Critical Karaoke Comes to “Mediating Race”

What is Critical Karaoke, you ask? Here are the rules:

(1) You get to talk about a single song,

(2) for as long as the song is long,

(3) while the song is playing in the background.

You speak while the song plays. You might pause at special moments where your analysis meets the music. You might incorporate some of the lyrics into your talk (if there are lyrics). You do not need to sing, but you can. As long as you follow the first three rules, the rest is really up to you.

Critical Karaoke was introduced by Joshua Clover at the Experience Music Project (now MoPOP) annual Pop Conference and has been replicated at different forums since, including at Graduate Center English Program Friday Forums in 2014, 2015, and 2019.

Jennifer Stoever writes in The Sonic Color Line (2016) that “listening operates as an organ of racial discernment, categorization, and resistance” (6). Thinking alongside Stoever, I’ll be leading our next “Mediating Race” class as a Critical Karaoke event. Our Critical Karaoke will showcase sonically attuned analyses by “Mediating Race” students that think through what role(s) listening plays in selfhood, race and gender discrimination, citizenship, and sexuality across space, time, genre, and medium. All are welcome to engage the transformative power of performance, to dress the part, to be creative. 

Since we’re discussing visual art and media, we’ll modify Critical Karaoke somewhat and play music videos in the background and you are welcome to discuss both the music and the video. Take some time to consider who produces what, what the camera is doing, what props are on screen, the music industry’s role in the music-making and visual product, and all of the themes we’ve been discussing in “Mediating Race” with Professors Davidson and Gates. Use this as an opportunity to look into your favorite artist, their record label (who manages their brand?), their history, and the conversations happening around their work in addition to what the artist says about their own work.  

Here’s what you need to do: 

(1) Post a comment to this blog post below with a link to the music video you would like to play and a sentence or two about what you plan to talk about.

Note: the video must be 5 minutes or less. Please post this comment no later than Monday, March 18th by midnight.

(2) Prepare your presentation for Wednesday’s class (this should take a total of about 2 hours or less). Do your research, think about your approach, and most importantly, practice reading while the music video plays. Time your talk to take breaks at critical moments, to incorporate lyrics (if there are lyrics), and to highlight specific things happening in the music or in the video or both.

Note: you will not be able to preface your talk, there will be no disclaimers or explanations. When the music starts, that’s when you start talking. And when the music stops, a hook will appear stage right and help escort you away from the front of the room.

I will make a set-list, and kick off the event with Janelle Monae’s “PYNK”. After Critical Karaoke is over, we’ll discuss everyone’s presentations together as a class.

3/21/19 Update: Want to see how it went? Read my class recap here.

10 responses to “Critical Karaoke Comes to “Mediating Race””

  1. I had an incredibly difficult time picking my song for this week, and I am so sad that I missed the presentation of this amazing selection of work.
    I narrowed it down to Bob Marley as I grew up with him in my house (my entire family before me is from Jamaica). But even then, he has so many amazing performances and impactful lyrics, it is still hard to narrow down. So given the time limit, I went back to what I used to say was my favorite of his as a child and chose this: 
    Redemption Song by Bob Marley (1980 performance)
    This particular performance is so remarkable for Marley because it is so different from how he normally goes about getting his message of peace and love across. He is usually up and dancing and grooving and shaking his locs all about a stage with a large presentation of collaborating singers and musicians. But this song differs in style and actually warrants this soft and beautiful acoustic vibe with its campfire-esque quality. One gets the sense that with this song and performance, the whole word comes to sit and listen to an artist speak about freedom and equality. Moreover, this video interlaces images of black workers, military, and also references the Rasta beliefs of homeland and the alignment with Ethiopia’s last emperor, Haile Selassie. Marley is of course a leading figure of Rastafarianism and Jamaican culture in general, but what is most thrilling about his life is the way he was able to spread his image globally as a symbol for these ideas. Redemption Song captures this in both form and content. Its lyrics push the sense of “us,” “our,” suggesting that it only as a collective that the human race can become free. It details a history in which people have enslaved other people, and therefore puts forth that it is only people that can set other people free. 
    Another solid choice for the context of this class would have been “War,” but the song is too long. I highly suggest listening to it anyhow. It is a modified version of a speech that Emperor Selassie made at a UN assembly in 1963. This song brings up a lot about ownership, and in some ways an extension of our discussion about songs that detail how black people may be able to become free of the reverberating chains of racism.

  2. Unfortunately, I cannot make it to class this Wednesday because I have to travel out of town that evening for a conference. Of all the classes to miss, this one is really a bummer! I’m sorry I won’t be there for such interesting presentations, but I hope everyone has fun. I will share a slightly longer post since I won’t be presenting…
    Originally in brainstorming for this presentation, I thought I would do something by Missy Elliott because of the sexual empowerment in her lyrics and the futuristic style especially of her earlier videos (which now fill me with nostalgia for my teenage years). However, if I were going to present, I ultimately decided I would go in a different direction and choose Solange’s “Cranes in the Sky” because it resonates more recently for me:
    I find the sparse lyrics and the breathtaking visual shots of the video moving. I am drawn to the way Solange tackles “it,” which in its ambiguity represents to me a depression that is often hard for even the person suffering from it to grasp or define. That pain is “like cranes in the sky” because it hovers over you, out of reach, and its shadow is always present (like the cloud in the antidepressant commercials). I especially love the relationship between industrialization and nature in the song (the clouds are metal), and I can relate to the feelings of gloom and entrapment brought about and exaggerated by an overly industrial environment. That depression is tied to machinery and that the dancing shifts back and forth from stiff and robotic to flowing and smooth throughout the video represents the struggle to escape the internal pain that Solange suggests has origins in the external world. A similar tension occurs in the shifts between dissonant and consonant piano chord progressions that move beneath Solange’s soulful voice. 
    The song, I think, comments on the ways that man-made society throughout history has prioritized a misguided sense of progress and development that not only ignores but actually causes pain within the human psyche. And of course the black community has been disproportionately afflicted by American ideals of commercial development founded in a system of slavery that aimed to dehumanize and machinize black bodies and minds. While this history is not directly addressed in “Cranes in the Sky,” in the context of other songs on the album — like “Mad,” which argues for the right to be angry, and “Don’t Touch My Hair,” which expresses anger over a social issue that particularly objectifies black women — I think the song certainly can be a catalyst for discussions about the psychic impacts of racism. Overall, in the song’s slow, soulful sound and in the video’s wide open frames, Solange presents a subdued sense of hope; in discovering what does not work to eleviate her pain, she can perhaps begin to locate what might provide relief. It seems that this hope lies both in the shots where she poses with a community of other black women (who also look to be carrying a weight) and in the moments when she appears free dancing under the vastness of the blue sky.

  3. I am using Lauryn Hill’s “Lost Ones” from her Miseducation album. I’ll be speaking about the “Lost ones” as it relates to power priviledge and oppression. In addition, I will speak about Lauryn’s rise to fame and the way in which she currently struggles with showing up to work and the pressures of the industry on Black women.

  4. I will be building on the themes shown in A Tribe Called Red’s “The Virus”, featuring artist and activist Saul Williams.  While acknowledging the ongoing impact of our colonial wound, I will be reflecting on the question of what can resistance look like when peoples are looking to move beyond “the struggle” into spaces of freedom to re-imagine ourselves and our cultures as well as expanding on global commonalities towards social justice.

    This song is a good preface to the discussion I will facilitate around hip hop music and young black perspectives around the police. I will be focusing on this song’s imagery and how certain scenes can speak volumes about he dynamic between the police and black youth.