Larisa Kingston Mann DJing at a sound board and turntable

 

How do radical music cultures help us rethink copyright and global cultural production? What does it mean to put theory and creative practice in conversation with one another? How can we create socially, politically, and ethically engaged scholarship that is accountable to and supportive of marginalized communities?

In episode 86 of the Imagine Otherwise podcast, host Cathy Hannabach talks with DJ and media studies professor Larisa Kingston Mann about how radical music communities navigate copyright law and colonial legacies; how Larisa’s work as a DJ and music event organizer taught her how to improvise and read a room (including a classroom); and how making her academic work accountable to marginalized communities and broader social justice movements is how Larisa imagines otherwise.

Guest: Larisa Kingston Mann

Larisa Kingston Mann is an assistant professor of media studies and production in Temple University’s Klein College of Media and Communication. She teaches courses related to media criticism, law, technology, and popular culture. Larisa’s research examines how marginalized and oppressed communities create spaces of cultural autonomy, especially in changing legal and technological contexts.

She has published articles on the global circuits of Jamaican popular music, the role of music in radical social justice movements, what feminism can learn from new media, ethnic radio and nonlinear innovation, Berlin reggae, and copyright and cultural citizenship in outlets including The Nation; XLR8R; Viewpoint magazine; the Journal of Popular Music Studies; the International Journal of Communication; Communication, Culture & Critique; and Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies.

Larisa has also been an internationally-touring DJ for 22 years. She is a member of the Dutty Artz NYC, Heavy NYC, and Sub/Version (Philadelphia) event organizing crews and is active in 24HRPHL, an organization coordinating Philadelphia nightlife workers to make more liberatory spaces and cultural experiences.

We chatted about

  • Larisa’s research on law, music industries, and radical social justice cultural production (02:06)
  • How Jamaican DJs and musicians remake colonial copyright law (06:51)
  • The relationship between Larisa’s work as a DJ and music event organizer and her scholarship (11:37)
  • Advice for scholars who want to integrate their creative practice and research (14:07)
  • The intersection of art, academia, and activism in Larisa’s work (17:12)
  • Imagining otherwise (18:41)

Larisa Kingston Mann wearing a black shirt and glasses. Text reads: I continually try to make my academic work worthwhile beyond the evaluations of academia. I have to be accountable to academia. But I also want to be accountable to the communities that I do research on and with as well as accountable to broader concerns with justice.

Takeaways

Law, technology, and culture are intertwined

I look at law but also technology itself—the uses of different kinds of technology and creativity all seem to come together…that can help me understand better and also help me as a practitioner and as someone involved in culture how to foster and support events that are liberatory. If I can understand the ways that people are navigating these frameworks of law, technology, and culture to carve out spaces for themselves, maybe I can also support and recognize when people are doing that and work against some of the ways in which people’s practices and communities could be shut down.

Jamaican popular music and copyright

What’s interesting about Jamaican popular music from a legal perspective is that most of its foundational practices contradict copyright law….Often you will get a song where you have an instrumental track and you’ll have hundreds of different people singing their own vocals over the same instrumental track. And then you’ll have a DJ who will play those different versions, one after the other, in a live setting or on a mix tape. Sometimes another MC will record themselves over it or they will speak over it when they’re live. A lot of those things are things that copyright law would technically require permission for. But historically, that has not been a practice that has been followed in Jamaica….Not coincidentally, copyright law is a great example of a colonial holdover. Jamaican copyright law didn’t really change until 1993 from the time when the British were still in control of Jamaica. So the literal design of the law was associated with a colonial force whose interest would never reasonably be assumed to be the interests of people in Jamaica.

Being a DJ and a scholar

Luckily for me, the practices that I was engaging in as a DJ were also something I was interested in as a scholar. So some of the ways that it has informed my academic approach are that ideas I have about how human beings are relating through music are things that are based in my own experience in trying to create those moments as a DJ and event organizer….It informs my theorizing because to a certain extent, the way that I frame theory is very much in terms of how it helps me explain the things that I am doing and the things that I see other people doing. When I’m not actually able to connect to people musically or when I’m not able to create an event or when I’m part of something that succeeds or fails, I also see that as a moment to put theory to work in its ability to explain or address what’s happening around me.

