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Straight Leanin’: Sounding Black Life at the Intersection of Hip-hop and Big Pharma


Sound and AffectMarginalized bodies produce marginalized sounds to communicate things that escape language. The queer body is the site of sounds that engage pleasure, repression, rage, isolation, always somehow outside of dominant language. Sound Studies tells us that we should trust our ears as much as our eyes, justifying our trust in sound, and of the resonating body. Affect Theory goes further, saying that all senses play into a body that processes input through levels of response, experience, and anticipation. Affect is the vibrational space that is both bodily memory and anticipation. So where do sound and affect meet in queer bodies? How do marginalized peoples use sound and the body to express liberation, objectification, joy, and struggle?

Our writers in Sound and Affect tackle these questions across a spectrum of the marginalized experience. Last week, I opened by offering the concept of the tremble, a sonic form of affect that is necessarily queer in its affective reach.  Next week, Maria Chaves explores the connection between voice, listening, and queer Chicana community formation: through space, across time, and with laughter. The series finishes with Justyna Stasiowska bringing the noise in a discussion of the trans body and the performance work of Tara Transitory. Today, Kemi Adeyemi, sloooooooows thingggggggggs doooooooooownnnnn so that we can hear the capitalist connections between the work expected of black bodies and the struggle for escape from this reality through the sonic affects, temporal shifts, and corporeal elsewhere of purple drank. —Guest Editor Airek Beauchamp

The first track on Future’s 2015 album Dirty Sprite 2 opens with the gassy sounds of the rapper preparing “lean”: a prescription promethazine and codeine cough syrup mixture that is cut with sweet sodas and candies. He vigorously shakes the syrupy Sprite together before cracking the bottle open and pouring the fizzing drink over ice likely held in two stacked Styrofoam cups, the vessel of choice for hip-hop’s most audible drug. As Future takes his first sips his mouth puckers with the sweetness. He swirls and sips again, sighing with pleasure as he begins boasting “…I just took a piss and I seen Codeine coming out/We got purple Actavis, I thought it was a drought.”

Otherwise known as syrup, sizzurp, purple stuff, drank, Texas Tea, and barre, lean is a highly addictive concoction that is sipped slowly to release a potent blend of euphoria, hallucinations, and motor impairment—especially when consumed in conjunction with alcohol. Lean slows you down, muddies your perception, and makes you physically sway, recline, lean. Future’s album, like much of his oeuvre, pays homage to lean and this particular song, “Thought It Was a Drought,” flies in the face of the pharmaceutical company Actavis that stopped producing the drug in 2014 amidst fears that it was being illegally distributed to and consumed by non-prescription holders. The lack of production has apparently not stopped Future’s consumption, however. On 2014’s “Codeine Crazy” he explains in a lean-fueled cadence that trails into his Southern accent that “I’m an addict and I can’t even hide it.”

Future’s demonstrations of addiction speak to a significant strain of hip-hop’s cache that stems from the genre’s long engagement with the terse intersections of drugs and black life. As Touré succinctly described in a 2012 piece in the Washington Post, early hip-hop often charted the realities of the drug-addled inner city that arose in the 1970s and ‘80s. “If you’re wondering why hip-hop has often been angry, sneering, nihilistic and dystopic,” he explains, “you can blame the war on drugs, and how it feels to be on the wrong side of it.” Rappers such as Future continue to bolster their legitimacy by narrating their functional (if fabricated) knowledge of selling drugs and thus being on the “wrong side” of this so-called war. But where the crack/trap rap genre documents the rapper’s mastery of the war by espousing the maxim that you never snort what you sell, the acceptance of prescription drugs as a product the rapper can hustle and consume has become commonplace.

