Skip to main content Skip to secondary navigation
Main content start

Rhetoric from the Field: Between Getting Free and Living Free: DJing Contemporary Black Rhetorics

speaker images superimposed on background image of an audio mixing board

In May, PWR hosted a stellar virtual roundtable themed “Between Getting Free and Living Free.” Moderated by Professor Adam Banks, it featured Professor Tamika Carey from the University of Virginia, who studies the everyday rhetorical practices of the African American community; Professor LaToya Sawyer from St. John's University, who has a particular interest in tech spaces; Daniel Gray-Kontar, Founder and Executive Director of TWELVE Literary Arts, a journalist and community builder; and Lynnée Denise Bonner, foundational scholar of DJ studies who does cultural work through music. The roundtable addressed why rhetoric is such a crucial area for Black Studies and what debates are taking place within Black communities to enable collective liberation.

The roundtable started with recognition of Stevie Wonder Day! To set the mood for the discussion, participants listed some of their favorite Wonder songs in the Zoom chat: among others, “Ribbon in the Sky”; “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing”; “Isn’t She Lovely”; “Love’s in Need of Love Today”; and “Higher Ground.” 

That immediate acknowledgment of lyric, sound, and genre points to PWR’s capacious conception of rhetoric. As Professor Banks said in his introductory remarks to the roundtable, rhetoric is “any strategic use of discourse. Everything people do with language,” whether on social media, through gesture, in music, in religious spaces, in families, and across diasporas. Put differently, “Rhetoric is moving past mere ethos, pathos, logos” and “Plato in a cave.” Our program is investigating, interrogating, and celebrating other rhetorical traditions beyond those of the Western canon. And our new Notation in Cultural Rhetorics will give students the opportunity to explore these traditions and put them into conversation with each other. In his introductory remarks, Professor Banks also took the opportunity to announce the inaugural NCR Coordinator, PWR lecturer Dr. Harriett Jernigan, aka Dr. J.

Per its title, the roundtable addressed the between space, the gap between getting free and living free. Inviting his participants to invoke important Black voices in this conversation, Professor Banks asked, “Who do you think of who helps us in the between space?” 

For DJ Lynnée, Zora Neal Hurston’s community-based anthropology is crucial to getting free. Hurston theorizes and practices a class-based cultural production that values storytelling, but also non-verbal communication, “the way the body talks,” and ultimately lifts up the illiterate. Geneva Smitherman’s classic Talkin and Testifyin: The Language of Black America as well as the new memoir from “Dr. G” (My Soul Look Back in Wonder) were also singled out by DJ Lynnée as crucial to navigating the between space. Because Dr. Gray-Kontar wrestles frequently with his articulation of his daily practice – at his core, he’s a poet who thinks about language as an everyday experience – he turns to poets Langston Hughes and Sterling Brown. These word workers told stories through poetry that were not just reflective of the communities they sprung from but also address how we can sharpen our language practice to unpack stories that live in Black and Brown neighborhoods and bodies. Indeed, Dr. Kontar is interested in how we can capture these stories so that they change public policy.

Dr. Carey chooses to emphasize the expansiveness of the between space especially as it’s theorized in the work of Elaine Richardson. She noted, however, that Black women have to address simultaneously “being desired and devalued.” Richardson’s work helps show scholars in Womanist studies both how to love themselves and manage the devaluation. Dr. Carey also highlighted the scholarship of Manning Marable and Leith Mullings, whose theoretical triad, resistance, reform, and renewal, is important to Carey’s scholarship and pedagogy. Importantly, their idea of renewal includes healing. Dr. Sawyer is interested in the ways language practices get remediated in online spaces, and finds the work of Marcyliena Morgan, which explores signifying laughter, especially important to Black women’s negotiation of the between. 

This turn in the conversation prompted Professor Banks to invite the panelists to speak further to the intersectional challenges and opportunities of Black women. Dr. Carey referred to “call out culture,” especially the ways Black queer women demand accountabiity to protect the freedom they have.  Dr. Carey observed that call out culture thrives in digital spaces where Black queer women are often more respected. This observation led Professor Banks to observe that “Black Culture drives digital culture.” Dr. Sawyer concurred, referring to her  analysis of Nicki Minaj’s Twitter in her classes that starts with bell hooks’ principles of acknowledging vulnerability and speaking the truth. In these ways, Black women navigate celebrity and attacks online all the while exploring what’s important to them as people and women. 

The invocation of Minaj sparked a new thread, one near and dear to Prof. Banks, on the work of music in the world. Dr. Gray-Kontar has asked what racialized approaches to music are communicating. He recalled hearing from a British musician visiting America that some Black music was sounding white. By this the visitor meant music with less varied tempo, less dynamism; it’s music that indicates what a white supremacist culture can do to Black expression. Prof Banks observed, we have to go to extralinguistics to communicate this kind of oppression and  diminished hope. At same time, the panel wanted to acknowledge that Black music communicates so much hope; they were all looking forward to the drop of the new Kendrick Lamar album.

