A musical journey with Psychobilly author Kimberly Kattari

This week in North Philly Notes, Kimberly Kattari, author of Psychobilly: Subcultural Survivalwrites about the significance of subcultural music communities.

Since seventh grade, my identity has often revolved around my interest in some genre of popular music. First it was heavy metal. The first cassette I bought was Metallica’s self-titled album (known as “The Black Album”) and the first song I learned to play on the guitar was “Nothing Else Matters.” Then came grunge, then punk rock, and many other styles, all of with which I resonated strongly. I’d signal my interest in that style of music through my fashion and style choices—long thermals under band shirts or flannel for grunge; dyed hair, fishnets, and safety pin “jewelry” for punk. It felt great to be on the same wavelength with others who shared my passion for that style of music, were invested in what the lyrics were about, and felt that our musical taste said something about who we were.

I think my deep desire to be part of a musical community stemmed from the fact that I was once completely not in touch with popular music. As a kid, I was mostly exposed to the classical and world music my parents listened to. I regularly attended concerts with them at university concert halls, the Hollywood Bowl, and the philharmonic. In the fourth grade, while my peers danced in the schoolyard to songs by New Kids on the Block and giggled about which member of the boy band they had a crush on, I was clueless. I was listening to Robert Schumann, Ladysmith Black Mambazo (an a cappella group from South Africa), and KODO (a taiko drum ensemble from Japan). By the beginning of seventh grade, I still hadn’t branched out from the music my parents listened to. On the first day of my English class, the teacher asked everyone to introduce themselves and share their favorite musician or band. I froze. I didn’t really know any “popular” bands that someone my age would like. I blurted out the only musician’s name I could remember—Rod Stewart (my mother was a fan). Let’s just say this was not a “cool” choice. My classmates laughed. I was completely embarrassed.

After that day, I started to pay more attention to the music that my peers listened to. I still love classical music and “world music” too. I went on to earn my doctorate in ethnomusicology after all (and began to understand why the term “world music” problematically reinforces colonialist legacies). But I also became fascinated with understanding how and why people identify with different types of popular music, why we resonate with one type and not another, and how we feel connected to others who share our musical interests because we usually have more in common than just our musical tastes. Music says something about us.

Psychobilly_smFast-forward to 2007. I had just finished writing my Master’s thesis on reggaetón, exploring why fans across the United States felt that the music expressed their bicultural identity and values. Then a friend invited me to a show featuring a psychobilly band called Nekromantix. I had never heard of “psychobilly.” Intrigued, I went to the show and was stunned by what I saw. The fans blended aspects of 1950s rockabilly and punk rock. They looked like a hybrid of Elvis and the Sex Pistols. Some had a greased-up pompadour, while others had an exaggerated flattop mutated with a Mohawk. Clothes and tattoos featured symbols that signified an obsession with the macabre—coffins, bats, skeletons, monsters—done in a cartoonish, horror B-movie camp style. The music matched the fashion: it sounded like a harder, faster, more “punk” version of rockabilly with lyrics about “getting horny in a hearse” and running scared from the “gargoyles over Copenhagen.” The lead singer played a stand-up bass (a rockabilly staple) but it looked like a coffin. He rolled his eyes back into his head, looking psychotic, while growling lyrics about dancing with the dead in a graveyard (“Dead MoonWalkin”) (2004, Dead Girls Don’t Cry, Hellcat Records). Here, in a dive bar in Austin, Texas, was a whole subcultural community I never knew existed. I was having flashbacks to being in seventh grade: how could I be completely clueless about this whole other world that some people were clearly committed to? I was intrigued to learn more about why people identified with this particular combination of vintage rock ’n’ roll, punk, and campy horror.

