How Memoirs Shape Identity: Goodwin Popular Culture Lecture Series

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Gabriella Mahady

Contributing Writer

 

On April 18, Andreana Clay, an adjunct sociology professor at San Francisco State University, spoke at USF’s Andrew Goodwin Popular Culture Lecture Series about her experience with her own memories, about pinpointing music that brings her back to those moments. Teasing out the relationship between memory and music has allowed her to develop her own sense of identity. “Prince is fibrous, I can’t imagine my life without Prince,” said Clay, speaking of the artist who has impacted her memories the most.

Clay gave a talk about musical memoirs, focusing on how musical memories help us understand ourselves. Her new book, “Musical Memoirs: Liberation, Memory, and Social Justice,” outlined her ideas of how one conceptualizes a theory of home and of identity, and of how music informs personal and political moments in history. Home is a contested word and concept according to Clay, especially in this political moment. “How we think about home in relation to social change and liberation, who deserves to be here, who doesn’t, particularly in San Francisco is one way we are connected as people, as citizens,” said Clay. Music is powerful in connecting communities in that way, she said, and it should not be underestimated.

 

Much of Clay’s written work centers around the crack cocaine epidemic that occurred throughout her childhood in the African-American community, where “the less expensive and overly available smokable form of cocaine became directly responsible for the deterioration of inner cities during the 1980s and 1990s,” according to a study found in The Review of Economics and Statistics. She played the song “Golden Years” by David Bowie and brought the audience back to her past through her spoken narrative: to her father’s living room, where she sat by the speakers listening to that Bowie song while her father and his friends got high in the other room.

 

She spoke of the difference between nostalgia and memoirs in relation to “Golden Years.” Nostalgia has a tendency to leave out the bad parts of memories, and recreates the memories as better times than they actually were, according to Clay. Memoirs, on the other hand, have the potential to tell the full story, both the good and bad. Her memoir does not leave out the sense of stress and fear that overcame her for a long time when “Golden Years” came on the radio, anxiety associated with the pain of her father’s substance abuse.

 

Clay also writes about activism among young people of color and the importance of hip-hop for African-American communities. She played the song “The Message” by Grand Master Flash, a 1982 song with that unforgettable synthesizer beat, one that has been sampled many times. This sound was common in early ‘80s rap and R&B songs that Clay says “make you want to get back to that era.” Clay spoke on how nostalgia for the past can be dangerous, though, as we’re seeing with Donald Trump’s campaign platform “Make America Great Again.” The America he refers to was an America that was only great for a certain group of people, an America where African-American people suffered from segregation and LGBTQ people were silenced.

 

She continued with the song “If I Was Your Girlfriend” by Prince, and continuously emphasized the impact Prince had on her and other queer people of color. “Queer was not an option for working class black girls,” said Clay. She told her story of visiting San Francisco for the first time, and ultimately moving here. She cited a song by the local band The Ebb and Flow that goes something like, “When I grow up I want to be free… I’ll move to the big city, but I’ll remain a refugee.” She described SF as “the only place to ever make [her] feel whole and seen.” She was allowed to express her true queer identity in the Bay Area, and for that reason, it felt like home.

 

The annual series is held by the Media Studies Department in honor and memory of the late USF media studies professor Andrew Goodwin. Goodwin was a co-founder of the Media Studies Department and had a great love and appreciation for popular culture. USF invites popular culture studies professors and speakers to come share their findings and creations with others on his behalf.

 

Clay’s sharing of personal experiences via music allowed the audience to travel with her throughout her memories, to experience what she was feeling at those times in her past. She channeled Professor Goodwin’s love for pop culture in her own way by portraying how to analyze and apply popular culture to the construction of her own identity.

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