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Literature Program, American Studies Program, Africana Studies Program, and Ethnomusicology Present

Monday, September 18, 2017

“Never Catch Me”: False Endings in Black Music from the Soul Era to the Present

RKC 103

Emily Lordi, Associate Professor of English
University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Often invoked but seldom defined, the word “soul” occupies a central yet slippery place in the African American cultural tradition. Is it a musical genre? A racial essence? A spiritual quality? I believe it is none of the above, exactly, but instead a story about black experience that we can read through generations of musical practice. In the late-1960s, soul emerged as a name for the social and aesthetic grace wrought from racialized pressure—what black people earned by surviving the historical and daily trials of white supremacy. One of the musical manifestations of this concept, I suggest, was the “false ending,” the practice of bringing a song to its close only to strike it back up for another chorus or two. This strategy structurally enacted—and, thanks to its evident roots in gospel music, helped to render sacred— soul’s message of black group resilience. 

After discussing false endings in the work of Mahalia Jackson, Aretha Franklin, and Marvin Gaye, I will suggest this device finds its contemporary counterpart in two recent music videos: Flying Lotus (and Kendrick Lamar)’s “Never Catch Me,” which begins with a false ending by staging the death and resurrection of two black children; and Beyoncé’s Lemonade, which likewise begins with a suicidal swan-dive that initiates the visual album’s healing journey. To trace this device through the Black Lives Matter era is to see how what scholars call “post-soul aesthetics” are in fact haunted by the “false ending” that is the supposed death of soul itself—and, more to the point, by the persistent need for the models soul offers for translating black loss into what theorist Fred Moten calls a “will to proceed” against intractable odds.

Emily Lordi is an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and the author of two books: Black Resonance: Iconic Women Singers and African American Literature (Rutgers UP, 2013) and Donny Hathaway Live (Bloomsbury 33⅓ series, 2016). She has published scholarly articles on topics ranging from literary modernism to Beyoncé, as well as works of cultural criticism in such venues as The Atlantic, Slate, The Root, the Fader, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. She is writing a book about soul.

For more information, call 845-758-7556, or e-mail ploffici@bard.edu.

Location: RKC 103