Speaking poetry as embodied empathy and as social justice.

In the wake of the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, many of us have been left feeling helpless and hopeless– small and ineffectual against an overwhelming and oppressive system. Living in Seoul and seeing the events in my country unfold across Facebook and Twitter, I have felt especially isolated. To be clear, in no way am I seeking to equate my feelings with the violent and fearful experiences of my Black brothers and sisters or with the grief and rage of the families of these fallen young people; my frustration and anger are in solidarity with them.

After the Zimmerman acquittal, I came across the poem (above) titled “Father” by Matthew Kelty. I knew that I wanted to work on this poem and do a reading of it. Poems are meant to be spoken and heard, not only read silently to ourselves. Like esteemed verse reader Betty Mulcahy believed, enjoying poetry by looking at words is not unlike trying to appreciate music by looking at a score. As a voice and text coach, I teach people to experience words in their entire bodies, to allow full and free breaths in, and to be physically open to the powerful images such words create. Kristin Linklater writes,

“When words are mainly experienced in the head and the mouth they convey cerebral meaning … By indulging sensory, sensual, emotional and physical responses to vowels and consonants – the component parts of words – we begin to resurrect the life of language.”

What does teaching others how to speak poetry have to do with social justice? Having engaged with many people in a myriad of contexts about identity, race, oppression, White privilege, and hegemony, I have come to realize that intellectual debate (a somewhat Western idea in the first place) has its limitations when it comes to making social progress as a community. This is because oppression is, by nature, irrational. Debate, statistics, and logistics all have their valuable place when it comes to dialoguing about things like racism. I am an academic; I love these things. I love catching people in logical fallacies, I love finding a fact that flies in the face of some broad stroke, and I love seeing the impact I’ve had on others through calm and diplomatic reasoning. I just don’t think this is enough. Because I am not just an academic; I am an artist and a performer. Richard Shusterman writes that “rational arguments for multi-cultural tolerance always seem to fail … because the hatred is acquired not by rational means but by the captivating aesthetic power of images” – images from our TV, laptop, phones, movie screens. If this is true, then perhaps we can create movement from the other direction.

I believe the gap that keeps oppressed people silent and privileged people from listening is about empathy. I do not mean this as a platitude. I am talking about real, embodied, feel-it-in-your-bones-and-under-your-skin-and-through-your-breath empathy. David Granger has written a fantastic article about teaching and oppression called Somaesthetics and Racism: Toward an Embodied Pedagogy of Difference (2010), arguing that “…culture, with its complex of symbol systems, ideals, values, beliefs, and customs, has its roots in the lived body” (my emphasis). Therefore, just talking rationally about oppression is not sufficient for progress. We perpetuate unjust systems because of something deeper in us, our breath and chest tightening when we get defensive, our tension in our shoulders deepening when we see a Black male on the street, our jaw clenching when privilege is mentioned.

When we teach people to embody the images that spring up from powerful speeches, poetry or other types of text, we are seeking to breathe the way that speaker breathed, see what they saw, and feel what they felt. This is beyond rationalizing and intellectualizing. It is empathy and understanding in a physical sense, a gut sense, and a heart sense.

Kelty’s poem is well-written and powerful. He clearly uses the length of lines and punctuation to indicate to us how he imagined Trayvon Martin’s father’s breath patterns to be. He gives us long vowels to express his grief and sharp plosive sounds to convey scathing anger and energy. I have never known what it feels like to lose my own child or to have a Black body in a dominant White culture. But speaking this poem and honoring its soundscape and rhythms opens my body towards a greater capacity for connecting to Trayvon’s father’s pain. His stark images, his rage and grief, and his building breathlessness all create a physical experience in my body as I speak Kelty’s words. Therefore, I am able to feel a greater connectivity to others who have suffered from similar injustices and to my own pain for being a woman of color who has experienced oppression as well.

I am grateful and inspired by movements such as #BlackPoetsSpeakOut and I am honored they gave me their blessing to tag this piece.  There is a reason this movement started and that millions are physically gathering together in the US to show solidarity. It is because being with other bodies and allowing our voices to be a live, resonant chorus moves us in powerful ways.Black lives matter. Greatly. Until more of us get beyond only intellectualizing that and truly feel a sense of shared humanity in our bones and our breath, I fear we will continue to struggle.

“Someone complimented me on my English last summer. This was my response.”

This is a new performance piece I wrote for the VASTA Cabaret in London this summer at my alma mater, the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. I workshopped it at Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts School and Camp, which I am quite proud to say that I am now summer faculty there, teaching Voice and Speech.

This piece has lived in me for over a year now, as the actual incident that opens the performance happened during the summer of 2013 in Brooklyn. I felt like it was important to highlight the idea that oppression does not come in only explicit, hateful forms but from the educated and millennial peers that I hang out and work with in my progressive circles.

When microaggressions happen, I don’t always want to confront the person and give them some diatribe about social justice; sometimes, I just want to drink my fucking cocktail. Storytelling and performance allow me to express all the things I think and feel in that moment when I was made to feel small. And hopefully, I can share it with more people this way and they will be more open to seeing their own complicity in these structures because performance leads to a type of distanced perspective that gives us more space to reflect.

