Spirit Sounds Symposium - Abstracts and Speakers
Absracts and Speakers
Day 1, Friday, October 10, 2019
Grant Recital Hall
Although many black musicians, from different genres and historical eras, have described the centrality of religious or spiritual formations to their creative work, they diverge widely in how explicitly they acknowledge, recognize, or project that formation. Under what constraints and pressures have these musicians masked, suppressed, or left to implication the religious or spiritual content of their work? Why have many black musicians chosen to operate at the level of allusion or indirect reference when introducing religious themes or topoi? This panel considers how musicians have used performances, compositions, and the media to position themselves as inheritors of historically black religious traditions as well as progressive transformers of these traditions; at the same, it attends to the hesitations and complex negotiations that attend such self-positioning. Topics that may well come forth include a) the resilience of a sacred/secular conceptual binary, even in the wake of perpetual denials of its relevance to black music, b) the privileging or suppression of certain Christian denominations or spiritual formations in histories and discourses of black music, and c) the role of marketing and branding in enabling or disabling the revelation of religious meaning or content.
Cities in the Black Gospel tradition are often known for the style their musicianship takes. This is true for musicians of the Hammond Organ. The Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, Brooklyn sounds. This paper will explore both diaspora and migration studies. Beginning in the 1930s with the invention of the Hammond Organ, I write about the failures of the New Deal to account for racialized difference and how this failure of accounting prompted ongoing movement from cities and states in the South to places in the North and West for jobs and opportunity, and away from racial terrorizing and violence. I write about how migration produced sonic manifestations. Listening to the Hammond Organ in particular places and times will yield fresh perspectives on constructions of gender, sexuality and race.
The historiography of jazz has recognized the importance of black spirituals in the music's early development, of the black church in providing formative musical experiences, of religious semiotic codes in Hard Bop, and of the various religious and spiritual formations that musicians embraced during the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. This paper concentrates on the continuing presence of the black church, especially pentacostal practices, in jazz of the past three decades—a presence that hardly registers in dominant accounts of post-1960s jazz. Taking the Brian Blade Fellowship as the main case study, but also touching on David Murray, Cyrus Chestnut, Russell Malone, Sean Jones, and other less well-known artists, I consider how transformations in the marketing and concert management of jazz artists in the post-60s era have simultaneously favored certain expressions of religious meaning and concealed others.
While, it can be argued that from its beginnings jazz sonically, culturally, and aesthetically was linked with the Black Church, black sacred song repertory, and conceptions of black spirituality the 1960s marked a period where this relationship became more integral to the identity politics of the jazz musician. The violence exercised against the black civil rights movement and the social chaos that punctuated the 1960s led some jazz musicians to promote spirituality as counter narrative to more militant cultural responses. This has been exhaustively studied in relation to male musicians such as John Coltrane and Duke Ellington. In the case of each of these musicians’ spirituality was defined and advanced in contexts that stretch beyond the Protestant identities that dominate conversations of black spirituality and black sacred music. But what of the spiritual experiences of black female jazz musicians? The Black Church has historically served as the incubator for black women’s musical identities, so it is only natural to assume that there are similar phenomenon in relationship to jazz. In the past few years, more attention has been given to the spiritual jazz of pianists/composers Mary Lou Williams and Alice Coltrane. During the 1960s and 1970s both embarked on a musical pathway that led to not only an expanded view of black women’s spirituality, but also the ways in which they advanced new forms of liturgical music. This presentation will explore the conversion narratives of Williams and Coltrane as a methodology for understanding the widening scope of black spirituality during the latter half of the 20th century and the creation and cultivation of sacred song liturgy that corresponded with the ideological perspectives of the black civil rights struggle, and transformed liturgical practices in America.
“Hide/Melt/Ghost: Writing the Early History of African American Music” represents a marshalling of my scholarship, teaching, performance, arranging in a multi-media presentation, including live music, oration and an original film. The narration is taken from my forthcoming book, Sound Proof: Black Music, Magic and Racial Intimacies. It’s an interpretive history of African American music from slavery to the present in the tradition of Amiri Baraka (Blues People, 1963), Eileen Southern (The Music of Black Americans, 1971), and Samuel A. Floyd, Jr. (The Power of Black Music, 1995). The presentation is based on Sound Proof’s first three chapters, which contemplate the lessons that slave-era music holds for our contemporary understanding of black artistic practice.
