elsewhere (2018): notes
This post includes the foreword as well as the texts and translations for my sound essay elsewhere. Please consider this document alongside your listening. You can find the sound essay on the “listen” page of this website, or by clicking here.
elsewhere is a short sound piece in three parts. It unfolds through speech, singing, and instrumental performance, both unprocessed and digitally manipulated. In each part, the speaker or speakers grapple with notions of belonging and alienation, of “here” and “elsewhere.” I developed the piece in response to Nadia Ellis’s discussion of diasporic consciousness and queered diasporic belonging in Territories of the Soul: Queered Belonging in the Black Diaspora. I wanted to dramatize the thought, felt, and embodied dimensions of belonging and un-belonging—queer, diasporic, and Caribbean. I started from my position as a queer Jamaican immigrant racialized as black in the United States. From there, I tried to write with an elasticity that might offer listeners who are not socially positioned in quite the same way their own avenue into the cluster of concerns at the core of elsewhere: belonging, alienation, and diasporic consciousness.
elsewhere had to exist because I needed terrain other than that of academic prose upon which to theorize. To use black feminist literary critic Barbara Christian’s wording, I could not force myself into a language that is “alien to and opposed to our needs and orientation” as African-descended people. Christian flirts with a kind of racial or cultural essentialism, but many of her assertions resonate with my own experience. Following her, I needed to find ways to theorize in “narrative forms, in the stories we create, in riddles and proverbs, in the play with language, since dynamic rather than fixed ideas seem more to our liking” (Christian 1987: 52). In invoking this play and dynamism, Christian speaks directly to my own discomfort with the universality that can often ground academic theorizing. In elsewhere, then, I sought to embrace the kind of situated knowledge that Christian and other black feminist thinkers have advocated. In this refusal of academic prose, I also gave myself a chance to further define and cultivate the kind of queer and empathetic research practice toward which I’ve been working since beginning doctoral studies. In the case of elsewhere, my research practice considered from the very beginning the kind of experience my audiences might have interacting with my work. For those who, like myself, can often find it incredibly alienating to read or listen to academic prose, I wanted to facilitate a different experience. What it feels like to read or listen to an academic essay seems quite different, at least for me, from what it feels like to listen to a song. I wanted to challenge, persuade, and share with my audiences in a more inviting, aesthetically pleasing way.
Based on my experience of the academic industry so far, this approach to scholarship is queer. (Here, I’m conceiving of queerness in a political sense as non-normative and/or transgressive.) It is queer because the work that such an approach yields is barely legible within the most dominant ways of knowing in the academy. Many of the music scholars I’ve encountered appear to distinguish scholarship and performance. This distinction helps reinforce the idea that prose is the only (or the ideal) mode of research, and that (musical) performance can only be an object of research. But with every academic presentation I encounter, I often wonder: do people really enjoy having long, wordy sentences read at them for twenty or thirty minutes (then having to listen to two, three, or four other panel members do exactly the same thing)? Most presentations given by academics at industry conferences sound to me as if they were written as essays to be read by an individual inside their own heads, rather than as a public speech intended for listeners and viewers. To me, this makes it seem as if the academic industry largely idealizes solitary, individual thinking; and further, that the way your body feels and the kinds of emotions you experience are less important than what you leave a presentation thinking. I don’t believe any of these aspects of our experience—physical sensation, emotion, cognition—can be separated from the other. So for me, part of making empathetic research means trying to factor in the emotions and bodily experiences of those people I want to talk with through my work.
