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Charles L. Hughes

Charles L. Hughes is Director of the Memphis Center at Rhodes College. He is the author of Country Soul: Making Music and Making Race in the American South (University of North Carolina Press, 2015). He has spoken and published widely in race and popular music in the U.S. He is also a musician and songwriter.

“‘I Don’t Want No R-E-S-P-E-C-T’: The Disruptive Black Southernness of Brittany Howard”
In October 2015, Billboard magazine named Brittany Howard their Women in Music “Powerhouse” Artist of the Year, an appropriate honor given the breakout success of Sound & Color, the second album by the Howard-led group Alabama Shakes, and a surprise debut from her garage-punk side project Thunderbitch. But Howard’s accomplishment went beyond widespread critical or popular acclaim. With these striking recordings, Howard challenged her early positioning as a representative of Southern soul traditions and more broadly defied the cultural expectations for a Southern Black woman associated with a “retro” musical genre in the 21st century.

At the center of this project—and of the records themselves—is her voice. An instrument of astonishing power and flexibility, Howard’s singing eschews “authenticity” and embraces ambiguity. She mixes techniques usually marked as “male” or “female,” and “Black” or “white,” and pairs these performances with a diverse blend of musical textures that defy any easy attempt at stylistic categorization. At a moment when artists like Leon Bridges or St. Paul and the Broken Bones have gained fame through their painstaking recreations of classic soul sounds –and their self-conscious adherence to its prescripted performances of race, gender, and region—Brittany Howard’s voice explodes these preconceptions and the historical mythologies that they bolster in favor of expansive creativity and fluidity.

This presentation examines Howard’s voice as an act of explicit and implicit resistance. It contextualizes her work within a historical continuum of Southern Black women whose musical experimentation has troubled simplified conceptions of identity. It examines how Howard’s voice intervenes in the cultural politics of soul music and its practitioners. And it explores the relationship between Howard’s work and the larger politics of identity in the 21st-century South and U.S.


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