Hello and welcome to Voicing Across Distance! This is Episode 11: Voice and the Infectious Beat, Sonic Intimacy, Silent Laugh. My name is Masi Asare.
There are 3 parts to this podcast, a brief reading from a text with relevance for voice studies, a conversation with a scholar on voices in our times, and an exercise for voice practice. This week I begin by dwelling with excerpts from the book Infectious Rhythm: Metaphors of Contagion and the Spread of African Culture by Barbara Browning. Then I’ll be in conversation with theatre studies professor Katelyn Hale Wood, and to close, I will share a brief vocal exercise.
I also want to give the credits now for a few clips of interstitial music and performance featured on this episode. First, a clip of the song “Haiti” by Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil from the album Tropicalia 2 and then a clip of comic Wanda Sykes headlining at the 2009 White House Correspondents Dinner.
I want to say thank you to all who have joined me in this journey of listening and voicing this year. I never expected to begin a podcast but for me it’s been one of the true joys of a difficult year. The previous 10 episodes are available on various podcast platforms—Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Soundcloud, Overcast etc.—and also on my website masiasare.com. I’ve begun to post the transcripts for episodes there as well—and thank you to my research assistant Janine Chow for her help with transcription this past fall. The podcast web page is at m a s i a s a r e dot com slash podcast.
Finally, before we jump in, I’d like to do a quick riff on two words that come up in my scholarly conversation this week: historiography and ethnography. And I’m going to be a little bit reductive, oversimplifying to keep this brief, but I wanted to make sure these Ivory tower sounding words don’t trip anyone up and maybe this will inspire you to expand your own inquiry into what they can mean. Both are words that refer to the kinds of work that scholars do, and the methods we use to do that work. Ethnography is a research method inherited from anthropology, a field that has worked hard to move beyond the colonial aims on which it was founded, which were more or less to observe primitive or exotic people in far-off lands and write about their customs and beliefs. And nowadays, ethnography is also a research method that advances the work of sociologists studying the dynamics of different populations and systems within cities, for example, and ethnic studies scholars seeking to activate change for the communities in which we live. So it has to do with writing detailed descriptions of lived cultural experience. Historiography is the study of the way that history is told. And the ways that histories are told are never neutral, of course. There is a wonderful proverb that the celebrated Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe has quoted that puts it quite succinctly: “Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter."
Ok, here we go!
Here we are in late December 2020, and my thoughts feel sluggish, as they have increasingly these past months. With over 318,000 deaths from Covid19 in the US, and 1.7 million deaths worldwide to date, we are contemplating a difficult winter, even with the anticipation of inaugurating a new US president in January, and with multiple vaccines now approved and first doses being administered worldwide. My holiday decorations are sparse this year, and include a candle in the window with a black ribbon tied in a bow at its base, surrounded by a bit of greenery tied with red string. I light it in memory of all those we have lost this year. I do my best to meet my academic and creative commitments, and I am fortunate in so many ways. And I still feel like I am moving through molassses at every step. So I will tell you in advance that my thoughts in connection with the text I want to dwell with today are...somewhat meandering. So let’s meander.
I’d like to read from a book that grapples with the politics of music, dance, and performance in connection with a different pandemic, specifically the AIDS pandemic. It’s called Infectious Rhythm: Metaphors of Contagion and the Spread of African Culture by Barbara Browning. This book contextualizes the long history of how the West has positioned African-derived culture, in various locations throughout the diaspora, through the imagery of disease and contagion. Browning shows that, although it generally travels unrecognized, there is a latent warning of danger in the message that African diasporic musical styles—she lists hip-hop, reggae, funk, soul, and mambo, among others—are catchy, infectious. She writes, [quote] “All “infectious” rhythms—all spread quickly, transnationally, accompanied by equally “contagious” dances, often characterized as dangerous, usually as overly sexually explicit, by white critics.”[end-quote] Speaking of black diasporic culture as hypersexualized and contagious, even when couched in admiring terms, has had particularly violent effects for the AIDS pandemic in associating Africans and Africanness with disease and danger.
