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Soundscapes of Disaster and Humanitarianism: Survival Singing, Relief Telethons, and the Haiti Earthquake
Small Axe (2012)
  • Elizabeth McAlister, Wesleyan University

This essay first listens, on one hand, to music made by Haitians, for Haitians, close to the epicenter, in the direct aftermath of the Haiti 2010 earthquake. On the other hand, it considers music made by (mostly) North Americans for (mostly) other Americans, in telethon performances far away in New York and Los Angeles and London, weeks after the event. I argue that Haitians used music, and particularly religious singing, self-reflexively, in a culturally patterned way, to orient themselves in time and space, and to construct a frame of meaning in which to understand and act in the devastated Haitian capital. Non-Haitian observers noted with astonishment Haitians’ widespread use of song, but could not make sense of the singing. Americans also used music to orient themselves and other Americans. Celebrities (and producers) harnessed the viewer’s capacity to respond emotionally, interpellating the viewer as a giver to the neoliberal project of privatized humanitarian aid. The telethon accomplished its record-breaking success because of its ability to present the mediated suffering of Haitian bodies as a poignant pleasure to be consumed by viewing, listening givers. It offered the reward of performances by popular singers and the promise of making a connection with an A-list celebrity (who answered phones). By watching (in individual households) together as a nation and by responding through contributions, American viewers constituted themselves as compassionate moral citizens of a strong, leading world power. U.S. Donators became participants in a kind of civil religious narrative about responsibility, rescue, and redemption. Juxtaposing these two audiospheres (of the Haitian streets and the telethon) presents the opportunity to bring together recent scholarship on the visuality of suffering with work on music and emotion in order to explore what we can learn about the links between singing and knowledge, between humanitarianism and culture, and between the photojournalism of disaster, and the musicology of the disaster telethon. I will suggest that the US media representations of Haiti after the quake shifted in subtle ways, yet remained fundamentally consistent with neo-colonialist structures of representation. Even as Haitians sang widely in response to the disaster, the telethon, in its visual depiction of the sufferers, did not broadcast Haitians singing, but rather rendered them unamplified and mute. Rather, the telethon focused on the emotionality of the American popular singers, and overwrote the story of the disaster with an American way of knowing, divorced entirely from a Haitian perspective, from Caribbean narratives, histories, and understandings. The telethon is a cultural text that crystallizes connections between various realms that might otherwise be difficult to discern: privatized humanitarianism, emotion, celebrity, entertainment, and the mediatized image of the Caribbean nation of Haiti.

Publication Date
November, 2012
Citation Information
Elizabeth McAlister. "Soundscapes of Disaster and Humanitarianism: Survival Singing, Relief Telethons, and the Haiti Earthquake" Small Axe Vol. 39 (2012)
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