The MMRC lecture is an annual event of the Music and Minorities Research Center (MMRC). Due to the hybrid format in which this year’s event was held, the audience (altogether ca. 130 individuals) was able to participate both in the mdw’s Joseph Haydn-Saal and online via Zoom. It was also possible to watch the MMRC Lecture as a live stream. The evening was moderated by MMRC head Ursula Hemetek, and words of greeting were provided by Rector Ulrike Sych.

Minority-Concept and Identity
Ursula Hemetek © Stephan Polzer

The MMRC, founded in 2019 by Ursula Hemetek as an ethnomusicological research centre at the mdw, is devoted to ethnomusicological minority research. The three research projects currently situated at the MMRC focus on music in the context of migration and displacement as well as Vienna’s musical diversity. This year’s MMRC lecture once again saw a yet-to-be-featured topic of the MMRC placed front and centre: the project of continually examining minorities’ conceptualisation from various standpoints. This choice of themes was based on the observation that political activism by various marginalised communities has increasingly come to feature the questioning of rigid identity-concepts. Invariably, this leads to the questioning of political struggles that are based on traditional notions of identity. It also affects various musical practices.

Identity and Societal Power Relations

Socially disadvantaged groups are faced with the following problem: in order to fight for their “own” rights, it is necessary to define “their own”, to create a “we”, to find and represent shared concerns. Such definitional processes, however, can only take place by way of dissociation from the “Other”—thereby producing instances of exclusion. It is frequently the case that, sooner or later, this leads individuals from a socially disadvantaged group to question their group’s self-definition and point out concerns that are marginalised within the group itself—such as lesbian issues in the women’s movement, or the issues of trans*, inter*, and non-binary persons in gay and lesbian movements.

Kiki House of Dive © Stephan Polzer

Approaches based on queer theory place a central focus on phenomena of inclusion and exclusion produced by the power relations in a given society by pointing out that the resulting societal norms determine what forms of identity are actually thinkable and able to be seen: in a society, for example, in which gender is thought of as binary—i.e., divided into the categories of male and female—individuals who perceive themselves as being outside of this binary are confronted with the fact that their identities go unrecognised in many areas of everyday life, from filling out forms to using public restrooms. In order to lend validity to identities that have been marginalised in this way, a “queering” of identity—i.e., a project of questioning and expanding identity and embracing ambiguity with a critical eye towards power—is proposed that renders thinkable and visible those forms of identifying oneself that are absent from standard notions of identity, thereby empowering individuals.

Kiki House of Dive © Stephan Polzer

“Do you feel seen?” was the central question of the first performance by Kiki House of Dive, which opened the evening. Starting from personal experiences had by members of this voguing house, the performers used texts and dance to deal with the various premises, owed to societal conditions and the associated oppression, that are available to people in order to be seen; with how much representation is accorded to which forms of being; and with the fact that dance and their house offer them space in which to feel accepted and free.

Political Struggles and Caring for One Another through Music
Thomas Hilder © Stephan Polzer

Thomas Hilder, in his lecture, interwove his own involvement in LGBTQ+ choirs with a historical overview covering the past few centuries of gay and lesbian and LGBTQ+ history in Europe and the USA. In doing so, he placed a central focus on pieces of music that have been important to the various communities in various contexts. In the process, he also reflected on the various forms of oppression and challenges faced by LGBTQ+ communities in the past and—quite differently across the world’s various regions and countries—in the present. In light of his current research, Hilder showed how the kind of community it takes to form a choir can also serve to fight together for common goals as well as care for one another. To this end, it is necessary to critically question and expand upon traditions and practices—like the widespread division into women’s and men’s parts or even entire women’s and men’s choirs that is inherent to music and inimical to trans* people, or the fact that it is frequently white, male, middle-class issues that stand at the forefront of LGBTQ+ battles—i.e., social stances that lead to privileges for individual people within a marginalised community.

Music and Social Justice

The universalisation of such privileged positions was an important priority in Rasika Ajotikar’s response to Thomas Hilder’s lecture. In this context, she pointed out how the widespread practice of applying theorisations of race from the United States to India’s caste system fails to do justice to the latter, since it entirely ignores the economic aspects of caste. She therefore proposed paying greater attention to the aspect of social status and material exploitation in the context of social justice, since these are of particular importance in neoliberal societies. Drawing on her work together with activists and musicians from an anti-caste movement in the western Indian province of Maharashtra, the lecturer then traced the transformation of the significance attached to the parai, a frame drum that was long considered unclean and that Dalit—the former “untouchables” who occupied the lowest level of India’s officially abolished caste system—were frequently forced to play. She demonstrated how various present-day parai-playing practices have even caused a former symbol of oppression to be viewed by some as a symbol of resistance, being used to musically formulate opposition to oppression. However, this frequently occurs at the cost of this instrument’s de-politicisation (manifested as a lack of attention to its history) and the after-the-fact romanticisation of the caste system, thus not necessarily making a contribution to greater social justice or actual improvement of the situation faced by the Dalit. For this reason, this practice of reframing is controversial among anti-caste activists.

Kiki House of Dive © Stephan Polzer
Solidarity Across Politics of Identity

In the discussion that ensued, ideas were advanced with regard to possibilities of forming alliances across and beyond separate identity politics-based approaches that amount to more than simply an essentialist understanding of identity but still recognise experiences of discrimination due to specific regional and historical circumstances in order that emancipatory struggles, such as those associated with anti-racist and anti-sexist causes, are not used against each other but can rather become a shared effort for greater social justice characterised by mutual understanding.

This event was concluded with a second performance in which Kiki House of Dive members introduced central elements of voguing in connection with their political contexts.

Kiki House of Dive © Stephan Polzer
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