Who owns music?

Australian rapper Iggy Azalea

Australian rapper Iggy Azalea

One of my rock heroes died this week. Jack Bruce was the bass player for the super-group Cream from the 1960’s. When I was an undergraduate, my floormates and I had endless conversations about who was the essential member of the group. The obvious choice was Eric Clapton with his soaring guitar solos. Others argued for Ginger Baker, a brilliant drummer – amazingly athletic despite looking like he was on his death bed. I – and others – argued for Jack Bruce, whose inventive and pulsating bass lines seemed to me to be the real heart of Cream’s music. Cream’s favorite musical genre was blues-based rock, often covering the songs of black blues artists such as Robert Johnson. By the late 60’s there was no controversy about white Brits playing such music. That was not the case earlier in the decade, however, when British invasion bands like the Rolling Stones were not just playing blues songs but imitating singing styles from black blues singers. What right did privileged white boys have to play music born out of the life struggles of poor black singers? To be fair, Mick Jagger and others recognized and admitted their debts to blues and R & B singers like Muddy Waters and helped in some cases such singers to be appreciated by their young white audiences. But the issue still remained for some critics that young whites had no right to appropriate the cultural capital of the African-American community.

Such controversies re-appear with some frequency. White rap singers like Eminem initially faced similar criticism. Now that hip hop has representatives all over the world and has in effect become indigenous to a wide variety of cultures, such views seem irrelevant. Still there are arguments to be made about cultural appropriation, such as Brittney Cooper did this summer in a piece in Salon about Australian white teenage rapper Iggy Azelea:

I resent Iggy Azalea for her co-optation and appropriation of sonic Southern Blackness, particularly the sonic Blackness of Southern Black women. Everytime she raps the line “tell me how you luv dat,” in her song “Fancy,” I want to scream “I don’t love dat!” I hate it.

For Cooper, Iggy’s use of black vernacular English is an affront to the struggles of the African-American community – and specifically black women – to be accepted by the white mainstream:

She does not understand the difference between code-switching and appropriation. She may get the science of it, but not the artistry. Appropriation is taking something that doesn’t belong to you and wasn’t made for you, that is not endemic to your experience, that is not necessary for your survival and using it to sound cool and make money. Code-switching is a tool for navigating a world hostile to Blackness and all things non-white. It allows one to move at will through all kinds of communities with as minimal damage as possible. But it is also rooted in a love and respect for one’s culture and for the struggle.

Rather than seeing Iggy’s popularity as a sign of the irrelevance of race in today’s society, Cooper sees it as an indicator of the different kinds of treatment of white and black women in US society.

The ability of Blackness to travel to and be performed by non-Black bodies is supposed to be a triumph of post-racial politics, a feat that proves once and for all that race is not biological. Race does not have any biological basis, but I maintain that there is no triumph and no celebration when we embrace a white girl who deliberately attempts to sound like a Black girl, in a culture where Black girls can’t get no love. How can I “love dat,” when this culture ain’t never loved us? Iggy profits from the cultural performativity and forms of survival that Black women have perfected, without having to encounter and deal with the social problem that is the Black female body, with its perceived excesses, unruliness, loudness and lewdness.

Non-verbal India

namasteOne of the interesting aspects of being in India is to observe non-verbal communication. Indians by and large are big talkers, but they also are very expressive non-verbally. Well-known is the greeting using the folded hands in front of the chest, often while saying “Namaste” or “Namaskar” (from Sanskrit, “I bow to you”). The gesture is accompanied by a slight bow. At the hotel where I was staying in Ahmedabad, the hotel employees greeted me that way every time we met. I have also noted while I’ve been here that, while Indians love to talk, they are also more comfortable with silence than most US Americans. There is not the same compulsion to fill pauses in conversation with chatter.

My colleague here told me of a personal experience of hers illustrating a difference between US and Indian behavior in this area. She was a graduate student at an American university and had, she says, been slacking off on her work. Her graduate advisor called her to his office to lecture her about buckling down. Abashed, she kept her head down during the conversation, not looking him in the eyes. This was her acknowledgement of his age and seniority, as well as a way to show her own awareness and confession of her guilt and shame. He didn’t take it that way, and became increasingly angry in the conversation, interpreting her not looking directly at him as a refusal to accept his views and to acknowledge her fault, in other words, the opposite of what she intended to convey. India is a hierarchal culture in which it’s expected that one show respect for age and authority. One way of conveying that is to lower your eyes.

The most intriguing gesture in India is surely the head wiggle. This is a circular bobbing of the head (like a bobble head) from side to side, neither a nod nor a shake. I have seen this gesture used very often and in many different contexts, and I just realized yesterday evening that I was unconsciously using it while listening to a colleague here tell me about her family’s tragic experiences during the separation between India and Pakistan in 1947. In this case, I was expressing sympathy and indicating Yes, I am listening, go on. But that’s just one use of the head wiggle. Depending on how it is done – how fast the wiggle – it can also mean yes or I agree. In other contexts, particularly if it is slow and subtle, it can just be an acknowledgement of the presence of another person – a kind of minimal greeting. According to one account, it can also be used as a non-answer, to not respond yes or no to a question, request, or offer. That kind of ambiguity can be quite useful in a culture in which it’s not acceptable to make definitive refusals of offers.

