ON MODERNITY AND SOUND: AN
INTERVIEW WITH DR. FUMI OKIJI



Khaled Alqahtani
26 October 2021


“Way back there when Hell wasn’t no bigger than Maitland, man found out something about the laws of sound. He found something before he even stood erect to think. He found that sounds could be assembled and manipulated and that such a collection of sound forms could become as definite and concrete as a war-axe or a food-tool.” —  Zora Neale Hurston, Folklore and Music (1991)

In physics, sound is a vibration that is transmitted through different mediums, ranging from gases to liquids. While it is thoroughly studied and understood numerically and physically, sound is also critical to the study of different cultures and histories, especially ones that are rooted in orality. Its malleable nature and immateriality allows communities across the globe to create languages, stories, songs, and poems that are recited and passed on from one generation to another. Yet the same characteristics that distinguish sound from other cultural productions make it challenging to approach and dissect. The study and investigation of sound, in this case, is of incredible importance to understand the histories (futures and presents) of communities that are historically excluded and erased from the archives dictating our understanding of our collective  history and memory.

Dr. Fumi Okiji, an assistant professor at the Department of Rhetoric at UC Berkeley, is one of the scholars contributing to the study of (Black) sound. She grew up passionate about music, especially the moments where she felt in complete unity with everyone around her when performing. Her love for the jazz scene in London, where she performed and improvised after completing her undergraduate studies, made her wonder about the contradictions underlying modern and contemporary life, especially as a Black person. Her research and work since then, which include Jazz as Critique: Adorno and Black Expression Revisited (Stanford University Press, 2018), focused on Black study, critical theory, and sound and music studies. In this interview, Dr. Okiji delves into her academic and research questions and interests, her definition(s) of (black) sound as both a musician and scholar, and her hope for the future of sound studies.

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What aspects of your background and upbringing led you to your academic interests?

I didn’t take the traditional route to become a professor — I didn’t just go from my undergraduate  program to get a PhD and later be a postdoc to eventually get a job. After I completed my undergraduate studies in human geography at Royal Holloway, University of London, I had a big chunk of time before I joined a PhD program. During that time, I performed in London and fell in love with music, jazz, and performing. I started to put together some bands, very low rate stuff. I grew to really love this jazz scene that I became a really integral part of.  So I had some time where I really was just thinking about music and living that musical life.
 
But there were some questions that had troubled me towards the end of my first degree, which I just really felt that I needed to get back to. I had these really big questions about the contradictions of contemporary life and the contradictions of being a Black person in a world in which I couldn’t find myself. After five years after we started performing professionally, I decided that I needed to go back and do a PhD to answer some of these questions and explain them.

Can you elaborate on some of the questions that troubled you?

The questions I had revolved mainly about modern life and how we experienced modernity. I’m interested in how the ongoing, unrolling, unfurling era of modernity affected how we deal with the restrictions of our personal and particular experiences when faced with these kinds of structural impositions. Most particularly, in terms of black studies, we’re focusing on transatlantic slavery and colonialism. These have structured what we understand as modern life, and what we understand as the afterlife of slavery and afterlife of colonialism and the postcolonial era. And in a way, this is a project of fatigue. We’re working on reimagining the narration of modernity by way of a critical engagement with the modern texts. For me, it’s usually modern German texts (which include Kant and Hegel) through to the Frankfurt School. So I’m interested in critical engagement with these texts to re-narrate what modernity might mean from the perspective of what we would understand as a black subject, or  a postcolonial subject.
 
Some of the more discreet questions that lead me into those big questions are usually to do with what is it about black musical form, such as jazz. For example, can you point to certain things? Most people do point to specific characteristics, such as jazz being heavily improvised But I’m really trying to problematize those sort of easy go tos. I’m trying to really think about if there is a separate episteme or a separate worldview which lends itself to black subjects to lead to the creation of this distinctive black art.

What is (black) sound to you?
   
That’s a really tough question, and it’s one that I can struggle with. Sound needs to be obviously understood as broader than the sound that is created by human beings for the purposesof musical performance and musical pleasure. I think it needs to be also thought wider than as a medium of what we might call sort of folk-ik orientations — the idea that there’s this object  which is worked and passed on through generations in the oral realm.
   
I think the interesting thing about sound is to do with the fact that it allows us to (maybe similar to what we might say blackness does) reimagine or re-narrate the world in ways which the visual-centric documents that we are usually presented with doesn’t include. In sound studies, it’s not so much that we’re shifting focus (from visual-centric documents) to another sense. We’re actually opening up a whole new world through that sound to the sonic oral sense.
   
