Francesca Royster talks ‘Sounding Like a No-No’ on Left of Black

by Phillip Witteveen on April 29, 2013

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Author Francesca Royster appeared on Mark Anthony Neal’s Left of Black  to discuss her recent book  Sounding Like a No-No: Queer Sounds and Eccentric Acts in the Post-Soul Era. On the book’s title, which is taken from Grace Jones’ “Walking in the Rain,” Royster said, “‘sounding like a no-no’ was such a great line, because you just got this sense of taboo.”  This sense of taboo is central to the greater cultural investigation on black queerness the book is a part of, Royster said. Royster uses the word “queer” in a broader sense, to open up the conversation about eccentricity. “Eccentric was originally a mechanical description, referring to an engine that turns on its own pattern,  but is still connected to a machine.” Sounding Like a No-No, as Royster explains, is a book about a coming of age – both of “a history of post-soul queer pop performance,” but also a story about the individual engines who shaped and experienced that history.

With this in mind, Royster and host Mark Anthony Neal crack open the book’s central dialogue about black queerness in the context of many prominent artists of the post-soul era, from Eartha Kitt, to Stevie Wonder, to Michael Jackson. Eartha Kitt was a natural starting point for Royster because of her singular complexity as an artist in the cultivation of the voice of a stranger—”the growl underneath the purr.”  Kitt serves as “a model for taking objectified images of black sexuality, and pushing those images in a really self-conscious way,” Royster said. Kitt’s innovations over the broad span of her career, set the tone for the book and also for the era in many ways. “Grace Jones doesn’t make sense without Eartha Kitt,” added Neal, suggesting an artistic ancestry.

From Eartha Kitt, Royster and Neal discussed the cultural impact of Grace Jones,  Stevie Wonder, Eddie Murphy and Michael Jackson. “These artists are images or icons, but they’re also artists who have agency, working out some of their own artistic desires within the sphere of popular culture.”

You can get in on the whole conversation here.

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