In this interview essay, stef torralba talks with scholar-critic Alexander Ghedi Weheliye about the author's scholarly work, writing practice, and musical inclinations, as well as the current state and future directions of Critical Black Studies. Taking inspiration from Weheliye's interests in the textures of Black, BlackFem, and Black queer and gender-variant life and aesthetics as discussed in the interview, torralba offers texturality as an analytic that characterizes the scholar-critic's work. Together, the essay and interview highlight how Weheliye's oeuvre enables more nuanced and capacious, and thus textural and textured, imaginings of humanity, technology, political subjecthood, and modernity that center the experiences of Black, BlackFem, and Black queer and gender-variant subjects. Weheliye's attention to technologized Black and Black queer and feminist sonic aesthetics from the early twentieth century to the present as spaces to feel out the textures of other worlds renders his scholarship and thinking essential to this special issue's engagements with the disruptive and insurgent dimensions of Black queer musical aesthetics.
Building on Hortense Spillers, Sylvia Wynter, Édouard Glissant, W. E. B. Dubois, and others, Alexander Ghedi Weheliye's work illuminates how the textures of Black life undergird Western formations of political subjecthood and modernity, whose grammars are premised on the abjecting of racialized subjects, namely Black subjects (and by extension all other gendered, sexualized, and minoritized subjects) from the category of capital H human. The author's work joins the call of Black radical and Black feminist thought to imagine other possible social arrangements of being.
Weheliye is Forbes University Professor in the Department of Modern Culture and Media at Brown University and the author of the 2005 Phonographies: Grooves of Sonic Afro-Modernity and the 2014 Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human (both published by Duke University Press). As of the time of our conversation, he had recently completed work on Feenin: R&B Music and the Materiality of BlackFem Voices and Technology. Sharing its title with an earlier piece published in Social Text in 2002, the book consists of essays the author had written over the last twenty years. His other writings have appeared in English- and German-language venues, including the anthologies Black Europe and the African Diaspora (2009) and The Oxford Handbook of Mobile Music Studies (2014).
Given the author's investments in the textures of Black, BlackFem, and Black queer and gender-variant life and aesthetics as explored in the following interview, I read texturality as a key framework in Weheliye's work. Both of his critical monographs approach critical Black knowledge production on the registers of the textural. The project of his first book, Phonographies, is to attend to the imbrications between Black expressive cultures and twentieth-century developments in Western sound recording and sound reproduction technologies, like the phonograph, the Walkman, and the turntable. Through readings of literary texts, films, and sound media, Phonographies illuminates more nuanced, layered, and therefore textured understandings of Western modernity that center Blackness's vexed relations with the modern. Weheliye's second book, Habeas Viscus, studies the genocidal political relations that bar nonwhite subjects from Western formations of humanity while also examining the emancipatory potentials of ungendered racial matter, what Spillers famously terms “flesh.”1 By rereading post-Enlightenment thought, namely Agamben's bare life and Foucault's biopolitics, through Black feminist epistemologies, the book presents “racializing assemblages” as a way of naming the textures of racialization.
Texturality similarly characterizes Weheliye's writing practice, and results from how his critical work draws influences in different intellectual and creative traditions and disciplinary formations. His writing style takes cues from postcolonial and critical race critics who bring together the theoretical with the autobiographical, like Spillers, Stuart Hall, and Gayatri Spivak. It also draws inspiration from thinkers and scholars whose bodies of work operate simultaneously in critical and artistic practices, including Audre Lorde, June Jordan, and Toni Cade Bambara. Building on them, Weheliye's own writing practice is attuned to the textures that emerge through pushing against the genre of scholarly writing to make space for other modalities of expression, thought, and inquiry. His current and future work aims to experiment with form and genre in ways that further push the possibilities of textural modes of interaction and engagement. Given how he frequently looks to technologized Black and Black queer and feminist sonic aesthetics from the early twentieth century to the present as spaces to feel out textures of other worlds, his scholarship and thinking are essential to this special issue's engagements with the disruptive and insurgent dimensions of Black queer musical aesthetics.
