Friday with the Fellows: Earth Communion Meditation and Suggested Ritual
This week, we are beginning a new blog series entitled “Friday with the Fellows.” These posts will feature contributions by public OCH fellows (past and present) and will focus on providing content that entertains, enlightens, and eases some of our shared stress (and boredom) during the Covid-19 crisis. This week’s post features a calming meditation and ritual by artist and psychotherapist Edgar Frias. Click here to learn more about Edgar’s work in the Tulsa community and beyond.
As we sit with the uncertainty, fear, ease, boredom, overwhelm, and deep grief of this global pandemic, it can be helpful to return our awareness to our body, our organs, and our connection to the earth. To feel a sense of terrestrial communion in the era of social distancing and social media overwhelm.
Feel free to listen to this meditation as is or, if you’d like, you could turn this meditation into a personal ritual. Below, I offer a few suggestions on how to do this, but feel free to improvise and use whatever you have at hand. It is important for the ceremony to feel right for you and for it to honor your intentions and realities.
First, find a comfortable place, preferably a quiet space where you will not be interrupted for a few minutes. Light a candle and set an intention as a way to begin your ritual. This intention can be a word, a sentence, or a prayer. Your intention can also be a song, humming, chanting, or a moment of dancing. After this, anoint yourself with essential oils or flower essences, or alternatively, feel free to hold a flower or a fruit in your hands. If it feels right, you can rub this plant all over yourself, starting with your face. Let yourself connect with the plant’s energies, try to get a sense of its spirit. Is it communicating with you?
The goal of this process is to start to shift our attention, clear our minds and cleanse our spirits. Returning to sensation and connection is a powerful way to shift out of other states of awareness and return to the basics. Plants are incredibly generous in the love and care they offer. If you do not have any plants near you, you could also try using a stone, a bowl of water, a feather, seeds, or a cup of tea.
Once you feel like you’ve connected with yourself and with the plant long enough, return your attention to your breath, and begin your transition into the guided meditation. Feel free to bring your plant ally with you and hold onto them during the meditation or place them on your altar or kitchen table. Feel free to write, dance, draw, or call a friend to process your experience afterward.
I hope this meditation can provide you with a moment of respite and emotional support. I also hope this meditation can remind you of the powerful resources you have both within and without.
Join Us Each Week for Our New Virtual Humanities Happy Hour
Join us every Thursday at 5:00 pm on Facebook for a much needed #humanitieshappyhour. Each week, we’ll be going live from the Oklahoma Center for the Humanities Facebook page to share a dose of arts and humanities, paired with a themed beverage.
For our inaugural humanities happy hour, Sean Latham, the OCH Director and Editor of the James Joyce Quarterly, will host a live reading and discussion of James Joyce’s “Eveline.” The event is free and open to everyone.
Grab a Guiness or make an Irish cocktail, order in some bangers and mash, and join us for this Irish-themed Humanities Happy Hour.
The following Thursday, join Machele Dill, Director of the Musical Theatre Program at The University of Tulsa, in her virtual “Quarantini Lounge” for a COVID cabaret performance!
Each week we will feature a special themed drink recipe from one of our favorite local bars or restaurants. Let’s help support the people who make Tulsa great during the Covid-19 crisis.
Being Home To Each Other
This week’s blog post comes from TU English Ph.D. student and 2017-18 OCH fellow, Seungho Lee. As an international student living in Tulsa, Seungho reflects on how his sense of home has been affected by the coronavirus pandemic.
During a time of crisis, our sense of home changes dramatically. Disasters like the current coronavirus pandemic often reveal who belongs in a society and who does not; who has resources and who does not; who is protected and who is not; and, who is more at home and who is less at home. What I’ve been going through over the past month is insignificant compared to those who have to worry about simply sustaining their lives on a daily basis. Still, I want to share my story, hoping that it can help us think together about what it’s like to be away from home at a time like this. Living abroad as a non-citizen in the context of a global pandemic feels less secure, less anchored. It has forced me to ponder where I could stay if forced to leave my current home, where I would feel most comfortable and confident to deal with the situation, and where I can find, or make, a home for myself and my family despite all of the difficulties.
