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Friday, April 21 • 5:30pm - 7:00pm
Soul and the Voice of (Obama’s) America

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What does it mean when the President sings? When he sings Al Green? When he sings “I’m…so in love with you,” (with who?) at the Apollo Theater, in Harlem, at a campaign fundraiser? When downloads of “Let’s Stay Together” then proceed to surge 500%?

What does it mean when “This American Life” asks Sarah Bareilles, who lists Sam Cooke and Etta James as vocal inspirations, to imagine what is going on inside the mind of that President as his second term comes to an end, and what does it mean when she writes a song for the African-American actor, Leslie Odom, Jr., who voiced the volatile Aaron Burr in the musical Hamilton, to sing? “Seriously?”

It was 1975 when Parliament-Funkadelic relocated the White House to Chocolate City and nominated for its first Black Occupant President Muhammad Ali, the man who had delivered a series of unforgettable political beat downs to White America in the Nixon era. At least for the first few years, it seemed that Barack Obama’s tenure in Washington would always be a battle between the righteous anger that most Americans believed he must feel inside (remember Luther?) and an outward pose of drama-free, technocratic cool, the bulletproof surface which was all anyone outside a charmed inner circle was allowed to see.

Arguably, one melismatic moment in front of an open microphone in early 2012 was a turning point for Obama. That morning, the Pew Research Center had released the results of a national survey, in which his job approval ratings seemed dangerously low for a politician seeking re-election: only 38% approved of his handling of the economy; a mere 32% predicted his Presidency would be seen as successful. The bright spot was his personal reputation: voters surveyed saw him as trustworthy (61%), felt that he cared about people like them (61%), and overwhelmingly respected him as a man who stood up for his beliefs (75%). In effect, America knew that the brother had soul. But he needed to show it.

The last four years have seen the emergence of a powerfully soulful President, who has been called upon again and again to testify to his faith in the American people and his belief that they can rise to the challenge of racial justice and equality. Not a naturally demonstrative man, he has at times been made to speak, an involuntary instrument of the nation’s need for empathy and healing. His musical interventions and those made on his behalf can express anxiety over his departure and concern over the ways in which his legacy will be narrativized. They also speak volumes about the very constitution of the public sphere in this “most-racial” American moment. Will soul music, as it seemed to do a half-century ago, help us to stay together? What is the alternative?

avatar for Shana L. Redmond

Shana L. Redmond

Twitter | | Shana L. Redmond is the author of Anthem: Social Movements and the Sound of Solidarity in the African Diaspora (NYU Press, 2014) and Associate Professor of Musicology in the Herb Alpert School of Music and African American Studies at UCLA. Her current research projects are interested in the science of Black music and the sonic cultures of Afro indebtedness... Read More →

avatar for Wade Fulton Dean

Wade Fulton Dean

Twitter | | Wade Fulton Dean is a PhD student at the University of California, Los Angeles. His work attends to the intersection of music, race, and politics. A jazz saxophonist and composer, Dean holds an M.M. from the University of the Arts and a B.M. from the University of South Carolina, and taught for several years at the University of Pennsylvania, where he directed the Jazz Studies program. His dissertation explores the relationship between Black expressive, vernacular, and socio-political culture, interrogating the ways that live Soul performance both constructed and organized Black individuals into discursive publics during Civil Rights and Black Power. | | Roundtable: Soul and the Voice of... Read More →

Robert Fink

Twitter | | Robert Fink is Chair of the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music’s program in the Music Industry, and also a past President of IASPM-US. His research focus is on music and culture after 1950, with special interests in musical repetition cultures, the history and analysis of African American popular music, and the politics of contemporary art/dance music. His essay on the cultural politics of... Read More →
avatar for Alisha Gaines

Alisha Gaines

Twitter | | Alisha Gaines is Assistant Professor of English at Florida State University. Her book, Black for a Day: White Fantasies of Race and Empathy is forthcoming from UNC Press (Spring 2017.) Her interdisciplinary teaching interests include African American literature and culture, black queer theory, media and performance studies, narratives of passing, and New Southern studies. She is a life-long fan of Michael Jackson. | | Roundtable: Soul and the Voice of... Read More →
avatar for LaCharles Ward

LaCharles Ward

Twitter | | LaCharles Ward is a PhD candidate in the Rhetoric and Public Culture program in the School of Communication at Northwestern University. He is also the 2016–2017 co-organizer of the Colloquium on Ethnicity and Diaspora (CED), affiliated with the Asian American Studies Program in the Weinberg College of Arts and Science. His dissertation... Read More →

Friday April 21, 2017 5:30pm - 7:00pm
Learning Labs MoPOP, 325 5th Avenue N, Seattle, WA 98109