Falina Enriquez discusses her new book, The Costs of the Gig Economy

Interview by Owen Kohl


Owen Kohl: Let’s start with the powerful title. Can you briefly describe the gig economy in question?

And if I could add a couple of related follow-ups: How does entrepreneurial and precarious project-based work exact costs on contemporary Brazilian artists and musicians? Are there insights that you gained in this distinct context that illuminated what you’ve seen elsewhere in related neoliberal gig economies, e.g., among adjunct professors?

Falina Enriquez: Thank you for these questions and for inviting me. It’s a pleasure to have my book included on the CaMP blog. The title is a great place to start.  The gig economy is, in some ways, particular to Recife and Brazil but in other ways, it’s relatable to those of us who are increasingly part of—or familiar with—the informal and/or temporary employment, lack of benefits, and emphasis on entrepreneurship that gig economy labor entails.

What’s particular about the gig economy in my case study is how strongly it was influenced by multiculturalism in the 2000s both in Pernambuco and in Brazil, more generally. Multiculturalism became part of federal and state-level efforts to democratize political participation, bureaucracy, cultural production, education, and other domains while also becoming part of how Brazil was branding itself domestically and to global audiences.

In Pernambuco, Recife’s municipal government began to brand the city as a multicultural place in the early 2000s and the state government strengthened these efforts, especially after 2007. The comparison of musical practices and sponsorship that I undertake in the book, however, reveals that this push for multiculturalism didn’t really democratize as much as it was supposed to. Instead, it intensified neoliberal economic policies and ideologies. The state government created a new grant-based system of sponsorship [called an edital] for artists and musicians to apply for funding. In the past, if you wanted to perform at Carnival, for example, you had to appeal to a bureaucrat or politician who had clout at a state institution in order for them to appoint or recommend you. But with multiculturalism and the bureaucratization that followed, the system ostensibly became more democratic because anyone could apply regardless of their connections to powerful people. This was more inclusive than before, and it brought more people into the scope of state sponsorship.

At the same time, musicians now had to comply with more demanding standards. They had to be more professional and entrepreneurial in order to stand out among hundreds of other applicants and to show that they could contribute to what was becoming a multicultural economy in Recife and Pernambuco. This economy boosted opportunities for musicians because there were more events where they could perform and more sponsorship [funds] to go around. But in order to take advantage of these opportunities, they had to change their modus operandi.

Musicians accustomed to getting gigs based on word of mouth and peer connections now also had to consider things like: “How am I going to write an application that describes my band in a way that will appeal to state sponsorship committees?” This alone is a demanding task. Most of the musicians I know in Recife don’t generally train to write grants while they also learn to master their instruments. Grants are also a very specialized genre that can be challenging even for people who are highly educated on formal university pathways. Many of my middle-class interlocutors don’t have university degrees and that’s even rarer among my working-class interlocutors, especially those who are elderly.

In summary, then, for musicians in Recife the emergence of the gig economy encompassed a combination of new opportunities and limitations. I think that this is also comprehensible on a broader scale. Neoliberal policies and ideologies related to entrepreneurship present some affordances and flexibility, but as other anthropologists like Ilana Gershon have also discussed, these conditions create tensions and paradoxes that affect ideas of selfhood and other more practical conditions. For example, flexibility in the sense that you aren’t permanently beholden to one company can mean more autonomy, but it also requires laborers to acquire more skills and broaden their networks in order to attract clients and make more money. Not everyone has uniform access to the kinds of resources—both financial and social—to accomplish this.

Similarly, and this is likely something fellow academics can relate to, the popularization and intensification of the gig economy and its related ideologies means that it’s harder to separate leisure time and work time. We have technologies like Zoom that enable us to work from various locations and at various times, but this also means that we are expected to be constantly productive. Among my interlocutors, this has surfaced in the increasing importance of establishing a social media presence across platforms in order to maintain and expand one’s audience. This also requires learning new skills and often, relying on other kinds of professionals like promoters to help. The book sheds light on how being a musical entrepreneur in Recife—as for other entrepreneurs around the world—means having to constantly maintain one’s productivity and expand one’s sphere of influence, so to speak.

This comes with costs like a lack of work/life balance, the production and reproduction of overlapping social inequalities, and a sense of anxiety that comes with financial insecurity, professional instability, precarity, and the need to be in survival mode. These conditions were already present in Recife in 2010 but they have become even more relevant for local musicians since 2015 due to Brazil’s recent and political crises, which have expanded neoliberal policies and ideologies.

Owen Kohl: Musical cosmopolitanism is another valuable theme that you develop. How did you see cosmopolitanism at play in the symbolic connections that artists were making across styles, continents, and eras of Brazilian history?

Falina Enriquez: Cosmopolitanism has been addressed by many scholars, but what I liked about the concept is that it fit how my interlocutors were talking about their music. They understood themselves as bridging gaps between places and people via their music.

So, for example, one of the bands that I worked with, A Roda, thought of themselves and explicitly marketed themselves as “genuinely Pernambucan.” And in many cases, they weren’t just focusing on their connection to Pernambuco, but to the historic neighborhood of Olinda, which is a city within Recife’s metropolitan area. And they pointed out how their music was informed by—and spoke to—that locality. So, they situated themselves in an extremely specific, local way. At the same time, they would describe themselves as being “the same” as Afrobeat band-influenced bands in Brooklyn like Antibalas and the Menahan Street Band that they were aware of, but none of them had ever been to Brooklyn, none of them knew these bands personally. When I would ask them to compare what bands they were most like, they wouldn’t mention their peers in Recife, in Pernambuco, or even in Brazil, which had similar sounds. Instead, they were citing these Brooklyn bands. I see the kinds of stances [that A Roda’s members took] as important aspects of their rooted cosmopolitanism. Just because they saw themselves or heard themselves as being similar to Afrobeat bands in Brooklyn, by no means did they abandon their localness. In fact, these two localities–and their aesthetic dimensions–were in perfect synchrony for them.

As a metaphor, rooted cosmopolitanism reflects how these musicians feel connected or rooted to a specific place and sensibility while also creating material and symbolic branches that link disparate and distant places and sounds. None of this means that they’re also surpassing or transcending the kinds of power dynamics that influence their lives, however. And contrary to other scholars that sometimes celebrate cosmopolitanism as a set of practices that let people transcend boundaries and identities, in this case, I’m using rooted cosmopolitanism and cosmopolitanism, more generally, to try to pinpoint the power relations that enable my interlocutors’ practices.

These power relations—and how they relate to the costs of the gig economy–are audible when you compare bands across genres and demographics. In drawing on Afrobeat music and adopting entrepreneurial practices, middle-class bands like A Roda don’t lose prestige, they gain it.

But working-class groups that play traditional music can’t do that, they can’t experiment to the same degree. They also often lack the resources to uphold the increasingly high standards of professionalism that entrepreneurial ideologies are making normative. They’re held responsible by state agencies who often are the only source of funding they have, by middle class listeners, and by other kinds of people in power to uphold tradition, and to therefore limit their experimentation while nonetheless being pushed to become more entrepreneurial. Yet, traditional groups like Maracatu Nação Cambinda Estrela, are nevertheless creating their own rooted cosmopolitanism. They perform maracatu, which has been part of Recife’s sonic landscape since at least the 19th century and are therefore part of a very localized phenomenon. At the same time, this group poetically and politically invokes pan-Africanist ideologies and Latin American forms of leftist activism, thereby recontextualizing maracatu to claim a sense of belonging to much broader regional and global movements.

