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This collection is the first interdisciplinary volume to examine black women’s negotiation of race and gender in African American music. Contributors address black women’s activity in musical arenas that pre- and postdate the emergence of the vaudeville blues singers of the 1920s. Throughout, the authors illustrate black women’s advocacy of themselves as blacks and as women in music. Feminist? Black feminist? The editors take care to stress that each term warrants interrogation: “Black women can and have forged, often, but not always––and not everywhere the same across time––identities that are supple enough to accommodate a sense of female empowerment through ‘musicking’ in tandem with their sensitivities to black racial allegiances.”
Individual essays concern the experiences of black women in classical music and in contemporary blues, the history of black female gospel-inflected voices in the Broadway musical, and "hip-hop feminism" and its complications. Focusing on under-examined contexts, authors introduce readers to the work of a prominent gospel announcer, women’s music festivals (predominantly lesbian), and to women’s involvement in an early avant-garde black music collective. In contradistinction to a compilation of biographies, this volume critically illuminates themes of black authenticity, sexual politics, access, racial uplift through music, and the challenges of writing (black) feminist biography. Black Women and Music is a strong reminder that black women have been and are both social actors and artists contributing to African American thought.
EILEEN M. HAYES
Black women's negotiation of race and gender in music is as significant as their achievements as performers, creators, listeners, and educators. Black Women and Music is perhaps the first anthology devoted to black women's cultural production in music and verbal performance. It is not an exhaustive study, nor is it intended to be. Rather, it contributes to ongoing conversations about black female gendered experiences in music and verbal performance and offers refreshing glimpses of how race and gender are written into studies of music. This book reveals ways that black women's voices and bodies are implicated in racialized and gendered discourses and that many of our assumptions about black women, gender, and music are deeply embedded in racialist thinking.
Black Women and Music provides a meeting place for scholars who take black women seriously as social actors and as artists contributing to African American thought. These studies of black women and music traverse disciplines fueled by methodologies and theoretical understandings gleaned from feminist musicology, political philosophy, ethnomusicology, sociology, anthropology, feminist theory, black cultural studies, and theater. Likewise, the influence of scholars engaged in "theorizing black feminisms" is felt throughout the collection. Contributors to this volume examine the historical and current experience of black women in rap/hip-hop, art music, jazz, musical theater, and electric blues as well as in underexamined performance contexts such as "women's music" festivals and gospel music tributes. At least half of the contributors to this book devote attention to black women's formulations about the intersections of their experiences of race, gender, and successive movements of black liberatory struggle.
The phrase that gives this book its title recalls two legacies in the history of African American music and its study in the academy. Readers will recognize the allusion to Irene V. Jackson's edited volumes, More than Dancing: Essays on Afro-American Music and Musicians (1985) and More than Drumming: Essays on African and Afro-Latin American Music and Musicians (1985). Both volumes were prepared under the auspices of the Center for Ethnic Music at Howard University. It would be difficult to underestimate the significance of these compilations in both subject matter and approach. In anticipating subsequent examinations of music in Africa and black music in the Caribbean and the Americas, the essays in Jackson's volumes not only helped establish black music making as a legitimate field of inquiry but also validated the intellectual contributions of black scholars studying music of "their own" societies as well as black musics throughout the diaspora. As influential as these collections have been, very few contributors considered the musical experiences of black women specifically or conducted gender analyses in their essays.
The enthusiastic reception for Jackson's volumes owes a symbolic debt to the conceptual spaces opened by musicologist Eileen Southern's Music of Black Americans: A History (1971). Musicologist Guthrie Ramsey observes that "Southern's work broke new ground in its focus, method, and scope, inspiring others (both directly and indirectly) to similar inquiry and helping to establish black music as a legitimate scholarly specialty." Though Southern's significance as the preeminent African American musicologist is uncontested, gender was not her concern. According to Ramsey, in reclaiming significant black contributions to Western art music, Southern establishes "the notion of a unified, cohesive, and essentially male 'blackness,' using terms such as 'the' black community and the Black man often." Well into the late 1980s, scholars addressing African American music worked within traditional or "gender-neutral" frameworks that often obfuscated as much as illuminated the knowledge of black women as composers, performers, audience members, producers, consumers, historians, journalists, and so on. Invaluable literature that celebrates and documents the "hidden histories" of black women's participation in music, such as Antoinette Handy's Black Women in American Bands and Orchestras, precedes an interdisciplinary focus on the ways race and gender discourse operates either historically or at present. Likewise, other literature or compilations that attempt to move beyond a celebratory mode by including the "voices" of black women through interviews do not, in Sherrie Tucker's words, "guarantee a departure from the ways in which race discourse operates" in music analyses.
