The Mediapolis Q&A: Malcolm James’s Sonic Intimacy

Helen Kim speaks to Malcolm James about his book, Sonic Intimacy: Reggae Sound Systems, Jungle Pirate Radio and Grime YouTube Music Videos.

In this instalment of our Q&A series, Helen Kim interviews Malcolm James about his book Sonic Intimacy: Reggae Sound Systems, Jungle Pirate Radio and Grime YouTube Music Videos (Bloomsbury Academic, 2021).

Helen Kim: Your book is such a thoughtful and incredibly insightful exploration of the relationship between sound, music, politics, and race. One of the first things that you do in the book is to introduce how you understand and then use the key concept of the ‘sonic’. Can you explain how you understand the term and why it is important to view sound cultures in this way? 

Malcolm James: Thanks for asking this Helen. As you say, the book is an exploration of sound, music, politics, and race. In that exploration, I use the term ‘sonic’ because it helps us think about the way in which sound is both relational and cultural. I mean relational in terms of the waves of air pressure that register on the ears and body and cultural in terms of how those relations become meaningful, individually, collectively, and socially. So sonics are culturalised sound relations.

The book needed a wider relational and cultural understanding of the sonic than sound alone because I wanted to think about sound and the social in relation, and the relation of those to technology. I wanted to deal with the relations between the technology of pirate radio infrastructure and car speakers, the sound of jungle music, and the social formations of the junglist massive in John Major’s Britain, for example. So sonics, in this book, collects sound, technology, and the social through a relational and cultural approach.

Relationality more broadly is central to the method of the book. I’m working here with Édouard Glissant on Poetics of Relation and Raymond Williams on cultural technology.1 Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997); Raymond Williams, Television: Technology and Cultural Form (London: Fontana, 1974). Those authors demonstrate the utility of a relational method for thinking beyond essentialism and social or technological determinism. But more specifically still, I am working with Kodwo Eshun and Alexander Weheliye’s different developments of the techno-social-sonic, which on the one hand allows us to understand the development of modernity writ large through the tensions between these three dimensions, whilst also placing Black diasporic sound cultures in modernity — thus avoiding the assignation of Black culture as primordial, which as we know is a racist caricature.2Sylvia Wynter and Katherine McKittrick, “Unparalleled catastrophe for our species? Or, to give humanness a different future: conversations,” in Sylvia Wynter: on being human as praxis, ed. Katherine McKittrick (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015); Sylvia Wynter, “Unsettling the coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: towards the Human, after Man, its overrepresentation-an Argument,” CR: The New Centennial Review 3, no. 3 (2003). My writing is more humanist than Eshun’s and closer therefore to Weheliye’s.

The other point about the sonic, which your question is getting at, is the relationship of the sonic to modernity, and indeed its alternative relationship to a dominant modernity – dominant modernity as described by Sylvia Wynter’s ‘Man2’ — logocentric, visual, capitalist-profiteering, Darwinian, Malthusian and patriarchal (and indeed destructive on ecological terms too).3Michael Bull, Sounding out the City: Personal Stereos and the Management of Everyday Life (Oxford: Berg, 2000)., 2. The sonics I discuss are resolutely modern, as I have said, but they also, on account of their sonic condition, exist in alternative relation to this dominant modernity. This means that they carry alternative versions of the modern project. Under the thoroughly modern projects of racism, slavery, colonialism and class, sound cultures find an affinity with Black Atlantic life; they become the vehicle, in the context of visual-racial ideological schema through which, as W.E.B. Du Bois says, a greater human freedom is communicated, for Black people and the world.

I also show, as Fred Moten does too, how sonic and visual cultures are within each other. This is necessary because in order to get to the point of the book where the screen sings – in grime YouTube music videos – I need to acknowledge how the visual in the reggae sound system contributes to its sonic materiality too.

To return to the main point, the reason why I detail the alternative cultural politics of Black diasporic sound cultures in modernity is because they matter fundamentally as political resources, and so there is something profound at stake in their transformation too. That was the starting question for the book, and also the ending one, in that it is still unresolved, for me.