Owen Kohl: Turning to a subdisciplinary interest: How does attention to issues of scale illuminate contemporary music practices and politics in Brazil?

Falina Enriquez: I drew from linguistic anthropological approaches to scale, scale-making, or scaling as they also call it, because they helped me interpret what my interlocutors are, in part, achieving through their rooted cosmopolitan practices. Scaling is a way to describe how my interlocutors are creating senses of belonging and socio-aesthetic hierarchies through their musical and metamusical practices. They make sonic connections to places, people, and time periods, and in the process imagine their world and their place(s) within it. Scale, in this sense, is both quantitative and qualitative, it is not solely spatial.

Like rooted cosmopolitanism, in the book, scale serves as both a theory and a metaphor that I use to compare different actors across the music scenes that I examine. My interlocutors, for example, musically–and otherwise–express their relationships to other kinds of past and present music from Brazil and elsewhere. And sometimes that scaling happens in qualitative terms. Musicians compare themselves—and others compare them—to other musicians and musical movements. When band members make comments that their music is better, worse, or similar to other bands, they are creating evaluative scales. This is also what’s happening when they’re claiming that their music is more or less locally rooted than other genres or styles. Such processes influence—and are influenced by–the structures of power in which they’re embedded and their access to material things like state sponsorship. So, for example, in an application for state funding if a band can show via their music, their written narratives, and other textual materials that they are as good or better than existing high-prestige bands, then they’re more likely to get sponsorship. Their ability to show this, however, is often dependent on their level of education and familiarity with the genre of grant applications, or their social and financial ability to acquire help from promoters and managers that can help them with these applications.

I employ scale and scaling in other ways throughout the book too. I draw from Arlene Dávila’s idea of upscaling [from Culture Works (2012)] to analyze how governmental and commercial actors were trying to use multiculturalism to make Recife more upscale. They wanted to make the city seem more prestigious, more cosmopolitan, and more appealing to outsiders, especially tourists from southeastern Brazil and the Global North. This kind of upscaling describes neoliberal development projects, but I also combine it with a linguistic anthropological sensibility to show how these economic developments are semiotically communicated and constructed. Governmental discourses about multiculturalism and the staging of specific kinds of musical genres at multicultural, spectacular events like Carnival make Recife into a more upscale place because they reveal its actual and potential value as a commodity. This upscaling relates to my argument that musical entrepreneurship and its intensification in Recife and Pernambuco are evidence of the kinds of encroachments, as some scholars call it, or economizations, as Wendy Brown calls it, which exacerbate the influence of market logics on all parts of our lives.

Owen Kohl: One powerful aspect of the book is your treatment of race and class as entangled aspects of musical performance. Obviously your focus is on neoliberalizing Brazil, but I think your semiotic analysis is applicable far beyond. This comes through in rich ethnographic descriptions, for example, of when government sponsors are reviewing musicians for Carnival.

Could you explain to your audience how you think about how best to capture the unfolding interconnections of race, class, and music in contemporary Brazil?

Falina Enriquez: Yeah, that’s a really complex question because it touches on all of Brazil’s history, essentially. But in terms of the book, what I wanted to reflect was the instability and mobility of race, class, and music in the kinds of unfolding events that I was experiencing. Yes, race, class, and music are definitely entangled. But that entanglement and the kinds of mobility to which I’m referring doesn’t mean that it’s a free-for-all because there are moments when the regimentation of race, class, and music becomes really clear. This issue, I believe, is relevant to many of us who are interested in teasing out the tense and contingent relations between structures of power and how they are artistically and otherwise expressed.

So, for example, the band, A Roda, draws on Afrobeat. They also cite R&B from the US and gesture towards classic Brazilian genres like bossa nova and samba, for example. They incorporate other sounds too, including drumming styles that are associated with the religious practice of Xangô [a.k.a. Candomblé]. In other words, the band plays with–and indexes–Blackness in many ways. And yet, as a whole, and mostly as individuals, the members of A Roda do not identify as Black. Nevertheless, they’re still able to play with racially marked musical elements and gain sponsorship and some prestige because they do it in a way that satisfies middle class norms and expectations.  When a middle-class band like A Roda applies for a grant from the state, they are going to be judged [by the committee evaluating them] very differently than a band that’s taking on a much more explicitly politicized Black sound like reggae, for example.

Meanwhile other bands who applied for state sponsorship and were usually ranked very low or were even disqualified by the evaluating committee often had a much more racialized, working-class kind of self-presentation. For example, some of these bands adopted visible stylistic features of U.S. hip hop, like sunglasses and baseball caps, and sounds drawing from racialized Caribbean styles, like merengue, which prompted [state sponsorship] committee members to hear that band’s music as unfit for state sponsorship. The racialization of such bands was implicitly compounded if most of their members were relatively dark-skinned. In theory, therefore, one can play with musical elements endlessly, but these elements get stabilized and standardized in relation to race and class by powerful actors. The specific interests and sensibilities of middle-class bureaucrats lead them to evaluate musicians in explicit racial and/or class-based terms. These are revealed in judgments they made during discussions about who and what sounds will be best to feature at Carnival and why.

Sandra Kurfürst on her book, Dancing Youth

Interview by Jonathan DeVore


Jonathan DeVore: Congratulations on your new book! First of all, can you recount how you became involved in the research for the book?

Sandra Kurfürst: Thank you, Jonathan! From 2007 to 2008, I conducted one year of ethnographic research in Hanoi for my PhD thesis. At the time, I was working on public spaces in Hanoi, and regularly hung out around the Lenin Monument at Dien Bien Phu Street and Ly Thai To Garden on the banks of Hoan Kiem Lake. At the time, I met a number of young people there who regularly assembled in the late afternoon hours to perform break moves, hip-hop dance, and popping. I began conducting interviews with young b-boys from the FIT and MiNi Shock Crews and young women dancers from Big Toe Crew. I was especially fascinated by these young women, their movement repertoire, and their fashion style. Whenever they arrived at the pavilion in Ly Thai To Garden, they would change out of their school uniforms – which were white blouses and blue trousers combined with a red scarf – and switch these for belly tops, XXL T-Shirts, and shorts or joggers. Having followed hip hop culture in Vietnam for a decade, I found hip hop’s diverse dance styles an ideal topic to study, as it combines my personal passion for hip hop with my longstanding interests in the anthropology of the urban and questions of socioeconomic transformation.

Jonathan DeVore: This continuity between your research projects nicely illustrates the observation that the questions we begin with in ethnographic research are rarely the same as the questions that we arrive at in the process. Can you describe how the questions and interests that your book addresses arose, and how these may have been transformed during the course of you research? Were there any key moments in your research that affected or even shifted your focus?

