Sunday, December 9, 2007

Music, Space, and Place - ed. Sheila Whitley, Andy Bennet and Stan Hawkins (Ashgate, 2005)

In Music, Space, and Place: Popular Music and Cultural Identity, editors Whitley, Bennet, and Hawkins take up T. Denora's challenge to assemble an anthology of scholarly writing that examines the particular urban and rural locales "in which music "is experienced on a day to day basis" and provide "the socio-cultural backdrop for distinctive musical practices and innovations" as well as "the rich experiential settings in which music is consumed." The contributors devote a great deal of space to hip hop, covering fledgling rap scenes in the "increasingly contested" urban "ethnoscapes of South Africa, Cuba, Zimbabwe, Sweden, and New Zealand, arguing convincingly in each case that music allows marginalized and displaced communities to cultivate and assert collective identities through localized "articulations of symbolic notions of community."

Although the chapters that deal with rap are exhaustively researched and engaging, the most suggestive and intriguing passages from Music, Space, and Place are located in Sarah Daynes' essay "The musical construction of the diaspora: the case of reggae and Rastafari." Daynes argues that diasporic communities actively construct and stylize a narrative of their own historical continuity that is foregrounded in the geographical and/or historical rupture that defines them as people. History, for a given diaspora, is "no longer a continuous flow expressed by an uninterrupted transmission" but "a time broken into before and after." As a result, the familiar settings of recorded historical events are replaced in the collective's imagination with a mythical " 'elsewhere' " which in the case of the Rastafari is an "idealized, imagined, fantasized, conceptualized and "intimately experienced" Africa.

The Africa of the Rastafari imaginary that comes to life in Reggae music is a complex affair, an "'archetypical symbol of elsewhere'" that is grounded in the rupture of slavery and "takes several dimensions, different but simultaneous and entangled." Daynes maps this out as lucidly as possible, demonstrating that in reggae Africa represents not only the geographic origin of the diaspora, but an originary culture antithetical to the West, a pre-slavery past-time paradise, and a future realm of redemption and liberation. In charting the multi-layered and multivalent Africa metaphor in reggae, Daynes provides us with a template to understand how musical practices and lyrical motifs in other diasporic traditions, particularly jazz, funk, and rap, view Africa.

Besides illuminating the seemingly cultist fetishism of Sun Ra and George Clinton, the study of space rap is augmented by Dayne's brand of inquiry. The "hip hop nation" even in North America should be examined as a diasporic community in which multiple back and forth movements and "disembarkation" inform localized constructions of larger identities. This pertains not to the children of blacks migrating from the South to the post-industrial North and back again, but also to the imaginary ascension outside of the confines of a center city neighborhood into expansive realms that is often depicted in rap. Let me ride.

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