Part 2 of Caribbean Music in the Covid Era, Interview with Jessica Swanston Baker, P.h.D.

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 two 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.

We last left off with a discussion about Dr. Jessica Swanson Baker's research and her work in ethnomusicology, specifically in the Caribbean. We also talked with Dr. Baker about the future of anti-racist activism and what direction people in the Caribbean were going.


You can't really expect everyone to be on the same point in this conversation at the same time. Especially because not everyone has had to think about these things while others have had to forever.


Of course! I think the nationalist discourses always shape the way that we think about race. In places where nationalism is based on the idea that we're all equal, race doesn't matter here, there’s going to be a discourse different from that of the United States. As someone born and raised in the United States, but with family all over the world, and as someone who studies Caribbean people, I have to be aware of my American bias. This American exceptionalism that says I'm interested in taking the way that I think about race, the way that I grew up thinking about race, and applying it to these other places with their own histories of race. That's also something that I think is important to consider in these broad conversations.

If you're using an American racial lens to think about blackness in France, for example, then I think you're missing some of the crucial dynamics that shape the relationship between Blackness and citizenship in France.

I can imagine that it must be difficult to check yourself sometimes. But do you think that there's ever some value in trying to apply this American way of thinking about race or not so much?


Maybe. I think that thinking about things through various lenses has its benefits, as long as you're aware of the fact that you've sort of transposed something that has a really different historical and social context and put it to a different use. I wouldn't say that it's inherently bad. I think what is bad is when you're not aware of the fact that there are other ways of thinking about it. If you're using an American racial lens to think about blackness in France, for example, then I think you're missing some of the crucial dynamics that shape the relationship between Blackness and citizenship in France.

...so to use the same interrogative frame from one place and apply it to the other is to already assume something. It could be useful, or it could lead to missing a lot of what’s actually important.

Relating to looking at race through different cultural or national contexts, recently there's been a lot of controversy surrounding Charlie Hebdo and its political cartoons. From my perspective as an American, the most controversial cartoons are blatantly offensive and xenophobic. And in speaking to French friends and reading French comment sections, I realized how the strong value of secularism and the ban of race data made the line between free speech and hate speech so difficult to draw for some. It's difficult to think about whether or not we can really be quick to criticize race relations in different cultural contexts in the same way as we would in the US. It's different everywhere, right?


I think you just have to think about it in its context. And that doesn't mean a national context is the only context, right? I'm from New York, and when I think about Blackness and Black citizenship in New York, there's always kind of like a Caribbean bend to it. A lot of folks are immigrants from the Caribbean and a lot of what it means to be a Black New Yorker is to be familiar with Caribbean phrases, foods, cultural products. That's not really the case here in Chicago. To think about Black culture, Black music, Black food, Blackness, Black citizenship in Chicago vs. NY is really different. And so to use the same interrogative frame from one place and apply it to the other is to already assume something. It could be useful, or it could lead to missing a lot of what’s actually important.

...thinking about these Caribbean music festivals as a place to interrogate Blackness as a kind of currency within the Caribbean, and within the history of tourism in the Caribbean.

I saw that you've written about the St. Kitts Music Festival. And I was wondering if you could tell us more about that. Have these topics come up in that work?


The article that I wrote on the music festival was thinking about these Caribbean music festivals as a place to interrogate Blackness as a kind of currency within the Caribbean, and within the history of tourism in the Caribbean. A lot of people in the Caribbean diaspora can reimagine themselves as tourists by going home and going to the music festivals that promote this kind of cosmopolitan, modern, conspicuous consumption. Like there's VIP, you can get a pedicure, and there's gonna be a gift bag with a bath bomb in it! Which is really different from the other things that happened on the island during different times of the year, where it's about going home and having the soup that you would have had as a child, and seeing your granny. It's really about also interrogating the idea of the insider and the outsider or the local versus the tourist. There's a lot of literature about tourism, especially music tourism, that kind of demarcates those groups as solid. Either you're from there or you're not. Music festivals are great events for interrogating those categories.


Do you think that you see the music tourism industry changing right now as a result of Covid? And do you think that there will be a lasting change in the coming years for how these festivals will look, particularly in the Caribbean?


I think that's a conversation that people are having. I follow a bunch of music festivals and different party-like Instagrams. And they're all just crowdsourcing, like, would you guys come to a party where you have to be in a glass box? And people are like, no.... But that is so antithetical to a Caribbean party, so antithetical to Carnival, where you spend most of your time pressed up against as many people as possible.


I saw that you focus on representation and visibility/invisibility. So that kind of got me thinking that as things start to move online, how does that affect our visibility? We’re not actually being seen. We're being seen through a screen or not at all.


That's more sort of an existential question for me. I don't know if you feel the same way, but the pandemic has made me question who we are in real life. There has to be parts of us that just can't come across on Zoom.

If nothing is the same after this, then we cannot just piece it back together to be what it was before. But who knows?

It's a shame that the peak of the protests this summer coincided with this time where everyone's online. It makes it difficult to gauge what's really happening. I think it’s easy for a lot of people to become detached; even if you want to be having these conversations in person, you might not be able to. We can’t know the scope of the impact (or lack thereof) being made.


Yeah, it's a very, very unprecedented and unusual moment in many ways. I’m thinking of one thing my husband says which is, “we can’t waste this time”. If nothing is the same after this, then we cannot just piece it back together to be what it was before. But who knows?