The following conversation was edited for length and clarity. We held our meeting via Zoom during the afternoon and evening of November 22, 2021, with Weheliye calling in from his office. We began our conversation by comparing our experiences of teaching and living through the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and recounting the first time we met in April 2019, when a colleague and I picked him up from the airport to give the keynote talk at a conference we had organized at the University of California, Riverside. The preamble to our conversation continually circled back to the textures of everyday life, anticipating the theme of texturality that would become a unifying topic throughout our dialogue.2
stef torralba: You mentioned during a discussion at the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice's Graduate Colloquium, “Humanities at the Limit of ‘the Human,’ ” at Brown University that you are skeptical of developmental origin stories.3 Nevertheless, I think for the sake of the conversation, it would be helpful here. So I would love for you to narrate us through your intellectual trajectory toward your current set of central research questions.
Alexander Weheliye: I'm still very wary of origin stories, and just generally of origins, but that doesn't mean I'm opposed to where I am from or where people are from, although I think that the idea of an origin that tends to freeze things in place is not really all that helpful. For me, the whole origin thing tends to be tied up in belonging, particularly in how queer and trans folks don't necessarily belong anywhere, so it's a little hard for me to go there. Yet I think that there are a few relevant things in terms of my own personal history. Part of it was having lived in Germany, Somalia, and the United States by the time I was twelve, and at a very fundamental level, dealing not only with the different languages in those places but also with cultural mores and racial taxonomies. There are commonalities across the board, but there are also a lot of subtle differences. I think that was part of what initially propelled me to want to understand how race, particularly Blackness, functions globally. As for my investments in music, music was something that I always strongly connected with in how it can transport culture, affect, politics—so many different things—without necessarily having to fall back on linguistic content. I found it important to bring those two things together, and over the years, there've been refinements to those questions. Finally, the technological aspect, which was important for thinking about those questions because it allowed me to highlight the abstraction and non-origin aspects of Black music in terms of thinking about, for instance, my childhood and listening to records or tapes from the United States and literally having no clue what the words meant (because I did not speak English), but still being able to sound out the words with my friends while also getting a certain kind of affect or vibe from the music. I think those are the points where all the different paths have converged and continue to converge and diverge. I guess that's the simplest answer I can give.
st: It is a relatively simple answer, but I'm also seeing a lot of the throughlines of your entire oeuvre. I wanted to ask about how you conceptualize the role of aesthetic production in the project of imagining these other genres of the human, imagining otherwise, reimagining becoming and relationality. And along those lines, I also wanted to hear more about the role of the sonic specifically given how, as you discuss in Habeas Viscus, the visual is the arena where the machinations of political violence become most apparent. I'm wondering how you think of the aesthetic in relation to the very Wynterian project of imagining other modes of being, but also the role of sound specifically as an aesthetic form.
AW: I'm going to build on my former colleague Richard Iton's work, In Search of the Black Fantastic: Politics and Popular Culture in the Post – Civil Rights Era . I think for Black folks and queer and trans folks, who don't necessarily have access to regular political channels, the aesthetic and the sonic have similarly taken on a heavier role because they were some of the few spaces where things could be imagined, worked out, addressed, bemoaned, critiqued in ways that, to this day, are not possible through parliamentary politics. I think the aesthetic takes on a pivotal role, and in the histories of Black cultures, it is especially the sonic that takes on this role. But the sonic can also be hyperviolent. It can be used as a tool of surveillance and as a tool of literal war. So I'm not necessarily trying to uplift it to the point where it can't have any problems. Overall, however, there is a lot more openness there precisely because the visual has been so violent and contaminated. As I wrote about in Phonographies, you can't really have the sonic without the visual either. As a result, there's always this tension of the sonic resituating the visual and vice versa. I do think there is something there, and I think that that something, or those somethings, can be addressed or analyzed without necessarily being uncritically celebratory. There's oftentimes this sort of tendency to think, “Oh you know, we're talking about cultural productions by Black, queer, and trans cultural producers,” whereby we have to not only acknowledge it, but also celebrate it to the point where there can't be any good critical dialogue around it because we're so thankful that it's even out in the world. And I feel like I've always tried to avoid that and tried to think about the possibilities that the aesthetic/sonic open up, but also the pitfalls that come along with that.
st: Absolutely. The project of Habeas Viscus is to de-exceptionalize political violence and to reveal how these violences that structure racial subjectivities are actually extremely normal. Similarly, Phonographies and your most recent talks on R&B emphasize Black musical cultural productions as themselves modes of articulating the everyday dimensions of Black queer living, but also as objects that orient and shape the experiences of Black, queer, and other minoritized listeners. What is the importance or urgency of attending to the everyday as part of this project of imagining otherwise and reimagining being and relationality?
