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Music Of Arab America Post 9/11 With Michael Figueroa

June 23, 2020 |

Music Professor Michael Figueroa talks about the music of Arab America as a key component to post-9/11 racial identity formation. Prof. Figueroa will serve as the facilitator of the IAH Faculty of Color and Indigenous Faculty Group in the academic year 2020-2021.



Philip Hollingsworth: Welcome to The Institute, a podcast on the lives and work of fellows and friends of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I’m Philip Hollingsworth. In this episode I speak with Assistant Professor of Music Michael Figueroa. In our conversation, Professor Figueroa discusses his current project on music and racial identity formation in Arab American communities post 9-11. So, Mike, thank you for joining me today and talking a little bit about your work. It’s a pleasure.

Mike Figueroa: Yeah, thank you for having me.

PH: So if you could to start out, could you just give us a snapshot of what you work on? As a music professor at the University of North Carolina?

MF: Yeah, well, most of my work examines the intersections of music, politics and religion in the Middle East region and its diasporic communities around the world, particularly in the US. And so my teaching at UNC tends to fall in those areas and broaden out from there. So I do a lot of the survey courses in like, Intro to World Music, and things like that. But I also teach more focused courses, on on the region or on aspects, theoretical aspects of that work. My research examines, like channels, this this broad interest in music, politics and religion into more focused projects. My first book, for example, which is now under contract with Oxford University Press, examines how musicians shaped basically, the territorial imaginary of Zionism across the 20th century, so looking at songs and musical discourse about the city of Jerusalem specifically, and that brings together a whole host of things, you know, theology, modern Hebrew literature, aesthetics, political ideology, and lots of other things. And then it’s all through using music as a point of entry.

PH: Can you define territorial imaginary?

MF: I should probably walk it back a little, because I think that, you know, Lacanian, scholars would contest myself imaginary when I’m not really talking about, you know, psycho analytic issues, but imagination might be better. Just how to help people… I look at geography in the way that you know, cultural geographers talk about it is not only Yes, like, space is, is material it is lived in, right? It is used, but it’s also conceived, right. And it’s also part of how people construct their worldviews and map their values onto space. And the slippage between these different, and there lots of different scholars that model these things with different kinds of phrasings and terms and different nuances. But in the end, what people imagined space to be and how they use it, or what they do with it. Like, intersects in really profound ways all over the world. And I took the opportunity to look at this in Jerusalem because is particularly conspicuous as a multicultural city that lies at the center of, you know, all monotheistic, imaginaries, essentially, right, there’s imaginary again.

PH: No, that’s okay.

MF: Yeah,

PH: [laughs] No problem. And could you give the audience can we talk a little bit about your current book project, what you’re working on right now?

MF: Yeah. So I’m, I’m shortly turning in the revisions to the first book, and I’ve already the last three years or so I’ve began a new research project, looking at something very different. It’s still bringing together music, politics and religion, but it’s closer to home in two ways. One is that it’s the field sites are in the US with the second is that it connects with my own personal biography and experience. And that is looking at race consciousness among Arab Americans in the post-9/11 world. And I look at how musicians are shaping that discourse here, through their through actual musical content, right, so people singing or rapping or or playing about these things, to how they’re talking about them outside of musical context to how musical events serve as sites for working out these ideas of identity and community through a specifically racialized lens.

PH: Yeah, so what were some of the artists that we’re talking about that you’re you’re looking at or the the music genres or or the events that you spoke of?

MF: Yeah. So some of the. Some more prominent, some of them are working more locally. And I sort of don’t distinguish between those at this point in my research. But, you know, as one example of someone who’s been to UNC and performed here a couple of years ago, Omar Offendum is one of my major contacts who is quite active in speaking on racial issues in music, and also using his platform through, you know, trying to mobilize his social media, fan base things like this. And two more… so I also by person, you know, I asked who the people are, many of them are musicians, many of them are people who may be musicians, but who are more active in the role as organizers, for example, the Yalla Punk Festival, and it’s an organization in Philadelphia, and they put on an annual festival. And that’s been a really important field site. For me, I make a sort of a pilgrimage there each fall, to attend the facilities and to have conversations with people including the organizer, organizers, but also the the participants. And, and I’ve met a lot of musicians who I’ve developed relationships with, through attending those kinds of events, right, and so like our, you know, Yalla Punk, sort of catalyze these relationships with, with musicians, who I now carry on the conversations with, you know, long after the sort of the sounds stop reverberating around Johnny Brenda’s, which is the venue in Philadelphia, which has always held and, and our relationships have developed from there. So it’s really, it’s a multi-sided, multi-dimensional project in that way.

