Thursday, February 25, 2010

Beyond Speech - Museums, Body, Rap and Jazz

Negro boy near Cincinnati, Ohio (LOC)Image by The Library of Congress via Flickr

Here is my lecture for this week. The items may be in a different order than I presented them.


MUSEUMS – Deborah Atwater & Sandra Herndon

National Civil Rights Museum, Memphis, TN

MuseumAfrica, Johannesburg, South Africa

Public memory: A potential for a shared sense of the past, fashioned from symbolic resources of community, and subjected to its particular history, hierarchies and aspirations.

Share the past, as different groups have different conceptions of the past.

Remembering African American history has led to:

1. Loss of moral hegemony by whites

2. Loss of the myth of racial homogeneity by Blacks.

We may engage in recovery through a sharing of various narratives and being open to the liberating power of that experience.

Museums can serve these purposes, especially for African Americans. Museums are political, but they often present a variety of different messages based on their intent and design. Museums have been a powerful element for documenting and remembering the experience of African Americans and confronting visitors with various narratives.


Located at the site of MLK’s assassination.

Focused mostly on the civil rights movement.

Brutal depiction of segregation tries to shock visitors.


It tries to depict South Africa from the Stone Age to the space age. It attempts to make sure that native Africans are given credit and mentioned, as is their due.

A depiction of Johannesburg as a changing city focused on issues such as gold mining, workers rights, music and culture of the city, homelessness, shantytowns, the anti-apartheid struggle, the role of African women, the changes since independence.


Space and place communicates.

There is a language in display and arrangement, stories told, focus on issues, etc.

Both museums attempt to portray the role of disenfranchised and marginalized people and their struggle for equality.

Space is created and visitors put into it: in the back of a bus or in a shantytown home. Yet these are communal spaces and all are put in them, black or white.

But, the struggle is not over and at times the message is ion how far we have come not on how far we need to go. One can imagine Malcolm X’s reaction to the canonization of King at the Memphis museum.


1. Both had formal laws of discrimination.

2. Both countries claim they discriminate no more.

3. Discrimination is now more subtle and difficult to alleviate

4. Very different outcomes, yet the slogan is, “no more racism here”


1. Winner take all vs. parliamentary representation

2. “One drop” rule vs. black, brown, colored, white

3. Africans in South Africa will have major control, African Americans not.


Milan Kundera: forgetting is a form of death ever present in life.

Museums try to combat that, no matter which story they tell. Jim Crow and apartheid still attempt to dominate the story.

Nietzsche says only that which continues to hurt remains in the memory.

But it also serves the need for catharsis and healing.


Can be a very potent experience, as the authors indicate in their narratives about their visits to the two museums.



Focus on melodies and melodic decoration

Elaborate harmony, but cannot harmonize without instructions

Highly developed poetic forms and good ballad tradition

White songs are largely solitary acts

White singers mostly interested in text

Borrowed African percussion

Mathematically and structurally conceived


Improvising on a theme

Talented choral singers but a rudimentary system of harmony

Leader-chorus tradition allowing songs to be made up and involving everyone

Intended for and performed by joyful crowds

African American singers focus on movement and beat

Borrowed Anglo American instruments

Psychologically and symbolically conceived


Polyphonic character, gapped heptatonic scale, dominance of percussion, parallel thirds, off beat phrasing of melodic accents, overlapping call and response, vocal and instrumental slurs and vibratos, bending improvised notes, syncopation.

Music infuses all parts of African life.

African languages tend to be more “musical,” so people are more sensitive to changes in tone and pitch.

Children make instruments at 3 or 4.

Patterns of complaint and social commentary that precedes blues.

Explore male-female relationships, ward off evil, and appease the gods.

Human bodies are an important source of music, hand clapping and foot stomping.

Music is kept below the level of consciousness, and so was immune to change during slavery.

All of this was preserved early on in slave songs and spirituals.

Blues emerged as a musical form out of these roots. It features lyrics of ridicule, social commentary, and the criticisms of black society and social practices. Blues originated as a form of work song, but soon took into itself elements of spirituals, work songs and field cries. Elements included call and response, slides, slurs, bends and dips. Voices can be moans, groans, and shouts to song-speech utterances.

