Sonic Insurgency Research Group
JJJJJerome Ellis’s capacious practice can be witnessed in his recent work, The Clearing, a 2xLP and print publication (Wendy’s Subway/NNA Tapes) which asks how stuttering, Blackness, and music can be practices of refusal against hegemonic governance of time, speech, and encounter. Taking his glottal block stutter as a point of departure, Ellis figures the aporia and the block as clearing to consider how dysfluency, opacity, and refusal can open a new space for relation.
We had the opportunity to speak with JJJJJerome at length from his home in Virginia Beach. Throughout our conversation, he illuminated numerous networked pathways through a dense forest of thought informed by his embodied experience and research. To center the power of the glottal block throughout our conversation, the transcript below demarcates these moments of relation with a “[clearing].” We invite readers to enter and inhabit these spaces in the text – to hold them against dominant temporal logics of compression. To witness how, as Ellis writes in The Clearing:
a stutter is an occasion / to be present / in complex thought
Sonic Insurgency Research Group: Can you introduce yourself and say a little bit about your practice and how you’re navigating and moving between the disciplines you’re engaged in?
JJJJJerome: Thank you for inviting me into this conversation. I’m very grateful. My name [clearing] is [clearing] JJJJJerome [clearing] Ellis and I am [clearing] a Black [clearing] disabled or crip animal, is how I like to refer to myself, a human being, an artist, a [clearing] stutterer. I live in Virginia Beach, [clearing] Virginia, where I grew up. I am very grateful to be able to work in multiple disciplines: in music as a composer, saxophonist, pianist, producer; in literature as a poet and essayist; and in performance. I try to be in dialogue with certain scholarly or academic disciplines including Black Studies, Disability Studies, Performance Studies, and Sound Studies. Recently, I’ve been moving more into visual practices, especially video and typography – or maybe not typography so much as treating the page of the book as a [clearing] canvas and using letterforms to create shapes in conjunction with [clearing] my stutter. Increasingly, where I’m heading is seeking to work with other [clearing] dysfluent speakers and exploring different ways to render or translate their speech onto the page using letterforms.
SIRG: We are curious to hear you talk about the way your practice utilizes different mediums, from writing to performance, and how that took shape. We also work in a similar way, across writing and various artistic modes of production. How did your practice come to contain all those things?
JJJJJ: I think [laughs], for better and for worse, I struggle with boundaries and with restricting myself within one form of expression. There’s a number of sources for that. Honestly, one has to do with my experience having stuttered my whole life. I’m very used to wanting [clearing] to say something and finding it very hard to say it. Early on I discovered how satisfying it could be to express myself in other forms besides speech, like writing and eventually music, movement, and gesture. The stutter created a bunch of tributaries that I am very grateful for.
My first foray into art was in fourth grade. I was part of this improv problem-solving troupe at my elementary school called Odyssey of the Mind. [laughs] We would go to competitions and they would give a group of five or six of us prompts we had to act out on stage. I absolutely loved it! I loved being on stage and I thought I would love to be an actor. But then I was like, wait, I have a stutter. And [clearing] I basically decided I can’t actually become an actor. Later, I started playing the saxophone in seventh grade, and this whole time I was writing [clearing] poetry. Eventually, when I went to college, I decided to focus on music. I felt I had to choose, but from college up to now there’s been a gradual releasing of that idea. In many ways that initial improv problem-solving group is still very much at the core of my practice. It was improvisational; it was experimental; it was collaborative; and really nerdy also, so that now I feel like I don’t have to hide the intellectual side of my work.
SIRG: One thing you’ve written about is the difference between making music with others and speaking with others, and the healing power of music as it circumvents communicating through spoken word. I wonder if there are elements of your practice that articulate that set of ideas.