HK: You offered a wonderful, thought-provoking argument in the introduction to Lefebvre’s ‘rhythmanalyst’ sensitivity to sound and how he likened it “to times than to spaces.” That really intrigues me because it draws out a way of thinking about the distinctly diasporic nature of the sonic. Firstly, do you think that to think or to be sensitive to the diasporic in these rhythms or practices is to be more sensitive to time? And relatedly, what do you think is specifically diasporic here about the Black diasporic sonics that you’re talking about? 

 MJ: This is a really intriguing question, Helen, and I’m not sure I have fully resolved that in the book, or that I can fully resolve that here. I will need to write this out with greater time and attention than permitted in this format. I hope you don’t mind if, on that basis I offer some more cursory thoughts, and perhaps you might elaborate yours too.

Alongside Lefevbre, here is a nice quote from my Sussex colleague Michael Bull that helps me think this through, and that I indeed use for teaching. Bull says,

Sound is essentially non spatial in character, or rather sound engulfs the spatial, thus making the relation between subject and object problematic. Sound inhabits the subject just as the subject might be said to inhabit sound, whereas vision, in contrast to sound, represents distance, the singular, the objectifying.4Bull, Sounding out the City, 2.

Bull is developing something that we have already been discussing, and which I address implicitly in the book, which is the different relation that sound has to the visual, in a phenomenological sense. So, space and the spatial are related to the visual, and the way that we measure distance and establish subject and object relations with our eyes. The attention to time in Lefebvre is to note that sound does not function this way. When we are in a dance, for example, we hear and feel the reverberation of bodies, speakers, and architecture together, so subject-objective relations and notions of visual distance collapse. We’ve all experienced that. What we become more aware of is the passing of time. Within our current regimes that might be the time called by the recurrent bleeps and tweets of our digital devices, but in the reggae sound system, the temporalities of the sonics are not a version of the clockwise (the extension of the factory clock) but of the dubwise, an alternative temporality of modernity, with alternative politics and possibilities. When we think of Black diasporic culture then on these terms, what we become attendant to is both the distortion of time through sound, or maybe better said, the movement minor to the dominant chronometer, and in that there is the possibility for a more radical and transcendent travel, in which the experience of the sound system opens up other times, which are of course ghosts in the music and in the imagination of the revellers. These are radical because of the disruption to clocktime, but also radical because of the ways in which they break down the spatial boundaries of the nation in a diasporic sense. Paul Gilroy has this lovely line in Ain’t no Black which is evocative of this: “As the sound system wires are strung up and the lights go down, dancers are transported anywhere in the diaspora without altering the quality of their pleasures.”5Paul Gilroy, There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack: The Cultural Politics of Race and Nation (London: Routledge, 2002 [1987]), 284.

So, Gilroy calls our attention to travel through the diaspora, perhaps as a Hornsey sound system transports revellers towards Jamaica or West Africa. I have often thought of this passage in spatial terms. But now you ask the question, I wonder maybe if it makes more sense to think of this sonic diasporic movement in terms of time.

HK: You introduce the term “conjuncture” in the final few pages of the introduction, and you use it to describe the different sound cultures that you go on to elaborate upon in later chapters in the book. When I think about the term and the kind of analysis to which it is referring, I think of Stuart Hall’s work and his insistence on the importance of a “conjunctural analysis” that takes seriously why this moment and thing matters in relation to other things and moments. I feel like this underpins how you understand/see/utilize the sonic, and why you talk about and unpack these sound cultures. Did I get that right? And can you elaborate on how you understand conjunctural and conjuncture? Why do you use that term to describe these sound cultures? 

MJ: It’s exactly as you say, Helen, and the reason why I use the conjunctural approach is because in order to understand the multiple transformations through the three sound cultures I explore in the book, I need to locate them in their times, and in relation to the forces that characterise those times. I need to show how the reggae sound system, jungle pirate radio, and grime YouTube music videos are characteristic of the energies of their respective moments (the 1970s, 1990s, 2010s). I also use a conjunctural approach to draw multiple lines between the three moments, such that their transformation can be evaluated. Using a conjunctural approach then, the book can follow the fluctuations of economy, society, and social structure, and also the threads of culture, sonics, intimacy and politics.