AW: I think it's extremely important, and part of the answer is similar to the one I gave before: that the everyday, the minute, the mundane, the unspectacular are oftentimes all there is. But I also think that it opens up different ways of imagining, living, and thinking about relationality because it is not exclusively and primarily concerned with these broader structures, which is not to say that the broader structures are erased by any stretch of the imagination. Oftentimes, in thinking about political change, there's a limit to imagining actual structural transformation, and that can then lead to, “Okay, I'm not even going to try at all because these structures are never going to change.” Antiblackness, for example, might remain forever. We're not guaranteed that it will disappear anytime soon. Nevertheless, I think that this leads to a sort of defeatism. But I also have a hard time with the grander proclamations that don't pay attention to the everyday, the mundane, the quotidian, because, for me, everything has to start from what is immediately around you. That's how my mind works. That's how my life works. To jump immediately to these larger questions without being attuned to what happens around you, whether it be the street or the classroom, doesn't work for me. I also think that we've seen the pitfalls of that over and over again in terms of politics, where we've changed all these structures, but in that process, all this violence happens in the immediate and the everyday. One of the things I'm always most interested in is texture: What's the texture of ideas, sounds, affects, of all these different things? And you lose that texture when not paying attention to the everyday. Then the challenge is, how does one fuse or bring into relation the everyday with these larger structures, or make palpable the ways that they are always already interrelated? One could say, “Okay, what we have immediately in front of us is all there is”; or one could say, “The structure, the global, the universal, etc. is all that we have.” For me, it's always been really important to keep both in play and/or tension, whereas jumping immediately to those larger categories feels unearned at the end of the day. I'm also thinking about Saidiya Hartman's latest book, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals, which emphasizes the everyday, the mundane: how everyday, young Black women were radicals while also clearly posing the question “How does this radicalism relate to broader currents of that same historical period?” That's another thing I like about pop music: it's so enveloped in the everyday. That's how I, and so many others, engage with it. It's not exceptional in any kind of way. It surrounds us all the time, whether we want it to or not: in the cars driving by or in the grocery stores—it's everywhere.
st: Your comment about texture was really fascinating. It reminds me of a panel you participated on alongside Zara Julius, Tina Campt, and Jenn Nkiru, “Frequencies of Blackness: A Listening Session,” hosted by the Black Visualities Initiative of the Cogut Institute for the Humanities and part of The Sojourner Project.4
AW: We're actually working on potentially turning that conversation into something written right now. The ideas are very present right now, but we had to postpone, and I don't know when it's going to happen because it involves so many different people. I don't know what the format is going to be. We're trying not to make it a static text because we don't have to, and we were just thinking about all the different ways one could have this live online as a textual object that is not necessarily linear.
st: I love that because, and I'm sure you feel this on some register, the domination of linear thinking is really difficult to break out of, and it can make the process of writing extremely challenging. Ideas don't necessarily progress in a linear fashion, but academic writing writ large requires organization of thoughts into a linear structure. The fact that you're talking about imagining these other networked modes of configuring this conversation is exciting.
