Romi Ron Morrison & Layla Zami

Listening for Black Feminism

Abstract

Listening for Black Feminism was a conversation between Romi Morrison and Layla Zami, held publicly in Berlin, Germany on November 12, 2022 upon invitation by Jan Dammel, as part of the Minor Cosmopolitan Assembly organized by the RTG  minor cosmopolitanisms with funding from the DFG (German Research Foundation). At that time, Zami had recently begun a Postdoctoral Fellowship with the Collaborative Research Center Intervening Arts at Freie Universität in Berlin, and invited Morrison to be a Mercator Fellow at the Center for the Fall of 2022.

The conversation as mixtape format was conceived as a call and response between Zami and Morrison, who took turns in sharing audio/visual media, quotes and questions for each other. Departing from the recorded and transcribed public conversation, we kept the dialogue going, this time working asynchronously across time zones between Berlin and L.A. What follows below is a transformed and updated record in the form of a multimedia publication with the with to archive some of this intellectual encounter for the future.

Texture and affect 

Short Bios

Romi Ron Morrison is an interdisciplinary artist, researcher, and educator.  Their work investigates the personal, political, ideological, and spatial boundaries of race, ethics, and social infrastructure within digital technologies. Using maps, data, sound, performance, and video, their installations center Black diasporic technologies that challenge the demands of an increasingly quantified world—reducing land into property, people into digits, and knowledge into data. They are currently an Assistant Professor in the Design Media Arts program at UCLA in Los Angeles.

Layla Zami is an innovative artist and scholar working with music, sounds, poetry, and theater. Her research, teaching, and creative work orbits around the nexus of cultural memory, corporeality, performance, diaspora, and spacetime. She is currently Postdoctoral Researcher in Performance Studies at Freie Universität Berlin and a Resident Artist with Oxana Chi Dance & Art. 

The conversational aspect of the exchange came from the desire to merge professional and personal relations to our research and artistic practice as artist-scholars, and to render fluid the boundaries between different registers of communication. The idea here was to connect to the feminist notion of the kitchen table conversation, knowing that we both actually used to share a kitchen table when residing in the 20+ members community house called Divine in Brooklyn, New York in 2015-2016. Here, the kitchen was also a sonically curated space, where sounds and theoretical concepts were occasionally exchanged in between the preparation of a meal and the attending of the rushing flow of life in the city.

When talking about a mixtape, it is important to understand two things. First, the relational form of it. Mixtapes are cassette tapes that people would record themselves, often as a compilation of songs that they have a very special relationship to. Mixtapes are usually meant to be shared, they’re meant to be kind in circulation, in contrast with a capitalist logic of individual property.  Next, the notion of the cut: a mixtape invites for an arrangement or rearrangement, and makes space for uncertainty and improvisation. To be true to the spirit of the mixtape, we did not share the questions and materials with each other before the event. 

We thought out loud about different concepts that matter to our work, that are relevant to sound (studies), and attempt to exemplify them with some media sharing.

MEDIA:

Conversation as Mixtape Recording Excerpt

LAYLA
I’ll start with humanist storytelling, a concept by Sylvia Winter, who is an important Black feminist figure. She speaks of the homo narrans, the human as storyteller, as distinct from the homo economicus, among other in reference to Martinican thinker and poet Aimé Césaire.

“Human beings are magical. Bios and Logos. Words made flesh, muscle and bone animated by hope and desire, belief materialized in deeds, deeds which crystallize our actualities.” 

This quote is the last paragraph from her essay on Caribbean Rethinking Modernity. I find this idea interesting when we look at blackness and think of Black sonic practices. It is relevant to my practice and I wonder if it is relevant to you too or if you are departing from it. Let me share a media exemplifying the idea. 

Listening at Pungwe – the joint project of the Namibian historian Memory Biwa and the sound artist Robert Machiri – deals with German colonial history in their radiophonic lecture performance “Dzimudzangara: A Spectral Figuration of Archival Voices”. We also hear poet storyteller Jumoke Adeyanju (Nigeria/Germany). The story is about Kinjikitile ‘Bokero’ Ngwale, who, obsessed with the spirit medium Hongo, recruits fighters against the German invaders. The artists overlay vinyl recordings from several decades with songs, poems and momentary gestures into the past, and invite listeners to collectively hear and feel that which is invisible.

