In my book project, Sonic Femmeness: Black Culture Makers, Felt History, and Vibrational Identity, I trace how femmeness, a simultaneous gender identity and gender expression grounded in femininity, facilitates world-making expressions of Black genders and sexualities that seek to disrupt and reroute the politics and pop culture within and across two different time periods: the recent past (1980s) and our contemporary moment (2010s/2020s). I conceptualize sonic femmeness as a sonic, affective, and vibrational configuration that reshapes notions of representation and relationality: sonic in its centering what is heard, affective in its transmitting feeling (both emotional and physical) between bodies, and vibrational in how it reverberates, or echoes, the aforementioned sound and feeling over time. Through my notion of sonic femmeness, I trace how both history-making and identity formations unfold along vibrations, i.e. the viscerally felt aspects of sound waves that linger after sound ends. As a result, sonic femmeness’s vibrations nuance our ideas of linear progressions in the ways that they loop back to (and repeat (with a difference)) the past in our present moments. Put differently, sonic femmeness works as a constellation that links the historical and the aesthetic, moving between the tensions of the different messages that visual, sonic, and felt codes present to us.
By closely listening to the songs of two different groups of Black pop stars from the 1980s (Janet Jackson, Grace Jones, and Prince) and the 2010s/2020s (Blood Orange, Janelle Monáe, and FKA twigs & Kelela), I use popular music as an affective lens into their surrounding historical context. Mobilizing vibration as an analytic, I utilize sound’s feltness, or affective charge, to trace aesthetic and historical connections between the 1980s and the 2010s/2020s. Through proposing that femmeness is a sonic, affective, and vibrational configuration, Sonic Femmeness seeks to expand on work in Gender & Sexuality Studies and Black Studies that describes femme identity in terms of visuality. Writing reflectively from our historical moment, I additionally make connections between the assaults on Black people (and people of color more broadly), women and femmes, and queer and trans people during the Reagan administration’s explicit anti-Black racism and willful neglect of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and the Trump administration’s mishandling of the COVID pandemic and ongoing targeting of Black life in the 2010s into the 2020s. In the process, I posit that lingering with vibration’s oscillations might move us to organize in solidarity across lines of race, gender, and sexuality in the political and cultural uncertainties of 2020s America.
As an Andrew W. Mellon Engaged Scholar Initiative Fellow, I organized the Synth Sounds of the Texas Triangle summer symposium, which included performances by electronic music artists from Austin, Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio. These sessions accentuated how anti-Black and anti-Latinx racism and white supremacy more broadly continue in both Texas and America even after monuments come down. The symposium additionally explored how music can be a space for anti-racism and solidarity building across lines of race, gender, and sexuality. You can watch the Houston, San Antonio, Dallas, and Austin summer performances via the links above.