An Interpellation into Cultural Spaces: Epideictic Rhetoric in the Podcast
For five whole minutes, the hosts of The Nod podcast eat spoonfuls of peanut butter and talk about unheralded figures within African American history. Acknowledging that George Washington Carver, the inventor of peanut butter, receives the most recognition of all influential African Americans, the hosts consume his creation while celebrating contributions of other underrepresented black figures. The hosts are audibly overwhelmed as they chew this peanut paste, their lips audibly smacking together in their struggle to introduce these notable African Americans. The hilarious audio account used to speak this history pays homage to the political and social difficulty of representing black History in the United States. The Nod is one of many podcasts that adapts the epideictic rhetorical form, creating a new ceremonial space for black people to express their identity.
The Nod and Still Processing are two podcasts that empower black voices to claim their own epideictic ceremonial spaces. Epideictic rhetoric, through “praise or censure,” taps into shared understandings of the “noble and disgraceful, virtue and vice,” to establish a common culture with listeners (Aristotle xxxiv). The podcast medium endows black speakers with a microphone, a recording set, and a platform to claim their own ceremonial spaces, a channel through which they can praise American “blackness” or blame white racism and establish their own cultural identification. Through sensory sound edits, audible displays of emotion, and live studio recordings, The Nod and Still Processing interpolate listeners into black cultural spaces.
The Nod, a Gimlet Media podcast created in June 2017, celebrates and praises the present African American experience. The podcast features the doo rag, the grape-flavored “purple drink” that is popular amongst black citizens, and lauds Drake, Oprah, Kanye West, and other African American icons in the modern day. Though the epideictic rhetorical form celebrates and/or blames the present, it is “not uncommon… for epideictic speakers to avail themselves of other times, of the past by way of recalling it, or of the future by way of anticipating it” (Aristotle 35). By engaging African American history, The Nod podcast roots its celebrations of modern American “blackness” in the present moment. Through content, form, and technology, The Nod celebrates black culture, black technological creativity, and black rhetoric, thereby extending an invitation to all listeners to join and celebrate American “blackness.”
First and foremost, the content of The Nod establishes the podcast as a ceremonial address, a hallowed setting where listeners are invited to laud and revere the African American experience. The hosts, Brittany Luse and Eric Eddings (who met when studying Howard University), first establish this by calling themselves “blackness’s biggest fans.” They explain that they have been “obsessed with the stories and the people who define what it means to be black,” and explain, “on this show, we will tell the stories of ‘blackness’ that you don’t often hear.” Even the title of the show establishes the podcast as a ceremonial address: practice of “nodding,” as culture writer Musa Okwonga explains, is “an almost imperceptible lowering of the head towards any other black person” one might meet in a predominately white place, “a swift yet intimate statement of ethnic solidarity” (Medium). This podcast is indeed just that, a statement of ethnic solidarity with other black Americans to share a common cultural bond.
……….To establish itself as a ceremonial ground, the podcast endows direct praise on objects common in African American communities. Eddings, in the “All Heroes Wear Capes” episode of The Nod, extols the importance and power of the “doo rag” within African American culture. Eddings claims the “doo rag” to be a “hallowed garment” worn primarily by black men to hold down one’s hair or to produce the popular “waves” hairstyle where the hair is raised in a 360 degree circle on the crown of one’s head. The podcast, by speaking of the doo rag’s “rise, its devastating fall, and its eventual redemption” situates the doo rag as an object of praise within a ceremonial ground. That the podcast calls the doo rag a “cape,” referring to the black Americans who wear them as “heroes,” establishes The Nod as a ceremonial ground, “blackness” the object of praise.
The Nod also celebrates the “purple drink” in the “I Want That Purple Stuff” podcast. Luse and Eddings discuss how “purple drink,” or grape-flavored beverages popular among black Americans, had been an integral part of their childhood, how the “candy lady” in their neighborhood (or at their church) used to give out purple drink to the local children. Just as epideictic rhetoric relies on the past to establish and celebrate culture of the present, the hosts’ discussion of “purple drink” in their childhoods celebrates its importance within the African American community in the present day. Luse and Eddings find it “comforting” that their love of “purple drink” – with its roots in the South near its production factories – had moved north after the Great Migration, that they still adore the flavor in modern foods such as purple Skittles and Gatorade. The hosts even record themselves, in the first few minutes of the episode, visiting a neighborhood bodega in search of their favorite “purple drink.”