Sandra Kurfürst: Hip Hop comprises four practices of MCing (rap), breaking, graffiti writing, and DJing. Initially, I planned on examining all four practices and the interrelations among actors involves in these practices. However, once I began my research into rap and dancing, I soon noticed that there are some overlaps in the communities, but that rather distinct communities of practice have evolved around each practice. Some actors in Vietnam are very active in bringing these different strands of hip hop culture together, but, so far, there are only a few events that unite these different communities of practice. Then again, I found that the community of hip hop dancing was much more diverse than I had expected. The first dancers I talked to all differentiated between diverse styles, such as breaking, popping, locking, waacking, hip hop, and house dance. That is why I reconsidered my focus and decided to write about dance. From the start, I had been fascinated with how many young women engaged in hip hop’s different dance styles. Therefore, I chose a particular gender focus. However, one eye opening moment was a conversation with a woman locker who told me: “I don’t think it’s about young women, but about people who want to enjoy their life and develop themselves (…).” And that is how I got interested in the question of youth aspirations and visions of the good life under conditions of late socialism.

Jonathan DeVore:  Speaking of late socialism, one dynamic that I found interesting in the book was the gradual transition over a period of years from hip-hop as a relatively informal practice, occurring in common public spaces such as the Lenin Monument, to a set of relationships that became increasingly professionalized, involving market exchanges. Some of the dancers you describe who became more prominent, for example, were able to establish their own schools from which they derived their primary incomes.  Can you tell us more about processes of class formation, differentiation, and distinction among dancers in your research? More broadly, can you relate these processes to Vietnams’ transition toward “market reform, commodification, and consumerism, while officially insisting on socialist ideology and one-party rule” (p. 10)?

Sandra Kurfürst: When I did my research on public space in Hanoi between 2007 and 2008, I also interviewed b-boys and women dancers who were regularly meeting and dancing around Ly Thai To Garden. At that time, the dancers were either still in school or had jobs, and they did not have many economic resources. In 2018, the situation seemed to have slightly changed, as most of the professional dancers participating in my research held university degrees, and had gathered experiences in working in office jobs that were unrelated to dance. Some dancers, however, decided to quit their office jobs to open their own dance studios or to work as freelancers at different dance studios. Others owned their own fashion labels and combined their self-entrepreneurism with teaching dance classes. My study is not representative, of course, but from the conversations and interviews with men and women dancers alike, I gathered that most have urban middle-class backgrounds, and many of them grew up in Hanoi. Moreover, the relevance of consumption as both a status symbol, and marker of belonging to the community of practice, was visible and tangible. Indexes of distinction were comprised of street apparel, such as the German or U. S. sports brands Adidas, Nike, Vans, and so on, as well as other commodities, like photo and video cameras. Mobility was a further asset, as many dancers regularly travelled within Vietnam or the Southeast Asia region, which again requires financial resources and time. At the same time, the proliferation of dance studios in Vietnam’s major cities that offer children’s hip hop dance classes cater to growing demands by urban middle-class parents to provide their children with physical exercise and leisure activities other than gaming.

Jonathan DeVore: I see – so, parents want their children moving around instead of just sitting in front of televisions and computers!  This actually relates to another question I wanted to ask you about:  Embodied movements, gestures, and actions are notoriously difficult to represent textually, in the medium of an article or book. Can you describe the difficulties you faced, and the strategies you used, in representing the different dance forms you investigate—not only in the book, but perhaps also in other media, such as fieldnotes?

Sandra Kurfürst: Thank you. This is a topic that I struggle with to this day. Certainly, audiovisual formats are an option, and I would like to further pursue the question of writing dance in the future. As for fieldnotes: After taking dance classes, I recorded my sensations and experiences as well as student-teacher interactions in voice recordings on my way home. Listening to my own voice recordings later on, I particularly noticed my own shortness of breath after having trained with one dancer, named Mai. Also, the interview situations themselves were certainly sensory events. Whenever I sat down to transcribe interview recordings, or to write my field notes, I started humming and singing songs that my interlocutors had played for me on their phones. And I found myself searching the internet for tracks and videos they had told me about. A really fascinating format, to avoid simplifications involved in just describing what I saw and how I moved, seems to be autoethnographic performance. However, what prevented me from engaging in autoethnographic performance in the book were my English language skills. The use of different literary genres to express movement in written language is really appealing to me, but I would have to do so in my own mother tongue. In my teenage years, I used to write rap lyrics. So, writing in German would be one way for me to go.

Jonathan DeVore: I can certainly appreciate this challenge!  And as I read your book, I also found myself looking up YouTube videos of the songs and music videos you cited!  Perhaps a final question to conclude: Are there any interests or questions that remain open for you after writing the book?

Sandra Kurfürst: I keep wondering if, at one point, I could invite the women hip hop dancers to Germany for a performance in the city of Cologne. I think that would be a great opportunity to bring them together with Cologne-based dancers. Moreover, I would really like to meet them again – but due to the pandemic, I have not returned to Vietnam since 2018. At the time, when I got to know the women dancers, they were all at the end of their 20s – an age when women in Vietnam are usually married and have children. So, one question I did not ask, but which comes up again and again, is: To what extent does leading a dancing life have an impact on women dancers’ decisions to marry and have children?

I was also very glad to find queer dancers at dance battles. However, as battles are quite ephemeral events, and the dancers were not directly related to participants in my research, I did not have a chance to talk to them. But it made me wonder if queer performance, such as the style of waacking, helps to open up spaces for the queer community in Vietnam. The LGBTQIA+ community has become more active and more visible in public space, such as with the annual Viet Pride festival. So, I was wondering if dancing, and waacking in particular, may also be a way for them to create a community as well as to gain more public awareness and acceptance.

Jonathan DeVore: Thanks so much for talking with me, Sandra, and congratulations once again on Dancing Youth.  I’ll look forward to reading your next book on one of these other topics!

Siv Lie on her book, Django Generations

Django Generations



Interview by Lynn M. Hooker

Lynn Hooker: First, beginning with the title, your book uses a variety of terms for your chief musical subjects–most often Manouches, Tsiganes, or Romanies, but also sometimes Sinti, Gitans, and Gypsies. How do these terms and the distinctions between them reflect some of the issues you write about?

Siv Lie: I discuss some of these terms in the “Notes and Terminology” section (pp. ix-x), but there is much more to say. The very existence of all these terms and disagreements about what they “actually” mean says a lot about both how Romanies have dealt with racialization and about how they constitute an extremely diverse array of people. The terms Tsigane, Gitan, and Gypsy are all exonyms imposed by Europeans and have become more or less commonplace synonyms for Romanies. They are used by Romanies and non-Romanies (Gadjé) alike. Whether or not they are considered pejorative depends entirely on their contexts of use, and while some Romanies refuse these terms, many use them unproblematically. I think this evolution of usage has to do both with Romanies reclaiming pejorative labels and with the conventionalization of some of these terms over time. For example, on pp. 13-14 of the book, I describe how legislation targeting nomades was a way for the government to continue to not-so-covertly racialize and disenfranchise Romanies. In 1969, this legislation was revised and nomades were renamed Gens du voyage (“Travelers”). Today, nomades has definitely fallen out of use, but many mobile Romanies in France still proudly refer to themselves as Voyageurs despite any negative connotations.

Even with decades of pan-Romani political movements and some linguistic and cultural consistencies across populations, Romanies do not constitute a unified group. I deliberately use “Romanies” instead of the more common “Roma” because Sinti (to which Manouches are closely related, if not synonymous with) tend to see themselves as quite distinct from Roma and sometimes reject a Roma-centric view of Romanies. For example, just recently I was speaking with a Manouche/Sinti friend who kept using “Sinti” to refer to all Romanies, which I understood as his way to de-center “Roma” from pan-Romani politics. It’s an interesting way to assert an ideal of pan-Romani unity while challenging the terms on which that unity has been conceived in the political sphere.

