Black Trauma Remixed For Your Clicks

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When the second season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt returns to Netflix this week, viewers will be reacquainted with its earworm of a theme song. You know the one: With a hefty dose of Auto-Tune, knockout catchphrases like “females are strong as hell,” and jaunty, eye-popping visual effects that match the personality of its titular star, the song crescendos as the shell-shocked optimist Kimmy Schmidt is led out of her underground bunker captivity by a SWAT team. It’s no surprise that a remix of this quirky song went viral itself, garnering more than four million hits. The virality of the song hinges on the emotional delivery of Mike Britt, the actor who plays the neighbor to the show’s cult-leader kidnapper and the women he held captive, an obvious nod to the Ariel Castro case that unfolded in May 2013. Playing alongside video of Britt’s character singing is a split-screen montage of white people in archival footage performing classical music, clapping, and simply looking.

In an interview with Wired, one of the remixers, Evan Gregory, dished that he and his team had searched news sites for soundbites they use to “songify” the news, which is a word he and his siblings, known collectively as The Gregory Brothers, coined to describe their brand of remixing. “Seventy percent of our job is scouring websites like the Huffington Post and the Drudge Report, which is really a fate I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy,” he said. Auto-Tune, the de rigueur audio effect of internet remixers, is used heavily in “songified” news because it mechanizes the human voice, thereby turning vocal tinges of fear and other heavy emotions into cheer. This whole process essentially turns segments of the 11 o’clock news into viral jams, stripping away tragedy to create fun pop.

What he didn’t say is that Britt’s portrayal is refracted through viral news reports of Antoine Dodson, Sweet Brown, and Charles Ramsey. These videos are several years old and have been discussed at length in the pop culture sphere, but because new videos, like those featuring Michelle Clark, Michelle Dobyne, and Hazel London continuously make headlines, the original trio are still potent cultural references, even now. Dodson’s known for giving an interview after he helped thwart an attacker who tried to rape his sister, Sweet Brown for a statement she gave soon after her apartment complex caught fire, and Ramsey for the interview he gave to a scrum of reporters moments after rescuing Castro survivors Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus, and Michelle Knight. The way Britt’s character is presented (poor, dressed casually, talking off-the-cuff) parodies the viral stars when they were first caught on camera by a news crew. And the Gregory Brothers’ remixes provide a particularly disorienting filter of the white gaze, in that they give a pleasing, innocuous-seeming lift to grave accounts of violence and danger. Think of the Gregorys’ remixes as modern send-ups of blues tunes transformed into dancing ditties, although the songified blues use real-life trauma and lyrics comprised of formal testimony.

Antoine Dodson

Crazy Laugh Action / Via youtube.com

Antoine Dodson was the first news interviewee to have his face splashed all over the internet when his video went viral in July 2010. He was interviewed by a Huntsville, Alabama, station about the attack on his sister, when a man climbed into her second-floor window and tried to rape her. The lyrics to the song double as his statement to reporter Elizabeth Gentle (compiled from the original news report).

Well, obviously, we have a rapist in Lincoln Park. He’s climbing in your windows, he’s snatching your people up, trying to rape ‘em. So you need to hide ya kids, hide ya wife, and hide ya husbands cause they raping everybody out here…We got ya T-shirt. You done left fingerprints and all. You are so dumb. You are really dumb, for real…You don’t have to come and confess that you did it. We’re looking for you. We gon’ find you, I’m lettin you know now. So you can run and tell that. Homeboy.

The Gregory Brothers have Auto-Tuned Dodson and Ramsey to great success; the song made out of Dodson’s interview, “Bed Intruder,” charted on the Billboard Hot 100 and subsequently went platinum. And Brown, Ramsey, and Dodson became internet stars alongside grumpy cats, Norwegian comedians, and laughing babies: Ramsey and Brown appeared on national morning shows and TV commercials; Dodson became a Halloween costume. Combined, their videos have been viewed hundreds of millions of times on YouTube. But, while the babies have a chance to grow up and become notable for something else, and the “Double Rainbow” guy is also known as an MMA fighter, in the pop culture realm, Dodson and company are locked in the frames of their original traumatic interviews and the numerous Auto-Tuned pop and hip-hop remixes that have come after. Giving an interview to a news station is customary after tragedy; what’s less common is that people become permanently enshrined for their trauma, unless of course, they’re black. The ways trauma is repackaged quickly after interviews are recorded is a result of our fast-moving media cycle. And it’s true that black internet stars have talked to news reporters in memorable ways that make them subject to public fascination. But it’s also true that black viral interviewees hardly had any time to grieve before their feelings were repurposed for the zeitgeist, which is unseemly given how, seen through the mainstream white gaze, black pain has been romanticized (the “race” movies of the early 20th century) or made comical (minstrel shows).

(L-R) Michael Gregory, Evan Gregory, Sarah Fullen Gregory, and Andrew Rose Gregory of The Gregory Brothers appear on stage at the 19th Annual Webby Awards on May 18, 2015 in New York City.

Brian Ach / Getty Images

So it’s a little odd that these viral interviewees are called minstrels themselves. Dodson, Brown, and Ramsey have been criticized at length for their statements to news reporters. Writer Fidel Martinez claimed that the videos “are essentially a modern day minstrel show,” and Aisha Harris, writing for Slate, suggested that the popularity of the videos might be due to “a persistent, if unconscious, desire to see black people perform.” Indeed, when Hazel London laments the transformation of the La Bella Noche club into the OK Corral, she’s either called ghetto or uproariously funny; Charles Ramsey’s turn as hero is hampered by claims that his appearance and language make him a coon or minstrel; and Sweet Brown is either a hilarious lady or a mammy figure incarnate.