On March 19th, at 12:56 pm, I received an email from University of Tulsa stating that they were going to restrict access to the campus, including the apartments, due to the Covid-19 crisis. My family and I have been living on campus for almost four years, and we had never thought about having to leave before we completed our graduate degrees, or being asked to leave by the university, even for valid reasons. Luckily, TU promised exemptions for those whose permanent addresses were abroad or couldn’t travel back home at the moment. The email stated that if a request for exemption was declined, however, students should plan to move out by 5 pm the following day, March 20th. Even with the promise of exemptions, this email was powerful enough to disconcert me. I made a request very promptly. But I couldn’t help fearing the worst possible scenario: what if my request was turned down and I wouldn’t be able to go back home? If that happened, where would we go? I knew it was very unlikely that we’d be declined, but not impossible. My wife began looking for tickets for flights departing as early as possible. It seemed that there were a lot of people like us—people yearning for homecoming during this difficult time. Flight costs had skyrocketed. Our laptop screen showed us the search result: $15,000 for three people. That’s over three times more than what it would normally cost to fly back to South Korea. That’s more than my yearly stipend. Still, the laptop appeared indifferent, even uninterested, while all of us were visibly shaken.
I received a result on March 20th, 8:12 pm that my request for exemption was accepted. Our status was up in the air for only about 31 hours, but the idea of having nowhere to go was troubling enough to wear me out completely. I became distressed and discouraged. I couldn’t focus on anything. I couldn’t put down my phone. I constantly refreshed my email inbox, only to discover more spam. I got impatient, which made my wife and child impatient. I felt like the roof over my head was going to fall down. Or the floor was going to split apart. Thankfully, none of that happened. But in my fantasy, it all felt like it was happening. During those 31 hours, I feared that, despite all my efforts for the last 4 years to make Tulsa our home away from home, it was not my real home. By real home, I mean a place you can claim as your own no matter what. A place you can keep your roots firmly planted, whatever storm comes.
But I’ve glimpsed a silver lining. I’ve found what may matter more. It has been a pleasant surprise that my family has received so many emails and messages showing concern about us. The messages came from our close friends, acquaintances, colleagues, and professors. They all expressed their worries and their willingness to help us if something happens. One of them was even going to introduce to us her colleague who had some space for us to stay. We found these messages very encouraging. They helped us have the guts to face the situation. The pandemic might push us out of our place, yet people out there can keep us feeling at home. It’s not the place we’ve been living in, but the human connections that we’ve been building up that would house us, shelter us. We may not find our real home in Tulsa. But we can make an effort to make a home with our Tulsa friends.
In fact, even with the request being approved, there is still a possibility that we might have to move out if things get worse and the university further restricts access to the housing. But now, our belief in the people around us, the ties that anchor us, help us keep going as if everything’s going to be alright. We’re managing to do what we were doing. We’re having a semblance of peace as we did in the pre-coronavirus days. We’re feeling taken care of, accommodated, and protected, thanks to those reaching out and checking in.
Through all of this, I’ve found that we are merely standing on what appears to be solid ground. The house we’ve been living in is not as secure as we thought it would be, and it may not be able to protect us when we need its protection most. But I’ve also realized that we are linked. Warm-hearted people around us hold us tight to make sure we will be able to go through this time. Solid ground may be an illusion, but solidarity is not. Life can be rough and fluctuating, but we can be a shelter to each other. When a physical shelter—whether it’s simply a place to live or the planet itself—no longer works, people can make it work, by being home to each other.
Announcement: TU Journals Free on Project Muse until June
We’re happy to announce that with the cooperation of Project MUSE, you’ll now be able to access current and back issues of TU’s acclaimed journals JJQ and TSWL for free through the early part of June.
Sean Latham, Director of the Oklahoma Center for the Humanities and Editor for The James Joyce Quarterly says “We hope this will make things easier for all those struggling to teach, learn, and do research in these trying circumstances.”
Founded in 1963 at the University of Tulsa by Thomas F. Staley, the James Joyce Quarterly has been the flagship journal of international Joyce studies ever since. In each issue, the JJQ brings together a wide array of critical and theoretical work focusing on the life, writing, and reception of James Joyce.
According to Jennifer Airey, Editor forTulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, “Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature was the first scholarly journal devoted solely to the study of women’s literature, and we remain one of the best known and well-respected journals in the field. We have a really broad scope – we publish articles on women’s writings from all nations and all time periods – so we have something to interest everyone. We also publish essays on little-known archives and digital tools for studying women’s literature, and personal essays on the experience of being a woman or studying women’s literature in academia.
Dr. Latham and Dr. Airey both hope having access to these journals might ease the burden on students and instructors so that they can continue research and coursework as smoothly as possible.
In response to the challenges created by the global public health crisis of COVID-19, Project MUSE is making scholarly content temporarily available for free on their platform. With many higher education institutions moving into an exclusively online learning environment for the foreseeable future, access to vetted research in the humanities and social sciences, from a variety of distinguished university presses, societies, and related not-for-profit publishers, will help to support teaching, learning, and knowledge discovery for users worldwide.
Sports in the Time of Coronavirus
This week’s blog post comes from TU Media Studies professor and 2019-20 OCH fellow, Mark Brewin. As the resident sports aficionado for this years’ PLAY seminar, Mark shares some of his favorite sports-related diversions to enjoy during this challenging time of social isolation (and basketball’s coronavirus-induced hiatus).