[Defining] black sound is tricky. We always want to go for the easiest and most obvious answers. So, people would want to say that black sound is made by black identifying people. I think it can be that, but I think that there is this complication. But what I want to move towards in my work is to move away from this identitarian explanation or understanding of sound, or that black sound is structured in a different way. What I’m trying to do with my work is not only bring these alternative ways of looking at the world and black music. I also want to show that there is a certain blackness, which we might understand as blackness within a certain canon of thoughts.
   
For example, within the German tradition, blackness is understood as what is denied inclusion in universal history and seen as a waste product. So there is a way in which we might understand that there’s blackness in all musical forms, even if these forms fall under the European school. [Black sound] is more of a condition.

Beyond the technicality of academia, what is sound to you personally as a musician?

Music is a way for me to be with everything. When I’m performing, there’s always those moments where I just feel like I’ve just completely submerged myself into the feeling of being with everything again. I become one with all the people in the audience and the band members. To get back into the sort of academic speak, it’s also a form of sociality for me. It’s kind of a complete relationship with this moment of absolute brilliance and complete communion.

How do you struggle finding these answers you have about sound as both the musician and the scholar?

It’s definitely sort of policing the encroachment of the academic side of me. I feel that I need to maintain some of the magic — I can’t explain everything. And I don’t want to pretend that I can.

I also find it very difficult to find the time to make music. And I feel that I need to remind myself of those feelings [of the magic in performance] in other ways, which really affected my [academic] orientation.


What is the importance of the study of sound as a form of immaterial heritage/culture in comparison to the extensive study of material heritage?

Walter Pater said, “All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music. For while in all other kinds of art it is possible to distinguish the matter from the form, and the understanding can always make this distinction, yet it is the constant effort of art to obliterate it.”


One of the things that I took from this explanation of music is that all art aspires to be about itself, to be self-referential. Part of me thinks there’s maybe some truth in that, and I don’t want to run away from that completely. But on the other hand, it kind of also misses what I feel is most exciting and crucial about music: the experience of playing music, being in the presence of people performing music, or even listening to music on recording. I think we can still have that crucial relationship, which seems to be countered to this idea of abstraction. I still don’t think the relationship created by music (being one with everything/one)  is an abstraction as such. I think it’s something which is still rooted in the body.
   
Also, all artists have a bias towards music, although sound is hard to be studied and measured in the way we’re used to describe other things. And I think it’s because we can’t separate ourselves from the sounds. Sound does invade us in certain ways. Maybe we want to say that all art aspires towards musicality, which creates those moments of complete communion. We might say that music is the exemplar of that sort of feeling. And that’s why it’s important to study sound.

What are your aspirations for this rapidly developing field of academic pursuit?

I’ve never considered my aspirations for the field of sound studies. But I would say sound studies is very, very white, male, and European or Euro-American. A lot of sound art, rather than music, developed alongside an expansion of global art, so there is a sizable body of objects from the Global South. But I would really love for us to find a way to pay attention to theorists which don’t fall into the conventional forums or formats so that they can be at the forefront of these conversations. And that’s super different than all [global art previously mentioned] because the people that we really should be listening to in these regions might not be at a university, or they might not have access to the means to be able to be legible to academic spaces.

It’s such a young discipline so it’s going to be exciting to see how it develops in the next 10 years or so.

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To achieve her vision for the future of sound studies, Dr. Okiji currently teaches classes in the Department of Rhetoric dedicated to the study of sound, performance, and criticism. In the themes she explores in her teaching, she centers black thought in the material she teaches, including Saidiya Hartman and Fred Moten, while ensuring that her students are also exposed to diverse thought and sound practices, such as Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s work. The production and manipulation of sound tells a story and creates one of the most intimate cultural products. Sound also allows the narration of such (individual and collective) experiences that cannot be captured visually or textually, especially experiences that are intentionally erased or dismissed from archival records. And to understand such experiences, both Dr. Okiji’s classes and sound studies in general, this field needs to expand its lens beyond the settings of white academia and incorporate global viewpoints.

Besides her teaching, Dr. Okiji is currently working on her second book project titled, Billie’s Bent Elbow: The Standard as Revolutionary Intoxication. In this book, she looks to black music, with an emphasis on jazz, to “[respond] to praxes that appeal to ‘eternal values’ of imagined futures.”




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