HK: In thinking about the intimacy of the jungle pirate radio “micro-massive,” you describe how DJs were often talking with the audience and not to the audience. In contrast, in the final chapter of YouTube and grime videos, you quote Tricks’s use of the word “anyone” in referring to how “anyone” on YouTube can watch their videos and it means an “empty figure”.6Malcolm James, Sonic intimacy (London: Bloomsbury, 2020), 88. I think that’s really fascinating and I just wonder how neat of a contrast this is to go from jungle’s micromassive and co-presence to grime’s deterritorialization. Do you think that you’re setting up a bit of a binary here, or that readers might think that you are? I think it might come across that way when/where you emphasise the ways that intimacy and co-presence were created, nurtured, and maintained within the practices of jungle pirate radio, versus the cold algorithms of YouTube “produced far away from grime’s local realities”?

MJ: I understand how it can be read that way, but it is a reading I try to avoid. In the introduction, I write against these kinds of approaches to cultural analysis. The method for the book, which is relational, is partly employed to avoid these kinds of reductions. For that reason, I prefer to think of the dynamics of the argument as taking up multiple strands which are relational and dynamic. That is not also to say I deny a shift in sonic intimacy between the pirate radio moment and the YouTube one, and I do also think that matters in the terms you note, but that is also one movement among many. For example, I also note the persistence of alternative wisdoms, and the return in grime of the human voice, which offers a different urgency. So, I am resolutely not saying that alternative politics of Black diasporic sound cultures have been captured, or anything of the sort, I am also not proposing a binary for that kind of capture, and I am also saying that the shifts from autonomous economic organisation to social media capitalism, and the changes in mutuality and collectivity therein do matter, on the terms by which Black diasporic sonics, and Black diasporic sound culture has been said to be free. But as I say, this is still an open question for me, and there is much more work to do on this.

HK: Your answer to my second question on diasporic sonics is probably one of the most beautiful passages on time, and its relationship to sound and diaspora, that I’ve ever read! Your descriptions of time, dominant “clocktime” as you call it, and the diasporic alternatives to that time, are just so evocative. I too, think, that we’ve always read diasporicity as journeying/moving through space. After reading your book, it made me re-think that entire framework of thinking about diasporicity as a process and condition that we frame through movement and space, when in fact, it could be told and is often told and understood through alternative times and durations. You included Gilroy’s wonderful quote: “As the sound system wires are strung up and the lights go down, dancers are transported anywhere in the diaspora without altering the quality of their pleasures.”7Gilroy, There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack, 287.

This word “anywhere” makes me think of Nadia Ellis’s evocation of the diasporic imagination as “elsewhere”.8Nadia Ellis, Territories of the Soul: Queered Belonging in the Black Diaspora (North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2015), 1. I think, as you’ve pointed out, that we tend to think of it in terms of space, but I think that this insistence on it being so devoid of a particular location makes it more akin to sound and time. And not to reduce music to this, but if you had to distil the feeling of music and being there in the music, and the relationality of being in the music together, I think the phrase “movement through time” seems closest to that distillation. 

Turning to a previous point you made about diasporic sonics and time, you very eloquently wrote that Levebvre’s analysis on time helps illuminate that close relationship, phenomenologically speaking, between sound and time, in contrast to  that of the visual and spatial.  Relating this to intimacy, I circle back to words that evoke closeness and distance, and  they tend to be used to outline those characteristics of intimacy. But thinking about your analysis and use of sonic intimacy, across all different moments of Black diasporic sonics, suggests that this whole time (no pun intended), perhaps, while we’re always thinking or relating intimacy through space, we should be more attentive to how intimacy is about time and its movement through time. It also then offers, as you said, a way of looking at these movements not through some sort of binary, where sound system culture was warm, close, and collective and YouTube videos of grime as devoid of this.  

You mentioned that you wanted to convey how the “screen sings” in relation to my question about the sonic and visual culture.  This describes my memory of watching Steve McQueen’s Small Axe (2020) and the scene in the episode “Lovers Rock.” All the things you talked about were there in that scene and in fact the whole episode: the vibe, the co-presence, and thus, the intimacy. It was apparently something that supposedly happened spontaneously, rather than something that was scripted. While the medium in this case was film and therefore visual, the visual receded and the sonic took over in that time, in that scene, where there was this co-presence. Moreover, that sense of time, of repetition, that many call dub-time, was there in the way that the characters kept repeating the lines and the chorus. Yet, due to the nature of the visual medium of the film, that sense of dub-time and losing time, falling in, was cut short. I wonder about the ways that we constantly get to know that which is sonic and rhythmic in nature, through other mediums, such as through interviews and documentaries; through what people are saying about this as opposed to hearing and feeling it.  So, what do you think about the process of having to relay the sonic through writing? How do you feel that you were able to get close to it through the writing of it?

