In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Brittnay L. Proctor. Proctor received her PhD in African American Studies from Northwestern University and is a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Race and Media in the School of Media Studies at The New School. Her book is Minnie Riperton’s Come to My Garden.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Brittnay L. Proctor: I think Minnie Riperton’s Come to My Garden can help BAR readers understand the monumental change black American culture underwent between the late 1960s and the present moment. For example, those who came together to create and record Come to My Garden greatly benefited from the public funding of music and the arts in the U.S. Our current political and social climate couldn’t be further from this reality. Black youth (sub)cultures of our current moment were created in spite of this fact.
In this way, I hope readers are compelled to wrestle with the ways we take for granted just how much of the art and music we make we cannot make claims to, given the rise of globalization and transnational capital. I also hope my book helps readers to understand the importance of collaboration in creating black music. We make meaning out of music through the role of the singular artist and I argue that that is such an insufficient way to listen or to think about a work’s significance.
The album provides a purview into the importance of collaboration amongst young, mostly black folk in Chicago during late 1960s-1970s. Chicago was the epicenter of so many sounds created by these young people. Ideally, readers can think about the role of place has in current black music making cultures.
Overall, what implicitly animates the book is the idea that “Black culture” meant how we lived and survived in an antiblack world, not just the art/music we made. Our efforts transgress the world as it is our culture, not simply the objects (turned commodities) we make.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
Most activists and community organizers already know this, but I hope the book reiterates the idea that what you create and labor over matters and is valuable whether it is “successful” or “popular.” Changing our social order is not a linear process and often our efforts are felt far after the time of our labor and contributions.
I write in the beginning of Chapter 5, “Contemporary Resonances,”: “Come to My Garden’s presence is felt across space and time. Its polyphonic iterations gave artists the sonic blueprint for moving in and out of the terrains of American music. And because of that, Black popular artists and musicians have taken up the album as inspiration for deft and cunning transgressions in Black aesthetics and sound.” (Proctor 109) Surely, the young collaborators of Come to My Garden did not imagine how impactful their free and playful recording sessions would be.
I also hope that it encourages activists and community organizers to feel okay with sometimes choosing themselves over their work. What has stayed with me after writing this book is the fact that many of the collaborators continued to make music despite the album not being commercially successful. For instance, Minnie Riperton and Richard Rudolph chose themselves and their family over the whims of a fickle industry. They never stopped creating and imagining but decided to continue living and not chase the dictums of their former record label, GRT (formerly Chess Records).
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
The chief ideology I am hoping to dismantle in the book is that of “genre.” I hope readers unlearn the use of genre as a way of listening to black music and thinking about black gender subjectivity. Throughout the book I write about the limits of genre and its policing nature. For example, in chapter three, “Fusion Music, Black Musical Idiom, and the Law of Genre,” I write “genre has been used to administer the sonic color line across the globe…[it] makes sense of the auditory and vibrational world we live in and are subjected to.” (Proctor 77)
Which intellectuals and/or intellectual movements most inspire your work?
First and foremost, my family and our lived experiences will always and forever shape my thinking. More generally, I am inspired by black feminist and black arts intellectual movements across space and time. Ida B. Wells and Assata Shakur were formative intellectuals for me. For instance, Shakur’s philosophy of knowledge from her autobiography is what I hope to carry in much of my work: “we receive fragments of unrelated knowledge, and our education follows no logical format or pattern. It is exactly this kind of education that produces people who don’t have the ability to think for themselves and who are easily manipulated.” (Assata Shakur, Assata: An Autobiography, [Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books] 35.)
While an undergraduate at UC Riverside, scholars like Dylan Rodriguez and Jayna Brown saw things in me that I could never see in myself. From them I learned what it meant to be an academic intellectual.
These thinkers/intellectuals have deeply shaped how I write and research about black music. They have allowed me to deracinate the black music I write about from the purview of white music critics. Because of them I try to account for the myriad of forces that “touch” black music and black musicians. Because of them I do not write about music for its general application; I do not write as if it is our great equalizer.
Which two books published in the last five years would you recommend to BAR readers? How do you envision engaging these titles in your future work?
I do my best to not extract other people’s ideas for the sole benefit of my own but writing (in English and in the Western world) can sometimes be a trap for that. I try to read works in their entirety so I can get a better idea of their stakes, than reading to write. It makes some of my writing take so very long.
Over the past few years, I’ve mostly read to the end of writing my book. More recently, I’ve read primarily journal articles and works of creative non-fiction. Writers like Cecilio M. Cooper, Akwaeke Emezi, Brooklyn White-Grier, and Harmony Holiday. These writers and works are models for how I might write more intrepidly. In my mind, these authors say so plainly what is at stake for them in their writing.
Writing is a practice that is easily shaped by peer and societal pressure. It is so easy to write in a way that protects and insulates oneself from backlash. It is very easy to write in a way that maintains the status quo. But when your stakes are plain and those stakes center those who have been left for dead, you put yourself in a very vulnerable position by saying what you mean and meaning what you say.
Cecilio M. Cooper, “Fallen: Generation, Postlapsarian Verticality + the Black Chthonic” (2022), http://rhizomes.net/issue38/cooper/cooper.html
Akwaeke Emezi, Dear Senthuran: A Black Spirit Memoir (2021), https://www.akwaeke.com/dear-senthuran
Brooklyn White-Grier, “GloRilla, The Princess Of Crunk” (2022), https://www.essence.com/entertainment/glorilla-feature/
Harmony Holiday, Review of Dionne Brand’s Nomenclature: New and Collected Poems, (2022) https://4columns.org/holiday-harmony/nomenclature
Roberto Sirvent is editor of the Black Agenda Report Book Forum.