Often in pop culture, media, and historical discourse, certain stories tend to be amplified and replicated on a grander scale than others. Orchestrated and told by a majority white male population, these stories set up canons of social expectations and behaviors and most of the time serve to display a narrow sample of human experiences. For this reason, my partner and I were intrigued to visit the Multicultural Center (MCC) at the University of California, Santa Barbara to embrace and amplify voices that are historically disenfranchised to speak. The MCC acts as both a theater and safe space for people of all identities, whether they are people of color, international, or LGBTQ+, to share their stories and projects with the campus community. The public space grants individuals opportunities to speak on issues of racism, homophobia, and sexism through panel discussions, film screenings, dance, poetry, and lectures in an intimate yet professional stage-setting. Particularly, my partner and I attended a poetry reading and film screening led by Evolve Benton, a black, queer writer, director, and racial justice educator. In attending this event, we not only gained insight on Evolve and other queer voices but also acknowledged the many aspects of sound, vocal mediation, and multivocal authenticity while addressing the speaker, audience, and atmosphere of this public space.
February 19, 2020 (6:00-7:30 PM), MCC Theater
Before I describe the elements of voice and performance affects, I would like to start by addressing I am aware of my subjective bias in denoting this sensory experience. However, the event was designed to be immersive, thus it is difficult to dilute subjectivity in delineating the voices heard. Some of the voices we heard included students in the audience, the announcer, Evolve themself, and multi-vocalists within the films. When my partner and I first arrived, we noticed how the space, though it included several rows of cushioned seats and a stage, was smaller and more intimate than other theaters we have been to. As we sat down, we listened as other students walked in. In particular, one group of three to four students were speaking excitedly with a rapid flow and sat closest to the stage, communicating their eagerness to see Evolve. Finally, a student announcer began to introduce Evolve. He used a microphone to mediate and amplify the volume of his voice. I got the sense he was slightly nervous as his voice had a shaky tonal quality and higher pitches. And yet, as Evolve made their way on stage, I noticed a distinct juxtaposition in their vocal quality. They spoke with a warm, round timbre and an inviting tone, addressing the audience with a “what’s up?” and a smile. Primarily, Evolve did not use a microphone, yet they projected their voice outward, accompanied by a slow and paced rhythm. It was clear they were comfortable and had experience performing their voice.
As they presented their poems, I was reminded of musicologist, Simon Frith’s concept in which the voice acts as a “musical instrument; as a body; as a person; and as a character,” adding that individuals put on a “vocal costume” of sorts that usually carry codes of gender and gender expression (Frith 187). Observing Evolve, I noticed how they emulated these ideas; using their body language as a mirror of their poetic themes against binary notions of gender, changing the volume and pitch of their voice to emphasize certain words to better visualize their character; repeating words with abrupt anaphora like an instrument of percussion; and ultimately reflecting their personality of confidence and resilience through a careful yet commanding tone. In addition, another important element of their poetry readings was the natural call-and-response interaction between the audience. As they spoke on racial injustice and transphobia, they appeared selective with their rhythm, allowing their voice to rise and fall in places where the audience could naturally respond with affirming “yeahs!” and snaps. The technical and emotional effects were similar to our lecture discussion of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Had a Dream” speech, in which he also utilized call-and-response methods to bring the audience into a shared dialogue (Tcharos, Lecture Notes, Feb. 10). These technical qualities grant an overall ‘affect’ of communal understanding and intimacy, giving all voices the chance to feel heard and empowered.