Tired of watching CNN and updating Johns Hopkins’ worldwide coronavirus map on my browser, I decided to take the advice of our seminar’s wise and illustrious leader, Dr. Sean Latham, and spend my time a little more productively, by thinking how Play can help us muddle through the current moment. Because I was the “sporting” representative in our group, I’m going to suggest some ways to use sports right now, in a seriously playful manner.
So, how to do that? I am avoiding ESPN for the most part. As nothing much is going on and the content is currently mostly filler. There’s MMA, but I hate MMA: a not terribly clever, ongoing con, on the level of the current President of the United States. Everything else has shut down, and there’s only so much interest I can muster in Tom Brady’s future with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. You could re-watch old classic games, but this sort of thing has never done much for me. The drama of sports is tied to the moment. It is because we cannot be sure what will happen, because the narrative is not already determined as it is with a play or a novel, that we find the contest fascinating. Maybe I’ll get around to watching game seven of the 2004 ACLS, which will never get old. Other than that, no.
If you absolutely must troll through old tape, though, I would skip the underdog victories—NC State beating Houston in the 1983 NCAAs, the 1980 US men’s Olympic hockey team, and focus instead on specific teams rather than specific games. The point here is not the outcome of the match but watching group of human beings doing an extremely difficult physical task well, in coordination with others. Think of it as more of an aesthetic experience than a sporting one. Teams I have in mind are those who played a sport at an especially high level of excellence on a consistent basis: the Montreal Canadiens of the 1970s or the Edmonton Oilers of the 1980s in hockey; in basketball, Jordan’s Chicago Bulls or Stephan Curry’s Golden States Warriors (in the first half of the 2010s, before they signed Durant and started to win ugly); for baseball, as much as it hurts to say it, probably the Derek Jeter-Bernie Williams-Scott Brosius-Jorge Posada era Yankees. And for soccer, the team that made me fall in love with that sport—Barcelona circa 2009, with Messi coming into top form, Carles Puyol and his heavy metal hair still covering up for Pique on the back line, and Xavi weaving the whole thing together.
There are a lot of great movies filled with sports-related content that also have some larger points to make about the human condition. Hoosiers, Downhill Racer, and The Games (about the 1960s Olympic marathon) all feature flawed but fascinating central characters, in which the desire to win can overtake the demands of basic human decency. The internal conflicts at the center mean these are decent films to watch for non-sports fans (although a warning that some of the sexual and racial politics of The Games has not aged well.) The masterpiece within this genre, of course, is Raging Bull. It is a beautiful film, but I’m guessing that most people have already seen it. If not, then you should probably see it: coronavirus or not.
Chariots of Fire used to have a reputation of being over-rated (it won the Academy Award in 1981) but for the life of me I can’t see why. It is an inspiring story. The two main British characters at the center went on to very different lives. Harold Abrahams became a sports journalist and was strongly involved in athletics for the rest of his life; Eric Liddell went to China and did missionary work. The Church of England has a feast day in Liddell’s honor (February 22), which is as close as an Anglican can get to sainthood. Less serious options: John Huston’s Escape to Victory is a WW II-era narrative, basically a mash-up of a sports film and The Great Escape. Michael Caine plays a British officer who constantly gets into it with Sylvester Stallone’s wise-acre American in a prison camp. The two then get involved with a proposed match against a star team from the camp and an elite German squad, to be played before a cowed French audience in occupied Paris. The purpose of the game is to have the prisoners lose to the Germans and give the Nazis a propaganda coup (Guess what? That doesn’t happen.) The reason to see the film is the roster of other actors who play both prisoners of war and Stallone’s and Caine’s team-mates. They are all famous soccer players, including the great Pelé.
Field of Dreams is a fable, but of the right kind. While it provides us with a false picture of American society, it is at least one worth striving towards. Might be a good tonic when you are feeling especially low any time in the next few weeks and wondering whether we can get ourselves through this mess.
If you would actually prefer to read something, I have several books to suggest: Levels of the Game, John McPhee’s non-fictional account of a game between two young American tennis players, Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner, in the 1968 US Open. At several points McPhee alludes to, but never explicitly mentions, the central drama of the game, which is that in this tournament Ashe had the chance to become the first African American man to win the Open. BS Johnson’s The Unfortunates, a book in a box that allows you to shuffle the chapters to create your own story arc, is a bit of a cheat for this list. Soccer figures only peripherally to the main narrative. It is more of a framing device, as the main character has been sent by his London newspaper to cover a Manchester City game. Nonetheless, the notion of play is key to the book’s form and its theme. Finally, The Rider, by Dutch writer Tim Krabbé, who took up professional cycling only after he had established a career as a journalist. Krabbé was also a championship chess player and wrote the novel on which the creepy suspense film The Vanishing was based. Like McPhee’s book, the entirety of The Rider’s narrative is limited to a single event, in this case a cycling race.