szzrp shr

Spotted at SXSW 2008, Image by Jazzbeezy

The hardest working people in hip-hop are at the forefront of their craft, and they are seemingly wasted every step of the way. In this, the mainstreaming of lean within contemporary hip-hop tells a familiar story of how embedded prescription drugs are within and across USAmerican societies. This essay offers a cursory glance at the sonic, physical, and affective terrain of lean in mainstream hip-hop, however, to query how prescription drugs are seen to generate productively intoxicated states that counter the violent realities of a particularly black everyday life. Contemporary soundscapes of lean have taken hold at a point when the intersections of neoliberalism and Big Pharma circumscribe particularly black ways of being. Beginning the work of understanding the discursive entanglements of race, labor, and drugs that are sounded by lean reveals larger questions about the subtle and covert ways that black consciousness itself is produced and policed in the neoliberal state.

As has been well documented by popular news outlets such as The Guardian and scholars such as Mac McCann, the sounds of lean were developed in the 1990s by Houston’s DJ Screw, who worked to record the loosened, detached body-feeling accessed through lean with his “chopped and screwed” productions. He slowed the tempo of whole songs to around 60 bpm, which elongated the vocals to an underwater slur, and chopped the rhythm up with strategic pattern interruptions that created even more goopy space between beats. Swishahouse Records took this droning Houston sound mainstream in the early 2000s with Top 40 radio hits by artists such as Mike Jones, whose song “Back Then” paired slow and guttural choruses that maintained the core elements of the chopped and screwed sound with bouncy lyrics about girls, cars, and money that trended toward mainstream pop rap.

By 2011, gesturing to the sounds of lean become a virtual guarantor of mainstream hip-hop success. This was evidenced in part by Harlem’s A$AP Rocky, who compiled the essential audio components of lean for his debut mixtape Live.Love.ASAP—which sampled Mike Jones on the ode to lean,“Purple Swag”—and immediately nabbed a $3 million dollar deal with RCA.

While the chopped and screwed aesthetic fell a bit by the wayside in ensuing years, recording the literal sounds of lean being poured, swirled, and sipped became increasingly common in hip-hop recordings—as did capturing the swooning effects the drug has on rappers’ flow. Lil Wayne’s public addiction to lean took center stage on his prolific and sometimes-erractic mixtapes such as Dedication 5 that feature many interludes where his words bleed into one another or trail off altogether following the droopy intoxication promethazine was having on his body. The devastating effects of the controlled substance became starkly clear when Wayne suffered multiple seizures, and when Rocky’s manager, A$AP Yams, passed away following complications with drugs—a fate Houston’s own DJ Screw and the beloved Pimp C had already met.

Lil Wayne

Despite the physical risks of consuming lean, the drug appears to be a stalwart coping mechanism for artists whose work ethic has led to extravagant excesses that are balanced by the increasingly visible violence done onto black bodies. Future himself repeatedly strikes a balance between his addiction to lean and the conditions of his particularly black stardom. His video for “Codeine Crazy” is a swirling, purple-inflected picture of the artist in various states of repose: the video opens with him in a club attempting to hold his head up straight, taking his first wobbling steps after lying down in a field once populated by purple horses, and being shaken awake on an Atlanta porch while holding Styrofoam cups full of lean.

The production, lyrics, and imagery underscore his apparent struggles balancing celebrity life with the realities of his difficult upbringing, encapsulated in the admittance that he is “Drowning in Actavis suicide.” The sentiment is exacerbated in the video for “March Madness,” where iconic clips of Civil Rights Movement protesters being beaten by the police provide visual background while Future intersperses dedications to lean and exaltations of the good life with lamentations of the loss of black civil rights: “Ballin’ like the March Madness/All these cops shooting niggas, tragic/I’m the one that’s living lavish.” In these works, Future paints a picture whereby the entire spectrum of black life from extraordinary celebrity to mundane tragedy can only be understood in and through drug-induced states.


