Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Colonialism and collecting

Well, this great post by the great Chief Boima ups the intellectual ante around the popularization of African musics in the US, and set off a lot of controversy and some great points (alongside some unfortunate personal attacks). I wrote a long response, which came late in the game. But I thought I'd expand it here, because it fits so well with the work I'm doing right now.

I'm working on a paper for a conference this weekend in East Lansing, MI called "Bits Without Borders: Law, Communications & Transnational Culture Flow in the Digital Age" where I will present my paper (horrible working title: Decolonizing networked technology: learning from the dancehall)

(Also I'm preparing to moderate a panel about copyright sampling ethics creativity and law on Thursday, in SF! )

So I have been spending a lot of time thinking about how colonial history and present play out in Jamaica, and in the music scene. Since I was doing ethnographic research, which involves me physically going to Jamaica and spending a lot of time interacting with people, I really had to pay attention to the situation around my interactions with people - that's part of the research. Thinking about how I got to wherever I was, the social, technological, historical, material networks that I moved in and created. I don't mean I was self-conscious (although sometimes of course I was), but that I had to start learning what the implications were of my being somewhere, of my interactions with people. Those implications went far beyond anything that I could control fully or be independent of.

So when I was in recording studios, I couldn't hide the fact that I was a foreigner, and it would have been insulting to try. But since Jamaica is a small place where people know each other (especially in the music scene) and since foreigners are the main sources of money and chances for international publicity for Jamaican musickers, people were extremely conscious of me. My presence at a music studio, or sitting next to a producer, signaled to everyone around that the studio, or the producer was connected to a foreigner, which in itself meant something. Not that I was particularly important, and at a place like Tuff Gong, it would simply have confirmed Tuff Gong's international fame again, but in other places it was probably more significant. This didn't mean that anyone was dishonest, or fake, or that anyone was necessarily trying to hustle me (although the art of the hustle is definitely alive and well in Jamaica), or that they didn't like me or anything. They just knew what was up. My presence there meant something different than if it was another Jamaican, and that meaning was shaped by the recent and distant history of Jamaica, and Jamaica's current relations with global powers like the USA. And to bring it back to the music industry, it was shaped as well by Jamaica's current and recent history of local creativity and massive foreign profit, as well as massive inequality in profit even in Jamaica, and as well the potential for personal gain through connection to international audiences, and lots of other vectors too.

And Jamaicans in those studios were totally right to be aware of that when they looked at me, especially because even though my reason for being there was to do research and not write a magazine article or promote them, the simple fact that I am from outside and connected to outside meant that simple things I did for my own personal reasons had bigger implications. If I found a tune I liked and played it for a friend back home - that's international distribution! The more so if I posted it online or mentioned their name online. So they knew that, and I knew that too. I'm free to do what I like with that knowledge, but I wouldn't be doing myself or anyone around me any favors by pretending it wasn't true. And it's not like my task was then to dismantle colonial power, my task is just to ask myself what the most ethical behavior is, given what I know (and what I learned from people there) about how this whole thing works? And this is basically what Boima raised in his post about collectors of African music.

So he asks is "who is benefiting" when a collector buys African vinyl and spins it back home in the UK or California or wherever.  It's not harsh on Boima's part to simply point out the colonial history and express a concern for fairness,  given the vast power imbalances and unpleasant histories between Europeans/Americans/Brits and Africans. Several commenters respond quite aggressively, or I would say defensively (defending against the implication that they might be aligned with colonial power).

Some of the commenters seem really upset at this idea, that they might be implicated in colonial power.  But this seems odd to me. How could you not be? How could we all not be? Its real, it's embedded in the world we live in, it shapes our ability to travel, use technology, to buy stuff, to communicate. It would be a bit silly to say "because I do this thing personally I have nothing to do with colonialism"  or "because I have these feelings I have nothing to with colonialism." The languages people speak, the currency they use, the fact that planes fly to one place or not another, or buses go this way and not that, whether there are phone lines or satellites connecting people, the people who are happy to talk to you and the people who aren't, the presence or absence of recordings in specific parts of Africa or elsewhere.. all of those are shaped by the global economic system which is a product of history and actions that create  recreate colonial relations.  It doesn't mean people are cogs in some great machine, but it does shape the way we interact. And what Boima's post does  is encourage us to think more consciously about it. Interestingly, when people in the comments describe the lengths they go to get money and reputation back to the people whose music they collect, it sounds like they are actually in agreement with Boima's concern about fairness. So the hostility seems a little disproportionate.

The post begins provocatively, sure, but its not like there has been too much of this kind of question -some of the responses in the comments sound like there has been some global obsession with preventing African artists from being exploited.  But there hasn't been much of that at all.  I'm happy to see the discussion begin, and I hope as things spread out from that initial post we take it even further.

1 comment:

  1. yes awareness of power relations should be raised and we can all proceed with more consciousness of history and present contexts. but everyone i know in the west who are passionate about, work with, or releases African music do so without much reward, and all are struggling financially. so i think you are right the finger pointing is a bit unfortunate but i appreciate the larger points...