Tag Archives: dissertation

building research

A multimodal musical analysis: visualizing diaspora

Since I work in the CDLR, I get to raise all kinds of wild questions that don’t fall into the purview of traditional, disciplinary bound scholarship. To prepare for my presentation at the Pop Conference (instituted by Experience Music Project in Seattle), this year combined with IASPM-US (International Association for the Study of Popular Music), I became preoccupied with the question: “How do I visualize a music analysis about space and place?”

My paper extends my dissertation work on The Kominas, a South Asian American punk band tied to the alternative Muslim subculture self-labeled as Taqwacore. In this paper, I chose to focus on the band’s music. Through a couple of song readings, I investigate the form and content of diasporic spaces as articulated by the band’s music. I argue that this unique geo-musical formation discursively moves seamlessly between a conventional notion of diaspora—migration of people away from an ancestral homeland—and a minority-centered, multi-diasporic space. Through a recent engagement with multimodal scholarship, I challenged myself to think beyond writing, a mode that conventionally represents academic work. I already use the concepts such as cartography and mapping as metaphors. Why should I limit the expression of my ideas to text only? Why not create a map of my music analysis especially since it’s about space and place?

Visualizing a musical analysis is nothing new. Music theorists have used music notations to represent sonic patterns key in their interpretation. More recently, theorists and information scientists used computational means to process sonic materials for patterns. Visualization became a way to explore patterns, bringing sounds into a (visual) domain that were previously inaccessible with the human senses.

My paper, however, does not engage with the use of the computational technologies to process sonic materials. It does something rather old-school. It simply draws several points on a map and then links them. It does not overlay demographic or musical data. It displays a couple of different geographical formations that illustrate the changing contour of a musical diaspora, a geographical space comprised of lyrical, sonic, and choreographic references. [I deployed Josh Kun’s concept of “audiotopia” to argue for the social and cultural effects of this geo-musical space.]

I began with a hand-drawn map. I used the Penultimate app on my iPad.

I quickly realized that my hand drawn diagram is not only messy but almost illegible. Through searching and playing, I settled with the web-based mapping program Scribble Maps to map this unique diasporic spaces. Using features such as vector graphics, media imports, and baselayer settings, I created a couple of maps that best approximate the geo-musical entities for which I argue in my analysis.

This map articulates The Kominas’ worldview. I positioned South Asia in a visually central spot, with the cultural region of Punjab and the city of Lahore highlighted. The song “Par Desi” articulates this geographical formation:

The song’s title explicitly figures the South Asian diaspora. Vocally and lyrically, the song evokes an ethnic and geographical quandary. The singer and bassist Basim’s voice shivers as he sings the chorus line, ‘In Lahore it’s raining water, in Boston it rains boots.’ The subject in the song defines his physical home in Boston, where he experienced an assault by skinhead punks. He sings, ‘They tried to stomp me out, but they only fueled the flame.’ The song narrates a history of migration and the emotions of displacement. It raises the questions, ‘Where do I point to blame, when men scatter like moths? /…  how’d I get here, from a land with long monsoons?’

The song’s references to traditional bhangra, a dance music genre that originated in Punjab, further complicates this geo-musical formation. In my analysis, I argue that the band projects a transnational bhangra-punk sound:

An 8-second analog sample of live bhangra percussion comes into the musical present. Immediately, this sample transports me, the listener, away from the emotional space of the lament. Continuing the triplet pattern of the bhangra sample, the band transforms the bhangra rhythm into a collective punk-style chanting of ‘la-la-la’ in the final section of the song. This chant rejoices in the form of a Clash-like punk choir, roughly in unison with a distorted guitar.

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This bhangra-punk aesthetic is projected from a South-Asian- or desi-identified ethnic space: imagined somewhere between Punjab, 1970s punk England, and present-day home in the northeastern United States. The Kominas, I contend, elides its physical home in Boston and the U.S.; at the same time, the band self-consciously embeds itself into historical punk England to reclaim a new musical home.

I discovered a different but related diasporic configuration in “Tunnnnnn.” This song articulates a minoritarian, multi-diasporic space.

The Kominas alludes to the original roots reggae version of the song (“Armagideon Time” Jamaican artist by Willi Williams). In doing so, the band resituates their version of the song into a Rastafari time-space. The Kominas locates its own battleground, while borrowing from the Rastafari visions of Armageddon.

I hear The Kominas calling for its own ‘Armagideon,’ in the new lyrics written in Punjabi. According to Basim’s translation, the first verse states: ‘We will only drink that / That they are drinking in Iraq / We will only drink that / that they would drink in Karballah (sic).’ It is not a coincidence that both Iraq and Karbala are iconic battle sites both in the past and present. The War in Iraq after the events on September 11 has been a topical preoccupation by The Kominas since its first album (entitled Wild Nights in Guantanamo Bay). The band has made clear its stance of castigating the western world, in particular the United States, for waging a war motivated by Islamophobia, militarism, and imperialism. Following the Punjabi lyrics, Basim evokes the overthrow of 21st century Babylonians. In English, he sings the lines, ‘A lot of people won’t get justice tonight / A lot of people wont’ get no supper tonight / Just remember to / Kick it over / And praise Jehovah / And kick it out.’

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The Kominas’ musical alliance with roots reggae, the music of those in Jamaica as well as the Jamaican immigrants, rewrites the history of the racial dynamics in 1960s and 1970s England. Challenging the history of “paki-bashing” in England, The Kominas’ music prominently figures the South Asian subjectivity. This musical geography has discursively reorganized the racial relations between blackness, whiteness, and Asianness. It also forges a musical alliance between a South Asian American band and the Afro-Caribbeans in Jamaica and the U.K..