Schoolboy Q show at The Door in Dallas 6/30/12, Image by Flickr User Mikel Galicia

Future’s balancing act is common among artists for whom prescription drug abuse is both a status symbol and a requirement of black everyday life where maintaining success requires that you work nonstop. When Hot 97s Angie Martinez queried the relationships between lean and seizures, the self-confessed functional addict Schoolboy Q responded with incredulity: “Man that shit ain’t from no lean, man…Bro, we are rappers; we don’t sleep. People don’t understand.” His story of churning out features, mixtapes, albums, and tours for Interscope Records reflects our larger neoliberal economy that places a premium on the individual’s maximum, efficient output. As Q suggests in his interview, prescription drug use has blossomed under these conditions whereby the individual is made to feel perpetually behind, as Joanna Moncreiff writes in the essay “Psychiatric Drug Promotion and the Politics of Neoliberalism.” Prescriptions are marketed to stabilize, enhance, and/or find relief in one’s productivity in an age where individual entrepreneurship and competition are rewarded. Set against a larger national reliance on prescriptions to remain physically and mentally “stable” enough to remain efficient under this intensity, the black coping strategies heard through lean are innately USAmerican coping strategies.

At the same time, the slowed pace of lean is also attuned to the national epidemic whereby black people are routinely killed whether they are working or not. The racialized politics of productivity required by neoliberalism are thrown into relief as black people such as Eric Garner are killed because of their entrepreneurial efforts. As a result, attending to the sounds of lean must necessarily reflect gaps in our understanding of how particular patterns in drug use do and do not render black people intelligible as functional citizens worthy of life. Rappers like A$AP Rocky, Schoolboy Q, Future and others create musical odes to and demonstrations of the slowed pace of lean as it provides them a break from norms of physical and affective comportment. The drug incurs simultaneous sensory overload and the critical detachment from their bodies that allows them to experience (and potentially control) this overload at a slower pace—a physical and affective space that several rappers discuss in the Vice article “Lean on Me.” Lean radically grounds them, in other words, in an alternative body-space-time continuum that converses with the demands the neoliberal state places on the black body.


A$AP Rocky, Still from “Purple Swag Bootleg” (Director’s Cut)

The dissociative pleasures controlled substances offer to black people have been historically criminalized, and radically different sentencing guidelines continue to be handed down for the perceived consumers of “crack” (black people) versus “cocaine” (white people). In this milieu, black reliance on prescription drugs for pleasure, physical ailments, mood stabilization, or otherwise has proven to be dangerously unintelligible. Sandra Bland and Ralkina Jones died while their requirements and requests for the proper prescription meds they took to remain alive were ignored if not refused outright by the police. The question of whether or not black people experiencing alternate states of reality are more or less deserving of death is further triggered by the murders of people who may have been knocked into “discombobulated” states following car accidents, such as Renisha McBride and Jonathan Ferrell. The many deaths of black transpeople killed in the midst of various stages of medical reassignment further underscores a need for larger awareness of the ways that alternative conceptions of reality and consciousness map onto black life.

A critical history of hip-hop’s pharmaceutical undercurrent is not just an exercise in examining aesthetics. We can examine how lean is Auto-Tuned, chopped and screwed, and lyricized until we’re blue in the face. Sitting in the muck of lean-addled songs—theorizing how it feels to lean back and let our heads roll off our necks while we watch our surroundings fade and sway to purple—reveals a critically important rubric of black bodies, sounds, and affects that are wholly circumscribed by the entanglements of race, political economy, and the medical industrial complex. Reading black life against the sounds of lean subsequently makes the intersections of black labor, joy, and depression audible. This reading will not only take prescription drugs and hip-hop seriously within the canon of music and sound studies, but will also raise questions about intoxication—in its most expansive definition—as a critical component of black labor and survival from slavery to the neoliberal moment.

Featured Image: A$AP Rocky, Image by Flickr User Mira Shemeikka, Extra-swagged by SO!

Kemi Adeyemi is about to complete her PhD in Performance Studies at Northwestern University. Her dissertation examines how blackness is produced as an aural, visual, and embodied economy in the white nightlife scenes of Chicago’s gentrifying neighborhoods; the work illuminates how a small community of queer women of color that circulates through these scenes mobilize black sound as a theory and method taking pleasure therein.