Why DJs can make great teachers

A lot of the skills around DJing have to do with improvising and being responsive and drawing on multiple sorts of references in order to connect with an audience. Those are also super useful things for teaching, public speaking, and engaging with the public. Being able to read a room is something you learn as a DJ and that certainly translates to the classroom as well. So it’s nice to think about how these practices are analogous and layered on each other in terms the skills that you can get from them.

Holding academia accountable

I couldn’t be in academia if I wasn’t also continually trying to find ways to address some of the things that are wrong in society and in academia. I had a sort of circuitous path through academia and part of that was because I was trying to find a way to make academia makes sense as a pursuit when I could see some of the benefits and pathways towards engaging with communities and community activism. I was a union organizer as well as doing musical events that I saw as also contributing to community activism. In order for me to feel like I am in academia, I have to continually try to find ways to make my academic work worthwhile beyond the evaluations of academia. Professionally, I have to be accountable to academia and to the different fields within it than I’m in dialogue with. But I also want to be accountable to the communities that I do research on and with and also in general accountable to broader concerns with justice.

Imagining otherwise

I’m seeking the beloved community. A lot of the world that I’m working towards has already existed in places—not in some kind of utopian way, but it is already within us and within the best of us and the best of our social relations. So a lot of why I continually look to communities that are oppressed or marginalized and also resisting and exist outside of global colonial capitalist patriarchy is because I think those are the people and the communities and also the places where this kind of better world is going to be made. So it’s as much a looking in and also looking backward as it is a looking forward to create that world.

More from Larisa

Projects and people discussed

About Imagine Otherwise

Imagine Otherwise is a podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice, and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining and creating more just worlds. Check out full podcast episodes and show notes at ideasonfire.net/imagine-otherwise-podcast. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency helping progressive, interdisciplinary scholars write and publish awesome texts, enliven public conversations, and create more just worlds.

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Episode transcript

Cathy Hannabach [00:03]: [upbeat music in background] Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining otherwise. I’m your host, Cathy Hannabach. [music fadeout]

[00:22] This is episode 86 and my guest today is Larisa Kingston Mann.

Larisa is an assistant professor of media studies and production in Temple University’s Klein College of Media and Communication. She teaches courses related to media criticism, law, technology, and popular culture. Larisa’s research examines how marginalized and oppressed communities create spaces of cultural autonomy, especially in changing legal and technological contexts.

She has published articles on the global circuits of Jamaican popular music, the role of music in radical social justice movements, what feminism can learn from new media, ethnic radio and nonlinear innovation, Berlin reggae, and copyright and cultural citizenship in outlets including The Nation; XLR8R; Viewpoint magazine; the Journal of Popular Music Studies; the International Journal of Communication; Communication, Culture & Critique; and Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies.

Larisa has also been an internationally-touring DJ for 22 years. She is a member of the Dutty Artz NYC, Heavy NYC, and Sub/Version (Philadelphia) event organizing crews and is active in 24HRPHL, an organization coordinating Philadelphia nightlife workers to make more liberatory spaces and cultural experiences.

In our interview, Larisa and I explore how radical music communities navigate copyright law and colonial legacies, how Larisa’s work as a DJ and music event organizer taught her how to improvise and read a room (including a classroom), and how making her academic work accountable to marginalized communities and broader social justice movements is how Larisa imagines otherwise.

[To Larisa] Thanks so much for being with us today

Larisa Kingston Mann [02:05]: It’s my pleasure.

Cathy [02:06]: I’d love to start off talking about your research, which focuses on the intersections of things that many folks don’t often think about in conjunction with each other. You look at the interactions between law, music industries, and radical social justice cultural production. Can you give our listeners, first of all, a sense of what that intersection means to you and why you got interested in looking at cultural production through that lens?

