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Ali Colleen Neff

Ali Colleen Neff is a media anthropologist who works collaboratively work with young people throughout the Global South. Her first book, Let the World Listen Right, documents the musical cultures of the Mississippi Delta. Her current book project, A Body in Sound: Women, Voice, and Media in Dakar, Senegal, is based on her Mellon/ACLS-funded fieldwork with women pop vocalists. She is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor of Africana Studies and Women’s Studies at Virginia Tech. 

“In Your Eyes, From Their Lives, Into Our Ears: On African Vocal Presence”
Senegalese pop star Youssou N’Dour, the child of Tukuleur praise singer Ndeye Sokhna Mboup, entered the World Musictm phase of his career as an echo. “In your eyes, the light, the heat…” he sang from a patch of Peter Gabriel’s spotlight as a team of dancers and drummers worked their way across the stage. But as the song reached from bridge to climax, N’Dour’s voice took off from this platform, lifting into a traditional Wolof praise song meant for a Sufi leader. In its timbres, form and phrasing, N’Dour’s song is that of a woman griotte whose work is not only to articulate the power of the ritual celebrée, but also to voice herself as an artist and a social force. She produces her own power from her lungs and throat.

Western producers seek out these voices as a cipher of non-culturally-specific otherness in which imagined Africanness, Islam, indigeneity, and femininity collapse into undifferentiated magic and emotion. This is a process of dispossession and erasure. Beyond the exploitative contracts of the World Music industry, both direct and imitative sampling practices abbreviate the power of the voice to articulate herself for herself. Digital music samples sold to laptop EDM producers in discount “packs” entrap and extract the voice. Compilations like Gearslutz.com’s “ethnic vocal sounds” libraries serve up disembodied samples from vastly popular vocalists including Oum Kalthoum, Letta M’Bulu, and Angélique Kidjo with a side of random Berber ululations. In some encouraging cases, as with Beyoncé’s sample of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on her 2013 album, the voice reaches from the grooves of the production to bring immense resources into its own folds.

Drawing from seven years’ fieldwork with women griottes in Senegal, I locate and make legible the largely unseen, but deeply substantive, voices of African women that inhabit pop creativity. I sound the simultaneous processes of sonic dispossession and vocal mobility that texture the work of these women in, through, and against the global culture industries: moments of slippage and spaces of freedom. I ask whether the fact of African women’s vocal presence marks a hidden, irreducible musical ecology at the heart of pop and call for greater recognition and resources toward these liberatory possibilities.

“Voicing the Uncontainable Feminine”
Beyond the notion that music can “give voice” to the “voiceless,” this panel asks how popular music amplifies the vocal power women, girls, and feminine or feminized people already possess. We examine how songwriting and song-voicing can work as a process of self-making and network-building. How have feminine voices been heard and interpreted in ways that dampen the richness of their politics and the fullness of their expression? What are the relationships between these restrictions and particular genres or modes of artistic production? Finally, how do transnational audiopolitics further complicate these relationships? Here, we engage the modes by which voice, irreducible to word, text, or performance, is a medium of self-writing that has a special relationship to the empowerment of women, girls, queer, and otherwise feminized bodies. The creative work of these people has often been reduced to merely direct reflections of their domestic realities, or perceived as narratives of (hetero)romance coerced by a sexist industry and consumed by a feminized/inauthentic public whose unarticulated vocalization comes in the form of screams. Songs and memoirs are particularly rich sites for investigating the tension between voicing the conditions of one’s life and creating/consuming imagined alternatives to those conditions. The voice registers authority as it builds new realities through its creative efforts. The texts these voices carry are only one mode of vocal possibility: here, we locate the work that unfolds in their sensory textures, hidden registers, and embodied meanings.

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