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This is Your Body on the Velvet Underground“-Jacob Smith

The (Magic) Upper Room: Sonic Pleasure Politics in Southern Hip Hop“–Regina Bradley

Tomahawk Chopped and Screwed: The Indeterminacy of Listening“–Justin Burton

Straight Outta Compton . . .Via New York


Sounding Race in Rap Songs explores the production of musical identity in hip hop’s first two decades as a commercial genre. Although I don’t ignore lyrics or visual imagery, my main purpose is to analyze rap music as music, to understand how specific artistic decisions contribute to racial meaning in particular songs. My methods revolve around the study of how producers manipulate breakbeats, also commonly known as “breaks.” Initially understood as short, percussion-heavy passages that appear in many songs recorded in the 1960s and 1970s, breaks have been central to hip hop from the music’s earliest days in the South Bronx when DJs began isolating and looping them on their turntables to the delight of dancers. Since then, producers have tried out new approaches to working with breakbeats: hiring studio musicians to re-record them; programming drum machines to imitate them; and using sampling-sequencing technology to capture and rearrange them.

sounding raceThroughout the book, I describe how producers use breaks and give rise to musical-racial codes that can be manipulated to project a variety of identities and attitudes. The following excerpt from the third chapter of Sounding Race, explains how the style of beat making popularized by the New York-based Bomb Squad (Public Enemy’s production team) provided a blueprint for pioneering west coast gangsta rap group N.W.A’s depiction of Compton, California. By layering multiple loops into a dense, cacophonous mix, N.W.A transposed Public Enemy’s “too black, too strong” sound onto the world of Los Angeles’s postindustrial streets.

N.W.A and its former members have been in the news recently thanks to the biopic Straight Outta Compton. Yet one aspect of the group’s development downplayed in the film is the way that its members formulated their identities in relation to east coast rap. In the mid-1980s, New York was the undisputed center of the industry, and its influence on L.A.-based acts is easy to see and hear. Ice Cube’s first group C.I.A. ( Cru’ In Action) used a nasal, hocket style approach to rapping cribbed directly from the Beastie Boys 1986 album License to Ill. And the cover of N.W.A’s first album N.W.A and the Posse, features numerous group members posing with the giant clock necklaces made famous by Public Enemy’s Flavor Flav. In similar fashion, the beat Dr. Dre produced for “Straight Outta Compton” (the title track to their breakout 1988 album) followed the Bomb Squad’s potent formula for signifying militant blackness. —Loren Kajikawa

The following is an excerpt from Chapter Three “‘Let Me Ride’: Gangsta Rap’s Drive Into The Popular Mainstream,” of Loren’s Kajikawa’s Sounding Race in Rap Songs, with thanks to The University of California Press.  Any notes have been included in the text to conform to Sounding Out!‘s style sheet.

We [Public Enemy] were in Vegas and they [N.W.A.] were on tour with us, and I had just got the vinyl in. That’s what this is all about. Because Run-DMC and LL Cool J gave me energy. And if our energy happened to be transferred to N.W.A., then that’s what this whole thing is for.” Chuck D as quoted in Brian Coleman, Check The Technique: Liner Notes For Hip-Hop Junkies (New York: Villard Books, 2007), 354.

According to Chuck D, Public Enemy’s musical style directly influenced Dre, and he recalls giving the first two copies of It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back to Dr. Dre and Eazy-E prior to the album’s official release.  The recorded evidence supports Chuck D’s recollection. For many of the tracks on Straight Outta Compton, Dr. Dre seems to have borrowed from the “loops on top of loops” style of Public Enemy’s Bomb Squad.