Black viral interviewees hardly had any time to grieve before their feelings were repurposed for the zeitgeist.

Those original impromptu interviews that ended up across the internet represent the ways black people can be randomly captured in a spectrum of cell phone videos, street cams, and news crews in order to be consumed for entertainment. Much like how rampant use of the word “basic” is an expression of class anxiety, some critical responses to these viral videos are expressions of some black people’s camera anxiety, or fear of surveillance. Tech theorist and inventor Steve Mann defines surveillance as “organizations observing people.” Because the viral news interviewees are taped and originally shared by news organizations, they fall under Mann’s definition of surveillance and it goes without saying that those being surveilled have less power than those behind the camera. He’s even coined a new term, “sousveillance,” to describe what happens when people who are themselves surveilled aim their recording devices at organizations who wield more power.

Simone Browne engages Mann’s concepts of surveillance at length in her book Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness. She asserts that blacks have always been under the white gaze. “In the time of slavery that citizenry (the watchers) was deputized through white supremacy to apprehend any fugitive who escaped from bondage (the watched), making for a cumulative white gaze that functioned as a totalizing surveillance,” she writes. “The violence of this cumulative gaze continues in the postslavery era.”

Brown, Dodson, and Ramsey show that even when you speak for yourself, you have to be careful who you’re speaking to.

In this moment of the “postslavery era,” where viral videos are now the norm, it feels necessary to always be prepared to speak on camera, as this blog entry by a business software company, and this one, also by a business blogger, warn.

Beneath their cheery veneer, the remix videos are implicitly a PSA against being unprepared when someone’s camera captures and then places you under that “cumulative gaze.” Even though camera anxiety has manifested via fear of viral videos, it’s not a new phenomenon; the tradition of drylongso, or ordinary, black testimony, shows that surveillance and the manipulation of our images have always been persistent problems for American black people. Brown, Dodson, and Ramsey show that even when you speak for yourself, you have to be careful who you’re speaking to.

In his 1903 opus The Souls of Black Folk, African American philosopher W.E.B. Du Bois describes a phenomenon called double-consciousness.

It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness–an American, a Negro, two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.

Under double-consciousness, black people struggle with two separate perceptions: how whites see them, and how they see themselves. Writing for the Huffington Post, Rev. Charles E. Williams II placed the perception of the Sweet Brown and Charles Ramsey videos in a tradition of double-consciousness. He wrote, “So yes the response that trivialize[s] the contribution and especially the heroic effort of Mr. Ramsey is racist. However, if you are like myself you laugh not in ridicule or disgust but laugh because they have learned not to slip into their other character and speak just as colloquially as Brown and Ramsey, which is to say without reserve.”

The term viral, in one reading of these responses, has a double meaning. It suggests black pathology, or black people’s innate dysfunction. What it means to actually know these people, after or in spite of seeing them online, is still obscured, even for black viewers, because the videos take on lives of their own. It’s difficult to find the original interviews on YouTube, since they’ve been copied and manipulated countless times by remixers. Consider this flip: The line “I was attacked by some idiot out here in the projects,” spoken by attack survivor Kelly Dodson, is a bright, Auto-Tuned adlib on the “Bed Intruder” song that builds to the song’s bridge, as Antoine Dodson’s phrase “so dumb” is repeated several times. The editing reduces her comment to a simple, trite soundbite divorced from the details that ground the viewer in her in reality: the trash can the intruder used to hoist himself up to her room, the shattered glass on her bedroom floor, the baby she gestured toward, who had been sleeping next to her when the man broke in. We just hear “idiot in the projects,” and then “so dumb,” which is maybe a connection we’re supposed to make.

“We are a nation primarily because we think we are a nation.”

Although they’ve been framed within double-consciousness, Dodson, Brown, and Ramsey have never been placed in the drylongso tradition, of black people speaking directly and without the reserve that Williams mentions. Drylongso means “ordinary,” according to John Langston Gwaltney, the anthropologist who edited the book Drylongso: A Self Portrait of Black America. The term is referenced in blues songs by Robert Johnson, Skip James, and King Solomon Hill, among others. In his book on blues speech, Steven Calt briefly traces the etymology of drylongso from meaning “for no good reason” in blues songs, “fate” in ‘30s Harlem, and “ordinary” in present-day speak. In Drylongso, Gwaltney interviewed 47 everyday black Americans and compiled their often candid, humorous, and critical testimonies of life in America into this anthology. The viral interviewees are a part of this tradition, though at a considerable distance that technology has made plain.

Drylongso follows in the footsteps of novelist and pioneering black anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston’s ethos, that it’s important for black people to collect each other's’ stories. The book, Gwaltney writes, “stems from my long-held view that traditional Euro-American anthropology has generally failed to produce ethnographers who are capable of assessing black American culture in terms other than romantic, and from my belief in the theory-building and analytic capacities of my people.” It’s compiled of first-person testimonies of black people that range in age from teenagers to the elderly. The respondents wax poetic on life in America, black nationalism, racism, sex, intraracial dynamics, and rich quotidian experiences that demonstrate what the anthropologist calls “core black culture.” Core black culture, in his view, is made up of everyday black Americans who are neither rich or bourgeois, financially or in spirit. Hannah Nelson (not her real name), a 61-year-old piano teacher, sums up Gwaltney’s project: “Our speech is most directly personal, and every black person assumes that every other black person has a right to a personal opinion.” Nelson’s entire testimony is rife with these philosophical musings that come to define the idea of black culture. “We are a nation,” she tells Gwaltney, “primarily because we think we are a nation.”

Sweet Brown

Warren Wilding / Via youtube.com

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