Smile Politely
Kimberly Mack, a Black woman, stands in a room in front of a black grand piano. Her hands are clasped in front of her body, and she smiles and looks into the camera. She is wearing a black and white patterned shirt and black pants.
Kimberly Mack; Photo by Dan Miller

Time’s Up with Kimberly Mack

While many of us at Smile Politely could be considered scholars and fans of Champaign-Urbana, there are more traditional scholars at the University of Illinois who are doing academic work around their interests and fandoms. Kimberly Mack is an associate professor of English at the U of I. A newish transplant to the university and the area, Mack is a scholar of popular music studies and literature. Her work considers “African American literature and culture, 20th and 21st century ethnic American literature, autobiographical narratives, and American popular music.” Her most recent book is part of the long-running 33 1/3 series, wherein each book considers individual albums from artists. Mack’s book, Living Colour’s Time’s Up, looks at the rock band Living Colour’s 1990 album. Living Colour — Vernon Reid, Corey Glover, Will Calhoun and Doug Wimbish (Muzz Skillings left the band in 1992) — are four Black men who were making rock music at a time when rock was (and remains?) very white. 

Mack isn’t just a scholar of popular music, she’s also a fan. Her path to academia wasn’t so straightforward; she spent time working in film and as a music critic before earning her doctorate and settling in the academy. She still writes music criticism — she’s positioned herself as an academic who is able to deftly navigate all sorts of intellectual and written spaces. I strongly recommend picking up her book, where you’ll not only learn about Living Colour and Time’s Up, but also about how her experience of the band and the music impacted her personally and professionally. It’s a well-written, interesting, compelling, and fun read.

I recently talked to her about her journey to Illinois, her research, her book, Living Colour’s Time’s Up, the album Time’s Up, and what it’s like to be both a fan and a scholar. 

The interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

A small book is on a black and white checkered patterned fabric. The book's cover is black, yellow, and red. There is 33 1/3 in white text in the upper left, an album cover for Living Colour in the upper right, and the title, "Time's Up" in white on the bottom right, underneath is "by Kimberly Mack" in black text.
Jessica Hammie

Smile Politely: How did you end up in Champaign-Urbana?

Kimberly Mack: My first job was at the University of Toledo. I was there for eight years. I was recruited [to the University of Illinois] and am really happy to be here. [My family and I] arrived last August. 

SP: You were coming from the Midwest, so I imagine it’s not too much of a culture shock. I know from your book that you grew up in New York. 

Mack: I grew up in New York but then my next stop was Los Angeles. I did my undergraduate at NYU and did an MFA in creative writing in Los Angeles, and I was there for 14 years. I did my PhD [at UCLA], and got a job at the University of Toledo.

It ended up being a really good job and so I was there a while, but was very excited to have the chance to come here. I hadn’t been to Champaign or Urbana before. I had a recruitment visit in February of last year. It was great. I had a really lovely time and met a lot of people. 

SP: You mentioned your MFA. Can you tell me a little about your academic journey, and how or why you came to study English, and ultimately how you came to music criticism?

Mack: I have had quite the journey to this career. I’m really happy with it, but it took me a while to get here. My undergraduate degree is in dramatic writing, so I was at Tisch, at NYU. I wanted to be a playwright. By the time I got to my senior year, I morphed a little bit closer to film, and so my senior thesis was a screenplay. When I left school, I started to make short films. I ended up being in film production for about ten years. 

I didn’t go to grad school right away. In writing dramatic pieces I realized I wanted to spread out a little more [in my] writing, write prose and not have so much white space on the pages. I thought about an MFA in creative writing. I always knew I wanted to be a writer, it was just a matter of what kind of writing. I was accepted into a low residency MFA program at Antioch University in Los Angeles. The whole low residency thing is you can do an MFA from a distance, so I didn’t have to go there, but I always wanted to go to LA. I didn’t go away for college. I thought, “I just want to experience another place.”

SP: Totally. 

Mack: One of the requirements for the MFA — which is brilliant — is this thing called a field study. You have to find something connected to writing or books that you’re interested in doing, but you don’t know much about, so you have to find a mentor to be your guide. I knew from around the age of 16 that I wanted to be a music critic someday. I hadn’t gotten around to it, hadn’t done it. It was 2002 around this time, I was around 32 or 33, and still hadn’t done any of it. So I said, “This is what I want to do in the field study. I want to finally pursue rock criticism, music criticism, and I need a mentor.” I got incredibly lucky and ended up working with Greg Tate, the legendary Village Voice writer who wrote about hip-hop, rock, and different forms of Black music. He was such an incredible intellectual and a really creative writer. He became my mentor and he read all of my really, really, really embarrassing early stuff and was supportive and helpful. 