Browning’s thinking works through a powerful song by the legendary Brazilian artists Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, the 1995 song “Haiti” (the name of a country pronounced “Haiti” in English). It’s a heavy-grooved combination of rap and samba-reggae, with lyrics that sound the interwoven effects of state violence against black people, the power of the drumbeat to attract and stun, the lack of outrage at the massacre of a hundred and eleven black men in a Sao Paolo prison—incarcerated individuals who, as Browning notes, were seen as multiply threatening because so many of them carried the disease, in this case HIV and not Covid, but is the story that different?—and the rich tourists who go on pleasure jaunts in the Caribbean oblivious to their complicity in larger politics that reinforce the idea of black and brown people as sexualized and expendable. I will play a clip of this song at the close of this first section of the podcast, and I encourage you to look up Browning’s book, which includes an English translation of its Portuguese lyrics. In addition to the sharp poetics of the text, the song sounds the voice in relation to the infectious rhythm of a programmed drum corps.
In the book Browning references the iconic, important campaign of 1980s AIDS activists, “Silence equals death.” With the stigma that clung to AIDS as a disease that only affected, or was seen as somehow the fault of gay men, 1980s activists and artists had a huge uphill battle to raise public awareness and mobilize the medical community to action. (It is important to note that the perniciousness of this view and the stigma faced by people living with HIV continues. Michael R. Jackson’s 2020 Pulitzer Prize winning musical A Strange Loop offers a powerful critique of the black church’s role in perpetuating this violently homophobic notion in a song titled “AIDS is God’s Punishment”). The rapidity with which the international medical community mobilized to develop vaccines for Covid-19 in 2020 stands in stark contrast to the marked reluctance (and sometimes outright refusal) of doctors to treat early HIV patients. But while giving respect to the important work of 1980s AIDS activists, Browning notes the limits of the idea of speaking up or acting up in countries whose entire annual budget for health care would not cover the expense of even one HIV blood test. Instead, she attends to maneuvers that African disaporic artists and activists make that take more evasive tactics, making use of irony and deflection to express meanings of care important to one’s community rather than to be understood by—and then vulnerable to exploitation by—Western audiences. She concludes that “Sometimes, silence doesn’t equal death.”
Today I am sitting with the reality that in Chicago, where I live, it’s been recently revealed that the city suppressed, for nearly two years, a video of evidence showing an evening police raid in the home of Anjanette Young, a black social worker, as she was preparing to go to sleep. Police barged into Ms. Young’s home and while she was naked they handcuffed her and searched her home, disregarding her pleas. And the warrant to enter her home in the first place was based on false information. The story is so horrifying, and yet it has been suppressed since February of 2019 and only this past week has Chicago’s mayor Lori Lightfoot announced that an investigation into police misconduct will now take place. What are black women like Ms. Young to make of the powerlessness of our raised voices to protect against state violence that sees so many of us as less than human? Next to this scene of voicing I am also reminded of a scene that Shana Redmond invoked on Episode 4 of this podcast. Ba ck in early May, speaking about how voices of the Covid-19 pandemic are not just about singing loudly in service of escapism or the pronouncement of unilaterally shared experience, Professor Redmond reminded that there are people who opt out of picturesque moments of singing across balconies during isolation, or may participate only under conditions of duress that are not immediately discernible. She urged us to consider as well “the person who's singing very quietly in the ear of someone who's ailing.” That image has really stayed with me. On today’s episode, Dr. Katelyn Hale Wood speaks also about the intimacy of the act of listening closely and repeatedly to one person’s voice in your ear. This past summer as I walked in my neighborhood I saw the words “White silence is violence” chalked on the sidewalk in multiple spots. And in the collectivity of protest on the street, I raised my voice to chant these words. At the same time, as with the multivalence of vocal loss that I discussed with Katherine Meizel in Episode 6, I must note that silences or moments of quiet are multivalent...they do not all mean the same thing.
Browning writes, “I am trying to attend to meaningful silences. To my mind this is not a contradictory but a complementary project to that of giving voice.”
And I’d like to read one other short passage from her book as I come to the close of this section of the podcast, my meditation on this text.
