Malcolm James in a blue tracksuit, in front of a white background.
Author Malcolm James. Courtesy Bloomsbury

How Technology, Politics, and Perception Transformed the Role of Music in Black Life

Malcolm James examines the genres of reggae, jungle music, and grime in his new book, “Sonic Intimacy.”
By Tom Morris
January 2, 2021
2 minute read

Malcolm James, a senior lecturer in media and cultural studies at England’s University of Sussex, examines the relationship between sound and sociality in his new book, Sonic Intimacy: Reggae Sound Systems, Jungle Pirate Radio, and Grime YouTube Music Videos (Bloomsbury). It’s a thoughtful, scrupulous study, demonstrating how technology, politics, and perception have influenced the role of music in Black life. We recently spoke with James about what “sonic intimacy” means, and what we stand to lose if it disappears.

“‘Sonic intimacy’ is a term I coined to explain that feeling when people go out to a dance, or a club, and describe it as ‘having a really good energy’ or a ‘wicked vibe.’ That’s sonic intimacy: the intimate relationship that we, as individuals, have as a collective with sound. It’s not romantic—it’s a question of presence, proximity, and intimate knowledge.

This book came from my experience of growing up, going to raves, and listening to jungle [music] and pirate radio. I connected that with today’s younger kids, who make grime music videos for YouTube, and thought about what changed when we moved away from pirate radio architectures and independent record stores to [the internet].

Jungle, for instance, was a multiethnic sound culture that was made for everybody [when it emerged in the early 1990s]. There were few videos at the time, so there was little evidence of the skin color of the person who was making the music—it was instead judged on which track had the rudest baseline, or the best energy. This meant freedom in sound, and of a demand beyond the forms of racism.

But when we get to YouTube music videos, the visuals start to dominate, meaning we automatically start coding based on the [artist’s] skin color, the clothing they’re wearing, and other signifiers of class. The video is re-racialized again, because people today listen with their eyes, not their ears. This changes the quality of the sound, too.

Sonic culture has become so visual. It’s all shifted online—the driving center of where the core consumption is done. The question for me in the book is, ‘What’s at stake in that?’”