BOOK REVIEW: Audiotopia. Music, Race and America Josh Kun

Audiotopia. Music, Race and America
Josh Kun

Berkeley, University of California Press, 2005
$19.95 , 302 p., ISBN: 0-520-22510-4

Reviewed by Emmanuelle Le Texier, from http://www.cercles.com/review/r28/kun.html (2006)

Josh Kun is Associate Professor of English at the University of California, Riverside [currently at University of Southern California]. He contributes on a regular basis to the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, Los Angeles Magazine, the Village Voice, the San Francisco Bay Guardian and the Boston Phoenix. Josh Kun received his graduate degree at UC Berkeley’s Ethnic Studies Department and turned his dissertation on popular music and race in America into a book.

The book deals explicitly with the relationship between popular music and questions of racial and ethnic identity. The main argument is the fact that there is no way of doing a history of race and ethnicity in America without taking into account a history of popular music and vice versa. The attempt is to “re-think the relationship between American identity, American race, and American music—an intersection we might summarily think of as the American audio-racial imagination—by focusing on the spaces of music, the spaces of songs, and the spaces of sounds” [25]. As George Lipsitz, author of Time Passages: Collective Memory and American Popular Culture wrote in his editorial review: “With Audiotopia, Kun emerges as a pre-eminent analyst, interpreter, and theorist of inter-ethnic dialogue in U.S. music, literature, and visual art.” The book took its origin in the 1990s debates about American popular culture and multiculturalism. After a global introduction (“Strangers among Sounds”) and a complex theoretical chapter about the relationship between popular music and questions of race and ethnicity (“Against Easy Listening, or, How to Hear America Sing”—chapter 1), the author selects different musical subjects—Yiddish English popular music and parodic klezmer-pop (“The Yiddish Are Coming”–chapter 2], blues (“Life According to the beat”–chapter 3), bebop and hip-hop (“Basquiat’s Ear, Rahshhan’s Eye”—chapter 4], jazz, remix and border music (“I, Too, Sing América”—chapter 5), rock en español (“Rock’s Reconquista”—chapter 6]. Audiotopia is a fascinating book, both lyrical and technical, original without any doubt. It provides a new understanding of debates about music, race and identity… but it requires a strong background in pop music and political conviction as well.

The title of the book, Audiotopia, deserves an explanation since it comprehends the argument that “music functions like a possible utopia for the listener, that music is experienced not only as sound that goes into our ears and vibrates through our bones but as a space that we can enter into, encounter, move around in, inhabit, be safe in, lean from” [2]. Music and songs are not an utopia, that has no location, that exists nowhere. On the opposite, they encounter places in the social world, but those are not material, physical or concrete locations. Music, especially popular music, is seen as a “tool of social change and a vehicle for community-building across proscribed social lines” [3]. It is conceived as an instrument to understand how culture works, how to reframe it, and how to resist to it. In Josh Kun’s opinion, it is necessarily linked to power relation and identity formation, to politics and ethnic or racial interactions. Music is also a tool to shape American citizenship, national identity and culture. This requires “to think music in terms of space and in terms of its spaces—the spaces that music itself contains, the spaces that music fills up, the spaces that music helps us to imagine as listeners occupying our own real and imaginary spaces” [21].

The author relies in particular on the conceptualization of new forms of citizenship in the global era. He refers to the models of “flexible citizenship” and “nomadic citizenship” developed by Aiwha Ong and May Joseph. These models go beyond the traditional national identity formed within strict territorial boundaries. On the contrary, today’s forms of citizenship integrate various alternatives and competitive patriotic references—such as dual allegiances—and obey to multiple dynamics and processes of formation—such as transnationalism and cross-cultural exchanges. That is why Josh Kun’s main purposes are first to show that “popular music is one of our most valuable tools for understanding the impact of nationalism and citizenship on the formation of our individual identities. And second, [that] it is also one of our most valuable sites for witnessing the performance of racial and ethnic difference against the grain of national citizenships that work to silence and erase those differences” [11]. The theoretical approach takes its inspiration from Michel de Certeau’s approach of daily social practices as acts of resistance, as well as Edward Soja’s concept of human geographies, Benedict Anderson’s concept of “imagined communities” and Arjun Appadurai’s analysis of “delocalised transnation.”

Actually, chapter 1 entitled “Against Easy Listening, or, How to Hear America Sing” attempts to approach the popular concept that America is a nation of music, defined by its songs and singers as a nation of assimilated immigrants and relative diversity. The author analyzes in detail Walt Whitman’s 1860s poem “I hear American singing” because of the link between American national identity and popular music and their interplay with race and ethnicity. Popular music is hybrid, born out of exchanges, transformations, resistances, compromises, convergences and divergences, it is by nature post-national or border-line. But Whitman did not really hear America sing as a space of multicultural crossing. On the opposite, he imagined a “democratic utopia” based on harmony and patriotism. His sound of music was ensuring white racial domination and served to construct power relation and racialization in the American society.

