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  • "We Provide a Place to Not Be Okay":Emotional Labor in Performance and Queer Amateur Music Spaces
  • Ryan J. Lambe (bio)

September 2017. A queer open mic in Oakland, California. A voice from the front shouts, "Welcome … your girl … Sanaa!" A queer Black femme takes the stage. The audience of twenty-five LGBTQ folks, women, and people of color clap hands, stomp feet, whistle, and yell. We sit in black folding chairs we set up an hour before. A floor lamp in the back casts light onto Sanaa's face. In a husky voice, Sanaa says, "I just wanna talk to you for a minute, no biggie, no thang." Sanaa prepares us for their rant—an improvisatory speech. Weeks ago, Sanaa sang a song a cappella about their fear of singing in public. Tonight, Sanaa rants. "Trigger warning: depression, anxiety … accountability …" We laugh at the flippant trigger warning. Our laughs interrupt them before they add, "… and not being okay." We make noises of understanding. "You know, I be around here, I love you all day long." Sanaa's voice brightens. They shake their head and close their eyes. Applause affirming love and validation answers Sanaa. They quip, "Yeah, I'm the first to hoot and holler for all your queer asses. I'm the first to give a hug." More applause, longer and louder. "But …" Sanaa straightens. Their hand chops through the playful facade with each syllable "… a bitch has not been okay! I am not okay." Sanaa's eyes pierce the narrow gap in front of the first row. [End Page 66] The audience calms. We take in what this constantly joking Black queer femme just told us: they are "not okay." Dense silence lingers.

"Not okay" recurs frequently in this open mic. The speaker eschews the expectation that they would function well. This expectation speaks to values of Oakland where being "okay" seems to signify a successful affect. Tech companies gentrifying Oakland infuse the city with neo-liberal affect. Neoliberal affect includes individual exceptionalism and satisfied productivity.1 At this open mic, performers express anger at losing their homes and culture. In their perception, tech companies and white folks invading Black neighborhoods cause their loss. Despite this anger, tech companies' neoliberal affect seems to play a role in defining what it means to feel successful in Oakland. Neoliberal affect inter-weaves with Oakland's legacy of racial justice activism, namely, that of the Black Panthers. In this legacy, a continual willingness to share joy with the community and a righteous anger at racial injustice signify success. Within these contexts, the mantle being "okay"—being a productive, joyfully sharing, fiercely angry, and exceptional individual—weighs on Sanaa's shoulders. Sanaa declaring they are "not okay" implies that they set down this mantle and admit suffering, discontent, unproductivity, shame, and fatigue.

A beat passes before Sanaa continues, "We doin' all that shuckin' and jivin' …" Stomping and clapping to an unheard jug band, Sanaa mimes an indignant rictus, a blackface minstrel. Sanaa stills. "But this space is not for that. This …" Sanaa gestures around the room where the open mic takes place, "is not a performative space. It's a transformative space." With this, Sanaa echoes a phrase often heard at the open mic claiming distinction from the outside world. Sanaa shakes their head. "This is where we provide space to be not okay." Sanaa's amplified voice rumbles over the carpeted floor. "I need to be openly not okay."

Sanaa's performance demonstrates queer musicking's utopian promise. In their utterance "I am not okay," we can sense Sanaa's suffering and freedom from the imperative to hide suffering from white heteropatriarchy's gaze. Likewise, Sanaa's collectivizing invitation, "this is where we provide space to be not okay," interpellates the audience into a community of caregivers taking on emotional labor. This open mic offers an alternative to the expectation that performers serve audiences' emotional needs. It provides a space where performers can be "not okay." In that way, the queer open mic manifests a powerful form of resistance.

By describing how queer open mics use emotional labor to care for performers, I attempt intervention in music scholarship's theorizing...


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pp. 66-88
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