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"Sound Come-Unity": Post-9/11 Brown and the Politics of Intercultural Improvisation

  • Author(s): Panikker, Dhirendra Mikhail
  • Advisor(s): Wong, Deborah A
  • et al.

In the aftermath of 9/11, South Asian Americans and Middle Eastern Americans experienced heightened racial violence and discrimination that subsumed their differences in the monolithic image of the Brown Other. In response, many have forged new alliances based in a shared marginalization as people of color. Recent scholarship in ethnic studies highlights the racial and class tensions surrounding interminority coalition building, particularly in relation to blackness (Kun and Pulido 2013; N. T. Sharma 2010). Music also functions as a site for the construction of community across difference. Scholars of critical studies in improvisation (CSI) highlight the role that real-time performance plays in generating meaningful encounters across divergent social identities and histories (Fischlin, Heble, and Lipsitz 2013; Stanyek 2004). Little research, however, explores the work of non-black, US-based improvisers of color.

I fill in this critical gap through an examination of intercultural improvisation in the post-9/11 era. Across a multi-sited research network from New York to Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, I explore the impact of post-9/11 racial and gender politics on the performance, reception, and representation of South Asian American and Middle Eastern American jazz improvisers. I examine the lives of four interrelated musicians in the jazz and creative music scene: Vijay Iyer, Priya Gopal, Amir ElSaffar, and Hafez Modirzadeh. I position their work in broader collaborative contexts and in relation to discourses on race, interculturalism, and improvisation. I employ dialogic (Feld 2012) and autoethnographic (Anderson 2006; Reed-Danahay 1997) methodologies in order to situate my own identity as a South Asian American artist-scholar within these musical communities. I ask these questions: How do race and gender influence the way Brown artists are seen and heard? What are the tensions surrounding interminority encounters with blackness? How does improvisation offer a creative medium to articulate these marked identities and forge new spaces of community across difference? I argue that post-9/11 Brown jazz serves as a social vision and political strategy to negotiate the spatial, temporal, and cartographic ruptures of 9/11 through the fugitive break that constitutes blackness. My research provides a more nuanced understanding of the limits and possibilities surrounding South Asian American and Middle Eastern American music-making in an era of heightened white supremacy premised on the expendability of black and Brown bodies.

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