A number of people have asked me what my process is for creating this type of work. For this piece in particular, I allowed it to sit in me for many months, not putting anything on paper. A month or so before Perry-Mansfield, I made a basic Mind Map of major milestones that I wanted to cover. Then I began to look up songs and lyrics to see how I could weave them into my stories.

After over a year of blogging about voice and identity and culture and social justice and theatre, it is wonderful to create something that is exactly the thing I’d find online and want to post about anyway. I’m grateful to my Hofstra, Seoul, Perry-Mansfield, and VASTA families for all their support through this process.

“Our voices have been silenced. And it’s not doing us any good.”

A brilliant and moving TEDx talk by Australian singer and social entrepreneur, Tania de Jong AM on how voice makes us healthier, happier, and connects us as a community.

This is a perfect video to watch today, which is World Voice Day! Tania says,

The neuroscience of singing shows that when we sing, our neurotransmitters connect in new and different ways. firing up the right temporal lobe of our brain, releasing endorphins, that make us smarter, healthier, happier, and more creative. And you know what’s really great about this? When we do this with other people, the effects are amplified.

See guys, this is what voice coaches have known for ages. When you sing or speak, free of judgment, you feel good. You feel connected to others and alive and empowered.

Last week, a friend called me on Skype. She’s been going through some tough stuff lately, and it all seemed to be catching up with her in an intense way. I listened. There wasn’t a lot of constructive advice for me to give, really. She just needed to be heard. She told me that she did some yelling and screaming in anger, which is a really good release, but I thought, perhaps she’ll feel better if we sing together. So we did, via Skype, sitting on two very different continents. She felt better, I felt better. We did something beyond rationalizing or neurotic analyzing. We just breathed and vibrated.

As an adoptee living in Seoul and working in social justice, I believe this type of work can heal trauma but also be just as radical and effective as a type of activism as protests or petitions (watch the video in full to see how singing together has enabled and affected concrete social change). There is space for all these types of activism and they all serve unique and vital functions. As Tania says, we need to step out of all our boxes. And that includes oppressive identity boxes as well. We need to breathe and resonate together and enjoy the time we can be in our bodies with others in safe and creative spaces.

I will be teaching my first voice and empowerment workshop specifically for Korean adoptees here in Seoul in May and my first workshop for women in NYC in June (details to come!). This is the way I am choosing to engage and enrich the lives of others. This is the way I choose to use my gifts and teaching and time to be an activist. And it is amazing.

Happy World Voice Day, everyone. I am so happy and grateful to be doing what I’m doing and to be supporting others in finding their voices onstage and off, in our classrooms, in our society, for ourselves.

 

Black vocal cadence: when our tone can mean life or death

The deaths of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis (do I need to say there have been many more?) has prompted some important discussion about the way we view these young men in public spaces and how we interpret the way they speak. John McWhorter recently examined the Black male vocal cadence in an article at The Root, in a piece titled, “Do White Folks Fear Violence When Black Folks Are Just Being Blunt?”

He writes,

“Yet in an honest, and perhaps more productive, discussion of this topic, we have to allow something uncomfortable— the possibility that language plays a part in the stereotype. To whites, I highly suspect that often, black boys and men have a way of sounding violent.”

And I would add to this: the stereotypes of Black women being thought of as confrontational, aggressive, loud, and angry. I experienced this directly during my undergraduate degree on Long Island. I was on a Peer Counselor team for a few of the summers. PCs were in charge of the incoming students during their 3-day overnight orientation for the school. It was the first time I was ever put on a staff that was roughly half Black and half White. The first year I did the job, it didn’t take very long for racial tensions to begin. The White women were complaining that the Black team members were too loud and aggressive during the staff meetings and they found it intimidating. The Black women responded with frustration and resistance as they were “just talking how they normally do and didn’t mean anything personal by it.” But others were interpreting it differently and taking offense. Despite the tensions, the upper management did a fairly decent job forcing us to talk this out openly and come to level of understanding that allowed us to work together and forge friendship with each other for the rest of the summer. But that experience taught me a valuable lesson about tone, communication signals, and assumption.

McWhorter writes,

“However, if outsiders hearing it don’t get the joke and wonder whether black people, especially boys, are feisty souls, then the problem is less racism than an intercultural misinterpretation.”

As someone who teaches accents, dialects, and EFL pronunciation, I try to engage my students and clients with this idea of intercultural misinterpretation. I talk about the prejudice of our listening and try to make explicit how our communication is heavy with cultural signals. To an American, Mandarin speakers can sound angry, British people sound posh, Eastern European speakers can sound serious. We make judgements based on people’s vocal tone all the time. I liken our use of language and tone as a type of computer program or a genre of music. When another person hits the notes or code in a different way, we misinterpret the emotional state, personality and/or intentions of the listener. If you add in a healthy dose of privilege, hegemony, and Standard Language Ideology, now you have a sense that an interpretation of how someone speaks is right or wrong, correct or incorrect, appropriate or inappropriate. Suddenly there is an authority, whether it is the justice system, teachers, businesses, or the media.