In fact, when Ice Cube left N.W.A. in 1989, he hoped that Dre would continue to make beats for his solo project. When this proved impossible due to Dre’s contractual obligations to N.W.A., Ice Cube began collaborating with the Public Enemy’s Bomb Squad, which served as the production unit for his album Amerikkka’s Most Wanted (1990).  N.W.A.’s breakthrough was finding a way to put a distinctive spin on these influences, and the artistic strategy that they arrived at for their first Ruthless Records release was designed to put themselves on the map—both literally and figuratively.

Rather than shout out the multiplicity of neighborhoods where their members were actually from (as they had done in “Panic Zone”), N.W.A. chose to center their identity around Dr. Dre and Eazy-E’s hometown of Compton, California. The sound of Compton as Dr. Dre imagined it, however, drew on musical practices and artistic decisions similar to those found in Public Enemy’s “Rebel Without a Pause.” To construct the rhythmic foundation of “Straight Outta Compton,” Dre looped the breakbeat from The Winstons’ “Amen Brother” (1969), one of the most sampled beats in hip hop, that also served as the foundation for dozens of songs in the UK’s “jungle” (aka “drum and bass”) genre.

amen brother

Like other heavily sampled breaks from this era, the one-measure loop features a syncopated interlocking of snare and bass hits that is reminiscent of James Brown’s “Funky Drummer (featuring Clyde Stubblefield’s famous beat).  As if he were following the Bomb Squad’s exact formula, Dr. Dre layered a drum machine (Roland TR-808) over this break.

Screenshot 2015-08-24 16.36.36

The 808 was programmed to add its characteristic bass boom to the first two drum kicks of the “Amen” loop, and to tick off a 16-count hi-hat pulse with a closing hi-hat clasp on the downbeat of every other measure. The “Amen” break and the two hi-hat parts, provide the rhythmic foundation around which Dr. Dre places numerous other repeating sounds. Two other ingredients stand out in this beat: a guitar ostinato and a low drone on what sounds like a baritone sax or trombone (or perhaps a downwardly pitched sample of another instrument). The guitar ostinato, which plays straight eighth-notes on E-flat except for a one step descent to D-flat on the “and” of every fourth beat, churns out tight 1-measure units of sound.

looped guitar riff

The horn drone (also on E-flat) has a raw, muddled quality, and casts an ominous cloud over the track.

By combining these layers with the dense percussion track, Dre created a tightly packed funk groove with many sonic similarities to Public Enemy’s Bomb Squad. Like “Rebel Without a Pause,” the track to “Straight Outta Compton” features tight 1-measure loops stacked on top of one another to create a thick and intense groove.

table 3

Comparison of layers of looped sound in Public Enemy’s “Rebel Without a Pause” and N.W.A.’s “Straight Outta Compton”

Except for the drone, most of the elements in the track have a punchy feel, full of rhythmic stabs and staccato attacks, including the automatic gunfire that Dre samples to follow Ice Cube’s reference to an AK-47 assault rifle. Due to the “noisiness” of the beat, the way sonic space seems filled to maximum capacity, the members of N.W.A.—similar to Public Enemy’s Chuck D and Flavor Flav—practically yell their verses, as if they must raise their voices in order to be heard over the cacophony. Even before the actual words to “Straight Outta Compton” are digested, the sound of the track and the group’s vocals evoke the palpable tension of imminent conflict, which reinforces the theme of violent confrontation in the song’s lyrics. For the chorus of “Straight Outta Compton,” Dr. Dre strings together a series of samples with rapid-fire precision. The sound of screeching car tires from Davy DMX’s “One for the Treble” is followed by turntable scratching; the scratching leads directly to a choppy sample of the words “City of Compton” from Ronnie Hudson’s “Westcoast Poplock,” which is then followed by more scratching. The whole chain of musical events is deployed over the breakbeat from Funkadelic’s “You’ll Like It Too,” which Dr. Dre splices into the beat just for the chorus.  The rapid cutting from one sample to the next exemplifies the “rupture” Tricia Rose identifies as fundamental to hip hop’s post-industrial aesthetic in Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America (39).

