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Elliott H. Powell

Elliott H. Powell is an Assistant Professor in the Department of American Studies at the University of Minnesota. He is currently at work on a book manuscript entitled Music Between the Margins: African American and South Asian Collaborative Sounds in Black Popular Music. The project brings together critical race, feminist, and queer theories to consider the political implications of African American and South Asian collaborative music-making practices in jazz during the 1960s and 1970s and hip-hop since the 1980s.

“The Ghosted Voice of Hip-Hop: Sampling, Copyright, and the Queer Temporalities of Black Vocal Technologies”
The recent copyright infringement case involving Robin Thicke and the estate of Marvin Gaye has once again sparked discussions about intellectual property and the fate of popular music; a concern that is all too familiar in hip-hop. Indeed, hip-hop scholars and music producers have long associated the sonic “death” of hip-hop, characterized by the assumed decrease in sampling (also known as hip-hop’s first-born) in rap, with U.S. copyright. Yet, such attention to the repression of hip-hop, and popular music more broadly, often elides how such restrictions have led music producers to develop alternative strategies for circumventing the legal terrain of intellectual property. Take, for example, the generally unknown hip-hop sampling technique of “ghosting.” A hallmark of producer Timothy “Timbaland” Mosley, ghosting describes a wide range of tactics that hip-hop producers employ to sample a recording while eliding aural, and by extension legal, detection—like a ghost, the sample exists but is not legible under normative modes of perception. Frequently, ghosting involves the voice, where a producer distorts his/her voice in a way that approximates a vocal sample used in a recording, thereby rendering the divide between the producer’s voice and the vocal sample indistinguishable. Ghosting, then, raises a question: what does it mean to be a sample, to simultaneously be a living human in the present and, as samples are materials from old recordings inserted into new spaces, the past? In this paper, I bridge the temporal turn in queer studies with the recent attention to technology in black popular music studies in order to interrogate the implications of the ghosted voice in hip-hop. I use Timbaland-produced songs featuring Jay-Z and Justin Timberlake as case studies that illustrate how ghosting not only challenges how we imagine intellectual property, but also race, technology, temporality, and the (Black) body.

“(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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