MJ: I really like the way you draw attention to the many visual metaphors that we use, even when we are addressing a form of intimacy that is sonic. To try and work through a proper language for sonic intimacy that addresses sonic intimacy on its terms, implies a creative shift from the dominant that would open up an array of possibilities to think and live. That appeals to me greatly as part of a wider project of alternative registers and the political resources they offer.

I completely agree with you about that “Lovers Rock” episode of Small Axe. I have used clips from the film for teaching the sonic intimacy of the sound system. I was particularly taken by the movement in and out of the dance, the spin of collective energy, almost a cypher, that maintains equilibrium pulling people in as well as occasionally spilling them out. That is what it is like to dance together. Monique Charles talks about this as a kind of vortex effect.9Monique Charles, “Grime and spirit: on a hype!,” Open Cultural Studies, no. 3 (2019).

The translation, then, between the sonic and the visual or textual is a very interesting question. I agree that McQueen makes his visuals for temporalities and flows of the sound system. So, we are in the unusual situation as a viewer where the sonic is not subordinated to the visual. And you are right to say too, as we evaluate the merits of that film technique for opening sonic temporalities, that we might also find alternative registers to the visual in narrative and story forms. So, it is not only Black diasporic sonic culture that has an alternative relationship to dominance — I fully agree.

In my book, I was concerned with the translation between the sonic and the written. I wanted to bring sound into the text, and to try and make it move to the rhythms and feeling of the times. To help that I listened to dub, jungle, and grime as I wrote the corresponding chapters. I did that because I wanted to convey through the pacing, tempo, spaces, and pauses of writing what sonic intimacy was/is, as the music communicates.

I also tried to convey the sense of intimacy through the use of allegory. So, certain passages of the book are more suggestive of connections and touches, in keeping with the sonic intimacy of their times; in keeping if you like with the way in which the feelings, atmospheric disjunctures, half-filled certainties, and floating associations operate in a dance, to build something whole and deeply meaningful.

Speaking of “Lovers Rock,” it was often seen as being less masculinist and “softer” than reggae and from what I understand, it seemed to represent a different moment and outlook. I was very much struck by your analysis of the different registers of jungle pirate radio, namely, the quieter ones in bedrooms, and the shout outs to the girls in their bedrooms. In your last response, you said that you tried to address issues of masculinity and patriarchy baked into relationships with technology that perhaps Weheliye was less attentive to in his earlier work, and I like how you did that in the pirate radio chapter. Your descriptions of territoriality, and of male producers, point to the masculinist tendencies, but you also hint at the moments and registers where the kind of masculinist hype (also facilitated by other things like E and the politics of the dancefloor) allowed for other ways of relating to the micro-massive.

Your question on the different forms of masculinity or gendered relations that were possible in the jungle rave is an interesting one, and I am aware that you will provide a better answer to this than me, so please respond too. I think I would say that in general that jungle dances were heteronormative — they were not queer, although gay men and women attended. This normativity is sometimes explained as a regression from the more open gendered codes of acid house, but there is a more complex politics of gender going on because the Black and working-class cultural conditions of jungle require us also to think about how its patriarchal politics were related to the emasculation of Black and working-class men by the state. So, jungle patriarchy cannot be discussed without reference to its formation on the street at the hands of the police, the industrial city, the colony, and the plantation.

Most of the people on the billing of jungle raves and pirate radio shows, the DJs and MCs) were young men, although there were also a significant presence of unacknowledged women, as Julia Toppin notes. But on the dancefloor and on the radio phone-ins there are many young women too. So young women are central to jungle culture, in the rave, in the call and response of the pirate radio. The shout outs to “girls in their bedrooms,” or to “Anita from Charlton” were commonplace, and memorable, even as they also identified the patriarchal public politics in operation.