Thus, the music and lyrics for “Straight Outta Compton” depict the city as a place of extremes, where things happen fast and change is sudden and complete. It is a place where one is either equipped to deal or left behind. In this way, Dr. Dre exploited the spatial characteristics encoded in Public Enemy’s music to depict Compton as place. The sonic characteristics that animated Public Enemy’s militant blackness were rerouted and effectively transposed onto N.W.A.’s depiction of Los Angeles gangstas.

Loren Kajikawa has served on the faculty at the University of Oregon’s School of Music and Dance since 2009. His main area of research and teaching is American music of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and he offers a variety of courses in music history, ethnomusicology, and musicology. Kajikawa’s writings have appeared in American Music, Black Music Research Journal, ECHO: a music-centered journal, Journal of the Society for American Music,and Popular Music and Society, among others. His recent book Sounding Race in Rap Songs (University of California, 2015) explores the relationship between rap music’s backing tracks and racial representation.

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World Listening Day 2015: Mendi + Keith Obadike’s “Blues Speaker [for James Baldwin]” (2015) #WLD2015


World Listening Month3For World Listening Day 2015, Sounding Out! is honored to debut Mendi + Keith Obadike’s  new documentary video about their recent large-scale urban installation at The New School’s University Center in New York City, “Blues Speaker [for James Baldwin]” (April 2015), dedicated to writer and public intellectual James Baldwin (1924-1987). –JS

As Mendi + Keith describe, “For Baldwin sound, music, and the blues in particular were sources of inspiration. The multichannel sound art work meditates on a politics of listening found at the intersection of Baldwinʼs language and the sound worlds invoked in his work. It uses the glass façade of The New School’s University Center as delivery system for the sound, turning the building itself into a speaker. The 12-hour piece is created using slow moving harmonies, melodicized language from Baldwinʼs writings, ambient recordings from the streets of Harlem, and an inventory of sounds contained in Baldwin’s story ‘Sonnyʼs Blues.'”

“‘Blues Speaker’ celebrates James Baldwin’s keen understanding of the social role of the blues. In his important 1957 short story ‘Sonny’s Blues,’ the writer argued that attending to the blues required the listener to confront and accept both literal noise (sounds beyond the listener’s understanding) and ideological noise (elements of the lives of those whose journeys have taken radically different paths), and seek beauty and understanding. If this relationship to listening is specific to the blues — a form that takes its shape in response to the survival of black people in general and to the decisions of its craftspeople — then musicians who seriously engage the blues must hold a knowledge deeply important for humanity that lives in the music and extends beyond that medium.”–Artists’ Statement, Vera List Center for Art and Politics, The Year of James Baldwin Exhibition.

Mendi + Keith Obadike make music, art and literature. Their works include The Sour Thunder, an Internet opera (Bridge Records), Crosstalk: American Speech Music (Bridge Records), Black.Net.Art Actions, a suite of new media artworks (published in re:skin on M.I.T Press), Big House / Disclosure, a 200 hour public sound installation (Northwestern University), Phonotype, a book & CD of media artworks, and a poetry collection, Armor and Flesh (Lotus Press). They have contributed sounds/music to projects by wide range of artists including loops for soul singer D’Angelo’s first album and a score for playwright Anna Deavere Smith at the Lincoln Center Institute. You can find out more about them at

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On Whiteness and Sound Studies

white noise

World Listening Month3This is the first post in Sounding Out!’s 4th annual July forum on listening in observation of World Listening Day on July 18th, 2015.  World Listening Day is a time to think about the impacts we have on our auditory environments and, in turn, their effects on us.  For Sounding Out! World Listening Day necessitates discussions of the politics of listening and listening as a political act, beginning this year with Gustavus Stadler’s timely provocation.  –Editor-in-Chief JS

Many amusing incidents attend the exhibition of the Edison phonograph and graphophone, especially in the South, where a negro can be frightened to death almost by a ‘talking machine.’ Western Electrician May 11, 1889, (255).