Making research in this way is a kind of response to the call that Rinaldo Walcott issues in his essay, “Outside in Black Studies.” In this piece, Walcott critiques those who would draw boundaries that enclose black studies as a North American academic project. In so doing, these scholars necessarily exclude or obscure from view those people and those forms and modes of knowledge and self-making that might also legitimately claim to be “black” and to be “study” and to be “liberatory.” His essay provokes and excites me in many ways, but his concept of “the unthought” is particularly relevant here. Queerness, particularly at the moment in which he was writing, seemed to go unnoticed and unthought within North American black studies scholarship. He argues for its disruptive inclusion as a way to displace “the centrality of nationalist discourses within the black studies project” (Walcott 2005: 90). One way to do this is to cultivate what he calls a “diaspora reading practice.” Diasporas, as Lyndon K. Gill has observed, are inherently queer, since they “[resist] the normative logic of nationalist affinities and identities in favor of transnational” ones (Gill 2016: 125). Thinking and reading diasporically thus destabilizes conceptions of community that are framed by the nation-state, thereby “queering” black studies. A diaspora reading practice also reminds us that every reading is a reading from somewhere, but not every somewhere is as coherent, stable, and neatly bounded as we might imagine. Where for Walcott “queer” and “diaspora” are unthoughts of black studies, for me the embodied and emotional experiences of those who encounter scholarly research are unthoughts within much of the work produced in the academic industry.
The assumption that a (heavily musical) sound piece might feel more inviting and compelling than an academic essay led me not only to a form of scholarship that was more enjoyable overall to create, but also to meaningful, real-world relationships with other creative people in Philadelphia. Had I chosen to write a 20-page academic essay instead, who knows when I might have made these creative connections? The support of musicologist Guthrie P. Ramsey, Jr. opened the doors of Turtle Studios to me, doors behind which elsewhere became something far greater than it would’ve been had I remained at home with my iMac, Blue Yeti USB microphone, and a mid-90s Yamaha keyboard as my MIDI controller. Dr. Ramsey also introduced me to Vince Anthony, who produced elsewhere. Vince’s keen ear, penchant for smooth grooves, and razor-sharp focus both inspired me throughout the process of our collaboration and helped me not to get lost in little details as we recorded vocal and instrumental tracks. The recording engineer, Doug Raus, had an incredible capacity to materialize sounds that only existed in my head and which I could only use insufficient metaphors to describe for him. Dr. Ramsey also recorded the organ solo that introduces the second part of “feet like sand” (the section that begins “songs my father threw away”), and in so doing took the track to church in a way I never could have. So, elsewhere connected four music professionals across cultural practices, and embodied a kind of mutuality and collaboration that is rare in my experience of the academic industry—one in which everyone scrambles to stake out their own solitary corner of theoretical territory to ensure job security. I am so grateful to have been allowed the space to experiment with sound as a mode of theorizing.
“feet like sand” serves as an introduction to the project and dramatizes something of what it might feel like to be a “horizon of possibility.” Ellis uses this phrase to describe the kinds of feeling that coming to a diasporic consciousness can inspire. For her, we develop diasporic consciousness through the search for belonging, and it’s in the aesthetic forms that black people have practiced and produced that we can chart some iterations of this search. Following Stuart Hall, Ellis attributes to black aesthetic forms the power to beckon or call to subjects across vast spatial and temporal divides. But rather than follow the “call from afar” to its source, the consciousness that such a call can awaken remains in “the haunting gap between here and there.” For Hall, it was jazz that beckoned to him even as a youngster in Kingston, jazz that left him sensing “a special sort of contemporary or avant-garde consciousness that was happening elsewhere.” He responded not by following the sounds to the American elsewheres from which they emanated, but by “burrowing into the art itself, from afar, since to have the possibility of jazz was as important as the notion that one could travel to the territories of its origins.” The diasporic consciousness Hall describes and upon which Ellis elaborates thus produces “places and people of black identification that are most lively as horizons of possibility” (Ellis 2015: 3).
In “feet like sand,” the speaker is becoming newly conscious of their connection to multiple temporal and spatial elsewheres that extend before, beside, and behind them. In other words, the speaker is discovering their self-possibility, the horizon that extends through them in all directions of time and space. The speaker is becoming a queer diasporic subject. This discovery takes place in a specific time and place, on a sandy shore like a palimpsest that half-hides the footprints and songs of others who came long before the speaker’s arrival. This shore of dreams, and the view of a sea horizon that it affords, is a place of emotional conflict for the speaker. They both identify with (“a sea horizon within me”) and reject (“this sea horizon is not me”) the potentiality of an elsewhere. They try to listen to the “call from afar” even while the overlapping songs and dreams of those who came before still ring out in the charged air. If the queer diasporic subject is marked as such by their urgent desire for an elsewhere, and if such a subject seeks these elsewheres because the forms of space, time, and community that surround them are insufficient, then such a subject must feel that insufficiency somewhere in their bodies even as they imagine a potential sufficiency elsewhere.