After their poetry readings, Evolve presented a few films that included clips of poetry readings and story-telling but in a more mediated, stylized, and digital platform. It was interesting to hear their live voice and conceive the roundness and careful rhythm of their stories and compare those elements with their mediated voice in videos. Specifically, the videos permitted Evolve to project their voice over powerful stills and clips of their experiences being a non-binary, genderqueer individual. There was a more theatrical and musicalized style to their digitally-mediated voice as they could layer their voice over itself and create a distinct and melodic crescendo toward the culmination of their poems. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the live performance more as I could see their facial expressions more plainly and better connect with their message and sentiment. There were also aspects of non-traditional voices in the films as the noises of wind and ruffling leaves sometimes overpowered the message they tried to convey. It was difficult at points to delve into their story when sounds of nature coincided with their own voice, drowning out their significance. On the other hand, in some scenes when Evolve filmed interviews of other queer voices, there were natural sounds of clicking and clips being rewound and edited; I think these sounds also acted as a non-traditional voice in displaying the raw, realness of the film and its content, providing a sense of a warm home-video of sorts. Overall, one of the most intriguing aspects of the event was the effort to provide a space for multiple queer people of color, within both the film and audience, to showcase their experiences with representation and vocal erasure in society.
February 20, 2020 (5:00-5:45 PM), MCC Theater
The next day my partner and I visited the MCC Theater again to listen to voices at a time when no event was occuring. The theater was barren, except for a student attentively listening to a podcast on politics. The room was more brightly lit, and it felt echoey almost as if we were sitting in a desolate cave. Leading into the theater, there were less people, and the overall rapid flow and anticipation we felt from the voices around us the previous day were entirely absent. The students were either on their phones not speaking or quietly completing work. Additionally, the intimacy and communal comfort attributed to the theater were of a lesser extent as the lively voices were substituted for more distant ones. We could hear some of the staff outside, in the room adjacent to the theater, talking about their days and seemingly stressed but friendly. Despite going at almost the same time of day, we felt the MCC took on a completely different tone as it lacked the excitement and inclusive atmosphere fit for a musicalized and powerful vocal experience.
Analysis and Conclusions:
Reflecting on the whole experience, I am astounded by the level of importance voices carry in creating individual identities and platforms to speak and bringing together multivocal forces of community. Particularly, in the film, one voice stood out to me as capturing the authenticity of vocal power. The queer individual communicated how there is a dire need for representation of LGBTQ+ voices in media and society. They spoke on how, for so long, they lacked the language to describe their experiences being queer, and when they finally could meet and see people like them, their collective voices brought a shared understanding and openness they would not have believed possible. I realized then that language, with an emphasis on expressing language, is a source of power and authenticity within itself. Sharing one’s voice is a privilege not always granted to all people and being able to find spaces to articulate one’s voice is an act of liberation and truth (Tcharos, Lecture Notes, Jan. 6). A group of trans individuals in the film also denoted the challenges of vocal expression in confronting peoples’ assumptions of their voices as many attempt to categorize their bodies and tonal qualities in terms of rigid gender binaries. Similar to Simon Frith, the group argues that recognizing one’s voice is truly recognizing a person’s humanity (Frith 195).
Despite the multitude of individuals sharing their own experiences both in the film and in the audience during the Q and A, the separate voices became a collective, multivocal unit. The space provided a sense of community in which genderqueer students could find agency and comfort when speaking due to the support they had for each other. It was refreshing to see that queer people of color in the audience were the ones actively speaking on their relative experiences, and gender-conforming students chose not to respond too much. It seemed there was a special status given to these queer students to express themselves, while other voices in proximity to them seemed de-prioritized. I think this power disparity in sharing voices existed, in part, to help give queer voices the time and space to personally relate and reflect on their familiarity with the speaker in ways non-queer individuals cannot. Hearing these voices so close to me, I was reminded of how precious voices are as vehicles of information and catalysts for community outreach. During the Q and A, Evolve highlighted this sentiment, mentioning how sharing their stories with students was a healing process as they began to recognize their voice as part of a larger context. They could finally encounter people who not only looked like them and experienced similar oppression but also sounded like them. Ultimately, I was moved by these stories, and I hope with greater accessibility to media, safe spaces, and public platforms, more individuals will have the opportunity to magnify their vocal precedence.
Frith, Simon. Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music. Harvard University Press, 1998.
Tcharos, Stehanie. Lecture Notes, Jan. 6, 2020; Feb. 10, 2020.