In its overlays, these maps bring into relief various sites of geopolitics related to postcolonial struggles. This spatial articulation, I contend, is a minority-centered project of reterritorialization. It points away from the band’s physical home in the United States to re-focus on geographical sites symbolic of resistance. Its identification with loci of anti-white-supremacy and anti-imperialism, I argue, is a response to the post-9/11 social alienation and melancholia. Through the creative adaptations of Punjabi musical roots and transnational routes via the U.K., Jamaica, and Lahore, the band has built a psycho-social home in its music.

Coda: These two maps are extensions of my work at UVa’s Scholars’ Lab where I made a series of Myspace friendship distribution maps of a handful of bands (including The Kominas) featured in my dissertation. I’m happy that I’m in the position to use experimental and digital methods to further my explorations of the relationship between pop music and postcolonial geography. This cluster of ideas and modes of inquiry truly excites me.

 

 

 

 

 

pop culture & media research

A Digital Experiment: Monitoring the Visitor Geography of Vicki Leekx

Locations of visitors to this page

Monitoring the location of the IP addresses of viewers of http://VickiLeekx.com [M.I.A.’s cyberpunk alter-ego]

Starting date: February 28, 2011, regretfully 2 months after Vicki Leekx was launched

Tool: ClusterMaps

pop culture & media research

ViCKi LEEKX, Cyberpunk, and Me – A Digital Postcolonial Critique

At a coffee shop in downtown Dover, New Hampshire, I get a tweet from The Kominas about M.I.A.’s latest mixtape Vicki Leekx. I follow hyperlink included in the tweet and land on a blog post on MTVDesi that ruthlessly critiques M.I.A.’s mixtape (this post has been removed for some reason). The author claims that Vicki Leekx is the beginning of the end of MIA’s career. Meanwhile, The Kominas carries on a short conversation with its friend @bdvz in Sydney, both expressing support for M.I.A.’s politico-musical agenda. Quickly pointing at another link, I jump to M.I.A.’s mixtape site, created exclusively for her listeners to download her mixtape. A simple website, Vickleekx.com is presented with a design scheme reminiscent of web pages of the early to mid 1990s. A mash up of low-tech-looking images includes on the right, a large spinning globe, and the left, two identical overlapping screenshots of a browser window, a large “ViCKi LEEKX” banner in a shiny visually loud golden font. After downloading and zooming on the “clip art” graphics below the banner, hacking my way through the visual scheme of the website, I discover further graphical details, for instance, the text “United States Federal Reserve System” the embalm superimposed over an image of a globe. Other textual and image iconography of the Internet, I think, represents the polemics regarding freedom of speech and global communication in the so-called Internet age [image below]. Finally I click on the giant red “DOWNLOAD” button on the bottom of the page to download the mixtape file. Now listening to M.I.A. rapping about media freedom and Sri Lankan shoutouts over thirty-something-minute continuous mashup comprised of digital blips and samples of media cliche, I continue to browse the web.

Figure xx: Screenshot of Vickileekx.com, captured on January 12, 2011.

Born Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam, M.I.A. is a British rapper of Sri Lankan descent whose claim to fame worldwide was her song “Paper Planes” on the soundtrack of blockbuster hit Slumdog Millionaire (Boyle 2008). Daughter of a Tamil political activist, M.I.A.’s music centralizes political themes, especially toward immigrant rights, and expresses an audacity to challenge governmental and corporate authorities. Around the time she released her third album Maya in spring 2010, M.I.A. began to speak up about information politics and Internet censorship. In the midst of the heated discussions about WikiLeaks, over the exposing of confidential governmental and corporate documents via the Internet, the rapper expressed a public support for WikiLeaks. Last November, M.I.A. made an announcement of her (Internet) alter ego dubbed as Vicki Leekx.

Vicki Leekx is not a direct endorsement of, but a project perhaps inspired by WikiLeaks. Similar to WikiLeaks, M.I.A.’s alter ego (and mixtape) characterizes a possibility for social changes through disseminating cultural content on the Internet. WikiLeaks has posed a threat to national security; the U.S., China, Iceland, and Australia have filed lawsuits against the website. It has challenged the internatinoal financial infrastructures maintained by corporate power and control. Similarly, M.I.A.’s “Vicki Leekx” project targets those of media, cultural, and political power. Perhaps her penchant for conceiving of the Internet as a free space is affirmed by her recent battle with media censorship. After finding out that Youtube had pulled her controversial music video of “Born Free”, M.I.A. self-released the video by hosting the video on her website and announcing the link, along with a disparaging remark on YouTube.

More explicitly than WikiLeakx, Vicki Leekx is positioned within a postcolonialist, pro-minoritarian struggle, a political context that M.I.A. has articulated in her music and social media. The term “Vicki Leekx” is a phonetic play on “Wiki Leaks.” The phonetic substitution of a V for a W inflects with a South Asian accent within English pronunciation. In ethnicizing the English pronunciation of WikiLeaks, M.I.A. evokes the less heard colonized subject position of the desi in her project.

M.I.A.’s postcolonialist cyberpunk mission of VickiLeekx should not have come as surprise. The rapper began a music leakage project by hosting un-released tracks on one-off websites with provocative domain names, and then sharing the links on Twitter. She set off this leaking rampage by announcing yesthelittlepeoplewillneverwinbuttheycanfuckshitup.com during her North American tour in September 2010. Equally actively, M.I.A. shares news stories about politics around immigration, war crimes, and refugees from Sri Lanka on Twitter. She sometimes couples news story links with web leakage of un-released tracks. Along with a link to a news story about the asylum seekers in Australia, M.I.A. announced a newly created website called 4THEPEOPLEONTHEBOAT.com. Upon visit, the website automatically streams M.I.A.’s song “You Can Have My Money, But You Can’t Have Me”, and displays 8-bit moving graphics of a suspended spinning globe targeted by four rotating firing guns. In an earlier tweet, M.I.A. explains, “I PUT THIS OUT! I KNOW THE MEDIA GIVES CREDIT TO WHITE DUDES! that white dude playin poker gif is literal.” With this music video site, M.I.A. has crystallized a connection between her network music project and her interest in engaging a new digital cultural warfare for “the boat” people. In December 2010, she provoked her digital mission in explicit terms: “WE GROWIN UP IN MIDDLE OF A DIGITAL RUKUS! THEY CAN TRY TO FUCK US, I AINT PUTTIN ON THE STOPPERS WE GO BE HACKERS.. meds+feds+ in bed !” M.I.A. screams, in all caps, in order to advocate for a cyberpunk revolution among immigrants, refugees, and other subaltern groups that she has shown alliance for in the past (Powers 2010). M.I.A. dropped the mixtape online making the file downloadable after midnight on January 1, 2011. Ten days after she self-released her mixtape, M.I.A. tweeted a picture of children of South Asian descent (Sri Lankan?) huddling around four desktop computers. She dubbed the image as “!V!I!C!K!I!L!E!E!K!X! STREET TEAM ! 11/1/11”.

