People dancing at a club in New York City (Courtesy of Time Out Magazine)
This week’s featured author is Alexander Ghedi Weheliye, Malcolm S. Forbes Professor of Modern Culture and Media at Brown University. His book is Feenin: R&B Music and the Materiality of BlackFem Voices and Technology.
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Alexander Ghedi Weheliye. Weheliye is Malcolm S. Forbes Professor of Modern Culture and Media at Brown University. His book is Feenin: R&B Music and the Materiality of BlackFem Voices and Technology.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Alexander Ghedi Weheliye: My argument is that R&B music needs to be heard, and urgently so, within the context of Black people in the West living under conditions of protracted genocide. The music, its lyrics, and the cultures around R&B in the contemporary moment are both a response to and a shield against these genocidal conditions, the afterlives and aftershocks of slavery and colonialism. Taking heartbreak, one of the principal themes of R&B music, using it as the conceptual lens for the generalized heartbreak of Black life. As a result, heartbreak does not function in the frequential key of individuated and privatized neoliberal affect but as a far-reaching condition of Black life in an anti-Black world that nevertheless acts on different groups and individuals gathered under in this umbrella unevenly. R&B music serves as an intensive archival reservoir of and provides the soundtrack to existing within force-field of the wide-ranging heartbreak of Black life, making it possible for us to lend an ear to heartbreak as it appears on those lower frequencies where the hum of the bass is most certainly physically palpable but just barely audible. As a genre with complex aesthetic and political parameters as well as historical lineages and archival sedimentations, contemporary R&B sonically chronicles and theorizes the variable configurations Black interior life, interpersonal relationships, and erotics take on under the lingering genocidal conditions of neoliberal racial capitalism. In addition, Feenin is also concerned with the labor performed by the BlackFem singing voice in humanizing technology, whether this is Roland TR-808 drum machines or cell phones.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
As I discuss in one of the chapters, there is a continuity between the street and the home that R&B brings to the fore in ways that other forms of black cultural production do not. R&B music creates the architectonics of provisionary political shelters, as relational restorative processes from the traumatic storms of anti-Blackness and misogynoir as well as racialized transphobia and homophobia. R&B becomes the repository for BlackFem vulnerability by undertaking the labor of sounding a wide variety of interiorities and intimacies that are necessary for the existence of the ‘properly political,’ especially in the present moment. Contemporary R&B music amplifies restorative and ameliorative forms of healing and knowledge production, putting it in line with contemporary Black queer and Black feminist activism’s attunement to interiority, care, mental health, restorative justice, and healing as integral parts of the political and of organizing.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
I would really like to find a good final resting place for the widely held assumption that post-1970s R&B music is somehow divorced from bearing witness to the complexities of Black life like it did in the 1960s and 70s because it rests on the idea that Black identity and politics can only be articulated in one particular masculinist way that deems R&B music apolitical. Instead, I trace R&B music’s continuing centrality in Black life since the late 1970s. Focusing on various musical production and reproduction technologies such as auto-tune and the materiality of the BlackFem singing voice to counteract the widespread popular and scholarly narratives of the genre’s decline and death. My book shows how R&B remains a thriving venue for the expression of Black thought and life and a primary archive of the contemporary moment, especially for BlackFem performers and audiences. As a result, current R&B music emerges as a significant site through which to consider questions of Blackness, technology, history, humanity, community, diaspora, and nationhood.
Which intellectuals and/or intellectual movements most inspire your work?
Since the direct engagements with scholars such as Saidiya Hartman, Tina Campt, Daphne Brooks, Joy James, Farah Griffin, Richard Iton, Deborah McDowell, Paul Gilroy, and Hortense Spillers to name only a few, are clearly laid out in the text, I want to highlight, on the one hand, the direct collaborators/interlocutors in the book: Katherine McKittrick, Tavia Nyong’o, Nehal El-Hadi, and Annie Goh given that much of Feenin is devoted to the praxes of collaboration and dialogue in the form of direct responses, interviews, and co-authorship. While it is now a scholarly truism that all written works are implicitly communal and co-authored, in Feenin I wanted to center concrete collaborative writing and thinking practices by not limiting the book to pieces of which I am the sole author.
On the other hand, I want to call attention to the music that I engage in the book, since one of the central threads of Feenin is that R&B music represents of vital venue for philosophical, aesthetic, and political reflection. So that would be Amaal Nuux, Jodeci, Kelela, Prince, Rihanna, 702, Glashaus, Marvin Gaye, Blaque, Frank Ocean, Jazmine Sullivan, DJ Pierre, Brandy, and so many more. The music by these artists continues to inspire me and push me to think about the vicissitudes of contemporary Black life beyond the scope of cisheteropatriarchal Blackness.
Which three books published in the last five years would you recommend to BAR readers? How do you envision engaging these titles in your future work?
It is extremely difficult to narrow it down, but the three books published in the last five years that have left the most lasting impression on me are Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater, John Keene’s Punks, and Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals. All three books are formally inventive and daring in beautiful ways while also making exquisite political points about the past, present, and future of Black (queer) life. I am not yet sure how I will directly engage these texts in my work, but they offer me templates both for what is possible and injunctions for what still needs to be done.
Roberto Sirvent is editor of the Black Agenda Report Book Forum.