spooky at home #10

memory, race, and music criticism

This newsletter is going to be a bit different! I’ve had the majority of this edition drafted for a while, mostly because I wasn’t sure how to arrange it. The following is basically centered around this idea of public memory and who shapes it; I’m going to be piecing together a lot of different thoughts I’ve been having about music journalism in general so let’s hope I can stick the landing. You can also skip it all and just check out my list of tune out resources and upcoming Halloween streams!

the discourse™️

I’ve been seeing a lot of archival work happening recently that I wanted to highlight. Accounts like @maketechnoblackagain (not an archive but @moma.ps5 also does great cultural criticism in this vein) and projects like Dweller’s techno library, Jenzia Burgos’ Black Music History Library, and Sharine Taylor’s Dancehall Annotations are revisiting and revealing the history behind Black musical traditions.

The concept of memory has been weighing on me for a while now, particularly the idea of (re)membering. It’s an act of reconstruction or reconstitution: looking back on the national memory with a critical eye for power in order to reveal the truth. Looking back in this way doesn’t feel conservative or self-serving, because a radical reading of history is geared towards understanding how the past informs our future. There are those that regard the past with a naive, ahistorical nostalgia (MAGA), and those that look back on the past, not as a place to return to but as a place to progress from. I’m reminded of this little gem from Aurora Levins Morales that Mariame Kaba once quoted:

“We need to all have a stake in how we understand our past, to feel ownership of the project, to excavate our collective memories, and share what we discover. How we understand our past shapes what we can imagine for our futures.”

I like to think that these archival projects are helping us unlearn as much as they are helping us learn. When we read or write about the Black roots of rock music, or any music, we are (re)membering that which has been erased and creating a new narrative; one that allows us to look at the current marginalization of Black musicians in a new light. Genres that are often dismissed as shallow get taken seriously through archival work. I mean “taken seriously” as in the idea that we can learn from Black music, that it provokes deeper thought and study, and that it has much to tell us about not just the Black experience in America, but American identity as a whole. (sidenote: this is essentially the thesis of Amiri Baraka’s Blues People, so check it out!) I also think it’s worth mentioning that it’s important that this work is being done outside of a white perspective, especially because what we think of as “good” music and “bad” music is often judged against a white perspective (also something that gets touched upon in Blues People.)

I’m also thinking of articles like What It’s Like to Be Black in Indie Music by Matthew James-Wilson, NPR’s The South Got Something To Say: A Celebration of Southern Rap project, Burna Boy’s Grammy Loss Highlights The Issues With The World Music Category by Ivie Ana, and Wesley Morris’ Why Is Everyone Always Stealing Black Music?—all works that encourage us to think deeper about the cultural contributions of Black people and how they are framed, obscured, and exploited.

Okay, so here’s the part that’s hard! Sure archival work is fun and interesting to me, but why does it matter in a broader sense? Well, I think learning from history also helps us frame our demands (“our past shapes what we can imagine for our futures.”) If you’re aware that Black punks have always existed, then you have to ask why they aren’t as visible today. The issue has never really been that there aren’t enough Black musicians—in fact, any of the archives I’ve listed above will show you that the Black musical tradition is rich…but often exploited.

So if the issue isn’t a lack of talent, why has the music industry response to the BLM uprisings been centered around diversity and inclusion? On the artist-side, the “solution” to industry racism is a more diverse pool of musicians to exploit, and for the rest of the industry, the “solution” is a commitment to a conversation about diversity and inclusion. But what’s the point of spotlighting diverse artists if at the end of the day they can’t afford to live? Isn’t exploitation racial injustice?

It’s been over four months since everyone posted black squares for #TheShowMustBePaused, and I’m wondering what’s actually changed? It’s hard to imagine that all that industry posturing and “soul searching” amounted to anything when not even a few months later artists are bringing attention to the fact that publications like Pitchfork still don’t cover Black indie musicians to the same degree as their white counterparts. And while that criticism was swiftly followed by a spate of write-ups on Black artists, is this real long-lasting change?