Psychobilly: Subcultural Survival explores how and why members of this subcultural community identify so strongly with it. I spent more than ten years interviewing musicians and fans about their participation in this scene. Above all, psychobillies expressed to me that this scene gives them a place to freely express their non-mainstream identity. As one interlocutor put it, “Psychobilly is the only place where I feel like me.” Most of my interlocutors said that they don’t normally fit in with others and have been socially and/or economically marginalized in a variety of ways. So they free themselves from normative expectations at psychobilly events: they “wreck” (erratically mosh around in a pit while throwing their fists every which way); they dress in ways that might scare “normal” people; and they sing along with tongue-in-cheek songs about killing the cheerleader (which aren’t meant to be taken seriously but still express a defiant and rebellious attitude).

The hybridization of stylistic elements of rockabilly and punk started to make more sense to me as I talked to members of the subculture: psychobillies combined aspects of two genres that had each represented working-class expressions of rebellion against the status quo. But psychobillies rebelled even further by rejecting the clichés that characterized rockabilly and punk by the early 1980s. Instead of singing about pink Cadillacs and bopping on a Saturday night (typical rockabilly) or political rage (conventional punk), psychobillies celebrated their defiant attitude in songs like “Scum of the Neighborhood” by Batmobile (Batmobile, Kix 4 U Records, 1985): “We’re the scum of the neighborhood, going out tonight / We like to walk in small streets and get messed up in a fight / Crushing skulls and pulling knives, we care for nobody’s life.” Influenced by horror and science fiction, the lyrics allowed fans to escape reality and fantasize about an imagined world where they yielded the power and inverted social and economic hierarchies.

This book not only illustrates how subcultures represent important spaces for people to resist hegemonic expectations and imagine an alternative to their daily lived experience, but also how they help participants stake out their own way to survive tough times. Having been rejected or excluded from traditional avenues for economic success, many psychobillies lean on each other for social and economic support.

In short, this under-the-radar subculture exists because people rely on it in meaningful ways. It’s an important vehicle through which members of this community express a non-normative identity and draw on the support of others who share their experiences, values, and interests. The subculture survives today because it helps people survive. It allows them a place to be—in their own way and on their own terms.

Super(natural) titles for Halloween

This week in North Philly Notes, we celebrate Halloween with a focus on our supernatural books.

Supernatural in Society_smThe Supernatural in Society, Culture, and History, edited by Dennis Waskul and Marc Eaton, demonstrates the value of serious academic inquiry into supernatural beliefs and practices—from ghosts, vampirism, cryptozoology, and dark tourism to tarot cards, fortunetelling, voodoo, and alien abduction.

The Supernatural in Society, Culture, and History have made a concerted effort to understand encounters with ghosts and the supernatural that have persisted and flourished. Featuring folkloric researchers examining the cultural value of such beliefs and practices, sociologists who acknowledge the social and historical value of the supernatural, and enthusiasts of the mystical and uncanny, this volume includes a variety of experts and interested observers using first-hand ethnographic experiences and historical records.

The Supernatural in Society, Culture, and History seeks to understand the socio-cultural and socio-historical contexts of the supernatural. This volume takes the supernatural as real because belief in it has fundamentally shaped human history. It continues to inform people’s interpretations, actions, and identities on a daily basis. The supernatural is an indelible part of our social world that deserves sincere scholarly attention.

Ghostly Encounters_smGhostly Encounters: The Hauntings of Everyday Life by Dennis Waskul with Michele Waskul, considers how people experience ghosts and hauntings, the ways they make sense of uncanny experiences, and the consequences thereof

Dennis Waskul writes these lines—about his first-hand experience with the supernatural—in the introduction to his beguiling book Ghostly Encounters. Based on two years of fieldwork and interviews with 71 midwestern Americans, the Waskuls’ book is a reflexive ethnography that examines how people experience ghosts and hauntings in everyday life. The authors explore how uncanny happenings become ghosts, and the reasons people struggle with or against a will to believe. They present the variety and character of hauntings and ghostly encounters, outcomes of people telling haunted legends, and the nested consequences of ghostly experiences.

Through these stories, Ghostly Encounters seeks to understand the persistence of uncanny experiences and beliefs in ghosts in an age of reason, science, education, and technology—as well as how those beliefs and experiences both reflect and serve important social and cultural functions.

