Rhythms of Relation: Black Popular Music and Mobile Technologies

By Weheliye, Alexander G. | Current Musicology, Spring-Summer 2017 | Go to article overview

Rhythms of Relation: Black Popular Music and Mobile Technologies


Weheliye, Alexander G., Current Musicology


In this essay I focus on the singular performances of the interface between (black) subjectivity and informational technologies in popular music, asking how these performances impact current definitions of the technological. After a brief examination of those aspects of mobile technologies that gesture beyond disembodied communication, I turn to the multifarious manifestations of techno-informational gadgets (especially cellular/mobile telephones) in contemporary R&B, a genre that is acutely concerned, both in content and form, with the conjuring of interiority, emotion, and affect. The genre's emphasis on these aspects provides an occasion to analyze how technology thoroughly permeates spheres that are thought to represent the hallmarks of humanist hallucinations of humanity. I outline the extensive and intensive interdependence of contemporary (black) popular music and mobile technologies in order to ascertain how these sonic formations refract communication and embodiment and ask how this impacts ruling definitions of the technological. The first group of musical examples surveyed consists of recordings released between 1999 and 2001; the second set are recordings from years 2009-2010. Since ten years is almost an eternity in the constantly changing universes of popular music and mobile technologies, analyzing the sonic archives from two different historical moments allows me to stress the general co-dependence of mobiles and music without silencing the breaks that separate these "epochs." Finally, I gloss a visual example that stages overlooked dimensions of mobile technologies so as to amplify the rhythmic flow between the scopic and the sonic. The artifacts in question boost the singular corporeal sensations of informational technologies without resorting to a naturalization of these machines. In other words, black musical formations relish the synthetic artificiality of cell phones and other mobile gadgets as much as making these a vital component of the performed body. They achieve this by transforming the sounds of mobile telephones into rhythmic patterns vital to their musical texts, which make audible how humans and mobile machines form a relational continuum.

I frequently return to Samuel R. Delany's constructive differentiation between "the white boxes of computer technology" and "the black boxes of modern street technology," because it highlights the racialized core of the very definition of technology (cited in Dery 1994, 192). Although things have changed somewhat--Delany made this statement in 1994--due to the proliferation of mobile devices (laptops, netbooks, smart phones, portable music players with web capabilities, tablet computers, etc.), and the move away from "white boxes" as the de facto model for personal computing, Delany's pithy distinction still holds, both in its general implications and in the racialized provenances of this split. As recent studies have shown, most youth of color in the United States log on the internet from mobile devices or public personal computer terminals, and thus still only have access to the "the black boxes of modern street technology" (Schiffer 1991; Black Digerati 2009; Contreras 2009; Lang 2009; Watkins 2009; Wortham 2009; Brustein 2010). Moreover, black and Latino youth have been early adopters of "street technologies," especially portable music players such as the boom box and Walkman. The culture of using boom boxes and other portable music devices to occupy public space continues today in "sod-casting": "the public playing of trebly MP3s off mobile phones on British public transport--mostly buses, mostly in London, mostly by teenagers, often non-white teenagers..." (Hancox 2009; Marshall 2009). Generally, the pioneering use of mobile "black boxes" such as pagers and boom boxes in non-mainstream cultures does not figure into the histories cellular telephones, MP3 players, or current internet-enabled mobile devices, showing how the inclusion in or exclusion of particular machines determines how technology is defined (Araujo n. …

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