The single greatest piece of sports prose fiction I have ever read was “Pafko at the Wall,” by Don DeLillo, which was published in Harper’s magazine in 1991 and then became a chapter in the novel Underworld. For a reason that no one has been able to satisfactorily explain, baseball seems to be the sport most congenial to the American literary class, or at least the white male subset: John Updike’s “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu” and Bartlett Giamatti’s “The Green Fields of the Mind”—which memorably begins, “It breaks your heart. It was designed to break your heart”—are other classics of this genre.
Though American football is a somewhat ugly sport, it’s inspired some pretty good writing, such as DeLillo’s End Zone and Ben Fountain’s novel about America during the time of the Iraq War, Billy Fountain’s Long Halftime Walk. Because of its military-industrial overtones, football serves as a nice analogy for modern American empire. If baseball is who we would like to think we are, football, maybe, is who we really are.
Online sports prose, for those who don’t want Amazon employees to have to move any more product right now, features two outstanding examples, both of which are no longer current but have kept their websites up. The more famous of these, Grantland, might just be the single greatest source of sports journalism since the turn of the century. Its very existence absolves Bill Simmons of a whole host of other sins committed against modern popular culture. Less famous is the Brian Phillips-edited The Run of Play, devoted to soccer. Phillips, who grew up in Ponca City, OK, is simply a great writer on almost anything. His book, Impossible Owls, includes a lot of good stuff on sports and other subjects.
My last general set of suggestions deals with documentaries, both written and filmed. Hoop Dreams is a classic and, like Raging Bull, may be a little too obvious. But if you haven’t seen it, you should see it: again, even if you don’t like sports. It is as compelling a dissection of race and class in America as you’ll find almost anywhere. The literary equivalent to Hoop Dreams is Buzz Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights, about high school football in small-town Texas. Hollywood took up Bissinger’s book and made him rich. While doing so, by turning it into movie first and then a TV series, it also stripped out all the politics of Bissinger’s original work. Laurent Dubois’ Soccer Empire: The World Cup and the Future of France, is another good non-fictional account of sport with politics thrown in, although Dubois’ story about the victorious 1998 French men’s World Cup squad is more optimistic in tone than Bissinger’s. Dubois’ book came out in 2010, though: one suspects that he might have written a more sober account now.
Other good sports docs include: The Two Escobars, about the intersection of international drug cartels and World Cup soccer, and the recent Diego Maradona, about the player other than Pelé who has a claim to being soccer’s GOAT. A great movie that is non-fiction but not a documentary: The Damned United, about a complicated, infuriating, and brilliant English soccer coach named Brian Clough.
We’re almost done, but I wanted to add some sports that you can do alone or online. The latter includes a whole raft of modern digital games—Esports. For the former: well, running. And cycling. Just remember to take a wide berth when you pass someone.
Okay that’s it. I could go on for longer but the purpose of these kinds of lists is to be incomplete. If you want to argue with anything here or point out some obvious missed titles, let me know in the comments section.
Gaming the Museum Event Encourages Interactive Learning in Historical Setting
There is growing interest in the interdisciplinary concept of video gaming spaces inside art and history museums. Interactive games offer a more modern approach to museum learning and attract a younger group of visitors.
Incorporating play into museum design
In February, the Oklahoma Center for the Humanities (OCH) at The University of Tulsa and a group of TU’s Tulsa Undergraduate Research Challenge (TURC) scholars partnered to host “Gaming the Museum” at the Helmerich Center for American Research (HCAR). Students and faculty from TU’s museum studies program teamed up with TURC students majoring in computer simulation and gaming. The gaming degree combines TU’s core computer science curriculum with art, graphic design and music courses from the Kendall College of Arts and Sciences.
The free symposium in February featured a keynote presentation on the role of play in museum design from Holly Witchey, director of education and outreach for the Intermuseum Conservation Association. Other highlights included a panel discussion from museum professionals, demos of games developed by TU students and an interactive series of playable activities in HCAR.
“Play does not mean frivolous, but includes voluntary, self-directed activity,” explained Bob Pickering, professor of anthropology and director of museum science and management at TU. “Play in the digital age offers even more possibility for museums to connect with audiences of all ages.”
Tulsa is a museum destination
The City of Tulsa is an ideal setting for the exploration of play in museums because of its storied history in art and music. “Tulsa is an art town, and our museum and gallery scene is booming,” said Tara Aveilhe with the OCH. “We’re on our way to becoming a museum destination in the United States. With popular interactive exhibits like “The Experience” at AHHA, we’re seeing that adults need and want the experience of play as much as kids do.”