JJJJJ: When I started on the saxophone I remember connecting with it [clearing] pretty immediately because around that time I had also started listening [clearing] to jazz for the first time. Again, I’m so used to improvising. I’m so used to finding [clearing] synonyms, finding other ways of saying something in order to [clearing] evade my stutter. Nowadays, I like to sit in the stutter, but for most of my life I tried to evade it. So, there’s an improvisation I felt very comfortable with. What is so interesting is I remember I would be in saxophone lessons with my teacher and I would stutter on the saxophone. Sometimes he would be like, let’s start playing this étude, and I couldn’t start it because the articulation of the saxophone is very similar to speaking. I would block on the saxophone. On the saxophone I felt so much expressivity outside of speaking, but still there was an obstacle that I noted, and it was definitely painful. At that time I didn’t really have the language to explain what was happening, but it felt bad.
Then came the piano. I asked my parents for a keyboard for Christmas – I still have it – and I would play it mainly late at night with [clearing] headphones. I got it originally just to learn chords and music theory, but I very quickly started writing my own music on it. Something I found is I didn’t have to rely on my mouth, so it was like a space of healing. I could really start to feel the pleasure of creating a sonic world and later on I would think of it as a time-world. I could literally sit there and shape time. I didn’t have that language back then, but, like most people, I have experiences in the world where I feel out of step with [clearing] the world, with the rhythms of the world, with the time of the world, when I just don’t feel good in a temporal sense. Gradually, as I started to make electronic and ambient music and [clearing] environmental music, which is a term I prefer over ambient music, I was able to create this time-world where I felt good.
Even in earlier works, I was experimenting with looping and with [clearing] removing meters (regularly recurring patterns and accents). The music would be structured in a way that no matter where I played the melody, it was right. I was so used to the school band playing marches where you have to come in on measure five and that’s cool, but stuttering, again, creates this feeling in me of certain forms of pain when I have to do something at an exact moment. In school it would be so painful when I would know the answer, I would raise my hand, the teacher would call me, and then I couldn’t even say the thought. There’s a window that is pretty small and it would close. Then the teacher, depending on their understanding, might call on somebody else. So, eventually I started to make music without downbeats (the first beat in a musical bar).
SIRG: Turning toward the upcoming book and album, The Clearing, can you tell us a little about that term and what it means to you?
JJJJJ: One of the sources of the idea is a feeling that I’ve had since I was young, walking on a trail in a forest with my parents or on a school trip in Virginia where the forests are mainly deciduous and often very [clearing] dense. There’s a sense of a line, a line that is flowing, a line that is man-made – and I remember the feeling of coming upon a clearing. I’d be unsure where the path continues. Do we just keep going straight or actually does the path now continue over there? When you come upon a clearing there’s a sense of openness and expansiveness, and uncertainty. So, I really connect with that space and specifically the movement from the path into the clearing and then finding [clearing] the path again.
I think that experience relates to reading I was doing about enslaved peoples’ spiritual and religious practices that would often take place in forests, clearings, and hush harbors at night, away from the plantation, or in a part that is more secluded. The density of the forest then becomes a form of protection. I started to think about my experience of stuttering and dysfluency more broadly. And when I say [clearing] dysfluency, it’s a term that is more encompassing than stuttering. It is a form of speaking that is somehow at odds with ableist structures and communication practices. It can be stuttering, or Tourette’s, or it can describe certain speakers with Down Syndrome or autism, or speakers who are deaf or hard of hearing. So I was trying to think about [clearing] dysfluency as a form of [clearing] difference in the body that has been structurally marginalized and [clearing] Blackness as another form of difference in the body that has been structurally marginalized, and trying to think of them [clearing] together.
So, thinking about this experience in the forest, often when I’m stuttering there is a feeling of expansiveness, but also uncertainty – uncertainty on my part as to when the stutter will end (which is somewhat misleading because I think it actually never ends), but also uncertainty on the part of the person I’m speaking with. Sometimes the person doesn’t know what’s happening. I think partially because of the way stuttering has been portrayed in the media. It’s often portrayed as a form of speech repetition, but the form of glottal block that I present with is much less known. So we are both in this space of uncertainty – and I find it vulnerable and risky, but also super beautiful. I’ve had so many beautiful experiences in the clearing with someone else, whether they know I stutter or not. That uncertainty is really important and connects with the idea of [clearing] opacity, primarily as I’ve seen it developed in the work of Édouard Glissant,1 and then later Saidiya Hartman.2 Part of The Clearing, the book and the album, is to try to translate some of that into sound and print.