The first place I wrote for was PopMatters. And [I] wrote for a really long time for an industry trade called Music Connection. It was a really great place to work because I interviewed artists, and also wrote about local bands, which was really fun. I did live concert reviews and industry profiles. I realized that I wanted to figure out how to write about music and my other love, literature and books, and how to put them together. I just felt like in order to do this, I probably need a little more training, a little more guidance. I understood that if I actually wanted to have any kind of a stable career in academia — which I knew nothing about — I thought, “okay, a PhD makes sense.” 

I actually had a bit of a hard time committing to the PhD program because I was concerned about leaving my life as a creative writer, my life as a music writer. I was very stubborn the first couple of years. I was still writing a lot of music criticism and still working on [my] memoir and querying agents and doing this PhD program — which I don’t necessarily advise. My advisor, Richard [Yarborough], really threw me a lifeline when it came time to think about the dissertation project. He knew about my music writing, he knew about my interest in life writing and creative non-fiction and memoir, and he said, “don’t feel like you need to be a music writer over here and a literary critic over here, if you can find a way to bring all these things together, and have it make intellectual sense, then you can do that. You can talk about it.” I was floored. I found a project that brought music, literature, and my interest in life writing — biography and autobiography —  together. And that became my first book. That is now what I do. 

My work is extremely multidisciplinary. I publish in literary studies and also in popular music studies. I’m so, so grateful. I’ll always be grateful to Richard Yarborough for having an expansive idea of what a career in the academy can be. 

The band Living Colour: four Black men on a stage. Behind them is an arena full of fans and spectators. The band members are all smiling at the camera.
Living Colour on X / Twitter

SP: What is it like being a scholar of something you’re a fan of?

Mack: Honestly, it’s a dream. I’m a scholar of popular music studies, specifically rock and early roots music, and these are the things I love and it’s fantastic. I was not sure I’d be able to do this, that someone would allow me to follow my passions and go to archives and talk to people. My current book project is about an alternative history of rock criticism and it’s all about the people whose voices have been muted in rock writing. It’s looking at reforming a canon of rock writing but also simultaneously rethinking the canon of rock music because they went together. The people who decided what true, legitimate rock music was were the same people who were deciding what rock writing is. This book is really looking at writers of color and women who were doing this work in the 60s and 70s and a little bit before and a little bit after, and not just taking writers who were outside of the Creems and Rolling Stones, it’s looking at [people] who were writing for those magazines and looking at different kinds of publications that completely get overlooked in this conversation: teen magazines, groupie magazines, ‘zines, alternative weeklies that aren’t the Village Voice or the LA Weekly, dailies, and Black and brown publications. I say all this to say that I am thrilled that I get to do this archival work and interview living writers, and I’m just so happy that I get to be a scholar of stuff that I am extremely interested in. 

SP: Your latest book, Time’s Up, is part of the 33 1/3 series, which is kind of outside of the typical academic publishing path. What was exciting about approaching your research through this particular model?

Mack: This was sort of a bucket list [item]. What really attracted me to it was just the open-ended nature of what the books could be, and how creative you can be in this series. I was attracted to the idea that I could pull together some of the ways in which I write, some of the modes that I’m interested in. Some of them I hadn’t written in before but I wanted to. I loved that I had the chance to try them out. 

The first chapter is biography. I’ve had a long standing interest in biography from a literary criticism perspective and I’m interested in autobiography theory and biography under that umbrella. It was great to have the chance to have a chapter where I’m giving a background on the members of Living Colour, because there was no biography that existed. The second chapter was oral history. I had not written oral history before, but I’ve read a lot of oral history and always wanted to do it. Then the third chapter, memoir, autobiographical, which I’ve done, and the fourth chapter critical reception, which was drawing more of the traditional scholarly skills, doing the research, reading a lot of things. The last chapter being about the commercial life of the record and the legacy of the band. I just really appreciated the chance to write in all these modes. 

SP: Why Living Colour? What drew you to the band as a fan, as a scholar? 

