After Pulse: An Introduction

On Saturday, June 12, 2016, queers of color, their friends and allies, were killed and wounded in the midst of a musical celebration; their place of sanctuary was destroyed, their families and communities were plunged into nightmare. Since June, we’ve seen the mass-shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando filed away as just one more entry in an American catalogue of horrors. News reporting has reduced queer of color lives to numerics of death. Sensational media images have circulated to reinscribe the “violence porn” through which black and brown suffering in America gets consumed as spectacle. And representations of the shooter as an ISIS-affiliated radical have provided fodder for Islamophobia, and given the right wing an excuse to dismiss renewed calls for gun regulation.

After Pulse, the cultural logic of white supremacy remains uninterrupted; the systemic devaluation of black and brown and queer lives carries on unremarked in countless forms. After Pulse, America elects a monster on the strength of his hatreds, and the persistence of our own.

What is music scholarship for, in the age of death? Will music scholarship cut down the institutions of white supremacy, stand up against racialized violence, and push back against the normalization of hate speech? Can musicology, theory, or ethnomusicology even provide disciplinary safe spaces for scholars of color or queer scholars? After Pulse, these are the only questions that matter.

Many of us in the music disciplines want to challenge inequality through the understanding and promotion of musical cultures around the world. Most of us, regardless of whether we work with age-old traditions or contemporary popular musics, share a view that music scholarship is an irreducibly humanistic endeavor, and that our work as researchers and teachers supports the larger cause of social justice. At the same time, we know that academic humanism has most often been a refuge for the privileged, a place to hide from the complexities of genuine social engagement. In the musicologies, our discourses of music’s specialness can promote apoliticism; those of ethnographic rigor allow detachment in the field. Our investment in the notion that music demands highly specialized forms of study drives disciplinary myopia and self-protectiveness. Our professed commitments to clear-eyed scholarship can mask ethical complacency. 

If many music scholars today hold individual commitments to social justice, we are, equally, members of disciplines fundamentally grounded in histories of social inaction, and structurally dependent upon sustained disengagement.  

In this volume of reflections from music scholars after Pulse, quiet voices are saying no. No to an academic humanism set apart from humanity. No to a musicology, a theory, or an ethnomusicology that values music over and above the peoples who make it. No to sequestering ourselves behind institutional walls, or inside privileged discourses.

No, we will not forget the forty-nine, who danced, loved, and lived. We will not lose them in the grim statistical accounting of an American public sphere inured to black, brown, and queer victimization. But neither we will lose them to the more subtle apathies that our own disciplines can too easily permit. It was music that brought the forty-nine together for Latin Night at Pulse on June 12, 2016, and music that was the last pleasure they knew in this world. That truth alone means that Pulse’s tragedy is ours to face. That truth demands that we as music scholars feel, care, and act. 

 

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I name this collection modest, and these voices quiet, because maybe they are nearly inaudible against the chaos of violence, the noise of popular vitriol, the stentorian rhetoric of an elected demagogue. But for us music scholars, it’s the quieter, more unassuming forms of writing—poetry, vignettes, reflections—that might offer language to respond to the nightmare around us in ways that academic prose usually cannot. We write in hushed tones because we feel pain; others’ and our own. We write self-reflexively because we seek to understand our own roles in reproducing inequality and perpetrating micro-aggressions, and to discern how we might instead fight against these from our own positionalities. We write with humility and uncertainty, leaving aside the musuclar claim-making of scholarship, because we know that institutionalized injustice is vast, powerful, and cannot be underestimated.   

This volume is only a small movement along the path towards a responsive and responsible music scholarship, but the labor matters. Our contributors—many of them graduate students mired in coursework, dissertations, and job market pressures, or early-career scholars overloaded with teaching and publishing responsibilities—have put energy into a project that does not offer conventional career-advancing potential. Scholars of color and queer scholars have again generously stepped up, despite the repeated marginalizations they experience in academic settings. Staffers at Ethnomusicology Review have shouldered extra tasks; editing, formatting, working after hours so that the journal can help circulate quiet voices just a little more widely. The editors and contributors at SEM Student News have helped us, sharing pieces from SN’s issue on decolonizing ethnomusicology, and accepting some of ours for cross-publication. We’re proud of this collaboration; we recognize that decolonization in our disciplines is action in our disciplines; that decolonization is all the more urgent after Pulse. Gregory F. Barz, contributing our foreword, has spoken out from his position as a scholar of status to amplify the call for socially engaged ethnomusicology. SEM’s Gender and Sexualities Taskforce has used its limited finances to organize a Pulse commemoration and fundraising event. And two artist-activists working outside university contexts—poet Loma (Christopher Soto) and DJ Kristy la rAt—have lent support to the project, even though academia has rarely been a reliable support for queer Latinx communities. 

Quiet voices have particular relevance when cacophonies of hatred swell to overtake the national conversation. Personal writing holds space for the value of life and the meaning of death amidst numbing litanies of statistics. Unmarked labors and small, steady interventions are where actual humanism survives, during a time when dehumanization occurs on an increasingly grand and institutionalized scale.

To the people who contributed to this volume, and the people who are reading it, we want to say thank you, and keep going. Keep remembering that music scholarship after Pulse is for nothing, unless it is always for the forty-nine who were lost. Keep working to root out legacies of white supremacy and colonialism within our disciplines, and then work on, until all music scholarship becomes indistinguishable from activism. Strive without distraction, in whatever ways you can, towards no other goal but social justice. Fight, fight, fight.

 

 

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