TURC student Cheyanne Wheat and computer simulation and gaming/computer science double major Chandler Hummingbird presented games at the event that they have developed. Wheat’s project, “Virtual Fort Gibson,” investigates the fusion of interactive technology with accurate digital reconstructions of historical sites. Based on the town of Fort Gibson, Oklahoma, in 1841 when it was the United States’ southwestern forward post, the game incorporates archaeological and anthropological data to create an accurate representation of the fort as a locale to layer on activities. Wheat used the Unreal Game Engine program to digitally reconstruct the historical site and extracted topographical information from Google Maps data. With help from Blender 3D modeling software, she constructed artifacts and built soldiers’ quarters, block houses and a stockade.
“The objective is to allow the user to explore the fort, see objects of the period and learn about life in the 1840s on the frontier,” she said. “The player can engage in time-accurate mini interactions and explore room interiors.”
Wheat asked attendees who played her game to provide feedback, and all participants agreed they would interact with similar projects in the future. “Overall, the event was very successful and brought a lot of diverse people together,” she stated. “I think it was a great opportunity to see how Oklahoma incorporates gaming into spaces and experiences to make play accessible to both adults and children.”
Interdisciplinary Humanities Research Seminar on Rage: Call for Applications
—Grace Paley“Let us go forth with fear and courage and rage to save the world.”
We live in angry times, confronted daily by images of rage pouring out in street protests, political rallies, and the oceans of social media that flow around us. “Why are we so angry?” ask dozens of recent articles, books, and think pieces. Such emotions, however, are hardly unique to our moment and are the pivot around which some of our most powerful cultural narratives turn. The book of Genesis is a catalog of human and divine rage stretching from the Garden of Eden to the near destruction of the world. Achilles’ anger nearly laid waste to the ancient world and Irish bards record the story of Cuchulain, who exhausted his grief-fueled rage by battling the ocean waves until he collapsed. More recently, we have seen the power of rage in protests, marches, and movements ranging from Hong Kong to Chile, from Black Lives Matter to the #metoo hashtag. And so too have we seen its terrors in Charlottesville’s Unite the Right march and in violent attacks on displaced people around the world.
If rage is fundamentally human, then what should we do with it? Is it, as James Baldwin argues, an emotion that “can only, with difficulty, and never entirely, be brought under the domination of the intelligence” or is it instead a potential source of energy and change? These questions take on particular urgency now as the Unites States enters a fraught presidential election year and the city of Tulsa prepares to commemorate the 1921 Race Massacre. We plan to address the challenges posed by such emotions directly since questions about their value and power will shape our civic, social, professional, and personal lives in the coming year.
How, we will ask, have writers, artists, and musicians given shape to the experience of rage and helped us understand it origins, dangers, and uses? How might we create a history of an emotion, defined, in part, by its resistance to argument, intellect, and, empathy? What can brain science tell us about the relationship between rage and identity? Does the experience and value of rage change across time, culture, and language? And how is rage shaped by aspects of human identity, cultural diversity, technology, and media? Finally, what can the interdisciplinary study of rage teach us about our social lives, our political institutions, and our democratic values?
In order to support this work, the OCH invites applications from TU faculty across all the colleges to join the Interdisciplinary Humanities Seminar focused on the topic of Rage. The seminar will convene once a week through the fall 2020 semester and build on the expertise of each participant to launch an intensive investigation of rage, assisted by visiting speakers, artists, and performers. The Center encourages interdisciplinary work and welcomes a broad interpretation of the theme that will carry our investigations across intellectual, critical, experimental, and aesthetic domains. All full-time TU faculty are eligible to apply.
Faculty Application for 2020-2021 Humanities Research Seminar
Description: The Interdisciplinary Humanities Research Seminar sponsored by the Oklahoma Center for the Humanities at the University of Tulsa seeks to generate new research, inspire innovative teaching, create campus community, engage the city of Tulsa, and support interdisciplinary work on topics of timely public and intellectual interest. This year, a group of approximately eight participants will be chosen to collaborate on a series of weekly seminar discussions. Fellows will receive support to then transform this work into substantive research and community projects, undertaken collectively or individually. Such projects could include scholarly papers, courses designed around the theme in question, creative works, or efforts designed to spur civic action and participation. TU faculty members, students, and members of the wider Tulsa community are all eligible to apply. If accepted, faculty fellows will become eligible for funding and research support designed to enable their work in and after the seminar. The Center’s advisory board will judge applications based on assessment of the proposal’s interdisciplinary appeal and its potential for sparking dialogue among the participants.