SIRG: In The Clearing, you have this super fascinating passage:
Harriet Jacobs reminds us that Black loops in Black music, including but not limited to rap and house, are Black loopholes of retreat. That Black music, like Black escape, is a never-ending activity and never an achievement. When the Black stutter loops a phoneme, this too is a Black loop, Black music, Black activity. My thesis is that if fluent speech has been used to police the border between humans and nonhumans or subhumans, then Black dysfluency places the paradox of Black humanity in the body. In the throat. Are Black people humans? The jury’s still out on that. And who’s on the jury?3
When you use this construction of the jury it immediately made us think of Cheryl Harris’s article, “Whiteness as Property.”4 In Harris’s work, she’s digging into the historical construction of legal recognitions of personhood and also the production of fugitivity, of otherness within the project of whiteness, which produces subjects marked as either civil or uncivil in the eyes of the law. The law sort of becomes its own form of a loop, but the loop that it constructs is one that’s about dis-remembrance and obscuring the historical construction of whiteness. Whereas, I feel that what you are saying in this passage is that loops are about not forgetting. They construct an alternative temporality, a space to inhabit that can be generative just as this other form of legal loop is destructive.
JJJJJ: There are fireworks going off in my brain! I had never thought of the law as a loop in that way, and I love that. Recently, I was reading a book by the Canadian poet and philosopher [clearing] Tim [clearing] Lilburn who has this idea that healing involves bringing together what has been separated,5 but I also think healing is separating what has been falsely brought together. That speaks to one of the legal loops: the fallacy and tautology in North American slave law where the enslaved was only granted legal personhood if they had to answer to a crime. In Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America, Hartman writes, “What possibilities for agency exist that don’t put the enslaved at risk of a greater order of pain and punishment since the slave is a legal person only insofar as he is criminal and a violated body in need of limited forms of protection?”6 To me, that is a loop. It’s a fallacy that you’re only a person if you are being accused of a crime. That also speaks to what you were saying about [clearing] dis-remembrance. There is something that is being occluded. The reason why it’s important to only recognize someone as a person in the context of them being accused of a crime, of course, needs to be forgotten. I’m thinking of [clearing] Judith Butler here, because it needs to be forgotten over and over and over again.7 To me, part of what healing is, is breaking that loop – and so much of what Black scholars are doing and have been doing for so long is to remember and in the remembering to break the loop.
The other side of the loop as a memory is this feeling that the roundness of the loop is a kind of shield. In order to protect oneself from certain forms of violence in the world one may need to create or find or share a shield, and that in the shielding there is a form of looping. That’s often how I feel when I’m making music. I feel like I’m making a shield or shelter or a refuge of some kind.
What you’re saying about memory is like what I was saying earlier before we started recording about the squash outside. [JJJJJerome has been tending a garden outside his window which includes a squash plant that mysteriously appeared.] My mom said that it was her father, who is no longer with us, who planted it. To me there’s a loop happening here because it’s important for me that when I look at the squash now, I remember him. And when I think about him, I think about his relationship to farming. Something that’s really important for me to remember is that he was a farmer in Jamaica. His father was a farmer, and his father’s father was a farmer. This is an aspect of my family’s history that I really want to learn more about. Of course, if you’re going back that far, then their relationship to farming is right in the wake of slavery. So I ask: How did they get the land? Was it land that they had been working as enslaved people and then they were freed and were able to work on it for themselves? That is a loop that I think is worth preserving and remembering.
SIRG: Would you say this relates to the way you were talking about the Black stutter being unending and holding an alternative temporal space? Could you talk more about the idea of the neverending stutter?
