Last Night MIT Saved My Life

Yesterday morning I wrote what I feared might be the last rent check I could write for the foreseeable future; by yesterday evening those fears had vanished, as I learned that MIT would be offering me a Mellon Fellowship for the next two years. Wayne saved!

And not a moment too soon. 11th hour, really. Goes without saying that I’m totally thrilled. Weights have turned to balloons. This constitutes a serious lifeline for me & my career. It affirms a project I’m quite excited about — a critical examination (and, inevitably, celebration) of what I’ve been alternately calling “nu whirl(ed) music” and “global ghettotech” — and offers much support at a crucial time for bringing one expression of that project to completion: namely, what they call in the academy, a monograph (more on that below).

First, I should say that I’m especially indebted to two fine future colleagues at MIT who encouraged and supported my application, Ian Condry and Patty Tang. Interestingly, due largely to idiosyncratic / bureaucratic reasons, my host dept will not be Music — as it has been throughout my grad and post-grad career — but what MIT calls Foreign Languages and Literatures. Happy as I would have been to be in Music & Theater Arts, I’m quite looking forward to being in a more interdisciplinary situation, a place where Ian, for example, studies and teaches Japanese popular culture, including hip-hop.

I also want to thank all the Brandeis students and faculty and other supporters — various and sundry — who lent their names and testimony to the Save Wayne campaign. Although I’m sorry that something didn’t work out for me at Brandeis, I feel affirmed as never before, that I’m on the right track, and I’m deeply grateful for that.

In so many ways, I gotta say, MIT seems like the right place for me right now. Given the tech focus of my research proposal, the school is just a perfect fit. Did I mention that I live but a short walk away?

Enough basking though, I just wanted to share the good news with all my dear readers, and to thank you in particular for providing another crucial source of support and affirmation. It was a long dark winter in some ways, and knowing that I have this forum for sharing and discussing what interests me with a bunch of interesting, informed, passionate people has provided some key consolation.

I’ll leave you with a few paragraphs snipped from my proposal, just to clue you in on where I’m headed. If you’ve been reading along with me here for a little while, this will hardly be news, but I think I’ve brought a lot into focus on this most recent go-round —

Brave New World Music: Making and Sharing Music in a Peer-to-Peer World

Bringing together theories, methods, and data from music and sound studies, media and cultural studies, digital anthropology, sociology, and work across the “digital humanities” more generally, my project seeks to reevaluate the question of “world music” in light of the remarkable technological and discursive shifts represented by socially networked, online exchanges of music. This necessarily international, multi-sited project emerges from my ongoing research into the global circulation of such popular genres as hip-hop, reggae, and reggaeton, as well as their local resonance in places like New York, Boston, Kingston, and San Juan. Continuing an attention — grounded in ethnographic, historical, and theoretical perspectives — to the ways music draws and redraws lines of community, my intention is to produce a monograph situating the production, circulation, and reception of music (and media more generally) in our globalized, digital world — a world of peers, in some sense, if one where we still bear witness to profound asymmetries.

Whereas “world music” once connoted the traditional music of the global south (or accessible, slickly-produced fusions of those traditions with Western pop), in recent years a new set of connoisseurs in the US and Europe — as well as a global, grassroots network of producers and promoters — have departed from such notions to embrace locally-inflected versions of global pop which foreground digital modes of production, do-it-yourself production aesthetics, and shared — rather than exotic — cultural referents. Although largely facilitated by the Internet, this degree of international engagement — mediated not by record companies but by MySpace, YouTube, blogs, and other peer-to-peer technologies — also suggests that on-the-ground metropolitan multiculture is alive and well. On the one hand, the consumption and circulation of “new world music” (e.g., Angolan kuduro, South African kwaito, and South American cumbia) nod toward an emergent, everyday cosmopolitanism in the US, reflecting the degree to which “the world” now resides within American borders. On the other, the decentering presence of US genres within this “new world” constellation (e.g., Chicago juke, Atlanta crunk, Bay Area hyphy, Puerto Rican reggaeton) signals a reevaluation of what “world” can mean now that the “American Century” has passed. What does all this activity say about contemporary conceptions of selfhood, nationhood, and — if you will — neighborhood?

Lest this picture appear too utopian, it should be noted that first world filters — now more often as bloggers than stars or labels — still occupy positions of power, reflecting continued hierarchies even as the tools of production and distribution have been widely democratized by the advent of digital technologies. Whether we are talking about Brazilian funk or Jamaican dancehall, such genres continue to be represented through the lens of the exotic and authentic — albeit an exoticism and authenticity flowing from signifiers of the urban, hybrid, and futuristic rather than the rural, pristine, and traditional. Slum chic has arisen as an aesthetic counterpoint to the unprecedented growth of megacities around the world. And yet, despite problematic parallels, there may yet be some genuinely new and promising facets to today’s “world music.” For one, we might hear a leveling out such that all genres travel at once as local and global. Although produced in the U.S., for instance, Chicago juke — a distinctive form of electronic dance music formerly known as “ghetto house” — has been embraced as “worldly” subculture by young people in Switzerland, France, and England. Second, even while reproducing certain racial ideologies, we might detect a new mode of engaging with others in this new world music. As today’s “data flaneurs” seek xenophily over homophily they build cultural and conceptual bridges that attend to local (as well as virtual) soundscapes and, in the process, reshape ideas about here and there, especially in metropolitan social contexts which bear the burdens of postcolonial legacies.

Onward & sidewayz, y’all —