But to bring it back to the idea of memory, music journalism being overwhelmingly white doesn’t just impact who gets covered, it also impacts how we talk about music. Sometimes I read rap criticism from white journalists and wonder if they even listen to rap. Some of what white critics write about Black music is just straight up rude and patronizing—I can’t stop thinking about this one article that reduced all of mainstream rap to shallow lyricism about the club, cars, and sex. Even if written casually, these reductive narratives have power because of racism (and they have demonstrable real-life effects). Why are white music critics given free rein to dictate the quality of music they have no cultural ties to when they don’t have the range?

And not to jump back into the Anthony Fantano discourse again, but I feel like a lot of the conversation around why people dislike him was very dismissive. No one needs to paint Fantano as a 4chan-loving edgelord in order to concede that his voice is easily accepted as “critical” because he is white and a man (and that his critical voice is shaped by this.) Not that I think in 20-30 years how he talked about Solange will have any impact on how we think of her work, but it does rub me that Fantano was heralded by the Times as the “future” when there’s an incredibly diverse and talented field of young music critics being overlooked. Why is this white suburban man being considered an authority on music just because he’s loud on the internet while Black music journalists are underpaid and underemployed? A white man being the face of the future? I think not!

Again, there’s no shortage of great Black music writers (just as there’s no shortage of mediocre white music writers). But the way music journalism is structured makes it incredibly hard for Black writers to break into music criticism. And even if you do manage to snag one of the few staff positions available, you still have to deal with the toxic working conditions that writers at Remezcla, Complex, Vibe, and other publications have opened up about. How will we remember the music being made today if the people writing about it and taking it seriously aren’t supported?

Okay, let’s see if I can stick this landing because that was a lot! How we remember music is shaped by the people who write about it, and the people who write about music shape both who gets covered and how we talk about their music. The archival work and retrospectives that Black critics are doing today help us understand how power has shaped narratives about music, and by remembering this history we are able to contextualize and frame our demands for the future. While re-evaluating music decades down the line is important, it would also be great if we could get it right the first time by letting Black critics shape the conversation around Black music and just generally being more attentive to how criticism, like everything, is shaped by race.

rocktober 🎃

I miss going to live shows in October so much. Last Halloween I went to a free show at Baby’s, and now I will probably spend it at home watching Scooby Doo (no judgment please). I’m a little hesitant to put any in-person events here, just because cases are going up around the country and I think it’s about time we start tightening our social distancing rules rather than relaxing them, but hopefully, everyone who is reading this is an adult and can make that choice for themselves. Here is a quick rundown of some events that I’ve got on my radar:

10/29 | No Earbuds Takeover @ Twitch

  • feat. Kississippi, illuminati hotties, Bartees Strange, Lake Saint Daniel, Sinai Vessel, The Big Easy, and Joe Vann w/ surprise guests

10/30 | Sally Can't Dance: The Cramps @ Veeps

  • Performances by Kid Congo, Chuck Prophet, Jim Jones, Kathy Valentine, Steve Wynn, Lynne Von Pang, LA Witch, Gnarcissists, Liz Lamere, Josh Brocki, Jeff Klein, Jeremy Lubin, Andrea Sicco, Johnny Scuotto, Don Flemming, Bebe Buell and the Scent, Kenneth Levine, Dylan Hundley, The Schizophonics, Diane Gentile, The Ghost Wolves, Gordon Lawrence, Leah Victoria Hennessey, Mark C and more

10/30 | Siren Sounds x Trans-Pecos Presents: Gustaf and P.E. @ Purgatory

  • You can either go in person and purchase a donation-based ticket at Trans-Pecos to see the stream there, or watch from home—you can purchase a ticket for the live-stream alone here.

10/30 | A Heck Dang Halloween @ Twitch

  • Feat. Heckdang, Dikembe, Gilt, Oceanator, Tiny Blue Ghost, Mint Green, Get Tuff

10/31 | ELSEWORLD TV: Soul Summit @ Twitch or IRL

  • It’s Elsewhere’s third anniversary this Halloween! Celebrate by reserving a table in person and go to the venue to catch the stream, or chill out at home and watch it on Twitch.

