Revisited: Alexander Weheliye

20 Jul, 2015

Revisited: Alexander Weheliye

The final talk of the History and Theory of New Media lecture series took place on April 2 and marked a special culmination of a wide-ranging and thought-provoking year of guest speaker events: Dr. Alexander G. Weheliye, a professor of African American Studies at Northwestern University, delivered a talk called "System Addict: Technologies of Humanity in Contemporary R&B Music."

Professor Abigail De Kosnik introduced Dr. Weheliye noting that in addition to his award-winning publications' "Phonographies: Grooves in Sonic Afro-Modernity" (Duke UP, 2005) and "Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human" (Duke UP, 2014)––he has been both a mentor and role model for her. As a doctoral student at Northwestern, Dr. De Kosnik studied under Dr. Weheliye, who also served on her dissertation committee. In many ways there were resonances between the depth and insights of Dr. Weheliye’s lecture and Dr. De Kosnik’s detailed and wide-ranging knowledge of popular cultures, performance studies, and new media. It was an inspiring event that not only shed light on neglected and rich intersections, such as R&B music, performances of labor, and mobile technology, but also revealed how generations of scholars engage in comprehensive studies that reveal political and theoretical dimensions of their topics, while contributing to shifts in frameworks for disciplinary and interdisciplinary scholarship.

As an apt start for a lecture about technologies of communication, Dr. Weheliye began by showing a slide that contained a number of tweets by Solange Knowles in 2013 decrying the disregard of R&B music by critics and fans. In particular Knowles cites the lack of knowledge of R&B's history and foundations: "Some of these music blogs could actually benefit from hiring people who REALLY understand the culture of R&B to write about R&B." For Dr. Weheliye the lack of critical discourse about R&B music is a shortcoming, as he has noticed that there are hardly any studies devoted to this genre, and finds that Hip Hop Studies fails to provide a necessary interrogation of how fundamentally dependent, commercially and aesthetically, Hip Hop today is on R&B: "Basically Hip Hop is a revision of R&B."

The lecture then outlined topics frequently explored in R&B music––love stories, interpersonal relationships, domesticity, vulnerability, femininity and queerness, and aspirationalism/upward mobility, posing the question “Why are these factors thought to not represent Black culture? How can an artist like Otis Redding represent Black culture, but someone like Luther Vandross does not?” Although the talk moved at a fast clip with some slides passed too quickly to absorb (at one point a slide with theories of Sylvia Wynter was passed and Dr. Weheliye advised that we all read Dr. Wynter’s work daily), the lecture included material by a spectrum of artists from The Temptations, Gladys Knight and the Pips, and 5 Star (the title of the lecture came from a 5 Star song and video dating back to the 1980s entitled “System Addict), to Jennifer Holliday, Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin, and New Edition, to T-Pain, Aaron Soul, Trey Songz, Young Thug, and ILoveMakonnen. Dr. Weheliye noted the “symbiotic” relationship (“if you want to put it nicely”) between R&B artists and Reality TV: television shows have fostered careers for singers by letting them “perform their personalities,” as well as how voices and sounds are racially coded. Dr. Weheliye presented a chart of 2 columns: “Writing/Speaking” is equated with literacy, value, dominance, masculinity and whiteness; “Singing voice” is associated with embodiment, nature, authenticity, femininity, and Black culture. If the Black singing voice has not hidden the work or labor of singing, this labor has also marked it as valuable.

With the rise of technologies like Auto-Tune listeners hear the technical prowess of singers without the graininess, and ultimately, with artists like Mariah Carey, Christina Aguilera, and almost every contestant on American Idol, the sounds of Black music are no longer particular to Black bodies. The economy of Auto-Tune also enables artists to simulate sounds of great voices, like Faith Evans’s, without the cost of hiring the actual artist. But there are other forms of technology, namely communications media, that appear not only in recent songs, but also in music such as Franklin's "Call Me" (1971), and New Edition's "Mr. Telephone Man" (1984). The lecture ended with examples of other convergences between Black popular music and digital technologies (Beats by Dr. Dre, the "I am a T-Pain" app, Jay-Z and Samsung, to name a few).

Dr. Weheliye's research introduces questions about where, how, and why mobile technologies appear in R&B music, and how these appearances emphasize textural/affective/haptic relationships with technology. These are questions that have not been theorized yet raise important insights into the "performance" of human labor that is not recognized as labor, plus the "performance" of technological labor. The lecture demonstrated the limitations of our current definitions of the technological as well as the still fraught relationship between Black culture and technology.

Ultimately, in his next book, Dr. Weheliye expands this work into an embodied and relational theory of mobile technologies. Entitled Feenin: R&B’s Technologies of Humanity, it offers a critical history of the intimate relationship between R&B music and technology since the late 1970s.