Timecode: 42:15 > 45:07

Maybe to add a little bit of context, the idea here is listening to listening, listening at Pungwe. Pungwe is a word in the Shona language that denotes a vigil: meetings that people would keep the whole night, especially during political struggles in Zimbabwe, for instance. What happens in this track is that artists overlay video recordings from several decades with songs, poems, momentary gestures into the past, and their goal is to invite listeners to collectively hear and feel that which is invisible. This brings me back to asking more broadly:

How can sonic storytelling allow us to express our humanity and all its multi dimensionality and multiplicity? Maybe you can comment on this in relation to your project, The Future Conditional, which also works with multilayered voices, but maybe in a way that departs from storytelling?

ROMI
Yeah, I think it’s a complicated one. As you mentioned, I’m working on this project called The Future Conditional. It is both a sound composition as well as various sound objects that I have been making from interactive textiles. The concept for the piece is opening space to reflect on the kind of labor and work that’s necessary to make certain types of black futures possible.

This piece treats the future as something that is not an eventuality, and engages a speculative practice for what an archive would look like that held visions on the labor of sustaining Black futures. 

The sound composition is sourced from interviews I’ve been conducting with various Black feminist scholars, artists, poets, friends and family members. These recordings are cut and mixed with various field recordings from historic places of black fugitive settlement, as well as original music that I have been writing.

And so here storytelling emerges across a few different registers and sources. The fugitive landscapes speak through the field recordings, the interviewees speak with language, pauses, and affect, and the instruments speak through tone, timbre, and pattern. Together they build a shared voice. Voice is something that I work with a lot because of its immediate sonic qualities. But I’ve been hesitant to call it storytelling. I don’t know that I have a good reason why, other than my disdain for the ways that it’s become such a funding opportunity. But what I think storytelling can offer is a deeper analysis on authorship, and the potential to expand from the individual to the collectively held. This would push us to continue to rupture the neat arrangement of epistemology and ontology. 

For example, there are a lot of aleatory aspects to the sound, so voices are coming in and out, and in fact, I don’t want everything that’s being said to be understandable, so I’ve been processing the voices in a way where it’s clear that language is being spoken, but what’s being said is obscured. There are ultrasonic sensors that are detecting proximity and distance that are embedded in the textiles that have been creating that are playing the sound. And so based on the kind of duration or the closeness in which the listener gets to the quilt, more of what’s being spoken will be understandable.

I do this to ask something of the listener. And I think it’s an important dynamic to think about artwork or objects as beings that aren’t just inert, but that have demands and enact them. This also changes our relationship to listening, from a passive activity, to one that requires something of you as well.

And so, you could think of it as storytelling, but if it’s storytelling, it’s one that requires duration, to stay with the object, and for meaning to be made in that relationship rather than the story having a kind of teleological aim. 

One of my concepts is infrasonic. My thinking on this really comes from Tina Campt’s work, in Listening to Images. I think it is relevant to the ways that Tina Campt is evoking an embodied process of interacting with sound that doesn’t overly privilege the audible, but illustrates how sound registers as something affective, as feeling.

She defines infrasound as “low frequencies emitted by or audible only to certain animals, such as elephants, rhinoceroses, and whales. That while the ear is the primary organ for perceiving sound, at lower frequencies infrasound is often only felt in the form of vibrations through contact with parts of the body”.

Yet all sound consists of more than what we hear. It is an inherently embodied modality constituted by vibration and contact. And so the piece of media that I chose, is a short clip from Arthur Jafa’s piece, “The Message is Love, Death is the Message”. This is a work that Tina Campt has written about extensively, and I wanted to bring it for a few different reasons. One is that when Tina Campt is talking about infrasound, she’s also talking about perception.

Specifically, what it means to perceive outside of registers that aren’t always authorized. In her own work, she’s listening to photographic images. And in Arthur Jafa’s work, he’s really trying to listen to Black cinema as something that, mirrors the intonations of black musicality. So for both of them it’s not the visual that is overly arresting as much as the sequence of images when they perform the meter, beats, rhythms or tonality of Black music. This excess within Black perception requires a synesthesia to work beyond the registers that are authorized and to open different types of seeing and understanding. 

MEDIA: Arthur Jafa Video

Trigger Warning: This video contains graphic depiction of racialized and gendered violence against Black people, including police violence.

Okay, so looking at those images and again, thinking about this notion of infrasound or what it means to perceive something outside of its assumed register, I’m curious how the tactility of things like embodiment or gesture show up in your work and then maybe as like a more general follow up, how infrasonic listening practices might open up different modes of meaning, and meaning making —beyond what appears to be self evident or axiomatic? 