Barbara Browning writes, “[T]he statistics—figures—regarding HIV infection are fraught with complications, not merely because they are changing so rapidly, but because they have an uncanny way of slipping into figuration. This means two things: on the one hand, these numbers seem to lift off the page and signify to us something other than literal, living, dying men and women. On the other hand, they are often read too literally—as representing the “reality” of a situation that is in fact much more complex, and implicates many more people.” [end quote]
These ideas from Infectious Rhythm feel especially relevant for me as I try to make sense of the current climate of infectiousness, and what it means for the study and practice of vocal performance. In my conversation with Katelyn Hale Wood on this episode, we also discuss laughter and what it means to crack up, and when some people laugh but others don’t. That is part of the reason that the vocal exercise I give on this episode also has to do with the embodied shape of a laugh and what that does for the voice. It occurs to me that laughter, too, is often figured in the metaphor of infectiousness: “She has an infectious laugh.” “The joy in the room was infectious.” And I can feel the truth of, as Browning notes, how uncannily easy it is to slip into metaphor when the literal numbers of the pandemic are so hard to make sense of. With Jean-Luc Nancy, as we addressed in Episode 1 of this podcast, I am listening to these statistics in the sense of being “always on the edge of meaning.” But here are my thoughts.
Consider that infection has a percussive effect. In the pandemic it accelerates, infection strikes again and again. Like the force of a record that skips, for those who can remember what it is to play a record, or a compact disc that is scratched and rattles through the same fissure of time and sound over and over and over again, for those of us who can remember what it is to play a CD. The jolts of starting and stopping (and the quick cuts within) a TikTok video, and yes, that jolt as it loops to start back at the beginning again. Infection is percussive in these kinds of ways. And where are our voices in relation to the beat? Here at the end of the year, I’m reminded that this was a question I asked my students to consider, in our popular vocal styles class that closed just before my city went into quarantine. I asked, Where is your voice, where is your body, in relation to the beat? Where is your voice in relation to the percussiveness of infection that is all around us?
Masi: I'm so delighted to welcome my guest scholar for this episode, Katelyn Hale Wood. Katelyn Hale Wood is a scholar and dramaturg and Assistant Professor of Performance Studies and Theatre History at the University of Virginia. Her work engages the intersections of critical race and queer theory, gender studies, and 20th and 21st century comedic performance. Her first book project, Cracking Up: Black Feminist Comedic Performance in 20th and 21st Century USA, studies how the contributions of Black feminist stand-up comedians have played vital roles in queer, feminist, and anti-racist community building. Dr. Wood's work has been published in Theatre Topics, QED: A Journal in GLTBQ Worldmaking, and Departures in Critical Qualitative Research, and has been supported by the American Society for Theatre Research and the National Center for Institutional Diversity. She received her PhD in Theatre History and Criticism with an emphasis in African American Studies from the University of Texas at Austin, and has also taught in the Theatre History and Theory program at Miami University. At UVA, she teaches courses in theatre history, performance theory, and interdisciplinary topics such as race and performance in the Americas, queer and feminist performance in the US, and comedy as protest.
Welcome, Dr. Wood, thank you so much for joining me!
Katelyn: Thank you.
Masi: So, we have a bunch of questions that we are meant to go through. I do want to acknowledge that we are recording this the week before the presidential election here in the US.
Katelyn: Yes, we are.
Masi: And you'd asked me how I'm doing and I'm...reasonably okay. I know we're kind of in for a long election month. But how are you doing?
Katelyn: I had a friend say, "What's happening this weekend?" And I said, "Um, nail biting?" [laughter] I don't know! You know, this is such an uncertain time in so, so, so many ways. I think, you know, some answers would be really helpful.
Masi: Mm-hmm. Yeah, yeah. It's like a long wash of uncertainty.
Masi: Well, so...and I guess...part of why I started this podcast was because, with everything that’s going on in the world, the research agendas that I have set for myself some time ago don't always feel that urgent. Like I sometimes...I don't want it to just feel like business as usual, in terms of the research. So...but I do also believe that the work that you're doing, and that the work of other scholars that I have interviewed on this podcast, is very urgent. So I think, maybe we can find our way to—maybe that's always at the forefront for you, but maybe we can find our way to remembering why this research is actually really needed right now.
Katelyn: Oh, thanks. Yeah. I hear you on that, it can sometimes feel like, "Why might this be particularly important in this moment?" But you know, it's conversations like these, in conversations with my students that we can really see how vital art is in this moment. And always is, right, to understand who we are, who we want to be, and what kind of reckoning really needs to be taking place. At least that's the art I'm interested in. I think you are too.