In a way, leaking a national security document is similar to immigration, a leakage of citizenry. Both instances challenge the borders of a nation-state. Both are symbolic infractions of the integrity of nation-states. Foregrounding a “leaky” logic, M.I.A. has created an immigrant frontier on the Internet via Vicki Leekx and her other music websites. In this cyberpunk space, the figure of the immigrant is spotlighted. It no longer lives in threat or on fringes of illegality. It lives in comfort, legalistically and existentially. M.I.A. is the mastermind gamer-architect behind the design of this space between fiction and reality; in it, the immigrant makes up the legitimate citizenry. More than 160,000 of her followers on Twitter, including me, happily wander within and around it.

This cyberpunk frontier is unlike the Orientliast one as characterized by Wendy Hui Kyong Chun in her contribution to edited volume AsianAmeric.Net (2003). Commenting on cyberpunk fiction and films of the 1980s to 1990s, Chun notes the racializing and engendering movements within the cyberspace. She highlights the dynamic of “high-tech Orientalism” in which an American (white) cowboy enters, through an act of penetration, into a disembodied, virtual space of erotic fantasies of the Orient. High-tech Orientalism enables the cowboy to “erase his body in orgasmic ecstasy…such sexual fantasies and conquest, for this orgasmic ecstasy constructs cyberspace…as a solipsistic space” (2003: 15). M.I.A. is not an “Imperial console cowboy” (203:18). Playfully and performatively, M.I.A. identifies herself as a post-national immigrant orphan-child while stating a cyberpunk mission to tear down the imperialist structures.

In Cybertypes, Lisa Nakamura offers a critique of the discourses that characterize, overly optimistically, the Internet as a borderless space in which users, like tourists, can easily consume the culture and image of the distant Other. In this new media terrain, Asians, especially immigrants, are digitally type-casted or “cybertyped” as “exemplary information workers” (2002: 24). “The presence of black and brown faces from other countries, notably Asian ones, encourages white workers to inhabit a virtually diverse world, one where local racial problems are shuffled aside by a global and diasporic diversity created by talented immigrants as opposed to ‘hyphenated Americans.’ This is a form of tourism, benefiting from difference in order to make the American/Western self feel well-rounded, cosmopolitan, postracial” (2002: 22-3).

Not true. Not entirely. The Internet is not one giant blob of space. In fact, there is not one single cyber space, as there are multiple cyber spaces. And there are borders and boundaries—software- and hardware-dependent—that bind and separate these cyber spaces. During my digital field research, I discovered a hard server divide when I was harvesting locale data of the Myspace friends of The Hsu-nami, a New-Jersey-based band. The “bot” (program) that I wrote “broke” in the process of web-mining. In troubleshooting, I found that Myspace is in fact, not as global as it has promised itself to be. The Myspace user networks of all countries in the world exist in a server located in U.S., with the exception of the users of Myspace China. Hosted by a server in China, Myspace China is itself own space apart from the rest of Myspace networks in “the world.”[1]

In my research, I follow Nakamura’s critical race perspective, except that I, as a cybernetic investigator, place my investigative focus on a cultural process, more reparative than hers. I concentrate on the exploration of the alternative terrains and their associated borders reconfigured by individuals of Asian descent. As described in my last post, I have worked, through a set of digital tools, to highlight both global and diasporic particularity, centralizing the perspective of in-between subjectivity of both “hyphenated Americans” and their immigrant friends. What I’m after is not a postracial, but a post-national network built by musicians of various Asian affiliations.

Like M.I.A., I’m an immigrant child who relishes in the post-national space proffered by the Internet. Less a rapper/punk-diva figure than M.I.A., I’m a cyberpunk ethnographer. Or better yet, I’m a cyberpunk cartographer working to reconfigure this space however susceptible to sexual fantasy and imperial conquest. In a way, I am working to reorient the existing fantasies and desires projected by imperial and corporate cowboys. I am taking pleasures in navigating within and mapping a world created and occupied by people like me: marked by category of “Asian,” “immigrant,” or lost somewhere in the cracks between other geographical and social boundaries.


[1] The software disconnection between China and the United States (and the rest of the world) on Myspace is maybe a product of the financial and political relationship between the countries. In order to follow up this inquiry, one could search news stories about company structure and changes of Myspace. For more detail, read David Barboza’s article “Murdoch Is Taking MySpace to China”, April 27, 2007. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/27/business/worldbusiness/27myspace.html (accessed on January 13, 2011).

research

Mapping an Asian American Indie Rock Digital Diaspora

My dissertation project investigates the musical and social life of current independent rock musicians of Asian descent. This research looks at the music, interviews, and social interactions of these musicians. How do I do this?

