By Mackenzie Murphy
Thursday morning started with us grabbing our morning coffees and settling into our classroom (sadly, for the last time). As we begin to close in on the end of week three, it is hard to believe that Berlin felt so foreign only two and a half weeks ago and now the barista at the coffee shop across the street from our classroom has become a familiar face. Our guest for the day was Noah Sow, an accomplished artist, musician, producer, author, and activist. During our discussion with her, she talked to us mostly about her involvement in the pop culture and music industry—more specifically how the structural racism in Germany played a role in her life as an artist. We got a first hand account of what Michael Schmidtke discusses in “Cultural Revolution or Cultural Shock? Student Radicalism and 1968 in Germany” regarding how racism in “culture, and in language itself [prevents society] from realizing that there might be alternative ways of living” (81).
Noah grew up in “white Catholic Bavaria,” and was introduced to music at a very young age. She learned to play several instruments, and discovered a genuine passion for expression through art. Unfortunately, she was one of the only Black members of her community. She would often be invited to perform; however, she began to get the sense that those who attended and promoted her performances were more interested in exploiting her “exotic” Blackness to the predominantly white community than appreciating her talent as a musician. Because of this, she learned to dissociate her performances from her audience in order to push past these feelings and began to perform for herself. This coincides with Jasmin Eding’s idea that “self-determination, self-development and assertiveness are critical for us in facing and surviving racism and sexism in our daily lives in a predominately white, Christian, patriarchal society” (131) from “…And I Let Myself Go Wherever I Want To.” Noah went on to speak to us about her continued experiences in Germany, with the majority of people conceptualizing “Germans as homogeneous and white.” This construction of German identity has othered the Black community, resulting in structural racism and white supremacy, which often manifests in the media, an area in which Noah also has a great deal of professional experience.
For instance, she sang in a studio in the 1980s for the first time, and was involved in the Euro Dance scene in the 1990s. She also spent some of the 2000s in New York in the punk rock scene, including performing with her group Anarchists of Color. Noah faced various challenges in the music scene, especially with producers. Many producers in Germany were more interested in appealing to the white German public than allowing Noah to share her own identity and art. The attitudes and restrictions imposed by these producers caused Noah to experience many of the same feelings of exploitation that she had when she was younger. In response, Noah decided she would no longer submit to this type of suppression. She then created her own record label, Jeanne Dark Records, in 2005. As Simon Arms discusses in “The Heritage of Berlin Street Art and Graffiti Scene,” art “derives its power from being on the margins of society; only from the outside can (artists) address problems within” (17). Noah’s move to produce her own music allowed her to create a space of her own, where she could voice her own experiences and art, not as an other in Germany but as an Afro-Deutsche woman.
It was obvious listening to Noah that, from a very young age, she was able to recognize the barriers she would face as a Black woman in Germany. Noah paralleled the German popular culture industry with the exploitation of Afro-Deutsche people in human zoos, which is yet another disturbing reality of German history. The point being that Germany—especially due to white supremacy and patriarchy—still exploit the Black community by dehumanizing and objectifying them for public entertainment. This may not be visible in popular culture the same way as human zoos, but the implications are equally unacceptable. Noah is an example of a person who transcends the ideals imposed upon her by creating her own space, where she “narrates her own history.”
Mackenzie Murphy grew up in New Jersey, and although she loves living in Colorado, the east coast still has a strong hold on her heart. She has been fortunate enough to have traveled within the United States, as well as to some parts of Europe and most recently to Costa Rica. This is her first time in Germany, and she’s most excited about the opportunity to travel and learn about this wonderful place with her peers. She will be a senior this coming fall, and she studies Film & New Media Studies. She also holds strong interests in Philosophy and Feminist & Gender Studies. She is currently watching the TV series The Sopranos, and her favorite philosopher is Friedrich Nietzsche.