Today’s blog post is jargon-y, but these seem like worthy terms to know for my exam. Here are quick definitions for the concepts I will cover:

  • Blackface: A performance tradition of non-blacks in American theater to display Blackness for white audiences, mostly through theatrical make-up. Originating in the 1820s and remaining popular for a century, blackface is highly offensive but is recognized historically as perhaps the first “original” form of US popular music and helped to establish the modern music industry.
  • Blacksound: The sonic complement of blackface; the embodiment of blackface performance as the origin of all popular music, entertainment, and culture in the United States.
32nd Annual Sojourner Truth Lecture: Saidiya Hartman ...
Saidiya Hartman, English and Comparative Literature professor at Columbia University.
(photo credit here)
  • “Terror and Enjoyment:” A concept created by Saidiya Hartman to describe the racial subjugation and commodification of cultural practices of black people in the US during and after slavery, and to explore forms of terror and enjoyment that shaped black identity.
  • Sonic color line: Describes the process of racializing sound (making assumptions about who makes and prefers certain sounds) and the result of that process (creating division between “whiteness” and “blackness”). Coined by sound-studies scholar Jennifer Lynn Stoever (2016).
  • Authenticity/sincerity: Used here as cultural concepts. Authenticity is the primary way race is understood in the US, sincerity relates to how race actually functions in society.
  • Sonic blue(s)face: The embodiment of sounds from the African Diaspora by non-black performers to achieve stardom (ie: bluesy elements of the music of Amy Winehouse). Coined by Daphne Brooks.
Matthew Morrison
Matthew D. Morrison
(photo credit)

These terms are central to two articles by musicologist Matthew D. Morrison, Assistant Professor in the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. The first is called “The Sound(s) of Subjection: Constructing American Popular Music and Racial Identity through Blacksound” (2017) and the second is “Race, Blacksound, and the (Re)Making of Musicological Discourse” (2019).

Morrison uses the term Blacksound to bring attention to “how performance, (racial) identity, and (intellectual) property relations have been tethered to the making of popular music and its commercialization since the early nineteenth century” (2019). As has hopefully been apparent from these blog posts, the culture of music has always been exclusionary in one way or another. Shana Redmond demonstrated how societal and musical exclusion led Black individuals like Nina Simone, Paul Robeson, and the women of the 1945 Charleston tobacco industry strike to become activists through the creation and amplification of Black anthems. Kevin Gaines and Nathaniel Mackey introduced the concept of artistic othering, explaining how Black jazz artists like Sun Ra and Dizzy Gillespie highlighted their cultural identity through music in ways that didn’t conform to white-established norms and expectations.

Matthew D. Morrison’s term Blacksound (which he calls a “race-based epistemology”1) helps strengthen the tie between these other works. If I’m understanding this correctly, Black anthems are forms of artistic othering that amplify Black cultural practices through music, while Blacksound is a way to analyze the political (racial) implications connected to popular music in the US. Black anthems are Black-owned, while Blacksound is tied to blackface…not so great.


Blackface and Blacksound

Blackface - Wikipedia
The blackface Wikipedia page (where this image is from) is a good starting point if you are unfamiliar with blackface minstrelsy. History.com also has a good introductory article.

I won’t go deep into the history of blackface since it has been covered so often (even a quick Google search can teach you a bit about it). I will mention that blackface does not only exist in terms of black/white; blackface performance can also include burlesquing ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, class, etc. (sidenote: This relates to what I’m reading for my Music and Disability Studies list for this exam. Maybe I’ll write a a future post on “disability drag” in music to link these concepts). Morrison explains in his writing: “Blacksound seeks not to erase other ethnic and racial groups from the process of popular music making in the United States, but rather to put blackness—as the aesthetic basis of American popular music since its founding in blackface—at the center of considering what is at stake as varied communities engage in popular music making on their own terms and in relation to one another within society’s complex and often unequal structures.” The “Black Lives Matter” movement’s goal is not to suggest that *only* Black lives matter, and similarly, the concept of Blacksound does not suggest that *only* the black/white paradigm should be considered in music studies. The purpose of the Blacksound concept is to challenge general notions of racial authenticity in music and to analyze the ways that the US contemporary music industry is built with blackface as its foundation.

Sounding the Color Line

The Sonic Color Line: Race and the Cultural Politics of ...

What sounds are certain bodies “supposed” to produce, and what makes music “authentically” black, white, or something else? Societal expectations establish assumptions: If a singer adds “blue” notes, interjections, hollers, moans, groans, hand clapping, etc. into a performance, these aspects are usually considered “black.” This “sonic color line,” as Jennifer Lynn Stoever calls it, originated in blackface, when artists tried to “sound black” in performance, enacting what Erich Nunn describes as “sounding the color line.” Racial sounds, norms, and expectations were scripted through blackface performance, and those scripts carried over into popular music culture.