PH: So if you’re going to these sites, like where you’re studying and interviewing these musicians are, is there are there certain, I guess, geographic hotspots or certain locations that you’ve had to kind of concentrate in? Or is it all over the nation? And are there challenges? And in finding these geographies? Are these the spots where you can access the music, the musicians and find these local local organizers and musicians?

MF: Yeah, that’s, that’s a really great question. It is a trans local phenomenon. Although, you know, the fact is that the vast majority of Arab Americans live in concentrated in urban centers. Yeah, this is borne out in the in the demographic research to okay, I can confirm that. But it’s not just like a I like going to cities. Yeah, although I do. But Unsurprisingly, the biggest hotspots are the areas with the, you know, highest concentrations of Arabs in the US and, you know, Los Angeles and Southern California, more generally. The Detroit Dearborn area, Chicago has been a really important site, even though the numbers aren’t quite as high as LA or Detroit or, or New York, which is another place. Okay. And finally, Philadelphia. So. And, you know, I guess it may seem obvious to point this out, but I think in places where there are large concentrations and, and social and family networks of Arabs, there generally has been, and this is a preliminary finding. So you know, it’s not something I would publish just yet, but there has, there really seems to be a much stronger degree of, of race consciousness, of talking about oneself. In those terms, then there has been in areas like where my family, my Arab family’s from in Florida, where, you know, where we were sort of integrated into wider communities, with relationships with people, you know, across different racial divides, if you, if you will. Yeah. So, you know, the language of race seems more strongly resonant in, in these concentrated urban areas. That’s what I’m finding so far. But this could also be a temporal bias. Because, you know, I, I came up in, for example, Florida, I’m using anecdote rather than evidence now, but before 9-11, basically, and, and it’s not that that event is the only significant historical factor, but we have been racialized in very explicit terms. And this has been built into, you know, the structures of state violence and surveillance in that time, too. And so I think, you know, one of the hypotheses and I know humanities scholars majorly don’t work on hypothesis. But one of my hypotheses is that this the language of race has become more and more appealing and widespread among Arab Americans since 9-11, precisely because we have been racialized as people of color in more pronounced ways than we were before.

PH: So in your initial findings have you, is there anything, you know, despite this hypothesis that’s been a little bit surprising or outside of your expectations, as you start this research?

MF: So one of the things that’s been really, if not surprising, then at least exciting and affirming and meaningful is that there’s really a true diversity of perspective and experience among people who call themselves Arab Americans, or who are called Arab Americans. And people’s ideas about race and identity, are unsurprisingly, very much affected by, you know, their family migration histories, the places from which they migrated. So I guess you’d call that national origin, by religious identity and belief. I just gave a talk in London, right before COVID really took over our comments in it, it was it was starting to pick up there in the UK at that point, February, about a musician I’m working with who is Syrian American, who is Jewish. So his family comes from the long like the really deeply established Jewish community in Aleppo, in northern city in Syria. who have their own religious liturgy that’s very different from from other Jewish traditions, especially those that are sort of more strongly represented in the US from Ashkenazi traditions from across Central and Eastern Europe. And, you know, it led me into this into really interesting questions about whether, you know, whether Jews from the Middle East who now reside in the US are part of this group or not, or should be considered part of this group aspirationally, you know, in terms of building political alliances, or whether they are or want to be considered differently. And it brought in some of my research on Israeli Palestinian politics, because those affect how, you know, Jews and Muslims and Christians who share like, let’s say, a common Syrian ancestry may or may not agree with one another, or identify with one another. And so, yeah, that’s one example of someone who, who can legitimately like claim roots in the Arab world, and even Arab identity, even if they don’t always talk about it that way, and bring them into the conversation to complicate what might be an easy narrative of Arabs are oppressed by the post 9/11 surveillance regime by wars in the Middle East, and therefore, we’re all part of the same group, when in reality, we all experience these things in really complicated ways. So that raises the question, which I’m not prepared to sort of answer right now, of whether we constitute a singular collective identity that contains within it contradictions in diversity or whether, you know, a new kind of formulation is more intellectually and politically appropriate.

