Update on Current Research: Topics, Trajectories, and Obstacles

I just blinked my eyes a couple of times and realized it’s been over a month since I’ve posted here. I know, I know – you’ve been utterly distraught about it and just couldn’t imagine your virtual life without me in it, right? 😉  Well – you’re in luck. Here I go:

Flag of New Orleans

Image via Wikipedia

It’s odd how ethnomusicological projects seem to grow organically – they very quickly consume everything in their way. It can be exhilarating! It’s been a while since I’ve stepped back and taken inventory of my projects in progress, so I’m going to save us all some time and give you a list of bullets rather than a narrative. In order of current importance and time consumption:

  1. Street Musicians in New Orleans. My thesis topic. Through the lens of R. Murray Schafer‘s 1977 concept of the soundmark, I’m mapping street musicians in two New Orleans neighborhoods and simultaneously telling the story of their experiences. If I were to tag this project with key words it would be: street musicians, migrant street kids, NOLA, urban studies, tourist mapping, ethnography, oral history, and French Quarter fixtures. Where am I now? Fieldwork is done. Prospectus is done. Writing in progress.
  2. Black, Queer, and Bouncing in New Orleans. I’m researching the phenomenon of Sissy Bounce, which refers to a group of queer-identified hip-hop artists in New Orleans (notably most of them hate the term so I will not use it to define the genre which should just be under the umbrella of ‘Bounce’, simply the artists themselves and their identities).  I’ve been officially doing fieldwork for this project for about fifteen months, however it will be ongoing for quite a while. Issues of access and identity continue to arise. A couple of months ago, I presented a paper called, ““Is that thug wearing heels?” The Negotation of Identity in Sissy Bounce” at the 2011 Southern Graduate Music Research Symposium as part of a panel on liminality (what the hell does it mean to “negotiate identity” anyway?! I’ve since slapped myself for using this title per my advisor who made me [and others] realize it was an idiotic and empty phrase). I recently submitted an abstract to the Society of Ethnomusicology‘s Southeast and Caribbean regional chapter (SEMSEC) called “Big Freedia “the Queer Diva”: Black, Queer, and Bouncing out of New Orleans”. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that it gets accepted so I can present the paper at SEMSEC’s annual meeting, which is being held this year in the Dominican Republic (kudos to whomever had that brilliant idea!).  The first presentation was my attempt to introduce the Sissy Bounce phenomenon to the musicological community, and also my first attempt at a conference presentation! I was happy with both my paper and my presentation of it, though of course looking back there are a few things I would have added/modified. In this second presentation, I’ll be narrowing my topic to a case study of one particular artist, Big Freedia “the Queen Diva.” There are obstacles here as well. Once a local artist performing in dive clubs around town, Freedia’s popularity has shot through the roof and she’s now on an international touring circuit with looming rumors of a reality TV show. Access, access, access.  As a whole, I’m not sure what the trajectory of this project will be.  If there were tags for this one, they would be: gender, bounce, new orleans, black and queer, sexuality studies, Judith Butler, queer hip-hop, and reflexivity.
  3. THE MUHS PROJECT. And now for something completely different, sort of –  I’ve been working on a biographical archiving project since early this past summer. My subject is Marietta Muhs, an opera diva that grew up and out of New Orleans who landed in the NYC opera scene in the early-20th century. Obviously, this project leans towards the historical realm. I’m expecting this to take up quite a bit of time over the next several years. It’s a side project, but one that is allowing me to utilize the skills and resources I’m learning in my historical coursework. Tags here would include: New Orleans, New Orleans opera scene, Loyola U., NYC opera scene, and women in the 1950’s.
  4. Global hip-hop. Also a side project, it seems like for every regional topic class I take which requires a massive term paper/presentation at the end, I’m drawn not just to popular music, but to hip-hop. I’m currently researching hip-hop in South Africa and will be presenting on it sometime in the next few weeks in class. I’ve also delved into Indonesian and Indian hip-hop, and guest lectured a few times on Indonesian hip-hop over the past year. I’m also interested in hip-hop artist refugees coming out of various African war zones (e.g. Emmanual Jal). These things are constantly evolving, so I’m finding that social networking allows me to stay up-to-date with artists and genres without having to actively search them out after I’ve done the initial research.  Anyway, I just added this bullet because it seems to be a recurring theme in my life at the moment, and  I have a feeling that something will come out of it eventually. Of course it also links to the research I’m doing on hip-hop in NOLA.