In “mel’s son,” two speakers narrate a queer diasporic subject from two very different archives. The first speaker is a reporter, a voice from the state archive, a mediated voice, as from a transistor radio on a kitchen table. The second speaker—let’s call him the nephew—remembers his uncle in ways the state cannot. The archive of his Jamaican uncle’s flesh, bearing its scar from an encounter with the New Orleans Police Department, animates the nephew’s telling. The reporter, meanwhile, narrates the incident as a diplomatic affair. In “mel’s son,” I juxtapose these two narratives to try thinking and feeling through the question: what is the relationship between memory and belonging?
“we yu de” is my first ever attempt at writing and performing a dancehall song. It was the most challenging part of elsewhere for me. Any compelling performance demands that the performer step fully into an embodied character, but as I tried to find my deejay character, I faltered. This was partly because “we yu de” was only the second time I tried writing poetry in Jamaican Patwa. But beyond this, in order to compellingly embody a dancehall deejay, I had to confront in a new way the trauma that I experienced growing up as a same-sex desiring person in Jamaica. Dancehall as a musical repertoire and a cultural discourse has largely been hostile toward same-sex desiring people. I had to forge a character in whom I could authentically embody “queer,” “Jamaican,” and “dancehall” all at once. I’m certainly closer to finding this character, but “we yu de” only took me a part of the way. I have much more to discover about this character.
In “we yu de” I sample the 1988 anti-gay anthem “Boom Bye Bye” by Buju Banton, speaking directly to that 15-year-old who so many years ago eloquently voiced a criterion for un-belonging in Jamaican society. Indeed, “we yu de” is a kind of wry commentary on the dependent relationship between belonging and un-belonging. I use a Jamaican folk tune, “Chi Chi Bud,” for its lyrics (which when re-contextualized in the contemporary Jamaica of this song speak to the misery of daily life for so many—“som a dem a hala, som a baal”), its capacity to index black resistance (the tradition of Afro-Jamaicans using work songs as a covert means of communicating in the presence of planters or overseers), and to invoke the other referents of the homophone “chi-chi” (on the one hand a slur for same-sex desiring men and on the other a Patwa word for wood-feeding termites). The song is a rather bitter ending to the project, brooding about the irony of a society in which everyone feels socially, politically, and/or economically excluded in some way yet continues to gatekeep belonging for others. Where “feet like sand” looks outward across the water, “we yu de” trains that critical gaze on the city behind.
i. feet like sand
feet like sand
dispersed along a shore of dreams
submerged within an open sea
a sea horizon before me
i wander as my night implodes
littered with forgotten odes
a sea horizon within me
songs my father threw away
songs like quicksand, songs like clay
longing new and old and free
this sea horizon is not me
wanting yearning to be there
i’ll be then and then is where
ii. mel’s son
“The Office of the Prime Minister said yesterday that the Prime Minister and Minister of External Affairs had sent a cable to the Jamaican Ambassador in Washington requesting him to take all steps to protest to the United States Government the treatment of Dr. [redacted], a Jamaican doctor, who was brutally treated by the New Orleans police recently.
“The Prime Minister, Sir Alexander Bustamante, took this step on receipt of a report from the Minister of Health, the Hon. Dr. Herbert Eldemire, which said that according to a statement made by Dr. [redacted], he was thrown into a Louisiana jail for 5 days without being charged and beaten by New Orleans police because of his colour. Dr. [redacted] on his way back to Jamaica had stopped at a New Orleans bar for a drink when he was arrested.
“The Prime Minister has asked the Jamaican Ambassador, Sir Neville Ashenheim to investigate the circumstances of the incident and to make strongest protest to the United States Government for this ill-treatment of a Jamaican citizen while travelling through the United States” (Gleaner Political Reporter 1963: 1).