JJJJJ: In the book, I made the choice to represent when I am stuttering on a word. The words I’m stuttering on are written in a different way: that’s one level of truth. But there’s another level of truth that I feel, at least with myself personally, and I imagine other people who stutter feel similarly. I’m sort of always [clearing] stuttering. It feels to me like [clearing] a plant that flowers. It will flower and the flower will go away and it will flower again, but the plant is still there. So it feels like the stutter began way before I was born and it will continue after I die. I just happen to be a steward of it through no choice of my own. I’m a seed saver. It is my duty to carry it. It never ends and it never starts. If you are close enough to me when I’m stuttering you can hear there’s a click, like a car is trying to start. Eventually I asked myself: What is that preserving? Is there something that is being protected there? The seed is this hard round thing that preserves something very vital. And so I ask: Is my stutter and stuttering more generally a seed that is transporting something?
Stuttering really subverts our ideas of when speech starts and when speech ends. For example, at the beginning of the call, when I stuttered on my name, I was silent for a few seconds, but I was speaking. It’s like a stream that goes underground and then comes above ground, but the stream is still going. Often I’ll be talking to someone and I’ll reach the middle of my sentence and I’ll stutter on a word. The person will think I’ve stopped speaking, that I’ve reached a period, but it’s just a clearing. It is conventionally assumed that when you start hearing sound that is when speech starts and when you stop hearing sound that is when it stops. For me, it is like, no. [laughs] That’s not nuanced enough. I talk about this in the essay the book is based on.8 I once went to see an [clearing] otolaryngologist with a friend of mine who is a singer. He did what’s called a fiberoptic laryngoscopy. He fed a camera through my nose and into my throat and I got to watch my [clearing] vocal cords while I was speaking. When I was speaking the vocal cords would meet and vibrate. When I wasn’t speaking they would be separated. When I would stutter I saw them halfway in between. They were vibrating and trying [clearing] to meet and when they met that was when I spoke. I saw that the stutter lives in between fluent speech and not speaking at all.
SIRG: We have been reading Kevin Quashie’s Black Aliveness, Or A Poetics of Being, which makes the argument that because Blackness is tied to resistance it carries an inherent publicness that prevents us from reflecting on Black interiority. These moments of quiet (not silence, Kevin is very clear about this) constitute a space of Black interiority.9 So we are planting that in case you want to pick it up, but we can turn to sound and power more directly, specifically through the bell. The bell is something that figures in some of our work in relation to the history of settlement and colonization. The church bell was one of the first things to be erected in a settlement, especially in New England, but also within the structure of the Spanish colonial mission. The ringing of the bell served a territorializing function: if you heard the bell you knew you were under colonial rule. In The Clearing you ask, “What is a bell? Why is it that the same bell that calls us to prayer or meditation called the enslaved to the field?” It is a chilling question.
JJJJJ: In a phone call that became the 11th track on the album I asked my friend and mentor Yawo Milta Vega Cardona to reflect further on things she’s told me about my relationship to stuttering and how that might relate to [clearing] ancestry. She said that the silence of the stutter, or that quiet, is the ringing of the bell and the shattering of the glass. That really overwhelmed me. I started to think about the bell through her analogy. A bell is classified as an idiophone – unlike the saxophone, which is classified as an aerophone because it creates sound through a vibrating column of air, or a piano, which is classified as a chordophone because it has a string that is struck. The bell is itself the resonating body. To me that’s really powerful because in many ways the bell is an extremely simple form of instrument. It’s one of the oldest instruments. There’s something important in the simplicity of the form. Whether it’s a circle or a more rectangular shape (like a cowbell), there’s often a symmetry to the bell. Then I started to think about it in terms of time and in terms of clocks and watches. I read this article, “Time, Slavery, and Plantation Capitalism in the Ante-Bellum American South,”10 by the historian Mark M. Smith, that is all about clocks and watches in the antebellum South and specifically the first half of the nineteenth century.11