Next year’s SEM/AMS/SMT mega conference is in New Orleans and I have a few pertinent topics, above, that I could attempt a paper submission for (though acceptance of the younger grad student papers is rare). I think that even though my thesis research is on street musicians, I’m eyeing NOLA Bounce as the topic I’d like to present on at SEM (though my abstract would likely be trashed at first sight).  Anyway – my thesis includes sonic mapping of street musicians, and I could come up with a great “field trip”  handout for people to go and see these soundmarks live since the presentation would be in New Orleans… much to think about. Not a lot of time to do it in.

Lastly, if you’ve followed this blog at all in the past few years, you probably know that my eventual dissertation topic will be  music in the Tibetan community of Dharamsala, India. Most folks who study Tibetan music tend to lean towards music for Buddhist ritual and traditional genres. My goal (big shock here) will be popular music – perhaps working with Lobsang Wangyal who organizes the Tibetan music awards from McLeod Ganj. With that said, I’ve also been peeking at the music of Bhutan and Nepal. Obstacles = language, money, accessibility, government regulations. Working on that.

Prayer Wheels at Tsuglagkhang Temple, McLeod Ganj.

Anyway – that’s my list of current projects and their potential trajectories. As for the day-to-day, it currently involves a giant stack of grading, 2-3 books to read per week, and as usual, hanging with the most fabulous musicologist-friends on the planet.  By Saturday, I hope to make another post  that illustrates how absolutely awesome the SEM conference was in Philadelphia last week.

Til then, Cheers!


  1. The way you write about project evolution makes me wonder: Does research funding not at all dictate your choice of projects? In engineering, for example, most grad students are only allowed to work on the projects that are funded through their advisors’ grants. Only the final dissertation topic is chosen, and sometimes even that feeds directly into a project grant.

    1. I have researchers-ADD. I can’t imagine limiting myself like that. No, research funding does not dictate my choice of projects because I have no research funding! When I begin my work on Tibet next year, I hope to seek out funding, but until then there’s no need for it. I live close enough to my research subjects for the New Orleans topics, and the hip-hop stuff is simply armchair research for now.

      I live only 5 hours away from New Orleans, so I go as often as possible. I lived there for 10+ years so I go often (sometimes a couple times per month) stay with friends, eat cheaply, and focus almost solely on research while I’m there (as opposed to when I lived there – it’s a completely different mindset but that’s another post)… Keep in mind that my research is mostly qualitative (as opposed to engineering) – no need for tons of equipment or software to do it. As for as equipment, I have a sweet Nikon D5100 with a few lenses, a Zoom HD, a Canon digital point-and-shoot, and a macbook with tons of bibliographic and ethnographic-friendly software. Sure it all helps, but once I’ve got it handy, I don’t need research funding for it. I guess keep in mind that I’m not traveling far 🙂

      Anyway Ailey – you don’t have any side projects?

      1. Interesting! I work on three research projects. They’re all funded: two through national grants and one through my graduate fellowship. Project 2 requires significant travel and Project 3 requires expensive lab equipment, but Project 1 didn’t “require” much money at all. However, the topic likely would never have been pursued had there been no dedicated research money coming in.

        It seems like there may be another difference here: only Project 2 is an independent project; Projects 1 and 3 are team projects, which is the norm for engineering. Are all of your research projects independent from any teamwork? (There are advantages and disadvantages to each, of course.)

    1. Team projects? That would be an interesting concept in the social sciences. The only thing that comes close to that is the co-authoring and co-editing of books, but most often the fieldwork is done separately even in those cases (for co-editing of course there are typically several authors)… Also consider that there is quite a bit more money in your field for research in the first place. I’ll start to look into funding this summer, but the likelihood of actually finding any is almost comical… which is perhaps why our grad assistantships and fellowships are $4000 per year and the sciences get $18,000+ (here at least)…

      1. Yep, I hear you. I remember what it was like doing research as a humanities undergrad; I just wasn’t as aware of the funding process then. Money vs. freedom: it sounds like a face-off for so many of today’s global issues.

  2. Yes, how do you get funding to these other projects? I’m rather confused but I wonder whether that’s because I’m not in the same field as you. In my discipline the funding model is much the same as Ailey’s.

    1. Hi Anthea! See my response comment to Ailey above 🙂 Above all, I don’t have any research funding because everything I do is close to home… for now. Next year when I need to start crossing oceans, I’ll solicit funding from every nook and cranny I can find! 🙂

  3. I came across this post while doing research on a vinyl to CD transfer for a client, the son of Arthur Cosenza & Marietta Muhs. He had some old acetates and 78s of his parents music in his garage, I’m in the process of transferring them now. Feel free to contact me if this is potentially useful to your research… Patrick

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