As a PhD Candidate in Ethnomusicology at The University of Pittsburgh, my research interests include African American popular music, women in music history, music and media industry politics, and collecting, curating and archival practices. Using an interdisciplinary approach, my work draws on Cultural Studies, Feminsit Theory, Critical Race Theory and Media Studies. Through the primary method of ethnography, I seek to engage in work that does not simply make knowledge about communities, but rather makes knowledge with communities. I am currently the recipient of the Andrew Mellon Fellowship for the 2018/19 school year.
Gospel Mime: My Master’s Thesis, “Gospel Mime: Anointed Ministry, Afrocentrism, and Gender in Black Gospel Performance,” examined the unique praise and worship practice within the African American Church community that combines popular gospel music with the theatrical medium of miming. One of the most recent forms of praise song and dance to emerge in Black congregations nation-wide, Gospel Mime was formally introduced into worship services in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the early 1990s. Whereas traditional gospel performances are structured around live vocal and instrumental performances, Gospel Mime blends non-verbal communication with pre-recorded gospel music. As a ministry, Gospel Mime expands the line of liturgical song and dance, which has been an important part of Black Christian worship services since the 1970s, and has sparked debate about the role of dance and the body in worship practices. This thesis seeks to historicize Black gospel performance within the framework of an African American music continuum in order to locate Gospel Mime as a nationally mediated and popularized circuit of Black expressive culture that produces meaning—both celebrated and contested—about race, religion, and gender. By investigating the history, social meanings, and embodied practices of Gospel Mime as an innovative outlet for creative spiritual expression rooted in traditional gospel practice, this thesis analyzes Gospel Mime as a set of aesthetic values and practices that articulate African American identities through sound and gesture. Based on research conducted during 2015 and 2016 with Bethlehem Baptist Church, in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, along with a self-identified “rogue” Gospel Mime who no longer performs in the church, this thesis serves to investigate two contrasting styles, or paradigms, of Gospel Mime: the mainstream style of anointed ministry, as it is understood and popularized within the Black church, and an alternative style that reinterprets the practice and actively acknowledges mainstream Gospel Mime as patriarchal and monolithic. By examining the performative and pedagogical ways in which the art form of Gospel Mime reappropriates entertainment outside of the African American music continuum and infuses it with innovative religious and spiritual expression, this thesis serves to highlight the social significance of Gospel Mime in the Black community.
Betty Davis: For the last five years I have been researching, writing and teaching about hybrid funk singer (and now feminist icon) Betty Davis. In 2007, the raw-throated and unapologetically aggressive music of Betty Davis was reissued on Seattle’s Light In The Attic Records to a wave of critical acclaim. The re-release of Davis’ studio albums cemented the “cult” status of the singer who was once ridiculed and even boycotted for her sexually dominant lyrics and physically suggestive live performances. Though widely acknowledged by critics as being “ahead of her time,” Davis’ newfound popularity ironically came well after her time on the stage, when the retired singer was then in her early sixties. Through my research and ethnography on/with Betty, I became Associate Producer of Betty - They Say I'm Different (Native Voice Films, 2017), a feature-length documentary about the life and disappearance of the once ridiculed and shamed industry pioneer. On top of conducting scholarly research on Betty and helping to produce the film, I have been very active in producing and promoting premier events, such as panels and symposiums on women in media/music industry, DJ dance parties, and helping to reunite Betty’s backing band, Funk House, with local vocalists for the first time in over forty years.
Reissue Record Culture: My current doctoral research stems directly from my work with Betty Davis. Davis’s recent popularity signals not only a marked shift in the musical taste of certain audiences, it points to the important role that independent, reissue record labels now play in reconfiguring both the accepted and expected boundaries of musical genres like soul, as well as the manner in which artists are valued. It is part of a process of reclaiming and extolling the voices and bodies of performers that were often silenced or shamed within both the music industry and the culture during the heyday of soul. Davis marks an important dialectic between the past and the present that is mediated through independent record labels and a set of related cultural practices tied to vinyl record collecting, curating, and archiving. Collectively, these practices not only preserve soul music’s heritage and its material history, they are also being mobilized to re-package soul and curate alternative discourses about soul’s cultural significance. Some of the key research questions I am interested in is why certain voices, bodies, and careers were suppressed, and why are they now experiencing reissue today? In what kinds of ways were the sexuality, politics, and bodies of women singers promoted or constrained within the contours of racially coded genres of music? How did the music industry alienate women artists who did not fit in the racialized genre and market niche of certain genres, such as soul and funk? How do women singers get remembered and curated via the present cultural production of reissue record labels, documentary film, and other mixed-media archival practices? Central to these issues of transmission and cultural memory is the concern of whether these women singers have a “voice” in the production of any of the current cultural artifacts? How much agency do artists have in this revaluing process? How is the reissued record, as a cultural artifact, created and valued? Why is record collecting a male dominated field? How does that gendered practice get translated into the curation process? Finally, how do reissues, documentary films, and other mixed-media archival practices act as cultural artifacts that enable present day audiences to access the past and, in the process, reconstruct meaning and value in the present?