Mack: Living Colour is extremely important to me, not just for the way that they sound, not just because I like their songs, although that was a big part of it, but so much of it was about upending all that I thought I knew about rock music, where it comes from, who it’s for, who gets to participate in it. I had heard Living Colour before the second record, Time’s Up. I heard and liked [their first album] Vivid, really liked “The Cult of Personality,” like everybody else. But I wasn’t paying super super close attention to them; I saw them on their Live at the Apollo performance. I loved that they existed. 

It really was Time’s Up and the first song, the title track, “Time’s Up,” that was revelatory for me. How do I describe this? I grew up loving rock my whole life, and some of the rock that I liked was harder than others, but I also came of age at a time when there was a lot of New Wave and post-punk kind of stuff. Hearing [“Time’s Up”], which was more or less a hardcore song, I was like, “This is really different, this is really cool.” It actually set me on a path to enjoying heavier, edgier rock music from that point on. They looked like me, and their message was amazing, and they were schooling me and everybody else about where rock had come from, and they were just a joy to watch live. 

When I was thinking about a 33 1/3, Living Colour was a no brainer. 

SP: The album makes me think of protest music, with what they’re doing lyrically, and it brings up for me the issue of race in rock music, considering the way the music industry, white artists, and fans have appropriated, stolen, and erased foundational Black music and musicians and rock criticism, as you mentioned. I see the band as subverting that rhetorically by existing, and also in the choices that they’re making. 

Mack: Yeah, totally. It had to have been exhausting for them. In order to talk about the reception to Time’s Up, it was hard not to talk about Vivid to write this book. I went back and I read all the reviews of Vivid and interviews around that time. Of course writers don’t always write their headlines, but all the headlines were punny, something about their race and rock — all of them. There wasn’t a moment where anyone was letting that slide, it was just, like, this is the story. [Living Colour] always had to talk about race, they always had to talk about race and rock, they always had to talk about why they’re playing this music, and they were always put in the position of being educators. And it had to have been exhausting. I remain so impressed with this band because they were always so willing and able to do that work.  

SP: It’s very generous. It’s an unfair burden. 

Mack: Yeah. They constantly had to engage with their relationship as four Black men to this music. I couldn’t think of a better four people to do it because they were so, so good at it, so smart, so willing to have those conversations. As you said, generous, and actually patient in a lot of ways. They were put in the position of being activists while also being really serious artists, both things that were not necessarily common at that time. Rock acts were not combo activists and artists, true artists. 

I think they’re absolutely talking back, resisting. They were consistently working to expand ideas about what rock is. I do think they were punished for it. I do believe [Time’s Up] was leaning into the experimentation and the collaborations that they had on the record, while having some kind of metal and hard rock stuff, and having African stuff, all these things. Instead of them being celebrated for that, I think some of [the pushback] was a way to delegitimize how truly rock they were, which is absurd. 

SP: It points to that moment where you start to see some of the rigidity of those genre boundaries being challenged. It lays the foundational work for people to come after them and do the same things. It just sucks as a fan of stuff to see your band be the sacrificial lamb, the trailblazers that have to be trodden upon. 

Mack: Living Colour was truly groundbreaking: The most commercially successful all-Black rock band since Jimi Hendrix’s Band of Gypsies. There hasn’t been a band since in terms of selling records, radio airplay, all of that — accolades, Grammys, MTV Awards, MTV airplay. There’s been no band that has touched them. Tom Morello [of Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave], was the first to say it, but I don’t think there would have been a Rage Against the Machine without Living Colour. Or TV on the Radio, or other bands who came after, [where it] became possible to be in a Black body and play this music and be taken seriously. 

SP: Representation really matters. Has the way you listened to that album changed since you’ve done all this work? Or has your experience of the album changed?

Mack: That’s a really good question. I don’t know. This is going to sound ridiculously corny: I think it’s true that every time I hear it, it always feels new to me. I never get tired of it. I’m always excited to hear it. I just think it’s a great album, and the production is really great. I did a book talk with Vernon [Reid, guitarist for the band] in January in New York and the bookstore put the album on at the end of the book signing. It was really cool to watch Vernon listen to the record; he’s nodding his head, and he’s like, “I really like the production on this.” I kind of weirdly saw myself in him. 

SP: That’s when you know something’s really good, right? It becomes timeless. 

Mack: It feels that way for me, yeah. 

Order Living Colour’s Time’s Up here