Mark Anthony NealJun 10, 2022
The Crisis and Challenge of the Musical Archive
New York University Press 2022
We are living in an era of unprecedented access to popular culture: contemporary digital infrastructure provides anyone with an internet connection access to a dizzying array of cultural objects past and present, which mingle and connect in fascinating, bizarre and sometimes troubling ways.
In Black Ephemera: The Crisis and Challenge of the Musical Archive (NYU Press, 2022), Mark Anthony Neal considers the opportunities and challenges that this vast archive represents for Black American culture, with a particular focus on music and sound. He suggests that despite the profusion of what he terms ‘Black big data’ and the supposed democratisation of access this entails, the contemporary moment is characterised by a profound amnesia and an absence of attention to the dense web of connections that bind the analogue past with the digital present. Black Ephemera seeks to at once draw out and ‘mystify’ these links, by attending to recordings, historical moments and archival projects which have often been neglected in other studies of Black music. Neal’s explorations have a wide historical scope and operate simultaneously in microscopic and conjunctural registers. The book includes analyses of legendary Memphis record label Stax, the place of Aretha Franklin and Mavin Gaye’s overlooked early recordings in/as the Great American Songbook, the use of musical citation to try and combat the erasure of Black women’s experience from the historical archive, and the significance of archival ephemera to Black mourning practices from Pattie LaBelle to Kendrick Lamar.
Gummo Clare is a PhD researcher in the School of Media and Communications, University of Leeds.