Masi: Absolutely, absolutely. So...your work engages the complexity of comedy: comedy as critical intervention and also critical opportunity for joy. I really admire the way that you bring so much nuance to your work, in listening for many intersections of identity in performance and comedy, through and across categories of race, class, gender, sexuality, historical moment, historical moments plural, which comes up with recorded work. But anyway...I'm always inspired by your analysis but also by the care that you bring to the work as a researcher, and as a human. And I just want to, maybe as we jump in, ask for you to say a little bit about your ongoing research? Maybe your forthcoming book, which I know is with the press, and some of the ways that you approach thinking about voice along with race and comedy.
Katelyn: Thanks. Masi...I'm touched. Well, this book that is going to come out in hopefully July 2021 with University of Iowa Press is called Cracking Up. And it's about the ways that black feminist comedians are a part of a strong genealogy and lineage of comedy as performance protest. And it starts with Jackie Mabley and moves towards the present—although the work that I examine in the book stops in 2019, which feels like a very long time ago! But I use the term "cracking up" to critique, to deconstruct, ideas of the American dream, to deconstruct false notions of progress, of respectability politics, of false notions of sisterhood across racial lines in feminist spaces. But most importantly, and I hope interesting to you, cracking up is really rooted in the voice. And I resisted titling the book Cracking Up because I don't care for puns. [laughter] But the more I studied the work of these artists and the more that I thought about the power of the voice, it was such an obvious choice, to frame the work under the banner of this really powerful idiom. So you know, first the artists are the ones cracking up—meaning, using their voices and their comedy to reveal and uncover the complexities of American life from the standpoint of Black women, and Black queer women. And also the audiences, live and mediated, are cracking up, right? Losing a sense of control in order to express whatever laughter means in a particular moment, be that recognition or joy or surprise or a fed up-ness. And so I see cracking up as like both the standpoint of the artists and the audiences they seek to reach, as this kind of—not kind of, as definitely this embodied and vocally expressive way to speak truth to power, to bind Black women and their allies. Cracking up is also an expression that is about letting loose what has been contained. What is revealed then also might not be able to be sutured back together, right? And those cracks, or that which is cracked up leaves room for more truth-telling, more joy, more life, more complex histories.
An example from the book that might be helpful is, Wanda Sykes performed at the White House Correspondents Dinner in 2009, and this was a couple weeks after First Lady Michelle Obama unveiled the bust of Sojourner Truth in Emancipation Hall. Sojourner Truth was the first Black woman to be honored in this institutional space, right, of the Capitol. And at the dinner, Wanda Sykes says, Kudos to you, Mrs. Obama, for unveiling the bust of Sojourner Truth. But can you make sure she's nailed down real well, 'cause the next white guy that's gonna come in the house is gonna put her in the kitchen. And...you know like, there's a lot that was cracked up in that moment! First of all, if you watch the video, Mrs. Obama is cracking up, literally laughing out loud. She and Wanda Sykes are sharing this sort of intimate, understanding moment about, you know, what the US political system is really about. And then what is also cracked up in the room is, there's not a lot of laughter, at least that I've been able to hear in that.
Masi: Oh, wow.
Katelyn: And I think what is cracked up is a kind of sense of anonymity, maybe, in who can be implicated in that moment too.
Masi: Wow. This is so great. Oh, I'm so excited for your book!
Masi: I also feel like, well I wonder if your, you know, connoisseurness of comedy (I'm sure that's not a word, connoisseurness)...but you know, your excellent taste in comedy factors into your dislike of puns. [laughter] But I actually do like puns, maybe in my work as a lyricist, because I like things that do more than one thing at once. And what's kind of interesting about what you're bringing up is the performativity of how these jokes are working in that they are doing something for...like Wanda Sykes's joke is doing something for Mrs. Obama, and it's doing something different for other audience members who are not laughing. Right? So this is so great. Now, I do have a question for you...I have a colleague who was teaching a class on humor last year, and I remember talking to her and she was saying sometimes in teaching...and I know humor and comedy are probably understood differently—I don't know all the ins and outs. But she was saying that sometimes studying humor can take all of the fun out of it. That like when you actually start like analyzing things that then it becomes less fun or less funny and I'm wondering if you experience that when you're teaching about comedy.