Josh Kun argues that there is a racial project particular to this musical discourse that leads to a monocultural, racially homogeneous idea of the American Republic. The metaphor posits “a direct relationship between musical performance and the formation of national identity” [30]. Whitman hears America singing in the context of expansionism and the Manifest Destiny, as well as right before the Civil War, a crucial moment in the history of national formation in the U.S.. A hundred years later, America, I Hear You Singing was brought back as the epitome of nationalist and patriotic music by Fred Waring, Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra during the Civil Rights Movement. Numerous variations of the song were recorded, in opposition to protest songs and folk singers supporting the civil rights’ activists. Harmony was contrasted to cacophony; homogeneity to dissonance; the “melting-pot of music” to separate national performances. The post-1960s popular music is the opposite dynamic: it reflects the resistance to racial hierarchy and the ideology of whiteness.

The richness of the chapters dedicated to various forms of musical styles and singers or bands prevents us from detailing them all. They provide extremely precise data and concrete cases to illustrate Josh Kun’s argument. A brief summary of each chapter is a potential open door to the heterogeneity and hybridism of American music.
Chapter 2 deals with Katz’s music and parodic songs that aimed at negotiating dual cultural identities for Yiddish-speaking immigrants in America in the 1950s and later. In a critical period of Jewish racialization in the U.S., Katz performed parodies, mispronouncing English words, reinforcing his Yiddish accent. He was looking for the “in-betweenness”. As Josh Kun writes, “Katz’s music was the melting-pot gone awry, the melting-pot in which nothing melted” [50]. Musical performance is seen as both an instrument of assimilation but also of divergence, a tool to resist assimilation processes and politics. By creating hyphenated Jewish-Americans, “Yinglish” and even “Yiddishe Mambo” performed by “Miguelito Katz,” Katz questioned notions of American cultural citizenship as well as Jewishness.

Chapter 3 focuses on blues singer Bessie Smith through the writing of James Baldwin. It shows the interplay between race, sexuality and politics conveyed by music. It parallels the experience of James Baldwin, a black gay writer settling in white Europe in the 1950s, and the songs of Bessie Smith confronting sexual and racial identities in America: “The songs of Smith and many other women blues singer of the 1920s reveal black women eager to actively represent themselves as desiring agents of sexuality” [109].

Chapter 4 might be the more complex and dense one. It questions the links between music and paintings, especially studying the performances of blind saxophonist Rahsaan Rolank Kirk and painter Jean-Michel Basquiat. As the author recalls: “Both Basquiat and Rahsaan theorized race and the fissures of American identity by establishing a close relationship with the world of sound, specifically (but not limited to) the world of Afro-diasporic sound: spiritual, blues, jazz, salsa, reggae, hip-hop” [115]. Black popular music and anatomy of painting is not only “colored music,” in fact music itself is colored. In Rahshaan’s mind, blackness is celebrated as “blacknuss,” meaning the blackness as a sound, the way blackness sounds, a musical language that can communicate about the history of black people and white supremacy.

In chapter 5, the author shows the intersection between Black and Brown identities, focusing on Afro-Cuban music and on the U.S.-Mexico border. Josh Kun explores the art and performances of Langston Hughes, a black poet who traveled to Cuba and the Americas in the 1920s: “by singing ‘América’, Hughes was also singing Latino/a America, a transnational geopolitical landscape that he lived and traveled across, and one that consequently challenged inherited formations of an absolutist American blackness” [144]. The author also focuses on border music and the Mexican corridos (folk ballads) that created new spaces not limited by territorial border, but social and cultural locations available for resistance. Latin jazz is also analyzed as a form of cultural resistance or counterculture against assimilation.

Finally, chapter 6 is an approach to the concept of “transnational musical map” through examples taken from bands performing rock en español. This chapter is the most original one since it explores Mexican and Latino groups performing in the 1990s and today. The argument here is that “The transnational borderlands audiotopias of Mexican rock en español […] challenge the commonsense sound of the United States as “America” and refuse American identities based in rooted, singular national territories and absolutist racial and ethnic formation” [185]. Some bands talked openly of “Rockinvasión” or “Reconquista” when they toured the US., especially in the context of 1990s American nativist revival (Café Tacuba, Los Caifanes, Botellita de Jerez, etc.). The originality of the analysis is how it shows that rock en español becomes both a instrument for Latin America to negotiate with modernity and a global pop style based in post-modernity that influences different generations of youth, immigrants and their descendents in the US.Music is both local and global, national and post-national.

After such a fascinating trip through American popular music, Josh Kun ironically entitles his conclusion in Spanish: “La Misma Canción”, literally “the same old song.” Quite lyrical, looking for the utopia—the place that does not exist—the author finalizes his book with harmonious notes. He considers the future of American popular music and American national identity to be the result of multiple creative attempts to blend different racial and ethnic backgrounds together. It is not a naïve perception of cultural harmony but rather a belief that music is a form of social struggle to “Hear American Sing” in cultural-crossing and connecting voices. Josh Kun has chosen to write about quite politically or socially-involved artists, and that could be the major limit to his argument that any pop song can connect people of diverse ethnic, social, racial or economic background in a “glocal (global-local] cultural world.” The selected singers, bands, or groups represent an ideal of cross-cultural musical creation reflected in their radically distinct backgrounds.

Indeed, 21st Century music cannot function anymore in an isolated way, without bringing new sounds, techniques, hybridism and cultural crossings. Nevertheless, some questions remain unsolved. Can popular music be politically credible as a model of harmonious multiculturalism? Which kind of popular music is at stake? What is the relation between art and politics? What is the strength of classical forms of popular music promoting the American “native” identity?

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