On the Power of Boo

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In the wake of events in the US over the past week or two, I have seen friends making comments along the lines of: I hate that this is happening and I feel helpless because I don’t see what I can do to help. In the spirit of Justin Trudeau’s point that the best response is to put our own house in order, I’d like to share with my barbershop friends a point made by the inimitable Elizabeth Davies.

Those of you who have been following the #donewithdixe debates will know her landmark blog post articulating the reasons why a genre with barbershop’s history of appropriation and exclusion needs to leave a significant chunk of its C20th repertoire in the past if it is to aspire to be the kind of inclusive community it claims to be.

In this comment, she was responding to the problem that, despite the debates, the education, indeed the removal from sale of a number of the most egregious examples, still you hear ensembles performing music that celebrates a culture built on racial segregation and oppression. I will quote at length, because you need to read this in her own words:

I take an "uncomfortable comfort" in knowing that as long as I'm in the room when it's being performed, I, personally, have the power to stop any performance, by any quartet or chorus, of any song I consider racist or otherwise offensive, with a single word.

That word is "Boooooooo."

It feels like a "nuclear option," doesn't it? I will admit there have been times when I have felt like booing, and I haven't. The thought of booing my fellow barbershoppers seems so profoundly anti-social that it makes me sweat.

But in every case when I have wanted to "booo" and didn't, I forced myself to have a conversation with the singers about exactly why I thought their song was a problem. In every case, I never heard them sing that song again.

This is why, in my many conversations about racially charged repertoire with SAI leaders and judges, as well as my fellow singers and directors, I have never once felt the need to say, "YOU have to do something about this."

Because on a certain level, I know, and THEY know, that as an audience member, (especially a white audience member with nothing to fear in the way of violent reprisal), I have absolute power—the power of the "boooooo."

Would you ever sing a song in contest or anywhere else if you thought it was likely to get booed? Me, neither.

I think it's good for all of us to keep that thought in our back pocket. We really do have all the power we need.

And she goes on to elaborate in a second comment:

The thing about the "boo" strategy is, it's very clarifying on both sides.

It's easy for some people to say dismissively in a chat room, "Everyone's offended by something."

It's also easy for ME to say dismissively in a chat room, "Everyone should know better than to sing the songs that I happen to think are racist/ offensive/ exclusionary/ etc."

The "boo" strategy means everyone has some skin in the game. It says, "I believe so strongly that you are doing harm to the community by singing that particular song that I'm willing to boo you-- a psychologically challenging thing for me to do-- to force you to stop."

A "boo" is the barbershop equivalent of getting off my ass to go march in a protest parade, donating significant money to a political candidate, stepping forward out of a crowd to video a sketchy police officer, etc.

If I knew a top ten Sweet Ad chorus decided to do an unapologetic Old South "mammy" package at international, I would personally buy a plane ticket just to go boo them. But at this point I have had enough conversations to know that no top ten directors would do that. No doubt many of them would join me in booing anyone who tried to do such a package.

I figure that if I'm not yet willing to "boo" a particular song, then either I'm not as anti-racist as I like to think I am, or my convictions around that particular song aren't actually all that deep, or I don't really believe it's reasonable (yet) to expect everyone to have arrived at the same conclusions about that song--which means I need to get humble and curious and have more conversations.

But I really, really like knowing that I have the Power of the Boo. How great would it be if a simple "boo" worked as well in all other political arenas, as we know, in our hearts, it will work in barbershop? :-)

My first purpose in writing this post was to amplify Elizabeth’s point, as it is an important one. Please do your bit to share it further.

My second is to reflect on the effect it has had on me. It is immensely challenging, as it asks whether, when push comes to shove, we are actually willing to walk the walk as well as talk the talk. If you imagine yourself standing up in the middle of a barbershop contest or show and booing, it is quite a terrifying prospect. And then you think about what was done to George Floyd, and you get some perspective on what is actually frightening.

And over here in the European context, it is all too easy to feel excuses curling round the corners of your mind. Whilst we have our own forms of systemic racism to deal with, the specific cultural references in Dixie tunes are foreign to us, and it is easy to take the idealised world they reference at face value, especially when the songs have been selected, and indeed bowdlerised, to gloss over the exploitation upon which that ideal was built. I have a certain sympathy for plain ignorance here, having experienced it myself for longer than I am comfortable to admit.

But claiming ignorance only takes you so far. As I put it when I first started writing about this: ‘I didn’t know’ works better as an apology than as an excuse.

So, given that I really don’t want to stand up and heckle in a performance, I find myself quite urgently planning what I can do to prevent myself needing to. First off, I need to make sure the message is getting out there. Sure, I’ve blogged about it, but I can’t assume that everyone reads my blog (actually, I’m always pleasantly surprised that anyone does!). BABS and LABBS members, I shall be offering articles to Harmony Express and VoiceBox about this in the coming months, and if anyone from other organisations wants to reprint them, that will be absolutely fine.

Thereafter, my plan is this: if I should hear someone perform a song that is unequivocally Dixie-nostalgia, I shall get in touch with them afterwards, explain what the problem is, and let them know that they need to stop performing it. And (this is the hard bit, the important bit, the bit that once you have read Elizabeth’s comment you can’t back away from), that if I hear them sing it again, I shall stand up and heckle them over their racist song choice.

I am undecided about whether a second, escalated, warning in the form of public shaming on social media after the fact is warranted between first contact and booing. Clearly this possibility is a symptom of my own cowardice, but it may also be useful in letting other people in our shared social world know that the warning has been issued, so they can, if they wish, support me in the nuclear option should it be required.

I am hoping of course that this never comes to pass, but if you see me behave in a way that is so far beyond the pale of community expectations that it is making me go all hot and cold to think about it, the people whose performance I am disrupting know full well that their repertoire is racist and have chosen to sing it anyway.

So, to those friends who have been wondering what you can do, please join me in executing this plan. A Dixie song may feel a world away from 21st-century police brutality, but the idyll we see through rose-coloured melodies was built by breaking Black bodies, and to perpetuate the myth they portray is to say we don’t care about how their descendents are suffering today.

If we mean #EveryoneinHarmony, we also need to mean #BlackLivesMatter and #DoneWithDixie.

If you are new to this debate, the following posts will help you find your way round some of the issues:
On Stereotypes and Agency
The Moral Hazard of Dixie Nostalgia
Moving on From Dixie Songs: the Negotiation Process
Choosing Repertoire in the Era of Post-Dixie Barbershop
Reinventing Dixie: Book Review
Reinventing Dixie: Book Review, Part 2
Soapbox: On 'The Golliwog’s Cakewalk'
Semiotic Theory and the Futility of Bowdlerising Lyrics

And here are some useful resources outlining some of the issues with particular songs. The repertoire is more focused on classroom music than barbershop, but it gives a useful insight into some of the same questions we face.

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