Learning the Ropes from Double Dutch to Hip-Hop
By Matthew Somoroff
With a focus on the handclapping and rope-jumping games of young Black girls, Kyra Gaunt asks some provocative and original questions in her new book The Games Black Girls Play.
What if we entertained the possibility of considering handclapping games such as “Miss Mary Mack” and jump rope games like “Double Dutch” a form of black popular music? What if we not only considered these games popular music, but thought about how they have been sampled, borrowed and appropriated by commercial male artists in genres such as hip-hop?
What if, in considering the games of black girls, we considered how these games transmit and express notions about race and gender as mutually inclusive factors of African American identity formation not only through their musical sounds, but also through their physicality and embodied movement? What if we took “gender studies” in music to refer not just to the study of musicking by women, but an investigation of how men and women interact through and around music?
The very topic of Gaunt’s study allows her to consider these aspects of African American musical culture in tandem, while the majority of black music scholarship has considered them separately (or not at all), as Gaunt notes in her introduction.
It is to Gaunt’s credit that her book follows through on these questions, giving the reader an insight into the meaningfulness of “everyday” activities like the girls’ games, and showing how popular culture is made on the ground, albeit in continuous dialogue with mass-mediated music and culture.
Gaunt does not invoke the “popular” in popular music or culture in a facile way; another important issue she raises throughout her book is the potential mistake of viewing black girls’ games as an example of “folk culture” lying outside the realm of popular culture—such an assumption would reiterate a now largely-debunked view of the “folk” and the “popular” as existing within separate cultural spheres.
A particular strength of Gaunt’s text is the ethnographic dimension of her discussions. The reader is privy to the personal musical and cultural experiences of African American females of varying ages (including Gaunt herself).
We learn about the structure, both choreographic and musical, of handclapping games from close readings employing musical analysis and ethnographic description; through interviews, we are given a window into how certain informants make sense of their own musical histories—how women/girls see the games fitting into their lives, and what roles the games played in their idea of themselves as African American females (with the two halves of that identity being inseparable);
Gaunt recounts her own participation with the Double Dutch Divas, a New York City-based group of African American women who engage in various expressive activities including music-making, poetry and dance (in addition to playing double dutch), showing how these adult women use these activities as an empowering communal experience to recapture and recontextualize the play of their childhood. Gaunt’s openly subjective passion for her subject matter is readily apparent throughout in her often lively and warm prose, lending the book much of its strength and immediacy (and the occasional weakness, as I discuss below).
Gaunt’s book is deeply invested in what is means for music to “be black” and related questions of African American culture and identity. Often relying on the theories Paul Gilroy lays out in The Black Atlantic, in Chapter 2 Gaunt engages head on with a larger debate about racial identity, and negotiates between essentialist views of African American music (that assume universally inherent characteristics of all music made by African Americans) and anti-essentialist views that jettison the idea of any cultural or social characteristics that can be called “black.”
In her view, musical blackness is a culturally transmitted set of practices, communications, and traditions, where embodied language and orality (kinetic orality) play a significant role in the social construction and knowledge of being African American in a sphere of culture and identifications that is dominated by music. (38)
Gaunt is chiming in on an old, contentious and at times intellectually rich debate: why do we seem to know when something sounds “musically black,” and how can we identify the basis of that so-called knowledge? Coming up with a definitive answer to such a question would be nearly impossible, and perhaps ill advised.
Luckily Gaunt usually treads lightly around the issue and her definition of musical blackness as a learned social paradigm is sufficiently nuanced and pliable to sustain her investigations into the musical blackness of “Miss Mary Mack,” Double Dutch, et al. throughout the book.
That being said, Gaunt does at times let her poise with regard to musical blackness slip in places, revealing what could be called an ideology of “black music elitism.” When comparing two versions of a game—one performed in Ann Arbor, MI, the other in Denver, CO. Gaunt surmises that the Denver version “may reflect an adoption of Hispanic local practice or may parody it,” going on to claim that this version “seemed less sophisticated and less complex” and argues that the Ann Arbor version “emphasizes more of the ideals associated with musical blackness.”
While Gaunt’s belief in the existence of musical blackness is justifiable, I found her privileging of its merits over what she perceives as characteristics of other musical identities troubling. The scholar of music will surely have her personal musical preferences, and it is often informative for her to make her subjectivity plainly apparent in her work—but Gaunt’s hearing of the “blacker” Ann Arbor version as more sophisticated and complex is not grounds for (implicitly) viewing Hispanic or Hispanic-influenced music as less sophisticated and complex.
Another awkward moment occurs when Gaunt discusses how an interviewee learned to dance from watching American Bandstand in an era when the program showed primarily white dancers, thus “extract[ing] the black dance from what seemed like mediocre performances by most of the white dancers on the show.”
If the performances were mediocre because the dancers were white, then should the reader believe that African Americans are inherently better dancers? Imprudent statements like the two above,and there are a few others, undermine Gaunt’s thesis that musical blackness is a learned set of practices on two levels:
1. the statements postulate “natural rhythm” on the part of African Americans (the very type of racist, essentialist concept Gaunt passionately attempts to decry) and 2. such an ideology contradicts the “learned” dimension of musical blackness—if its practices are truly learned and socially transmitted, can they be fundamentally foreclosed to people on the basis of ethnicity?
Gaunt’s book contains several musical examples, not all of which are clearly explained or labeled. Of the four examples making up her Appendix, only one includes a key to help the reader understand the special symbols she has used to define different types of claps, slaps and rhythmic cycles.
To the reader literate in Western musical notation, these examples will probably be a source of both stimulation (for their close analytical engagement with musical process and structure) and irritation (due to the obscurity caused by lack of definition of the symbols). Thankfully, the arguments of Gaunt’s prose text hold together without the aid of these musical texts.
These misgivings about the book linger in my mind, but they are ultimately overshadowed by the merits of the information and theories Gaunt has to offer.
In its largely nuanced consideration of how music is racially or ethnically coded, and especially in its attention to how popular culture is constantly made by “everyday” people and its deep engagement with how the body plays an intrinsic role in musical practice and culture, The Games Black Girls Play is a worthwhile addition to the fields of ethnomusicology, African American studies, and popular music studies.
Matthew Somoroff is a PhD candidate at the department of Music, Duke University, Durham, NC, USA.
With thanks to Dr. Mark Anthony Neal of Duke University.
The Games Black Girls Play: Learning the Ropes from Double Dutch to Hip-Hop
By Kyra D. Gaunt
Paperback: 221 pages
Publisher: New York University Press (February 28, 2006)
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