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Matthew Valnes

Matthew Valnes received a PhD in music from the University of Pennsylvania. His work focuses on improvisation in Afrodiasporic popular music, with a particular emphasis on funk. He has presented his work at national and international conferences. He is currently working on book that examines improvisation and technology in the construction of post-Civil Rights era popular music.

“‘Just a Little Bit of Soul Now’: Voice-Altering Technologies and the Sounds of Funk”
This paper explores the ways funk musicians incorporate voice-altering technologies both as a way to transgress racialized assumptions of Black musical practices, and also as a way to place Black popular music at the forefront of developments in music technology. In particular, this paper argues that Stevie Wonder and Roger Troutman incorporate the new sounds of the talk box to comment on and critique contemporaneous assumptions of Black music in the post-Civil Rights era.

The use of voice-altering technologies in Black popular music serves at least two particular functions: 1) It questions the perceived disconnect between technological developments and Black cultural production; and 2) It complicates listener expectations of what constitutes “acceptable” Black musical practices. In his work, Alexander Weheliye argues that musicians incorporate music technologies to highlight the historicity and mutability of the concept of “the human.” I expand on Weheliye’s claim by examining the particular ways funk musicians incorporate the talk box in two case studies: Stevie Wonder’s “Black Man” from Songs in the Key of Life, and Roger Troutman’s cover of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” from The Many Facets of Roger. In the first, I demonstrate how the placement of Wonder’s altered voice in the track locates funk music’s engagement with technologies within a lineage of Black cultural accomplishments. In the second, I highlight how Troutman’s arrangement of a well-known song uses voice-altering technology to distance popular music performance from themes of yearning and romantic desire, and in the process focuses on how his vocals interact with the underlying funk groove of the track. In so doing, Wonder and Troutman provide a framework for thinking about the political and aesthetic implications of Black popular music’s engagement with voice-altering technologies.

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