Katelyn: I think that there are plenty of takes on those that do or think about comedy or humor and say that to analyze it too much takes all the fun out of it. And I don't experience that. Of course there are the moments where it's like...I don't experience this as much in teaching, ‘cause it's a communal, group setting, so we're kind of like laughing and thinking together. In writing sometimes I get a little like, Oh God, this page...
Masi: Well, everybody does, probably...
Katelyn: [laughs] So I feel like that's you know, pretty typical. But you know, the nice thing about being a performance studies scholar, true or false, is that you know you get to write about the stuff that you love. And I think if anything what doing, especially [what] working on the book has done for me is reiterated the artistic excellence of the women in my book. Because you know I just taught that Wanda Sykes performance just this past week. We did a unit on the White House Correspondents keynotes, before the Trump administration took away comedy from that event.
Katelyn: And I'm still laughing. I mean, I have been thinking about this performance since 2009. And I'm still laughing at it. Which I don't think speaks to any sort of amnesia on my part, I think it speaks to Wanda Sykes's brilliance.
Masi: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I hear what you're saying. Okay, so basically you're saying you have to study really good comedy, otherwise....[laughter] Interesting, interesting...So I am really excited for this article you have coming out...I think it's coming out next month, right?
Katelyn: I hope so!
Masi: Okay, good! So we both have articles in this really wonderful special issue on sound coming out from Performance Matters. And this article, which I've heard you present on, "Sonic Intimacies: Archiving Queer and Cross-Racial Resonance"...it's just exciting to me in terms of performance historiography, the work that you're doing, the way that you're rethinking ethnography in terms of listening practice. Can you say a little bit about, whether it's that article in particular or other experiences of yours in terms of your practice of listening to recorded archives, and how that's kind of helped you formulate this idea and also experience sonic intimacy?
Katelyn: Yes. So the chapter in the book Cracking Up that talks about Jackie Mabley talks about her important place in theatre and performance history, in black feminist and black queer performance aesthetics, and in civil rights protest. But the forthcoming article in Performance Matters is more interested in documenting and critically reflecting on the relationship between myself as a white, queer scholar and Mabley as a Black, queer artist. And this relationship is a sonic one because the large majority of Mabley's archive is on party records, mostly recorded in the 1960s, although her career spanned much longer than that.
Masi: Mm-hmm. Could you say a little more about party records? 'Cause that's just kind of...
Katelyn: Oh, yeah! So party records...so in the 60s and 70s, party records were a really popular way to consume stand-up comedy. Sometimes, depending on where you lived, there were sort of like in the adult section of a record shop. And folks would gather for listening parties. This is when, you know, stand-up comedy began to become a bit more mediated, but not mainstream and sort of television culture. So this was a way for adults to gather round, you know, with their drinks in hand, and laugh at kind of raunchy performances that they might not want to listen to in front of children and that they couldn't consume on television.
Masi: Okay. Okay. Cool. Thank you.
Katelyn: Yeah, so, many of Mabley's records...most of them were recorded under Chess Records...but you know, someone like LaWanda Page, Richard Pryor, you know these are all artists who had party albums. And so...so this kind of relationship with Mabley is based on a sonic one. And the article is about investing in a sonic historiography and an ethnography that writes about both my desire to connect with queer figures in history and also to explore the tensions in working cross-racially with an ethic of care. Paying attention to what really happens in the archive. Slowing it down, to talk about my own process. What I hear. What I've changed my mind about. What Mabley's voice does. And so what I do in the article is I take examples from what I call Mabley's fairy repertoire, which is jokes that she had about gay men. They were usually kind of one-liners or stories. The example that I use frequently, 'cause it's so quick is, she says, “A man was walking down 42nd Street, saw another man and said, 'Excuse me, can you tell me where the 42nd Street ferry is?' and he says 'Speaking, darling.'” And so I'm asking and reflecting up on the meaning of those jokes. How I have listened to them over and over again. So I tease out the complexities of the pleasure of listening to Mabley. The ways I'm an outsider as both a mediated audience, not in the live audience, but also as a white person. And really use sound to think about expanding performance criticism, expanding historiography toward multidirectional possibility in performance. And sound is such an exciting mode to do that, because it is multidirectional, it's resonant, it transports us, it grounds us in our bodies.
