardless of their ethnicity, stop to listen. Sounds uttered in that space convey new meanings and express the desire to strive for economical as well as social and political advancements. By exploring themes related to African-American singing voices in popular culture, and issues of identity and mentorship, Black Vocality 2 will expand both those spaces and these notions.

Black Vocality 2 will be presented in four sessions:

  • The Right to Sing and the Strategy of Silence in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave.
  • Politics and Practices of Black Voices in Chicago.
  • Voicing Identity: Performing Blackness.
  • What Do They Call Her: How Nina Simone Influenced the Black Aesthetic.

The confirmed program and participants will be announced by June 30, 2014, on the CBMR website and ROTVOSCIAME.

  1. Paul Gilroy, There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack: The Cultural Politics of Race and Nation. Chicago, Ill., University of Chicago Press, 1991, p. 212. (return to text)

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