“Hide/Melt/Ghost” surveys how the music of enslaved African Americans were used as a sign of humanity, as a soundtrack for paranormal events like spirit possession and as a melting pot for the diverse African cultural groups that would become one African American people. At the same time, “Hide/Melt/Ghost” vividly shows how a sonic conversation across the color line documented and managed another melting pot, one that joined Americans of all kinds in a mutually dependent dance. Music is a powerful cultural transaction with allegorical potential. As an important cultural form in African American history, we learn in this multi-media presentation that it does not simply reflect community values, music “makes” communities by creating strong social bonds.
Day 2: Friday, October 11
Granoff Center, Fishman Studio
This panel explores popular artists’ use of spirituality and/or religion in their music, and the ways in which artists’ employment of spirituality and religion reify or disrupt normative notions of blackness. Questions that will likely be addressed in presentations and/or panel discussion: How are contemporary black artists using proximity to or distance from organized religion in their cultural products and performances of identity? There is a long history of conflating certain types of Christian practice with black culture in the American imagination, even as scholars have worked to bring attention to the diversity of religious affiliations among black Americans. What other organizing frameworks of spirituality and religion might one use to understand the connections between music, spirit, and representation of self among contemporary black popular artists? Are conceptions of appropriation and authenticity appropriate frames for understanding the connections between performed spirituality and commercial viability among popular artists?
The last few years have seen a rise of mainstream Hip-Hop artists recording Christianity-inflected projects, including Kanye West, Chance the Rapper, Sir the Baptist, and Snoop Dogg. Focusing on Kanye West, this paper will analyze the ways in which mainstream Hip-Hop artists have negotiated their faith declarations and integrated gospel music into their recordings and performances. This paper will focus on West’s career moves from “Jesus Walks” to his new inspirational “Sunday Service” held each week in the Los Angeles area. Ultimately, this paper will argue that mainstream Hip-Hop artists have reframed Christian identity in Hip-Hop through a delicate dance of both proximity to gospel artists and artistry, and distance from traditional churches and denominations.
“Let it Rain,” the title track of Bishop Paul S. Morton’s 2003 live recording, covers Michael W. Smith’s contemporary Christian ballad while braiding it together with Prince’s “Purple Rain” and the black gospel tradition. This paper grapples with this unlikely sonic combination, a “gospel power ballad,” arguing that its seemingly discordant components collectively illuminate the idea of black ecstasy. As this song brings rain near, building from Smith’s musical foundation and articulating a Pentecostal theology not unrelated to Prince’s eschatology, it invites a rethinking of musical performances of blackness, ecstasy, and, most especially, of the links between the two.
In 2018 rapper, Snoop Dogg released a 32-track gospel album that featured both gospel’s legends and rising stars. The album is both a profession of his personal faith and his self-described offering of positivity to the world. While with Bible of Love Snoop Dogg joins a pantheon of rappers who have directly dealt with gospel in their music, Bible of Love is singular in that it is an entire overtly gospel album that is a direct collaboration between a mainstream hip hop artist and the gospel music community. This paper examines the functional dimensions of gospel music performance in Bible of Love in order to explore the enduring impact of gospel familial association and ongoing associations between secular hip hop artists and gospel music.
***Please note: Professor Monica Miller had to cancel her visit and talk. Her segment that was to begin at 2:30 is canceled.***
Miller considers the role of time, space, spirit, and ontology in the work of Kendrick Lamar, asking, “What does it mean to let dead homies tell stories for us?” And, “How might, or ought, scholars go about analyzing the technological alchemy in constructing the ‘spirits’ of these dead homies (methodologically) brought back to life through the contingencies of a sample marked by times past, while made current through sonic cipher-like assignation?” In so doing, Miller considers dueling subject positions of spirits and bodies, contested visions and versions of blackness, the empty and full void of black space, and the nonlinearity of Lamar’s play with time. With great ingenuity and alchemical posterity, Lamar enables multiple modes and registers of ‘seeing’ and ‘being seen.’ Through a ‘thin’ ethnographic approach relying on Lamar’s craft and interviews, Miller examines the aporetic flows and lines of flight running throughout Lamar’s penchant for digital immortality and mortally minded constructions of black meaning. From the “Spirit of Black Meaning” to the “Flesh of Black Time,” Miller’s keynote takes the audience on a black time travel through a variety of topics throughout Lamar’s work, most especially “Mortal Man” – from ghosts, to Africa, black history, mental health, pimping, celebrity status, and black memory, Miller relies on Lamar to look past the flesh of black death to dialogue about the current state of black spirit and life.
The Spirit Sounds Symposium is made possible through support from
- Brown University Humanities Initiative Programming Fund
- Marshall Woods Lectureships Foundation of Fine Arts
- Brown University Pembroke Center for Research on Teaching and Women
- Brown University Department of Music