Katelyn: Think about how intimate it is just to put on headphones and have one person traveling into just your ears. And intimacy is so important to name in this article because...well, for one, I've been listening to Mabley for a really long time. There's a recognition and a closeness I feel that comes from this kind of long term investment in her archive, and relationship to her archive. But also what I'm trying to do in the article is demonstrate that, even with closeness, the fraughtness of the cross-racial relationship is still there. And so for me, intimacy is about, I say, getting close without invading, or assuming a kind of discovery. Some of the questions I ask in the article for example: What does my laughter mean when the work isn't for me? Or, how am I listening in on a performance at, say, the Uptown Theatre, which was a black theatre in Philadelphia. And also, how can I recognize, as a queer person, listening to Mabley make these jokes about queer people—And by the way, I haven't named this, Mabley was an out butch lesbian but performed under this motherly character, "Moms."—So how do I recognize Mabley in a performance at the Playboy Club change her own vocal performance to a white audience? And I recognize it as kind of held back, or more protective.
Katelyn: And I think that I can recognize that as a fellow queer person. So this is all what I'm thinking about as I move toward my next book project, which is broadly about how sound is queer time travel, and sound procures intimate relationships across time and space. And I mentioned this to you a few weeks ago, but this all started for me when I began listening to the archive of my late father who was a country radio disc jockey. I moved to Texas, I started my graduate work, and I was feeling a particular connection to him. He passed away when I was very young.
Masi: And he was from Texas, yeah?
Katelyn: Yeah, he was from Pasadena. And so for the first time in my life I...you know I would take my old Honda CR-V that had a tape player in it, you know, and I would drive out in the hill country, and I would listen to his tapes. And it was my way of getting to know this person that I couldn't remember but I knew I had a connection to. These feel like very disparate examples but for me they're about a sonic archive that can help create relationships that move beyond the constraints of physical proximity and linear time. Which of course feels pretty appropriate given our current moment in which physical proximity is strained.
Masi: Yeah, yeah. There's just something about both of those stories...not stories, but you talking about. those two experiences of listening to sonic archives that just, I don't know, it just kind of moves me. I think...I think because, from the way I understand it, you've really immersed yourself. You know it isn't a question of a casual hearing, you know, you listened through it one time and then you got your idea and you were done. Like there's something about the repetition, you know like the fact that you're listening to things over and over again. I don't know, I don't have anything really that interesting to say, I guess, but there's just something about the figure of you in this like...you know like this process of letting it all kind of well up. The listening....the listening kind of wells up for me, in the way that you're talking about it. I don't know.
Katelyn: But don't you feel that...I mean, you know, you are a songwriter, right? That requires a really close relationship to sound and song. I mean you say that and I'm thinking of like...well, yeah, you know when you were sixteen, how many times a day did you listen to your favorite song?
Masi: Yeah. Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah. Absolutely.
Katelyn: And that you developed this very close relationship with that artifact that will last your entire life. It might change over time, as all healthy, long term committed relationships do. [laughter]
Masi: Right. We hope, yes. Right.
Katelyn: But yeah, that I think that we do this kind of listening a lot.
Masi: Yeah, yeah yeah. I have been spending a lot of time...some time...recently with some music that I really loved when I was sixteen, right? So like I...you know I'm a musicals buff. So I loved this musical by Stephen Sondheim called Into the Woods. And I recently got the score, because I'm trying to get my scores to look better [laughs] right, like in notation. And it's stunning to me how well I know this score. Because of how much I listened to it. I'd never seen the notes on the page until it...I mean, for a couple of the songs, right... But like the entire piano-vocal score, all of the songs, right? And I know them. I know the lyrics cold. You know, I know these kind of contorted melodies cold, because of that repeated listening. And so it is, yeah, it is a relationship. It's a relationship with the sound object, with the sound, and the sounds plural. I'm just kind of rambling now.
Katelyn: No, I don't think you're rambling. I actually think you're hitting on a really important point, which is that sound can live in us. I think that I felt really comforted at one point, when listening...after I had been listening to my dad's radio show that at one point I was like, “Oh I know what your voice sounds like and I can hear it in my head.” I mean that felt incredibly comforting and profound.
Masi: Because he passed when you were quite young, right?
Katelyn: Yeah, I have no memory of him. He passed away when I was two. And you know, it's really special to be able to conjure that without having to go into the archive...the archive being my 2003 Honda CR-V with the tape player. [laughs]
Masi: Yes, the archive!
