As I was waiting to check-in with Delta for my JFK-bound flight, day-dreaming about my impending two week New York adventure, I could overhear the conversation playing out right behind me: ‘Purpose of your visit sir?’ ‘Oh – I’m attending a conference – I’m an academic!’ A fellow Pop Conference attendee was already by my side, so in a sense the networking whirlwind of my first few days in the Big Apple began at Heathrow Departures. However, airport coincidences aside, the conference really kicked off on Thursday evening at the Opening Keynote with Ann Powers, Esperanza Spalding, Santigold, Angelique Hidjo, and Heems of Das Racist. An artistically accomplished panel whose insightful, humorous and sparkling discussions adroitly opened up the dialogue for ‘Sounds of the City’ 2012.
Many of the thoughts and themes that were raised by the panel were echoed and continued in the many papers and round-tables that followed, and for me this served perfectly to connect up the dots between the conference’s diverse line-up. Just as most music can be seen to link up in some way, there was much continuity between the discussions that were had throughout the conference.
Arrays of metaphors were played with during the conference in an attempt to grasp and make tangible the mystical role that music plays in our lives – from Ann Powers’ reference to Duke Ellington’s Harlem Air Shaft and the notion of music providing glimpses into others’ lives just as the snatches of sounds that travel through the city’s air shafts manage to, to Mark Coleman’s analogy of music assuming the role of a Greek chorus in one’s life – ever ready to motivate, question and mock your protagonist – in his ‘‘I Hear Music in the Streets’: New York’s Postdisco Boombox Democracy’ paper.
On the role of music in our lives I was spoken to by Esperanza Spalding’s clarification, having grown up in a less desirable area of Portland, that music serves to transform one’s surroundings rather than offer a mere escape – that the beauty of music can enable us to see the beauty in our surroundings more wholly, whether they conform to typical depictions of beauty or not. Music therefore has the power to contextualise one’s world socially, in order to see past any poverty or negativity and embrace one’s position in the wider scheme of things. Aural liberation for every-day living.
This notion seemed pertinent to me during the ‘‘Do You Want More?’ The Time and Space of Alternative Sonic Blackness’ roundtable when Daphne Brooks presented Barry Jenkins’ film ‘Medicine for Melancholy’ – a grittily rose-tinted view of San Francisco where the main male protagonist feels both frustration and adoration for the city and it’s inspiring yet limiting music scene. Enhanced by romantic cinematography and accompanying soundtrack the film creates an honest beauty from including and discoursing with the uglier sides and unjust features of society.
In talking about city-living Santigold also noted how the scale of large cities enables artists to easily assume a fly on the wall position for observing and absorbing the endless creative stimuli on offer. A similar point was made by GZA the Genius during his lunchtime session on Sunday, as when speaking on the creation of his classic work Liquid Swords the Brooklyn native related how he would develop characters and stories from watching people in real-life. As capital cities such as New York attract people from all walks of life and for a multitude of different reasons, it can be appreciated how they become such fertile ground for growing artistic ideas and for seeking those initial seeds of inspiration.
Another theme raised by Santigold that recurred in later talks was her reminiscing on the prominence of mix-tapes when she was coming up, and the appeal of their exclusive mixing and freestyles. The ‘For Promotional Use Only’ panel addressed mix-tape culture’s transition from physical to digital, noting how whilst the internet certainly broadens access to listeners outside of the capital cities where they were originally circulated, it is by no means as democratic as is often implied or assumed. And, whilst increasing exposure to new music is surely a positive movement, there remains the issue whether the value and exclusivity of music is being lost in its becoming more and more disposable as the traditions of physical ownership and product fade.
I had originally been keen to attend this panel thinking through the lens of how it might relate to my homies’ website Mixcloud back home in London – (www.mixcloud.com – online radio and mix-tape streaming for those who don’t know…) – as it is exciting to me to think of the ways that online platforms can not only link up the city to the suburban, but how they facilitate and encourage dialogue between the major cities (New York, London, Los Angeles, Berlin, Paris…). The Satellite Voices series (http://www.mixcloud.com/SatelliteVoices/) shines light on emerging sounds from various cultural hot-spots around the world, similar to the way that Pop Conference sessions on Berlin, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Modern English and others devoted themselves to spotlighting and interrogating one country’s or city’s musical output and developments.
In keeping with the diverse line-up of the conference, those who attended were pretty varied as academics mixed with journalists, students, film-makers, musicians – where else can you witness funk/soul legend James Mtume stand up from the audience and impromptu set the record straight on the controversy around sampling at a round-table on hip hop breaks (‘These Are The Breaks: How a Few Dozen Obscure Records Transformed the World of Pop Music’)?? And, any situation that allows a little girl with her mother to pose questions directly to GZA and ?uestlove in the same day gets my full approval and whole-hearted support.
In a similar fashion to the opening event, I found the closing keynote – the slightly surreal and too-good-to-be-true situation of listening to ?uestlove reminisce about the late J Dilla and play exclusive Michael Jackson stems – to be a perfect summation of the conference as a whole in a multitude of ways. Being in a musical bubble elevated high above the city of New York on the tenth floor at NYU seemed to encapsulate the spirit of the weekend to me – slightly removed from the real world, that is carrying on regardless, though fully soaking up all the inspiration that it has to offer and immersed in the most stimulating of ideas. Enough distance so as to provide a profound panorama of the city, but close enough as to still be infected by the energy of its sounds.