But perhaps more importantly, we need to share and teach this idea to those from a dominant White culture, so they can critically reflect a bit more about language, tone, and identity instead of interpreting things through their own privileged experience and lens.

When we work with the voices of actors of color or those from a pluralistic background, we must bear all of this in mind as educators. Hegemony and the privilege of our own interpretation do not stop at the door of our classrooms and rehearsal studios. And in trying to find our students’ “true” voices, we must acknowledge that this navigation may be complicated given the socio-political dynamics between classmates and faculty. And we must acknowledge that we may not always like what their “true” voice sounds like and are potentially prone to misinterpret it culturally.

Lastly, sometimes People of Color ARE actually angry. And that is totally okay too. Considering the severe inequity in our country, there is a lot to be upset about. McWhorter points out that “for a people whose history has been so confrontational, maybe it isn’t surprising that their speech reflects it.”

“Isn’t it sad that I can’t use my real voice with White people?”

Someone asked me recently what strategies I propose or support in encouraging effective and progressive engagement about race and identity. One such way I often respond with is different types of comedy and performance. Some of the most interesting cultural criticism and reflection can come from comedians, particularly comedians of color or from pluralistic backgrounds like Aziz Ansari, W. Kamau Bell, Wanda Sykes, Margaret Cho, Hannibal Buress, etc (although it should never be a PoC’s responsibility to discuss or educate others about these issues and people like Louis CK are doing a great job talking about Whiteness).

Aamer Rahman is a stand-up comic of Bangladeshi descent who spent much of his life in Australia and a lot of his material deals with identity, race, and White privilege. I first heard of him through this brilliant bit debunking the myth of reverse racism, which is I think still one of the most concise ways of commenting on this idea thus far.

Rahman has another bit from his show, Fear of a Brown Planet, where he talks about what workshops he wants to create for White people. As a voice teacher, this part struck a particular chord.

You know, we actually have speak differently, to White women? If I’m in a bank or any kinda of job interview, any kind of professional setting, I have speak differently, to a White woman, just so she doesn’t get scared. I have to smile more, I have to appear less threatening. I don’t pull out a knife or a gun, suddenly I actually have to make my voice higher, this is not even my real voice, this is my White voice. Isn’t that sad I can’t use my real voice with White people?

I think a lot of PoCs have a “White people voice.” It can vary depending on our background. Women in general can often change their resonance or pitch to be taken more seriously by men as well. My “White people voice” is actually louder and more forceful and masculine to convince White people that I’m not a passive, subservient geisha-type of Asian person. I believe that as a result, accessing a more vulnerable-sounding head, face, and mouth resonance has been most challenging for me in my personal voicework journey and that I tend to push or create unnecessary tension in my throat.

Rahman’s point here is important as many voice teachers in the US/UK/Australia, etc still are nice White ladies. And acting students of color are often trying to assimilate and code-switch in order to successfully navigate the socio-cultural constructs that still continue to play out in our education systems. Given the goals of many voice teachers to free the voice and make it a reflection of who a person truly is, I would say that we must be aware of the power relationship our own identities create and how they impact our students, no matter how caring and well-meaning we may be. And this is not to say, of course, that ALL PoCs have a “White people voice” or that people from White, monocultural backgrounds don’t have socially induced vocal hang-ups. But I think what Rahman’s talking about is a very real phenomenon and we should be dialoguing and reflecting about it more.

“What the pill provides is an opportunity…”

This NPR story caught my attention for obvious reasons – I’m a voice teacher and of course I’m interested in the idea of learning perfect pitch as an adult. I’m also a bit paranoid after the person I happen to live with keeps talking about how robots will be taking all of our jobs. I see things like this and I’m worried that even voice teaching will be left to the Cylons in our near future.

But as usual, this sort of thing is deliciously complicated. The drug discussed is Valproic Acid, which is used as a mood stabilizing drug. This study, led by Takao Hensch, was investigating its effects on the plasticity of the human brain. It seems as if the subjects were able to learn perfect, or absolute pitch, which opens up a lot of possibility for all types of skill acquisition, particularly language learning. Perfect pitch is generally a skill thought to only be learned quite early in life.

The part that was most intriguing though was Hensch’s caveat in terms of our learned and performed identity:

I should caution that critical periods have evolved for a reason. And it is a process that one probably would not want to tamper with carelessly … If we’ve shaped our identities through development, through a critical period, and have matched our brain to the environment in which we were raised —acquiring language, culture, identity — then if we were to erase that by reopening the critical period, we run quite a risk as well.

It is fascinating to reflect on the idea of how and why we have shaped our identities through our development and environment and how the brain loses plasticity, a view of ourselves become much more fixed. I’ve noticed recently how many people like to cling to absolute narratives about themselves using words like “always,” “can’t” and “never” (ie: “I was never into singing” or “I always avoid confrontation”) and I wonder where and how do things become fixed in our sense of who we are. Culturally, this has interesting implications for those of us who grew up as part of diaspora or those who simply moved around a lot as children. What would happen to our identity and sense of who we are if we changed the plasticity of our brain in a different cultural context during adulthood?