Nicola Lauré al-Samarai
|These conversations are meant to open up spaces for thought between the authors and the ways they relate to the reference text. The editors pose a number of questions, which the authors may address or reject. It is up to the authors to answer, not to answer, or to introduce their own topics.
Conversations Jamika Ajalon / Rúbia Salgado
Strange Fruit is the only piece of music in our Conzepte project. We have been wondering whether it is harder, or perhaps easier, to respond to a song. Music appeals strongly to emotions, creates moods, makes an impact that is sometimes almost impossible to rationalize or express in words. The same is true of poetry, that works very differently to an argued text or a short story. And the lyrics of Strange Fruit are certainly a piece of poetry. Jamika answered with a song of her own, Rúbia with a text that makes distinctive use of language. What are your thoughts on this?
Jamika Ajalon /
Well my response started with a poem. In fact even with the soundscape it’s more a poem than a song. It was a challenge not to enter the realm of cliché. I didn’t want to write a poem that simply mirrored the sentiment of the Billie Holiday song, but to find a resonance that corresponded with the reality I live in. I don’t know if it’s harder or easier to respond to a song as opposed to an academic text, a painting, a photo, television show or whatever... I think what is hard is to express a personal and or perhaps human truth which a piece of writing or any art may inspire.
Rúbia Salgado /
Poetry has always accompanied me and, to an extent, my thinking and hence also my speaking, but above all my writing. Poetry accompanies me in the expression of my feelings, my ideas. And it accompanies me in the articulation of political issues. Politics and poetry inscribe themselves into each other, here and elsewhere. The lyrics of Strange Fruit, which I also read as “certainly a piece of poetry,” resonate with my specific approach to language that attempts to relate to the world in a way that is equivocal or ambiguous, but that can also be unambiguous, that uses rationality but places it within a disconcerting linguistic context that is permeated by a poetic undercurrent.
How did you arrive at the metaphor of the “White Birch”? What are the meanings of “white,” “birch” and “branch” here, and how does the metaphor as a whole (doubling the whiteness, as the birch tree has a white trunk) relate to Holiday’s song?
Jamika Ajalon /
I took solace under a white birch tree while growing up. It was in my front yard... As I was reflecting on where to go with this poem, it occurred to me that trees talk to each other, that they have memory. And even if this tree, as with myself, did not live during Ms. Holiday’s time, we both have the memories encoded in our DNA. I began to imagine the sadness and horror the trees must have “imbibed” along with the “blood at the roots” and how this memory is passed from generation to generation. My white birch was re-vitalizing as are trees in general. Part of their function is to preserve life by cleaning the air, re-energizing those who sit under them, giving respite from the sun... Imagine, then, to be used not only as a tool, but as a prop for murder—the horrific irony of it all! The “reference” to whiteness here is quite incidental, from my point of view, but as with poetry, meaning expands, changes with time and also with the reader.
A question on the form and style of your text, Rúbia: “Uneasily throughout” makes sparse use of verbs, for example, and, as in all of your texts, you use neologisms. The lack of verbs makes your text unwieldy and one cannot pass through it easily, as the title suggests. How did the aesthetic of the text come about: how did you make your formal choices and how, with hindsight, do these choices relate to the poetry of Strange Fruit?
Rúbia Salgado /
Why should texts be easy to read? And more specifically: Why should texts by migrants in the hegemonic language of German be easy to read? This question seems to take respect for dominant norms as given. Why ask about neologisms when I’ve already explained in the text—following a suggestion from the editors—the function that might be attributed to the creation of neologisms: as a sign or result of my utilization of German as the hegemonic language. In a text by a migrant in the context of the Austrian nation state and society, this remark was enough of an explanation. But answering the question is enjoyable. And meaningful, in the light of what I briefly mentioned above: here, too, poetry and politics inscribe themselves into one another. The choice of political prose. Reflection of an anthropophagic position  in the lexical or morphological surface of the dominant language, as well as something deeper: down to the level of syntax. And the blurring of the lines between discursive formations. Queer. Interventions in the dominant norm, markings, disruptive traces in the usual flow that may, as blockages, be perceived. And evidence of language politics: demonstratively supporting language (the German language) in its constitution as something forever taking shape, and doing so as members of groups that are not permitted to support or shape (and whose actions are sanctioned).
Jamika Ajalon /
I really enjoyed reading your text Rúbia… It tackles the complex issues of re-appropriation, cultural currency, and intersectionality among other points. As I was reading it occurred to me, another connection between the Brazilian funkeira music movement and the history of the blues at Holiday’s time is the fact that then, perhaps more so during the time of Ma Rainey and then Bessie Smith, the blues was considered a “low culture” music. Singers spoke about drinking, cheating, sex..., even homosexuality! By the time Holiday became known, the audiences were more “cultured” and white. But these audiences developed from a white public’s desire to see, be a part of, experience something authentic. Could you speak more on that subject as it relates to funkeira?