After creating this common ground through objects of shared experience, The Nod establishes a celebratory space safe from criticism. The Nod is self-reflexive about the culture it presents to its listeners, aware of how they represent black cultural spaces. The playfulness in The Nod – whether it be through the “Peanut Butter History” or the “Good for the Blacks?” segments – are deliberate rhetorical techniques that provide an apologetic explanation of (and celebration for) the black American existence. Luse and Eddings’ hyperbolic celebrations of the doo rag and “purple drink” intentionally play up the stereotypes of black preferences. In owning these stereotypes in a light-hearted discussion, they defend themselves from white ridicule or judgment, creating a safe ceremonial setting to celebrate American “blackness.”
The Nod, after protecting itself from harsh judgment and listener criticism, then invites its audience members to enter into the cultural ground. The podcast, by collaborating with sound bites evoking taste and smell, gives listeners a more comprehensive understanding of objects common within African American communities. This embodied, visceral experience creates a singular shared, bodily, auditory experience that interpolates listeners into black cultural spaces. The “I Want that Purple Stuff” episode exposes listeners to the grape flavor that is beloved by many African American citizens. The hosts perform “taste” and “smelling tests” of the neroli compound that gives the grape drink its distinctive flavor. Listeners bear witness to these tasting and smelling experiences, hearing the “crunch” as Luse bites into the purple Skittle, the sound of her inhaling the diluted neroli. These sound bites of consumption, made possible by the audio medium, interpolate listeners into olfactory and taste experiences of black citizens that enjoy this flavor.
Similarly, the “I Want that Purple Stuff” episode presents a “Peanut Butter History” segment that invites listeners to hear the hosts consume food invented by the famous African American figure, George Washington Carver. While Luse eats spoonfuls of peanut butter, she honors Florence Kennedy, another influential black citizen that supported the Black Panther party, and advocated for female equality in the 1960’s and 70’s. The contents within Luse’s mouth, during this segment, bear witness to black creation, and the words coming from her mouth deliver a story of black success. Listeners are again exposed into these bodily, visceral sound bites that not only enter them into black spaces, but also help them laud the figures that have created the black American history.
Within this transportation into black sensory spaces lies “amplification,” an epideictic rhetorical strategy that highlights the praise being given. As Aristotle explains in Art of Rhetoric, “amplification is employed, as a rule, to prove that things are honorable or useful; for the facts are taken on trust, since proofs of these are rarely given” (453). Luse uses the Peanut Butter History Challenge to amplify the success of Florence Kennedy, to deliver a more direct and explicit praise of blacks within American history. Not only does the nature of the Peanut Butter Challenge (with its hilarious audio delivery) amplify Florence Kennedy as a memorable, remarkable figure, but the actual details Luse provides about Kennedy also highlight her bravery and courage. Luse discusses how Kennedy spearheaded a “pee in” at Harvard University, where women poured “symbolic jars of fake pee” all over the yard to have more accessible bathrooms for female students. Out of Kennedy’s long career of service, Luse picked this one shocking example of her activism to amplify and showcase her courage in securing rights for women and for all African American citizens. Just as Florence Kennedy performs a ridiculous yet effective protest, the “Peanut Butter History” segment itself is a simultaneously a ridiculous yet memorable depiction of black history, the content of the podcast amplified by the form and loud noises of peanut butter consumption.
Secondly, The Nod’s technological formal elements are both a manifestation of, and celebration for, “black vernacular technological creativity.” The podcast is part of a long tradition of technological forms counteracting the white oppressive technology. African Americans have historically created their own technological creative media to counteract white oppressive technologies, which have ranged from “ships that transported African slaves to the ‘New World,’ [to] “Jim Crow” rail cars… [to] inner-city public housing” (Fouché 640). To claim agency over their own artistic forms, black Americans pioneered their own dialogues, music, and dance as they claimed ownership over their unique backgrounds and history within the United States.
