Notes on Neighborhood

Although my research/interests often turn to (trans)nationalism, lately I’ve been thinking less about nationhood and more about neighborhood — not in terms of an actual space or place (though that’s part of it), but something more akin to neighborliness, to being a good neighbor, to finding an ethics of neighborhood in an intensively globalized/mediated era. I’m curious about a musically-mediated aesthetics more specifically — one that responds not to the condition of living in a world of strangers, as Anthony Appiah might put it, but a world of neighbors. This is a concept that I hope will be useful in coming to terms with what I’ve variously, loosely, referred to as nu-whirl music and global ghettotech.

I have to admit that I’ve yet to catch up with the philosophical (or anthropological, sociological, etc.) literature on “the neighbor.” I was enthused to see that Ian Biddle’s recent piece on “musical neighbors” offers some musicological and theoretical directions, which I look fwd to pursuing. Right now my notion of neighborhood is much more commonsensical, I should confess, which may be for the best, ideological mess that common sense is — the “folklore of philosophy,” as Gramsci called it, among other things.

Not unrelated to the Neighbors Project perhaps, but less concerned w/ addressing gentrification per se (tho it is certainly part of the story), my own impulse — shared by many peers, I think — to attend to and represent local soundscapes seems, nonetheless, to offer some real promise for reconciliation and productive, interactive cohabitation (perhaps visitation too — i.e., a kinder, gentler tourism). I’m obviously a firm believer in the power of music to shape our world(s), and I know that my own ideas about selfhood&otherness, place&space, and social connections & “social consciousness” have been deeply informed by music (and, in partic, hip-hop). Theory too. Indeed, my current thinking about neighborhood has been inspired without a doubt by Paul Gilroy’s recent remarks, in which he makes an argument for “conviviality” and “mutual regard” in the context of the postcolonial multiculture that is London — and by extension, though this is perhaps my own leap of imaginary — to the great number of cities today which host so many people from so many places, especially the once (and future) metropoles of empire.

That said, I don’t have much in the way of developed ideas & theories of my own, but I would like to throw the term out there, to invite feedback, to think aloud about how we might hear neighborhood in musical experience and practice, mediated as it may be by various technologies & distances. Toward a more fleshed out notion, allow me to share a few instances that come to mind via the likkle corner of the musiconnoisseurosphere in which I find/embed myself —

1) One set of examples that comes to mind, consonant with Gilroy’s LDN-centric frame, is the work of man like John Eden, Martin “Blackdown” Clark, & the extended crew responsible for Woofah (now available, for those in my neck of the woods / side of the pond, via ForcedExposure). All of them reflect on the London soundscape in ways that, for me, really help to redefine what England looks and sounds like these days. John Eden not only represents for his own hood as a straightup activist, he amplifies articulations between hoods, and, of course, is constantly mining London’s Caribbean connections (or, perhaps better, its Caribbean constitution), either through his posts and mixes devoted to homegrown reggae, fastchat, etc., or those that — like Woofah itself — serve to underscore the relationship between reggae and, say, grime. Of course, this is a story being spun by the Heatwave boyz too, and it’s worth noting that another keen Londonian observer and sense-maker about reggae, Dave Stelfox, with whom I shared some delish Turkish bbq along with the Heatwavers in London last spring, was, when I ran into him, totally raving about the Kurdish dance sessions happening on his street (which he recorded on his cellphone) — demonstrating a rather Gilroyan sense of regard. And, of course, when he’s not busy translating and transmitting the future-present sounds of London, Blackdown’s own music, which I’m eager to hear in album-form, engages with the wider London soundscape as well, dabbling in desi beats and other formerly “strange” strains which are now utterly familiar (thx in part, no doubt, to noisy neighbors like the Panjabi Hit Squad).

