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Alisha Lola Jones

Alisha Lola Jones is an assistant professor at Indiana University. She is completing a manuscript entitled Peculiar People: Meaning, Masculinity, and Competence in Gendered Gospel Performance, which breaks ground by analyzing the role of gospel music-making in constructing and renegotiating gender identity among Black men. Last year, Jones received academic acclaim and support through six research fellowships that included the Mellon Dissertation Fellowship and an Innovation Grant from the University of Chicago.

“The Heavenlies, I’ll Take You There: Black Countertenors and Transcendence in Gendered Gospel Performance” 
Countertenors are typically men who perform music that matches the vocal range and timbre of female contraltos and mezzo-sopranos in the Western art music tradition. These men are typically trained to deploy a vocal delivery such that listeners are unable to determine whether the sound is emanating from a male or female body. Black male operatic countertenors who perform in Christian churches and other gospel settings must contend with a distinct set of cultural tensions to demonstrate their performative competency. Music ministers also face challenges in choosing repertoire for countertenors, particularly when those ministers lack experience working with men with the countertenor vocal designation. Shared anxieties concerning uses of the body in performance reveal the ways in which Black male gesture is a contested component within gospel contexts. 

Drawing on a case study of a Black male countertenor and ethnography of his performance, this paper explores perceptions of a sexually indistinguishable vocal sound. I highlight the socio-theological complications that arise as sonically ambiguous performances of gender compete with longstanding heteronormative constructs. In what ways do countertenors negotiate their performances of sexuality and gender in gospel performance? How do perceptions of gendered sound shape notions of communal identity and belonging? I suggest that transcendence offers a fresh way of thinking through these questions and about the broader role of gendered sound in Black performance.

“(En)Gendering and (Em)Bodying Black Voices Differently”
The three papers of this panel consider the importance of thinking intersectionally about the Black voice in and across African American music. Far too often, scholarly and journalistic discussions about the effects and textures of vocalism in Black music are either grounded within one genre, or they use or reference gendered and sexualized language to describe such voices (e.g., silky, rough, raw) without fully interrogating the axes of power and difference undergirding and shaping these analyses and the bodies accompanying such voices. Thus, this panel seeks to situate Black vocalism within and between the strictures and structures of race, gender, sexuality, and the body. In particular, this panel is invested in analyzing ambiguous and liminal Black voices, Black voices that interrogate, challenge, and blur the boundaries between male/female, feminine/masculine, straight/queer, and human/nonhuman. Moreover, the three papers on this panel develop an interdisciplinary approach to (via ethnography, textual analysis, archival research) Black vocalism, and theorize its heterogeneity through various genres like rock, gospel, and hip-hop. In so doing, this panel aims to capture the multiple and multidirectional histories, lived realities, and meaning-making practices that Black vocalism encapsulates, enacts, and traverses. In all, through intersectional, multi-genre, and interdisciplinary analyses, this panel seeks to imagine Black vocalism differently.

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