Rhythms of Relation: Black Popular Music and Mobile Technologies

Weheliye, Alexander G.

In this essay I focus on the singular performances of the interface between (black) subjectivity and informational technologies in popular music, asking how these performances impact current definitions of the technological. After a brief examination of those aspects of mobile technologies that gesture beyond disembodied communication, I turn to the multifarious manifestations of techno-informational gadgets (especially cellular/mobile telephones) in contemporary R&B, a genre that is acutely concerned, both in content and form, with the conjuring of interiority, emotion, and affect. The genre’s emphasis on these aspects provides an occasion to analyze how technology thoroughly permeates spheres that are thought to represent the hallmarks of humanist hallucinations of humanity. I outline the extensive and intensive interdependence of contemporary (black) popular music and mobile technologies in order to ascertain how these sonic formations refract communication and embodiment and ask how this impacts ruling definitions of the technological. The first group of musical examples surveyed consists of recordings released between 1999 and 2001; the second set are recordings from years 2009–2010. Since ten years is almost an eternity in the constantly changing universes of popular music and mobile technologies, analyzing the sonic archives from two different historical moments allows me to stress the general co-dependence of mobiles and music without silencing the breaks that separate these “epochs.” Finally, I gloss a visual example that stages overlooked dimensions of mobile technologies so as to amplify the rhythmic flow between the scopic and the sonic. The artifacts in question boost the singular corporeal sensations of informational technologies without resorting to a naturalization of these machines. In other words, black musical formations relish the synthetic artificiality of cell phones and other mobile gadgets as much as making these a vital component of the performed body. They achieve this by transforming the sounds of mobile telephones into rhythmic patterns vital to their musical texts, which make audible how humans and mobile machines form a relational continuum.


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October 23, 2018