Lynn Hooker: How does the question of group naming in this case contribute to current discussions in anthropology? In ethnomusicology? How do other issues in your study contribute to current discussions in anthropology? In ethnomusicology?

Siv Lie: The naming processes I describe – as highly context-dependent and semantically malleable – relate directly to my use of “ethnorace” to explain how Romanies are understood, and in turn understand themselves, through situated and shifting lenses of “race” and “ethnicity.” When I first came across ethnorace as coined by David Theo Goldberg, I was energized by how perfectly it captured the tensions I was exploring, but I was also confused as to why it had not been taken up more widely in anthropology or ethnomusicology. I thought I must have been missing something obvious! But the more I’ve used it and developed it in the context of struggles for Manouche political recognition and economic justice, the more I’ve realized its much wider potential to better understand how social difference is made.

Ethnorace also feeds into my development of ambivalent essentialism (which I outline on pp. 6-8). The idea of strategic essentialism always seemed appropriate to the maneuvers I observed among Manouche musicians and their supporters, but it never captured the full scope of the tensions they had to deal with. Ambivalent essentialism gets at how the process of self-essentialization involves quite a bit of uncertainty and unresolvable contradiction. I often observed musicians feel quite comfortable presenting themselves in rather stereotypical ways to certain audiences while downplaying or challenging such representations in other contexts, and/or voicing real dilemmas about how they felt compelled to engage in these representations. I point to ambivalent essentialism throughout the book because it’s an apt way to account for these tensions and for the negotiations that must occur within any ethnoracially-associated music scene. I think that this book can therefore contribute to current discussions about identity politics and cultural commodification in ways that embrace contradiction without trying to resolve it.

This book engages with a range of concepts both well-established and emergent in anthropology (such as raciolinguistics/raciosemiotics, cultural citizenship, cultural expediency, colorblind racism, erasure, and so on). I try to foreground the interstices of social difference as negotiated through music and talk about music. Some similar conversations about racial politics are happening in ethnomusicology, but I see this book as encouraging ethnomusicologists to engage more robustly with current conversations in anthropology.

Lynn Hooker: I am struck by the tension you describe not only between Manouche and Gadjé (non-Romani) identity but also between Manouche and pan-Romani identity. What are the pros and cons of a broader view of Romani-ness for your interlocutors? I myself have observed some musicians and organizers, mostly in Hungary, embracing a more pan-Romani approach in some contexts; this view seems akin to the musical pluralism you discuss in chapter 3, and sometimes it appears to claim cosmopolitan-ness. But it seems from what you imply that some Manouches want to avoid the “taint” of Eastern Europe.

Siv Lie: As I alluded to earlier, some of the Manouches/Sinti I work with have mixed feelings about proclaiming a pan-Romani identity. Doing so has its advantages: it provides access to resources (social networks, logistical support, financing, publicity, and so on) as well as a certain public legibility. It also reflects aspirations to a kind of borderless cosmopolitanism, such as by using “Gypsy” instead of the conventional French terms for Romanies. This can be especially important for musicians who want to be seen simultaneously as part of a global jazz community and as ethnoracially distinctive. They want to counter the idea that they are backwards and unintelligent by playing up their creativity and cultural plurality (as Romani, French, European, and global). Of course, at the same time, cosmopolitanism can be construed negatively, and Romanies are often perceived as rootless and even threatening wanderers. For this and other reasons, Manouches/Sinti sometimes refuse ideas of pan-Romani identity. They may want to avoid politicizing their work through associations with Romani solidarity movements, or they might seek to avoid further racialization by distancing themselves from immigrant Romanies in France.

The important point here is that these stances aren’t definitive. People emphasize different allegiances depending on context, and they change their opinions over time. Such tensions are reflected in the music the book explores. For example, Alsatian jazz manouche has roots in both jazz (a practice so widespread it often gets labeled as “universal”) and Hungarian csárdás, which has specifically Romani connotations. Musicians are very selective about how they use these different legacies depending on how they want to be perceived.

Lynn Hooker: In chapter 4, there is this fascinating discourse where various speakers talk about how they can tell the difference between Manouche musicians and Gadjo musicians by sound–what you describe as ethnoracial qualia of sound. I am curious about something that you do not talk about as much, and that is the practice of jazz manouche among non-Manouche (Gadjo) players. How do the Manouche musicians you work with feel about this?

Siv Lie: Gadjé make up a huge part of the performing circuit within and outside of France and are not necessarily looked down upon by Manouche musicians. In general, there is a lot of mutual respect between Manouche and Gadjo musicians. A Gadjo sound isn’t always considered bad, and not everyone claims there are significant or inherent differences between Manouche and Gadjo sounds. Musicians of various backgrounds often tell me that the most important thing is respect – for other musicians and for the music (however that is defined). Interpersonal problems tend to arise when Gadjo musicians adopt signs of “Gypsiness” and, in some cases, may exploit real or imagined connections to Manouches to further their careers. I don’t think the Manouche musicians I work with are terribly concerned about the whitewashing of an ethnoracially unique practice; those who believe in a distinctive Manouche sound will point to its inimitable qualia, and others might accuse Gadjé of cultural appropriation, but the practice still remains marketable and meaningful for them. More broadly, given the context of Romani disenfranchisement within France, there can be a sense of distrust among Manouches toward Gadjé. It’s not totalizing, but I see it crop up when some Manouche musicians do business with Gadjé and want to ensure that they’re not exploited. That said, musicians of any background tend to be on guard when maneuvering within the music industry, and rightly so!

Lynn Hooker: You started this project years ago, including identifying colorblind racism within French civic society as manifest in, for example, festivals that present jazz manouche but that try to keep Romaniesand Gens du voyage at arms’ length. (This topic is sprinkled throughout the book, but the introduction and chapters 3 and 5 deal with it in the most detail.) How have your interlocutors responded to the recent surge in anti-racist activism around the world?

Siv Lie: Like the US, France is undergoing a very fraught and necessary reckoning with deep-seated racism, energized in part by the protests of 2020. Much of the resistance to antiracist discourse stems from the idea that racism is a US problem, not a French one, and that US understandings of race and racialization are entirely inapplicable to France (so much so that in February 2021, President Macron denounced critical approaches to race supposedly imported from the US, and the minister for higher education proposed restricting research on the topic). Many groups have participated vigorously in these debates, but I haven’t had the chance to probe the issue with my interlocutors. I am really looking forward to being able to travel to France again and talk about all of this. I think aspects of this activism have probably resonated with my interlocutors, especially those who already draw parallels between their own racialization and that of African Americans (see chapters 1 and 4). I’m working to get a French translation of the book published so that it can better contribute to these discussions. For now, I’m not optimistic about any changes within the French state, but I’m glad that colorblind racism has come to the fore in public debate.

