Friday, June 26, 2015

In 1971, a wedding heard 'round the world. #LoveWins

It is so ordered.

Today's momentous Unites States Supreme Court decision to strike all bans on same-sex marriage means a lot of things to a lot of people. For Michael McConnell and Jack Baker of Minneapolis, it is another historic landmark in a life full of historic landmarks. In 1971, McConnell and Baker became the first same-sex couple known to apply for a marriage license. Their first attempt, at Minneapolis's Hennepin County Courthouse, did not go through; their second, however, did.

Find a timeline of key events in their lives here; look for their memoir, The Wedding Heard 'Round the World: America's First Gay Marriage, in January 2016.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Catherine Madison: From the front lines of a Korean War prison camp, 65 years ago.

Sixty-five years ago, on June 25, 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea, initiating the Korean War. The U.S. and sixteen other nations joined forces to repel the invaders.

About three weeks later, in July 1950, a young captain in the U.S. Army Medical Corps was captured on the front lines and held in brutal prison camps for more than three years. "Doc" Boysen would survive unbelievable hardships, return home, and live for almost fifty more years.

This fall, the University of Minnesota Press is publishing his story as told by his daughter, the writer Catherine Madison. Here is an excerpt from her forthcoming book, The War Came Home with Him: A Daughter's Memoir.


SEOUL, KOREA—July 1950

More than two hundred men were quartered in a two-story schoolhouse on the northern outskirts of Seoul. North Korean officers visited them to deliver lectures on the evils of capitalism and assure them that they would be treated well. The Koreans also announced that because Gen. Douglas MacArthur had insisted that captured Americans receive their customary three meals a day, the prisoners would be fed three times, which simply meant that their current rations of unseasoned rice balls, watery cabbage soup, and an occasional piece of melon were divided into three portions instead of two.

The men spent several days housed in the crowded school. Occasionally guards would take a prisoner or two away, ostensibly to make political broadcasts; those men were not seen again. Among the troops themselves, no one seemed to be in charge. One soldier informed Doc that, as a captain, he outranked others and was supposed to be the acting CO (commanding officer), but Doc protested, insisting that a medical officer does not command infantry troops.

Physically, he was suffering. His feet were bruised and swollen, and it was all he could do to walk to the latrine. Mentally, the games had set in, his suspicions repeating in an unforgiving loop. Why didn't the army keep its promise to send me home after ninety days? Am I being punished for refusing to give sleeping pills to that surly officer? Did I do something else wrong? Or fail to follow orders? Why didn't I receive any letters from my wife while I was in Japan? Was the army holding them back? Did she even write? Am I paying for my past sins? Back home I hit a chicken with the car. And I passed that extra copy of the med school test to my frat brothers. But didn't I already get punished for those things?

Slowly, as he began to feel better physically, the mental torture eased. His thoughts turned to survival, and he focused on the present moment and whatever he might do to make sure those moments kept coming, for him and for those around him. He asked to assist with sick call, but the Koreans refused. As near as Doc could tell, they had little to work with, shoddy equipment, and meager pharmacy supplies. Once they invited him to join them, but when he showed up at the "clinic," he was asked to pose for a propaganda picture. He refused.

At one point, all the prisoners were escorted into the school auditorium and told to sit. Stiff and stilted, select American officers and GIs read prepared statements asking the men to sign a petition demanding an end to the war. After the prisoners signed, the readers explained, the paper would be sent to the United Nations. The Koreans circulated the petition, a blank piece of paper, and insisted the men sign, which they did, of course, thinking it might help them survive. (Several of the men wrote the same names, like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, but no one seemed to notice.)

One afternoon, the guards summoned the men to the courtyard for roll call. "Come with, come with," the Koreans shouted. The men followed orders, not realizing that they would not be allowed to return to the schoolhouse, where they had stowed what few possessions they had left—tattered Bibles, rosary beads, pictures, whatever extra clothing they had managed to hold on to. As they were marched off to a train yard, they vowed they wouldn't make the same mistake again. From now on, they'd keep any and all possessions with them at all times.

Doc had already lost plenty: his thick glasses, his St. Christopher medal, his shoes. But he also gained much of a substance: a new acquaintance named Peppe, who would become a trusted confidant and lifelong friend, and other friends, like Shorty Estabrook, a nineteen-year-old spitfire who made everyone laugh, and Eli Culbertson, to whom he'd been tied with telephone-wire that bloodied their wrists. He also gained a new, or perhaps renewed, belief in the existence of a supreme being, whatever its name.

It's something that makes you believe that your strength is part of a plan devised by someone more powerful than you. It's there like a huge wave just before it crests, powerful and never ending in its beauty as it just keeps rolling along, silent in all its majesty but ever present.

It is the faith and hope that sustains you; something you accept and admit you do not understand. Prayer becomes a constant, not a once-a-night event—and not always in words, perhaps, but surely in thoughts.

How else can you explain the fact that you survive?


Journalist Catherine Madison was editor-in-chief of Utne Reader, senior editor at Adweek and Creativity Magazine, founding editor of American Advertising, and editor-in-chief of Format Magazine. She has written articles for many publications, including the Chicago Tribune, Star Tribune, and Minnesota Monthly.

