Speaker explores effects of black song and dance

by Sam Rauschenfels | 3/31/11 10:00pm

Various black populations around the world cope with violence and poverty through inventive song and dance in a manner outside of conventional notions of humanity, Jayna Brown, a professor of ethnic studies at the University of California, Riverside, said during an intimate gathering of students and faculty in the Haldeman Center on Thursday.

In her lecture, Brown showed images from a 1999 music video featuring the sounds of the electronica band Leftfield and the vocals of the famous hip hop icon Afrika Mumbaataa.

"In the underground, bodies can thrive to a different frequency," Brown said about the video.

Brown used the main character of the video a blind and injured man wandering the streets of New York City as an analogy for the marginalization of black people as a result of the spread of "globalizing capital." The video's main character also provokes a discussion of some of the ways victims of poverty, repression and war express themselves through music and dance, Brown said.

"[My research] explores the link of music to an alternative way of inhabiting the body," Brown said. "My suggestion, perhaps in contradiction to our contemporary turn to death in the state, is to emphasize the ways in which violently oppressed bodies have the ability to enact an alternative relationship to the self."

Brown said her most recent unpublished paper, on which she based her lecture, focuses on discovering the limits of what it means to identify as human.

"Black people, not recognized as humans on Earth, are able to travel to other realms through the senses," she said.

Black subjects "both claim the human' and have an expanded capacity to abandon it if necessary," Brown said, partially drawing her conclusions through the study of modern electronica by artists including Kode9 and SpaceApe, samples of which she played for the audience.

Brown said she also found a connection between black populations around the world and music in poor, war-torn countries like Angola, where young black Angolans created a music and dance movement known as "Kuduro" by putting together ringtones from their cell phones to create music to which they could dance.

"Kuduro music sounds like war," she said.

In the second video Brown played for the audience, young black males many physically disabled as a result of the violence their communities continue to experience danced in parking lots and other public spaces to the "abrasive, grating, repetitive and invasively metalizing beat" of Kuduro.

"Rather than brittle, the dancers' bodies become live," she said after the video.

Brown also showed a video of young black males "turfing" in Oakland, Calif. Turfing is a type of dance performed on street corners and in the middle of traffic, often serving to commemorate the murder of friends or family, Brown said.

"Like Kuduro, [turfing] is also a conversation about the violence of poverty," she said.

Although she said she included the California video to help audience members better relate to the topics discussed, Brown said de-emphasizing the United States is interesting because it shifts academic focus to other countries and the way movements travel across cultures and share influences abroad.

"Black people live with a particular intimacy with violence and death," Brown said about the population she studied. "But what I am inferring here is that black people may be as intimate with life as they are with death."

The lecture, entitled "Let's Get Electrified: Music, War and the Inhabitation of Wounded Bodies," was sponsored by the African and African-American studies department.

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