Africana studies professor Rashida Braggs embarks on multidisciplinary explorations of Black women jazz musicians in Paris.
“Is there a way that I can create jazz scholarship and scholarship on African diasporic cultural expression, where people can learn about performers’ stories but also feel it?” asks Rashida K. Braggs, professor of Africana studies and faculty affiliate in comparative literature.
This question is the focus of her latest interdisciplinary performance piece, Amber in the City of Light, which she is creating in tandem with a book manuscript, Paris Jazz Grooves as Black Women Move. With support from a Fulbright Global Scholar Award and a Williams Class of 1945 World Fellowship Program Award, the independent but related works combine ethnography, archival research and music to explore the experiences of Black women jazz performers of African descent as they migrated to and settled in Paris, France, from 1968 to the present day.
Since she began teaching at Williams in 2011, Braggs has composed and choreographed several performances and workshops that address racial and ethnic identity. She’s also teaching the fall-semester seminar Performing Blackness, which, as the course description says, “extends common perceptions by working from the foundational concept that blackness is not only social construction but also performance and lived experience.”
In Amber in the City of Light, Braggs embodies multiple iterations of a fictional character named Amber. Each one, performed solo by Braggs, is based on the lives of several Black women jazz musicians that she interviewed for the project. Over the past 50 years, the women journeyed to Paris from the United States, West Africa, the Caribbean and Europe to evolve their musical careers.
But there was little archival or historical information available about them, Braggs found in her research. She uses the character of Amber to shine light on them, “always asking questions about how I embody other people’s experience of race and gender.”
Braggs says that as a Black woman and performer who has migrated and who has lived in France, she is “also a part of this shared experience. And how do I perform that? I’m showing my relationship as a researcher to these women and showing me as part of the story, as opposed to this kind of ‘objective’ onlooker who is ‘authentically’ capturing this moment.”
This winter, Braggs will give the first performances of Amber in the City of Light to audiences in Montréal. Additional performances are planned for next spring in Cassis/Marseille, France. The performances will be followed by question-and-answer sessions; Braggs says she is curious to learn from the perspectives of non-American audiences in the wider Francophone world as she continues working on the piece.
In addition to raising awareness of Black women jazz artists, Braggs wants audiences to learn more about the musicians themselves—to listen to their music and even attend a concert. “There’s a way that I am able to feel and absorb information in a much meatier way when I’m taking in some type of performance,” she says. “I just kind of feel it in my bones.”
Most of all, she’s excited to share with audiences her connection to the subject matter and the fruits of her research and creativity. “It’s such a complex interdisciplinary intermedia project,” she says. “But it’s one that is really exciting because of the multiple ways of reaching people and the multiple ways of expressing myself.”