PH: Wow. Thank you. Thank you for that. I got a couple more questions, if that’s okay. First of all, I just want to talk a little bit about your focus in music and musicology. What inspired that, that I guess that avenue of your investigation or your your scholarly career?

MF: That’s a great question. Because a lot of these research questions I’ve been articulating could be studied from other perspectives, too, right? So personally, I personally invested in music as a career in musicology and ethnomusicology as a career because it’s the center of my life. I grew up in a musical household. My parents weren’t always you know, making music, but they were always listening to music. And it’s always just been part of how I interact with the world. It’s been the channel through which I’ve always been the way I sort of channeled the larger questions about life, you know, even as a kid before thinking about an academic career and all that kind of stuff. I thought about life in terms of interventions that musicians have made into those bigger issues. My first musical instrument ever, sitting behind me a drum set that I got when I played in middle school bands, and my dad is a lifelong guitarist, and so he — I eventually got into into performance really that way and I entered undergrad, intending to be a concert classical guitarist. But I quickly learned that I was much more interested in my other classes, my more traditional academic classes. And so when I discovered that ethnomusicology was a thing that existed, a way of manifesting this, like commitment to music, in, you know, studying culture, studying social relations, etc, right? I switched gears and threw myself into that completely. Right, I think, immediately, at the end of my first year of undergrad, and I never looked back. So yeah, it comes down to wanting to wanting to center music in my scholarly endeavors, but also to be sort of wantonly interdisciplinary, because it takes you to so many different places, you if you do it, right. And, and to build relations, I get to build relationships with scholars all over the institution also, because through my area studies connections through methodological commonalities, etc, etc. So, it puts me in the place where I feel I need to be to understand these issues from my perspective, which is, again, at its center, a musical perspective.

PH: Yeah. Okay, that’s great. And this is a, this is a question we ask most of our guests, what’s a book that changed your life?

MF: So this is a hard question to answer. Because I think, any real intellectual has had their life changed by books many times over. I’ll go with a recent example, which is the first sort of modern Arab American novel that I have read. Not the first Arab American novel, but one, the first one that I read, which is called Lebanese Blonde, by Joseph Geha, who is a really prominent Arab American writer who’s based in Toledo, Ohio. And it changed my life, in the sense that it was the first novelistic like cultural representation in a long time that I’ve identified with certainly on on lines of just the intimate parts of being Arab and American from, you know, really sort of poetic descriptions of eating certain foods in certain relatives’ houses to grappling with the, with the dissonances that arise when, you know, sort of like if you will, old world and new world kind of, like influences collide in terms in their embodied by certain people in the novel as well, to the way that he deals with romance and in, in sort of interracial or inter communal romance in the novel. So for me, you know, I’ve read other books that have been more dramatic, even, I hope he doesn’t listen to this, but even maybe more, you know, expertly written or are more, that are more literary and character for whatever that that might mean to different people. But for me, it just, it is hit in a way that really transformed my thinking about how writing, can articulate Arab American identity. And I hope that in my own research, I’ll be able to capture some of that magic in my own way, even in a very different medium of academic writing. Just the intimacies that are present really meant a lot to me, because it wasn’t about that the book wasn’t about on its face, Arab American identity and making a statement about it. It was about capturing this character’s experiences in a really beautiful way.

PH: Well, thank you for that. Thanks for sharing that. And also, thank you for your time. I really enjoyed the conversation.

MF: Yeah, same here. I hope everyone stays safe out there and stays focused on the things that matter to them.

PH: Yes. Check back at for the latest news on our Fellows and upcoming events at Hyde Hall. You can find all our episodes of the podcasts on our website as well as iTunes, SoundCloud and Spotify. Please like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at IAH_UNC.

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