AW: Yeah, in recent years I've challenged myself (with particular things I'm writing) to push things as far as I can—in terms of my own capabilities, but also in terms of what the genre allows—to see what happens. My mind does not operate in linear or ordered ways. Additionally, linearity is generally not how things work in the world. Over the years, I've trained myself not necessarily to think that way but to be able to present things in a linear fashion so as to make my ideas communicable. Sometimes, I'll be having a scholarly conversation with someone and the way that they present things is like, “So there's A, then there's B here, then we get to C, then we move up maybe a little bit to D, but then we come back for E,” and it really boggles my mind. I have to sit down and map things out and work hard in order for that to happen. I remember that was actually one of the things I really liked about old-school French poststructuralist theory like Jacques Derrida and Gilles Deleuze. At some point I decided, “I'm going to read this like poetry, and not in a linear way. I'm going to zoom in on the parts that I really like or that draw my attention in one way or another in the same way that you would listen to a song, which is also usually not linear because our attention dips in and out.” I remember when I used to teach Intro to Theory classes, that was the main advice I'd give to students: You don't really need to understand these texts in that particular linear way. You could find different ways of going into these texts because they're already written in this evocative, associative way.
st: And these associative, evocative, and nonlinear reading practices attend to the different textures within the writing. With that, I do want to go back to your thinking on the textural. In some ways, that panel with Julius, Campt, and Nkiru was all about texture. Do you want to elaborate on the texturality of your thinking?
AW: That panel was really great. One of the things I liked about the music video to FAKA's “Uyang'khumbula” (Nick Widmer, 2017), which I discussed during that event, was how the queer South African musical duo talked in interviews about how they are addressing people who live in townships and queer and trans Black people, and that they're doing this for those who might not be walking home. On the other hand, even though the lyrics are not comprehensible (at least not to me), their movements created Black queer frequencies or texture. For me, texture is a more haptic version of frequency because . . . I can't even explain it with words. It's about being tuned into certain aspects of what happens in the world. I thought that the FAKA video was a great example of that—how certain things can travel cross-culturally, even though they're not explained in words. In terms of how they dress and how they move, it's really clear that they're performing Black queerness. And when I say queerness, I mean that in a very capacious way, as signifying both sexual and gender nonconformity. There was one example that I didn't get to talk about during that panel, which was the film #Blackmendream (Shikeith, 2014; fig. 1), where the Black queer visual artist and filmmaker Shikeith interviewed different Black men but never showed their faces to the camera. As a result, the body language of the people being interviewed spoke volumes, particularly in relation to how they thought of themselves as Black men.
On that panel I was interested in the question, “Is there a Black queer texturality in these images and in these sounds?” When I write, I want my writing to have a certain kind of texture, to register on different frequencies, because that's how I feel like I approach the world. That's what interests me and I'm not really sure that I can explain it in any kind of objective way. Maybe it is also just another way of resisting immediately totalizing moves because I do feel that there's a kind of masculinism, regardless of who's proclaiming them. And that might sound crude, but that's not how I view or apprehend or engage with the world whether it be in writing, thinking, teaching, listening, whatever it is. In academic work, whether this is ethnography or historiography or theory, I'm always interested in the question of “Where's the texture here?” That's what I read for, look for, listen for. What I'm calling texture here might also describe the relational tension between the particular and general we spoke about earlier.
st: Could you talk more about your relationship to writing, specifically how your writing practice relates to your intellectual work? You have mentioned in the past that you look to Hortense Spillers as an example for how both to think and to write. Habeas Viscus draws very heavily from the tradition of manifestos. And while rereading Phonographies, I couldn't help but notice these elegant formulations, like when you say that there is “no Western modernity without (sonic) blackness and no blackness in the absence of modernity.”5
AW: Spillers was one person who taught me how to think and write. The other two people, at least initially, were Stuart Hall and Gayatri Spivak. What occurred to me retrospectively is that all of their writing and thinking offered me texture. At a certain point they all broke through . . . whatever you want to call it . . . the fourth wall of scholarly discourse. With Spillers especially, there are all these moments in her writing where you can feel her frustration with what is going on. There's no detachment. And then there are moments of semi-autobiography or autobiography. Same thing with Stuart Hall. If you look at a lot of his early writing, you would not know this was Stuart Hall, but then it gets to a certain point in the 1980s where he is talking about his experience of growing up in Jamaica, coming to the UK in the 1950s, being part of the New Left, and his writing also really changes. It becomes much more Stuart Hall – esque. Same thing with Gayatri Spivak. I haven't really kept up with her work as much as with the other two over the years, I have to say, but that's what I strive for in my writing. It took me a really long time to get there because I spent so much time attempting to do the objective thing because that's what I thought I was supposed to do; and I had to spend all this time unlearning that. I do like there to be some clarity in my writing, so to speak, in terms of the argument, but also texture. It's a continual challenge of finding ways to attend to texture in scholarly writing without it becoming something completely different.