Fernando Ortiz Today

This week in North Philly Notes, Robin Moore, editor of Fernando Ortiz on Music, writes about the relevance and influence of Ortiz’s writing on Cuban music, history, and culture

Who is Fernando Ortiz, why should anyone care about what he wrote, and what does he have to offer to readers today? Those are important questions, especially given that Ortiz lived and wrote many years ago; that his writings focus primarily on black music in other countries; and that—as an author trained in late nineteenth-century Europe—he inherited many biases toward Afro-descendant expression. As such, some of his observations sound dated or even racist by the standards of the present day. The relevance of his writings in 2018 may not be immediately apparent to everyone.

I first became acquainted with a few of Ortiz’s books as a graduate student at the University of Texas in the early 1990s. I planned to write a dissertation on Cuban music, and Ortiz loomed large as an individual who undertook the first detailed studies of Afro-Cuban culture in that country, based in large part on ground-breaking ethnographic excursions and interviews. His work was impressive in many respects: he published tremendous amounts of material, many thousands of pages over the course his career, and on a wide array of topics. He read widely in half a dozen languages. His knowledge of Cuban history and access to primary and secondary sources supporting such work were extraordinary. Fernando Ortiz on MusicSMIt became clear to me that countless individuals interested in black history, African-influenced languages in the new world, drumming and dance traditions, Afro-descendant religions, the Atlantic slave trade, and other topics had drawn heavily on Ortiz as they pursued academic work in the US, the Caribbean, South America, and elsewhere. Those influenced by his work in the U.S., for example, include the dancer Katherine Dunham; the anthropologist and founder of black studies in the United States, Melville Herskovits; and the art historian Robert Farris Thompson. Simply put, Ortiz was very influential; and if his work had written in English rather than Spanish, I am certain that it would have met an even more enthusiastic reception internationally.

Cuba, along with a few other Latin American/Caribbean countries, has a unique cultural profile because of the large numbers of enslaved Africans brought the island, and the fact that many of them arrived rather late (clandestinely the slave trade continued there well into the 1870s). In broad strokes, Cuba and the United States share a history of European colonization, the decimation of local indigenous populations, and the use of slave labor. Yet the fact that free and enslaved Africans and their descendants have constituted a majority of the island’s population for most of the past two centuries, and that African-derived traditions have been re-created in overt ways there, means that Cuba looks and sounds very different from the United States. I find that the study of Cuban music and history suggests interesting points of comparison for those based in the U.S. It helps us recognize similar Afrodescendant cultural influences in our own country. Cuba’s music and dance traditions that blend influences from West Africa and Europe are quite similar to our own, providing insights into processes of cultural fusion and how Afro-descendant cultures manifest themselves in repertoire such as black gospel. Reading about Cuban and Caribbean history helps us situate US history within a broader framework and makes us realizes that our “unique” cultural forms — from rap to blues to jazz — emerged out of broader processes.

Not only do I find the ethnographic data in Ortiz’s work still broadly relevant, but I consider even his ideological flaws and limitations to be instructive. The post-WWII period, which represents the apex of Ortiz’s career, was one in which leading authors throughout Europe and the Americas began to seriously question racist beliefs about non-European people for the first time. Much of this soul-searching was inspired by the Nazis and their horrendously racist views of non-Arian people, of course, as well as political challenges to colonial rule in Asia, Africa, and elsewhere. Ortiz’s struggles with entrenched Eurocentric points of view, notions of racial and cultural hierarchy, and the “proper place” of Afrodescendant culture within his country represent a corollary to similar debates taking place throughout the Western world and beyond. Including Ortiz in the study of racial debates of the era expands our understanding of such discourse beyond the spheres of U.S. and European academia. It helps “decenter” that literature by underscoring the important contributions and perspectives of those in developing countries. And it helps us better appreciate the true extent of slavery’s impact on politics, culture, and ideology throughout the Western hemisphere.

