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E. PATRICK JOHNSON Performing Blackness Down Under Gospel Music in Australia I put it [a gospel record] on, and I just began to howl. I began to weep. I just thought, this is extraordinary—the intensity, the surrender, the joy, the yearning, everything that I could hear in it. —Judy Backhouse I’ve always sung music that comes from a black tradition. So, if it’s not soul, it’s funk or reggae. So, I think African music touches me in some way. I don’t know why that is—a white Jewish girl from Sydney, what can I say? Them’s my roots. —Tracey Greenberg In a black church, you know who you’re singing to. They believe every word you’re going to say, and it’s a fantastic opportunity to get in touch with yourself. And also, because they’re far more responsive, as you know, it’s like “whoa!” —Tony Backhouse An all-white, mostly atheist, Australian gospel choir: at ‹rst it sounds contradictory . Yet when situated within the contested contexts of “blackness” and “performance,” white Australian, atheist gospel singers are no more contradictory than black, gay Republicans. We live out the contradictions of our lives, and an aversion to religion does not exclude persons from making personally meaningful connections to gospel music that sometimes resemble, sometimes contradict, and sometimes supersede black gospel music’s functions in the United States. Once signs—or, in this case, sounds—of “blackness” are “let loose” in the world, they become the site at which cultures contest and struggle over meaning. Gospel music, as a sign/sound of “blackness,” has become one such contested site. 59 This essay examines the performance of black American gospel music in Australia. Focusing ‹rst on the formation and performances of the choir, the Café of the Gate of Salvation, and then moving to a general discussion of gospel performance in Australia, I examine the ways in which the medium of gospel facilitates a dialogic performance of “blackness.” Given the racial, cultural, and religious composition of the Café and other Australian choirs, the essay also addresses the politics of appropriation by highlighting the ways in which Australians explain their interest in and performance of gospel music and the ironies that underlie their explanations .1 The analysis, then, demonstrates the problematics of gospel performance in terms of cross-cultural appropriation, as well as the mutual bene‹ts garnered when self and Other performatively engage one another via gospel music. Initially, however, I wish to discuss the ways in which I construe “blackness” as a racial trope—as opposed to a biological essence—and its connection to authenticity and gospel performance. “Blackness” does not belong to any one individual or group. Rather, individuals or groups appropriate it in order to circumscribe its boundaries or to exclude others. When blackness is appropriated to the exclusion of others, identity becomes political. Because blackness has no essence, black authenticity is overdetermined—contingent on the historical, social, and political terms of its production. Moreover, “The notion of [black] authenticity implies the existence of its opposite, the fake, and this dichotomous construct is at the heart of what makes authenticity problematic.”2 Authenticity, then, is yet another trope manipulated for cultural capital. That said, I do not wish to place a value judgment on the notion of authenticity, for there are ways in which authenticating discourse enables marginalized people to counter oppressive representations of themselves. The key here is to be cognizant of the arbitrariness of authenticity, the ways in which it carries with it the danger of foreclosing the possibility of cultural exchange and understanding . As Henry Louis Gates, Jr., reminds us, “No human culture is inaccessible to someone who makes the effort to understand, to learn, to inhabit another world.”3 And yet we must be aware of the reality of living within a racist, white supremacist, and capitalist society in which cultural appropriations have social, cultural, and political consequences. History demonstrates that cultural usurpation has been a common practice of whites and their relation to art forms not their own. In many instances, whites exoticize or fetishize blackness, what bell hooks calls “eating the other.”4 Thus, when whiteBLACK CULTURAL TRAFFIC 60 identi‹ed subjects perform “black” signi‹ers—normative or otherwise— the effect is always already entangled in the discourse of Otherness; the historical weight of white skin privilege necessarily engenders a tense relationship with its “others.” This reality withstanding, human commingling necessarily entails syncretism whereby cultures assimilate...


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