Jazz emerged from New Orleans “hot music” and used a wide variety of African music forms. It contains improvisation, playing with notes ands textures, syncopation, surging percussion, call and response allowing for collective interaction. Polyrhythm’s change and allow an increase in musical tension as they develop.

Call and response are featured as one instrument may follow the other and try to do or outdo it. Themes get thrown back and forth and changed in entertaining ways.

LAURYN HILL By Celnisha Dangerfield

Slave songs often talked about troubles or were sung when the slaves were upset. They also told of coming breakouts and escapes. They also contained thoughts of inspiration during a difficult workday. They contained messages that the masters could not understand.

The lyrics are much more than catchy phrases of rhyming words. They represent sentiments, thoughts and emotions of a group of people who have known and continue to know struggle. Hip Hop music is a further example of this.

Hip-hop uses new technology and covers new themes, but is also quite traditional. Potter says:

The knowledge that rappers draw on is not only their own day-to-day experience, but also the entire recorded tradition of African American music .. which it re-reads and signifies though a complex blend of strategies, including samplin, cutting, pastiche, freestylin and improvisation.”

Just as slave songs were defiant, so now is hip-hop. It challenges the forces that would keep African Americans muted. But it appeals to a wider audience. It is as Dubois spoke of the minority who knows the majority better than it knows itself.

Lauryn Hill made a huge splash on the international musical stage in 1999, with 10 Grammy nominations. She wrote and produced her own songs.

Dangerfield takes five Hill songs and analyzes them using common themes of Afrocentric rhetorical study.


Education, not necessarily formal but knowledge, not miseducation within an Anglo American context. Many African Americans have been educated with Eurocentric values erasing their more traditional beliefs. Hill has these sets of values dueling in her songs.

She also attacks values at work she disapproves of. The conflation of sex with money and the willingness of women to sell themselves for little gain. The value of money over all else, and the willingness to do what is immoral to gain money.


These can be thought of as master stories describing exceptional people doing exceptional things and serving as moral guides to proper action.

Many of Hill’s myths have a Biblical referent. Jesus, Judas, Cain and Abel. Many more.


Fantasy themes are much like myths. They can be thought of as abbreviated myths providing concrete manifestations of current values and hinting at some idealized vision of the future. They take up less space in the song but can carry a huge impact.

Hill’s two fantasy themes are the idea that Africans are God’s chosen people and the value of motherhood. The Israelites are the chosen people even while in slavery. Motherhood is used as a fantasy theme with the notion that it is a wonderful gift to be cherished and appreciated. Hill decided to bring her child to term even at the cost of her performing career. Giving the dominance of the discussion in African American affairs about responsibility for motherhood and fatherhood this is a powerful message, listen to your heart and do what is right, not the selfishness of your head.


Called on African Americans and others not to believe what they are programmed, but to listen to their hearts and find their own destiny.

The duality called upon by Dubois in his concept of double consciousness is here as well. The work of Lauryn Hill involves the inherent dueling of these two consciousness forces.

The culture of African Americans cannot be separated from the work of Lauryn Hill. She and other hip hop artists pick up where MLK, Malcolm X and Marcus Garvey left off. It is still a message of uplift, strength and survival with ties to a past that cannot be eliminated.

“The genre of hip-hop is an innovative form of black rhetoric that has exposed the world to the powerful force that is African American rhetoric.”


Gangsta rappers discuss life in the hood and full-time thugging.

Young African Americans co-construct this via music, language, dress, and graffiti, and so on to create a resistance to oppression, racism and poverty while living on the margins of society. Rap music is related to Black Nationalism, storytelling, spirituals and blues.

Criticisms have included the focus on violence, the rejection of mainstream economics and the female body as an object of subjugation and sexuality.



They help us understand what an experience is about.

Establish a connection between the central action, various elements and our lives.

We judge narratives based on their completeness and consistency and find them adequate or lacking.

The focus is on the story and the telling of the story.

Major events are kernels

Minor elements are satellites

Theme – general idea illustrated by the narrative

The narrator – a central part or only the teller.

Audience the narrative is addressed to.

Dramatism: Kenneth Burke

Language is symbolic action. It is not motion as animals have. Humans are motivated to action by language and symbols.

Humans develop and present messages in the same way that a play is presented:

1. Act

2. Agent

3. Scene

4. Agency

5. Purpose

You identify the five elements in a rhetorical act, and then you choose the one or two that seem most important to understanding the rhetoric.


