The black falsetto, or when artists live

Ms. Lauryn Hill performing at Loufest, September 11, 2016
Ms. Lauryn Hill performing at Loufest, September 11, 2016

Last month, I spoke at the first Americanist Dinner Forum of the 2016-2017 year. Peter Benson, Associate Professor of Anthropology and Director of Graduate Studies in the Program in American Culture Studies (AMCS), curated the engaging and moving event. The theme: “When Artists Die: On Prince et. al.” Pat Burke, Associate Professor of Music, and Jeffrey McCune, Associate Professor of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies were amazing panelists. Pat brought our attention to how race frames the narratives of artists’ deaths; Jeffrey made us sonically focus on Prince’s voice and how it stages relationships among religion and sound. My remarks–with media–are below.

The black falsetto, or when artists live

Delivered September 29, 2016 at the Americanist Dinner Forum, Washington University in St. Louis

We can think about Prince through his falsetto. [“Kiss”] I was born in 1982; my first memories of Prince were not visual but sonic—on the radio in the car with my mom. One time as he came on, she turned up the radio and said “Prince can squeal. I love a man who can squeal.” My mom’s preferences for black male vocalists who could squeal—Prince, Al Green, Marvin Gaye—shaped my own. In fact my first concert was—at five or six—Michael Jackson. We had lawn seats in very back but my proximity to my mom made it the best seat. When Michael Jackson started “The Way You Make We Feel,” my mom sang in my ear “you knock me off on my feet now Jazzy.” Through my mom, Michael was speaking to me.

But back to the falsetto. Falsetto, some theorize, makes black male singers more feminized and therefore more palatable to white audiences. Andrew Grant Jackson describes how Smokey Robinson’s “beautiful falsetto made him nonthreatening to white audiences.” (33)  Lisa Taylor details Prince’s “strategy of holding black audiences, while always aspiring to cross over to the far more profitable white leisure audience” as “inform[ing” the construction of his image throughout his career” (166). But there are many ways to be and be seen as black. These readings particularly cheapen Smokey Robinson and Prince, singularizing their music as successful only by reaching white audiences. So as we remember Prince, and Marvin, and Michael, I want to think about them through the black falsetto in five other ways.

First, we can think of Prince’s falsetto, and Smokey’s, and Marvin’s, and Michael’s, as part of black musical repertoire. In The Black Diaspora: Five Centuries of the Black Experience Outside Africa, Ronald Segal details how “[t]he vocal embellishments were those of black musical tradition and included growls, falsetto, humming, moaning” (383).

Second, falsetto gives sonic room to various modes of being black. After Prince’s death, Slate ran “How Prince Led the Way to Our Gender Fluid Present.” Chelsea Reynolds wrote on “Prince tried to help us understand the differences between identity (how we think of ourselves), behavior (what we do), and perception (how others think of us). Prince dismantled and queered what contemporary culture has tried to bracket.” Frank Ocean wrote of Prince “He was a straight black man who played his first televised set in bikini bottoms and knee high heeled boots, epic. He made me feel more comfortable with how I identify sexually simply by his display of freedom from and irreverence for obviously archaic ideas like gender conformity.”

Frank Ocean gives us a third way to think about the black falsetto. It announces futurity. [Frank Ocean performing “Thinkin Bout You” on SNL] Seated, eyes often closed, Ocean and his pleasurably strained falsetto often shouts away from the mic as it declares “I’ve been thinking about forever” and projects what José Muñoz might call “not yet here” (1). Similarly, novelist Nathaniel Mackey in the Bedouin Hornbook describes how the black falsetto enacts a new world. He writes:

the deliberately forced, deliberately “false” voice we get from someone like Al Green creatively hallucinates a “new world,” indicts the more insidious falseness of the world as we know it.

(Listen, for example, to “Love and Happiness.”) What is it in the falsetto that thins and threatens to abolish the voice but the wear of so much reaching for heaven?

I found this excerpt in Fred Moten’s “Black Mo’Nin” in the edited collection Loss: The Politics of Mourning. Moten’s chapter is about the image of Emmett Till at his funeral. I wont reproduce that here but I ask for us to hold Till’s memory, the memory of black teenager killed for flirtation with whiteness. In In the Break, Fred Moten writes “Mackey understands the falsetto to be the strained, maternal, and material residue of ‘a legacy of lynchings’ that illuminates and amplifies that legacy’s ongoing sexual cut of sexual difference.” Falsetto as enacting a new world ties to falsetto as mourning for the anti-blackness in this one.

Fifth, we think of the black falsetto through Maxwell. “Give me these moments, give them back to me.” Maxwell covers Kate Bush’s 1988 song “This Woman’s Work” a title evoking the dual meaning of labor as work and childbirth. Maxwell’s falsetto is a piercing presence, that recalls, even though captured in a recoding, live performance as particularly precious in its liveness, ephemerality, and inability to reproduce. Peggy Phelan has written:

Performance in a strict ontological sense is nonreproductive. It is this quality which makes performance the runt of the litter of contemporary art. Performance clogs the smooth machinery of reproductive representation necessary to the circulation of capital. (148)

Falsetto is sonically present and labored in a way that questions how sound circulates. In a different register, Prince’s battle, two decades ago, for ownership of his name with “slave” written on his face questioned how and why the circulation of capitol is so central to music industry profits. Then, Prince said: “When you stop a man from dreaming … he becomes a slave. That’s where I was. I don’t own Prince’s music. If you don’t own your masters, your master owns you.”

Black falsetto makes new worlds, mourns this one, as critiques capitol deemed necessary to its sonic circulation. That is where I would close if not for a recent experience.

But I want to close thinking about when artists live. This summer I bought a ticket to LouFest to see Ms. Lauryn Hill. I told friends how I excited was and received a set of similar responses: “she’s not going to perform,” “she’ll be three hours late,” “she’s always drunk,” “you shouldn’t go.” Press frames Ms. Hill similarly. In 2014, Chicago-based writer Stefan Schumacher penned a really mean article in Medium entitled “It’s Finally Time to Stop Caring About Lauryn Hill.” Even though there was a very caring response from Talib Kweli, discourse about Lauryn Hill present as not her brilliant past has rendered her dead.

In Lemonade, Beyonce cites Malcolm X. His articulation makes sense of Lauryn Hill as disrespected, unprotected, and neglected. As she if she is already dead.

Daphne Brooks has written:

I am especially drawn to the notion of black women musicians as archivists, excavators and agitators who use sound and musicality as ways to galvanize and disturb historical memory in the public sphere.

One archivist, Brooks writes, is Lauryn Hill in “Black Rage,” Hill’s 2012 reimaging of “My Favorite Things.” Lets watch it.

Daphne Brooks says of Lauryn Hill “Her performative threat, her compelling insinuation, is one that we might act on to create a new time…” That night at LouFest, Lauryn Hill started pretty much on time. Her performance—as a skillful conductor of the seven-piece band and vocalists—was one of the best performances I’ve ever experienced, reorienting me to revel in the joy and strain of her sonic creations, and in the presence of this black woman who has been so disrespected, unprotected, neglected but who is still with us. When we think about when artists die, we must also consider how those, like Ms. Lauryn Hill, who many mark as dead, live, still creating new time for us.

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