At a certain point, that might just be what happens—that it's not scholarly writing anymore—and I think I'm fine with that. In terms of the history of Black critical thinking, most of the writers pre-1960s and 1970s didn't only write in one genre. Even some of the folks in the ’70s and ’80s didn't write in one genre. Audre Lorde didn't write in one particular genre. June Jordan did not, Toni Cade Bambara did not, let alone W. E. B. Du Bois. Perhaps, for a while, it wasn't really as prominent in the push toward the intellectual professionalization of Black Studies. That said, there were moments of that, like when Henry Louis Gates Jr., Michael Awkward, and Deborah McDowell published memoirs in the 1990s, but I don't think it was as highlighted as it is now, when it's coming back after people have lived for many years with certain texts like Édouard Glissant. Even Sylvia Wynter started out being a playwright and a novelist before she was a dancer, that is, way before she became a professor at Stanford. For me, it's a matter of finding a way to make space for these other genres and modes of address in scholarly writing, pushing it against itself, making it do something that perhaps it was initially not supposed to do.
st: Some of the most exciting work comes from people who are still traversing multiple genres, like Nathaniel Mackey, Fred Moten, Saidiya Hartman.
AW: Hartman and particularly the idea of “critical fabulation” has been really important because that has really opened up what scholarly writing, and especially historiography, can be.6 But even Denise Ferreira da Silva using math formulas in the essay, “1 (life) ÷0 (blackness) = ∞ − ∞ or ∞ / ∞: On Matter Beyond the Equation of Value,” opens all these different ways of thinking and writing. I think it's a good moment for that, although it is still a challenge in terms of being able to do it. It sometimes feels to me like writing a poem and writing an essay at the same time, except that they end up in one space. It's a challenge that I enjoy and welcome, especially once I could let go of the assumption that writing had to be scholarly in an objective way where there was no texture for me—or the texture was just horrible. That's when I actually started to enjoy writing.
AW: I think it was much more in line with how I think. And I enjoyed (not always, but more often than I did before) what ended up on the page. I can go back to it now and not necessarily be like, “Why did you write that sentence in that way?,” but actually say, “Oh yeah! This actually sounds good at the level of sonic texture when I hear it!”
st: The way you are conceptualizing texture in writing points to this other major thematic throughout a lot of your work, which is relationality whereby texture is what manifests through the relationships between the author and the written word, author and discipline, but also the reader and their relationship to the materials that they're reading. In your talk “ ‘Scream My Name like a Protest’: R&B Music as BlackFem Technology of Humanity in the Age of #blacklivesmatter,” you advocate for a BlackFem Analytic.7 How are you using it, and the textures of Black queer life more broadly, in your current work?
AW: That came from an essay by a former graduate student at Northwestern, Dr. Chelsea Frazier, who teaches at Cornell now. But it also came from lots of conversations at places like the American Studies Association annual meeting. It also came from organizing and the kind of limitations of the phrasing “women and femmes,” and the frustration that a lot of people felt with that. And it resulted from many conversations in classes, particularly in graduate classes, thinking about a more capacious category than “woman” that doesn't erase feminism but also doesn't conflate it with cis womanhood. So that's its genesis, although I'm not really sure where I am with it at this point in time.
I remember in one of my undergraduate classes we were talking about two documentaries: Paris Is Burning (Jennie Livingston, 1990) and The Aggressives (Eric Daniel Peddle, 2005). We were talking about how, even though they're on very different points in terms of their gender identification, in terms of masculine, feminine, and so on, almost everyone in those two films could be labeled as “femme.” Some of the students felt like maybe this was, again, femme erasure, and I said, “I'll think about it,” which I'm still doing. But for me, BlackFem did really open up all these different ways of thinking about feminists, femininity, et cetera, and so on, that is not reducible to womanhood. I'm also assiduously trying to avoid the sort of gender spectrum mode of thinking, like, “Okay, we're not calling it a binary anymore; we're calling it a spectrum now,” which seems more open, but the spectrum still indicates that you move in either direction. I want something more textured, more multidimensional.
