On Songs and Stories

Sometimes, I like to think of myself as a storyteller.  I have always been that child on the bus to sit quietly and watch the exhausted mother rock her baby to sleep while her two boys fuss over who is more smarter than who before she reaches over and pinches both of them on the lips as a kind of warning of the whooping that might come their way.  I have always been the child to chuckle to myself as I eavesdrop on the drunk old men gathered at the door of the grocery store boasting about who can still get these young things pregnant.  Science fiction or superheroes never interested me as much as engaging with stories of people reckoning with the fullness of their humanity.  And that’s what folk songs are for me – stories about survival.  They remind me that despite systematic violence and silencing, my foreparents chose to sing about victory and pain and death and hope and joy and love and sex.  Yes, sex.  Who wants to think about their parents having sex, much less their great-great-great (great-great…) grandparents doing the genital gyration?  Me.  Maybe not for the reasons you’re thinking (shame on you), but because we have a way of obscuring history by rendering invisible the narratives that do not serve us.  It’s not enough to think of our foreparents as revolution leaders.  Of course, we do this in an attempt to humanize them, but how do we deny them the fullness of their humanity if we do not engage in excavating the mundanities of life?  What made them laugh?  What made them jealous?  How did they think about the future?  We must wrestle with these questions if we are truly interested in undoing the assault that the purveyors of history have launched on the dignity of our forefathers.  I’m interested in using folk songs as an instrument to interpret Jamaican sexuality.  In a colonial world where my foreparents’ bodies were deemed property, I am interested in the ways they contested that claim by exercising personal agency (however compromised) over their own bodies.

During this summer internship, I hope to learn about how to use other modes of knowledge production to shape my project.  Specifically, I would like to learn to create an accessible and interactive website on which viewers can not only listen to folk song recordings, but also view videos of people singing and talking about the meaning of the songs.  I would like to choose 15-20 songs along the historical timeline (1650-1962) and analyze them for a reading of heteronormative gender relations and queered gender relations.  However, I know I might have to think about selecting a historical timeline that is practical given the time constraints within which I am working.  I’m also especially interested in whether colonial ontologies of Jamaican sexuality are recognizable in modern musical traditions such as reggae and dancehall.

I would like to draw upon the established academic literature (including ethnographies) regarding Afro-Jamaican life under colonialism.  It will definitely be challenging to find all my sources, which is partly because folk songs are an oral tradition and their lyrics aren’t always transcribed and I also expect to encounter some challenges in finding people to talk about the sexually suggestive nature of the music, but I hope to counter that problem by working through a network of Jamaican academics who may have greater knowledge of and access to those resources than I do.  Additionally, while I’m absolutely open to reformatting or reshaping the questions I am asking, I really want to maintain the idea of using music (of any Jamaican genre) to interpret Jamaican sexuality.

I’m so excited to be working on this project and have started to do preliminary reading (“From Field to Platform” by Pamela O’Gorman “Out and Bad: Toward a Queer Performance Hermeneutic in Jamaican Dancehall” by Nadia Ellis) and I started to reach out to Jamaican academics who may be able to help me tell the story of Jamaican sexuality through folk music.  This project has personal and political meaning for me.  It’s a way for me to honor those who have come before me and contributing to the academic tradition that seeks to excavate our humanity.  Here’s to hoping I can do justice to that legacy and this project!

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