The Black Pacific: Music and Racialization in Papua New Guinea and Australia

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The Black Pacific: Music and Racialization in Papua New Guinea and Australia

Gabriel Solis

University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

I was black at school when it was not cool.

They said the color of my skin made me a fool.

I was into rap when you thought it was crap.

All good now, so you want to be black?

--Joel Wenitong, “Blackfellas”
I’d like to begin with two music videos: First, the song “Treaty,” an Australian Indigenous Roots classic by the Yolngu band Yothu Yindi. When they recorded the song in 1991 they gave it an arrangement with prominent funk bass and drums [Play]. Second, let me play the song “West Papua,” by Tolai singer from PNG’s New Britain, George Telek.. The song calls for an end to the Indonesian rule of the Western half of the Island of New Guinea—disputed territory that the Indonesian government considers integral to the historical nation and which the Indigenous there people see as a colony, and a somewhat brutally repressive one, at that. When Telek recorded this version in 2010 for a documentary on the struggle for Indigenous freedom, he drew heavily on a Reggae sound modeled on the music of Bob Marley and the Wailers [Play].

These two songs amount to high points in a proliferating field of black musical references in the work of Indigenous artists in the Southwestern Pacific. For the past few years I’ve been looking at the connection between music, blackness, and the anticolonial struggle for Indigenous rights in Papua New Guinea (PNG) and Australia, and I’ve come to see this connection as neither incidental nor insignificant. In fact, it is a crucial linkage in what Howard Winant calls the “trajectory of racial politics.” I combine ethnographic and historical research about music in the region showing local identifications with blackness as a racialized identity category is politically effective and serves as a way of recognizing and engaging the modern world system from an explicitly subaltern position. This is not, of course, the only example of black music—especially hip hop, but before that reggae and other forms—serving such a role; but it is one in which the racial logics and logistics are particularly interesting and which may shed light on the broader issue of musical racialization. Crucially, I want to draw attention in this study to the ongoing musical interactions in the Pacific between Indigenous peoples—Aborigines and Melanesians—and people of African descent. This is important, if only because both the general legacy of racialism and the more specific instance of disciplinary area specialization in ethnomusicology has served not only to highlight and elaborate a system of difference separating white Selves from a world of non-white Others, but also to establish categorical difference between those racially Othered peoples (Radano and Bohlman 2000, 4-5).

My argument here marks an otherwise largely unexplored element of the development of blackness and Indigeneity as part of modernity, and so before moving on to a closer examination of the music and its role in the process of racialization, it may be useful to suggest how I see this work in relation to two major areas of inquiry: African American and Diasporic studies, and Indigenous studies. Although I am moving beyond a strictly Diasporic model of transnational blackness, I recognize and build on the framework established by Paul Gilroy in The Black Atlantic (1993). Gilroy’s contribution was not just to focus black cultural studies on the African Diaspora (instead of narrowly on national or continental traditions); George Shepperson had done this as early as the 1970s, and in any case, as Dwayne E. Williams notes in “Rethinking the African Diaspora,” “Elements of the African Diaspora experience have been evident in the writings and efforts of most Black intellectuals since at least the eighteenth century” (1999: 118). Nor was Gilroy’s innovation to build a theory of black racial formation on music and literature; Sterling Stuckey had done something like this in Slave Culture (1987), as had Amiri Baraka, writing as LeRoi Jones, in a very different register in Blues People (1963), to name but two. His contributions, rather, were to combine a cultural study of the Diaspora that drew on a wide archive, especially reflecting the importance of music and other arts, with a focus on mechanisms of mobility and transport—key tropes in the narrative of modernity, and thereby to argue that racialization—and racism—itself is a key factor to understanding modernity at large. Gilroy may not be a maritime historian as such, but the figure of ships and the black people on them—as crew, as passengers, and most horribly as cargo—in his work offered a useful guiding figure in the conceptualization of blackness in a post-nationalist context.