Theme: The theme for the 2020-2021 seminar will be Rage. The seminar seeks to explore this topic from a broad set of disciplinary angles, and we welcome applications from across TU’s colleges. You are encouraged to interpret this topic broadly and in ways that are appropriate to your own field of expertise.
Application: Applications for participation in the seminar should include the following.
- A current CV, including contact information.
- Full responses to the three application questions listed below.
Applications should be sent by electronic attachment to firstname.lastname@example.org
Application Deadline: March 15, 2020
Application Questions (no more than 1,500 words total):
- What is it about the concept of rage that most interests you? What are the questions that you would like to see addressed during the course of the seminar?
- How will participation in the seminar contribute to your teaching, writing, creative, and/or other kinds of work? What kinds of projects do you envisage arising out of your participation in the seminar?
- Provide a short list of works (books, images, performances, films, articles, etc.) that you have found important or provocative in relation to the seminar’s theme.
If you have questions about the application process, the seminar, or the Center, please contact Sean Latham (email@example.com // x2857 // @seanplatham).
Play and Politics in Contemporary Rap
This weeks’ post was contributed by OCH research fellow and TU graduate student Layne Farmen. Layne is interested in contemporary Rap as part of the African American poetic tradition. Here, he explores how contemporary rap “plays” with musical forms in order to re-purpose art for political and social ends.
Tulsa rapper Steph Simon’s video for the song “Upside,” opens with the logo for his organization, “World Culture Music,” before presenting a wide long-distance view of the city. It then moves to an aerial view of the former mansion of W. Tate Brady, the Ku Klux Klan member whose name can be found on buildings and streets all around the city to this day. Simon raps, “Ain’t nobody gonna stop my mission,” as a crowd of dancing, partying people of all ages surround him. The song isn’t about Brady; he isn’t worth the air. It’s about celebration, vibrant art, and resilience. Further, what was once used as a symbol for hate is now being used to propel exceptional black art.
The dynamic repurposing going on here is used in a different way by the poet and critic Nathaniel Mackey, who advocates for a model of “Othering” that turns nouns to verbs, in order to promote multi-cultural understanding. For Mackey the innovations of black artists have historically been appropriated by white imitators, who bring a sort of commercialized stability to the abstract dynamism of the form, moving from “verb” to “noun.” The project, therefore, is to artistically “other,” to utilize “black linguistic and musical practices that accent variance, variability—what reggae musicians call ‘versioning’” (52).
The re-purposing of art in new contexts is central to the conventions of rap music, and the understanding of white appropriation runs throughout. Chuck D, the Public Enemy emcee, for example, used hip-hop and staggeringly loud production to shake the foundations of the establishment by employing the earth-shattering power of language, and famously disses figures such as Elvis for capitalizing on an appropriated form. Just last week Steph Simon opened for Chuck D with a cover of “Fight the Power, before the Public Enemy emcee was presented with the Woody Guthrie Award.
Rap as Play: The Fugees
One of the playful potentialities of rap music comes from sampling and re-mixing, where older art can be re-purposed into a production mix and spiked with 808’s or trap beats. Artists can then sing or rap over the track to create completely new and exciting art. Though many old-guard artists are thrilled by the prospect of this creative rejuvenation, other more lawsuit happy icons are liable to throw a bit of a fit.
In my own research, I’m exploring how the work of the rapper Lauryn Hill connects to Mackey’s concept of “artistic othering”. Two of Hill’s most celebrated songs with the rap collective The Fugees are covers/remixes: Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly” and The Delfonics’ “Ready or Not Here I Come (Can’t Hide From Love).” The sparsity of Hill’s verses in “Killing Me Softly” along with the energy of the back-up from fellow members Wyclef Jean and Pras in the choruses juxtaposes existential emptiness with aggressive resolve, but there are no explicit political statements since it’s a direct cover. The Fugees “Ready or Not,” on the other hand, was released with a darkly political video. In it, text hits the screen immediately: “The Fugees’ quest for justice and battle against intolerance continues…” Scenes of post-apocalyptic warfare, racial violence, and refugees on-the-run then follow, all corresponding with potent lines like the following from Pras, “I refugee from Guantanamo Bay/Dance around the border like I’m Cassius Clay.”
Playing with Rap: The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill
And then, after a bitter breakup from both Wyclef Jean and the rap trio as a whole, Lauryn Hill went solo with one of the most commercially successful records of all time. The staggering success of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill can be attributed to many things, but I believe both a mastery of genre, coupled with an utter disrespect for generic boundaries is key. Joan Morgan, the scholar who coined the term “hip-hop feminism,” says that Hill was masterfully “pulling from black musical traditions of the 1960’s, 70’s, and 80’s at will” (14). And despite Drake’s claim that he was the first rapper “to successfully rap and sing” in his work, Hill was always doing both, which since has given way to an openness in mainstream rap to artists whose style exists somewhere along the blurred lines between singing and rapping (Future, Lil Nas X, etc).