What does an ever-nearer, ever-louder police siren sound like in an urban neighborhood, depending on the listener’s racial identity? Rescue or invasion? Impending succor or potential violence? These dichotomies are perhaps overly neat, divorced as they are from context. Nonetheless, contemplating them offers one charged example of how race shapes listening—and hence, some would say, sound itself—in American cities and all over the world. Indeed, in the past year, what Jennifer Stoever calls the “sonic color line” has become newly audible to many white Americans with the attention the #blacklivesmatter movement has drawn to police violence perpetrated routinely against people of color.

"Sheet music 'Coon Coon Coon' from 1901" via Wikimedia, public domain

“Sheet music ‘Coon Coon Coon’ from 1901” via Wikimedia, public domain

Racialized differences in listening have a history, of course. Consider the early decades of the phonograph, which coincided with the collapse of Reconstruction and the consolidation of Jim Crow laws (with the Supreme Court’s stamp of approval). At first, these historical phenomena might seem wholly discrete. But in fact, white supremacy provided the fuel for many early commercial phonographic recordings, including not only ethnic humor and “coon songs” but a form of “descriptive specialty”—the period name for spoken-word recordings about news events and slices of life—that reenacted the lynchings of black men. These lynching recordings, as I argued in “Never Heard Such a Thing,” an essay published in Social Text five years ago, appear to have been part of the same overall entertainment market as the ones lampooning foreign accents and “negro dialect”; that is, they were all meant to exhibit the wonders of the new sound reproduction to Americans on street corners, at country fairs, and in other public venues.

Thus, experiencing modernity as wondrous, by means of such world-rattling phenomena as the disembodiment of the voice, was an implicitly white experience. In early encounters with the phonograph, black listeners were frequently reminded that the marvels of modernity were not designed for them, and in certain cases were expressly designed to announce this exclusion, as the epigraph to this post makes brutally evident. For those who heard the lynching recordings, this new technology became another site at which they were reminded of the potential price of challenging the racist presumptions that underwrote this modernity. Of course, not all black (or white) listeners heard the same sounds or heard them the same way. But the overarching context coloring these early encounters with the mechanical reproduction of sound was that of deeply entrenched, aggressive, white supremacist racism.

"66 West 12th Street, New School entrance" by Wikimedia user Beyond My Ken, CC BY-SA 4.0

“66 West 12th Street, New School entrance” by Wikimedia user Beyond My Ken, CC BY-SA 4.0

The recent Sonic Shadows symposium at The New School offered me an opportunity to come back to “Never Heard Such a Thing” at a time when the field of sound studies has grown more prominent and coherent—arguably, more of an institutionally recognizable “field” than ever before. In the past three years, at least three major reference/textbook-style publications have appeared containing both “classic” essays and newer writing from the recent flowering of work on sound, all of them formidable and erudite, all of great benefit for those of us who teach classes about sound: The Oxford Handbook of Sound Studies (2012), edited by Karen Bijsterveld and Trevor Pinch; The Sound Studies Reader (2013), edited by Jonathan Sterne; and Keywords in Sound (2015), edited by David Novak and Matt Sakakeeny. From a variety of disciplinary perspectives, these collections bring new heft to the analysis of sound and sound culture.