Mwenda Ntarangwi on his book, The Street is My Pulpit

Christine Chalifoux: By focusing your ethnographic attention on the hip hop artist Juliani, you were able to weave together so many important facets of life in Kenya: socioeconomic precarity, self-expression, the influence of the burgeoning youth population, and most significantly for your work, Christianity. Your ethnography especially stands out because it not only takes Christianity seriously as a subject on its own, but you engage in anthropology at home in the religious sense, too. How did your position as a fellow Christian affect the relationship you cultivated with Juliani?

Mwenda Ntarangwi: First, my focus on a single person allowed me to use Juliani as the minimum unit of analysis and work ‘backwards” to establish what made him who he is as a Christian and as a musician. I kept asking myself, “what have been the key influences in Juliani’s life that have led him to become who he is today?” It is this analysis that helped me generate the kinds of questions that allowed Juliani to reflect and share some of the experiences and incidents that shaped his identity at the time that I was carrying out an ethnography on his music and life. It also gave him a chance to identify certain individuals and incidents that had had major influences in his life. Second, as a Christian myself, I was very much aware of many of the possible blindsides of carrying out the study of a Christian artist and had to constantly keep checking on my own biases (against or towards Christianity). I remember once having a deep conversation with Juliani about some of the church members at the congregation that had been exposed as following a preacher who claimed to remove evil in their bodies by duplicitously applying potassium permanganate to look like blood. I told him that they were too gullible and followed without question the preacher’s gimmicks. Juliani shot back saying that each one of them was getting something more than what we can discern intellectually. He insisted that the congregants were not fools but rather strategic players who knew what they wanted from the preacher and were getting it. Third, I came into the ethnography with a specific bias towards Christianity, having edited another book with a focus on the social significance of Christianity in Africa, whereby I juxtaposed the rapid spread of Christianity in Africa and the corresponding expansion of social ills represented by high levels of corruption, disease, poverty, and focus on the occult. At the back of my mind, I was skeptical about any positive role Christianity was playing in Africa and was therefore interested in Juliani because he tended to challenge Christianity and especially the way it was mobilized publicly. He, for instance, challenged certain expected silences towards areas of Christianity that did not make sense such as how Christians would seldom challenge certain ideas about God, especially the idea of God’s power over everything, meanwhile many attending church and professing faith in God were languishing in poverty and abuse. Growing up in a Christian context where we did not have many opportunities to challenge certain narratives about Christianity, I was naturally drawn to Juliani’s messages that engaged critically with Christianity as he understood it. I was straddling the two worlds of curiosity toward Juliani’s challenges of Christianity and my own biases towards Christianity. I had to be very careful not to look for Juliani’s messages that would validate my own biases. Being a fellow Christian further provided a shared position from which to engage but not a shared set of interpretations that would miss the complexity of life of Christians.

Christine Chalifoux: The names of some of the hip hop groups and artists you wrote about, such as Camp Mau Mau and MajiMaji, reference powerful anti-colonial movements in East Africa. Are such references common among youth in Nairobi today? And, if so, are young people able to reconcile violent rebellion with Christianity?

Mwenda Ntarangwi: A number of young people who are politically sensitized do use references to Mau Mau and colonial experiences, especially the fact that Africans were taught the wrong type of Christianity. Their claim is similar to the one articulated immediately after independence when Kenyan political leaders claimed that Christianity made Kenyans docile, allowing colonialists to take all their land while they shut their eyes to pray. There are, however, fewer Christians who combine the political with the spiritual because they often assume that they are incompatible. It is thus quite surprising that in early 2021 well-known Christian artist and preacher Mr. Reuben Kigame talked about Jesus being a social activist and that there should not be a dichotomy between faith and living. This is quite a departure from his earlier songs in which he focused on personal piety and preparation for life after death. The Mau Mau have not been viewed mainly as violent in much of Kenya, but rather as agitators for what is rightfully owned by Kenyans. But the memory of their influences has slowly faded away. There might be some affinity between Christianity and Mau Mau in that they both seek radical change in people’s quest for a better life.

Christine Chalifoux: Basing your ethnography in the urban setting of Nairobi, you were able to avert the temptation of many anthropologists and historians of sub-Saharan Africa, which is to break up the country of study into regional ethnic groups. Despite this, readers can see how ethnic concerns continue to be at the forefront, even in the nation’s cosmopolitan capital. In Chapter 3, in particular, you write about the ways in which Christian missionaries had different conversion tactics for particular ethnic groups. Do you think a Christian identity, or ‘performing Christianity’, to use your term, allows the youth to be more amenable to a larger Kenyan nationality?

Mwenda Ntarangwi: Ethnicity has been mobilized to define identity in Kenya for a long time to such an extent that it is the default mode of defining individuals. When this is combined with political processes that amplify ethnicity, then one can see how ethnicity becomes such a key part of the social fabric of the nation. The idea that Africans were organized around tribes was extended to Christian missionary work and colonial boundary-making processes in forming administrative areas in Kenya. This has now been assumed to be the default standard for leadership in certain locales, even in churches. There is a tendency up till today to have certain church leaders be seen as belonging while others don’t belong, and this is based on their ethnic identity and the denomination involved. The Methodist Church, for instance, remains a church associated with the Meru so much that it is almost expected that the presiding bishop of the church will be from the Meru ethnic group. It is quite telling that only the first presiding bishop of the Methodist Church was not Meru, the other five have all been Meru. Interestingly even cosmopolitan churches such as the Christ is the Answer Ministries, a Pentecostal church that was started by Canadian missionaries in 1918 in Nairobi, has been led in the last twenty years (2002-2021) by men from the Luo ethnic group. Despite these patterns of continuity in perpetuating certain ethnic ideologies, I am convinced that the Church in Kenya has the best shot as bringing about a change in ethnic identity. This is for two reasons: first, the Church is, especially in urban areas, a space where new communities are formed and many of those communities are multiethnic. When there is a critical mass of such community building, ethnic identity will no longer be the primary organizing factor in social relationships. Second, many weddings still take place in church and as more and more interethnic marriages take place the church will be an important space to demonstrate a changed social reality regarding ethnicity. Many younger people (those under 30 years of age) are not all too wedded to the idea of ethnic identity especially if they are exposed to a more multiethnic social context compared to their parents’ generation.

Christine Chalifoux: Juliani asserts that “Kenyan youth mostly recognize two tribes–the rich and the poor,” (15) a claim that foreshadows the lyrics in his music criticizing corrupt politicians. Yet, the campaigns to improve communities described in chapter 4 suggest that he embraces a neoliberal vision for the youth. Throughout the ethnography, you convincingly stress that Juliani’s music focuses on Christianity in this material world, rather than heaven and the afterlife, but there seems to be some contradictions in his vision of political economy. Does Juliani have a clear vision for a more egalitarian economy, and if so, what does it look like for him? Do you think Juliani’s faith and music have the potential for more radical forms of politics?