Born in Brooklyn, mother was a Black Panther leader, moved to Oakland. Dancer in Digital Underground, released an album, 2pocalypse Now. Starred in movie Juice in 1992. He played himself, a “G Nigga” who was grounded in nihilism and thus was willing to embrace killing and death. They care about true homies only.

Tupac represented the status of many African American youth. He was seen as hustler, actor, thug, realist, lover, hater, opportunist and more. He was all of these. He becomes a universal symbol of young African American manhood trapped in a rigged system. A contradiction that looks ugly and beautiful at the same time.

Tupac also had a strong black revolutionary background and teachings from his mother Afeni and father Mutulu. He was also influenced by criminal Legs who got his mother booked on crack, shaping Tupac’s “ride or die” mentality.

Tupac enjoyed life but seemed preoccupied with death.

The killing fields of America. Inner city turf with little or no opportunity, police repression and an absence of hope. Lack of hope breeds nihilism. Young men join gangs for protection and identification.

Gang warfare in LA (p. 196).

These streets are also a place of revenge and retaliation in case of the death of a friend, or homie.

There is a war and these young men are warriors. Tupac said in a 1996 interview:

p. 197

The showdown with death is the main event in the narratives of Tupac.

In terms of dramatistic elements:


Blaze weed and drink.

Ball (make money, court women)

Confronting the enemy.

No fear of death. It might actually be a release.

Their actions may be heinous, but they fit the setting of the killing fields. Slow motion genocide.


Retaliation against the enemy. This maintains juice respect with friends and enemies.

They use the agency of nihilism to act against reason and self-protection.


The dominant factor. It is the environment of the killing fields that triggers it all. Absent that, none of the other elements would make sense. The scene prescribes their actions – killing, revenge, ballin’.

Those who focus on scene tend to believe that the physical, social and psychological environment in which action occurs can be the cause of good or bad outcomes.

African American youths identified as an audience. They experienced many of the same things and Tupac would keep it real, facing death, but maintaining street credibility.

White youths identified with Tupac as an element of rebellion. They faced some of the same things but not to the same extent, and could vicariously explore that killing fiends experience through the music.


Tupac’s rhetoric contains the absence of a love ethic. Without love, there is a place for nihilism to grow.

Cornel West has stated: nihilism is not overcome by arguments and analysis; it is tamed by love and care. Any disease of the soul must be conquered by the turning of one’s soul. This turning is done through the self-affirmation of ones worth – an affirmation fueled by the concern of others.”

Tupac enacts this reality of the killing fields by accepting death and seeing it as the warrior’s only savior. It will save the baller from further destruction in the killing fields. The killing fields drive one crazy through paranoia, losing touch with reality, as friends become enemies.

Tupac’s narratives are persuasive and contain narrative coherence and fidelity. The action is consistent and predictable. You believe that he believes the story he is telling.

If the scene is the crucial element, it educates us that the scene, the killing fields, must be changed.


The body is a sign emitting text. Even while not speaking, our bodies are communicating.

The social meanings of our bodies can influence our sense of inner self and feelings of inner worth.

Black women often focus on skin tone and hair texture.

Good is light skin, good is straight hair. Kink factor.

Womanism is a perspective where women make their own decisions and establish their own standards, not rely on those of others or society.

Comprehensive interviews were done with black women to determine how the kink factor influences them.


1. Kinky hair is a black thing. Straighter is better, lighter skin is more beautiful. In order to fit in often the body must be redesigned to fit other standards.

2. Kinky hair is nappy by nature. It is coiled. A lot of emphasis on straight hair. Women have been conditioned to see straight hair as beautiful. If you take care of it it will not be nappy, so if it is nappy you do not take care of yourself. Men often reject African American women with nappy hair, further sending the message.

3. Kinky hair is a state of mind/mine. African American women experiment with different kinds of hairstyles trying to find what is best for them. It may or may not be political or fashionable. An Afro may be a political statement or a conviction that one looks good with that style, or a fashionable fad. It may be a matter of convenience or a connection with Africa. It may involve the idea of what is beautiful – naturalness or artifice.

4. The path between conformity and resistance is a difficult one. Mothers play an important role in helping their daughters do this, but the final result is usually an individual one.

CONCLUSION: p. 240, last paragraph.

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