Playing Beyond Rap: MTV Live Unplugged No. 2.0
At the height of her success, Lauryn Hill turned the microscope on herself, and delivered a difficult, painful performance that became her second album: MTV Unplugged No. 2.0, which has divided fans to this day. Suddenly the polished performer became a broken vessel, as Hill moved completely outside the conventions of hip-hop to a new setting: a stage, a guitar, a microphone. Between songs, Hill speaks for up to ten minutes at a time, making jokes at her own expense, appealing to voices in her head, and desperately begging her audience to look through the distortions of society to find reality and enlightenment.
Many thought Hill was unwell and that her rambling between songs was indicative of mental instability. La Marr Jurelle Bruce, however, in an exercise of “critical generosity” takes a different approach. He reads Hill’s performance of “madness” as a deliberate means of escape from the turmoil of celebrity culture and public vulnerability. Her eccentric performance then allows her to “elud[e] surveillance, [gain] privacy, and finally achiev[e] freedom” (378).
Since Unplugged, Hill has continued to tour, stubbornly refusing to cater to her audience’s expectations. Instead of performing her songs as recorded, she accelerates tempos to a manic degree, interpolates hits with reggae instrumentals, and meticulously arranges the familiar into new and near unrecognizable territory. But these revisions are not musical alone. In November of 2018 Hill played in Birmingham, and during “Forgive Them Father,” showed “footage – filmed on police bodycams and jerky phones – of a multitude of black victims of white police violence” (The Guardian). Hill, like Tulsa’s own Steph Simon, is using the playfully subversive capacities of rap to shine a light on systemic white supremacy. And this re-contextualizing power will continue to allow the dynamic medium to be a tool for making verbs out of nouns, and to resist hegemony and the establishment in visible, radical ways, whether it’s dissing Elvis, shedding light on injustice, or throwing a party at an old racist’s mansion.
Bruce, La Marr Jurelle. “”the People Inside My Head, Too”: Madness, Black Womanhood, and the Radical Performance of Lauryn Hill.” African American Review 45.3 (2012): 371-89. Print.
Empire, Kitty. “Lauryn Hill Review – a Difficult Re-Education.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 1 Dec. 2018, www.theguardian.com/music/2018/dec/01/lauryn-hill-live-birmingham-arena-review-miseducation.
Mackey, Nathaniel. “Other: From Noun to Verb.” Representations. 39 (1992): 51-70. Print.
Morgan, Joan. She Begat This: 20 Years of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Atria. New York, 2018. Print.
(note: all lyrics were taken from original videos or albums, and checked with the website Genius when necessary).
Hot Work for Coldplay: Approaching Music Criticism with a Ludic Attitude
This weeks’ blog post comes from music writer and OCH Public Fellow Katie Moulton. Here, Katie explores the concept of play in relation to music and music criticism.
As a music critic, my work is a lot of play. Beyond the deluge of press emails and deadlines, awkward phone calls with indie rockers, digging grimy pink earplugs out of every pocket, and occasionally pissing off Coldplay fans—the job is fun. But it’s meaningful fun: a critical approach to culture that requires a playful attitude.
The cliché goes, “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” (A 1918 article in the New Republic even says it’s “as illogical as singing about economics.”) This is meant to indicate that it’s a pointless exercise that also misses the point of experiencing the thing itself. I agree that the phrase “dancing about architecture” sounds absurd—but it also sounds like a lot of fun! Imagine your favorite Art Deco building in downtown Tulsa. Now imagine a body moving rhythmically in response to its unmoving monolith: What might it look like, feel like? What could be learned or made in the seemingly vast gap between forms?
In Homo Ludens (1938), Johan Huizinga outlines the characteristics of play, which include, paradoxically, freedom and order. Play “creates order, is order. Into an imperfect world and into the confusion of life it brings a temporary, limited perfection.” Constraints are in fact necessary for play, because within those limits—imposed outside consequences of our everyday systems—the player is also afforded freedom outside these everyday systems. It’s a feeling of being forced into the present moment. The same concept can be applied to listening to or playing music: a limited system of notes and a limited combination of materials that result in experiencing the full transcendent range of human emotions.
Whether we’re playing games or making art, we accept these limitations in order to access play. It happens when we cross a threshold, whether it’s gathering around the card-table, stepping into the arena—or standing atop or beneath a stage for a concert. These special spaces are examples of what Huizinga calls the magic circle, “temporary worlds within the ordinary world, dedicated to the performance of an act apart.” This temporary world apart is what I take into account, for example, when reviewing a show, the manner in which musicians create the space and how listeners respond/play within it.
