Saturday, April 7, 2018

Mark Anthony Neal and black arts, culture writing

A lil while back, I was mentioning the influence of Amiri Baraka and Greg Tate on a whole generation of black writers and thinkers, especially black men. Baraka and Tate were definitely important forces. Another figure who often comes to mind for me when I'm thinking about the ongoing histories of black culture writing would of course be Mark Anthony Neal.

He's been on the scene, publishing works about black music, African American artists, and technology now for over 20 years. I first discovered his work in the early 2000s while I was a graduate student. His books included What the Music Said: Black Popular Music and Black Public Culture (1998), Soul Babies: Black Popular Culture and the Post-Soul Aesthetic (2002), Songs in the Keys of Black Life: A Rhythm and Blues Nation (2003), New Black Man: Rethinking Black Masculinity (2005), and Looking for Leroy: (Il)Legible Black Masculinities (2013).

For several years now, he's hosted a webcast Left of Black, where he interviews a range of scholars and artists broadly associated with African American studies (broadly defined). The webcast is produced by John Hope Franklin Center of International and Interdisciplinary Studies at Duke University, where Neal is a professor.

I really first began considering the range of Neal's interests and knowledge as I read his contributions to the site Pop Matters. He'd write about MC Lyte, Teddy Pendergrass, the debut of Alicia Keys, Bob Marley, Bilal, Jill Scott, and the Isley Brothers. And hey, that's just a sample of some of his work from 2001.

I'm not sure anyone was writing so much and so in-depth across the genres of rap, R&B, and neo-soul the way Neal was and still does. Given my deeper interests in hip hop, I probably wasn't paying close enough attention to what Neal was doing on the R&B and neo-soul. I was reading him for what he had to say about pop culture and rap, but I had friends who were primarily reading his work on neo-soul artists.

Later, Neal and Murray Forman edited That's the Joint!: The Hip-Hop Studies Reader (2004, 2012). If the critical discourse and college classes on R&B and neo-soul had grown the way things did for hip-hop studies, I imagine Neal would've been editing collections of critical works in those realms as well.

I was recently talking with colleagues about how encounters graduate students have early on in programs can shape their outlooks on what's possible and not. Fortunately, early in my graduate career, I came across black arts and culture writing by Baraka, Tate, and Neal. Taken together, they formed an important trio on black music (and beyond) for me. I didn't know it back then, but they were opening my mind for an assortment of projects that I might take on later.

A Notebook on Mark Anthony Neal

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