Prior to working with UVa’s Scholars Lab, my method of field research had been participant observation: attending concerts, doing formal and informal interviews, interacting with the musicians’ friends and fans, listening to their recorded music, organizing local performances on their tours…an immersion in these musicians’ multi-faceted musical life. As soon as I began my field research, I discovered that the notion of “the field” has changed because of the prevalent usage of digital social media among the musicians of my study. The Internet, is no longer just a means of communication between me and my informants. Digital social media make up an important site of social interactions and creative expressions. Not only that, it is the key to social networking and community building for these musicians. Thus the “field” of my investigation came to include the digital social terrain that I navigate within the scope of dissertation research.

This post focuses on the map of one of the bands that I study: The Kominas. The Kominas is a South Asian American punk band that spawned in Boston, now based in Philadelphia. Recombining sounds from the Boston ska-and-crust-punk scene with 1970s Bollywood movies and Bhangra music from their parents’ dusty tape collection, The Kominas evokes a radically transnational sonic landscape. [Example “Par Desi”] Since 2006, the band has been vigorously creating a translocal social terrain via face-to-face interactions through touring and online social networking. The Kominas’ do-it-yourself network is comprised of Muslim-, South-Asian-identified, and other taqwacore-inspired musicians, listeners, artists, filmmakers, and bloggers.

In this post, I ask:  What does The Kominas’ “digital diaspora” look like geographically and spatially? First, I will describe the digital methods I used to map this community.

Digital Methods – Web-scraping and Visualization

To create such a map, I designed and executed out a two-phase method. Phase 1 is web-scraping, the process of mining data from the Internet. This process entails first, locating a source of useful geographic data, and then harvesting this information programmatically. I was interested in two sets of data, specifically: the physical location of the band’s performance tours; and the self-reported (physical) location of the friends in an online community. The first set of data, regarding performance locations, was found on The Kominas’ official website. The information regarding friend locations was found in its most complete form on the social networking site Myspace.

To extract and process these data sets, with the help of Joe Gilbert, I wrote a program using Ruby to parse out the relevant information in the source code of the profile pages of The Kominas’ Myspace friends. The Kominas [as of April 2010] had close to 3,000 friends on Myspace. These are all Myspace users who have requested to become friends with The Kominas, or vice versa. Using Mechanize, a Ruby gem, the program extracted all the geographically related text from the Myspace profile pages of 2,867 friends. Using the Geokit, a ruby gem that implements the Google Geocoder, the program translated this information into a set of spatial coordinates, specifically, latitude and longitude.

Phase 2 – geospatial visualization – is the process of turning the harvested data into a meaningful visualization. Using OpenLayers, an open-source mapping program, I created a dynamic map containing all the points of the physical locations of the band’s Myspace friends and performance tours. To contextualize the reading of the physical points, I added various map layers. For example, I added a Google street map layer to label the visualization with the proper name of countries and cities. The rest of my efforts were spent to refine the map, to make it readable and meaningful.

The Kominas’ Digital Diaspora Map: GO!

To interact with the map, click on the above image. This screenshot shows the global distribution of The Kominas’ Myspace friends. The reddish pink clusters represent the friend density in the respective locales. The size of the cluster is an approximate representation of the number of friends in one location.

A baselayer of the world’s regions – marked by various shades of green in the background – helps contextualize the friend distribution across continental boundaries. At a macro level, this map articulates a radically transnational and inter-continental distribution of friends. Areas of high friend density include: North America, Europe, and Asia. The story of translocality becomes more complex as we zoom in on the map to get more geographic detail. In my dissertation, combining maps, music analysis, and interviews, I examine how the members of The Kominas position themselves geographically and ethnically vis a vis this vastly transnational world.

Questions and Concerns

These maps tell a story, a particular kind of story that situates a humanist study of a music-culture within a particular geographic context. In the context of my dissertation, these maps add a spatial texture to the understanding of the translocal social terrain of a U.S.-based musicians of Asian descent. And the visualization process helps me to analyze the musicians’ questioning of their sense of ethnic and national belonging and to situate the ethnographic details of my 24-month field research within a global context.

Here are some more general questions and concerns that I’ve encountered in creating and using these dynamic maps. To express density using a clustering pattern, I used an algorithm that balances point density and readability, so that the contrast between the smallest and the largest clusters is adjusted. In this case, a single-point cluster can be seen and the largest concentration of the friends of the northeast of the United States doesn’t dominate the entire map. This presents the question, am I interested in representing the mathematical reality of this friend community? Or is there some part of the story that I was more interested in telling? Which level of detail is most useful?

I’ve discovered that these maps do not provide any answers to my research questions. They, in fact, present an interpreted reality that generate further useful questions. A map is certainly not a dissertation chapter; but it provides a spatial and geographical context for the musical and social experiences of the musicians in my study.

How I use these maps, of course, depends on the narrative that I want to tell. At a very macro, global level, zoomed all the way out, these maps can look very similar across bands: with large clusters in the North American region, some clustering in Europe, and some but less in other regions of the world. NOT SO INTERESTING…

Of interest to me, in my dissertation, are the patterns of the band’s transnational connections to musicians and fans in Asia. What is the band’s friend distribution in Asia? Is it useful to compare the Asia-based friend distribution across band? I have shown two screenshots of two bands’ friend distribution in Asia. On the top is The Kominas. On the bottom is Kite Operations, a New-York-based noise rock band.

This comparison presents interesting results: These two maps show that The Kominas, a South Asian American punk band has created a social geography much more concentrated in South and Southeast Asia; whereas Kite Operations, with 3/4 of the members being of Korean descent, has stronger friend presence in East Asia, specifically in South Korea. The difference in friend distribution shown by these images can provide a sketch for illustrating a different “Asia” as created through the cultural practice of “friending” on Myspace by American artists of Asian descent.