………To establish and celebrate its own “black vernacular technological creativity,” The Nod employs black vernacular English (BVE), creating a soundtrack over which to praise the black experience. Rather than incorporate highly technological sound edits (as is typical of other white podcasts), The Nod places its focus on a directly recorded conversation between the hosts and their guests that showcase and normalize BVE. The “On That Lo Life $hit” episode, which discusses Polo Ralph Lauren, particularly employs black vernacular to celebrate the black American experience. In the sound bite below, Eddings explains that the Polo Ralph Lauren brand, when worn by black models, “look[ed] hood,” that he had wanted to wear these clothes to “look fresh” himself. “Fresh” and “hood” are two words popular within colloquial black vernacular typically excluded from the polished language of podcasts, but yet are celebrated here as an active part of the African American life. Similarly, in this soundbite, where Eddings is talking to the head of the “Lo Life” crews who stole Polo clothes from department stores (or, as he explains in the sound bite, where they “were boosting,”) he explains they’d steal to “make bread,” while living in the “PJs,” or slang for “housing projects.” “Boosting,” is a slang verb within BVE meaning, “to steal.” The leader then talks to say that his “crib was fucked up,” using the slang word “crib” that is also common in BVE.
The Nod podcast also bears witness to the most notable subset of “black vernacular technological creativity:” music. Genres such as jazz, blues, rap, and hip-hop have bloomed from the African American community and are featured within The Nod podcast. The podcast incorporates hip-hop music into every episode’s introduction, hip-hop music to in the “Peanut Butter History” segment (refer to the sound bite below) and jazz music in its “Good for the Blacks?” live broadcasting segment (as will be later discussed). While The Nod does overtly incorporate this music through the podcast, its influence can subtly be found within the flow and cadence of Luse and Edding’s conversations. As Ted Gioia in History of Jazz explains, black jazz music (primarily in New Orleans) developed a “river-like style of polyphony [that] rises from a group in which all singers can improvise together, each one contributing something personal to an ongoing collective effect – a practice common in African and African-American tradition” (8). This is exactly how The Nod’s conversations within this text operate, as the hosts improvise and speak off the cuff about their topic for the day. Additionally, many of their conversations have the character of jazz improvisation. Just as “jazz bands consist of diverse specialists living in turbulent environments” that succeeds by “inventing responses without well-thought-out plans and without a guarantee of outcomes,” so The Nod too creates an audio product within that form (Linstead 229). Just as jazz musical forms were a way for black Americans to establish their own creative space, these improvised conversations also carve out The Nod’s own personal niche for self-expression. The culture is created through this non-descriptive, participatory approach, where black speakers are joining together to create their own artistic piece within a shared community. Unlike the scripted podcasts typical of white-publications like National Public Radio, The Nod aims to be brilliant in its unpredictability, in the unison born from dissonant musical and verbal forms.
Finally, The Nod’s employment of live recording sessions encourages listeners to participate in, and celebrate, “black vernacular technological creativity.” Every few weeks, Luse and Eddings forgo their private recording booths to tape the podcast with a live studio audience, inviting esteemed African American guests for a public debate about whether something is good (or bad) for the black community. Through this live taping (that incorporates audience opinion), the podcasters become critical about if and how they bestow praise upon African Americans. The title of the segment illustrates how the podcast adapts the epideictic genre: written without its final question mark, the “Good for the Blacks” title is a declarative sentence that seemingly praises a facet of African American culture. Yet with that final question mark at the end, the segment is revealed to be a powerful question where the live studio audience gets to decide whether something is praiseworthy or blameworthy to black culture. Eddings explains to his audience that “we’ve all been in the position, at some point, where we’re faced with some awkward thing that is somehow related to black people,” using Snoop Dogg’s new show with Martha Stewart, or the realization “that the guy who carries the nuclear football for Donald Trump was a black man” as examples. Acknowledging that black people often have to ponder whether certain cultural progressions are indeed good or bad for black Americans, the “Good for the Blacks?” segments aims to solve that debate, once and for all, with a public vote taken by the guest hosts, and then with the audience’s applause within the recording studio. This again illustrates the self-reflexive aspect of this podcast and its continual analysis of how it is representing “blackness” within the United States.