Larisa [02:33] Sure. One of the things that has always been true for me is that I’ve been involved in a lot of creative communities and traditions that seem extremely important, both personally but also to communities. I’ve watched how people come together around music and around other kinds of cultural expressions, especially music and dancing, in ways that seem to suggest they were really important for them. People set a lot of time aside for it, they devote energy to it. And a lot of those ways that it seemed important didn’t seem to me to be fully explainable in terms of just pleasure, release, or escape, although all those things are also important. So I was interested in what it was about different cultural practices that seems to matter—especially for communities that face other kinds of oppression, exclusion, or marginalization.

[03:25] When I was coming into academia, I saw that there was a strain of scholarship that looked at certain kinds of cultural forms as inherently liberating. A lot of that was appealing to me, but I started to feel like that didn’t really seem as useful because as someone who was involved in cultural practices and music, I could see there were times when it seemed like it was liberating and great. But then there were times when it seemed to be pretty oppressive or a mixed bag or deeply ambivalent.

When people are invested in say a genre or a scene, they will say, “Well that’s not real, say, hip hop if it’s oppressive or uncool.” And I was like, “That doesn’t really work for me.” Something like hip hop or like other kinds of dance music are social practices that exist in good and bad ways.

[04:10] So what I got interested in was the conditions under which different kinds of creative practices and expressions work in a liberatory way. Those conditions are structured by things that are social, but also very material things and also legal things. I was really struck by how many of the most vibrant, dynamic, and in some ways liberatory cultural practices and musical practices I was aware of happen in illegal spaces or in ways that seem incompatible with law. When I say illegal spaces, I mean often unlicensed warehouse parties, street parties, pirate radio—a lot of illegal realms are realms where the actions that people are doing are de facto illegal. And then also the ways that certain kinds of musical practices were illegal because they violated things like copyright law. People didn’t get appropriate permissions before reusing musical recordings.

[05:03] So [I began] looking at what it was about these illegal practices that seem to tie so closely to particular communities, to people who were oppressed along the lines of race, gender, sexuality, along colonial lines. That seemed to be a really rich and interesting place to start looking at creativity.

[I look at] law but also technology itself—the uses of different kinds of technology and creativity all seem to come together or to be a sort of nexus of practices that can help me understand better and maybe also help me as a practitioner and as someone involved in culture how to foster and support events that were liberatory. If I could understand the ways that people are navigating these frameworks of law, technology, and culture to carve out spaces for themselves, maybe I could also support as well as recognize when people are doing that and try to work against some of the ways in which people’s practices and communities could be shut down.

For me, being involved as a DJ in underground dance music, I also was pretty intimately aware of the ways that law enforcement and specific legal changes could immediately alter the framework or the baseline by which people could engage with certain kinds of cultural practices. So changes in zoning law, changes in classification of venues, things like the cabaret law in New York—these are all things that could immediately choke down or open up certain kinds of possibilities for different communities.

Cathy [06:50]: I want to come back to your DJ work in a minute, but I want to turn here to your most recent book because I think in many ways the types of projects that you look at work really well with concrete examples.

Larisa: Yeah.

Cathy: Law is a very abstract thing that people often have a difficult time getting their heads around. So I’d love to look at your book project, which is about Jamaican popular music and copyright law. First of all, can you give our listeners a sense of what that book addresses and then maybe how that illustrates or helps you explain some of these intersections between legal practices and cultural expression or cultural production?

Larisa [07:26]: Sure. So the book looks at Jamaican popular music, which has been pretty much since its inception been a set of musical practices that is dominated by the poor people of Jamaica, who are also black people in Jamaica. Jamaica is 95% black, but there’s more diversity when you get to the very top level of the Jamaican social system and less when you get to the bottom in terms of blackness.

What’s interesting about Jamaican popular music from a legal perspective is that most of its foundational practices contradict copyright law. The way people reuse music—often you will get a song where you have an instrumental track and you’ll have hundreds of different people singing their own vocals over the same instrumental track. And then you’ll have a DJ who will play those different versions, one after the other, in a live setting or on a mix tape. Sometimes another MC will record themselves over it or they will speak over it when they’re live.

[08:21] A lot of those things are things that copyright law would technically require permission for. But historically, that has not been a practice that has been followed in Jamaica. From the beginnings of the Jamaican music industry to the present, copyright law has not been enforced with respect to the majority of people involved in it. The way this is often discussed in the legal world and in the music industry world is that supposedly there are no rules. But as anthropologists would suggest when you look at what people are doing, you will find that there actually is a very complex social system involved in music making in which there’s a lot of rules, but they are just rules that don’t fit very well with what the law says about what you’re supposed to do.