I'm trying to get to a masculinity and femininity that does not begin and end with cishetero masculinity or femininity. What happens then? The way the term BlackFem was described by Frazier helps me on that journey, which is not about replacing something, but really thinking about these questions in a way that doesn't center cis-ness and hetero-ness. The cisheterosexual construction of gender expression is important to note in terms of power structures and the ways they're violently imposed, but we don't always have to replicate those in our analyses! Yet of- tentimes, the language that we use tends to reinscribe the dominant forms of gender expression as a point of origin. And for me, it's just fundamentally not.
st: Right! The idea of the gender spectrum is binaristic still because it does have the two extreme poles. Also, how you're thinking about the urgency of a Fem Analytic reminds me of K. Marshall Green's articulation of a need for a trans* analytic in their essay “Troubling the Waters: Mobilizing a Trans*Analytic.” The urgency of that analytic emerged out of the insufficiencies, for lack of a better term, of Black lesbian feminism in attending to trans subjectivities.8 Despite all the important radical work that Black lesbian feminism has done, that major blind spot necessitated this other mode of thinking.
AW: I would definitely agree with that, and I'm going to have to go back and reread that. Audre Lorde's “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” for instance, is situated in a certain time and place, but it's also par for the course in terms of how people were thinking about these questions. For me the question is: What do we take from that and what do we leave behind?
st: Since we are talking about creating language to describe different forms of embodiment, how do you think about technology and techné alongside flesh and enfleshment? A very perfunctory glance would suggest that these are two very different modes of thinking, but what your work very fabulously reveals is the intricacy and the entanglements between these things, and the coconstitutive formations between racial being and technology and technicity.
AW: To me, they are deeply related. You can't really have one without the other. And one of the things that the connection between Black music and technology has revealed to me over and over is that Black culture enfleshes these technologies, adds texture to them. There might be user manuals that say, “Press this button and then this will happen,” but Black culture so often has made these technologies usable and shown people how to use, and in some cases abuse, them against their intended initial use—whether this is the player piano in the early part of the twentieth century, the record player in 1960s Jamaica and 1970s Bronx, the cell phone in our more contemporary era, and so on. This yields a kind of textural, enfleshed theory of technology, if you know your theory of technology is based on the history of Black music rather than on the production of Apple Macs and the military history of the internet. All those things still exist, right? But it's not really where things are. Particularly with the kind of mobile technologies that we have now, so much of the work that R&B did, beginning in the early 2000s and going up to the present moment, is about how mobile technologies become a central fixture of our everyday lives. I think of the Western model in which technology is the apex of human civilization, but it's also imagined as being completely separate from humanity, and particularly, enfleshment. Instead, Black culture has repeatedly shown this not to be the case.
st: Part of that also seems to depend on how flesh and embodiment can be configured or imagined as technological in some ways. When I think of the phrase “racializing assemblages” from Habeas Viscus, I always associate “assemblages” with the technological and mechanical.
On the topic of flesh, somewhere you mentioned (and someone else pointed out) that a lot of your thinking on R&B attends to R&B as a pleasurable object and a thing that brings pleasure. You've also mentioned in the past that you don't really write about pleasure that much, even though it is essential to a lot of what you write and think about. How do pleasure and joy manifest in your research and thinking?
AW: I don't really address them so much because I feel they've been taken over by a neoliberal impetus at this moment in time. And sometimes saying “pleasure” erases other things that happen in the same moment. I guess I write about things that are pleasurable, but I don't necessarily theorize pleasure or joy because I feel there is a way in which that can be recaptured in this kind of neoliberal celebratory mode that I'm not particularly interested in. I don't have a problem with pleasure, in having a good time, and I do think that thinking and writing should be, at least in part, pleasurable—for both the folks producing it and the folks consuming it. But it's not really something that I single out. What happens in relation to pleasure and joy is more important to me—like the different kinds of textures.
st: That makes a lot of sense. Could you talk about your two book projects and any other projects that are underway?
