“We Rock Long Distance: Creating a Digital Dissertation for a Digital Diaspora,” by Justin Schell

by Mike D'Errico on November 18, 2013

To celebrate the upcoming release of Ethnomusicology Review Volume 18, IASPM-US is teaming up with the online journal for a co-edited series on the broad topic of Ethnomusicology and Popular Music. Our final piece comes from Justin Schell—filmmaker, writer, photographer, and the Digital Humanities Specialist for the University of Minnesota Libraries—on the topic of creating a digital dissertation.

Schell Fieldwork Photo

Those who write about music have long struggled with how to capture the actual sonic content of music in written form. Some use evocative descriptions, others use transcriptions and score excerpts, others don’t talk about it at all. Emerging tools and methodologies in multimodal scholarship can help writers achieve more of a reconciliation between sound and text, as these platforms offer a way to directly embed sound, as well as video, as part of an online written text.

In this piece, I describe the process of creating my digital dissertation, “We Rock Long Distance: M.anifest and the Circulations of Diasporic Hip-Hop,” part of a larger project that includes a documentary film of the same title. Exploring the entire lifecycle of the project from research to publication to preservation, my hope is that it can offer something of a model for those wishing to take advantage of these sorts of tools and methodologies for their work, as well as offering strategies to navigate the uneven waters of how such digital projects can count as scholarly projects in the eyes of colleges and universities.

We Rock Long Distance (WRLD) started with an essay about the wider hip-hop music scenes in the Twin Cities. I interviewed more than sixty MCs, DJs, radio personnel, record store managers, and other community figures and the majority of them, including the three artists who would eventually become part of WRLD, I contacted through MySpace to set up initial meetings and interviews. Over the course of the year-long research and writing process, I started working with video and soon realized that I wanted to create a multi-faceted digital project, which included both a dissertation and a documentary film.

The title for this project came from a quote by Fela Kuti,which I read in Michael Veal’s biography. A journalist asked him about the length of his songs, which would often fill up both sides of a single LP. “We dance long distance here,” Fela responded. In the margins I scribbled, “We Rock Long Distance?” and it became the title, invoking two meanings of rock, that being “rock a chain, rock a mic, etc” as well as the futuristic global party of Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock.”

As the project developed, it became clear that it would need a more well-defined scope, and so I chose to focus on three particular artists from the Twin Cities who have roots elsewhere in the world. The first was M.anifest, who was originally born in Ghana and came to Minnesota to study at Macalester College. The second was Maria Isa, a “Sota Rican” (Minnesota Puerto Rican) who was born on the West Side of St. Paul (a historically Latino section of the city), but whose parents were from the NuYorican Lower East Side and whose grandparents came to New York from Puerto Rico. The third artist was Tou SaiKo Lee, who was born in Thailand in a Hmong refugee camp after his parents fled the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Part of the Hmong diaspora, his parents first came to Providence when Tou was two months old, then to Syracuse, and finally to St. Paul, Minnesota when he was twelve.

After settling on the three artists in the film, the four of us soon realized that part of the project needed to involve going back to their “original” homes of Ghana, Thailand, and Puerto Rico. I put “original” in quotes because when talking about diasporas, musical or otherwise, exploring the various means by which home is shaped results in a much more complicated view of what home actually means. I had originally planned to write my dissertation about all three WRLD artists, interweaving their stories of diasporic musical lives simultaneously where they’re from and where they’re at. Soon after returning from Ghana, however, it was clear that such a project would be three dissertations worth of work and that I had more than enough material to write about from my first trip to Accra alone. With nearly two hundred pages of typed notes and fifty hours of footage from shows and interviews in both Minnesota and Accra, I began the daunting process of logging footage and reviewing notes and transcriptions.

While logging footage from M.anifest’s performance at Citizen Kofi, an upscale night club in the Osu area of Accra, I was reminded of a surprising interjection from an audience member while Reggie Rockstone—one of the most prominent figures in Ghana’s hiplife and hip-hop scene and host for the evening—introduced M.anifest:

As I watched the clip, I remembered hearing that interjection while I filmed the concert, but moved on as I continued to film Rockstone and, shortly thereafter, M.anifest’s mother. Back in Minnesota, though, I remembered that the woman’s voice was actually a quotation, as she channeled a song that M.anifest performed nearly eighteen months earlier in Minneapolis at the Fine Line Cafe, along with Muja Messiah, another Minneapolis hip-hop artist.