[09:12] So what my book does is look at the ways people are engaging with music making and from that articulate a way of thinking about peoples’ relationships to the state and peoples’ relationships to each other that are not what the state says about itself or what the state says about how people should relate to culture. This is very consistent with my training as someone who studies jurisprudence and social policy, which is what my degree was in, which is about the gap between law on the books and law in action. What we see when we look at this gap is that people are carving out for themselves a way of relating to each other that is not rooted in assumptions about the appropriate way to behave or the appropriate way to relate to each other or the appropriate way to relate to culture that is laid out in the law.

[10:07] That is something that I started calling “rude citizenship.” For me, what’s interesting is that people are claiming in the music their own ways of being. They’re even using the language of citizenship and nation and identity to do so. But they are not conceding the norms of social behavior and of creative practice to what the law says they should be doing.

Not coincidentally, copyright law in particular is a great example of a colonial holdover. Jamaican copyright law didn’t really change until 1993 from the time when the British were still in control of Jamaica. So the literal design of the law was associated with a colonial force whose interest would never reasonably be assumed to be the interests of people in Jamaica. So I have a historical component [to the book] where I look at the development of the industry in the absence of copyright law.

I also look at what these practices look like now, both in the musical forms and also in the social and creative forms, especially in street parties. There, people are claiming space on terms that not only violate copyright law doesn’t recognize—people aren’t getting licenses in order to play music—but they’re also often claiming public space in violation of zoning laws and noise laws and all kinds of other things that are supposed to regulate the appropriate way to take up space in the city.

Cathy [11:36] So obviously in addition to researching music, you also DJ yourself and you are a cultural producer of music. I’d love to talk about how those two things intersect for you. How does your life and your work as a DJ and a music event organizer shape the way that approach it as an academic research topic or vice versa?

Larisa [11:57]: Yeah, I would say they inform each other. I would say also that being a DJ and an event organizer made it possible for me to do my scholarly work. In the current environment of academia as a profession, I could not have survived as a grad student or as a postgraduate itinerant scholar./adjunct had I not also been DJing because that helped me support myself. So that’s not actually separate from the ability to do scholarly work as you need to actually be able to support yourself.

Luckily for me, the practices that I was engaging in as a DJ were also something I was interested in as a scholar. So some of the ways that it has informed my academic approach are that ideas I have about how human beings are relating through music are things that are based in my own experience in trying to create those moments as a DJ and event organizer. So in some ways I can treat those experiences as part of my work, as Participatory Action Research.

[12:58] I think it informs my theorizing because to a certain extent, the way that I frame theory is very much in terms of how it helps me explain the things that I am doing and the things that I see other people doing. So when I’m not actually able to connect to people musically or when I’m not able to create an event or when I’m part of something that succeeds or fails, I also see that as a moment to put theory to work in its ability to explain or address what’s happening around me.

It’s also a place where I take some of my scholarly insights and try to engage with people who are part of these creative worlds so that they can check me or correct me or give their own ideas of what’s happening. So it’s not that I experiment on these communities that I’m a part of, but it’s that they’re part of this dialogue between my intellectual research and intuitive approaches to knowledge making.

Cathy [14:06]: Do you have any advice for other folks who want to bring more of their creative pursuits into their research or more of their research into their cultural productions?

Larisa [14:16]: I think for me it was helpful that I do not research exactly what I am doing as a creative person in the sense that I do not specifically write about my own gigs or my own events. It’s more that I process the things that I have learned and that I research and then I go and I act fully as an artist or as an event organizer and see what happens. So I find it helpful to actually separate, in some sense, the creative expression from the analysis.

For me psychologically and emotionally, DJing and making music is one of the places where I am actually pretty nonverbal. I do not talk about or plan or discuss a lot of the musical choices that I make. Instead, it’s a moment of flow, engagement, and improvisitory interactions with audiences and that is emotionally and psychologically really important for me.