One Nation NYE Party 1997. Still from film footage by Tom Cordell “One Nation NYE 1997,” Vimeo, 1997, accessed 20th January, 2020,

HK: You pay close attention to the ways that writing would reflect the “modulations of those moments.” In re-reading your grime chapter, I really felt that. The brevity of some of those sentences really managed to convey the coldness (and the coldness of grime) of the speeding up of capitalism! It is amazing how writing has that ability to translate those moments and suffuse it with a quality of immediacy as well as carry and deliver the affective. I could feel the warmth, the coldness, the agonism, and the hope. 

 Relatedly, I have re-started my guestworker diaspora project, or rather, entered a new phase with it, in that I’ve gotten in touch with more people whose parents were guestworkers and had settled in the US. I want to start a digital archive to provide a repository of photos of them from their time in Germany as well as in the US. But I want it to be more than just a photo archive. I want to make sure that the oral histories are there and are co-present because their stories are, indeed, not subordinate to those images. Those images only provide the outlines and frames to their memories, thoughts, and feelings. I mean, it is pretty obvious and basic, but a good reminder still in terms of doing research.

 So, a quick question for you. I also think about this notion of intimate knowledge and ‘daily Livity’ and wisdom versus the way that you use structures of feeling in the next section on jungle pirate radio. It seems to me that there are overlaps here between the two (daily Livity) and these structures of feeling. Do you see it this way, or do you see them as being distinct and different? Also, maybe if you could just expand on how you understand structures of feeling in jungle pirate radio, that would be great. 

MJ: Yes, you’re right. I do understand the Livity of sound systems as a form of wisdom, as an alternative system of knowledge, that I locate in relation to a moment characterised by a particular structure of feeling, to use Raymond Williams’ term. The structure of feeling of the sound system, and wider society, is characterised by the crisis of capitalism in the post-war period; the ensuing authoritarian populism that Stuart Hall writes about; and for Black people, extremely belligerent forms of structural, institutional, and street-level racism.10Stuart Hall, “Popular Democratic vs Authoritarian Populism: Two Ways of ‘Taking Democracy Seriously’,” in Marxism and Democracy, ed. Alan Hunt (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1980); Stuart Hall et al., Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State, and Law and Order (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1978). And the structure of feeling of the sound system is characterised by the forms of kindship and community that surround it. Within that emerging autonomous infrastructure, forms of wisdom circulate (Livity), that exceed mainstream capitalist information, and that pertain to alternative knowledges about daily experience, policing, and indeed internationalism.

The quality of that wisdom transforms as society moves into the 1990s. The story of Thatcherism is well told, and the John Major government (ended by ‘sleaze’, something that the tabloids still remember as their short-lived attack on Boris Johnson showed) burns out amid the firing up of global capitalist pace. The city and the image of the yuppie are still central, but so too are high levels of unemployment and inner-city deprivation, experienced particularly heavily by Black and Asian people. Major’s government no longer feels to anybody like a natural conductor for those energies (as Thatcher’s had), and the casino chic of Tony Blair is ushered in.

But before that happens, in the death knell of Major’s Tory administration, jungle pirate radio regulates the structure of feeling for the city of the unloved. Jungle pirate radio’s structure of feeling is of its time, certainly in terms of speed, immediacy and agonism, and it is of its time in terms of its mutualities and collectivities, which have a longer history in the vernacular welfarism of Black and working-class communities. Jungle pirate radio (its transmissions and phone-ins) extends these structures of feelings, both their dominant and alternative formations, across the city bringing a new form of metropolitan community into being – “the massive.” The irony here is that this technology, that becomes archetypical of the structure of feeling of the day, is as old as that which it surpasses – the sound system. What I mean is, radio, telephony, and sound system technology – the speakers and amplifiers anyway – are all early twentieth century technologies, but jungle pirate radio repurposes them, meshing them together, to create a technological system of dialogue that matches up to the rhythm of communication of the time. Indeed, we might even say, as Tom Cordell and I recently have elsewhere, that it foreshadows the forms and speeds of communication that have become commonplace in the social media era.11Tom Cordell and Malcolm James, “Mutualism, massive and the city to come: Jungle Pirate Radio in 1990s London,” Soundings 77 (2021). Within that, there are forms of alternative wisdom, as there were with the reggae sound system, that flow through pirate radio. These communicate knowledge of the pleasures and glitchy darkness of the city; of dislocation, loneliness, and rebel masculinity; and of a plural intelligence of suburbs, market towns, the inner city, and their attendant genres of soul, reggae, hip hop, and hardcore.

