How can the body be trained to develop one’s physical voice for the goal of performance, and as an exemplar for conditioning one’s social and political voice? Over time, the ways in which I developed my own physical voice became complicated by the reality of being, and of becoming, a Black, gay, creative, politically engaged man in America.
As a result of the cold and flu season in NYC, riding the subways, working in large office spaces and generally experiencing a lack of personal space, I experienced episodes of either having a raspy, strained voice, or no voice at all. In these moments, I contemplated my interest, when I was younger, in becoming a professional singer, and the training that I received under the tutelage of my uncle, who was classically trained.
Training for vocal performance, like all art forms, entails a complicated set of relationships across the body. As a muscle, the diaphragm is a core element of singing, the foundation that moves air through the body — which is what produces sound. Posture, or the way a person holds or frames their body, impacts the ability of sound to move properly through the breath. Vocal chords are the instruments for tonality and complexity; it creates the context that shifts the way that sound exits the body. The brain not only activates and supports the movement of these parts, it also signals how we contemplate music, notes and the content of songs that motivate, inspire and engage us. The breath is central to our ability to create, manipulate and engage the world with sound and music.
Finally, the external world impacts the techniques that our bodies utilize to create sound; how we give language to the ways that sound moves through us; how we interpret sound. Ultimately, it helps us create a system for the types of sound that we think have value.
The process of training the social and political voice is similar. As a foundation, one needs to articulate practiced values (the diaphragm). This foundation encourages an individual to feel emboldened, passionate and determined. Because the social and political voice only exists when it enters the social space, one’s “posture” or “frame” must exist inside and outside of one’s physical body. These frames can exist as external knowledge, people or systemic structures that impact self-expression, like policies and popular culture.
Thinking about the way air moves around and through one’s vocal chords, and then how the chords help push the air out of the body to make sound, I think about the ways that I take in, process and share knowledge. Whether it’s through hearing the personal stories of friends or loved ones, from reading the words of trailblazers like Audre Lorde or Essex Hemphill, or through experiencing a song or a powerful dance, knowledge transforms from being something outside of me to something that I interpret through my own perspective. Then, I use this knowledge as a lens to see the world, as a tool to interpret my truth, and manifesting as a guiding force to positively impact others. The way that I speak and sing my truth will never be exactly the same as another human will speak theirs. The beauty of humans!
Finally, the brain is essential to the thinking self; it helps us process safety and informs our understanding of group dynamics and self-expression.
My physical and political voice emerged in response to the climate in which I lived. In the 1980s, my physical body was changing because I was an adolescent, so my voice was constantly cracking and morphing as it entered maturity. In those years, I also realized my physical attraction to men, and I was terrified. Whether I wanted to or not, and before I could give language to it, I was becoming a gay man in the Bronx during the rise of the AIDS epidemic and the fear surrounding gay bodies. The layer of Blackness, as part of my gay identity, was further complicated by the emergence of the crack epidemic. The bodies of Black gay men were dying physically due to AIDS and dying in a social sense due to the statistics that were used to sound a war on drugs and on Black communities.
The concept of my voice cracking during adolescence was significant. In the beginning, it felt terrible because I was under-developed; my body wasn’t ready to produce the “right” sound. Later, I realized that singing and expressing my voice was about being vulnerable, and that there was beauty in letting go of my ego and creating space for the revelation of cracks, because it represented my journey and the exploration of possibility.
Collective voices only form when individual voices have the courage to fill a space with content that is authentic, giving rise to a universal truth. Love. Fear. Survival. Possibility. Resistance. Once these voices are heard, they become a beacon that attracts other voices.
In the ’80s, I remember the AIDS activist group ACT UP shouting that President Ronald Reagan was killing the bodies of gay men and women through his silence. In the ’90s, when I was in my 20s, I stood on a stage with other Black gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans artists and activists during the Black Nations/Queer Nations? Conference in 1995, cheering for our stories to be heard. I shouted on the steps of the Brooklyn Museum of Art to fight the censorship of artists then in resistance to NYC Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. I marched in the streets in outrage over the 2014 choking murder of Eric Garner, a Black man, by white officers in Staten Island. Our collective voices of thousands chanted and screamed “I can’t breathe!” As singers, who deeply value our breath, this chant came from within the core of our very beings.
In 2019, the bodies of Black and brown men, women, immigrants and poor peoples are under siege. This reality shows up in daily media images and challenges to our civil rights by our current president. As individuals and communities of practice, we must continue to train and develop our voices to sing our authentic songs into the world in order to create real and lasting social change.
I am on a constant journey to hone my voice — physically, socially and politically. In the meantime, I will drink my tea with honey and ginger, buy Ricola lozenges, cough instead of clearing my throat, and hum to clear the vocal cobwebs in my chords. Just like my uncle taught me.