A YouTube video demonstrates the different uses of the head wiggle:

My colleage att IIK-Kharagpur pointed me also to this clip from the TV series Outsourced:

Languages in India


Autorickshaw in India

One of the more interesting experiences I have had in my time here in India has been to experience the reality of the multilingual environment. Many Americans when they think of India and languages (which they do rarely), their assumption likely will be that English is all you need to communicate effectively in that country. In fact, I have encountered that view when discussing with colleagues at VCU the decision to start teaching Hindi as part of our language program. The reality on the ground is quite different. I had a conversation yesterday with a colleague from the Indian Institute of Technology (Kharagpur), where I’m giving a series of lectures this week. She is from the north of India and grew up with Urdu, Hindi, and English (at a school run by an Irish nun). Now living in Kharagpur, she told me she had to learn Bengali in order to live here. In fact, she said that in her spare time she is also learning to read Bengali (which uses a different script from Hindi). She described her impression of speaking Bengali as speaking Sanskrit with your mouth full. Bengali is widely spoken in India and Bangladesh. In fact, it is the seventh most widely spoken language in the world (ahead of Russian, Japanese, German or French). When I was in Ahmedabad last week, I experienced a similar phenomenon, namely that everyone was not speaking either English or Hindi, India’s two lingua francas, but rather Gujarti. Gujarti was the mother tongue of Mahatma Gandhi. Both Bengali and Gujarti are Indo-European languages (Indo-Aryan branch), but other language families are represented as well among the 22 official (indigenous) languages of India: Dravidian, Austroasiatic, Tibeto-Burman, and a few minor language families and isolates.

In my experience here, English is in fact a language that lets you navigate everyday life, but it doesn’t allow you full access into Indian culture. That comes only through the local language, and to some extent, through Hindi. It’s also not the case that everyone in India actually speaks English. Even those who have learned it in school may not be proficient in spoken English. That includes Indians in service industries that cater to tourists. My difficulties undoubtedly derive not just from a lack of proficiency on the part of the Indians, but more from my lack of knowledge of the Indian cultural context. Not knowing how many things work in India, or what the expectations are for holding conversations are, means that often we are approaching a topic from widely different perspectives. Of course, sometimes, it comes down to differences in the meanings of common words in American and Indian English. When I arrived at the Ahmedabad airport, there was no taxi stand in front of the airport. After asking fruitlessly a number of by-standers (including a policeman) about taxis, I asked a young man running a small drink kiosk. He asked if I wanted him to get me an “auto”, which I was happy to accept. 45 minutes later (not the 10 minutes he had promised), what pulled up was in fact not a car, but a motorized rickshaw. In Indian English this is a autorickshaw or “auto” for short.

Functional chaos: A model for learning?

trafficeI’m been in Gujarat, India for the past 4 days, visiting VCU’s partner university in Vadodora (The Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda) and attending the conference on “Globalization and Localization in Computer-Aided Language Learning” (GloCALL) in Ahmedabad. Yesterday, one of the speakers, Vance Stevens (founder of Webheads in Action, an ESL community of practice), spoke about MOOCs and language learning. He cited George Siemens’ views on the ineffectiveness of structured learning, with the idea that learners should be finding their own learning paths, not following in someone else’s footsteps. Rather than swallowing down pre-digested information, the learner assembles a unique, individually designed dish, assembled from ingredients gathered from a variety of sources. In a sense, connectivist learning follows the model of how things tend to work in India: functional chaos. This is how traffic flows in India – there seems to be little rhyme or reason and few rules (most traffic lights remain on flashing yellow). Everyone has the freedom to find an individual path through the mass of cars, buses, rickshaws, bicycles, pedestrians, and cows. Instead of disorder, the chaos works. When I took a taxi to Vadodora (2 hours away from Ahmedabad), the driver often had to slow to maneuver around other vehicles or to weave through incoming traffic to make a right turn (driving is on the left in India), but he never had to stop, just kept moving.

As is the case for outsiders encountering the traffic chaos of India, new learners in a connected learning environment, it seems to me, are likely to wonder how to make sense of what they encounter, seeking order in a seemingly random array of blog posts, tweets, and videos. There’s no doubt that successfully navigating one’s way provides a sense of accomplishment and builds learner autonomy, central to real engagement in learning. Vance pointed out in his talk that real language is complex and chaotic – there are rules but no one follows them. Rather, there are patterns that are used to create new utterances, each unique and suitable to the context of use. Language learners pull together into new combinations what they encounter in terms of sentence patterns, word usage, stock phrases, and their interlocutor’s speech, creating each time something unique and personal. In that sense, language is also functional chaos. However, the learner needs to have available some basic building blocks for creating language. If that it a first language, those are absorbed transparently. For second language learners (as adults), I continue to think that there is in fact a role for structured learning. This is particularly the case for a highly inflected language such as German or Russian, not to mention languages such as Mandarin or Arabic (for native speakers of English). It is true, though, that at some point in the learning process, the training wheels come off, and into the traffic you go.

Later today, I’m off to Kolkata and from there to visit another partner university, the Indian Institute of Technology at Kharagpur. I’ll be leaving the clean living environment of Gujarat: a dry state (knowing that, one of the conference participants from Japan brought a case of beer with him on the plane) where I have yet to see anyone smoke and where vegetarianism is wide-spread (as it is throughout India). Added to that is the spiritual side – the large number of temples I’ve walked by, as well the numerous figures in religious robes I’ve seen. Let’s hope I’ve experienced some physical and spiritual cleansing through my visit here.