Announcing the new issue of Kalfou

This week in North Philly Notes, we highlight the new issue of our journal, Kalfouedited by George Lipsitz at the UCSB Center for Black Studies Research

Kalfou volume 4, no. 1, continues the journal’s pioneering work in creating timely and lively conversations among academics, activists, and artists. The new issue features a forum on the BlackLivesMatter movement and its impact on and implications for the Black Prophetic Tradition in religion and politics. Participants in that discussion are Juan Floyd-Thomas of Vanderbilt University; Johari Jabir of the University of Illinois, Chicago; Lawrence Brown of Morgan State University; and Kalfou senior editor George Lipsitz of the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Arts activist Natasha Thomas-Jackson writes about the ways in which her innovative youth performance troupe RAISE IT UP!! mobilized young people to step up and speak out about the water crisis created by racially targeted privatization schemes in Flint, Michigan.

University of Wyoming American Studies Professor Lilia Soto compares and contrasts the commemoration of the activism of César Chávez, Dolores Huerta, and the United Farm Workers movement in Napa, California, with public commemorations of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa.

Musician, arts administrator, and researcher Russell C. Rodríguez contributes a moving eulogy for Ramón “Chunky” Sánchez, a legendary Chicanx musician and activist.

Also featured is a teacher’s guide to the film Becoming Ourselves by Asian Immigrant Women Advocates; a rumination on apologies and reparations by Washington University anthropologist Peter Benson; and a discussion by Venise L. Keys of her artistic practice.

Table of Contents

Feature Articles

Lawrence T. Brown
Johari Jabir
Juan Floyd-Thomas
George Lipsitz

Talkative Ancestors

Keywords

Peter Benson

La Mesa Popular

Lilia Soto

Art and Social Action

Venise L. Keys

Mobilized 4 Movement

Natasha Thomas-Jackson

Teaching and Truth

Asian Immigrant Women Advocates

In Memoriam

Russell C. Rodríguez

Book Reviews

Barbara Tomlinson

Temple University Press is having a Back-to-School SALE!

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Knowledge Unlatched enables a further 78 books to be Open Access

This week, we highlight the Knowledge Unlatched (KU) program. Round 2 of this open access program “unlatched” three Temple University Press titles:  We Shall Not Be Moved/No Nos Moverán by David Spener,  The Muslim Question in Europe by Peter O’Brien, and The Struggling State, by Jennifer Riggan.  The KU program allows publishers to recover costs while making important current content available openly online.

These Temple University Press titles are among the 78 unlatched* books that have been made open access through the support of both individual libraries and library consortia from across the globe. This round brings the total to more than 100 titles now available as open access since 2014, when the KU Pilot Collection of 28 humanities and social science monographs from 13 publishers was unlatched by nearly 300 libraries worldwide.  Constructing Muslims in France, by Jennifer Fredette, was included in the Pilot Collection.

These 78 new books from 26 publishers (including the original 13 participants) have been successfully unlatched by libraries in 21 countries along with support from a number of library consortia, who together raised over $1 million. The books are being loaded onto the OAPEN and HathiTrust platforms, where they will be available for free as fully downloadable PDFs. The titles cover five humanities and social science subject areas (Anthropology, History, Literature, Media and Communications, and Politics): http://collections.knowledgeunlatched.org/packages/.

The second round of KU allowed libraries to choose from subject packages as well as publisher packages. It also introduced consortium participation into the program. Additional plans for KU expansion will be announced soon.

* ‘Unlatching’ is term for KU’s  collaborative and sustainable way of making content available using Creative Commons licences and fully downloadable by the end user.

Understanding the Struggles of Citizens and State in Eritrea

In this blog entry, Jennifer Riggan, author of The Struggling State,  sheds light on life in Eritrea, a highly militarized, authoritarian country where educational institutions were directly implicated in the making of soldiers.

Europe’s “migrant crisis”—the historically unprecedented flight of refugees—has recently taken center stage. Those from Eritrea, a country of six million people, comprise 8 percent of all migrants entering Europe and represent Europe’s third largest immigrant group. The large number of Eritrean refugees is stunning considering that, unlike Syria and Afghanistan, Eritrea is currently not at war. Also striking is the fact that Eritrean refugees are disproportionately young men and increasingly unaccompanied children. Why are these particular populations of refugees fleeing?