AW: Yeah, Feenin is a book about music, particularly R&B music, and different kinds of technologies that think about R&B also as method, R&B as affective texture. It consists of essays written over the course of the last twenty years, including some newer pieces and a few interludes. The other project I am currently working on, I'm imagining as a collaborative work with hopefully a poet and a visual artist, and I also want it to be not as linear as regular scholarly work. I've been thinking about it for the last few years as an alternate periodic table consisting of some of the elements of Black life. So that is a kind of multivocal textural object and not just text, but we'll see how it works out.
st: I believe Beth Coleman at your aforementioned BLK S3tudies Summer Seminar talk described your forthcoming work as “fire,” and it is, indeed, fire. This is a two-part question. First, who are the more junior, or early-career, scholars, thinkers, artists, activists, writers whose work currently excites you? Second, what do you perceive as the futures of your work, and also, of Black Studies and minority discourse?
AW: There are so many folks whose work I appreciate: Zakiyyah Iman Jackson; Savannah Shange; T. C. Ellison, who has this beautiful essay, “Black Femme Praxis and the Promise of Black Gender,” about the image of two Black transwomen. It came out in the Black Scholar a few years ago. Matthew D. Morrison's work on nineteenth-century Black music and blackface; Ahmad Greene-Hayes's work on queerness and Black Atlantic religion is also very exciting, as is Rizvana Bradley's work. I'm also energized by forthcoming work by Tyrone Palmer, Brittnay Proctor, Chad Infante, Chelsea Frazier, Dionte Harris, Corrine Collins, and Henry Washington. Those are some of the “younger” folks whose work I'm excited about.
Overall, it's a good time in Black Studies because there is a lot of debate and a lot of instantiations of Black Studies, so that people can go in different directions. The kind of work that I've been mostly pursuing, and the work I've been most directly in dialogue with, has been coming out of a certain Black feminist tradition, and reviving that, pushing that against itself. All the work around critical fabulation and the archives of Black life has been really exciting to see. I think, at least intellectually, we are in a robust moment for Critical Black Studies.
st: At the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice's Graduate Colloquium, “Humanities at the Limit of ‘the Human,’ ” at Brown, you mentioned that, for you, the appeal of music lies in how it asks us to show up differently because of how it elicits an immediate response in the listener. As examples of this, you've talked about the various mundane listening practices involved in music consumption, like choosing to sit versus choosing to hit the dance floor. One of the examples that stuck out to me was skipping a track versus repeating a track. Just as a fun exercise, particularly given the thematics of this special issue, I would love your roster of current repeat tracks, the tracks that you currently have on repeat.
AW: “Summer Rain” by Leon Bridges featuring Jazmine Sullivan. That's one of my most repeated songs right now. There's a remix to the song, “Fellowship,” by the queer R&B artist serpentwithfeet, which is a love song to their platonic friends and features Alex Isley and Ambré. For a long time, it was Tiwa Savage's “Somebody's Son (Ft Brandy),” which is a gorgeous song, and the harmonies are otherworldly. It's the same with the Jazmine Sullivan and Leon Bridges song as well; the harmonies do most of the work. Those are some of the songs I've had on repeat. I tend to get obsessed with particular songs and just have them on repeat, sometimes continuously and sometimes, I'll interrupt it and listen to something else or have something else on repeat. Then there are also weeks when I'll barely listen to anything else depending on the level of obsession.
ALEXANDER GHEDI WEHELIYE is Forbes University Professor in the Department of Modern Culture and Media at Brown University, where he teaches critical theory, Black literature and culture, gender and sexuality studies, social technologies, and popular culture. He is the author of Phonographies: Grooves in Sonic Afro-Modernity (2005), Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human (2014), and Feenin: R&B Music and the Materiality of BlackFem Voices and Technology (forthcoming). Currently, he is working on Black Life / SchwarzSein, which situates Blackness as an ungendered ontology of unbelonging.
This interview was transcribed by stef torralba, Ïxcari Noelle, and James Tobias.