- New Feminist Approaches to the Study of Race and Sound
In 2003 trailblazers of feminist sound studies Frances Aparicio and Cándida Jáquez astutely observed that, given the overdetermined complexity of new global media regimes, critical attention to contemporary circulations of Latina/o popular musics throughout the Americas would require no less than “the transforming of traditional methodologies and theoretical frameworks that have defined music and music making primarily through discrete categories such as national identity and musical genre” (2003, 9). Just over a decade later, a new generation of scholarship guided by this intellectual imperative has accomplished just that, deploying the analytics of critical race, gender, and queer studies to remap the contours, content, and conversations that have conventionally animated the disciplines of popular music studies, ethnomusicology, and sound studies. Gaye Theresa Johnson’s Spaces of Conflict, Sounds of Solidarity: Music, Race, and Spatial Entitlement in Los Angeles and Deborah R. Vargas’s Dissonant Divas in Chicana Music: The Limits of La Onda offer noteworthy contributions to this emergent interdisciplinary ferment. Significantly, both authors complicate the subject/object relationship that has traditionally structured ethnomusicological inquiry, turning our eyes and tuning our ears to how cultural workers have mobilized repertories of song, sound, rhythm, and performance to critique, negotiate, and subvert the constraints of everyday life. Through the use of “alternative archives,” feminist of color analyses, and innovative methodologies, Johnson and Vargas persuasively demonstrate that geographies of sound must be understood as terrains of material and ideological struggle upon which aggrieved communities disrupt dominant historical narratives, negotiate structural forces and institutions, and fashion alternative social worlds. [End Page 169]
At a moment when the so-called “black/brown” divide prevails as a commonsense axiom within U.S. public discourse, Spaces of Conflict, Sounds of Solidarity provides a timely intervention into antagonism-focused histories of relational racial formation. Johnson’s richly researched historiography of “Afro-Chicano” cultural activism in post–World War II Los Angeles details the “parallel but not identical histories of labor exploitation, housing segregation, and cultural demonization” that have politicized black and brown communities in urban Southern California (ix). Critical of the media narratives and institutional records that depict African Americans and Chicanos as continually at odds, Johnson instead chronicles a neglected history of the “infrapolitics that informed and shaped a common urban antiracist culture of struggle within these two communities of color” (xv). Combining the methods and frames of ethnic and cultural studies, urban geography, and social movement history, Johnson deftly demonstrates how spatial proximity and cultural contact set the stage for black and brown communities in urban Los Angeles to “us[e] the physical places they inhabited and the discursive spaces they imagined to assert their common humanity and forge shared struggles grounded in mutuality and solidarity” (x).
Spaces of Conflict is theoretically anchored in the convergence of two analytical repertoires: the spatial and the sonic. Johnson engages the geographic most robustly in her ongoing discussion of the dialectics of spatial mobility and spatial immobilization. She argues that the dynamic structural forces that have shaped postwar Los Angeles—urban renewal, deindustrialization, the erosion of the welfare state, and the resurgence of anti-immigrant revanchism—have consistently constrained the physical, social, and economic mobility of the city’s poor communities of color. LA’s urban African American and Mexican American communities, she asserts, have been simultaneously “locked in” via patterns of residential segregation and targeted policing, “locked out” of educational or professional opportunities and access to public amenities, and “locked up” in regional jails and prisons. To track the creative ways in which these populations negotiated and contested their geopolitical containment, Johnson advances the concept of spatial entitlement: a range of creative practices through which aggrieved communities engage in everyday “reclamations of space, assertions of social citizenship, and infrapolitical struggles” (x). She thus posits the praxes of political transformation and spatial imagination to be inextricably linked, such that the...