EMP 2013: A Shadow of Its Former Self

Better Than: Watching two full days of rock docs. 

At the 12th annual EMP Pop Conference at Tisch School of the Arts on Friday afternoon, Princeton professor Alexandra Vazquez was presenting on Superstorm Sandy, remaining structures of colonialism, and Cuban-American salsa singer La Lupe, also known as the Queen of Latin Soul. On a PowerPoint slide behind Vazquez were the lyrics to "Oriente," one of the many songs Lupe made with Tito Puente; except this time, she sings about how the King of Latin Music threw her out of his band, as if Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony made a song together about their divorce. "Tito Puente me boto," Lupe spits, crying her signature "Yiyiyiyi!" at the thought of him replacing her with the "good girl," Celia Cruz. Suddenly, in that same spirit of provocation, Vazquez paused her presentation to address the "whispers" that had been going around the conference. "Is this the last year of EMP?" she asked.

"I haven't been hearing those whispers," said Tavia Nyong'o, a professor of Performance Studies at New York University that also organized the conference. I hadn't heard anything either, but I did notice that EMP-- which has been bringing together musicians, academics, journalists, scholars, and "industry professionals" for a few days of music panels since it began at Seattle's EMP Museum in 2002-- had downsized from the four floors of NYU's Kimmel Center, where it took place last year, to two classrooms on the sixth floor of Tisch. This year, there were fewer attendees (instead of taking over one location, the conference was split between five different cities, and EMP New York was scheduled for a Thursday and a Friday instead of the weekend), the book room had shrunk to a book table, and the fat, glossy schedules had been reduced to paper pamphlets. Though Nyong'o explained that that particular setup made logistical sense for multiple reasons, he hoped next year's would bring everyone together in the same place again. In 2013, EMP felt like a shadow of its former self.

It also came at the end of one of the worst weeks in recent memory, which contributed to the underlying current of despair. "Forgive me if I'm a little scatterbrained," said Harvard ethnomusicologist Wayne Marshall on Friday. "My thoughts are in Boston and Cambridge," where his wife and children were weathering the lockdown. Despite trying not to cry, Marshall successfully moderated one of the conference's most exciting panels, "Migrant Locals," which focused on diaspora music: Jace Clayton talked about cumbia sonidera warehouses off the BQE, DJ Chief Boima addressed African music night clubs in the Bronx and Queens, and Venus X (and founder of GHE20GH0TH1K) bumped dembow, a Dominican variant on reggaeton. When a British audience member asked whether the music of the Jamaican diaspora in London (i.e. grime, ragga-jungle, dubstep circa 2005) was the same as the one in America, she said of course it was. "Being Jamaican in New York means DJ Kool Herc, means hip-hop. What does it mean to be Jamaican in white-ass London with the queen and shit? Grime!"

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