LAYLA
Thank you. Those are great questions. I’ll start with the one that’s closer to my practice. To provide the audience and readership for some contexts: in my musical practice, I play multiple instruments, mainly saxophone, as well as kalimba (a relative of the mbira instrument which you heard in the soundtrack I shared), and also a sort of wood flute. And I make sounds. In terms of musical education, I started with classical music, and was trained in classical saxophone first, while also playing in the Big band at the Conservatory in France. Then, my teacher introduced me to what is called “new music”: contemporary, experimental music, on the saxophone as well, and later on I played jazz (while having been listening to it all along). What I really witnessed, or intentionally worked on to develop it as a strategy, while witnessing my own evolution with movement. One was a move away from the classic genre that allowed me to feel more grounded in my body while playing, to feel a different connection to my instrument, and in particular the tactility of the saxophone. I think that is what I was sometimes missing in the classical training – which had other wonderful virtues including the work on precision and intonation. Since most of my stage performances happen in collaboration with my wife who is a dancer-choreographer, movement has obviously come to be a realm I pay a precise attention to.  As an anecdote, one day I had a key experience where a saxophone player almost moved like he was dancing on stage, funny enough, not in the US but in Berlin, Germany. I connected with a sense of flow and freedom in the playing. I wondered: how does this work? Is it just a release, or an actual performance strategy you can develop? Or maybe a strategy of unleashing blocades and releasing the music. It’s tricky on the saxophone because you do want the fingers to be at the right place most of the time. I try to remind myself and to work on it consciously, I feel that the musicality opens itself up when you allow yourself to be more open, in your fingering, in your throat… this is where I feel like I can touch upon infrasonic realms. 

And on the other hand, I understand the infrasonic as a spiritual dimension of my musical practice. To come back to the video Love is the Message, The Message is Death by Jafa that you shared – which to be honest is profoundly troubling and triggering to me at times – displays visual records of rituals. Rituals in the realms of religion, music, dance and state control. The rituals at stake here depict ongoing movements of controlling, policing, and brutalizing of Black bodies in the United States, while also making space for rituals testifying the performative beauty and choreosonic resilience of Black culture in the United States. The title of the video says it all, how possibilities of love and death constantly co-exist in the everyday life of Black people in that country. 

It is interesting that you suggest this video as a demonstration of Tina Campt’s take on the infrasonic, because indeed when witnessing it, I find myself perceiving the audiovisual sequence through what she calls “vibration” and “contact”. These also play a role in my musical practice, and I come more and more to strive to be a channel. It is a blessing, but it requires effort. When you allow yourself to be a channel, the body becomes attuned to specific, possibly infrasonic vibrations. And that is what I feel like might get lost sometimes if computers come to replace live instruments. At least in my case, I do not have the capacity to recreate this.

ROMI
No, I think that’s really true. I’ve been working with a composer in Los Angeles, to give feedback on this composition. And I was writing all of these really erratic trumpet lines. After a while, when we were listening together, he would have to keep reminding me to leave room for the breath. Sometimes creating sound through software, you forget to think about the music as a collection of people, of players. 

I wasn’t thinking about someone playing it. I was just thinking about what the computer could produce in terms of repetition, layering, and processing. I think that can happen when working with software where it becomes very disembodied very quickly. You really have to work to consciously think about what it means to reincorporate the body back into the sound. Often it’s something small like finding the space for breath or rest or some kind of tranquility.

It wasn’t until much later, after learning piano that I realized how difficult the physical layout of the guitars actually is. With piano, it’s very clear. And so with guitar it’s really about learning the pattern more than it is being able to see the note or to logically understand it. You learn the repetition enough so that later you can break it. Endless repetition until then something breaks or cracks and that kind of fissure is exciting. 

LAYLA
Listening to you talking about repetition makes me think of patterns. I think of the patterns and the repetition that are in our bodies through the memory of the transatlantic middle passage as well, and how that has come to be archived in us, and how maybe through our practice now today we work to, in a way, decode our self, and we work a lot on data encoding, and getting other Patterns and other tactile relationships to our bodies or the movement that we’re doing in intimacy and also publicly through the instrument.

ROMI
Yeah, that’s the channeling that you were talking about.

LAYLA
With regards to the infrasonic… you mentioned breath and silence as well, and I find that very important to work on in my practice. It seems to me that the more I advance in my musical skills, the more I am able to allow for silence, to allow for breathing… while it is something that people can be afraid of when they begin a musical practice. Here we can also think of the idea of acoustic or sonic palimpsest.

