Thursday, April 11 • 2:00pm - 3:30pm
The Sounds of the City in “Death” and “Rebirth”

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  • Alex Blue V – “Detroit, I Don’t Mind Dying: Musical Narratives of Death in a Supposedly ‘Dead’ City”
Detroit, Michigan has been laid before us like a cadaver, executed by the twin barrels of outsourcing and white flight, ready for autopsy (LeDuff 2013), and now ripe for reanimation, renaissance. This is the oft-repeated saga of contemporary Detroit - a fetishized collage of abandoned buildings, empty lots, extinguished dreams, and inevitable death. But as Detroit’s music has often shown, and artists in the hip-hop scene continue to show, the report of this death is an exaggeration. But as corporate interests and gentrifiers attempt to flip properties out from underneath the city’s long-time residents, artists and fans defiantly flip these coroner’s reports, creating and performing songs that embrace their apparent death.
In this presentation, I draw from my ethnographic fieldwork experiences, interviews, recorded music, and music videos to illuminate a resilient Detroit identity that is formed through a cultural intimacy (Herzfeld 1996) with death. My research reveals the use of hip-hop as a tool for the crafting of identity, as a medium for alternative forms of community organization, and as an emergent counter-archive and counter-narrative in Detroit. Hip-Hop has often been framed as a 'voice of the streets' that speaks directly to, and from, the Black experience; it is treated as an inevitability, given the assumed dire conditions of Black urban life. In contrast to this, I illuminate hip-hop in Detroit as agential and active rather than pathological, or necessary for survival. Detroit artists don’t necessarily create music about death because they have to, nor do they only create music about death. Rather, they have been given unsolicited news of their death, and have chosen to turn this into a powerful site for the creation of identity and community. The deliberate use of death in musical narratives within the Detroit hip-hop scene shows the stubbornness, audacity, and creativity of the living.
  • Allie Martin – "Go-Go is (Not) Dead, Long Live Go-Go: Narratives of Death in Washington, DC's Local Music Scene”
In 2017, Complex magazine posted the following tweet about go-go music, DC’s local genre of funk that has been around since the early 1970s: “How DC killed go-go: and why Goldlink created its memorial.”  The tweet, linked to an interview with rising hip-hop artist Goldlink, received a wave of criticism from the local DC community for a number of reasons: Goldlink is technically from northern Virginia, not DC proper.  Also, if anybody killed go-go, it wasn’t local DC (often used to distinguish from federal Washington).  Finally, and the reason I focus on in this paper—go-go is not dead, and to describe it as such is indeed an act of violence.  In this paper, I unpack the narrative of death surrounding go-go music in the wake of DC’s rapid gentrification, considering both those who believe it dead and those who work every day to keep it alive.  I argue that narratives of black death, including that of go-go music, often anticipate an ending that has not occurred, in turn acting as a mode of silencing.  Proclaiming go-go to be dead silences those who still live for the genre, and sensationalizes gentrification in the city, a process whose violence needs no embellishment.  Drawing on interviews with members of the go-go community, participant observation, and histories of the scene, I consider the ways that go-go music has shifted, morphed, and moved.  The genre is not dead, and lives on in internet communities, institutionalization, and in daily performance.  This paper, part of a larger ethnographic project focused on listening to gentrification in the nation’s capital, seeks to counteract premature memorialization with amplification of the sounds of everyday black life.  
  • Jeffrey Melnick – "Halls of Justice: Reckoning with Terry Melcher"
    Terry Melcher is likely best known in the popular consciousness as the only son of Doris Day and the guy the Manson Family did not kill. According to the most accounts, Manson believed Melcher  was going to be his route to music business success.  When Manson sent his minions to wreak havoc on Cielo Drive it is because he knew the address because of his connections with its previous inhabitant: Terry Melcher.  Melcher never quite recovered from his brush with the Manson Family. He testified at the 1970 trial and more or less retreated during the early years of the decade. But he reemerged in 1974 with his self-titled debut album: here he finally processes his brush with Manson in a set of originals and covers songs that narrate life in Los Angeles as catastrophe.
In my recent book on the Manson Family I try to situate Melcher and Manson as emblems of the dysfunctional relationship that had developed between powerful agents of the emerging hip Los Angeles music business on the one hand, the more marginal edges of the counterculture on the other. Here I want to give Melcher's 1974 record more attention that I was able to in the book.
    Terry Melcher is at once an expression of Los Angeles mainstream celebrity culture and a withering indictment of it. While formally conventional, vocally and thematically the record reads as unrelenting misery.  The record  tells tales of a complex moment in the cultural history of Los Angeles,  when the promises made by the new social and political collectives of the 1960s were disintegrating in the wake of Richard Nixon's election.  Terry Melcher is a serious, self-lacerating piece of popular art which attempts to evaluate the social changes in Los Angeles represented by the Manson Family. Terry Melcher is a complete downer: I feel confident that I will make conference-goers really want to hear this record if they haven't already and listen in a new way if they have.


RJ Smith

BioRJ Smith is the author of biographies of photographer-filmmaker Robert Frank (American Witness: Da Capo Press, 2017) and James Brown (The One: Gotham Books, 2012). His The Great Black Way: LA in the 1940s and the Lost African American Renaissance (Public Affairs, 2006) won a California... Read More →


Alex Blue V

BioAlex Blue V is a doctoral candidate in ethnomusicology at University of California - Santa Barbara, and a predoctoral fellow on the Music faculty at Ithaca College. Though hip-hop is his primary focus, his research interests include various intersections of music, race, sound... Read More →

Allie Martin

BioAllie Martin is a PhD Candidate at Indiana University in the Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology Department. She is currently a Smithsonian Pre-Doctoral Fellow conducting dissertation fieldwork in Washington, DC. Her research explores the intersections of gentrification... Read More →

Jeffrey Melnick

BioJeff Melnick teaches American Studies at UMass Boston.  Earlier in his career Melnick was a member of the editorial collective that produced Journal of Popular Music Studies for five years.  Melnick has published widely in American cultural history, beginning with A Right to... Read More →

Thursday April 11, 2019 2:00pm - 3:30pm
Learning Labs

Attendees (5)

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