Syncopation, Citation, and Scholarly Publishing

Priscilla Lee (‘25) on decentering western tradition and how it can lead to greater bibliodiversity

Last semester, the Amherst Choral Society performed an a cappella arrangement of “Water Fountain” by tUnE-yArDs. When we received the sheet music in rehearsal, I was drawn to a curious two-measure phrase: “se pou zan-mi mwen, se pou zan-mi mwen.” A footnote explained that it was Haitian Creole for “It is for my friends, it is for my friends.” At Amherst College Press, we had just been working on promotion for The Border of Lights Reader, an anthology of multimodal works about the 1937 massacre of Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent. This sent me down a Google spiral of tUnE-yArDs interviews, song critique, lyric analysis, and finally, to questions of cultural appropriation, epistemic justice, and bibliodiversity in open access publishing.

“Water Fountain” is a single from the album Nikki Nack, which had the working title of Sink-o. In an article she wrote for Talkhouse, Merrill Garbus (singer-songwriter of tUnE-yArDs) says “Sink-o” came from her “obsession with the word ‘syncopation.’” Expanding further, she writes:

“Syncopation derives its definition from what it is not: rhythmically speaking, it’s not what you “expect” to happen; it’s a ‘deviation’ from the ‘norm.’ The word assumes that you are situated in a western music tradition.”

This idea of being educated to think of the western tradition as the norm is something I’m increasingly aware of as an international student. Garbus was raised in New York City and attended Smith College; no doubt she began musical training with western instrumentation, theory, and notation. Across the ocean in Hong Kong, I also learned western notation, played western classical music, and sang English hymns in choir.

When Garbus began to learn Haitian drumming patterns—which feature heavily in “Water Fountain”—she found it difficult to let go of western counting: “I found I had no idea where the downbeat was, the ‘one’ count. I was sweating, I wanted to stop playing.”

If the liveliness of its polyrhythms is what made “Water Fountain” into a hit, then we must contend with the question of cultural appropriation. In a 2018 interview, four years after the album came out, Garbus admitted that “‘world-music-influenced indie rock’ is rotten to the core” in how it takes from other cultures. In the American Music Review, Micahel P. Lupo points out the tensions of Garbus “as an up-and-coming ‘indie’ star, legitimate talent, and white female appropriator of the music of Africa and the Diaspora” but also asks how it can be viewed “as a method for articulating alterity, that is, as a means of exposing alienating structures of power.”

As far as I can tell from reading her interviews, Garbus’s decision to learn Haitian drumming patterns came from a place of curiosity and a desire to expand her art beyond the constraints of the western music tradition. She wanted to unprogram her western music training and create something different, something that challenges the centrality of western tradition. Whether these motivations are valid, ethical, or accurate are up for debate.

However, I do understand her desire to get outside of the tradition. Today, western norms and systems have become so ubiquitous that it is difficult to see them for what they are: an arbitrary set of rules. Often, it feels like that’s just the way things are, that we can’t change any of it because then everything would collapse. In the world of academia, publishers and institutions in the Global North continue to hold many resources and much authority, and they operate on systems that we can sometimes take for granted without question.

Take the idea of citations as a metric of success. Before this internship, I saw it as an unshakeable pillar of academia, and thought it fundamentally distinguished between what does and doesn’t count as "Scholarly Knowledge." To clarify, I’m not talking about the practice of citation itself; citing Haitian vodou as a source and giving credit to her Hatian-born drum teacher Daniel Brevil is a piece of driftwood that (maybe) keeps Garbus afloat in the murky waters between cultural appreciation and appropriation. What I’m talking about is judging the value of a piece of scholarship based on how many times it’s been cited by other scholars.

The overpowering importance of this metric can marginalize scholars and scholarship outside the western tradition. As Shearer and Becerril-García write in “Decolonizing Scholarly Communications through Bibliodiversity,” the fact that “researchers around the world are evaluated according to journal-based citation measures” has resulted “in a predominance of Northern/Western research priorities and perspectives reflected in the literature, and an increasing marginalization of research topics of more narrow or local nature.”

How does this happen? Well, say you’re an academic journal. You want the papers you publish to be cited as much as possible, so you want as large of an audience as you can get. Given this, do you publish in your local language or in English? Do you publish articles about your community, or issues of global interest? And as we’ve said, “global” usually ends up meaning “western.” I, musically educated in Hong Kong, know piano and Beethoven much better than erhu and Cantonese opera, and I’d guess that globally, there are more scholars of Mozart concertos than of Cantopop. If, on top of that, you’re trying to sell books and journal subscriptions, you’d probably give the Mozart scholar’s work a bit more attention.

This specific issue of citation as a metric is part of a larger problem. In their chapter for Reassembling Scholarly Communications, Roh, Inefuku, and Drabinski write that “Scholarship from the Global South is too readily dismissed by researchers in the Global North, due to a publishing system whose standards of quality have been developed for academics in the Global North.” These standards of quality include English fluency, affiliation with elite institutions, and writing about topics of interest to the Global North. All of us who are speaking English, attending Amherst, and learning about Europe and the United States will be familiar with these standards.

So how do we address the systemic marginalization of diverse and localized knowledge? This question is urgently relevant to open access publishing. The appeal of digital open access scholarship is that it’s accessible to anyone with an internet connection. Perhaps a path of least resistance is simply to follow the old rules and perpetuate an established, western system of publication, changing only the fact that readers won’t be charged.

But there’s an opportunity to do something more—a lot of which is already happening in open access publishing around the world. For ACP especially, which follows a platinum open access model (meaning there is no charge to authors, their affiliate institutions, or readers), the hope is that our pool of readers and authors, as well as modes of knowledge production, presentation, and preservation, are as wide and diverse as possible.

The editors of The Border of Lights Reader were mindful of this, and for this reason, the anthology includes untranslated submissions in four languages. As they write in the introduction, the volume “seeks to provide an equal platform for voices from both on and off Hispaniola while also aiming to de-prioritize a US-based academic lens.” On why they chose to publish open access:

“The goal is that anyone, especially Haitian and Dominican students on both sides of the border, are able to access the contents of this Reader free of charge. One of our aims in discussing the ideal format for this project centered on moving away from a hierarchical organization, in particular one that is published in one language, but not another.”

As for diversifying knowledge, ACP's former intern Angel Musyimi wrote this community post on how open access scholarship must work to support, sustain, and center Indigenous knowledge. Radical Roots, another title from last year, puts into practice some of these methods. It centers oral history as a mode of scholarship, taking advantage of digital publication and including audio files along with transcripts of the interviews.

The exciting thing is that digital open access publishing is still relatively new. In exploring what it might become and how it can progress from what has come before, we must get out from under the overpowering hand of tradition. It’s not syncopation. It’s another beat.

Priscilla Lee ('25) is a first year English major from Hong Kong. She also studies Classics and French, with a growing interest in translation. In addition to singing in Choral Society, she loves poetry, enjoys reading literary and translated fiction, and writes book reviews on Instagram!