I wish I knew you. You were on the periphery of my childhood, one of many family connections to which I was exposed but which I never had the chance—or the interest, frankly—to strengthen. I was a child and I didn’t understand intimacy. My friends and I bonded through laughter, but laughter at the expense of others. No one knew I desired other boys. Everyone knew I desired other boys. My mother was the closest person to me and I never told her.
She told me you were “that way.” I don’t remember when. It’s still hard to wrap my head around that fact. I had a relative like that and knew nothing about him. I wish I had. I wish Jamaica weren’t the place it is. I wish I had known there was one other person on the island like me.
But then again, what did your desires mean to you? Were you lonely? Were you ever in love? There’s so much I wish I could talk with you about. But then again, maybe you wouldn’t have wanted to talk about it. Maybe this was a part of you that you kept hidden even from yourself.
I hear the gash of a baton remains in the back of your head, the physical remains of your skirmish with the American South. Did they hurt you more while you waited to be rescued? Were you scared?
I wish I knew you, had known you. I wish I had known more of your personality. What would it have been like to know there was one other person on the island like me?
Maybe we can have some tea one day, and talk? I’d like that. Would you?
MC: Anyway …
DC: So, that’s Mel’s son.
MC: That’s Mel’s son.
iii. we yu de
som a dem wel priti-priti
kech dem a ruom aal paat a di siti
buutiil taal mek yu kluosa to gaad
maach dong di plies mek dem nuo a fiyu yaad
som a dem anda waataz evrinait
di pants an di shert an di badi wel tait
jukout yu problem, ton ina mashet
frontwie backwie eniwie fi figet we yu de
[buju banton sample] (Banton 1988)
greytes ting gad eva put pan di lan
som a dem a hala som a baal
som a dem ed mosi ton swimin puul
kaal di mariin dem wi no niid skuul
unu si mi dish unu si mi dish*
liv anda waata bo no waa no fish**
anles faiya bonaaf di outsaid
bliez up di faiya gi yu nashanal praid
stiim fish frai fish sumoch fi nyam
bo wen dem gaan di werl no giv a dyam we yu de
iii. where you are/are you
some of them are dressed to the nines
watch them roaming the city
the higher your heels the closer to god
stomp around so they know this is your land
some of them are under waters [drunk] every night
the pants and the shirt and the body looking good
fuck/stab away your problems, turn into a machete
frontward, backward, any direction to forget where you are
[buju banton sample]
greatest thing god ever put on earth
some of them are hollering, some are crying out
some of their heads must have become swimming pools
call the marines, we don’t need school
anyone seen my [satellite] dish
you live under water but don’t want fish
unless fire burns the outside off
blaze the fire higher, it gives national pride
steamed fish, fried fish, so much to eat/consume
but when they’re all gone, the world still won’t give a damn about where you are
* This is a quotation from the Lovindeer song "Wild Gilbert" (1988).
** In Jamaican Patwa, "fish" is a derogatory term for same-sex desiring men.
Banton, Buju. 1988. "Boom Bye Bye." Flex Riddim. Shang Records.
Christian, Barbara. 1987. "The Race for Theory." Cultural Critique 6, The Nature and Context of Minority Discourse. https://pullias.usc.edu/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/christian.pdf.
Ellis, Nadia. 2015. Territories of the Soul: Queered Belonging in the Black Diaspora. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Gleaner Political Reporter. 1963. "Jamaica to Protest [redacted] treatment." Daily Gleaner, 18 June.
Gill, Lyndon K. 2016. "I Represent Freedom: Diaspora and the Meta-Queerness of Dub Theater." In No Tea, No Shade: New Writings in Black Queer Studies, ed. E. Patrick Johnson. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Walcott, Rinaldo. 2005. "Outside in Black Studies: Reading from a Queer Place in the Diaspora." In Black Queer Studies: A Critical Anthology, eds. E. Patrick Johnson and Mae G. Henderson. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.