Katelyn: But...yeah. I think there's a point in that repetition and in that closeness where these sounds become a part of us.
Masi: Mm-hmm. Mmh-mm. Mm-hmm. And I think also like....the other thing that I'm thinking of is that there's also like, the way you're mapping it, there are some stakes to consider of what it means to listen in a way that's not just consumption, that isn't just about the process of consuming the sound, or extracting one's theory from it, right? You know, I'm really thinking a lot about Dylan Robinson's book Hungry Listening which is just—
Katelyn: Yes. Beautiful.
Masi: So amazing and just constantly in my brain these days. And he talks about moving away from those kinds of listening.
Katelyn: I think moving away from a consumptive mode of listening is also part of investing in a decolonial life but also in this mode of writing as decolonial scholarship. And certainly, following in the footsteps of people like Dylan, and you know, even Dwight Conquergood who talks about dialogic relationships. Right? Listening is a practice and it is a way to kind of...not kind of, it is a way to dissolve the very constructed relationship between scholar and subject. And I'm not interested, especially as somebody who at this moment in time is primarily writing about Black women and Black queer women....I am not interested in continuing that racist and violent tradition. I'm interested in dissolving that very false boundary between scholar and subject.
Masi: Yes. No, of course. Building on this, you're inviting us to think about different ways of listening that are not just about like "What's in this for me?" Do you know what I mean? Because in acknowledging the fraughtness of the act of listening, of not necessarily being the intended listener, of feeling closeness that the voicer may not have felt for you if they were in the room...or just given the fact that they're not in the room, other than sonically. But how can one, how can I listen in a way that isn't just about stealing something for me, but and also allows for a fraught relationship. And just also, it's interesting, just this idea of listening cross-racially. I mean like, we're always doing that. And it isn't...it certainly is just...it's so often not marked. Right? So as a listener of color, I'm always listening to white voices, and I'm listening to the work of white composers, as I referenced earlier. And it's not marked that that’s cross-racial listening. In the case of Stephen Sondheim, whose music I really respond to and who has said some things around racial casting, racialized casting that I really don't agree with...although you know, he is kind of like the god of my field, he can do no wrong. And so there is a fraughtness in listening to and being moved by his work that has to do with me not necessarily being the intended listener. Or me being in nad inhabiting a different body than the ones that were in the seats, and still are in the audiences, often, for his shows. But I think allowing space for the fraughtness of a listening relationship and yet still listening, I find something really inspiring there.
Katelyn: You know, part of my personal work in undoing the white supremacy that lives within me and that I benefit from systemically is about making room for being wrong, being uninvited, being not the loudest voice in the room. And that is a really important part of I think dismantling white supremacy is revealing its, not just its prevalence but its overarching nature that we...and I say we, I mean white people, are constantly denying.
Masi: Well, and I think people of many of races are constantly denying, it becomes very internalized, right? So I think that work—not to flatten it out entirely, but I do think that that work of recognizing, you know, white supremacy and sort of its unmarked reach is something many of us have to undertake.
Katelyn: Yeah. And also dismantling a very masculinist like mode of scholarship which says you can never be wrong.
Masi: Right. Which, to be honest, is not really how science works.
Katelyn: [laughs] Exactly.
Masi: It's interesting, I was talking to my dad recently, who is a scientist and I was like....well, you know, we were just talking about some of the paradoxes and the tensions within scientific thought, and also, the extent to which scientists are often saying they were wrong, and then somebody else has a new idea. Like there isn’t...it's a weird...it's almost like humanities scholars, because there is such anxiety about not being rigorous that it's almost like we are attempting to be more scientific than the scientists, you know, in terms of declaring and holding and not admitting that ideas change. And that somebody can come forth with a theory that unseats another one...I don't know where that came from. I'm all over the map today. But this is good, I'm interested.
Katelyn: This is a lovely convo.
Masi: But I have one follow-up question to something you said. When you were talking about Moms Mabley performing at the Playboy Club, that there was a sense that you could detect, that you heard that she was holding back. And I'm just curious to know how you heard that. And how that manifested for you vocally or like...how did you hear it?
Katelyn: So the quote-unquote like little song that she performs is about being a kind of fairy boy swishing down Sunset Boulevard and a, you know, revamping of Nat King Cole's "Nature Boy." She sings it so quietly and...I'm hearing the song in my head. So you know, she says, "And as he strolled down Sunset Strip / hand on hip / this I said to him / The dearest thing / you'll ever learn, my friend / is that you'll get yours / you'll get yours in the end." And of course, you know, this is a play on sex.
