In March 2017, Natalie Hyacinth was awarded funding by the Imaginaries of the Future Research Network to attend and present at the Utopia After the Human symposium at Cornell University, New York. The symposium took place from the 11th-12th April 2017 at Cornell’s College of Human Ecology. The symposium is the fifth of six symposia organised by the Imaginaries of the Future Leverhulme International Research Network based at Newcastle University. The network seeks to develop conceptual and political strategies for re-thinking the future and the diverse bodies that will inhabit it. Previous iterations of the symposia series are entitled; Utopia at the Border held in Regensburg, Germany and Utopian Bodies and the Media, held in Montréal, Canada.
The symposium programme contained a dynamic and eclectic range of academic and non-academic speakers including architects, activists, philosophers and even a mortician! Many speakers presented their thoughts on concepts of utopia and the human from an interdisciplinary perspective such as Kristin Miller who examined the visual and philosophical ways humans are depicted in the post-apocalyptic, climate crisis film genre.
Other speakers drew from the emerging discipline of Utopian Studies such as Jolene Rickard’s inspiring and visionary talk entitled ‘Illustrating the (Indigenous) Future Imaginary’. Jolene spoke on how indigenous imagination has often encompassed utopian, future orientated themes within its cosmology.
Natalie presented her paper entitled ‘blue flowers/black technê’ in the ‘Race and the Construction of the (Post)Human’ panel. The paper was centred on Dr Octagon’s 1996 Blue Flowers track and explored the role of sampling in hip hop as a sonic utopian practice. Natalie’s paper touched on themes of Afro-futurism, the post-racial and the particularity of black diasporic engagement with sonic technology as a means of self ‘knowing’ and survival. The paper sought to highlight the under-discussed role of sampling in the development of electronic music and how it shaped underground music genres from drum & bass to dubstep. The paper also demonstrated how hip hop’s unique production methods strives towards a utopian, post-human position in which one identifies intimately with sonic-technological objects more so than the human.
In relation to this, Natalie has also been commissioned by the Imaginaries of the Future network to perform at their final symposium, Utopia, Now! at the Chelsea College of Arts on 29th-31st August 2017. Natalie will curate a special dub performance showcasing the history of dub sounds and textures using the traditional three way set up of a record player, mixer and a classic dub siren sonic box. Natalie will talk briefly as part of her performance about the production of dub as a sonic utopian practice.
During her stay in New York, Natalie co-organised a seminar at The City University of New York’s Graduate Centre within the Advanced Research Collaborative department with fellow Royal Holloway University Landscape Surgeon, Katherine Stansfeld.
Natalie’s paper entitled ‘Out of Place: Rap, Religion and Spatial Identity in West London’s suburbia’ introduced her research into hip hop practiced and performed at the Ealing Christian Centre in the west London suburb of Ealing. Natalie discussed the broader research topic of faith in suburbia and how ideals of place complicate and converge with themes of identity and spirituality. Both Natalie and Katherine received thought provoking questions and feedback after presenting their papers, including interesting questions on methodological practice and how the approach to methods differs in the US and UK. Natalie had a great discussion with the Director of the Advanced Research Collaborative, Professor Dan Robotham who queried whether different patterns of migration affected how black masculinity is perceived and performed in both countries. This led to an enlightened discussion on histories of migration, identity and performance.
Natalie was also happy to have been invited to be a Visiting Fellow at The City University of New York’s Brooklyn College Africana Studies department. Natalie presented a series of papers on her research into suburban London hip hop and Black British identity. Natalie was also affiliated with the Black Male Initiative Centre within the Africana Studies department during her stay. The Centre seeks to test and implement pioneering strategies to improve black male academic retention throughout university and beyond. Natalie worked with the Centre in thinking through some of these strategies and how black academic success rates could be enriched overall.
As part of her fellowship, Natalie presented a two-part paper series at the centre entitled: ‘Hip Hop and Hyper-Masculinity; An Alternative Cartography’ in which she explored ideas of black masculinity, hip hop and cultural geography. Natalie discussed the particularities of being a black, male suburban rapper and the ways in which suburbia was constructed as inauthentic and the antithesis to an imagined hip hop ‘blackness’. In relation to this tension between space and racial identity formation, Natalie introduced her concept of a ‘spatial authenticity’ prevalent in hip hop culture. The seminar attendees discussed how the term could be used as a conceptual tool to understand how certain spaces are constructed in the racial imagination in comparison to others.
Natalie felt truly inspired by her discussions whilst in the department with students and staff alike. The Black Male Initiative’s goal to strengthen the rate of black male academic success is a project that is particularly close to Natalie’s heart and personal interests. She found spending time in such a dynamic and positive place both inspiring and strengthening.
Natalie also visited the Frederick Douglass Academy in Harlem to give a talk to high school students about her journey from a non-traditional academic background to undertaking a PhD. The students were interested in Natalie’s journey and asked for tips on how to enter academia. Natalie enjoyed this lively exchange with students and sharing of knowledge very much. It was Natalie’s hope to inspire young people from similar backgrounds to pursue higher education despite any social or economic barriers.
Overall Natalie had a wonderful time in New York and learned a great deal on how cultural geography is practiced across the pond. She received much insight for her own research into ideas on race and space in another large multicultural city. Natalie enjoyed presenting in various departments at the City University of New York and the many subsequent academic conversations that took place. The students at Frederick Douglass Academy made a particular impact on Natalie as their enthusiasm invigorated her journey to a PhD. She hopes to return to the school and the colleges after she has graduated to continue sharing in knowledge.