The University of Minnesota Press is giving away 10 advance reading copies of The War Came Home with Him. To enter, send an e-mail with your preferred mailing address to, subject line: Catherine Madison giveaway. Deadline to enter is July 10th; winners will be notified within one week. All submitted mailing addresses will be used for the purpose of the contest only.

"I loved this book, not only for the knowledge gained concerning a war I knew so little about, but for Catherine Madison’s skill in relating both sides of this complex and difficult story. She is truly a reliable narrator, and her interweaving of her father’s ordeal as a prisoner of war with her own growing up in a household with a broken and damaged man is honest and generous and truly moving." —Judith Guest, author of Ordinary People

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

What is "Malian music"?

Assistant professor of ethnomusicology at The Ohio State University

For many, to think of a place called “Mali” is to hear, first and foremost, its music. Mali may be a poor, landlocked, and sunbaked country in the West African Sahel, but its widely acclaimed music culture—with its bluesy resonances, danceable rhythms, and haunting melodies—has a way of mitigating, even beautifying such realities.

For this reason, when things fell apart in March 2012—when a subaltern mutiny became a full-blown coup d’état, and a secessionist movement in the North added an Islamist insurgency to its ranks—many in the media spoke of “the death of music in Mali.” The fate of Mali and its music, it seemed, went hand in hand.

These reports tended to assume an uncomplicated relationship between a country, its people, and music, threatened in the present by bad politics, domestic disputes, and foreign threats.

Such problems are, of course, real (and ongoing), but what makes the music we hear (and hear about) “Malian” is, in fact, a significantly complicated affair.

So, what is Malian music?

What follows is a set of provisional answers from my experiences as an observer of Mali and student of its music over the past two decades. These answers are neither exhaustive nor mutually exclusive, but they do give a sense of the crucial complexity that Malian artists playfully, critically, and artfully negotiate when they make (and we hear) their music—what I call in my new book, Bamako Sounds, “the Afropolitan ethics of Malian music.”

Malian music is…

Mande music.

I first encountered the music of Mali through the modern echoes of its imperial past. In this sense, the word “Mali” refers to the eponymous Empire, which reigned over vast swathes of western Africa from the 13th to 16th centuries. Living and studying with a family of kora (21-stringed harp) players in Bamako, the Malian capital, I heard the praise songs, instrumental melodies, and characteristic rhythms of a medieval court music repurposed for the life and times of a postcolonial city.

World music.

Before traveling to Mali, its music came to me in small-town Minnesota, on a compact disc that a friend had purchased after a semester abroad in Madagascar. Malian music moves, through the commercial circuits of the global culture industry and within the communities of a Malian diaspora with roots on every continent. Some of its itinerant purveyors are well-known worldwide: Ali Farka Touré, Amadou & Mariam, Salif Keita, Oumou Sangaré, Toumani Diabaté, and Rokia Traoré. Still others are on the rise: Fatoumata Diawara, Sidiki Diabaté, Amkoullel, and Vieux Farka Touré. Just to name a few.

National music.

When I began my doctoral research on the postcolonial music culture of Mali, I found an archive rich with the sounds of nation building and statecraft. In this sense, “Mali” refers to the contemporary West African nation-state, which will celebrate 55 years of independence from colonial rule in September (2015). In the early 1960s, the newly minted Republic of Mali created a national ensemble, made up of traditional instrumentalists and vocalists from throughout the country, and an orchestra, a dance band with a drum kit, congas, electric guitars, and horns. Their job was simple, if abstract: to perform the nation, through the country’s varied traditions and nascent modernity.

Pirated music.

I arrived in Mali ten years ago to begin long-term fieldwork on Bamako’s urban music culture. I quickly encountered two things: a thriving informal marketplace, full of copied and counterfeit goods; and a diverse cohort of artists, who regularly bought and sold in this market but were adamant in protesting what they called “the scourge of music piracy.” One thing was clear: Malian music maintained an active and ambivalent relationship to intellectual property.

Urban youth music.

From the bals poussières (dust parties) of the 1950s and 60s to the balanin dance parties of the present, the music of a demographically young Malian populace has frequently taken to the streets. There, you will find posses huddled around stereos, discussing the nuanced history of global hip-hop over afternoon tea. And there you will find vendors, crouched in front of laptops, filling old cellphones with the latest hits from Bamako, New York, and Paris.

Islamic music.

I wrote a dissertation about the politics and economy of an apparently secular urban music culture. While most of my musician friends and interlocutors were Muslim, Islam did not substantively factor into my analysis of their work. Then, four years ago, when I was asked to contribute a paper to a conference on Qur’anic knowledge in sub-Saharan Africa, I listened again to my field recordings with ears tuned for religion. In this Malian music, I heard the vocal melismas of prayer calls, the precise diction of sacred recitation, benedictions, praises to the Prophet, and citations from the Qur’an, woven into the fabric of an apparently secular urban music culture.

Not Malian music.