[15:13] I was just actually talking to a colleague in the dance department who when she studies dance, she learns the dance moves that she is studying and she participates as a practitioner. I can’t quite do that in the same way. But a lot of my scholarship is sort of adjacent to the creative practices that I have. For me, that is helpful also in allowing me to have some of the pleasures of pure flow and creative expression but also the ability to turn that into some stronger intellectual chops and some stronger connections between the intellectual approach and the expressive and community approach.

A lot of the skills around DJing have to do with improvising and being responsive and drawing on multiple sorts of references in order to connect with an audience. Those are also super useful things for teaching, public speaking, and engaging with the public. Being able to read a room is something you learn as a DJ and that certainly translates to the classroom as well. So it’s nice to think about how these practices are analogous and layered on each other in terms the skills that you can get from them.

Cathy [16:31]: Do you talk about DJing with your students?

Larisa [16:33]: Sometimes it comes up, although surprisingly not that often. Sometimes they bring it up because someone Googled me or something like that. I used to try to keep it much more separate, to keep my public persona separate. I had separate websites and that kind of thing. But eventually, I decided that too much separation wasn’t healthy for me. I’m trying to find a balance with that, but I do talk about it, especially when I’m teaching about questions of copyright. Sometimes I talk about the research I’ve done that offers different perspectives on how we understand ownership of culture. But yeah, it’s interesting when it comes up and when it doesn’t. I’m still sort of experimenting with that.

Cathy [17:11]: So much of your work demonstrates the ways that creativity dovetails really nicely with academic research and social justice. I’d love to talk a little bit more about what intrigues you about bringing those things together—art, activism, and academia. What do you find productive about that nexus?

Larisa [17:32]: I couldn’t be an academia if I wasn’t also continually trying to find ways to address some of the things that are wrong in society and in academia. I had a sort of circuitous path through academia and part of that was because I was trying to find a way to make academia makes sense as a pursuit when I could see some of the benefits and pathways towards engaging with communities and community activism. I was a union organizer as well as doing musical events that I saw as also contributing to community activism.

In order for me to feel like I am in academia, I have to continually try to find ways to make my academic work worthwhile beyond the evaluations of academia. Professionally, I have to be accountable to academia and to the different fields within it than I’m in dialogue with. But I also want to be accountable to the communities that I do research on and with and also in general accountable to broader concerns with justice.

Cathy [18:41]: So this podcast is called “Imagine Otherwise” and all of the guests from their various realms, the various disciplines they are all invested in, demonstrate this idea of building a different world, building a series of different worlds perhaps. And your work is such a fantastic example of that as well. I’d love to close out this interview talking about this. What is that world that you’re working towards when you DJ, when you teach a class, when you do your scholarship, when you do all of the creative and intellectual endeavors that you do across the course of your career. What kind of world do you want?

Larisa [19:14]: I mean, in one way, I’m seeking the beloved community. A lot of the world that I’m working towards has already existed in places—not in some kind of utopian way, but it is already within us and within the best of us and the best of our social relations. So a lot of why I continually look to communities that are oppressed or marginalized and also resisting and exist outside of global colonial capitalist patriarchy is because I think those are the people and the communities and also the places where this kind of better world is going to be made. So it’s as much a looking in and also looking backward as it is a looking forward to create that world.

I try to work my teaching practice into that in little ways as well as big ways and always leave windows into more imaginative and also radical and fundamental challenges to the world around us. I think a lot of the creative experiences that I have been a part of have helped me also have little tiny, prefigurative moments of that, although they are never complete or finished in that way.

Cathy [20:32]: Well thank you so much for being with us today and sharing all of the ways that you imagine and create otherwise.

Larisa [20:38]: Thank you for inviting me and for asking me such good questions.

Cathy [20:47]: [upbeat music in background] Thanks for listening to another episode of Imagine Otherwise. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire and this episode was created by Christopher Persaud, Rebecca Reynolds, Michelle Velasquez-Potts, and myself, Cathy Hannabach.

You can check out the show notes for this episode on our website at ideasonfire.net where you can also read about our fabulous guest as well as find links to the people and projects we discuss on the show. [music fadeout]