Somnambulist Notes #1

A super bright student hit me up the other day regarding his feeling of cringe while listening to some “jazz” music recently – he was trying to get a handle on his intuition of some kind of bad faith with regard to racial appropriation and the mess of things that go along with that. Of course I emailed him back a way-too-long response that maybe (?) addressed some of what he was trying to nail down. I’m still trying to better articulate my ideas, especially trying to minimize jargon. To that end, I woke up the other day to some line’s I’d scribbled when I got up for a glass of water in the night with this stuff on my mind. Waking AJ has been reading Matthew D. Morrison and Robin D. G. Kelley recently, so sleeping AJ had this to say about it:

A dissonance with regard to racialized musical borrowing arises from the wish of white folks to engage with the black radical tradition’s values and cultural expressions while not engaging with the implications of whiteness in the structuring of the oppression that has historically exploited black populations, occasioning those expressions whites admire. 

This describes the mauvaise foi of some whites playing black music. It is not the whiteness of my skin that might create a chasm between me and the music, but my potential unwillingness or inability to engage with how my investment in whiteness marks my non-identity with the music. This is further problematized by a culture that, until recently, has not wished to recognize whiteness or the structural whiteness of university pedagogical framings, markets, symbolic value systems, etc. into which “jazz” has been forced. 

To avoid doing “sonic blackface minstrelsy” when we engage with black music, we must divest from whiteness at whatever levels it manifests. As Davis says, not just to be non-racist, but anti-racist. If we’re not engaged in that work, we’ll be stuck in appropriative acts that sound their inauthenticity and bad faith.

– sleeping AJ

I’m hearing what sleeping AJ is trying to get at. It agrees with what Nicholas Payton is saying about #BAM – anybody can play Black American Music. But if you’re not engaged in an attempt to understand the lifeworld that created the music as well as an open-eyed process of divesting from whiteness and its many allied systems of oppression, you’re not really there and it’s not gonna sound or feel right.  

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