The subtitle of this volume pays homage to the notion of black women's blues as a discursive index to the musical and social experiences of black women. Revealed in the writings of a number of activist intellectuals (Patricia Hill Collins, Angela Davis, and Hazel Carby) is the idea that black women's blues is a metonym for black women's critical engagement with African American feminist thought. Acknowledging hard-won fights in the late 1970s within women's studies and African American studies to establish black women's culture as a valid field of inquiry, social movement theorist Robin D. G. Kelley credits the interventions of second-wave black feminists and other women of color in opening conceptual spaces for studies of black women's cultural production: "The radical black feminist movement ... also redefined the source of theory. It expanded the definition of who constitutes a theorist, the voice of authority speaking for black women, to include poets, blues singers, storytellers, painters, mothers, preachers, and teachers."
Influenced by-but more to the point, shaping-black feminist critique across the disciplines, scholars such as Angela Davis (1971), Hazel Carby (1986), and bell hooks (1990 and earlier; 1992) drew on feminist and black activist praxis in their writings about black women's cultural experiences. Suggesting that critics should not privilege black women's literary production over other modes, Carby observed that "within feminist theory, the cultural production of black women writers" has been "analyzed in isolation from other forms of women's culture and cultural presence and has neglected to relate particular texts and issues to a larger discourse of culture and cultural politics." Arguing that "different cultural forms negotiate and resolve very different sets of social contradictions," Carby demonstrated "how the representation of black female sexuality in black women's fiction and in women's blues is clearly different."
The work of many scholars theorizing black feminisms has come to be characterized by its concern with black women as the "focus of studies" and as agents of knowledge. As a corrective to earlier disciplinary practices that privileged gender over and above concerns of race, class, and nationality, in the 1970s scholars began to adopt intersectional paradigms that recognized the "notion of race, class, and gender as mutually constructing systems." At least one perspective of black feminism has assumed the interrelatedness of the social constructions of race, gender, and other variables. In recent years, this mode of analysis has been central in examinations of black expressive culture. Although African American women's concerns figure prominently in race, class, and gender studies, it should be noted that intersectional approaches, frequently conflated with black feminist critique, are not the sole intellectual property of black women scholars.
In the late 1980s to early 1990s, scholars brought the challenges of feminism to the disciplines of musicology and ethnomusicology. The efforts of feminist musicologists to examine issues of gender and music, and to recover archaeologies of women's varied musical experiences, have had a lasting impact on the ways we think about, write about, and experience music. Inspired by efforts within feminist musicology and music criticism to recover "women's voices," important anthologies began to include chapters about black women and music, many of which reflected an emphasis on recovery and synthesis. Studies of black women and the blues figured prominently in these collections.
Whereas studies of black women and popular music reflect the engagement of scholars from across the disciplines, studies of black racial identity, gender, and Western art music reflect a narrower commitment on the part of scholars. With few exceptions, musicologists have failed to problematize the scarcity of black women musicians and composers in Western art music. Although musicologists are beginning to bring concerns of black cultural studies, critical race theory, and/or postcolonial theory to their work on Western art music, the overall output is still in its formative stages. Music scholars have addressed subjects such as the circulation of world pop musics, race, and orientalism in "European music," and European music and the construction of whiteness, but by and large, black women have not figured prominently in these studies, as either subjects or contributors to theory.
It might be argued that the history of Western art music would look very different if the literature theorized black feminisms in its critiques. As exemplified by essays in important gender and music anthologies, feminist ethnomusicologies have yet, by and large, to incorporate "multivocal, interdisciplinary thinking" regarding "race" in a way that makes a difference both politically and intellectually. Given the outspoken advocacy in the 1990s of intersectionality as a mode of analysis, it is striking that the influx of postmodern and poststructural studies during the same era only infrequently devoted attention to race, even in studies of American music and white women musicians. Patricia Hill Collins, drawing on the work of Ruth Frankenberg and others, offers a possible explanation for this discrepancy:
Despite their comfort with identifying themselves as women, many White women in the United States have difficulty seeing themselves as already part of Whites as a group. Although African-American women and White American women participate in the same system of institutionalized racism and sexism, each group assigns a different salience to race and gender. Race and class and gender may all be present in all social settings in the United States, yet groups will experience and "see" them differently.
