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Analyzing the African diaspora through the lens of sounds

by Michelle Boston
Edwin Hill’s experiences abroad inspired him to pursue the research that became the basis of Black Soundscapes White Stages.
Edwin Hill’s experiences abroad inspired him to pursue the research that became the basis of Black Soundscapes White Stages.

For USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences’ Edwin Hill, the key to understanding the black Atlantic diaspora in the years between World Wars I and II is to listen.

As part of a colonial exposition, band members in Paris beat their drums to the Caribbean rhythm of the beguine, a musical genre originating in the French West Indies. In Parisian salons, poetry was recited by African, Caribbean and African-American intellectuals, who flocked to France in the 1920s and 30s, forming the Negritude literary movement. A radio in Algiers crackled to life with “the authentic voice of France” broadcast across continents by Le Poste Colonial, the official French colonial radio station.

In his book Black Soundscapes White Stages: The Meaning of Francophone Sound in the Black Atlantic, Hill explores what these sonic spaces reveal about the African diaspora on both sides of the Atlantic during the interwar years. For instance, what does it mean when Martinique’s beguine musical genre is appropriated and transformed by colonial France? Or what is the significance when the launch of Le Poste Colonial transmits live performances from French stages into the heart of its colonies in Africa and the Caribbean?

During the interwar period, Paris exploded with new forms of music, literature and art. Waves of performers, writers and artists arrived from around the world, including a large population of black performers from the United States, Africa and the Caribbean. Among them were Aimé Césaire of Martinique and Léon Damas of French Guiana, writers who founded the Negritude movement. Negritude — literally “blackness” in French — was both a literary and ideological movement led by French-speaking black writers and intellectuals who rejected European colonization and its role in the African diaspora.

“What sparked my interest in the topic of the book was thinking about the Negritude literary movement in relation to the Harlem Renaissance,” said Hill, USC assistant professor of French and Italian.

Black-SoundscapesCentered in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood, the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s was a flourishing literary, art and music movement that emphasized the birth of the “New Negro” — black intellectuals who could challenge pervasive stereotypes through their self-expression. Many writers of the Harlem Renaissance, such as Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen, traveled between the U.S. and France to participate in Paris’ literary scene.

“What I noticed about the Harlem Renaissance was that literature, poetry, musical culture — jazz, blues, etc. — enjoyed a synergy. Whereas, in the French West Indian context, Negritude poetry was actually at odds with its popular musical production, the beguine.

“Negritude voices were trying to establish a certain anticolonial stance and legitimacy in French, a new image of blackness,” Hill said. “Many of them thought that the musical performances of the beguine in Creole before white French audiences were reinforcing the types of negative stereotypes they were trying to combat in their literature and their poetry.”

Hill himself is highly attuned to sound. A trained percussionist, he studied French language and literature as a graduate student at The University of Iowa. During his graduate student years, he traveled between the U.S., France and the French Antilles. His experiences abroad illuminated a larger conversation on race and identity, which inspired him to pursue the research that became the basis of Black Soundscapes White Stages — the first work in the newly launched Callaloo African Diaspora Series published by Johns Hopkins University Press.

“What was pivotal for me was meeting people of color from around the world and sharing notes. It was this desire to expand my own understanding of race outside the boundaries of the U.S. and to think of the ways that race is constructed and performed on a global stage, especially today,” Hill said.

This semester, Hill is sharing his expertise in an undergraduate course called “Paris Noir: Black Poetry of Performance in the City of Light.” Students read works by writers from the Harlem Renaissance and Negritude movements, and watch films starring entertainer Josephine Baker. Hill is also teaching an upper division course in French for French majors called “Race, Gender and Power in Francophone Expression.” The class looks at the emergence of hip-hop culture in France and the social unrest that took place in the country in 2005.

Hill is currently working on a forthcoming book that explores the 2005 riots. Called La Rage the book will delve into the different ways that rage, hate and anger are represented in French culture and performance. Much like his current book, the work will examine the history of French colonialism, as well as post-colonialism, through the lens of sound.

La Rage attempts to reframe our critical perspective on contemporary social outbursts by asking not just ‘what do they mean?’ but also ‘how do they feel?’ ” Hill said.

“This new book will attempt to show that rage today represents much more than an ephemeral, spontaneous and individual loss of control or outburst of violence; rage functions also as a transnational and diasporic style of expression related to dynamics of globalization. Rage is sustained through hybrid cultural practices, codes and technologies, creating surprising solidarities in its alternate ways of seeing, feeling and mapping urban space.”

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