Rúbia Salgado /
Yes, I agree that a connection could be made here. Prompted by your question, I spent some time researching on the Internet, which is my current access medium to funk carioca. And I came across funk light. Here, the lyrics conform more closely to bourgeois morality; romantic themes are sung with a melodic self-evidence not found in funk carioca. But it is not only funk light that expresses a white audience’s desire to “experience something authentic”. Some Black funkeiras not associated with funk light have long since moved beyond the baile funk context (favelas, the periphery). They perform on television, on the radio, in mainstream broadcasts. The funk they make is changing, too. And they themselves are changing. Whether or not the spreading of funk via mainstream media is having a modifying, disconcerting, disruptive impact on Brazil’s classist, sexist, racist society is a question I cannot answer.
Conzepte JS /
What was it like for you, Jamika, to refer to Billie Holiday and to Strange Fruit in particular? In your song White Birch Blues, the “living room” has a carpet of “fragile eggshells.” This suggests a terrain that is delicate at least. Does this express some caution or hesitation or difficulty on your part with referring to Strange Fruit? Or do you associate something quite different with these lines?
To give you an idea of where I am speaking from: When I first read Jamika’s song, I immediately thought of the shaky ground implied by the choice of the Holiday song for Conzepte: two white women invite a Black woman and a migrant woman to respond to Strange Fruit. Does this correspond, in structural terms, with the position of Abel Meeropol, who gave Billie Holiday the lyric to sing, or that of the white owners of “Café Society” where she sang the song? With this in mind, Rúbia, I would be interested to hear your interpretation of Jamika’s lines.
Rúbia Salgado /
I read Jamika’s lyric as a counter-celebration. A rebellious reminder of the continued existence of violence, an accompanying commemoration in recognition of the political significance of Billie Holiday’s song.
Jamika Ajalon /
Once something, a poem, a lyric, etc. is read by another it then becomes, in a way, part of the imagination of the reader—in a way the reader then owns the meaning—which is why I hesitate to say where this metaphor you referenced comes from… But in fact, I was referring to personal experiences growing up—times where the violence was so intense in my world that one had to walk carefully in order to avoid trouble... In fact it mirrors to some degree what people of color living in racist America in Billie Holiday’s time had to go through—how we adapt/survive during violent times... As for the logistics of being asked by white women to re-interpret the song, I wouldn’t say that it replicates Holiday’s situation as issues of privilege and impetus are different. However, there is perhaps an echo... I believe Meeropol truly felt this song needed to be heard and Holiday was complicit. I believe the motivation behind our collaborations comes from a similar place—as there are elements of critical thinking involved, along with an understanding that the terrain we are working with is complex and multi-layered.
Conzepte JS /
At the start of your text, you write: “An otherwise impossible complicity floated in the space.” What made this temporary complicity possible and why is it otherwise not possible? For me, this line is an expression of spontaneous allegiance and solidarity that comes about in spite of all expectations and social difference. How can such surprising moments or encounters be translated into a cooperation or a politics? Do you believe in the strength, capability, and intensity of the individual, or are there also other (structural) criteria?
Rúbia Salgado /
It was a matter of tactics. The two of us in the territory of the majority that has long used the means of power and violence to produce us as other. Something it still does today, again and again. The social differences between the two of us, Tati Quebra Barraco and Rúbia Salgado, suspended in this moment. Tactical homogenizing.
In your text you also note a contradiction that results from your specific speaker position. Do you mean that the white part of your position makes it hard to write (adequately, knowledgeably, interestingly, ...?) about Billie Holiday and her work? You give an indication of how complex things are when you mention the problem of equating your position with that of white (western) academics. Can you say more about this contradiction, or contradictions, and how you deal with it?
Rúbia Salgado /
Above all, these contradictions are my hopes. Which is why, after much thought, I decided to write the text. And I think of Frigga Haug when she writes about contradicting oneself. If I do not wish to be paralyzed by an awareness of contradictions, then I opt to cultivate the ability to contradict myself concerning experiences, thoughts, and actions of mine that help to cement power. Adopting a critical distance and reworking them. An aim in the realm of the impossible. The experience of impossibility may reveal itself in an engagement with contradiction (the contradiction of silencing others by speaking/acting). An aim in the realm of the impossible, but nonetheless an aim whose pursuit generates hope. And I think of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s question regarding “that which we cannot not want”. The awareness of contradictions and how to deal with that.
As I understand it, both Haugg and Spivak are interested in hope. The hope that can be developed out of criticism. Criticism and self-criticism as acts that turn contradictions into a productive, transformative force. Contradicting oneself. Naming contradictions and attempting to view them as a productive tension and to implement practices that elicit this productive force could be seen as one consequence of an ethics of responsibility towards others that is also formulated by Spivak with reference to Derrida. In my view, such an ethics would not consist solely of turning contradictions into a transformative force. Naming and dealing productively with contradictions might form part of the ethics of responsibility. It would be an ethics of responsibility that is committed to resistance against structures and practices of power, and to the utopia of a transformation of social, political, and economic conditions. An ethics of responsibility that is committed to self-contradiction.