Mwenda Ntarangwi: For Juliani, society is not fully free until everyone has a chance to follow through with their dreams. He believes that such freedom does not come from political benevolence but that it must be constructed and demanded by the electorate. Making the right choices at the ballot box and holding leaders accountable is an important step towards achieving the kind of society Kenyans need. Juliani is also clear that no one will be given free stuff and each one has to work for the things he/she has. He believes that the youth have an opportunity to change their circumstances through honest hard work supported by the right economic and political structures. This belief is what propelled his song and movement he termed “Kama Si Sisi (if not us)” which is about the youth taking on leadership and owning property today (not tomorrow, as is the common idea that youth are leaders of tomorrow). This kind of hope is not far-fetched because, as I show in my other book on East African Hip Hop, many of the businesses revolving around popular music within East Africa were run and owned by young people. The kind of politics that Juliani espouses through his music (the politics of radical faith) has not quite caught on among many Kenyans because of the enduring assumption that politics and faith are like water and oil, they do not mix. It will take a few more years of consistently breaking such assumptions and norms to get the masses to see the value of using faith to engage with the politics of the day. But given the culture of deceit corruption and outright mudslinging, it is difficult for a Christian to be engaged in fruitful politics in Kenya today. As they say, culture will eat strategy for lunch. Unless the political culture changes to accommodate people of Christian faith, there still will be spaces where Christians will feel like outsiders in politics.

Alex Dent discusses Digital Pirates

Cover of Digital Pirates by Alexander Sebastian Dent

Interview by Ilana Gershon

Digital Pirates: Policing Intellectual Property in Brazil

Ilana Gershon: At the heart of this book is the intellectually productive argument that intellectual property and piracy are so intertwined that not only do they mutually co-constitute each other under digital textuality, but the same people can support IP wholeheartedly in one moment and talk like pirates ten minutes later.   On the ground, IP and piracy present as sides in a debate, but you argue that understanding this debate in terms of sides is misleading. Could you explain a bit what is misleading about viewing piracy and IP as opposing perspectives and the role digital textuality plays in creating this discursive field?

Alex Dent: When I was researching and writing my last book, on Brazilian country music, I noticed that musical genres were often only taken seriously by social scientists when they were judged to be the fundamental ground of some sort of identity claim.  Were you a hard-core commercial country fan, or were you a member of the folkloric team? What I found, instead, was that the genres offered possible role-inhabitances; people crossed back and forth all the time, but that didn’t mean they didn’t fight about generic boundaries a lot.  I feel similarly here, though in a somewhat different context.  It is indeed true that there are IP maximalists out there who spend a lot of their time fighting for IP.  Along those lines, I didn’t include, in Digital Pirates, the research I did about my study of the United States Trade Representative, where I discovered that the USTR plagiarizes huge amounts of text from industry groups while entirely ignoring the pleas of public interest groups to afford foreign nations the same legal protections citizens expect here in the US; the big pharma and film industry lawyers who showed up for those hearings did, indeed, seem like pro-IP warriors (and for the record, their suits appeared to be made of some non-stick, bulletproof material).  Similarly, on the other side of things, copy-left advocates and hackers often seemed like they were categorically opposed to IP, arguing that “information wants to be free” (an anthropomorphizing if ever there was one).  But the truth is that even these warriors for one or the other position step out of line from time to time.

Even more to your question, the vast majority of us live in that space between all the time.  So it struck me that requiring there to be “positions” actually becomes a way to deliberately avoid the conversation that we need to have – which is about how arguments for and against IP get mobilized for political projects, with quite local approaches shaping that mobilization.

The insistence on positions seems particularly misleading in the digital realm, where inscriptive (which is to say, durable) forms of textuality become such a common part of our quotidian existence.  One of your questions, below, asks me to talk more about cellularity and its relationship to contemporary capitalism – so I’ll hold off on that for a bit.  But the point is simply that decisions about how you are going to govern your own productions now imbricate your every move.  I write in chapter four that the novelty of contemporary digital textuality surrounds the reduction of response-time, the transcendence of space, the unification of communicative modalities in a single device, and the portability of that device. This means that durable and promulgating potentials are with you at every moment.  And the decisions you make about how you are going to circulate yourself are shaped by both IP maximalism and piracy – shaped in real-time contexts, on the fly. So we are not “taking positions” on IP. We are, in a split second, deciding what kinds of circulatory legitimacy accompanies a photograph we just received, or a blog post – or how we might anticipate this video we are currently making about our dog playing in the snow finding itself in far-flung lands.

Ilana Gershon: What does policing look like from the perspective of Brazilian piracy? 

Alex Dent: There has been lots of great stuff written on policing and its importance to contemporary capitalism.  In that ambit, Jim Holston and Teresa Caldeira have done a great job writing about how, in what might seem a paradoxical move on the surface, the turn to democratization has actually led to drastically elevated levels of policing in Brazil; what we can derive from this is the necessity of policing to neoliberal theologies.  With respect to IP, specifically, what I was anxious to do away with was the myth that policing of IP around the world is about bribes or salaries; there’s this idea among critics of IP that the only reason people would police IP in parts of the world where “licit” products are too expensive is because they are being paid.  On the pro-IP side there is this equally misleading notion that local police “just want to be right with the law.”  But the truth is a lot more complicated than either of these options.  The truth is that there are local discourses that explain policing.  In Brazil, discourses of cultural mixture are famous – in tourist brochures, of course, but even in Brazilian self-explanations of prowess in soccer, music, religion, and food (Lorand Matory and John Collins have written about this).  But what you don’t hear about very much are Brazilian anxieties about cultural inter-mixture going too far.  What you find, if you dig into the classic Brazilian book called “Rebellion in the Backcountry” (which is about a millennial movement that gets absolutely destroyed by the emerging Brazilian state in the late 1800s) is that there are localized appetites for “order” and keeping mixture under wraps.  That is what is getting ignited by IP maximalism – not some bribe. So in some ways I’m revisiting that old chestnut about the relationship between the production of locality and the production of globality – with the notion that the dialogic relation between the two must be understood according to durable structures.  It’s no coincidence that violations of IP get treated like “trash” in Brazil.  I explain why in chapter two.

Ilana Gershon:  What role does Paraguay play in Brazilians’ relationship to piracy?

Alex Dent: As a linguistic anthropologist, this was one of those spectacular fieldwork moments when you become aware of how language is a kind of flexible dialogue between historical conflicts and contemporary practices. It’s not a repository, mind you, because it’s constantly in flux. What happened was that my family started characterizing things that broke as “Paraguayan.”  I remember the first time it happened – it was a cheap alarm clock I’d bought which inexplicably failed; and I’d just underscore that the cheapness and the inexplicability are intimately related to one another! In any case, this invocation of “Paraguayan” as a descriptor seemed, in that first moment, to carry all kinds of anxieties about bordering that I hadn’t though of.  That’s when I started learning about Paraguay’s role as the place cheap goods come into Brazil, and also, about its stature in Brazilian popular culture as a place where grand promises are made that then are not delivered upon.  There is some overlap with how the US-Mexico border translates in our context – though there are important differences. But with respect to Paraguay, the history is that Paraguay invaded Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay in 1864, and after some stunning initial victories, they were absolutely routed. The war was just devastating for Paraguay, and in conventional histories, the war’s legacy was a long-lasting economic depression and cultural inferiority complex. (I’d like to note something obvious – that my Paraguayan friends inflect this story with considerably more complexity.) In any case, this phrase circulated periodically in Brazil when discussing a soccer team that started off in a promising way, but then crashed: the team was referred to as a “Paraguayan horse.” 