I have, as many people do, a very physical and complex relationship with clocks and the sound of the ticking and the regularity. In my music I feel like I’m often trying to remove the downbeat and the metronome (a device that produces an audible click at regular intervals). I think back to what we were saying earlier about law, because, of course, the root of the -nome part of metronome is a Greek word referring to order or law. The law of meter. Smith talks about how on plantations it was a common and deliberate practice for masters not to give enslaved people clocks or watches, not to grant access to them, and not to teach enslaved people how to use them. He argues that part of this stemmed from a fear that once enslaved people possessed the arbiter of time for the capitalist and capitalist-adjacent societies of the plantation, they would get a sense that their time was their own. He argues that part of social death and the forms of control the masters exerted was to convince enslaved people that their time did not belong to them. In order to convey time, the masters would strike a bell, or hit a board, or blow a horn. So, if there’s a clock in the big house that you can’t see and can’t hear (and of course many enslaved people knew how to tell time using the sun and the stars, which doesn’t produce a sound) the only thing that you get is this bell or horn. I started to ask: Does the sound of a bell become a source of pain, a source of being dragged out of one’s interiority, out of one’s quiet? This man-made object that, in other contexts, has been used to call people to pray fulfills this other role of [clearing] signaling another type of gathering. There is the gathering to pray, and then there’s the gathering to work in the field. What does that difference or dissonance do to the sound? And what does that do to music? When I, or any other Black musician, picks up a horn (saxophone, trumpet, etc.) and plays, what is the relationship between that and the horn our ancestors heard? For me there is some kind of historical bridge there.
A question I also ask is: How can we rename, reshape, redress time? In the preface, I talk about the word “hour.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest recorded usage of the word hour in English is as a literal synonym for prayer. There’s a passage in this thirteenth-century manual for these three sisters who are embarking on a spiritual life, where the male writer says this phrase in Old English: siggen hire ures. This translates to “say their hours,” or “say their prayers,” because in the Christian tradition, as in other religions, different hours call for different prayers. And so, if the word enters the English language as a synonym for prayer, how do we get from there to the clock and the factory and the bell that is being used to signal the enslaved people to get to the field? Of course, if they don’t get there fast enough they may be whipped. That journey from clock, to bell, to whip has been important for me to think about because at that point time reaches such a peak of violence. When I think of the word “hour,” I often feel a sense of space. Even in the word itself there’s an openness I feel. Sometimes I will pray according to the old [clearing] Catholic hours. There’s eight or seven of them, depending on the community that is practicing. So right now it’s the hour of sext, which is around noon. We are in the space of sext. It’s not a sharp thing. I could say my prayer now; I could say it a little later. I often like to feel some spaciousness in time. How can we find quiet in time? How can we find softness in time? To me, the stutter offers a few different answers.
SIRG: You have been talking about this throughout; the value of slowing down, the generative quality of interrupting time and making time spacious. In a recent conversation you had with Saidiya Hartman you asked, “Is the stutter a form of fugitive speech? Not just because it feels like when I’m stuttering, my voice leaves me, escapes me, but also because the stutter feels like it leaves certain norms of structure and structures of speech.”12 That’s really important to consider, how different enfleshments or embodiments produce forms of knowledge.
JJJJJ: One way of talking about this is through the project I’m working on now, which I described a bit in that conversation with Hartman. I have been sitting with advertisements from eighteenth- and nineteenth-century newspapers for enslaved people who have run away. The advertisements are placed by the person who “owns” the enslaved in an attempt to retrieve what they believe is their property. They’re very short documents that give descriptions of the enslaved person. There is a portion of this archive where the person placing the ad identifies the enslaved person who ran away as speaking with a stutter or a stammer or an impediment in their speech. Following M. NourbeSe Philip’s book Zong!, which creates a book of poetry from a two-page insurance claim case concerning a massacre of Africans on a slave ship, I have been shaping poems and lyrics for songs by rearranging the words in these advertisements. I haven’t been making anagrams like NourbeSe Philip, but I will use parts of words. If the word reasonable appears I will use the word able. It has become a kind of devotional practice.
