Asif Majid was born outside Baltimore, MD. His mother grew up in Tanzania on the shores of Lake Victoria, and later became an avid gardener and public health expert. His father grew up in northern Pakistan as a poetry enthusiast and budding engineer. As an infant, Asif enjoyed playing pots and pans at his mother’s feet, resulting in a lifelong passion for performance that has led him to mosques, schools, churches, cafés, festivals, treetops, concert halls, and community centers. He graduated summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, and valedictorian from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, where he designed his own major focusing on peace and conflict. Asif then earned an MA with distinction in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University, during which time he devised and assistant directed Generation (Wh)Y: Global Voices on Stage at The Lab. Currently, he is pursuing a practice-based PhD in Anthropology, Media, and Performance at The University of Manchester, for which he is doing an ethnography of devising theater with British Muslim youth. As an educator, Asif has engaged thousands of young people in the United States and abroad through summer programs, Model UN activities, and work at Arena Stage, Seeds of Peace, and Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Talented Youth, using online and theatrical simulations to develop their understandings of racism, identity, and conflict.
In the West, the notion of “giving voice” is a recurring theme found at the intersection of performance and politics. Yet, there are seldom interrogations of how practitioners and scholars use and understand the term. To give voice is taken as a positive practice, a goal to which everyone should strive. But, I am skeptical of this unfettered enthusiasm. This is because it is based on a problematic assumption: that socially engaged Western performance gives voice to those that previously did not possess it.
In the West, socially engaged performances that privilege narratives outside the mainstream are often conceptualized as giving voice to the voiceless. Voice is framed as something that individuals from the Global South, communities of color, refugees, women, and the “Other” do not have. Were this true, it would render these individuals “subaltern,” per postcolonial critical theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s (1987) idea that the subaltern cannot speak. To be subaltern is to not have access to hegemonic structures like Western performance, and thus be spoken for. When socially engaged Western performance professes to give voice to the voiceless, it codes the supposedly neutral stage as Western: performance (and the West by extension) thus claims to counter “subalternity.”
This claim is troubling for two reasons. First, it positions the West as the savior that gives voice to a sociological Other, as if that Other had no voice to begin with. Second, it makes a subtle conflation — subaltern as “a classy word for ‘oppressed’” (de Kock 1992: 45) — that Spivak opposes, going against the very meaning of subaltern: someone without agency, social status, or access to structures like performance. Actually, what is happening in socially engaged Western performance is an amplification of “oppressed” rather than “subaltern” voices. Oppressed they may be, these voices have access to hegemonic practices like Western performance and are embedded in networks of political, economic, cultural, and social power. To say that such performance “gives voice” is to elide and obscure the inherent agency of these voices, until the West recognizes, stages, and saves them.
I want to flip the notion of voice on its head. Rather than talk about such performance “giving voice,” I prefer to consider it in terms of enforcing listening. Staging marginalized stories does not give voice to anybody; the West is no hero. What it does instead is require that the white, (upper-)middle-class, patriarchal hegemony of the Western audience silences itself. Socially engaged Western performance has power to demand that the privileged few listen. Too often, as the assumption underpinning “giving voice” makes clear, the West believes its cultural practices are solutions. What if it acknowledged its ignorance by listening instead? Its silence would speak volumes.
de Kock, Leon. (1992) Interview With Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak: New Nation Writers Conference in South Africa. ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature 23 (3): 29–47.
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. (1987) Can the Subaltern Speak? In Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, ed. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg, 271–313. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.