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Chris Nickell

Chris Nickell is a third-year PhD candidate in Music at New York University. He is currently working on two projects. The first, related to this paper, explores constructions of Arab masculinity in the transnational underground music scene centered on Beirut. The second takes up issues of gender, bodies, and voices in the early operatic genre of lament. Chris is also a shop steward, organizer, and activist with GSOC-UAW, the graduate worker union of NYU.

“‘Just Brown Enough’: Voices of Beirut’s Underground Music Scene”
Uses of “voice” as shorthand for individual subjectivity solidified with English and French Enlightenment philosophers and traveled globally via colonialism. Naturalized today in human rights discourse, late liberal politics, and everyday speech, this idea enables an equivalence, via the body, of “identity” with material voice. Vocal timbre, in particular, is uncritically plotted along racialized, gendered, and sexualized axes, among others: listeners are “trained” to hear a body’s identity through a voice just as vocalists are often trained to embed it in their bodies (Eidsheim forthcoming). But what happens when performers hack into this concordance between voice and identity across the terrain of the body, destabilizing it?

The predominantly male voices of the Beirut underground scene provide interesting answers. These frontmen consciously play with this triangulation of voice, body, and identity. In this paper, I focus on Hamed Sinno, frontman of Mashrou3 Leila. Singing alt-rock reminiscent of Florence and the Machine and Queen, he writes melancholic Arabic lyrics and relies on melismatic passagework harkening to Lebanese classical singer Fairuz, even while cracking dry jokes in English between sets. Sinno thus destabilizes poles of “East” and “West:” Audiences in Euro-American cities, with only a modest proportion of Arabic speakers, enjoy the combination of familiar music with the mysterious-sounding voice of a hairy olive-skinned man, while audiences of the Arab world appreciate these “Western” musical genres that saturate media now sung in their native language with stylistic borrowings from their “own” art music tradition.

Drawing on ethnography and close listening, I argue that Sinno’s voice creates a semi-exotic, fraught, yet commercially successful space I call “just brown enough.” In decoupling vocal timbre from racialized bodies only to reconnect them strategically, Sinno emblematizes the productive yet melancholy postcolonial ambivalence salient in the Beirut underground scene that I suggest affectively resembles Muñoz’ enduring formulation of “feeling brown, feeling down.”

My Speakers Sessions

Saturday, April 16

2:00pm PDT


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