Combining Digital Methods with “Conventional Methods”

These digital methods seem to have an orthogonal relation to more conventional ethnographic methods. Until these new digital methods become accepted in ethnomusicology and cultural anthropology, I must find a way to integrate the new with the old. [Yes, I have thought-experimented with a set of digitally engaged ethnographic methods.] Here are some ideas for this integration:

  • Showing the map to the musician-informants: Asking them if they are surprised by the results of my study. Asking them questions about how they feel about these places in the world? Personal or musical connections to these places?
  • Toward a Geospatial Music Analysis: Many musicians that I study are pre-occupied with geography. In their lyrics, they often discuss being trapped or living in a limbo between two worlds. They talk about their feelings regarding certain meaningful place and space in their music. It’d be potentially fruitful to juxtapose the musical and social geographies of a single band.
  • Mapping genre/sonic differences: Here I suggest the possibility of incorporating sonic qualities such as tempo, timbre, volume, studio effects, and language/dialect into geospatial information technology and system. Such a tool would be immensely powerful for the study of the world’s music-cultures at the local and global level. For example, the World Musical Map project by Ozan Aksoy based at the New Media Lab at the Graduate Center of CUNY explores the rupture between audio boundaries and actual national borders. Another example is Lee Byron’s visualization of the listening history on Last.FM.

Here’s my attempt to start a digital (ethno)musicology. Are there any other takers?

The Kominas’ Digital Diaspora Map: It’s Your Turn. GO!

Tips:

  • Double-click to zoom in on the map
  • Upper-left: turn on/off various layers: Google Street/Satellite; world’s regions; Muslim-majority countries; clusters (friend density); friends (individual points); gigs.
  • Scroll on the map by clicking + holding + moving the cursor
research teaching

Passing or Covering? Social Transcendence through Music

Today in my seminar Music in Asian America, a student presented a chapter from Deborah Wong’s book Speak It Louder. The issue of passing impressed deeply upon my students. This question refers to the practical invisibility, historical and current, of Asian American artists within the music industry.

The student presenter asked her peers: Is it enough (for a formerly silenced ethnic minority) to “simply be there” in the music industry? Or should the artists address aspects of race and ethnicity in their musical output and image?

One student argued for the latter. She commented on the importance of contextualizing music with social meaning, ensuring that the right ethical messages are heard in the reception of music. Another student discussed the potential political work done by sheer visibility. She used the example of Obama: The iconicity of a minority president could empower minority individuals, especially among children.

In the chapter, Wong considers the Mountain Brothers’ (Philadelphia hip-hop group circa 1990s) methodical veiling of their names, pictures, and other indications of their Asian American ethnicity as a form of passing. The MB won a Coca-Cola-sponsored contest while concealing their ethnicity. She writes, “The Mountain Brothers passed that ultimate test, but they ‘passed’ (in at least two ways) because they knew the rules of hip-hop authenticity and were savvy enough to abide by them — on their own terms” (252).

So the MB passed and excelled within the musical standards of hip-hop. But what does this mean in terms of race and ethnicity? The word “passing” implies a hard line between betraying the minoritarian cause (of collective freedom) vs. assimilating to the majority. I think there’s a middle space between the two. Wong points out this space in her analysis, asserting that this passing is far from selling out. She gives the MB credit for creating a social space for themselves in the industry. “This social space is racialized in particular ways: as Chris Wang [of the MB] said, it’s Asian American because they are. Yet of course it is, and isn’t, that simple. This aural space is defined by Asian American voices making musical sounds that they are careful to claim as their own, through performance” (253).

Maybe because of Jim Crow segregation, “passing” is associated with upward social mobility. It implies a transcendence beyond a race-defined minority status into a majority status. I’m not interested in accessing whether the MB’s passing as a legitimate hip-hop act has earned for themselves an honorary membership within the culturally black community, in spite of their outside status.

What seems more useful in this example is perhaps the notion of musical passing – a form of aural expression that allows the sound-maker to be heard without being seen. Music allows the possibility of a colorblind reception: anyone can sound like anybody. Sound is not naturally bound to any race-related embodiment of phenotype, although artists make choices, deliberately or not, based on what they perceive as meaningful. While sound may be meaning-ful, it mediates meanings. This (moment of) semantic opacity is worthy of reflection.

I want to think deeply about this quality of opacity or mediation, allowing it develop into a theoretical apparatus that may help me articulate something that I’ve had a hard time conveying since the onset of my dissertation project: a (imagined) state of race-free liminality, or liberation, as described by many musicians that I’ve met in my field research. They often speak of their discomfort with the term “Asian American” as a designation for their music and/or ethnicity. In writing, I have interpreted it as a gesture of refusal to pigeonhole oneself. But I think there’s more to it than that.

A race-free sonority can be utopic for racial minorities. For minority artists, the cage built by racial meanings is still looming. This cage imprisons individuals of color in the reception of their image. To utilize this race-free sonority is to sell out. It is a worry-free presence in comfort. Perhaps this liminality suggests a moment of agency in face of a world where conversations about race mostly exist as a subtext – where people skirt around the topic of race, where people only talk about race in accusatory or threatening moments of outburst.

So, how progressive is this sonic race-free liminality? Is it liberatory for only the artists? How does this liberatory state translate itself in sonic reception? Is it merely a momentary state of self-indulgence considering the age-old fight for equality? Does an audio-scape create social change? I can’t answer these questions right now. But I think I will spend a long time trying to answer this question.

Rather than passing, maybe a more useful term is “covering,” as suggested by Kenji Yoshino, a law professor at Yale. In the preface of his book Covering, Yoshino writes “Everyone covers. To cover is to tone down a disfavored identity to fit into the mainstream.” Individuals cover their stigmatized traits in their daily life. “Covering is a hidden assault on our civil rights.”

