Ali Colleen Neff

Ali Colleen Neff is a music writer, filmmaker, turntablist and media anthropologist based in Portland. Drawing from her lifelong work with global music communities, she works to integrate innovative subcultures, women, and marginalized communities into the global digital landscape. Her books and articles include work on hip-hop in the contemporary Mississippi Delta, African feminist rap; Sufi sound, and the radical possibilities of femme-centered music criticism. She has received fellowships from the Mellon Foundation, DK Wilgus, and Peacock REACH and is affiliated with Portland State’s Program in Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies.

"Mermaids Rising: Women, Water and Afrodiasporic Pop"
A constellation of mermaid figures has guided the history of global popular music.. They shine time and again, from starlet Esther Williams’ underwater film career; to Nina Simone’s rendition of the Black spiritual “Take Me to the Water”; to Enya’s Gaelic sea shanties; to the “Surfer Girls,” “Rio”s and “Lorelei”s of top-40 pop music; to the mermaid themes in Aaliyah and TLC’s millennial R’n’B videos; and to the current rise of mermaid hair, makeup and tattoos amongst college-age women.

This study presents a cultural history of the black mermaid with a focus on the relationship between water, women and global popular culture. It evidences the power of women to change history by inhabiting the mermaid figure. It documents the ways in which mermaids have inspired ethnic folklore and national mythologies, personal narratives of travel and transition, and, over the past two centuries of globalization, pop culture from experimental film, to #1 dance hits, to digital animation. Research for this project,, based on years of folkloristic work with global mermaid cults, archival deep dives, and personal interviews, shows that mermaid cultures arise:

As a figure of women’s artistic creativity the world over:
Mermaids possess both feminine beauty and the freedom to move effortlessly through the ocean; they are both sexually compelling and, because they are fish tom the waist down, not built for babymaking. This allows mermaids the freedom to travel, and a kind of self-determination that is especially meaningful to women and girls at times of transition in their life cycles.

From islands, ports, and places where the land touches the sea:
From the Netherlands, to the Horn of Africa, to Athens, Polynesia and the Caribbean, mermaid folklore emerges in cultures that border the sea. Mermaids arise from seafaring populations who have historically crossed oceans, from the Fiji islanders to the Irish merchant sailors. This means that mermaid cultures can be found the world over;

At times of global migration and cultural intermixing: The ocean is especially meaningful in times of global migration—people have gotten around the world by sailing it for millennia—and the result is the kind of cultural intermixing embodied by the half-woman-half-fish figure. Many African mermaid figures had blonde tresses, bleached by the water, and wore a Hindu bindi on their foreheads. The Brazilian Iara is a conglomeration of Native American, African and European settler traits and motives. Today, as cultural conversations become even thicker in the age of digital globalization, mermaids collect traits from disparate places and peoples.