Steve Black on his book, Speech and Song at the Margins of Global Health

Speech and Song at the Margins of Global Health

Interview by Yeon-Ju Bae

Yeon-Ju Bae: How did you become interested in the South African gospel choir group that works on HIV/AIDS activism? It looks as if your background in musical training and ethnomusicology would have played a role, but I was wondering how you came to conduct research on choir performance amid HIV/AIDS stigma, whose interests intersect the fields of linguistic, medical, and psychological anthropology with a regional focus on South Africa. Also, in what ways does your identity play a role in negotiating the fieldwork process with your research participants?

Steve Black: My fieldwork with the choir was in many ways a serendipitous leap of faith—an effort that could have easily fallen apart many times before it really began. In part, I was guided by chance. As a linguistic anthropologist-in-training, my mentors suggested studying a non-Indo-European language to enhance my comprehension of the breadth of linguistic diversity. From my background as a jazz saxophonist and ethnomusicology student, I knew that South African jazz was nearly unparalleled globally in its quality and long history, and isiZulu happened to be among the few African language courses offered at UCLA. I applied for and was fortunate to be awarded a Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) fellowship for an intensive summer introductory-level isiZulu course at Ohio University led by the UCLA isiZulu instructor, Dr. Zilungile Sosibo. Unfortunately, Dr. Sosibo had trouble renewing her work visa and decided to move back to South Africa after that summer, which meant that UCLA no longer offered any isiZulu courses! I suppose I could have begun studying a different language, but instead I decided to apply for and was awarded a fellowship to be part of a Fulbright-Hays Zulu Group Project Abroad, which was an intensive summer intermediate-level language and culture study abroad in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa (near Durban, in the province of KwaZulu-Natal). This was how I established isiZulu-speaking South Africa as a general focus for my fieldwork.

After this second summer of intensive isiZulu studies, one day I was relaxing in my apartment in Los Angeles and browsing the movies available through my cable TV’s on demand function (this was pre-online streaming, back when Netflix was a service that mailed DVDs to your home!). I stumbled onto a documentary made by some American film students about the choir. From that point forward, I hoped to work with the group. This prompted me to study medical and psychological anthropology perspectives on HIV/AIDS. I felt that I needed this disciplinary expertise in order to conduct ethnographic fieldwork with the choir. In other words, the project motivated my cross-disciplinary theoretical interests rather than the other way around.

I was very fortunate to be awarded a National Science Foundation (NSF) Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant, and even more fortunate that the choir agreed to allow me to conduct fieldwork with them! It is true that my musical expertise as a jazz musician helped me to engage with choir members. I occasionally participated in music-making as a saxophonist and more often as an informal sound engineer for trouble-shooting the group’s amplifiers and microphones. I was also able to sidestep questions from community members about why I was involved with the choir and present myself to most non-choir members as someone interested in Zulu gospel music. This helped to maintain the group’s non-disclosure of their HIV support group and AIDS activist functions in group members’ home communities.

Being a White American man from a middle-income family conducting fieldwork with Black low-income South Africans, many of whom are women, also deeply impacted my research, but not always in ways that might be assumed (Religious difference was also sometimes a factor—I am Jewish by heritage, and choir members are Christian—but not nearly as significant). Some group members saw me as a person with access to more resources than they had, and I did my best to live up to their expectations and contribute to the group in the ways that I could within the limits that the NSF set on how their money could be spent. While by the ethical standards of experimental scientific research my efforts might be thought of as coercion to participate in research, I do not think this is a valid interpretation in the context of ethnography. Rather, I think that the choir was doing an enormous amount to contribute to the success of my research, and that if anything the limits set by the NSF restricted me from providing reasonable forms of compensation for group member’s efforts. Also, while I was an outsider, people like me (white American researchers, doctors, and aid workers) had long been implicated in the complex webs of racialized power imbalances amid patterns of uneven global exchange and intervention, and choir members had personal experience interacting with others like me. This made initial encounters (including explanations of the research project) easier, but it also meant that it took a few months to get beyond the more restricted sorts of encounters that group members had had with other researchers and aid workers. By the end of my fieldwork, I was pleased when a choir leader made a speech to the group in which she contrasted me with other researchers, complimenting me by saying that I had “blended in” with the choir (only to an extent, of course).

Yeon-Ju Bae: You analyze the choir group that you studied as a “bio-speech community” which presents shared biomedically defined characteristics (HIV-positive status), shared ideological orientations toward biomedical models of HIV/AIDS, and shared verbal repertoires making use of biomedical terminologies and understandings. At the same time, it seems as if the group members sometimes show internal dissonance when it comes to gendered understandings of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in South Africa and to the potential misappropriation via individual access to the uneven global circulation of resources. Would you elaborate on the socioeconomic background of these precarities and their role in producing or changing dynamics in the group as a “bio-speech community”?