In April 2012, when the Malian state had all but collapsed and a motley crew of Tuareg separatists declared an independent homeland (Azawad) in the North, the idea of “Malian music” became the object of an increasingly urgent ethnic identity politics. Some globetrotting groups, like the Saharan blues troupe Tinariwen, used their international profile to contest the Malian state and what they viewed as a long history of military aggression against a sovereign people in the North. Later, others came together to affirm Malian solidarity across ethnic boundaries, though the lines dividing what was and was not “Malian music” had now been drawn, quite literally, in the sand.

An Afropolitan ethics.

What is Malian music? It is the sonic convergence of these (and many other) social positions—ethnic, religious, urban, economic, political, transnational, and historical—within a rooted and routed African world.

And it is the existential art of working with and through such multiple modes of being to claim a personal stake in what is (and is not) “Malian music.”

It is this artful process of social articulation and cultural experimentation in contemporary Africa that I call an “Afropolitan ethics.”


Ryan Thomas Skinner is author of Bamako Sounds: The Afropolitan Ethics of Malian Music. He is also the author and illustrator of a children's book, Sidikiba's Kora Lesson. He is assistant professor of ethnomusicology at The Ohio State University, and an accomplished kora player.

"Accessible and heartfelt, Bamako Sounds is itself largely musical in its interweaving of inventive musical criticism, scholarly analysis, and the author's work as a musician."
-AbdouMaliq Simone, Goldsmiths, University of London

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

What do ellipses do for us?

Beyoncé (feat. Jay-Z) "Drunk in Love" Unofficial Emoji Video from JESSE HILL on Vimeo.


Assistant professor of cinema studies at Purchase College, State University of New York

Last year, Austin-based video producer Jesse Hill made a video to impress his girlfriend for Beyoncé and Jay Z’s “Drunk in Love” that transcribes the entire song’s lyrics into a series of emojis. The video went viral and even left the shrewd pop diva herself quite impressed, endorsing it on her Facebook page and designing two t-shirts for her songs with emojis on their arms, available to buy on her website.

The video’s popularity—and its clever appropriation of the eyeball, snowman, eggplant, and clock emojis, among many others—immediately makes clear that emojis circulate across popular culture to signify more than just their intended meanings. One less strikingly interesting emoji in this video is the use of the speech balloon emoji to stand in for the repeated line “I’ve been thinking” (it’s only repeated twice at the beginning of the song—by the end, the lovers are presumably too drunk to think anymore). Though there is technically a separate “thought balloon” emoji where the text bubble is empty, the use of the speech balloon emoji with the three dots to represent “I’ve been thinking” suggests that the symbol registers abstraction, illustrating a tendency to associate punctuation with thought itself.

In its 2012 iOS 5 update, Apple introduced this speech balloon to devices’ emoji keyboard, a text bubble with three dots in it. Known as a “typing awareness indicator” in chat services, this symbol’s introduction as an emoji signals the extent to which the ellipsis has become a familiar image we see moving through our digital communication streams.

The typing awareness indicator is a default feature offered by most popular chat services that shows when the person on the other end is typing, aiding in conversational turn-taking. The idea is that if I see this ellipsis, I know the other person is typing, so I wait to see what that person is typing so that we are not both typing simultaneously, potentially haphazardly moving our conversation in different directions at the same time.

Ellipses in the digital age

The ellipsis thus appears to solve a problem posed by the distinct features of communication in the digital age. One of the most fundamental affordances of computing technologies is that they allow physically separated people to have real-time textual chat. Unlike in face-to-face or telephone conversations though, one doesn’t see or hear who one is talking to and one doesn’t know if the person on the other end is actively involved in the conversation. With networked media and the expectations that we are multitasking and, as danah boyd puts it, “participating in the always-on lifestyle,” we might be accessing multiple services, online with multiple screens open, and we might leave them open while we are on the phone with someone else, working in an another room, out of the office, etc. [1] As cinema and media scholar Anne Friedberg observed twenty years ago in The Virtual Window, “Multiple-frame images are a readable new visual syntax, a key feature in the contemporary remaking of a visual vernacular.” [2] Friedberg’s work is important because it turned our attention to how digital screen displays were forming a significant break with the centuries-long regime of perspective in visual culture, whereby the composition and framing of images oriented viewing practices around a single, centralized point.

The multiple points of the ellipsis thus cue us in this postperspectival vernacular that our conversation partner is actually electronically present with us, engaged on the other end. In this way, while the cultural logic of these digital dots represents a break with one centuries-long tradition in art history, they are continuous with another centuries-long history of punctuation in writing. Punctuation marks were symbols invented to resolve ambiguity and to help facilitate the efficiency of communication, just like digital ellipses do. But digital chats’ reappropriated dots resolve an ambiguity specific to networked media: turn-taking when the conversation partner’s presence is otherwise impossible to assure.

The shift here is one from the ambiguity of how to read words within textual space to an existential ambiguity of whether or not anyone is even listening to us. Think of all the ways contemporary digital selves constantly need assurance that they are being listened to: by “liking,” retweeting, favoriting, or hashtagging.