The notion of passing seems insufficient in capturing the complexity of how my informing musician-colleagues relate to the world. Maybe they cover more so than pass. If that’s the case, then playing music is an ongoing struggle with the covering and dis-covering of one’s traits, construed as different or stigmatizing in this imperfect world.

research

Rethinking the Ethics of Ethnographic Writing

I feel introspective about my dissertation today. After spending an eventful weekend with my cousin Sophia and her boyfriend Victor, a stream of dissertation-related ideas rushed into my head. Foregrounded in my consciousness is the chapter breakdown. Where do I fit these disparate ideas into the larger chapter outline? Where do the case studies related to the taqwacore phenomenon fit? In the chapter on transnational social networks or on racial melancholia? Or does the taqwacore narrative as a whole work better as a chapter of its own? The mathematical part of my brain began calculating the placement of data relative to the amount of space and information accumulated.

Quickly I became self-conscious of the puzzle-like aspects of this exercise. Is dissertation writing like a solving a puzzle? I began to second-guess the ethics of this endeavor. Ethnographic writing runs the risk of reducing people into “data” as examples or evidence to extend/challenge academic theories. It may be too late to question the social relevance of academic writing. But here’s what I’m thinking: how can I represent the experiences of the musicians involved in my study while avoiding the pitfall of objectifying them? How can I best position their stories relative to useful and socially engaged theories? What can I do to empower the musicians through academic writing?

Academic writing is a mediation of the field experience. Earlier today, a Google Alert directed me to read a review of the first album released by my improv trio Pinko Communoids. The reviewer Jack The Ripper of Heathen Harvest not only wrote incomprehensible prose. In particular, word choice such as “disgust” and “alien” came as a surprise. Pinkos’ aesthetics have never been intended to induce alienation or harshness. We sometimes even distance ourselves from the label of “noise” because of our discomfort with the aggression or violence implied in the genre. Surely, Jack The Ripper “understood” or mis-contextualized our sounds. This is tenable considering that Heathen Harvest as a site is devoted to promoting “post-industrial” music. The genre dissonance between our alleged position in “electro-acoustic improvisation” and post-industrial music could illuminate Jack The Ripper’s “misreading” of our tracks.

One lesson I gleaned today is to consider the position of the performer as discursively vulnerable. Cultural makers are often subject to critical and journalistic interpretations and misinterpretations. [Some people would even argue that a cultural performance in itself is a reinterpretation. No doubt.] The professional impulse to specialize often positions music scholars as music listeners and commentators. Many music scholars simply don’t have time to perform after setting off of the tenure clock. With that said, I have decided to continue my role as a musician (as opposed to be a music listener per se) not only to satisfy my inner desire to express my ideas and state of being. Embodying the role of the performer is a humbling process. It disciplines me to think and write with empathy.

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This entry was posted originally on August 16, 2009 on Yellowbuzz.

research

Mapping the Digital Diaspora of a Dissertation Research Blog

At the onset of my field research in summer 2007, I launched a blog – YellowBuzz.org – with the intention to: 1) archive and organize my field notes in textual and audio-visual form; 2) convey my research purpose and progress to informant musicians and the public; 3) self-position as a “participant” in the scene. Since then, I have made over 160 posts, some directly linked and others tangentially related to my research findings about the activities and media of Asian American indie rock musicians. Over the past one and a half years, my field research blog has received attention from both print and online media. Evidently, this blog has constructed a community consisting of musician- and music-enthusiast-visitors with an interest in Asian American and transpacific music-culture.

This past January, I began tracking the blog traffic by using Google Analytics. This service monitors the physical location of site visitors and their interactions with the pages on the site. The geographical data are analyzed in terms of the number of visits per unit of geographical organization such as city, country/territory, sub continent region, and continent. This information is also visualized in the form of an interactive map on which users can zoom in and out of specific locales and find site visit patterns specific to cities, countries, regions, or continents in the world.

Over the last four months, I have been playing with the May Overlay function projecting geospatial patterns of the site traffic on my blog. These interactive moments have helped me imagine interesting questions such as: What is the geography of an electronic community based on the topic of “Asian American music,” the tagline of my blog? What does the geo-spatial terrain of this “digital diaspora” look like? Are there any striking patterns at each of the organizational level namely, the city, country, sub-continental region, and continent? What spatial boundaries are transcended and created in these visualizations? Or, fancifully, how does the digital geography of my blog reconfigure the more general social geography of “Asian America” online or offline?

Today marks a 4-month anniversary of this thought experiment. I decided to take some screen shots of a few of the visualizations that I’ve found more meaningful in Google Analytics. This analysis uses data from a sample of 3,061 site visits collected from January 1 to April 30, 2009. I will highlight a few interesting findings below:

1) Here’s a map of blog visits in various U.S. cities. It appears that the visitors are concentrated in central Virginia (the home of yours truly), New York City, Boulder, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Other than central Virginia and Boulder, these are areas of high concentration of Asian Americans and indie rock activities. I’m not quite sure how to explain the traffic flow from the Denver area (Boulder and Aurora, ranked third and sixth in this map, respectively) other than to link it to the thriving indie rock scene in Boulder and the physical location of an Asian/Japanese music blogger Shay of Sparkplugged.

blog visits in U.S. cities

2) According to this chart, 76% of the site visits have occurred within the boundaries of the United States. Next on the list are Canada, United Kingdom, and Australia, all English-speaking countries with close historical ties to American music. In the continent of Asia, countries such as Taiwan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Singapore have among the highest number of visitors to my site. I attribute this pattern to my blog posts about U.S.-based artists who have a large following in these particular countries. Specifically, Hsu-nami (of New Jersey) and Johnny Hi-Fi (SF-based) has strong ties to Taiwan; Kite Operations (New-York) to South Korea; Plus/Minus (New York) to the Philippines and Taiwan.

site visits per country

3) This last chart represents the sub-continental spread of the site visits. North America takes the lead (taking 80% of all visits). Northern Europe and Eastern Asia tie as second, followed by South-Eastern Asian and Western Europe. I’m not quite sure how to explain the high number of visits from Northern Europe other than to link it to the popularity of a Taiwanese metal band Chthonic in North Europe. Chthonic has a strong international presence, having worked with producers in Denmark and the U.S. including Rob Caggiano, the guitarist of Anthrax. In 2007, Chthonic toured with the OzzFest and established close ties with Taiwanese-American-led erhu rock group Hsu-nami.

site visits per sub-continent region

So what does this all mean? YellowBuzz, a blog on “Asian American music”, has constructed a global, transnational readership. Asian America in the online digital environment exists beyond the boundaries of the United States and the Asian continent. These observations of transnational crossings work against the geography of Orientalism: a now-classical postcolonial theory referring to the representational control of the non-west by western-produced discourse. The transnational digital diaspora of YellowBuzz has tampered with the so-called east-west binary.

