What is ‘authentic’ music? Contemporary American music is built on so many different cultures coming together, reflecting the amalgam that is American society. But the blues and soul music was very much the creation of African Americans, most of whom never knew the impact their songs would have on popular music in times to come. Starting with Elvis Presley, so much of the blues has been appropriated endlessly by white American singers, producers, songwriters. Generations of whitewashing African American art and expression have led to a giant mashup of musical genres and influences. Hari Kunzru’s latest novel White Tears explores this appropriation, as much as it does the haunting of those who continue to do it and the ghosts of the past they must reckon with.
Seth is a fairly lonely, faceless college student with few friends, little impact on those around him and solely interested in sound and audio when he meets Carter, who appears like a “hipster Jesus” and pulls Seth out of his “cockroach hole.” Carter’s father is a big Republican donor, his family business a “behemoth with tentacles in construction, logistics and energy, [that] had expanded since 9/11, helping America prevail in the War on Terror.” The two young men quickly connect over their shared love for music, though when they first hang out Seth is struck by the fact that everything Carter (who is very much a white, privileged man) plays him is black music, from Jamaican dub to “ska and soca, soul and RnB, ’70s Afrobeat and ’80s electro” to “early hip hop and free jazz and countless regional flavours of bass and juke music.”
It turns out that Carter listens to black music exclusively, worshipping it because it is “more intense and authentic than anything made by white people.” He often talks as if ‘white people’ were the “name of an army or a gang, some organisation to which he didn’t belong.” Seth realises that listening to old music now seems to have no ill effect on him, no “‘slippage’, no vertigo or ‘backward pull’” as it did previously, when he felt as if he were able to hear through time. He begins to enjoy Carter’s company and the advantages that come when he starts helping Carter out with DJ gigs on campus. Carter’s all-access lifestyle isn’t one that Seth can manage on his own, and once they graduate Seth finds himself at the fortunate end of Carter’s continued friendship with a job in music production alongside Carter in New York city, living a life he could never have afforded or even imagined on his own. Their appropriation of black music is something Seth does indeed recognise as wrong, confessing that the two “really did feel that our love of music bought us something, some right to blackness, but by the time we got to New York, we learned not to talk about it.”
A song takes on a life of its own, and lays bare the history of cultural appropriation
Walking around one day, Seth records a stranger singing, his voice buried under the street sounds of the city. When he and Carter clean up the audio, removing the other sounds from it until it is as clear as a cappella, Seth finds that what he thought were just a few lines are actually an entire performance of a song they’ve never heard before. It sounds — they are shocked to hear — “authentic.” Caught up in the sound of something so pure, they tinker with the song, adding the hiss and static and noise of time to make it “dirty.” They give it a name, say it’s by a man called Charlie Shaw and put it online. It’s all fun and games until the track is instantly accepted as a lost masterpiece and they are contacted by a man who insists he met Charlie Shaw in the ’50s — the same Charlie Shaw that Carter and Seth know never existed because they made him up. Or did they? The song they’ve appropriated takes on a life of its own, reminding them that no art comes without history and all history comes with its own set of ghosts — trauma and pain and fear filter through time to haunt us all.
I had a mouth, they said. No one liked a coon with a mouth. I worked. I rolled. I dumped the earth. And I knew that if one afternoon I fell in the heat, Captain Jack would set to until I died or got up again. ... That’s how they do. That’d how they drive you down. Because no one remembers me and no one living will ever hear my music, because I am down in the levee where it is cold and dark. How did it take me? What difference does it make? Typhoid. Heat stroke, an accident, my body broken or cut or crushed. — Excerpt from the book
The speculative aspect of White Tears runs through the book, starting with Seth’s strange ability to fall backwards through time when he listens to music. He calls himself a geologist of sound, always trying to hear into the past, “a hidden sound that lay underneath the everyday sounds I could hear without trying. Sure enough, after months of obsessive listening, a sound did make its presence known, but it wasn’t the one I’d hoped for. No pure high Buddha tone, no aural white light. I began to hear the past, the ambience of the room as it had been 10 years previously, then 20 years, then 50. The footsteps in the hall didn’t belong to my dad or my brother. They belonged to someone else.”
White Tears is a ghost story, a jinn story, a story of possession and passion and cruelty. It is as much about old-school blues and the appropriation of black music and culture as it is about the slave trade, imperialism and the weight of colonialism on all contemporary culture, when Seth is sent spiralling into the past as he tries to trace the origins of the song he recorded. Seth isn’t the most appealing of narrators; he’s frustrating and often spineless, but he’s the blank canvas we need in order to absorb Kunzru’s searing prose that — as with his last novel, Gods Without Men — glimmers with brilliance, often visceral and muscular.
The reviewer is a book critic and editor of the Apex Book of World SF 4. She also hosts the interview podcast Midnight in Karachi at Tor.com
By Hari Kunzru
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 23rd, 2017