The interplay among listeners is nearly as important as the interplay between audience and artist, and among the musicians themselves. Concert-goers are having individual experiences in response to a music performance—their own reveries, memories, preferences, moods—but they are also having a communal experience, in a dark room, shoulder to shoulder with friends and strangers. It’s reminiscent of Huizinga’s concept of the “play-community,” determined by the “feeling of being ‘apart together’ in an exceptional situation, of sharing something important, of mutually withdrawing from the rest of the world and rejecting the usual norms, and retains its magic beyond the duration of the individual game.”
The best music criticism retains this magic: It makes something more in the space between the music and the writing, not simply a stimulus and response. In Ludic City (2007), Quentin Stevens writes, “Play is a lived critique of instrumentally rational action because it discovers new needs and develops new forms of social life.” Allowing for experimentation and reinterpretation, the most effective music critique creates an active, ongoing conversation—even if the conversation goes beyond what an artist (or its diehard fans) may intend or agree with.
In my career, one memorable assignment that required a dedicated playful approach—even after the piece was written—was when I wrote a concert review of the biggest band in the world: Coldplay. The British pop group broke globally in 2000, and became ubiquitous. The band, and its likeable, if forgettably faced frontman Chris Martin, also became the punching bag for music critics. At some point, it was almost trendy among music snobs to bash Coldplay for its blandness. By 2016, when I set out to review the show, that critique was nearly as flavorless as Coldplay was accused of being. So I went into the arena accepting the rules of the magic circle: be present, see what all the fandom is about with thousands of my glowstick-toting new best friends, and be entertained. It was a feel-good spectacle!
But as one upbeat electro-pop jam bled into the next, peppered with vague calls for “good vibes” to wherever in the world that might need it, my mind wandered. I felt disconnected, not under the spell the musicians were trying to cast, the communal “apart-together” feeling of the audience. As a critic, I must pay close attention to the experience within and without me: the order/systems, freedom, play-community, and that last of Huizinga’s play elements: fun. “Fun,” he writes, “resists all analysis, all logical interpretation.” And in trying to describe or analyze fun, we’re back to that initial impossible task: dancing about architecture.
In the review, I wrote that though Coldplay peddles pop to the masses, sometimes the “lowest common denominator” is, in fact, true emotion. I wrote that Martin, in his enthusiasm, exploded into an avalanche of rainbow confetti. But I critiqued the ways the flashy-yet-generic stage show felt like we were being pandered to, as though the band were trying to be everything and therefore stood for nothing. If Coldplay is truly the biggest pop band in the world, I wondered, then what are they doing with that power—artistically, politically? But as a player within the magic circle of the concert, an audience member whose interplay with each other and the artist is essential to the experience—I had to interrogate my own reactions: Why would I write about an act despite my ambivalence? Why would I write about my ambivalence? What role did I play as a critic, in trying to give my own audience whatever it might want? Only by maintaining a playful awareness was I able to find meaning and connections at the heart of the experience. How am I using my platform, small as it is? I wrote. How are you using yours?
When the review appeared, I was proud. I also received more numerous and nasty internet comments than I had ever received before. I was shocked: Who knew Coldplay fans could be so fervent and creative in their insults? But it was further proof that music criticism can fuel a living conversation around and beyond the art, the audience, me—and even beyond the magic circle.
Tulsa 100 Journals Project: Be Part of the Experiment
What will happen when we unleash 100 blank journals throughout the city, asking people to share their personal thoughts and creativity? What will people put in the journals? Where will they end up? Will they be returned?
The Oklahoma Center for the Humanities is sponsoring an experimental public art project, and you can be part of it! As part of this years’ theme of PLAY, we’re distributing hardcover journals throughout the TU campus and the wider Tulsa community. The Tulsa 100 Journals Project is an initiative to encourage people to play, create, and share.
Everyone who comes across a journal is encouraged to add something and then pass it along. Add a story, a poem, a secret, or an opinion. Draw something, make a collage, or anything you wish. Be as creative as you like! You can sign your contribution or you can keep it anonymous.
When you are finished adding to the journal, you can snap a photo of the cover or your page(s) and share on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or any social media platform of your choosing. Use the hashtag #100journalstulsa. Tell everyone where you found it (or left it) so someone else can contribute—or pass it along to a friend.
The experiment will officially end on May 1, 2020. All of the journals that make it back to us will be part of a public art exhibit in Tulsa in 2020.
All journals can be returned to The University of Tulsa, 800 S. Tucker Drive, Tyrrell Hall, Room 1035, Tulsa, OK 74104
Be part of the experiment!