Steve Black: Research on both speech communities and language ideologies emphasizes that communities are not homogenous and ideologies are always multiple, and the choir was no exception. A core feature that held the choir together was not simply HIV/AIDS infection, but rather, as you say, uptake of biomedical perspectives, ideologies, and communicative patterns. Here, my intent in adding the “bio” prefix was to point toward anthropological theorizations of biopower and biosociality. My theorization suggests that biomedicine’s unique authority and its ability to shape life and death makes speech communities organized around biopower/ biosociality something meaningfully distinct from other speech communities. Within this bio-speech community, inequities associated with being Black, working-class, and South African were not uniformly experienced, and gender in particular was a prominent fault line of inequity for choir members as it was for many South Africans. Choir members managed inequities and the differences in positionality associated with gender in part through certain gendered ways of joking about and narrating HIV.

In my analysis I focus especially on the production of Zulu masculinity in the context of HIV support and activism. One of the more significant features of hegemonic Zulu masculinity in terms of experiences of HIV/AIDS was that while both men and women often assumed that men tend to have multiple romantic partners, women’s ethico-moral evaluations of this behavior were distinctly more negative. For women, the A and B of the ABCs of HIV prevention campaigns (Abstain, Be faithful, use Condoms) matched dominant ideals of heterosexual femininity. For men, adhering to the ABCs entailed a shift from dominant ideals of heterosexual masculinity. While a novel masculinity did emerge out of the choir environment, men in the choir sometimes had trouble enacting this emergent masculinity and women took the opportunity to comment upon it at key moments. This gendered social differentiation impacted ongoing processes of group formation, just as internal social differentiation characterizes most (or all?) processes of group formation/ maintenance.

Yeon-Ju Bae: In order to theorize the group members’ utilization of the biomedical models of HIV/AIDS in the context of their home communities, you propose the concept of “transposition” drawing on your long-term musical training as a jazz musician. While you use the term “transposition” primarily in cases of the biomedical model/understanding being the recontextualized component, I was wondering if one may also say ‘Zulu traditional models/understandings of illness are transposed into a biomedical context’. In other words, are you conceptualizing the term “transposition” fundamentally as a biopower-imbued notion in the context of medical pluralism? Also, I was wondering to what extent this notion of “transposition” could be applicable—are you suggesting that “transposition” can only be drawn in the realm of medical fields, or may one find its analytic use in other non-medical contexts as well?

Steve Black: Great question! I am not conceptualizing transposition fundamentally as a biopower-imbued notion in the context of medical pluralism and I would love to see the concept applied to other contexts. However, I do think that the significant force of biopower made this a clear case from which to theorize the concept. My goal here was to link research on cultural models with scholarship on multilingualism. In linguistics, Roman Jakobson developed his version of transposition to discuss issues in translation from one language to another. He argued that straightforward translation is never truly possible because each language shapes our possibilities for articulating the world in meaningfully distinct ways. Rather, multilingual speakers must creatively transpose when shifting from one language to another. More recently, John Haviland used “transposition” to describe the ways that people signal moves between distinct perspectives within a single language variety. For example, Haviland describes someone knocking on the door of a home. When a child answers the door, the person asks, “is mother home?” This entails a linguistic shift to the child’s perspective through the absence of the second person possessive pronoun “your.” Haviland’s concept is about shifting perspectives within a language variety, while Jakobson’s is about shifting languages. Both share in common a concern for linking linguistic patterns with human experience/ thought processes.

I use transposition in a sense that more similar to Jakobson’s, but my concept shares with both of them an attention to how thought and language might be connected. In my usage, transposition applies specifically to a relatively well-defined cultural model, describing situations in which a cultural model retains much of its coherence as it shifts across ideologically-distinct language varieties. The cultural model in question needs to be discrete, recognizable, and somewhat shared across multiple community members. My intention is that “transposition” could be used to describe any case when is clear that a relatively coherent cultural model (including but not limited to biomedical models) is shifted across relatively well-defined language varieties. This could happen through linguistic borrowing/ code-mixing, as in the case of the choir, but there might be other sorts of linguistic practices associated with transposition in other contexts (a topic for future research?).