The next concept is fugitive intimacies borrowed from Daphne A. Brooks. For context here in Germany, the discourse on fugitivity relates to the history of the plantation and the practice called marooning. In Liner Notes for the Revolution, she writes a history, or herstory of Black women songs from a Black Feminist perspective. One of her main arguments is that Black women have entered the archive as singers, and performers, while she invites us to understand them as listeners, and to witness how they listened to each other, across generations. So hers is a relational understanding of Black women performance. 

“Black women’s musical practices are, in short, revolutionary because they are inextricably linked to the matter of Black life. Their strategies of performance perpetually and inventively philosophize the prodigiousness of its scope. But also – and quite crucially – Black women’s musical practices are revolutionary because of the ways in which said practices both forecast and execute the viability and potentiality of Black life.”
[Brooks, Daphne A. Liner Notes for the Revolution: The Intellectual Life of Black Feminist Sound. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2021.]

I wondered if this is relevant to your work. And as a media example related to this quote, I picked Nina Simone. Here is an excerpt from her interpretation of I Wish I Knew What It Would Mean to Be Free, performed live in Montreux in France in 1976. Nina Simone is a sonic residue of my childhood, because my mother would listen to her a lot. And today I sometimes reflect on how listening to my mother listening to Simone may have an impact on my musical practice, and my scholarship. In this particular excerpt, Simone adds para-texts, comments that are not part of the original lyrics. 

ROMI
I think I need to start my day watching that clip. 

LAYLA
So, my question for you is, what do we feel when we fugitively take flights through sound?

ROMI
Yeah, you showed me this question right before we started. And I think the first time I looked at it, I was like, Oh, fugitivity, cool, that’s in my wheelhouse, I know what to say about fugitivity. And then, watching that video, it elicited something else. As I was watching it and I kept asking myself, what is the role that Nina Simone performs in this video?

You can say that, well, she’s a musician, performer, but what I love about Nina Simone, and particularly Nina Simone’s live recordings, is that the performance is always broken up, either with a verbal interlude, or how she puts inflection on a particular line that breaks with the rest of the song. Each time there is a precision to it. It has a piercing quality to it. It rings through even while still being held in the roundness of the amplitude that she’s creating.

If we think about fugitivity and refusal, I think of those inflections or the moments in which she stops playing and then decides she’s going to give an impromptu speech. Those feel like acts of refusal, right? They’re acts of refusing to be just a performer or refusing like what we understand the performer to be. 

There is another part of fugitivity I have been thinking about more—that it has a cost. Thinking about Nina Simone’s career, and her willingness to subvert and challenge her role as a performer, it carried a cost. There is a cost to acting fugitively in a world that is seeking to constantly deny the existence of you, to deny the sanctity of your body, to just be human —to be more than subject or object.

It also seems to me that these things are always wedded together. The ecstasy of the performance, the moment of refusal, and then the reality of the cost aren’t able to be neatly disentangled. They carry value because they make a relationship from incommensurability. There isn’t a clear separation between those things. Instead it’s multi-layered and in its own contradiction. 

When Fred Moten is writing about the aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition, there is a sense of ecstasy, the excesses of liberal subjectivity, as well as the realization of what is both seeking to refuse you and then the reality and cost of refusing that refusal.So when we think about genres of Black music or Black vocal intonation, they have that kind of quality to them. 

More and more in fugitivity I think that it can offer is a contingent window that provides us glimpses of a non-indexical world, of a worldview that is not universalizable, not obsessed with the metrics of subjecthood and objecthood, but contingent and dependent on the elegant collisions between and amongst difference. In such a view contradiction is a mundane part of being. There is no pursuit for simplified clarity.

You were talking about the posture of a saxophonist a few moments ago, there is a refusal in that performance. The performance refuses the separation of their body from the performance from what’s being played. There is no tidy delineation. Instead, there is this very full gestural expression that can be really hard to categorize. 


So, in thinking about this project, um, and this kind of communication, this affective, both oral and affective communication, um, I’m wondering how you think about sound as it comes to unsettle these boundaries, boundaries between species, boundaries between place, uh, boundaries between time also. So yeah, when you’re working with sound, in what ways does it allow you to unsettle those boundaries? Or in what ways does that kind of excite your practice? 