The limitation forces my language into a very specific space. In other moments, when I’m writing in a more lyrical or poetic vein without any limitations, I have pet images, pet metaphors, pet sounds that I gravitate towards, but this brings me into a different place. What I find in this practice are questions concerning authorship. I just read an article by the scholar Antonio [clearing], his last name is spelled B-L-Y. He writes about all that is left unsaid in the advertisements, partially because of the costs of placing them, and this idea of reading silence as text. The article is titled “Indubitable Signs: Reading Silence as Text in New England Runaway Slave Advertisements.” He has this idea that the advertisements are co-authored by the enslaved person and the “owner.” A conventional view of authorship might be that the “owner” walked into the print office, placed an advertisement, it appeared in the newspaper, and that’s it. Is that all that’s happening? It’s not just the “owner” writing the advertisement. The enslaved person is also writing the advertisement. And when these poems appear in the rearranged words, there is another author, me – but also not me.
I think this practice connects to fugitive speech because part of it disrupts and breaks certain loops, certain conventional ways of thinking. For example, there’s the advertisement I mentioned from August 4, 1826, in the Star and North Carolina State Gazette that says that the enslaved person stutters when they speak. A line that appeared for me upon seeing this ad was “a stutter is an occasion [clearing] to be present in complex thought.” I don’t see it as a line I wrote because that feels too limiting of a way to express what is happening with the language. The word complex comes from the person placing the ad who describes the person who ran away as having a dark [clearing] complexion. The word thought comes from the sentence, “He presented a paper which he thought was a free pass, but it proved not to be so.” The word occasion comes from “His back is marked occasioned [clearing] by the lash.” This person may have thought of all these sentences and phrases as pretty straightforward, but then something arises from it. “A stutter is an occasion to be present in complex thought,” which really helps me, and I hope it lands well with other people. The fact that this line comes from that advertisement leads me to ask who is writing and what else is happening. There is a fugitivity there. There is an escape from the loop. The text can seem closed, but to me the text is not closed. It is open. And because it is open there are other things that can happen that are not simply a document of violence, while also still being a document of violence. There’s something I said recently when I was talking with a friend and poet. We were talking about dysfluency and I said, “Perhaps there is something useful in referring to dysfluency as open speech, like the openness of the clearing, but also its uncertainty.” It is this openness I find very useful.
JJJJJerome Ellis is a Black stuttering animal who prays, reads, gardens, circles, rains, and plays. Through music, literature, and performance he researches relationships among Blackness, disabled speech, divinity, nature, sound, and time. Born in 1989 to Jamaican and Grenadian immigrants, he grew up and lives near a heron rookery in Virginia Beach, USA. He’s currently building a sonic bath house – stay tuned!
JJJJJerome’s solo and collaborative work has been presented by Lincoln Center, The Poetry Project, and ISSUE Project Room (New York); MASS MoCA (North Adams, Massachusetts); REDCAT (Los Angeles); Arraymusic (Toronto); and the Center for African American Poetry and Poetics (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania), among others. He is a signed artist with NNA Tapes. His work has been covered by This American Life, Artforum, Black Enso, and Christian Science Monitor.
JJJJJerome collaborates with James Harrison Monaco as James & Jerome (or Jerome & James). Their recent work explores themes of border-crossing and translation through music-driven narratives. They have received commissions from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Ars Nova.
Sonic Insurgency Research Group (SIRG) is Josh Rios, Anthony Romero and Matt Joynt. SIRG’s research-based performance and exhibition practice examines normalized associations between criminality and sound, silencing as a form of social control, and voicing as a form of social resistance. SIRG’s group work has been exhibited and featured in M:ST 9 Biennial (Calgary, Canada), Counterpublic 2019 at The Luminary (St. Louis, MO), Acoustic Resonance at Institute of Contemporary Art at MECA (Portland, ME), State of the Art 2020 at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art (Bentonville, AR), Pulitzer Arts Foundation (St. Louis, MO), and Work for the People (Or Forget about Fred Hampton) at Co-Prosperity (Chicago, IL). Upcoming work includes solo and group exhibitions at Locust Projects (Miami) and The Vincent Price Art Museum (Los Angeles). Writing has been featured in ON Journal’s Rules and The Design Studio for Social Intervention’s Spatial Justice.