Although the development of sophisticated approaches to feminist criticism in musicology fundamentally changed the field, beyond opening up spaces for additional recovery and synthesis of black women's music history, the impact of feminist musicology, especially before the mid-1980s and with regard to black women's involvement in "classical music culture," is difficult to identify. Musicologist Suzanne Cusick reminds us of the need for a more inclusive concept of feminist critique in regard to musicology: "We have seen that the exclusive focus on one kind of feminist critique as if it subsumed all possible feminist musicologies serves ends that contradict the political goals of feminism." Harbingers of black feminism's possible contributions to musicology are apparent if one reads Cusick's "Gender, Musicology, and Feminism," substituting the words "black feminist" for "feminist" throughout.
In the writings of various scholars we can begin to identify a number of issues that a critique of musicology focusing on the interactions of race, gender, and class might address, among them, parallel tendencies by observers to romanticize black musical experience (Radano 2003) and to disregard the work of black women musicians as labor (Tucker 2000), as well as the failure of some to contextualize notions of talent (Kingsbury 1988). Such a critique could also address the mechanisms that regulate the dissemination of classical music through symphony orchestra performances, many of which black young people and their parents are unlikely to attend. What blacks and others in underserved communities will remember, however, is the use of art music to "restore calm" in public spaces such as gas stations and malls. Ironically, this practice does not bode well for the expansion of an audience for classical music across lines of generation, ethnicity, and class. Supporting the suggestion that black access to elite musical systems remains a problem, contributors to this volume point to the continued effect of racism in foreclosing opportunities for black women in music production and consumption. Countless numbers of young people of all backgrounds have experienced the evacuation of their public education system's programs in music; many will never have access to trombone or piano lessons, or to relevant media. The essays in this collection point to a need for black women and girls (and members of other underrepresented groups) to gain access to opportunities that might help level the field in their pursuit of careers in music and/or in opportunities to become more informed consumers or musicking beings, regardless of musical genre.
Beyond recognizing that black women have participated in and helped shape American musical experience, this volume charts major themes that have issued from the scholarship on black women and music over the past decade. These issues include the consequences of certain types of intersectionality (e.g., race, gender, and, most often, heterosexuality), the significance of generation, and black women's engagement with feminism. For example, in her study of the "all-girl" swing bands of the 1940s, Sherrie Tucker brings a critical perspective to racialized and gendered discourses in jazz, providing invaluable counternarratives to the traditional big band discourse before and during World War II. Extending lines of investigation suggested earlier by hooks, Tricia Rose ("Bad Sistas: Black Women Rappers and Sexual Politics in Rap Music") has addressed the ambivalence with which many black women rappers regard feminism. Building on the work of scholars writing earlier (Darlene Clark Hine, Patricia Hill Collins, Evelyn Higginbotham), Rose and others contextualize black women's engagement of feminism within noncontinuous lines of thought regarding black women's respectability and social activism. Hip-hop feminist scholars and critics such as Gwendolyn Pough, Joan Morgan, and other observers acknowledge the neglect of lesbian voices in hip-hop and the homophobia and heterosexism that undermine the liberatory potential of the culture they love. Although scholars writing earlier alluded to lesbian sexuality in the blues, the themes explored in this literature concerned primarily the circulation and reception of vaudeville blues as directed toward the heterosexual mainstream; ethnomusicologist Maria Johnson offers valuable case studies on contemporary black women's blues and the performance of lesbian identity. Each of these efforts are indebted in some way to valuable leads Carby pursues in her article on the sexual politics of black women's blues of the 1920s. The most productive of the collective literature that builds on the scholarship of Carby, Harrison, hooks, and Davis is not significant for creating an alternative canon of black and feminist musicians; indeed, it does not do that. Rather, it demonstrates the utility of and potential for studies that meld black cultural and feminist theories with rigorous modes of investigation that incorporate a focus on race, gender, and music.
Black Women and Music is a corrective to discursive practices that inadvertently make invisible as much as illuminate the heterogeneity of black women's musical experience. As important as examinations of black women's blues are, their positioning in anthologies-particularly in music but also in women's culture anthologies-as the sole representation of black women's musical experience has the unintended effect of muting analytical treatments of black women, race, and gender in opera, gospel music, rock, country, jazz, or, for that matter, electro-acoustic music.
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