 Yeon-Ju Bae: It was fascinating to see how the group members collaboratively perform joking and singing as an indirect form in which one can face HIV stigma without explicitly talking about it or without being solely responsible for the performance, through which the embodied sense of support is created among themselves. It seems as if taking a distance is the key element for them to be able to partake in the interactions about HIV amid prevalent stigma. In this sense, I was thinking if the group members’ strict adherence to English biomedical terminology could have been as well a distancing device, when their mother tongue is isiZulu and English is regarded as foreign. You also discuss how the reference to HIV is indexically linked to the foreign in both negative and positive senses (chapter 5). Would you elaborate on the ways in which group members creatively navigate the ambivalent features of othering/distancing devices in facing or skewing stigma as well as in creating safe in-group spaces?

Steve Black: I think there are two separate ideas here that need to be unpacked: distancing through performance, and distancing by use of biomedical terminology. Rather than simply distancing, I think that performance (joking/ singing about HIV) was a form of collectivizing, of sharing responsibility for authorship of communication about HIV. From the perspective of the individual as a bounded unit this was indeed a kind of distancing, and I do argue that this was one of the reasons that such modes of intersubjective engagement were effective in maintaining long-term support amid stigma. However, especially in the context of Zulu traditions that emphasized duties and respect toward kin and community (see also my response to your final question), joking and singing were ways of communicating about HIV that were more connected to Zulu traditions (especially singing). I think that these connections to Zulu traditions and Zulu ideologies of personhood made joking and singing appropriate ways of enacting support for choir members. Also, joking and singing may have been helpful because they were fun and celebratory, a way to maintain a positive outlook in the midst of stigma and the threat of illness and death.

I think that the use of English biomedical terminology was both a distancing device and an embrace—a distancing from aspects of Zulu tradition that were stigmatizing and an embrace of the power of biomedicine (which was also part of South African approaches to care). Significantly, isiZulu was not necessarily the “first” language for all group members (I have some critiques of the term ‘mother tongue’ that I will save for another time). For those who grew up in the townships, especially, English was always a part of their linguistic repertoire. True, English borrowings in isiZulu were marked as foreign, but foreign does not necessarily mean unfamiliar. At the same time, while biomedicine has long been a part of Black South African life, it was not seen as part of Zulu/ African traditions.

Conceptually, here I draw from Judith Irvine’s discussion of the place of Khoi San languages and speakers in pre-colonial Nguni (southern African) contexts. Historical linguistics scholarship indicates that in the past, click consonants were part of Khoi San languages—languages spoken by hunter-gatherer groups in southern Africa for thousands of years. Around 3000 years ago, agriculturalists began to migrate to southern Africa from the north, bringing Nguni languages (without click consonants) with them and initiating a period of linguistic and cultural contact. Irvine theorizes the process by which click consonants were eventually incorporated into isiZulu and other related languages. She argues that Khoi San languages (which included numerous click consonants) and those who spoke them were ideologically positioned as foreign in pre-colonial southern Afrca. However, this positioning ignored the reality that Khoi San persons regularly worked (for example, as herders) for Nguni-speaking agriculturalists. Even though clicks were ideologically foreign, this ideology masked complexities of socio-economic inequities and exchange. In parallel, even though English medical terminology was positioned as ideologically foreign to Zulu tradition, that ideology masked the inequities and history of cultural contact that ensconced biomedicine in South Africa. Using English medical terminology was thus also both a distancing and an embrace. It was a distancing from certain aspects of Zulu tradition, especially those linked to ideas about witchcraft and spiritual pollution. However, it was also an embrace of the power of biomedicine, which had long been a part of South African colonial/ apartheid/ post-apartheid life, even while being ideologically positioned as foreign.

Yeon-Ju Bae: I wonder what happens after the activist choir group disbanded after you had finished your fieldwork—where do they find support, do they still value disclosure, how do they take care of themselves, and how are they striving and living?

Steve Black: The choir did indeed disband after my fieldwork, though their network of support persists. They talked about reorganizing as a looser group of activists pursuing distinct projects, and while they have not maintained any formal organization, I think in a sense they have maintained their social connections to one another and continued their activist projects. In general, so much has changed in South Africa since 2008. In 2010, the South African government launched nationwide testing initiatives, and as of 2018 the country claims that over ninety percent of infected individuals know their status. Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) is also increasingly available. Stigma remains a significant barrier, but not to the same extent as when the choir was first created in the late 1990s (at a time when ARVs were not available and the South African government was largely refusing to engage with the epidemic). I keep in touch through Facebook, primarily, but I cannot really speak to what many choir members are doing in their lives now—though I know that at least one group member continues to work for an HIV/AIDS treatment and counseling organization. My general impression is that former choir members are doing well and just trying to live their lives to the fullest. This is actually quite amazing given that in the late 1990s, when group members were infected, most South Africans including healthcare workers thought an HIV positive diagnosis was a death sentence.

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