Masi: Yep. Get yours. Right. Yeah. But.
Katelyn: But I also hear it as a kind of haunting specter of anti-black and anti-queer violence. But the way that she performs it is that there's no punchline. She just sort of lets it linger in the air. And you know, Mabley had such potent and clear and direct comedic timing. Not very often did she not end on something very crisply, or loudly, or booming. And she just sort of lets it linger. And I hear the audience pause, and they're like, What does that mean? And they kind of laugh. And then because it's a song and she ends it very sweetly they just sort of politely applaud. And I can't get it out my head that in relationship to her other jokes about the fairy men, that this is for this white audience and she's sort of not letting them in on the joke. And it's her vocality that is protective.
Masi: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. This is so great.
Katelyn: So check out the special issue on sound of Peformance Matters.
Masi: [laughing] Right. Everybody will now have to read this Performance Matters issue, which...it's an amazing group of scholars. It's exciting.
Katelyn: So incredible.
Masi: I think...I just want to respond to what you've just said and as I've been listening. What's been coming up for me also in thinking about comedy and voice is that we have multiple voicers, right? We have the voice of the comedian. We have the silence, right, after the punchline, or if there is a punchline, like in terms of the timing. Like the silences that are present, sonically, are so important in term of prompting the other voicers, right, the audiences, to laugh. And so all of those different voices and absences of voice are part of the texture in a situation of comedy.
Katelyn: Yeah. Yeah.
Masi: Probably very obvious to you but it was helpful for me to hear that.
Katelyn: No, I agree. And I think it's, you know...part of the work in that article is me being like, Oh I need to consider every voice in this piece. You know.
Masi: So cool. We've basically come to the end of my questions. I always just like to ask people...is there anything that you're noticing now, about the voices that you're encountering that you might not have attended to before or that is just striking you differently—as someone who spends a lot of time listening to the voices of comedians, and also just as a human moving through the world. Is there anything that you're noticing now that you might want to just remember, or sort of mark...bookmark for future....to remember in the future? So your future self can listen to this.
Katelyn: Yeah. My future self would say that, you know, I'm really—I think like so many of us –oscillating between this like extreme hope and excitement and real grief and despair and fear and anger. And you know, I'm at my most clear when I can hold all of those things at once, very gently. But what I love about comedy and what I love about the Black women comics that I get the privilege to write about is that...that's the good work of comedy. That it can hold it all, simultaneously. A couple of weeks ago I watched Michelle Buteau's first hour-long comedy special on Netflix. And if you don't know her...know her. She is a joy. Michelle Buteau, Welcome to Buteaupia.
Masi: Okay great. I'll check it out.
Katelyn: And I've also been thinking about, and I write about this book, Amanda Seales's special I Be Knowin' on HBO is really also just this true gift of what comedy as a mode of protest can look like. There's a part in the special where she discusses "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing." And she guides the Black audience members in an a cappella rendition, while simultaneously making fun of the white people watching both in the audience or at home not knowing what the hell is going on. And..comics like these two, and so many others, are doing this work. 'Cause a good joke distills all the complicated stuff. And it can help us synthesize and really grapple with what is happening, and what our actions can be, and what kind of spirit we can bring to the table.
Masi: Wow! I love it. Thank you.
Masi: Yes. Absolutely. I mean, I feel we like...a lot of us it like inuit...like we know that...I know (I shouldn't speak for everybody) that when the world is just absurd, which it is now. Which it always is, but feels especially so. And then I watch somebody who just, you know, allows me to laugh through the absurdity, I know that I feel better. In the act of that. But I don't know that I like have the intellectual awareness that that's because they're distilling the complexity of the moment. But that's....but it's really, I think, succinct and helpful to know that that's why I feel better when I listen.
Katelyn: Yeah. And physiologically. We need laughter as a form of self-soothing, right?
Masi: Yes. Right. Oh, that's a good one. That could be a whole podcast. [laughter] This was great. Thank you so much, Katelyn for sharing your brilliance.
Katelyn: Oh my gosh, Masi, what a pleasure. I really appreciate it.
Additional transcription coming soon.