………The technology of the “Good for the Blacks?” segment incorporates audience input to determine whether objects are good or bad for the African American community. The guests on the show discuss, and vote, on these topics, using politically motivated signs as well as “church fans” when making their decision. If they believe the topic is good for black Americans, they hold up a sign with a “brown thumbs-up emoji” with a picture of Barack Obama’s face on it; if they think it is bad, they hold up the side with the “brown thumbs-down emoji” with Ben Carson’s face on it. The props used on the show are a subset of “black vernacular technological creativity,” a depiction of which political figures they feel appropriately advocate for American blackness. The guests ultimately turn to the audience, (particularly when the hosts can’t personally come to a conclusive vote) to arrive at the final verdict whether these discussed elements are good or poor reflections on American blackness. After debating whether Jay Z’s album, 4:44, where Jay Z admitted had been cheating on his wife for over a decade, the hosts turn the decision to their listeners. After the audience has arrived at their decision, the jazz music comes in to escort the episode to its ultimate close, which illustrates the segment’s intent to arrive at some solid conclusion on how the debated topic reflects American blackness.
……While The Nod typically praises “blackness,” it also provides listeners with a forum to take a scrutinizing, active look on how “blackness” has been fashioned within the United States. The audience participation, made possible by the audio medium, allows audience members to collectively decide of how their communities are represented. Their ability to engage in this two-way communication, in this small “Good for the Blacks?” segment and the greater The Nod podcast at large, allows the hosts, guests and listening audience to come together to join in a shared conversation to claim their own cultural spaces.
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The Nod is not the only podcast that features one male and one female black host discussing “blackness” in the United States. Still Processing, a podcast produced by the New York Times, presents African American hosts Jenna Wortham and Wesley Morris who use the audio platform as a “ceremonial ground” to address what it means to be black in the modern day. Though not all of their episodes are specifically about “blackness” – the hosts also “process” gender politics, movies and music in pop culture, etc. – there is a dominant focus on racial issues within the United States. The content of these racially conscious episodes differ from that of The Nod, however: rather than praise “blackness,” Still Processing episodes blames white racists, lamenting the dominating effects the white oppressive regime has had on black citizens today. Through formal elements such as open, processing conversations, the union of BVE and academic critique, and exhibition of raw emotion, Still Processing leverages its content of blame to create a solemn, ceremonial space of healing for listeners.
The Still Processing podcast, as evidenced by its title, processes and digests events within the current American moment, and often turns to topics that have left their listeners looking for solace or an explanation. Wortham and Morris broadcasted their “We Grieve Charlottesvile” episode the Tuesday after the White Supremacist rallies in August 2017, blaming the march and the Trump administration that are either executing (or condoning) this behavior. Wortham blames President Trump’s seeming approval of these protests, chastising the greater United States for fostering an environment of racial terror. Morris explains that it feels that if “you are a person of color walking around these United States, at any moment, you could be a target of racial violence or racial terrorism that is essentially state and government sponsored.” Morris argues that white Americans need to challenge the systems that are benefitting them (and leaving black citizens at a disadvantage), standing upon the audio platform’s ceremonial ground to advocate for change.
The “We Take a Knee” episode, aired on September 28, 2017, similarly blames white racism, addressing the reason for, and the response to, peaceful kneeling protests at the beginning of recent athletic events. The episode begins, however, with an act of praise: Wortham begins this episode praising Raianna Brown, an African American Georgia Tech cheerleader that had knelt during the National Anthem to protest police brutality. Wortham calls Brown a “modern day hero” for this act of courage, and the podcast leverages this praise to properly blame the environment Brown is so bravely protesting. The hosts transition to mourn police brutality and general American racism that prompted these protests in the first place, and (once again) blame President Trump’s vehement reaction to these peaceful objections. The episode also blames the racism deeply entrenched into sports, the way black players are under the jurisdiction of white powerful “owners” to entertain white audiences. Wortham and Morris then make their blame increasingly abstract, as demonstrated in this sound bite. They acknowledge that the American public’s resistance to these peaceful kneeling protests is “not about if people have the right (or not) to protest, it’s again about black entitlement, black respectability, white expectations of blackness, and really just not taking black pain or black trauma or the black experience in America seriously.” The hosts conclude by saying that Trump’s resistance to this kneeling “is about way more than a football game,” blaming the overpowering racism entrenched in American life. Just as the football field itself is a ceremonial ground – where players can blame racial conditions and police brutality – Wortham and Morris use the podcast platform as a ceremonial ground to blame white racism, kneeling alongside these players through the audio medium.