I ended up spending quite a bit of time in the border towns between Brazil and Paraguay, studying the ways goods traveled from Paraguay into Brazil (although I should add that the real expert, here, is Rosana Pinheiro-Machado).  And it struck me that the bordering work there – with incumbent anxieties about porosity, omnipresence, illegality, and necessity – also populated the way my interlocutors were characterizing the Internet in Brazil.  All of which is to say that, when you are trying to understand just what this thing called the Internet might be, it makes sense to consider localized approaches to time, space, and boundary.

Ilana Gershon: You talk about how Brazilians have a different relationship to cellphones than Americans or Canadians do because they had a different historical engagement with landlines.   Could you explain how these different historical trajectories made a difference in your fieldsites?

Alex Dent: When I first arrived in Brazil in 1998, I lived with a family — who subsequently became my caretakers, consultants, and very close friends – in the town of Campinas.  My Brazilian “dad” was a telecommunications engineer who taught at the local university – UNICAMP.  And in early discussions with him, I noticed that telephones were politicized in a different way fromm Canada, the US, or the UK – the three places I had lived.  I detected a kind of media ideology about telephones where — in part based on consumption of North American public culture – there was this belief that Brazil had developed incorrectly.  Phone landlines were incredibly expensive to get, and were not well disseminated among working class neighborhoods.  Phones were not a forgone conclusion in Brazilian life – they were often thought of as a necessity that was paradoxically also a luxury.  So when cell phones began to arrive, in concert with the neoliberal selling-off of the state phone companies, I heard a lot of people explain to me that Brazil had “skipped” a step; that, in some normative sense, it ought to have had cheap and widely available landlines first, and then people could have transitioned more smoothly to cell phones. I should point out that this popular argument also has a well developed academic Brazilian form in the shape of associated-dependency theory. But the point is that when Brazilians started to absorb cellular technology, their early use was often tinged with a dialogue between ravenous hunger, and a kind of shaming scold.  I heard statements such as, “Brazilians have multiple cell phones, but they are too ill-educated to have anything to say on them,” which struck me as harsh until I decoded where they were coming from, historically.

Ilana Gershon: You argue that cellularity at the heart of contemporary capitalism – could you explain what you mean by this?

Alex Dent: I’m working this up into a broader theory of neoliberal theology now; as I type, I’m writing-up five years of data collected with Joshua Bell (of the Smithsonian) and Joel Kuipers (also at GW) on the productivity of ambivalence among teenage cell phone users in Washington DC.  Part of the argument is that, contrary to the projections many adults place onto teenagers, teenagers are acutely aware of not only the joys, but also the potential harms of cellular phone use.  The productivity of this ambivalence, as I note above, in chapter four, lies in “cellular publics”; I argue that contemporary digital textuality is characterized by reduction of response time, transcendence of space, condensation of communicative modalities, and portability.  But what is significant is the trip to heaven and hell that this entails.  (I should mention someone who has written brilliantly about this in Brazil is Leticia Cesarino.) Because just as cell phones can be celebrated for their rendering work more flexible, they can also be indicted for enslaving us. We are, in the same moment, in joyful anticipation of connection, and in horror at possible over-extension. I’m using “horror” carefully, here – intending to address myself to the brilliant theorist who was Mary Shelley. This is the sublime. And the argument I’m making is that contemporary (probably not “late”!) capitalism’s balance between tremendous wealth and utter ruin finds itself mediated – in ways I think David Harvey anticipated – by way of cellularity. To put it somewhat differently, it is no coincidence that “paying it forward” and “going viral” partake of the same vectors of accrual.

Ruben Enrique Campos III takes the page 99 test

Destiny again. It had to be El Legendario Bombay. It had to be page 99.

Upon entering, I immediately saw why the place was called legendary. It oozed underground Hip Hop. Graffiti covered every wall. In the past, there had been a waist-high mural that wrapped around the bar featuring skeletons in fluffy rat costumes. Now most of it was covered over in aerosol paint, paint pen, postal stickers, and permanent ink throwies. The above-waist, mirrored walls were now covered over in tattered black plastic tarp, which was itself covered over in white mop paint pen tags. The tile floor was thick with dried beer and tracked-in road grime. Google Maps had not been wrong. The place had been permanently closed; but it was still quite active that night. A crew of two dozen men and a few women sat drinking beer, listening to the Chicano music of my youth. Most of the audience seemed to be in their late 30s. Their clothes were baggier than Heticko’s which was a sign of his relative youth at 25 and the changing trends of a scene. Most wore tan Dickies pants and either a plain white cotton tee-shirt, a tan khaki shirt, or a black one with La Sociedad Café printed in Old-English style font. Most wore thick löc-style sunglasses. The darkly lit scene could have passed as a sepia-toned photograph save for the glints of the deep red and thickly lined lipsticks of the women, and then there was the pop and lock dancer wearing the royal blue tracksuit and white gloves. Two beautifully maintained, chrome laden lowrider bicycles sat on the stage. Tomás, the owner of TT Caps arrived after me. He sat at the bar to chat with El Bombay’s owner. Both were in their late 50s and had invested in Hip Hop as more than a fad years prior. They had both given the youth culture space to flourish, but now had to watch as their business dried up.

My dissertation explores life in desmadre, or the overwhelming, noisy chaos that continually changes underfoot in the streets of the metropolitan valley surrounding Mexico City, the largest urban landscape within North America. I chronicle the experiences of contemporary rap artists as they move through the city, creating a Hip Hop scene in looped interconnectedness. And while my work is attuned to the Voice of these artists, it’s always grounded by my relationship to the streets and by that feeling of destiny I feel when I’m in the wrong place and the right time, when I encounter everything I need to be Hip Hop, to be ethnography. After weeks of futile attempts to find a Hip Hop scene by safe and traditional means, I found Bombay in a moment wondering aimlessly and dangerously down a dark alley in Tepito, a barrio born into its bad reputation. Following that moment, dedication and destiny launched me across the entire valley from La Paz, Iztapalapa and La Ciudad Nezahualcóyotl to Tacubaya, Colina Del Sur, and el Reclusorio Norte, all to find Hip Hop.

Ultimately, I find that by practicing their poetry and their breath control rappers learn to render the aural sensorium and echo the city itself through their bodies—from the noises of its mass transit to the acoustic registers of its ambulant vendors; from the sounds of familiar language games, poetics, and popular culture to appropriated Nahuatl vocabulary and place names. By learning to navigate through the city, flowing against its conservative logic for their own artistic and cultural purposes, rappers come to embody a difficult to explain yet deeply felt awareness of desmadre. Rather than seeing chaos as a source of frustration (to state control), as inefficient (to capitalist profit), or as unnecessary imperilment (to fearful citizens of the general public), rappers find direction and purpose in creativity and community. By engaging with others in desmadre they recognize their place, authenticate their experience, and overcome anonymity through the choral voice, hearing their own subjectivity echoed back and affirmed by others who have travelled a different route. …And so do anthropologists.

It had to be page 99. It had to be El Legendario Bombay. Desmadre again.

Ruben Enrique Campos III.  2020. Word To Desmadre: Hip Hop, Voice, and the Rhythm Of Chaos In México. University of Hawai’i, Phd.