Now if I were serious about pursuing the research on the transnationality of Internet music journalism, I would look for a correlation between blog content and traffic patterns. This would require systematic, post-to-post observations. I would also consider mapping information regarding Internet access and user demographic with the intention to find links between the blog statistics and general Internet sociality. I would also look for statistical and mapping methods more powerful than Google Analytics.

But – to get back to my dissertation that asks: What paths do musicians and their music take as they establish routes crossing territories constructed by nation-states, corporations, international laws, etc? Unfortunately, these visualizations lack the analytical strength to provide an insight on the musicians’ perspective on the scene. They have offered a perspective on media, in particular in understanding the role of a music blog in constructing “Asian America.”

In the coming months, I will be working on a digital humanities project with Joe Gilbert at UVa’s Scholars’ Lab pursuing questions related to the musicians’ side of the story. I hope to unravel the terrain of musicians’ sociality within the transnational scene of indie rock music by mapping out their tours, social networks on (SNS), and record distribution. Meanwhile, I’m experiencing a bout of euphoria loving the fact that I have reclaimed a free market analytical tool offered by Google for my academic(-y) ethnomusicological thought experiment.

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This post was originally posted on May 4, 2009 on the UVa Scholars’ Lab Blog and my field research blog Yellowbuzz.

research

“Digital Credibility” in Field Research

I’m an ethnographer/blogger.

My dissertation research investigates the social and musical lives of American rock musicians of Asian descent. On the one hand, I follow the conventional methods of participant observation as I travel to ‘field sites’ such as nightclubs, bars, and coffee shops to witness live performances and hang out with musicians. On the other hand, I participate in the indie music scene by blogging (on yellowbuzz.org) about my field research experiences. My online participation, however disembodied and virtual, is significant due to the centrality of user-produced or independent media in the indie rock music scenes. For the most part, these research methods take on two distinct lives. Sometimes they intersect and yield interesting results.

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Ethnographic work on performing arts can sometimes be logistically challenging in our intensely mediated worlds. Typically I carry a number of recording devices including a digital SLR camera, a mini-DV recorder, a handheld digital audio recorder, a laptop computer, and a notebook. This list can be extended or shortened depending on the nature of activities (interviews vs. live performances). Sometimes it is contingent upon whether I expect to make music during my visits.

Early this fall, I took a series of field research trips to New York City. On one of these trips, I doubled (well, actually tripled) my identity: field researcher, musician, and scholar. I was invited to perform and speak with students at Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts. I took the chance to double-dip this visit by scheduling some interviews and making plans to attend shows in New York. So I had a four-bag system: a backpack (my laptop, notebook, show flyers, The Village Voice, other paper products), a carry-on suitcase (audio-visual recording devices and clothes), an electric guitar case, and a guitar pedalboard (assorted guitar effect pedals).

After the mini-residency at Wheaton College, I took the Amtrak to New York City. Long story short, my case of guitar effect pedals (worth $1500!) got stolen on the train a few stops north of New York Penn Station. I frantically filed a report with the Amtrak Police. No recovery prevailed. Bummed out as I was, I dragged myself to a midtown bar for an interview with Johnnie Wang of the band A Black China. After I told Johnnie about my misfortunes, he offered to buy me a beer. That was the beginning of our friendship. We bonded over being musicians first, then being Americans of Taiwanese/Asian heritage.

My meeting with Johnnie invigorated me and reminded me of the purpose of my dissertation research. I went to a show the following night in New Jersey and had an interview meeting with Joe Kim of Kite Operations right before my flight back to Charlottesville, with one bag short.

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It took me a while to figure out the educational values and perhaps the theoretical fruitfulness of this experience. This experience can be seen in light of a few issues: methodological approaches to technology, empathy (and relationship) with informants, and researcher’s ‘field identity.’  So, does technology enhance or hinder field research? Frankly, I didn’t end up using most of my recording devices on this trip. During interviews and other exchanges, my informants and I chatted away while I took mental notes. My field-note-taking took place only after the meetings ended.

But oddly, (the loss of) technology brought me closer to my informants. The story of losing my guitar gear generated a sense of empathy from my informants. I share with them an intimate engagement with music-making technology. They too often travel with gear for both music-making and recording purposes and some have encountered experiences, personally or vicariously, with gear problems. In many ways, it’s not strange at all that I carry so much gear with me. The physical and social attachment to technology is a central part of being and moving around in this media-blasted world. In this case, technological gear adorns me as a tech-media savvy researcher and blogger. This kind of ‘digital credibility’ has helped me earn not only access to, but also empathy and respect from my field informants.

Excess technological devices can weigh down users. But this is not only an academic concern specific to field research methods, as it is a more pervasive issue in the digital age. My responsibility is to figure out the best logistical and theoretical approaches to both online and offline interactions in my field research. I’m still working on it.

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This entry was originally posted on January 5, 2009 on Yellowbuzz and the UVa Scholars’ Lab blog.

research

Who’s on tour: the have’s or the have-not’s?