While it may seem that blame alienates listeners, failing to interpolate audience members into the podcast’s audio space, Still Processing’s formal elements transform the podcast into a ceremonial setting of productive healing and change. Wortham and Morris first interpolate their listeners into cultural spaces with their open, “processing” conversations, where they make themselves vulnerable to their listeners so they may join in solidarity to the discussed topics. The hosts intentionally include their listeners into their topics by titling their episodes with the word, “we.” “We Take a Knee” discusses the National Football League’s kneeling protest during the National Anthem, “We Care for Ourselves and Others in Trump’s Era” provides self-care advice in a time of stress for people of color, and “We Grieve Charlottesville” mourns the White Supremacist rallies in August 2017. Still Processing has evolved to incorporate more conversation into its episodes, trading heavy-handed heteroglossic edits (as evident in their introductory episode) for its signature conversational style. By foregoing these edits and instead disseminating a private, intellectual conversation of marginalized voices to a wider audience, the podcast allows black voices to claim a ceremonial space of their own. The listeners, by simply tuning into these undistracted, candid conversations, are invited to join as part of the “We” the episode titles declare.
Wortham and Morris communicate a passion and urgency that both excites and engages listeners to enter the shared ceremonial space. In the “We Grieve Charlottesville” episode, the hosts process their own need to discuss this topic. They claim that the “reason that … the two of us are having the conversation right now, is that nobody seems to know what to do” after the Charlottesville rallies, that “we are all left scratching our heads going, ‘What’s going on in America? What’s going on in our country?’” As they elevate themselves to openly answer these rhetorical questions and process this historical moment, Wortham and Morris incite their listeners to participate in change. As is demonstrated in the sound bite below, Wortham says that within these “dark times,” citizens need to “do something,” to raise money, organize dinners, write journalism stories, etc. to make a difference within this racial status quo. The passion and urgency in Wortham’s voice, her implores piercing the headphones, match those who protested the white Supremacist rallies in Charlottesville. In defining blame and then advocating for change, Wortham and Morris assure their listeners that these White Supremacist rallies do not get the last word, that their voices elevated through the audio platform have the final say. Wortham and Morris thereby use the audio medium to establish a cultural space for listeners of shared pain and frustration, imploring listeners to achieve some form of healing.
Still Processing achieves a unique form of “black vernacular technological creativity” by uniting black vernacular English (BVE) with highly academic language. In doing so, the podcast simultaneously informs listeners of the necessity of change, and defends against white critique. Often, BVE is featured in the “exordium,” or the introduction to these epideictic addresses that aims to whet listeners’ interest in the following rhetorical act (Aristotle 48). As the sound bite demonstrates, the episode begins with upbeat jazz music – a choice that pays homage to “black vernacular technological creativity” – to then feature Afro-Latina artist Cardi B’s latest rap single, again another musical form largely influenced by African American musical streams. Cardi B’s lyrics themselves feature black vernacular English, with the lines “You know where I’m at / You know where I be.” After celebrating Cardi B’s single as the “song of the summer,” praising her BVE as well as her contributions to black culture, the hosts then transition (rather abruptly) into academic language, as they blame the racial conditions surrounding kneeling at NFL games. Once listeners have been excited with an upbeat, casual cultural discussion, they are then escorted into a more serious academic analysis as Wortham and Morris blame the American racist climate.
