Last night, a passionate protest was improvised outside the shop in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where Alton Sterling was shot by police. It included art, dancing, jazz and gospel music, prayer, as well as the traditional chanting and placards. Protests similar to this have occurred after many of the police shootings of African-American men, as well as the sustained “Black Lives Matter” protest. If those of us outside the black community are (and I think should be) very troubled by what is clearly a pattern of injustice and not merely isolated incidents, then it follows that we should also listen very carefully to the protests of that community. Here’s why:

These protests are not meaningless, default responses nor aberrant surges of communal feeling, but politically significant forms of resistance and identity-construction consistent with the history of the African-American struggle for freedom as conducted through rhythm.

Let me explain:

Associating African-American identity with rhythm is problematic if it’s an essentialist claim, or as a suggestion that black identity can be somehow reduced to rhythm as a unified concept. Nevertheless, many theorists[1] have pointed out the ways in which attention to rhythms has been central in forming many African cultures, and that African-Americans drew on this attention to rhythm as a resource for both survival and resistance in the face of slavery. In working according to a rhythm, they created communal harmony amid the otherwise dehumanizing circumstances of slave-labor. In improvising rhythms in the gaps within a system over which they had no control, the slaves created alternative communal identities through praise or celebration. According to Christopher Small, this African-American approach to rhythm is not a particular rhythm as such, but an approach to rhythm as a series of gaps within which to improvise.[2] This turned rhythm into a resource when few other resources were available.

From this perspective, the protests occurring are not “just” protests that do not generate change (although we might be blind to this change since it does not follow the channels that we are primed to consider agents of change). They are, in part, improvisations in the gap ripped open by trauma, attempts to resist old rhythms with new ones. While attempts at policy-change (outlined here) use the already-available rhythms through which power, identity, and change function, if those rhythms of power are themselves problematic, if they exclude certain other rhythms of experience like those of the African-American community, then protest is a different kind of “solution.” It is an attempt to destabilize the rhythms of a power-structure through an alternative, improvised rhythm.

Daniel Fischlin, Ajay Heble, and George Lipsitz tell us that improvisation is the weapon of the weak, that it teaches us to make a way out of no way by activating our agency publicly and in relation to others.[3] And this brings us to the responsibility of those of us who are not part of the black community, who do not experience and cannot know the depth of their trauma in the same way.

We are often told that our responsibility is to listen, and so it is. But voices coming out of trauma often do not have words. They speak in disjointed rhythms and shrieks and groans and other sounds that are improvised out of the rip in the fabric of society. What would it mean to listen to these sounds like a fellow improviser coming to a music that is different than one’s own? This is a much deeper kind of listening, one that attempts to sense the direction, the rhythm, of the improvisation and to further it by contributing one’s resources, whatever they might be, to its layering, supporting, and furthering while also preparing to creatively use any ruptures and resistances.

What does that mean on the ground?

I can’t tell you that. Take the protests seriously and listen.

 

[1] Martin Munro, Different Drummers; Christopher Small, Music of the Common Tongue; Fred Moten, In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition and the many scholars, poets, politicians cited in Angela M. S. Nelson, ed., This is How We Flow: Rhythm in Black Cultures.

[2] Christopher Small, Music of the Common Tongue: Survival and Celebration in Afro-American Music (London: Calder, 1987), 295.

[3] Daniel Fischlin, Ajay Heble, and George Lipsitz, “Prologue” to The Fierce Urgency of Now: Improvisation, Rights, and the Ethics of Cocreation.

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