But I also have a question for you, Jamika. Reading your text, it seems to me that you find fault with the political dimension in the reception of Strange Fruit. This reading was prompted, for example, by your use of the adjective “leftover” and your description of the song as “rustic poetry” (that pushes the historical significance of the noose into the background, centering instead on the tree). If you agree with my reading, I would be interested to hear how this remark (loss of political force, benefiting “rusticness” and “naiveté”) fits in with the song’s broader reception (in western countries) and with widespread views concerning its political and historical relevance in the context of processes of politicization within popular culture.
This raises another question: would you say that the reception of Billie Holiday as a “sanguine beauty” persisted in the mainstream? Establishing the image of Holiday as someone who “lacked sufficient education,” someone who was incapable, as the white men around her at the time thought, of grasping the lyric’s relevance? If so, then which strategies are being devised and deployed by Black musicians today to counteract this racist, sexist, and classist communication and reception?
Jamika Ajalon /
The piece was not at all a critique of the song, but a re-interpretation imagined in contemporary/future times. In the poem I was referring first to the fact that the mass executions via lynching of people of color were also often photographed and sold as postcards. I imagined a present/future “representation” of this as digital postcards. A collectors’ item that would be a digitized version of what the Billie Holiday song “coined” an organic “crop” or in other words—the dead, often burned and mutilated bodies of people of color. The lines, “critics praise its sanguine beauty/rustic poetry/brutal simplicity” therefore refer to possible reviews from connoisseurs of these “postcard series most sought/left over from the times of Billie/otherwise known as the organic crop”.
In light of this it would be good to speak to exoticism—of the Black female singer, and how one’s suffering can become a spectacle. Although these days we have more mainstream singers who challenge the general expectation that a female singer must use her sexuality, the majority of mainstream success stories (with the possible exception of folks like Janelle Monáe ) replicate and play on traditional norms of femininity and sexuality. While I have nothing against these very talented women, the lack and/or disappearance of women singers in mainstream culture who do not live up to heteronormative ideas of womanhood speaks volumes.
Now to be fair, in Billie’s time, the style on the stage for jazz musicians was that in which male and female dressed to the nines. What that meant was women in superb gowns and men in ties, though there were a few who broke that code, this was a tradition passed down to a certain degree from a kind of African-American aesthetic. It was given that we give “class” on stage. It is sure that Lady Day was exoticized in her time both as a woman and as a result of the color of her skin, as she sang often in front of majority white audiences, as her fame grew. When she began singing Strange Fruit, it was a kind of coup, because up until then most popular songs were about love and suffering, where Strange Fruit was a kind of protest song.
It is true however, that if it weren’t for Strange Fruit she would probably be most known for songs like Nobody’s Business If I Do, because it reflected the suffering she endured under the influence of hard drugs and bad men. This image of her endures more than another equally true, if not more true narrative; that she was political, loved life, and living it on the edge. This brings into light the issue of POC’s (people of color) suffering becoming spectacle. It speaks to that fact that when a POC (person of color) sings of his/her pain suffering it’s seen as “authentic”. This is blatantly apparent in contemporary times with the popularity of “gangster” rap, for example, when ironically, many of these “authentic” rappers come from middle class families rather than the streets. “Keeping it real” sells when it replicates and/or feeds a stereotype…
I tried to speak to the framing of our suffering and how those images frame our stories, within the dominant canons which speak our supposed histories. And how these frames more often than not speak to the dominant gaze rather than our actual realities. And in turn, become consumables.
The conversation with Jamika Ajalon and Rúbia Salgado on their texts about Billie Holiday’s song Strange Fruit (1939) took place via e-mail and has been shortened in the editing process. Sabine Rohlf and Jo Schmeiser asked the questions.
Translation from the German (Rúbia Salgado) by Nicholas Grindell
Castro Varela, Maria do Mar / Dhawan, Nikita, Postkoloniale Theorie. Eine kritische Einführung, Bielefeld 2005
Angela Y. Davis, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday, New York 1998
Haug, Frigga, “Zum Verhältnis von Erfahrung und Theorie in subjektwissenschaftlicher Forschung”, in: Forum Kritische Psychologie 47: Begreifende Gesellschaftserkenntnis und Subjektivität – Möglichkeitsverallgemeinerung und Idealtypus – Disziplinarmacht und gewerkschaftliche Bildungsarbeit, Hamburg 2004
Holiday, Billie, Strange Fruit, 1939 (Commodore Records 526), see: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v...
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty, The Spivak Reader, Donna Landry / Gerald MacLean (eds.), New York / London 1996
1) On the concept of anthropophagy in the texts of Rúbia Salgado see for example:
2) On the music and visual representation of Janelle Monáe see: