Sounding South Asian, Sounding Black: The Sonic Politics of Appreciation or Appropriation

Miles Davis, North Sea Jazz Festival in The Hague, July 15, 1984 (Wikimedia Commons).

On the dance floor, we dance to the same beats per minute (BPM). The tempo that structures Black diasporic life has intersected at many points throughout history with the BPM of Asian diasporic life. At times this has taken place in the form of inaccurate imitation as admiration of one another, in other moments as musical co-production.  The tempo and the friction of the proximity of bodies dancing next to one another in the nightclub is the alchemy of cultural production. The poetic convergence of Indo-diasporic and Afro-diasporic musical traditions is a fascinating topic that has not received enough book-length attention. 

Dedicated to the “power of Black music,” Elliott Powell’s Sounds from the Other Side: Afro-South Asian Collaborations in Black Popular Music is a valuable contribution to studies of Black popular music straddling several genres. Spanning from jazz studies and John Coltrane in 1962 to Beyoncé’s 2016 Superbowl Halftime performance, Powell is an MC who takes the reader on a sonic journey through five chapters on his favorite moments of Black American and South Asian musical entanglement. Beginning with Coltrane, the mic is passed to Miles Davis to funk impresario Rick James to rappers Outkast and Missy Elliot to R&B singer Truth Hurts to hip-hop producers Timbaland and Rajé Shwari. Though the genres may seem disparate, the crate-digging is a chronology that forms a convincing argument about the United States and especially the post-9/11 conflation of South Asian and Middle Eastern identity. 

The book answers the vexing question I am often asked as an educator by students and journalists alike, “Is Beyoncé wearing a sari in a music video an example of cultural appropriation or appreciation?” Fill in the blank from Iggy Azalea’s swagger to Akwafina’s blaccent. Powell generously refuses this “either-or” binary to guide the reader through the nuanced politics of Black and South Asian relationality during recent U.S. history. The question of whether these performances are right or wrong, and who should be cancelled, is not as interesting as the historical and political tradition such racialized performances are a part of. The asymmetries of racial formation do mean that Madonna’s co-opting of South Asian sartorial aesthetics has different cultural and political meanings than Nick Cannon wearing a turban on the Masked Singer. Powell shows us that race matters and music is an intimate part of racialization and proximity to power. Affiliation and allegiance become configured through sound and draw on rich and heterogeneous music traditions, Asian-diasporic and African-diasporic. Bill Mullen has used the term “Afro-Orientalism” to complicate the love African-Americans have for Asian aesthetic forms. Helen H. Jun notes Black Orientalism has no singular meaning but as “an entire range of black imaginings of Asia that are in fact negotiations with the limits and disappointments of black citizenship.” Elliott Powell adds to this discourse by centering the effect of Black musical performance.

Powell celebrates sonic collaboration as an arena for fostering Afro-South Asian intimacies of identification. As is the case for any work of Afro-Asian studies, the central argument is concerned with decentering whiteness and thus Europe as much as it with highlighting how white supremacy forms unexpected intimacies. Thus, Powell approaches the question of how to decenter structures of power without recentering whiteness through what Brent Hayes Edwards has termed “the practice of diaspora.” In doing so, Sounds from the Other Side paves the way for rigorous site-specific case studies of Black popular music. The book joins a new wave of Black performance studies including Regina Bradley’s exciting analysis and ushering of Outkast studies and the anticipation of Matthew Morrison’s forthcoming scholarship on Black sound and defining a sonic aesthetic theory of U.S. blackness. 

Powell’s methodology includes a mixture of what he points to as an embrace of close reading and anecdotal asides. Powell’s analysis is not simply of lyrics; he is as invested in sound studies as visual culture and performances studies with attention to album art. Interviews with key social actors who become witnesses to what I would call the scene of production, such as sound engineers, are a critical source of Powell’s conceptualization of the thorny politics of race and theatricality.  He deploys anecdotal asides to deliberately foreground the personal as political and to highlight the way that popular music is consumed today. For him, social media is a vibrant part of this reception. To this end Powell bookends the text with an experience on an airplane flight being asked to weigh in by fellow passengers on the cultural appropriation politics of the Beatles and Madonna and concluding with a friend texting him to ask his expert analysis of whether Beyoncé’s borrowed from South Asian or Middle Eastern culture during her Super Bowl performance of “Baby Boy.” 

The contributions to American studies, Afro-Asian studies, and Black music studies, are clear, but it is less clear from the title that this book is also invested in gender and sexuality studies.  A worthy and significant contribution to queer of color critique, Black queerness is a critical rubric of analysis from the first page to the last. Powell emphasizes “queer” as deviance defined by Cathy Cohen as “radical politics.” Fascinating and compelling examples of queer functioning dually is Powell’s reading of Rick James gesturing to his sexual partner as a trans woman in “Love Gun” to deft readings of the significance of Tyra Banks’ anal-centric “booty tooch,” a runway modeling gesture. The study touches slightly on South Asian masculinity and the history of African American men wearing turbans. Any book that cites Vivek Bald’s pathbreaking Bengali Harlem and Mark Anthony Neal’s conceptualization of “illegible masculinities” in R&B does the necessary and impressive work to complicate this deep and queer tradition of cross-racial performance. Powell’s analysis of Coltrane, too, is a dual consideration of masculinity politics through the lens of how James Baldwin was being read in 1962. While there are many hidden or illegible figures elided by the contours of colonial historiography, I was less convinced by the conceptual moves that arrived at conjoining the figure of the “coolie” in Lisa Lowe’s work to the figure of the “freak” of Missy Elliott’s “Get Your Freak On”1.

In many ways the crescendo of the book is the fourth chapter on artist Truth Hurts’ 2002 song “Addictive,” featuring rapper Rakim. Powell synthesizes the chorus of opinions regarding what he points to as a conservative alignment between “Black respectability politics and Indian nationalist moralities”2. This led me to be curious about the economic structure of diasporic commercial intimacies of unspoken social mores of Bollywood’s theatricality and multiple global publics. I also wondered about the legal analysis of intellectual property litigation across different countries in the Black diaspora and how it forestalls or promotes sonic experimentation. To this end, defining musical polycultural South-Asian diasporic traditions such as bhangra and chutney soca would be a wonderful avenue for continued research into the depth and heterogeneity of what Indian music reveals and rejects about purity. The specificity of what it means that M.I.A. is Sri Lankan and not Indian, British and not American, troubles the term “South Asia.” More attention to unraveling the colonial and anti-colonial valence of “South Asian” and the reasoning behind the term that Powell gives us “Afro-South-Asian” would be welcome. It is an important intervention he makes by using this term that I sense answers an “Asian American”-centric question, that always centers the U.S. as opposed to the hemisphere and East Asia, often subsuming Southeast Asian and South Asian people. 

As strategic as any essentialism can be towards a coalitional politics, the language is incommensurate in the way it subsumes minority groups within minorities. Perhaps this is the point and nuanced attention to British, Portuguese, French, and Dutch colonialism of South Asia reveals the layers of Europeans flattening brown culture for centuries. Vijay Prashad grapples with this problem of language in his 2000 Karma of Brown Folk and settles on “desi” as an inclusive term for that moment. However, Prashad, like Powell and other scholars of South Asian diaspora, understand that linguistically and politically “desi” also does not do enough to express common identity. It still leaves out those who always get erased at the margins of Hindu caste-ist supremacy. More on Powell’s choice of “Afro-South Asian” in contrast to the resonance of “Afro-Asia” signaling  Bandung would be welcome.

Powell cites Ashon Crawley on the sacred, and indeed the ritual nature of music became enlivened for me in reading this book. The dual transcendence that Powell directs us to in John Coltrane and Miles Davis is what I see in Jimi Hendrix’s Hindu aesthetic.  Cosmology offers a pathway where music represented something potentially transcendent beyond the limitations of race to Black performers. With the seductive notion of reincarnation for Black people reading Hindu and Buddhist texts must also have come a deep knowing of samsara, the endless cycle of life and reincarnation as suffering. The other side of the possibility of being born again is also the trap. Just as the raga is not analogous to a European classical music scale, the polyrhythmic beauty and evolution of Indian music across the diaspora is almost indefinable. It is this effable quality that I would define as the power and multiplicity of Black music too. South-Asian musical arrangements defy definition in English both by British and U.S. colonialism. Afro-futurism, rather, is the time signature of Alice Coltrane’s experimentation as well as Sun Ra’s and OutKast’s. The temporality of what music can do transports us to the otherworldly –what Powell calls the other side. Attention to the theatre of these Black-South Asian moments of “love and theft,” as opposed to evaluating the accuracy, Powell shows us the admiration of this Afro-South Asian love supreme could never be accurately defined as theft.

  1. Elliott H. Powell, Sounds from the Other Side: Afro-South Asian Collaborations in Black Popular Music (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2020), 100.
  2. Ibid, 120.
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Tao Leigh Goffe

Tao Leigh Goffe is an assistant professor of literary theory and cultural history. She has a joint appointment between the Department of Africana Studies and Program in Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Cornell University. She is also a writer and a DJ specializing in the narratives that emerge from histories of imperialism, migration, and globalization.