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The 2021 Pop Convergence: A Virtual Pop Conference, April 22-25th
Artwork by Alex Nero; Design by The Art Dictator
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Friday, April 23 • 4:00pm - 5:15pm
Black Critics Matter (Room B: Oscillator)

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Black Critics Matter (Room B: Oscillator)

This roundtable session focuses on the indispensable role that Black critics have played in telling the story of Black music, and it brings together a cluster of multigenerational pathbreaking thinkers whose work has transformed critical writing about popular music culture. I am seeking to curate a session that documents this era of racial reckoning through the heightened recognition of Black cultural arts criticism—its vitality, its originality, its pioneering experimentalism and the daring interventionist role it has played (now as well as across the 20th and 21st centuries) in how we think about, theorize, and engage with Black sounds.

If 2020 has reminded us of anything, it’s that the struggle for African American autonomy in the American body politic is a multifaceted one tied to necessary and interlocking social, political as well as cultural revolutions in valuing Black life. Culture critics, we know, play a pivotal role in identifying and narrating the dimensions of that value. But in the history of popular music culture across the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, how often have we extensively imagined Black folks as critics, as knowledge producers in relation to their own expressive cultures? Elizabeth Mendez Berry and Chi-hui Yang remind us that such questions “matte[r] because culture is a battleground where some narratives win and conversation about our collective imagination has the same blind spots as our political discourse.” Adds the venerable Black feminist culture critic Margo Jefferson, the “role of the critic of color is to unveil and unearth the structures that lie behind and underneath and propel these narratives which always star the same figures.” Arts criticism is, in effect and as they suggest, ultimately world-making. It has the power to both reflect and expand a community’s relationship to the expressive modes of being that saturate our quotidian lives and inform our communicative lexicons. Or, as Toni Morrison once put it bluntly, “as far as the future is concerned, when one writes, as critic or as author, all necks are on the line.”

As we consider the potential for radical transformation in this era defined by flux, we might take evermore seriously the ways that Berry and Yang urge the public to “think of cultural criticism as civic infrastructure that needs to be valued not based just on monetary impact”—that is, which artists receive the most exposure and reap the most revenue (though this is important, too, in a world of institutional inequities)—but also based on criticism’s “capacity to expand the collective conversation at a time when it is dangerously contracting. Arts writing,” they contend, “fosters an engaged citizenry that participates in the making of its own story.” From Harlem Renaissance era ballers like Sylvester Russell, Lester Walton and Nora Holt to post-Civil Rights era pioneers like Phyl Garland and Lorraine O’Grady, from Village Voice breakthrough geniuses like Thulani Davis and Greg Tate to break-the-glass-ceiling-at-Vibe- and-Billboard Danyel Smith, from New York Times early aughts trickster K Sanneh to the 2010 Black queer visionaries of the Times, Wesley Morris and Jenna Wortham, Black critics have been setting the record straight and engaging Black citizenry “in the making of its own story” since Black folks gained entrance to the segregated recording industry. They were the ones long beckoning us to “turn and face the [gloriously] strange...” before, in the time of, and after our dear Starman...

   

Moderators
avatar for Kimberly Mack

Kimberly Mack

Kimberly Mack is an Assistant Professor of African American literature and culture at the University of Toledo. Her book, Fictional Blues: Narrative Self-Invention from Bessie Smith to Jack White, was recently published by the University of Massachusetts Press. Kimberly’s second... Read More →

Speakers
avatar for Thulani Davis

Thulani Davis

Thulani Davis is an interdisciplinary scholar and writer working in several genres. She is the author of six books, a dozen theater works and has had a long journalism career in politics and cultural criticism. Her next book, forthcoming from Duke University Press, The Emancipation... Read More →
avatar for Daphne A. Brooks

Daphne A. Brooks

William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of African American Studies, American Studies, Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, a, Yale University
Daphne A. Brooks is William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of African American Studies, American Studies, Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, and Music at Yale University. She is the author of two books: Bodies in Dissent: Spectacular Performances of Race and Freedom, 1850-1910 (Durham... Read More →
avatar for Greg Tate

Greg Tate

Greg Tate is a writer, musician and cultural provocateur who lives on Harlem’s Sugar Hill. His books include Flyboy In The Buttermilk (1992), Midnight Lightning—Jimi Hendrix And The Black Experience, (2003); Everything But The Burden —What White People Are Taking From Black... Read More →
avatar for Danyel Smith

Danyel Smith

author, and host of Spotify's "Black Girl Songbook"
Award-winning journalist Danyel Smith is the author of the forthcoming Shine Bright: A Personal History of Black Women in Pop (One World / Random House, September 2021). Danyel is also host of Black Girl Songbook,  a podcast that centers the sounds and stories of black women.. Danyel’s... Read More →
WM

Wesley Morris

New York Times
Wesley Morris is a critic at large for The New York Times. Previous to The Times, Mr. Morris worked at Grantland as a staff writer and the Sportstorialist columnist and cohost of “Do You Like Prince Movies?” He was a film critic at The Boston Globe from 2002 to 2013, and before... Read More →


Friday April 23, 2021 4:00pm - 5:15pm PDT
Room A: Sky Church