In the “America, What You Doin’ Gurl?” and in the “We’re Getting Black(ER) AKA Dear Woke People,” episodes, Wortham and Morris audibly “code switch” from black Vernacular English to highly academic language as they analyze the topic. Wortham begins the former of these episodes by asking, “America, WYD? What You Doin’ Gurl?” truncating her words and using the slang for “girl.” She then changes gears to use academic language about the effervescence of time in Snapchat, starting a debate, with New York Times Magazine writer Susan Dominus about Hilary Clinton’s candidacy for President. Similarly in the “We’re Getting Black(ER) AKA Dear Woke People,” the hosts discuss being the only black people at a barbecue restaurant. “Woke,” according to the Merriam Webster Dictionary, means “awake” but is also taken as a “byword for social awareness.” After describing how they, as the only black folks in the restaurant, were “grinding” to the music, they enter into a large discussion of how they “became this proxy for people to perform their blackness.” As this bite demonstrates, they combine their own informal descriptions of dancing with an academic analysis of their significance.
These hosts’ code switching from black vernacular English to academic jargon is again a self-reflexive choice, as Wortham and Morris are aware of how their podcast will be received by white audience members. Though the hosts are interpolating listeners into their personal experience as African American citizens by using BVE, they pair it with academic language to protect themselves from white critique. Though white racist ideology assumes BVE is ignorant and uneducated, Still Processing, by combining it with academic language, challenges that dichotomy. That white listeners need such academic justification to rightfully criticize their behavior is an implicit critique of whiteness, as the hosts continue to blame this racism to rally listeners towards a solution.
Finally, the podcast medium, by featuring voices of great emotional despair, communicates to listeners the necessity of blame so that all listeners can join together in a united process of healing. The platform gives listeners a tangible understanding of the breadth and depth of this necessary ceremonial space, as well as the hurt that warrants such blame; the medium gives the voiceless a platform to speak and amplifies the struggles of silence. The most poignant example of this is in the “We Grieve Charlottesville” episode, where host Wesley Morris’s voice cracks and breaks considering the ongoing painful history of black citizens in the United States. He says to Wortham, his fellow African American host, that it is “kind of a miracle that you and I are sitting here, given all the other people who have died over the course of the last two hundred years,” calling into attention their freedom and ability to even make this podcast together and discuss such issues. Listeners can hear him fighting back tears as he says that “it’s a miracle they didn’t just round us up in 1865 when there was just no more slavery, basically, just kill us all,” reflecting that it would have too difficult to incorporate freed slaves into American society. Just as black vernacular technological forms allowed African Americans to claim their own voices and agency within an oppressive landscape, the podcast enables these black hosts to declare their own emotions and feelings. In expressing such vulnerability, in allowing listeners to hear this pain of what is truly considered bad in the United States, they join in a culture of united, hopeful healing.
……….Black Americans, though legally considered citizens, are largely barred from obtaining social and cultural citizenship in the United States. Their identifications are largely assaulted and often appropriated, denigrated consistently through the course of American history. The podcast, by endowing an audio platform and forum to Black persons (and all Americans), incites a participatory form of listening where users can claim their own identity as citizen. Through the aid of a microphone, a recorder, and sound editing software, users can create and reflect their cultural identity, can (quite literally) amplify their voices to claim their own ceremonial cultural ground. They are invited to praise their cultural identifications in podcasts like The Nod, blaming and mourning the effects of white racism in Still Processing. In doing so, these podcasters can also disseminate their recorded, proud expression of cultural identity to listeners, thereby entering them into their own cultural spaces.
………..Epideictic rhetoric in the podcast, then, challenges the Greek notion of one singular culture produced through a ceremonial address. Unlike the ancient Greeks in the 4th century BCE, uniting in a singular cultural bond through shared understandings of the praiseworthy and the blameworthy, the podcast interrogates this practice in the United States. Using the same tools of praise and blame – chastising white racism and lauding blackness – the podcast counteracts the “oneness” of American culture and advocates instead for its plurality. The podcast provides a diverse audio landscape that matches the world that lies beyond the podcast, a platform that not only endows voices to all, but also interpolates and exposes people of different cultures into these spaces to expand epideictic rhetoric’s reach.