LAYLA
Thank you for sharing these thoughts and this question! Now that we are continuing our conversation as mixtape in 2023, discussing via Google Doc (lol), I would like to briefly add that I have more distance from the concept of fugitivity, which I know you are also cautious with. I just read an interesting critique of the increased use and celebration of “fugitivity” in Black studies. The author argues that while scholars such as Fred Moten and Neil Roberts provide us with macroscopic narratives of freedom, Black Feminism offers possibilities to think and move at smaller scales I would call microscopic here. Rinaldo Walcott thinks that fugitivity and marronage can not be equated with freedom, and instead proposes that these terms “come to us only as the outcome of an encirclement of unfreedom.” To your question:
What first comes up for me here is the work of Nia Love, an artist I know from New York. Lately I have been following how she literally deep dives into aquatic realms to work on memories of the Middle Passage, and how she translated this back to the stage in the work g1(host), for which she actually had water on stage. In the research process, she actually underwent training to be able to underwater, and her aim was to retrieve forms of ancestral memories. Next, I thought of André Zachery’s work Digital Middle Passage which I discussed in my book Contemporary PerforMemory. When I interviewed André, he mentioned that he felt the need to ask the ancestors for permission to cross the stage in this metaphoric and maybe metaphysical process. Throughout the piece, he slowly but surely crosses the stage from one side to the other.

When it comes to boundaries between places, times, and the element of water, I do often reflect on fluid, aquatic connections between sonic and choreographic practices in my own collaboration with Oxana Chi. And in fact, I recognized some form of her work as an inspiration behind Ta-Nehisi Coates’ novel The Water Dancer, which I strongly recommend by the way. This brings us back to the topic of fugitivity. In the novel, water is not only a traumatic space, it is also a spacetime portal, a gateway. The main protagonist uses water to transport people out of slavery towards the North. I found these poetics of moving through water beautiful.

My own background being partly situated in the Caribbean island of Martinique, I have been recording ocean sounds, and feel inspired by their texture in my own musical playing as well as writing. Here of course I also think of Alexis Pauline Gumbs. Maybe this also connects to the empathy that you mentioned. 

ROMI
I think the reason that I was choosing echo is because we’re so accustomed to prioritizing vision as the means for making sense of the world. 

However, for marine life, it’s all about sound. So I’m thinking about what it means to navigate through a kind of oral directionality, wayfinding through the exchange of stories and memories. When I hear you bring up the transatlantic and this relationship to water, it conjures this image of water working as an archive. I’ve been wanting to work on this project for a while thinking through what the oral archive of the transatlantic would sound like. What kinds of  remnants or residues of sound would still be found? What things dissipate? What things are no longer whole and shouldn’t be reassembled? This moves beyond an archive as a self contained object. It makes us consider a landscape as an archive, as something environmental—as a location beyond geography. 

LAYLA
I love that. Maybe we should work on that together. To come back to thinking about how sound unsettles boundaries, I try to experiment with this in my use of the loop pedal technology live on stage with the saxophone. It has allowed me to unsettle boundaries and expand the range of possibilities. Of course loop pedals have been used in music for decades now, especially with guitars, bass and voice yet I must say that when I started it was not common for someone to use a loop pedal with a saxophone. On this instrument, you usually play only one note at the time, not chords (although I also occasionally play chords with special fingering from contemporary music techniques used in saxophone). Unsettling the instrument is exciting. From a cognitive standpoint, I also wonder what happens in our neurons as a sound emitter and listener when I loop the saxophone. I do feel that it shifts my, our relationship to temporality. You can play with being exactly on beat and completely moving away from it. That is the play with the echo in some ways. Here I would like to share a sonic example of what that sounds like. Here is a short excerpt of one of the first songs I composed and played with saxophone and loops. It was born in the humid summertime of New York City, on the Lower East Side. In 2017-2018, my wife Oxana Chi was in the first historical cohort of the AIRspace Grant for Performing Artists at the Abrons Arts Center. She wanted us to create a new “duo for a body and a saxophone”, as she said, with her choreography and my music. Searching for a title, she suggested using the words “jazz” and “feeling” and I thought: let’s make it sound counterintuitive and say “feelingJAZZ”. The Center was located near the Williamsburg Bridge, which connects Manhattan to Brooklyn, and one of our “born and raised” New York friends told me about walking over this bridge regularly. I deep dived into my imaginary feeling of crossing this bridge – which I never did by foot, but always by subway – and connected this to the feeling of friendship, of all the dear friends that I got to meet in New York, and you are one of them, Romi 😉 beings who will always remain dear to my heart even if time was often too sparse in that city to spend enough time with each other. It is called Waves of Friendship. As you, the reader, comes to the end of our contribution, here is my final offering to you all. 

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