2) Another is offered by Cheif Boima, a freq w&w commenter and someone whose mixes I’ve been flagging here for a minute. Boima’s latest mix, Baobab Connection Vol 2, has been making the rounds recently. It’s a pretty excellent example of exactly what I’m talking about here. Boima’s engagement with coupe decale, which precedes more recent critical fawning and which he brought into the convo here last June, is much more than a web-mediated connection. He DJs twice a month at a club in SF called Little Baobab, playing a mix of African dance tracks to a mix of African ex-pats and 2nd-gens. As such, Boima’s love for Ivorian pop, although definitely a homegrown one (i.e., he grew up listening to it with his father and family), is not just about his own strong connections to a place far away, but has been strengthened and shaped by matters very much close-by. Moreover, his decale-style remixes of US hip-hop and r&b offer a rather compelling fusion of the Bay Area soundscape as it swirls around in his head&heart (not to mention, as he’s made clear in other mixes, the Salone soundscape). And though I don’t want to dilute the degree to which Boima’s neighborly soundings are quite locally grounded, it’s worth noting — in the nu-whirl context — that he’s joined another neighborly (LDN-based) blogger, Vamanos @ Ghettobassquake, to share sounds from around the world/way. Did I mention that Boima works with underprivileged youth by day? Nuff said.

3) Finally, though I there are many others I could mention, I want to call attention to the work of Greg Scruggs, a former student, graduating senior (!), and intrepid observer of the intersections btwn city-space and soundscape. Many readers of this here blog are familiar with Greg’s Beat Diaspora, on which he’s chronicled in great, reflective detail his experiences of listening and learning in Rio, Paris, New Orleans, Detroit. But mostly Rio, where he spent last summer — and some other stints — not just going to bailes and interviewing funkeiros, but living and working alongside community activists like the Two Brothers Foundation. Perhaps most impressive, though: Greg spent a good deal of time hunting down funk artists in order to compensate them for an unlicensed compilation issued by US-based Flaming Hotz records and, even better, seeking out other funkeiros in order to strike an ethical agreement (em Português!) to release their music through the same label, with payment upfront and royalties to follow. “Fair trade funk,” Greg calls it, and the album, Pancadão do Morro (Big Hits from the Hill), is an exemplary release in just about every sense: great music, lovingly and ethically compiled, richly contextualized without recourse to the same ol’ sensationalism, and so nicely packaged that you actually want to buy the physical CD. One last bit of nu-whirl localism wrt Senhor Scruggs: I’ll be joining Gregzinho, a not-too-distant neighbor here in Cambridge, this very evening to chat about and broadcast a bunch of the music whirling around this discussion. Greg’s hosting a Nu Whirl Orgy tonight on WHRB — that’s 95.3 if you’re local to (Greater) Boston or streaming here if you’re not. Should be fun(ky)!

It’s probably clear that my notion of “neighborhood” is meant as a way of reading nu-whirled movements in an engaged, positive manner. It moves away from notions of the strange(r) and foreign to the familiar. We become familiar with our neighbors when we have some regard for them, when we listen and play collectively, and I’ll be so potentially naive as to suggest that DJs and bloggers can serve as cultural agents in this process. For all of the inherent problematics, many of the middlemen and women of the “nu world” are aware of their power and privilege, actively resist discourses of the exotic and touristic, and propose other modes of interaction with the strangers / others / neighbors among us: from collaboration, to taking a focused and sustained rather than “eclectic” or trendy approach, to preferring “getting under each other’s skin” rather than simply “used to each other,” as Appiah would have it. Although we see some ways that “nu world” is derivative of “old” “world music,” many of the so-called globalist DJs are quite antagonistic to the underlying exoticism. Like Ghis said

World music is more exotic, the sounds we play are more urban. They all come from common backgrounds: people without much money, doing music in home studios or in a laptop. It’s something more urgent.

There’s always a nagging question, perhaps, as to whether we’ve simply shifted from safari tourism to slum tourism, but the urgency, urbanity, and class dimensions which Ghislain notes give the endeavor a different sort of spin. Global ghettotech offers a soundtrack to a planet of slums, a ghetto archipelago linking Rio to Detroit to London to Kingston to Salone, decentering the US in the global music industry and imaginary, but — perhaps most crucially — also calling attention to a global underclass whose struggles are shared and intertwined and who reside not just on the next continent but, increasingly, next door.

Good fences make good neighbors, yes, but so do good parties.