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Audiotopia: Music, Race, and America

Josh Kun
Copyright Date: 2005
Edition: 1
Pages: 319
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    Ranging from Los Angeles to Havana to the Bronx to the U.S.-Mexico border and from klezmer to hip hop to Latin rock, this groundbreaking book injects popular music into contemporary debates over American identity. Josh Kun insists that America is not a single chorus of many voices folded into one, but rather various republics of sound that represent multiple stories of racial and ethnic difference. To this end he covers a range of music and listeners to evoke the ways that popular sounds have expanded our idea of American culture and American identity. Artists as diverse as The Weavers, Café Tacuba, Mickey Katz, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Bessie Smith, and Ozomatli reveal that the song of America is endlessly hybrid, heterogeneous, and enriching-a source of comfort and strength for populations who have been taught that their lives do not matter. Kun melds studies of individual musicians with studies of painters such as Jean-Michel Basquiat and of writers such as Walt Whitman, James Baldwin, and Langston Hughes. There is no history of race in the Americas that is not a history of popular music, Kun claims. Inviting readers to listen closely and critically,Audiotopiaforges a new understanding of sound that will stoke debates about music, race, identity, and culture for many years to come.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-93864-9
    Subjects: Music

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  4. INTRODUCTION: Strangers among Sounds
    (pp. 1-28)

    It all started with a record store and the Rock Island Line.

    When I was growing up in West Los Angeles, my parents gave me a weekly allowance for doing things I should have been doing anyway: cleaning my room, washing the dishes, taking out the garbage. I was supposed to spend the money on weekend food, movies, and arcade games, but I never did. Instead, I would get on my silver BMX street bike, ride down streets that I knew I would see later that night in episodes ofCHiPs,Starsky and Hutch, andCharlie’s Angels(we lived blocks...

  5. ONE Against Easy Listening Or, How to Hear America Sing
    (pp. 29-47)

    Walt whitman published “i hear america singing” in 1860 as part of the third edition of his now historic collection of poems,Leaves of Grass. Yet it was not the first time he put his ear to the people and places of the United States and heard songs. In “Song of Myself,” the landmark poem that opened the first edition ofLeaves of Grassfive years earlier in 1855, Whitman had already positioned himself as a kind of human audio receiver who channeled the voices of common people and the voices of the earth and the cosmos, receiving their signals...

  6. TWO The Yiddish Are Coming
    (pp. 48-85)

    In 1965 my great-grandparents celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary in the Gold Room of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in West Los Angeles. For the occasion, one of their sons, my great-uncle Norm, was put in charge of securing the evening’s entertainment. He chose a performer who he knew was a favorite of his immigrant parents, both of whom grew up in Yiddish-speaking households—the bandleader, clarinetist, and Yiddish-English parodist Mickey Katz.

    Katz had reached his professional peak during the 1950s with a series of full-length albums for Capitol Records that were predominately heard by Jewish American audiences. Though he had...

  7. THREE Life According to the Beat
    (pp. 86-112)

    In the winter of 1951, James Baldwin had a nervous breakdown. He was living in self-imposed exile in Paris while struggling to write his first novel when he became so deeply depressed that his Swiss lover Lucien Happersberger rushed him off to his family’s chateau in Loeche-les-Bains, a small mountain town in Switzerland. The two lovers lived there for three months in what was, according to Baldwin’s biographer David Leeming, the closest Baldwin ever came to “his dream domestic life with a lover.”¹

    These months were of monumental significance for Baldwin and remain of extreme importance for any study of...

  8. FOUR Basquiat’s Ear, Rahsaan’s Eye
    (pp. 113-142)

    A mounted copy of haitian–puerto rican painter Jean-Michel Basquiat’s 1983 triptychHorn Playershas been hanging in my living room for three years, and I only recently noticed that there’s an ear in its upper-left corner. Not the image of an ear, but “ear,” the capitalized word standing in for the capitalized ear of a dismembered black male body. Next to it is a small arrow pointing up to where the painting stops, where the canvas ends. The ear leads the viewer to a place where there is no vision, no paint, no image; it leads us to the...

  9. FIVE I, Too, Sing América
    (pp. 143-183)

    In 1925, sixty-five years after Walt Whitman first heard America sing, a young black poet named Langston Hughes decided that the harmonious carols of democracy’s song were in desperate need of a rewrite. So the twenty-three-year-old from Joplin, Missouri penned his own lyrics to the song of America. “I, too, sing America,” he wrote, and in so doing, volunteered his own voice to the national fray and forever changed its sound. “I am the darker brother,” Hughes continued, the one who is sent to eat in the kitchen when the company arrives, the one who decides that the next time...

  10. SIX Rock’s Reconquista
    (pp. 184-218)

    On the eve of mexican independence day in 1996, Mexico’s most idolized rock icon, Saúl Hernández, stands shyly on the stage of the Auditorio Nacional, one of Mexico City’s largest and most prestigious performance spaces. A long, elaborate row of freshly lit candelabras drip hot wax and bathe him in a warm, Gothic glow. Towering above him are two enormous diamond vision video screens that deliver his adored larger-than-life image—the seductive, piercing eyes, the stringy, unkempt hair, the charming, gap-toothed smile, the tattooed, wiry frame—to the ten thousand screaming Mexican fans who have paid top peso just to...

  11. CONCLUSION: La Misma Canción
    (pp. 219-226)

    To end all this: a final question, a final listening, a final audiotopia.

    What is a DJ if he can’t scratch to aranchera?

    The question isn’t mine. It comes from Ozomatli, a Los Angeles band of urban fusionists and self-professed anarchists and red diaper babies who’ve been known to toss African American hip-hop into Dominican merengue over North Indian tablas, Havana congas, and Kingston dub. It’s a question they ask in the middle of a beat-juiced Mexicanrancherahoedown they call “La misma canción.” Literally, “the same old song.”

    When you are a band like Ozomatli, the answer to...

  12. NOTES
    (pp. 227-254)
    (pp. 255-276)
    (pp. 277-282)
  15. INDEX
    (pp. 283-302)