10/31 | Playground Turns 4 @ Playground Coffee Shop

  • Drop by the Playground Coffee Shop for sets by DJs Ushka, Yung Bugarron, and Cardamami, as well as food, anniversary tees, and more. Help support Playground Coffeeshop by donating to their GoFundMe here.

10/31 | Disposable America Halloween Party @ Twitch

  • feat. Bedbug, Puppy Problems, Double Libra, Prior Panic, Community College, Chill Guys TV, Lilith, Cave People, Oceanator, Nova One, Horse Jumper of Love, and DJ Sweaty Palms

10/31-11/1 | Ratboys Presents Halloween Telethon @ Twitch

  • Streaming for 25 Hours straight, you can expect a ton of artists including Adult Mom, Anjimile, Charly Bliss, Deeper, Diet Cig, Cheekface, DIsq, Oceanator, Proper., The Beths and many, many more (I got too lazy to write everyone, that's how many people). The stream benefits The Equal Justice Initiative and Girls Rock! Chicago.

10/22-11/1 | Ghoul-a-Rama or Fun House from Hell @ Rubulad

  • Featuring art and performances by Ricardo Rivera, Heather Schimpf, Veronica Dougherty, Miles Angerson, Damon Worden, Danielle Charette, Daupo, Preston Spurlock, Tanya Solomon Magician, Typical Tom, Darrell Thorne, Jess Underwood, Christeene, Cat Tassini, Keely Odell, Jayanna, Brandon, and Jake from Couch Prints. The event runs from 6pm-10pm and timed tickets cost $10 in advance and $20 Halloween night.

in my queue 🎶

tune out 🎧

I tried my best to make this newsletter coherent! Sometimes it just helps to get all my thoughts down on paper so I can stop thinking about them. But somedays it feels like I’m in the eye of this tornado of thoughts and everything keeps whizzing past me faster than I can grasp them. For days like that, I just try to tune out. It’s hard because often the effort I put towards relaxing undermines the practice itself, but I’ll endeavor to unclench anyways. So here’s a few new resources that are meant to help you find some peace, if only for a little:

  • Ashram Tapes: Speaking of archival work, this website from dublab revisits the devotional work of Alice Coltrane (who later adopted the name Swamini Turiyasangitananda). For Coltrane enthusiasts and newbies alike, this website features a documentary, an episode from Coltrane’s TV show, as well as mixes of her work (some previously unheard).

  • Metamorphosis FM: An audiovisual healing virtual environment that uses sound frequencies and light waves directly tied to energy centers, as well as African drum patterns and instrumentation of diasporic revolutions to nurture the people of the diaspora.

  • take 15: Take 15 prompts users to open a digital window that plays a soothing nature soundtrack—birds, breeze, frogs, etc—for exactly fifteen minutes.

  • Pop Clouds with Poolside FM and Recess: This "virtual getaway site" is designed for you to pause and collect your thoughts. The aim is to pop 100 clouds slowly, and there's even a built-in stream from Poolside FM that you can listen to as you cloud watch.

  • Yaeji’s Juice Club: An in-browser online RPG where each juice you order at Joofa’s Juice provides a different musical experience at the club, soundtracked by Yaeji’s recent mixtape.

But also while I find these things helpful I also think it’s incredibly important to recognize that we’re in a pandemic and it’s very normal to feel overwhelmed or different. It’s not your fault and while these things may help temporarily if your circumstances don’t change then there’s only so much you can do. I really liked this article from Colette Shade about the “Covid self-help genre,” and I think it’s a good reminder that if you’re having troubling coping it’s not your fault. I think that realization will help people a lot more than any meditation app ever will.

concluding remarks

Did you see my rant about stars on Twitter? If you’re lucky enough to live in a place where you can see more than a few stars at night, please do me a favor and savor it. Look up and stargaze a little, and maybe send me a pic? Just kidding but also I would love that. I would also love any pictures of pets in costumes, I will love you forever if you send me anything like that. Hope you’re all well, see you next time, and always beware of bunk candy (looking at you candy corn.)