So, the forms of wisdom in the different conjectures are connected and understood together with corresponding structures of feeling. These wisdoms are systems of knowledge that are not commodified, not owned or proprietary, and as such are alternative to racial capitalist information streams.

Defection FM ‘Be Gentle with the Crossfader’.
“Massive shout going out,” Miku’s Musik / Select, 1993,, accessed 11th April, 2020.

HK: I wanted to ask about your conclusion in the grime and YouTube video chapter and why you left it there on the re-colour coding of anger, of sonic mutualisms. This was very compelling, but I wanted to read more on that! It really fits with the “grimey” form of sonic intimacy that you argue was generated in and through the deep wisdom and knowledge of these post-industrial places in the city, in the shadows of the mainstream, capitalist centres of the city (Tower Hamlets/Bow to Canary Wharf; the empty promises of the Olympic transformation). I know you’ve covered it before, but I just wanted to know a bit more about those registers of racism and the activations of pressure. 

 This leads me back to the start and to the end of your book when you talked about Nadia Rose and her show at The Village Underground in Shoreditch. I completely agree with you and remember that night and the soporific audience. But one thing that really stands out about the night is the fact that it was staged and experienced live, in a venue, however unfeeling the audience was that night. And this is more about grime itself and grime nights. I feel this way about grime and the last “wave” of it in London is in how those registers of that grime-y intimacy were also being played out in physical places/spaces dotted throughout the city on any given night. I wonder whether you had any thoughts on those registers and where that might fit into these media ecologies and the crisis of neoliberal capitalism, and even in those registers of racism that you pointed out and how those play out in those spaces. 

MJ: That question builds nicely on what we were just discussing. The shift in the structure of feeling between the sound system and jungle pirate radio are relatively minor in comparison to that occasioned by the advent of social media capitalism (the grime YouTube music video moment), which more profoundly alters how we are, and how alternative Black diasporic cultural politics is done. To understand this moment, the one that we have been living fully since about 2010, we have to take a long view of Black diasporic sound culture, which is what the book does, paying attention to the freedom function of the sonic, in the context of visual and racial domination. It is in that way, and through tracing through the changing relation between the sonic and the visual, that we arrive at a productive discussion of what YouTube sound culture is.

To make that evaluation work, we need to hold a couple of additional factors in play, because we also need to think through changes in individuality with the racial re-coding of the body in grime YouTube music videos. Shifts in individuality have recently been engaged through discussions of neoliberalism and the rise of commodified subjectivities and micro-celebrities, pushed forward by social media. These run alongside the racial re-coding of Black diasporic music through the routine image of the performer’s body, which has established performative scripts which in many cases take precedence over the sonic ones.

The wider context of those changes is the displacement of autonomous dance music scenes (their social, place-based, economic, and ethical relations) by digital capitalist imperatives. That’s not to say that wisdom, mutualism and other forms of alternative cultural politics don’t persist — they absolutely do and I stress that, but the break towards the dominant on multiple registers is also substantial, such that while many grime music videos do connect the human to the cultural politics of the music, they also find it hard to exceed how that human is racialised in dominance, and therefore struggle, aside from exceptional visual productions, to engage planetary humanist configurations; configurations that Black diasporic sonics more routinely activated.

And you are right to say too, that this shift to YouTube, or to any of the three techno-social-sonic constellations I address isn’t total. There are absolutely overlaps. The sound system (of a different kind) is still a presence, we still go out and dance (the last year and a half notwithstanding). Grime is performed in countless youth clubs, school playgrounds, and in clubs and bedrooms across the UK. My first book Urban Multiculture addresses some of that moment. Those performances, as we see when Nadia Rose reaches for Snapchat on stage (the passage you mentioned in the book), are conditioned by the social mediation of Black diasporic music. As has happened with many of us, social mediation has become the ways through which the music is known and shared, through which subjectivities and the social are understood, and how the cultural politics are done. Those sound and music cultures still provide resources for young people to convey wisdom, to maintain forms of community and shape their collective understanding of the social. Those forms of sonic intimacy still exceed the dominant, but they also adjust to the social, sonic, and technological constellation of their time.

