Part 1 of Caribbean Music in the Covid Era, Interview with Jessica Swanston Baker, P.h.D.

Updated: Feb 3

As a way of gaining a better understanding of the BIPOC experience at UChicago, Exploring Race editors conducted interviews with BIPOC faculty. This year, the Editorial Staff of Exploring Race chose to discuss the intersection of COVID and race with UChicago professors. This represents part one of the third interview. Exploring Race editor Carla Abreu speaks with Assistant Professor Jessica Swanston Baker about music in the Caribbean, being Afro-Caribbean, and her hopes for the progress towards an anti-racist future.

Jessica Swanston Baker is an assistant professor in the Department of Music at the University of Chicago. She is an ethnomusicologist whose interests include tempo and aesthetics, coloniality, decolonization, and race/gender and respectability. As a Caribbeanist, her research focuses on issues within Caribbean theory pertaining to small islands-nations such as representation and invisibility, vulnerability, and sovereignty.


Dr. Baker holds a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology from the University of Pennsylvania and a B.M. in Vocal Performance from Bucknell University. Prior to her faculty appointment at Chicago, she was the 2015-16 postdoctoral fellow in Critical Caribbean Studies at Rutgers University.

Provided.

A lot of your research, especially as an ethnographer, necessitates travel. Do you feel like Covid has hindered the work you'll be able to do in the future? Are there any projects that you've had to put on pause since you're not able to complete the physical field work?


No, not at this particular moment.

“what does time change in ethnography?” and “what does it mean to represent a community when their circumstances have changed so significantly since the time of research?”

I'm currently writing a book about music in St. Kitts and Nevis. As an ethnographer, you're always confronted with the idea that the place is now different from how it was when you were last there. Everything's different, that's just how time works. But I think COVID has changed things so significantly. More than stopping my research, it's forcing me to really grapple with questions like: “what does time change in ethnography?” and “what does it mean to represent a community when their circumstances have changed so significantly since the time of research?”


Do you know how the local people in St. Kitts and Nevis feel about the borders opening soon?


I actually don't know. There was a lockdown for quite some time. And I know, people felt like it was a little bit of an overkill. I don't think there were any cases at one point, then there were two cases. I don't know how many it got up to. But, it's a very small, small place. So I think people were not loving the idea of lockdown. People just didn't like the idea of being controlled in that way. I don't know what the general consensus is on opening the borders.


But I have to imagine just like any place that there's a spectrum of responses, and that there are some people who are really prioritizing their ability to make money to feed their families and others who recognize how vulnerable they are on a small, Eastern Caribbean island. If there were to be an outbreak of COVID, it would be really disastrous.

There's been sort of a division, particularly for diasporic groups in the United States, who, for whatever reason, want to imagine themselves as a different kind of Black.

I know a little bit about some other countries in the Caribbean and their Black Lives Matter movements and protests. Have you seen a lot of that in St. Kitts and Nevis?


I think there are small protests happening. In digital spaces like social media, a lot of people are posting just long, long diatribes about their experiences of race. And there’s definitely a lot of discourse on Facebook around how Caribbean people have at some point really thought of themselves as distinct from African Americans. There's been sort of a division, particularly for diasporic groups in the United States, who, for whatever reason, want to imagine themselves as a different kind of Black. And just recognizing now that that isn't a real thing.

Solidarity across all of these national boundaries is an absolute necessity.

When we're talking about systemic racism, when we're talking about the propensity for being stopped by the police, or being mistreated in a healthcare situation, these sorts of differences between blacknesses don't actually make that much of a difference. Solidarity across all of these national boundaries is an absolute necessity. We can look back at the 1960s, or at least post World War Two, at this moment when there is a transnational, anti-colonial movement. At that moment we hadAfrican, Caribbean, European and U.S. activists and intellectual leaders thinking of themselves as a connected group of Black people who are working against the same powers. I do think there are people in St. Kitts and Nevis who want to reignite that pan-Black imagination and move forward together.


Like you said, some people who are a part of this diaspora want to be "a different kind" of Black person, where at the end of the day, it might not matter if they're in a situation where they're going to be judged on the color of their skin. I've definitely seen a lot of Afro-Latinx people speaking out against this colorism and wanting to join the anti-racist movement. But I've also seen a lot of the opposite. And I was wondering if you've seen the same thing in the States, and if you're generally hopeful or not so much.


I'm hopeful for a younger generation of Afro-Caribbean people more broadly. I don't know that I'm hopeful in the grand scheme of things... Not to sound, you know, too pessimistic. Because I don't know what the big movement will be.


But I do know that on an individual, interpersonal level, there are more conversations happening about colorism in particular families. There's a lot of discourse online. I don't really know if these conversations are happening in real life. But I think people are willing to at least present themselves as having thought about these things, as having thought about straightening their hair as something that they don't have to do, having thought about not having nicknames for the one dark skinned person in the family, having thought about why all these historically dark-skinned figures have been represented by light-skinned women in film and how maybe it doesn't have to be that way.


I am hopeful that the different nuanced conversations that perhaps people weren't having before are happening at the individual level, at the very least.


Read part 2 here!