Francesca Royster’s new book, “Sounding Like a No-No: Queer Sounds & Eccentric Acts in the Post-Soul Era,” packs a punch as big as its name suggests.
(The title comes from the song “Walking in the Rain” made memorable by diva Grace Jones in 1981: “Feeling like a woman, looking like a man, sounding like a no-no, mating when I can.”)
The book combines scholarship on African-American culture, gender studies and feminism, performance and creativity, as well as personal memoir, to show how certain artists have used “in-between space” to create an identity, encourage empathy, and promote joy.
In short, it’s all about the music.
“The musicians I cover—Eartha Kitt, Stevie Wonder, George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic, Michael Jackson, Grace Jones, and Meshell Ndegeocello—commandeered the world of pop and soul to speak to the experience of being different or quirky,” says Royster, a professor in the English department.
“They bent the rules, making music that was strange or taboo, and they used performance itself as an instrument. Their voices respond to the civil rights, black nationalist, feminist and LGBTQ movements, because they performed an idea of ‘blackness’ and ‘queerness’ that didn’t quite fit what had come before, that was futuristic yet still part of a black tradition of resistance.
"In exercising imaginative freedom, they found space to be their strange selves, but also redefined ‘what’s possible’ for everyone else. When they used music to create new identities, they gave their fans the power to do the same. What could be more wonderful and hopeful?”
Daphne Brooks, a professor of English and African-American studies at Princeton University, says the book is a “wonderful study offering refreshing new ways of theorizing the politics of ‘post-soul’ and post-civil rights culture. ‘Sounding Like a No-No’ promises to break important new ground.”
In the online magazine CHOICE, Sarah Schmalenberger, an associate professor of music at University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., writes that “Owing to her formidable command of interdisciplinary thought, Royster brings a thorough understanding of the multiple layers of meaning in music in this excellent, well-written treatise that situates uniquely ‘different’ voices within black popular music as both vibrant and vital to its future.”
In writing the book, Royster ended up reinventing herself as a scholar, too.
“I had to learn a new way to think about music, not just as lyrics but as performance: the body combined with the sounds; the visual style, the dancing, the movement, even the video,” Royster explains.
“That meant a lot of exploration and reading outside my field. Then, I added an element of memoir because the music had such an impact on my own identity development. For example, when Eartha Kitt moved from the South to the North, she reinvented herself; I can relate that to my grandmother’s migration from Texas to Chicago. I was interested in connecting ‘different but the same’ kinds of life experiences because the music itself does that.”
Royster says that DePaul was the perfect place to write “Sounding Like a No-No”:
“DePaul promotes a real openness toward interdisciplinary research—it’s a great space for thinking and rethinking about multiculturalism, feminism and popular culture. My own path here shows that. I chaired African and black diaspora studies for three years; I’ve taught courses in women and gender studies. I teach a class called Shakespeare: Race and Gender as well as our Seminar on Multiculturalism in the U.S. This fall, I’m teaching a survey of women writers of color. But I have yet to teach a class on popular music—I’m thinking about how to approach that from an English department perspective—at DePaul, that’s a definite possibility.”