There is a theoretical caveat that I can take with my project on touring musicians. As media technology develops in late-capitalist society, some theorists argue that the experiences of everyday life become more mediated. This assessment seems too simplistic to me. Besides the increasing access to mediated cultural material, the circulation of music recordings via the Internet, for instance, what comes with technological development is people’s mobility across geographical boundaries.

The politics implicated in mobility, however, should be qualified here a bit. Some movement patterns are induced by labor migration. Working-class migrant workers belong to this category where movement is voluntary only to an extent and is mostly based on economic necessities. On the other end of the power spectrum are people who move or travel out of leisure, i.e. tourists. In other words, motivation of movement or the social requisites for mobility are tied to the socioeconomic positions of the individuals.

Where do musicians fit in? Are musicians migrant (presumably working-class) workers, or are they more or less music-making tourists? According to my observations so far, many indie touring musicians fall somewhere in between. As the structure of the music industry becomes more conglomerated, there are fewer musicians out there signed to major labels. Thus fewer and fewer musicians have the funds provided by their labels to tour. In this sense, touring is no longer a means to sell records, the profit-driven end from the perspective of the record companies. Then what does touring mean to musicians who tour and subsist out of their own pockets, oftentimes the savings from a day job? Sometimes if you get lucky, and if you’re popular enough, you barely break even from ticket and merchandise sales.

To musicians working at this level of the (amorphous) music industry, touring often means a personal aspiration, whether this serves the end of fulfilling the “rock star dream” or “getting my music heard by real people”, or making social network for fans and other musicians. I think, what compels musicians to get out there is precisely the personal, oftentimes intimate (especially if you’re really indie and low-budget) connections established in the live music setting.

I’m personally guilty of some of these motivations. And our Pinko Communoids tour of Taiwan this past summer was certainly not funded by a record label (our CDR was released by our own “label”). Our very costly trans-Pacific tour to East Asia was funded by student loans (another perk of being in grad school) and university funds, combined with the gracious financial assistance from our friends and families. [If you’re curious, here’s a list of people who made our trip possible, some of whom offered financial support while others emotional support.]

So – back to the beginning, music as heard in the postmodern, late-capitalist, Internet-mediated age is not just highly mediated and impersonal. Music can only be experienced in intimate, live music performances by indie-level musicians on tour. Sure, this dream is not lived out by everyone musician of all social positions. Not everyone can afford a tour around the world (living expenses) and being off from work.

The issue of class is looming though other forms of inequalities can intersect with socioeconomic positioning. Not everyone can feel safe on the road – as there are still lots of social spaces that are quite dangerous to gender (yes, this includes women, still!!), sexual and ethnic minorities. Trust me.
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This entry was originally posted on October 4, 2007 on Yellowbuzz.

research

Afterthought on “Are You Japanese?”

Here’s a little bit of afterthought on the “Japanese” ethnic capital in experimental or improvised music scene in the US. [Caution – this entry is slightly inflammatory.]

There’s a distinction between being racialized as Asian/Japanese and being understood as being from Japan as a place from where many renowned improv or experimental musicians are from. (Some of these figures include Merzbow, Yoshimaru Nakamura, Otomo Oshihide, and those associated with John Zorn and his label. Here’s a compiled list of some of these individuals.)

I should decompress this statement a bit. Being racialized implies an alignment with the historically Western Orientalist gaze on all people of non-Western features or otherwise known as “Eastern” or “Asian” affiliation. This perspective enables the lumping of all people of Asian descent into one large despite the ethnic, national, and class differences or sometimes conflicts among them. In the US, this perspective has much to do with the stereotype of “perpetual foreigner”, a cultural trope familiar to many of us living here. How many times have I been asked, “oh, where are you from?” If I said, “Virginia,” there would be another question that follows invariably, “but, no, which country are you REALLY from?”

In a slightly different way, being associated with the past and present internationally renowned Japanese musicians is not necessarily a racializing act. To some people, this could be a favorable or “positive” stereotype, although I do wonder how much mileage one gets from being associated with the particular line of Japanese artists. The issue of representation is a big deal in this day and age as movements toward equality seem to be motivated by multicuturalism. This doesn’t shun the possibility of tokenistic representation. After the implementation of Affirmative Action, the identity of Asian Americans conveniently slips in and out of the definition of “minority” depending on the context of representation. Asian Americans sometimes add a nice third color to the fortuitous representation of All-American racial harmony; other times, Asian Americans are called out for being “over-represented” (mostly because the Asian American presence simply overwhelms or even threatens the historically defaulted social dominance of Whiteness)

In real life, this distinction – between being racialized and being aligned with the renowned Japanese musicians – may be collapsed. On the part of the non-Asian observers, it doesn’t matter if the Asians or Asian Americans of ethnicities other than Japanese are grouped or lumped together. It’s not like the non-Asians can lose their social status by mistaking the national or ethnic association of a single individual, although there is the risk of breaching the implicit rules of social interactions and diplomacy, or just experiencing personal embarrassment.

On the other end, Asian/Asian American musicians can navigate the fine line between the two. There are a number of different approaches or strategies to this. Personally, I have a few different tricks in my bag depending on the situation. I sometimes handle the situation with a playful response. Other times, I put on my teacher’s hat that I patiently break down the historical, social, and cultural relationship between Japan and Taiwan. Well, occasionally I just ignore the questions. Most of time, I manage to make interesting small talks out of these inquiries about my “being from Japan” without breaching the rules of social interactions. However, I would rather talk about music, aesthetics, gear, etc, than my ethnicity. Maybe this particular experience can become a common ground for Asian/Asian Americans residing/working in the non-Asian world, despite our distinctive relationship to Japan and Japanese artists.

I would be interested in finding out how others manage this kind of encounter. Please get in touch with me [wendy.f.hsu@gmail.com] if you think you can contribute anecdotes or ideas to my rant/musing about ethnic (mis-)identification by strangers.

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This entry was original on September 17, 2007 on Yellowbuzz.