Given this tension, Professor Banks asked his panel, what should we pay attention to in music then? DJ Lynnée argued that we need to go back to Black Church music networks. For example, the music of Nina Simone is indebted to Martin Luther King, Jr, Lorraine Hansbery, and Stokely Charmichael. These intellectual and artistic connections sparked and nurtured Simone’s “fearless and faithful” anthems such as “Mississippi Goddam.” Aretha Franklin’s music is similarly embedded in a circle of greatness that includes Angela Davis and Dinah Washington. Aretha’s network rejected binaries (such as devil/god) and created a political force field that moved the culture forward. In other words, in DJ Lynnée’s scholarship and advocacy, music is never on the margins but central to cultural movement and political thought.

While DJ Lynnée surfaced great examples of intellectual and artistic cross-pollination, Professor Banks observed that sometimes intergenerational and cross-class communication are hard to see. He wondered, how do we connect all these beats? How do we get, for example, from Nina Simone to Vine, and not just amplify the extremes? Dr Sawyer says she approaches this question by investigating how this generation picks up the tradition. She turned to the example of Chlöe who performed Simone’s “Feeling Good.” Chlöe’s version honors and critiques the famed predecessor, but as Dr. Sawyer pointed out, “maybe it’s how we’ve always been.” For DJ Lynnée, this kind of sampling–bringing older music to younger ears–is in fact an “intergenerational glue.” What matters is that we see youth as always already artists and cultural producers. As educators, then, our job is to create spaces for youth to personalize and program their own practices. DJ Lynnée, for example, asks her students to create their own syllabi. Dr. Carey similarly raised a creative pedagogical response to Dr. Banks’ question. She challenges her students to remix a text, in other words, to pick up a text and bring it into another realm: what, for example, would a Malcolm X text look like in this moment? In response this assignment and to the white supremacist march on Charlottesville, a student remixed “Missippi Goddam” as Charlottesville Goddam. As Dr. Carey observed, history repeats itself but also we can keep reimagining our responses to it. 

The turn to pedagogy inspired Professor Banks’s next question, If you could teach any one class related to Black rhetorics that you’ve never taught before, what would it be? And what if it were led by young people? (Dr. Kontar-Gray had just reminded the audience that youth must be authentically heard, preferably over food.) DJ Lynnée would root her class in Toni Morrison’s The Source of Self-Regard. In this book, among other things, Morrison breaks down the first sentence of each of her novels, a practice DJ Lynnée believes would help students craft their own first sentences and more. But she would want to teach music alongside Morrison’s work, inviting students to consider what soundtrack would accompany the places the celebrated novelist imagined. Morrison has said that music helped her think about cadence on the page. More than that, DJ Lynnée mused out loud, how do young people summarize a century in TikTok in 60 seconds?! She wants to learn from them.

Dr. Carey would like to teach a course she would title Black Health as Black Wealth. Specifically, she would focus on the political implications of wellness as a restorative rhetoric and practice. Like DJ Lynnée, Dr. Carey needs the youth to teach her a class on TikTok best practices – she’d call it Digital Black Testimonies – and it would address creativity, cuts, edits, and social commentary. Dr. Sawyer concurred with the importance of TikTok as a space of significant cultural production. She’d call her dream course Black Sonic Rhetorics of TikTok to emphasize the ways the media is built on sounds. Beyond that, she’d also like to teach a course on memoir–books based on journaling–and the power of Black women’s reflective rhetoric.

Dr. Gray-Kontar wants to design a course where young people teach us about the privilege that we carry as adults and how it impacts their capacity to become. Because adults have more agency than youth, Dr Gray-Kontar observed, they often stunt their development. His other dream course on Black rhetoric would be focused on teaching people to crate dig, a literal and metaphorical search for the rare or interesting.

Throughout, the conversation moved quickly and seamlessly across time, genre, and theme. But a question from Dr. Jernigan brought to the forefront several important pedagogical principles. She noted that digital rhetoric surfaced prominently in the discussion of Black women’s resistance and wondered what that meant for syllabi. For Dr. Sawyer, any analysis of Black digital rhetoric would need to be situated within the tradition – it’s what her students have asked for. Put differently, classes might investigate what cultural continuities and departures can be observed on TikTok. For Dr. Carey, a syllabus would need some attention to literacy and knowledge making, but it would also need to address censorship (the “shadow bans” on TikTok) and appropriation. She wondered, where can Black women think aloud freely and not have their ideas stolen? Getting free remains a source of creative expression and pedagogical inspiration, and a vital topic of scholarly inquiry.

More News Topics