A New Groove: Black Culture And Technology Development
By Alexander G. Weheliye
Black culture and technology are not often used in the same sentence, unless one wants to note their incompatibility. When talk turns to the “digital divide,” Black populations in the United States and abroad frequently appear as the losers in the game of technological
development. This is a direct legacy of 19th-century colonialist ideas concerning the supposed innate backwardness of Africa and its people, ideas that are now being replayed in the digital domain. Also, in the debates about the “digital divide,” only computers and the Internet appear as valid technologies.
While one should not neglect the structural imbalances inherent in the unequal access to computer technology, I would like to turn to stories about Black culture and technology that might enable a fresher view. If we consult the history of popular music, for instance, a somewhat different narrative emerges, in which Black culture often takes the lead in technological innovations. This has been the case since the beginning of sound recording at the end of the 19th century and still holds true in our current globalized era.
Let me give you three examples: Motown Records pioneered the creative use of four- and eight-track recording to isolate and then either accentuate or downplay various aspects of the overall recording sound, turning the recording studio into a creative instrument. Dub reggae, which created altered versions of reggae hits, pushed Motown’s studio experimentation further by removing certain parts of the original recording, especially the vocals, and highlighting others, such as the drums and the bass by treating them with echo and delay. Dub reggae thus provided the basis for much of the remixing so prevalent in popular music today. Finally, disc jockeys developed mixing techniques that turned the record player into an instrument. Their creativity gave birth to such genres as disco, hip-hop and house/techno, and now saturates almost every other kind of music. These innovations not only radically changed their immediate cultural and social contexts, but also served as templates for a variety of other musical practices around the world, so much so that contemporary popular music would be unthinkable without them.
Yet, these important advances rarely appear in histories of technological development. The dismissal of Afro-diasporic contributions to the history of technology allows the story about Black culture’s lack of technological capabilities to be rehashed without having to be rethought.
To boot, African-American-derived popular music, hip-hop in particular, has and continues to function as one of the cultural phenomena of globalization. As a direct result of the recording and global distribution of hip-hop, there’s hardly a place in the world that does not have a local variant of this musical form. Often, other Afro-diasporic youth were the first to take up hip-hop in their particular cultural context, since this musical form allowed them to aggressively assert their racial identity and fight oppression.
Thus, in addition to being tied to technologies of recording, reproduction and distribution, hip-hop music serves as a powerful tool of communication among various Afro-diasporic groups. In functioning as a conduit for dialogue, hip-hop can be seen as one of the most important cultural technologies developed in the African Diaspora.
Let’s consider another example. The Afro-German non-profit collective, Brother’s Keepers, consists of a variety of Afro-German rappers, singers and activists. The group formed in 2001 and released their first record to draw attention to violence and racism against people of color in Germany. Since Germany had no public forums to address or discuss racism, Brother’s Keepers supplied a much-needed space for an open discussion about these matters. Since then, the group has given many concerts and traveled to high schools to raise awareness about racism in Germany. This initiative would not have been possible without the popularity of hip-hop in Germany that, in turn, is enabled by the various technologies of recording and circulation.
As a result, both the long history of technological innovations in Black popular music and the global spread of hip-hop show that Black culture and technology are not always at odds but can fruitfully enhance each other. Rather than replaying that all too well-known track — the “digital divide” — we might do well to find a new groove, which will enable the emergence of different narratives about the intermingling of technology and Black culture.
— Dr. Weheliye is assistant professor of English and African-American studies at Northwestern University.
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