M.anifest and Muja wrote this song the afternoon they performed it, and never recorded or performed it again. While I couldn’t find the woman at Citizen Kofi to ask if she was specifically referencing this song, the words, and more importantly, the inflection, convinced me of its status as quotation. How, then, did the woman in Accra, nearly eighteen months later and 6000 miles away, hear the original? Not only did I film the concert but, more importantly, I put this specific clip on YouTube and sent it to M.anifest to put on his video channel. The only way she would’ve heard this song was by watching my video on YouTube.

I opened the dissertation with this collision of online and offline, M.anifest’s multiple homes, and my role as both filmmaker and academic, media producer and media scholar. From that point, I wrote different threads of this story in each chapter, all built around ideas of “distance.” I showed how M.anifest musically enacts a version of home-in-diaspora in the geographic distances between Minnesota and Ghana, and how that changed when he returned to Accra. I traced some of the digital diasporic networks that gave rise to the above collision of texts, and how these helped in collapsing the types of distance articulated in the previous chapter. Finally, I talked about the specific generational distance between M.anifest and his grandfather, J. H. Kwabena Nketia.

While they explored these different ideas of distance, each would have a substantial amount of media. Crucially, this media would play a fundamental role in the dissertation, one that could not be reduced to supplemental files on an accompanying CD or DVD. They would form part of the argument itself and needed to be in the document, necessitating an online version of my dissertation. This, however, presented a number of challenges when it came to making the document “official.” First of all, there is no infrastructure for making online dissertations official, either at the University of Minnesota or, I believe, any institution as of yet (if yours does, please let me know!). The University tied their dissertation formatting requirements to those of Proquest, which limits the dissertation document itself to just a few hundred megabytes, which is quickly eaten up by just a few media files, much less the nearly one hundred pieces of media I ended up having in my digital dissertation. There was an option of creating an embedded media PDF, but the resolution of the videos would have to be so small to fit under the size limit that it would’ve made for pretty awful viewing. ProQuest does allow supplemental files, but that would’ve meant taking them out of the document itself, which was the whole point.

My solution was to create two documents, a PDF version without any type of media beyond photos, and an online version that added embedded audio and video to the photos. The first was a PDF with the text as normal, only with the audio and video files replaced by inert play triangles, signaling that there is a video or audio clip there. I placed a link to the online version at the beginning of the dissertation, in the hopes that people would read it online so they could view and listen to the media. This became the “official” PDF that was submitted to the University of Minnesota and placed in the University Digital Conservancy, Minnesota’s institutional repository and available through platforms such as Digital Dissertations and ProQuest.

I created the “unofficial” online version in Google Sites, a platform I was familiar with from previous digital projects. While there are certainly other platforms available (including platforms like Scalar designed for this type of multimodal scholarship), I was under a deadline to finish so I went with the more familiar and easy-to-use Sites. Each section of the dissertation was its own page and one big advantage with Google Sites was that when I pasted my text in from Microsoft Word, all of the footnotes converted to endnotes. I embedded all of the media from the University of Minnesota’s Digital Content Library (DCL), a repository for audio, video, and images that are primarily for classroom use, though there are also collections of content like mine in the DCL that form research archives. After embedding all the media and formatting all of the texts, I had an online, multimedia version of my dissertation, the digital form of which better reflected the dissertation’s digital content.

Justin Schell is a filmmaker, writer, photographer, and the Digital Humanities Specialist for the University of Minnesota Libraries. His first documentary, Travel in Spirals, tells the story of Hmong hip-hop artist Tou SaiKo Lee’s journey back to Thailand, 30 years after he was born in a refugee camp there. He’s in the final stages of post-production on my first-full length documentary, We Rock Long Distance, which weaves the story of Lee along with two other artists, M.anifest (originally from Ghana) and Maria Isa (born in St. Paul, MN but with “Sota Rican” roots in both New York and Puerto Rico) as they travel from Minnesota to their original homes of Ghana, Thailand, and Puerto Rico, while complicating the very idea of home in the process. Schell’s videos have been shown in the Walker Art Center, TPT, and online at the Huffington Post and the Progressive. They have also been screened in the Twin Cities Film Fest, Twin Cities Underground Film Festival, and the Qhia Dab Neeg Hmong Film Festival. He has written for the Walker Arts Center, Rain Taxi, Mshale, Twin Cities Daily Planet, and my history of Twin Cities hip-hop is published in the Hip-Hop in America. He got a PhD in Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature at the University of Minnesota and though he lives in Minneapolis, he’ll always call the Boogie Down Brewtown of Milwaukee, WI home. 

 

 

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