HK: I wanted to ask you about the significance of Japanese audio technology. At what point does this connection start? I know this is something you’re developing, and it might or might not actually figure in neatly to these moments, but I thought that I’d ask anyway. 

MJ: From the late 1980s onwards, Japanese sound technologies became mainstream, coinciding with new modes of youth consumption, habit, and spending power, and also coinciding with shifts away from craft, such as we saw in the sound system. This is a democratisation of technology (if one pushes a very thin understanding of the democratic). In the mid-1990s, you could buy a JBL sound system (called a ‘PA’ tellingly) off the shelf. Young people with low-paid jobs could afford quite powerful Sony and Akai home hi-fis which dealt (at least as the stickers plastered on them claimed) with x-bass, turbo-bass, and mega-bass. That was the commercial imprint of sound system-inspired tastes and listening practices. With a bit more money you could build home studios for music production using Roland emulators, or fit out the parcel shelf of your Ford Escort with Kenwood subwoofers. But as this thin democratisation occurs so too did a kind of desensitisation in the relationship between the artist and the technology.

What also happens here is that the sonic-technological story of the Black Atlantic that was configured between Jamaica, the US, UK, and West Africa — the reggae/dub one that Michael Veal writes about12Michael E. Veal, Dub: Soundscapes and Shattered Songs in Jamaican Reggae (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2007). — becomes also a story of Japan and latterly of South Korea and China when mobile technologies are factored in. That entails a revision in the postcolonial theorisation of Black diasporic sound culture. This particular absence, I suspect, might be reengaged, as the rise of China forces engagement with East Asian cultural and media studies – the accompanying orientalist gaze to the East implying that the role of Japan and South Korea might also be reassessed with China. We will see.

Thank you so much for sharing your idea for the guestworker diaspora project with me. It’s great to hear how it is shaping up, and the way that you are thinking about providing texture, and depth to the lives of that generation of South Korean migrants, in Germany and the US.

HK: Thanks for holding this space, as always, for us to think together. It’s so necessary to be reminded of the love and trust of good friends through thoughts and words, especially now. I don’t think I could do this with very many people. 

MJ: I completely agree. It has been really special sharing this with you, and now with whoever else reads it (which feels a bit unfamiliar). This kind of dialogue and co-production, which does entail intimacy, is certainly not possible with anyone and I am very grateful to you for accepting my invitation and joining me here to shape a conversation.


1 Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997); Raymond Williams, Television: Technology and Cultural Form (London: Fontana, 1974).
2 Sylvia Wynter and Katherine McKittrick, “Unparalleled catastrophe for our species? Or, to give humanness a different future: conversations,” in Sylvia Wynter: on being human as praxis, ed. Katherine McKittrick (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015); Sylvia Wynter, “Unsettling the coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: towards the Human, after Man, its overrepresentation-an Argument,” CR: The New Centennial Review 3, no. 3 (2003).
3 Michael Bull, Sounding out the City: Personal Stereos and the Management of Everyday Life (Oxford: Berg, 2000)., 2.
4 Bull, Sounding out the City, 2.
5 Paul Gilroy, There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack: The Cultural Politics of Race and Nation (London: Routledge, 2002 [1987]), 284.
6 Malcolm James, Sonic intimacy (London: Bloomsbury, 2020), 88.
7 Gilroy, There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack, 287.
8 Nadia Ellis, Territories of the Soul: Queered Belonging in the Black Diaspora (North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2015), 1.
9 Monique Charles, “Grime and spirit: on a hype!,” Open Cultural Studies, no. 3 (2019).
10 Stuart Hall, “Popular Democratic vs Authoritarian Populism: Two Ways of ‘Taking Democracy Seriously’,” in Marxism and Democracy, ed. Alan Hunt (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1980); Stuart Hall et al., Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State, and Law and Order (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1978).
11 Tom Cordell and Malcolm James, “Mutualism, massive and the city to come: Jungle Pirate Radio in 1990s London,” Soundings 77 (2021).
12 Michael E. Veal, Dub: Soundscapes and Shattered Songs in Jamaican Reggae (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2007).
Helen Kim and Malcolm James, "The Mediapolis Q&A: Malcolm James's Sonic Intimacy," Mediapolis: A Journal of Cities and Culture 6, vol. 3 (June 2021)
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