But so what? Why does the sonic color line matter? If the music is good, people will listen, right? Who cares if someone is sounding the color line? One reason is that listeners may racialize sounds they hear, enforcing dominant culture by deciding which sounds are primitive, sophisticated, authentic, etc. and possibly reinforcing pre-existing stereotypes. Some assumptions may be real – a listener who studies West African music may be able to say with certainty when a sound has West African characteristics – and others imaginary – someone may decide that a sound is “tribal” or “unsophisticated” because of stereotypes they’ve heard and reinforce.

Scholars have coined many terms to explain the sounds of the sonic color line (I did warn this entry would be jargony!). These terms help to break down the sounds that make up the sonic color line. Here are some that Morrison mentions:

  • Jayna Brown’s “racial mimicry” (forms of racial delineation with and without cork make-up)
  • Mendi Obadike’s “acousmatic blackness” (a “sonic skin” that enables stereotypes of blackness to be articulated and understood when no blackness is visualized)
  • Nina Eidsheim’s “sonic blackness” (the perceptual phantom of a vocal timbre, projected by the listener, which happens to match current expectations about blackness, or the shaping of a vocal timbre to match ideas about blackness)
  • Barbara Savage’s “aural blackface” (“sounding” black by performing what might be recognized as black dialect)
  • Kristin Moriah’s “sounding blackness” (black performance, singing, and listening as a political act)
  • Daphne A. Brooks’s “sonic blue(s)face” (“a palimpsest of spectacular aural racial and gendered iterations” developed out of minstrelsy by black and white women performers).

So…what is Blacksound?

In his 2017 piece, Morrison defines Blacksound in two ways. It is “the legacies, sounds, and movements of African American bodies – both real and imagined – on which blackface performance and popular entertainment was based.” Simultaneously, “the concept suggests the scripting, commodification, and embodiment of these sonic performances by both black and non-black bodies as a vehicle for self-imagination and the construction of race.” It’s easy enough to consider appropriation in music, but as Morrison explains, considerations of blackness in popular culture often assume that the sounds being appropriated are “an ‘authentic’ racialized sonic self” (2017). Morrison coined the term Blacksound to amplify the less perceptible ways that a “racially audible past” informs contemporary popular culture and its development.

[ Okeh Race Records Form No. 2566] | Library of Congress
“Race records” were popular in the 1920s
(image credit)

Morrison mentions many styles of music that emerged out of blackface performance, forming the base of popular music culture in the US. Those styles include Tin Pan Alley pop, vaudeville, “hillbilly”/bluegrass/country, jazz, race music/blues, gospel, rhythm and blues, rock, and hip-hop. As he explains, the diversity of these styles and their histories “continue to reflect the social, economic, political, and geographic relationships that inform how these genres have been created, commodified, and experienced through Blacksound.”

Conclusion

This was a hard concept to unpack and I’m not sure I have completely succeeded. What I do understand is that race and other forms of identity are “imagined, constructed, and negotiated through the embodiment and performance of popular music in and beyond the United States” and that societal structures and assumptions affect individual and collective identities through music. We can only move past stereotypes and deconstruct white-dominant cultural norms if we acknowledge the effect they have on musical identity formation. Blacksound is a concept designed to help do just that.

1 Shana Almeida has a definition to help understand race-based epistemology. In her words, it “challenge[s] the epistemological practices and activities that naturalize western ways of thinking. Race-based epistemologies serve to de-center and contextualize western ways of thinking and knowing, to define their limits” (Almeida 2015:83).


Works Cited

Almeida, Shana. “Race-Based Epistemologies: The Role of Race and Dominance in Knowledge Production.” Wagadu: A Journal of Transnational Women and Gender Studies 13 (Summer 2015): 79–105.
Google Scholar

Brown, Jayna. Babylon Girls: Black Women Performers and the Shaping of the Modern. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008.

Brooks, Daphne A. Bodies in Dissent: Spectacular Performances of Race and Freedom: 1850–1910. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006.

Brooks, Daphne A. “‘This Voice Which Is Not One’: Amy Winehouse Sings the Ballad of Sonic Blue(s)face Culture.” Women and Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory 20, no. 1 (March 2010): 37–60.
Google Scholar Crossref

Eidsheim, Nina Sun. “Marian Anderson and ‘Sonic Blackness’ in American Opera.” American Quarterly 63, no. 3 (September 2011): 641–71.
Google ScholarCrossref

Hartman, Saidiya. 1997. Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth Century America. New York: Oxford University Press. 

Morrison, Matthew D. “Race, Blacksound, and the (Re)Making of Musicological Discourse.” Journal of the American Musicological Society 1 December 2019; 72 (3): 781–823.

—–. 2017. “The sound(s) of subjection: Constructing American popular music and racial identity through Blacksound.” Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory. 27:1. 13-24.

Obadike, Mendi. “Low Fidelity: Stereotyped Blackness in the Field of Sound.” PhD diss., Duke University, 2005.
Google Scholar

Savage, Barbara Dianne. Broadcasting Freedom: Radio, War, and the Politics of Race, 1938–1948. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.

Stoever, Jennifer Lynn. 2016. The Sonic Color Line: Race and the Cultural Politics of Listening. New York: NYU Press. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s