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”? Continue reading

Jasper Waugh-Quasebarth takes the p. 99 test

Opening to page 99 of Finding the Singing Spruce: Craft Labor, Global Forests, and Musical Instrument Makers in Appalachia, you’ll find my reflections on choosing apprenticeship as the ethnographic method that would fit my research questions exploring how craft labor was related to connections with forest landscapes in the mountain forests of West Virginia. While the page generally focuses on how I changed research topics to focus on the materials of craft as an entrance into the meaning of work and how I found makers (often locally famous and frequently interviewed) had ready-to-articulate ideas about their craft, one sentence stands out to speak to the whole of the dissertation.  


I found that verbal learning about the craft processes and the craft in general occurred more often in tandem with my kinesthetic, material, and temporal experience that inspired discussion not broached in our interviews.


Ethnographic apprenticeship is the methodological rock upon which the rest of the work unfolds, as the bulk of my argument is made through the narratives of building instruments with three makers. Learning the craft enabled me to feel the affect of the work: the compulsion to make despite adverse and anxiety-inducing economic conditions, the joy and frustration of intersubjective relationships emerging between skilled crafter and wood materials as successful instruments or dashed hopes, and living in the contradiction of the major paradoxes of musical instrument making. Working alongside makers enabled me to see how they live in the contradictory processes of bringing life to an instrument through the death of a tree and relying on the capitalist regimes of timber and factory production that elide the livelihoods and material necessities of craft makers. Working together on material objects also revealed other categories that rendered the work meaningful. Through long hours spent together in the shop, topics emerged that were not discussed in interviews guided by my research questions. Relationship building through apprenticeship revealed that religion was the main driver of meaning in work in one case and transnational connections between people and forest landscapes in another. While the presence of the forest and relationship to the materials was central in both cases, it was other relationships that foregrounded the meaning of the work. 


While these methods limited the scope of the dissertation, and made it difficult to speak to the extensive scale of instrument making in Appalachia, empirical discussion of the political economic context, and contrasting takes on the position of racialization and gendering, it did allow me to once explore the intricacies of the relationships between working humans and our environments, as well as position those uniquely human forms of relationship that enable us to make sense of the political, economic, and ecological webs we inhabit. 


Jasper Waugh-Quasebarth. 2019. Finding the Singing Spruce: Craft Labor, Global Forests, and Musical Instrument Makers in Appalachia. University of Kentucky, Phd.

Michelle Williams takes the page 99 test

One half of page 99 of my doctoral thesis is a photo, taken at eye level of a group of Tongan students sitting cross-legged on the ground of their school courtyard in Auckland, New Zealand. They are rehearsing for an upcoming cultural festival that is the central topic of my research. I am sitting, unseen, with the students as we learn the performance item together. The movement of our bodies and voices has become synchronous over several weeks of practice and in this moment, the production of culturally-specific movement and sound is a uniting factor among myself and the student participants. However, the image also represents a key problem central to my fieldwork methodology: although membership in a music-community transcends difference in some ways, how would I bridge the spaces created by authority, power, ethnicity and age? How could I represent young people’s experiences effectively and help to bring their voices to the fore within a discipline that often excluded them? These questions were significant components in constructing my research model.

My research approach was informed by both Pacific research frameworks and recommendations from ethnomusicology, many of which overlapped in their emphases on relationships, collaboration, and reciprocity. Educational research helped me to problematize how I would represent myself to students, and was essential guidance to the shifting roles I undertook as a learner, music-community supporter and friendly teacher (the latter during the focus groups we co-created). Throughout my fieldwork I attempted to daily to bridge the spaces created by my adult authority and my privileges as a white American researcher, through shared love of popular music, my immigrant status, my Christian upbringing and the common goal of representing “our” school at the cultural festival. Although I had to concede a number of limitations, I was pleased that ultimately the experiences and viewpoints of the students were a major component of my findings, and included several “firsts” in research with Pacific youth in New Zealand.

Michelle Ladwig Williams. 2019. The ASB Polyfest: Constructing Transnational Pacific Communities of Practice in Auckland, New Zealand. University of Auckland, Phd.

David Flood takes the page 99 test

My dissertation examines everyday interactions between two groups of white people in the US who to all appearances should get along but don’t, despite their sustained efforts towards solidarity and a shared musical practice. They are divided by class. One group consists of rural working-class musicians who play in an informal amateur musical circuit in western North Carolina. The other group consists of transplanted musicians from coastal cities—mostly leftist activists—who have relocated to the area to pursue what they call ‘traditional music’ (more or less, the music that the working-class white people play: bluegrass, old-time, classic country). I show that their constant disagreements and misunderstandings emerge from classed differences at the rather profound level of ethics of sociality: what they think it means to be a good relational subject, or person.

I describe in and through musical sociality the ways that divergent and even antagonistic white racial identities (or ‘whitenesses’) were co-constituted with class difference, and came to powerfully shape people’s understanding of themselves and others in everyday life and politics. This differentiation is vital to understand in order to contextualize and respond to populism and ethnonationalism. In fact, for the rural working-class white people I describe, the primary cultural ‘other’ against whom they agonistically defined their own sense of good personhood was in fact urban middle-class white people. For the middle-class white people in question, working-class lifeworlds were a space where they projected many of the desires and anxieties of life in late capitalism.

This dynamic, needless to say, has historical antecedents. As such, page 99 of my dissertation is smack in the middle of a very long history chapter that ranges from Herder and the German counter-enlightenment to the particular ways that the long history of European folklore arrived in Appalachia proper. The page concludes with a quote from Cecil Sharp, a British folklorist and revivalist who exemplified a kind of fin-de-siècle leftism, combining his anti-modernist sentiments—derived in part from the British Fabian Socialism of the day—with a racial-cultural essentialism familiar in the lineage of Herderian thought.

Sharp writes about white Appalachian settlers of northern European descent, from whom he spent several years of World War I collecting putatively British folk songs:

“That the illiterate may nevertheless reach a high level of culture will surprise only those who imagine that education and cultivation are convertible terms.  The reason, I take it, why these mountain people, albeit unlettered, have acquired so many of the essentials of culture is partly to be attributed to the large amount of leisure they enjoy, without which, of course, no cultural development is possible, but chiefly to the fact that they have one and all entered at birth into the full enjoyment of their racial heritage.  Their language, wisdom, manners, and the many graces of life that are theirs, are merely racial attributes which have been gradually acquired and accumulated in past centuries and handed down… It must be remembered, also, that in their daily lives they are immune from that continuous grinding, mental pressure, due to the attempt to ‘make a living,’ from which nearly all of us in the modern world suffer.  In this respect, at any rate, they have the advantage over those who habitually spend the greater part of every day in preparing to live, in acquiring the technique of life, rather than in its enjoyment” (Sharp, 1917: 24).

As I show in the rest of the work, this danger—the re-inscription of white racial virtue—remains a stubborn peril of a white middle-class leftism that is unreflexive about and uninterested in class difference. Whether it’s contemporary white middle-class leftists purifying their own whiteness by ascribing the evils of racism or white supremacy solely to working-class voters, or folkloric paeans to the virtuous agrarian whites of the heartland: class is the spectre that haunts white liberalism.


Flood, David. 2017. Classed Cultural Ethics: Understanding Class Difference in the Contemporary US through Traditional Musical Performance and Radical Leftism. University of Virginia, PhD Dissertation.


Sharp, Cecil J. 1917. English Folk Songs From the Southern Appalachians, Comprising 122 Songs and Ballads, and 323 Tunes. New York and London: G. P. Putnam’s sons.