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Chris Nickell

Chris Nickell is a Ph.D. candidate in music at New York University. His dissertation draws on ethnographic fieldwork with participants in independent music scenes of Beirut, Lebanon to better understand how participants in these scenes negotiate sectarian capitalism through performances of masculinities. Chris is also a community organizer in Inwood, New York and a shop steward, organizer, and activist with GSOC-UAW, the graduate worker union of NYU.

"'Cultural Chameleons:' Masculinity, Racialization, and Commercial Viability among Beirut-based Independent Musicians"
Social and cultural performances of gender converge in music. In my research with Beirut-based independent musicians, mostly men, these performances often involve masculinities. I find that their diverse performances of masculinities marshall various identity markers like social class, formal education, and race to lubricate fraught negotiations over scarce resources, urban spaces, border crossings, musical genres, and audience demands at home and abroad. In this paper, I ask: how do these musicians’ masculinities combine with their self-understandings as “cultural chameleons” to yield economically successful projects?

The career of Nader Mansour, leader of English-language blues-turned-rock band The Wanton Bishops, suggests one way racialized masculinity can be parlayed into profits. In 2013, Mansour and then-bandmate Eddy Ghossein traveled to the southern U.S. in search of “real bluesmen,” a journey that Red Bull funded and filmed for one of their full-length music documentaries called Walk It Home. By arranging interviews with blues notables and band performances with black musicians, directors attempted to justify and authenticate Mansour’s musical blackness. Just two years later, Mansour began distancing himself from blues, asserting that the genre’s restrictiveness often landed him in the dreaded “world music tent.” Intriguingly, through recent adoption of electrified ’ud and Arabic backup vocals, Mansour has recalibrated musical-racial hue from “too black” to “just brown enough.” His gestural and musical performance of “bad boy” masculinity that drives European ticket sales has moved from raw to refined, attracting Arab Gulf luxury brand sponsorship.

Through an ethnographically informed close reading of Nader Mansour’s career as leader of The Wanton Bishops, I will show how choices to (re)present racialized masculinity are put in conversation with real and imagined commercial audiences to become financially viable. I argue that his example illustrates the complex limits to appropriations of blackness and the global music industry’s ongoing demand for carefully racialized masculinities.