This paper expands from the Atlantic—the ocean across which the African Diaspora most clearly came to be—to the Pacific, retaining an interest in peripatetic sailors (and soldiers) while also gauging the impact of the circulation of sound recordings within the ambit of a black Pacific. My key intervention is to understand better the ways racialized discourse and interactions between racialized peoples have played a critical role in the course of Indigenous Australian and Melanesian engagements with modernity, primarily in the twentieth century. Unsurprisingly, but perhaps not always recognized, the racialization of Indigenous people in the region is coterminous with modernity, dating in some sense to the earliest colonial voyages, marked by the coinage of the terms “Melanesia” (from the Greek, “black islands,” named for the appearance of its peoples), and New Guinea, named for its geographical and ethnologic resemblance to West Africa. It is also inscribed in the local pidgin language terms of self-identification, “Blekbala,” “Blakpela,” and “Blak Fella,” terms that emerged early in the lexicon through interactions between Indigenous peoples, missionaries, and the sailors who made up the primary social contact points between Westerners and Indigenous people in the Pacific.

Anthropological theories of Indigenous modernity in the Pacific have often seen the two halves of that phrase—“Indigenous” and “modernity”—as structural opposites, either looking at incursions of elements of the modern (commodity capitalism, for instance) into an otherwise autochthonous Indigenous context, or have looked at local transformations of modern cultural forms as producing “Other” modernities (Akin and Robbins 1999; Foster 1992; Muecke 2004; Stewart and Strathern 1998; 2005). Marshall Sahlins’s “Develop-man” figure is a key version of this latter kind of theory. He describes a situation in which one of the principle faces of modernity in the Pacific, NGO and governmental development, is transformed by local actors. The “Develop-man” is, then, a traditional Pacific bigman (a community leader who cements his place in the social hierarchy through redistributive largesse, rather than through heredity) who uses access to capital and transnational NGO resources to recapitulate an essentially Indigenous cultural system (2000 [1993]: 418-20).

In contrast, I draw on Indigenous articulations of racialized discourse to show the ways Indigenous peoples in the Southwestern Pacific have actively participated in the creation of modernity itself. Drawing on the work of Chickasaw scholar Jodi Byrd (2009) and Philip Deloria (2004), and on Anthony Giddens’s The Consequences of Modernity (1990), I propose that there are not multiple modernities, but rather multiple positions within the modern social formation. This work is in part an answer to Byrd’s call for reconceptualizing cultural studies of modernity to consider “Indigenous peoples on a world stage,” and focus on “the discrete moments and occasional discursive bumps…in which the Indigenous disrupts or otherwise radically transforms the stakes” (2009: 16). And it is in part a response to Deloria’s assertion that far from marginal to modernity, in fact, “the entire world of the modern belonged—and belongs—to Indian people, as much as it does to anyone else” (2004: 232). This is true not only for Indigenous North Americans, but for Indigenous peoples world-wide. My argument ultimately suggests that through creatively deploying racialized discourse, Indigenous peoples have recognized and enacted agency in relation to modernity as such. Not only does modernity belong to Indigenous peoples, but equally significantly, the histories of Indigenous peoples are, to be sure, part of modernity. There is no modernity without Indigenous peoples, and no accounting for two crucial elements of the modern—racialization and nationalism—without the inclusion of Indigeneity.

In order to explore these issues, I would like to turn to a more detailed elaboration of the place of black musics in the Southwestern Pacific. I will then contextualize these musico-racial identifications with some more general history of blackness in the region. To situate my argument about Indigenous musical blackness and socio-political agency in relation to ongoing debates about similar questions world-wide, I want to briefly address theories about music, political agency, and modernity from our own discipline, raising the issue of commodification and interrogating the role of corporate mass media and commodification in the circulation of racialized musics in the region. Finally, in conclusion I will return to the central questions that motivate this study: what are the implications for the analysis of modernity when identifications with blackness in the Southwestern Pacific are brought to the fore; and what are the implications for the study of racialization when extra-Diasporic black identities are added to the analytical framework?

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