Struggling State_smMy new book,  The Struggling State, sheds light on life inside Eritrea, a country governed by what is often regarded as one of the world’s most repressive regimes. Conditions in Eritrea are more complex than we might expect. Human rights violations and a lack of civil liberties in Eritrea explain why so many leave, but this peculiar pattern of refugee flight is also caused by the evolution of state-society relations in the country.

Eritrea is a highly militarized authoritarian dictatorship. The government shut down independent media in 2001. Independent civil society organizations are not allowed. Any attempt to protest has been brutally cracked down on. Detentions without cause are common. All but four religions are banned. Most controversial is Eritrea’s national service program. National/ military service by law consists of 6 months of military training and 12 months of unpaid service, most often in the military. However, very few people have been released from military service since a border war with Ethiopia broke out in 1998. Many have been serving for close to two decades even though there has been no fighting since 2000. “Service,” which has been equated with forced labor and slavery, has become endless. Eritreans are not allowed to leave the country legally while in national/ military service.

Eritrea is known for its thirty-year-long, tenacious, military “struggle” which resulted in independence from Ethiopia, effectively in 1991 and officially in 1993. The Struggle, however, was not just a military one, but a revolutionary process to build a nation based on principles of ethnic, gender and class equality and unity among Eritrea’s nine ethnic groups and two major religions. In fall 2003, when embarked on a two-year period of ethnographic fieldwork, I initially planned to study teachers’ reactions to and interpretations of Eritrea’s nation-building project. However, new educational policies were introduced which radically changed not only the education system, but the relationship between citizens and the state and, ultimately, my research project. The 2003 policies merged national/military service with secondary education by mandating that all students, male and female, complete their final year of high school at a boarding facility located in the nation’s main military training center, Sawa.

Teachers and students were disillusioned by this repurposing of education—schooling no longer embodied their hopes and dreams, but became a conduit to the military. My research focuses on how teachers, as state employees, responded to these changes, placing teacher and student reactions against the backdrop of broader experiences living under an increasingly coercive government. Secondary school students, previously disciplined and diligent, began cutting class and misbehaving in unprecedented numbers. Teachers responded, paradoxically, by joining students in their indiscipline but also cracking down on students with increased coercion, and, at times, violence.  Today, many young people flee the country before they enter into the educational-military conduit. Many teachers have fled as well.

Eritreans’ encounter with the state is characterized by experiences of coercion, being punished and feeling imprisoned. There is no reliably applied rule of law, meaning that Eritreans are not only susceptible to coercive and punishing policies set in place by the country’s leaders, but are also susceptible to the will and whims of an array of state employees—supervisors, military commanders, police and even teachers. However, these state employees are also susceptible to the will and whims of more powerful state actors. One of my central arguments is that this “punishing state” is the result of a vicious cycle in which state employees are themselves “punished” and they, in turn, punish others and/or evade being punished, often by fleeing the country.

The Struggling State raises a number of questions about the nature of the state, particularly authoritarian states such as Eritrea. The book complicates our understanding of Eritrea, neither depicting it as benevolent but misunderstood, as the ruling party’s nationalist narratives would have us do, nor maligning it, as international media and human rights narratives tend to. Instead I show how the experience of government coercion leads Eritreans to think of their state as punishing. Eritreans imagining the state, not as promising, but as punishing, has unraveled the ruling party’s national project, separating the nation from the state. Strong feelings of nationalism are intact among Eritreans, but are no longer affixed solely to the ruling part and its revolutionary struggle. Teachers have been central to this process. Schooling, in general, and teachers in particular, are often thought to reproduce state power.  In contrast, The Struggling State shows that teachers play a much more ambivalent role as they struggle to instill in students a sense of national belonging and hope for the future of the nation even when they themselves have so little hope given the strictures of life under the current regime.

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