I’m struck, however, by the relative absence of a certain strain of work in these volumes—an approach that is difficult to characterize but that is probably best approximated by the term “American Studies.” Over the past two decades, this field has emerged as an especially vibrant site for the sustained, nuanced exploration of forms of social difference, race in particular. Some of the most exciting sound-focused work that I know of arising from this general direction includes: Stoever’s trailblazing account of sound’s role in racial formation in the U.S.; Fred Moten’s enormously influential remix of radical black aesthetics, largely focused on music but including broader sonic phenomena like the scream of Frederick Douglass’s Aunt Hester; Bryan Wagner’s work on the role of racial violence in the “coon songs” written and recorded by George W. Johnson, widely considered the first black phonographic artist; Dolores Inés Casillas’s explication of Spanish-language radio’s tactical sonic coding at the Mexican border; Derek Vaillant’s work on racial formation and Chicago radio in the 1920s and 30s. I was surprised to see none of these authors included in any of the new reference works; indeed, with the exception of one reference in The Sound Studies Reader to Moten’s work (in an essay not concerned with race), none is cited. The new(ish) American Studies provided the bedrock of two sound-focused special issues of journals: American Quarterly’s “Sound Clash: Listening to American Studies,” edited by Kara Keeling and Josh Kun, and Social Text’s “The Politics of Recorded Sound,” edited by me. Many of the authors of the essays in these special issues hold expertise in the history and politics of difference, and scholarship on those issues drives their work on sound. None of them, other than Mara Mills, is among the contributors to the new reference works. Aside from Mills’s contributions and a couple of bibliographic nods in the introduction, these journal issues play no role in the analytical work collected in the volumes.

"Blank pages intentionally, end of book" by Wikimedia user Brian 0918, CC BY-SA 3.0

“Blank pages intentionally, end of book” by Wikimedia user Brian 0918, CC BY-SA 3.0

The three new collections address the relationship between sound, listening, and specific forms of social difference to varying degrees. All three of the books contain excerpts from Mara Mills’ excellent work on the centrality of deafness to the development of sound technology. The Sound Studies Reader, in particular, contains a small array of pieces that focus on disability, gender and race; in attending to race, specifically, Sterne shrewdly includes an excerpt from Franz Fanon’s A Dying Colonialism, as well as essays on black music by authors likely unfamiliar to many American readers. The Oxford Handbook’s sole piece addressing race is a contribution on racial authenticity in hip-hop. It’s a strong essay in itself. But appearing in this time and space of field-articulation, its strength is undermined by its isolation, and its distance from any deeper analysis of race’s role in sound than what seems to be, across all three volumes, at best, a liberal politics of representation or “inclusion.” Encountering the three books at once, I found it hard not to hear the implicit message that no sound-related topics other than black music have anything to do with race. At the same time, the mere inclusion of work on black music in these books, without any larger theory of race and sound or wider critical framing, risks reproducing the dubious politics of white Euro-Americans’ long historical fascination with black voices.

What I would like to hear more audibly in our field—what I want all of us to work to make more prominent and more possible—is scholarship that explicitly confronts, and broadcasts, the underlying whiteness of the field, and of the generic terms that provide so much currency in it: terms like “the listener,” “the body,” “the ear,” and so on. This work does exist. I believe it should be aggressively encouraged and pursued by the most influential figures in sound studies, regardless of their disciplinary background. Yes, work in these volumes is useful for this project; Novak and Sakakeeny seem to be making this point in their Keywords introduction when they write:

While many keyword entries productively reference sonic identities linked to socially constructed categories of gender, race, ethnicity, religion, disability, citizenship, and personhood, our project does not explicitly foreground those modalities of social difference. Rather, in curating a conceptual lexicon for a particular field, we have kept sound at the center of analysis, arriving at other points from the terminologies of sound, and not the reverse. (8)

I would agree there are important ways of exploring sound and listening that need to be sharpened in ways that extended discussion of race, gender, class, or sexuality will not help with. But this doesn’t mean that work that doesn’t consider such categories is somehow really about sound in a way that the work does take them up isn’t, any more than a white middle-class person who hears a police siren can really hear what it sounds like while a black person’s perception of the sound is inaccurate because burdened (read: biased) by the weight of history and politics.

"Pointy Rays of Justice" by Flickr user Christopher Sebela, CC BY-NC 2.0

“Pointy Rays of Justice” by Flickr user Christopher Sebela, CC BY-NC 2.0

In a recent Twitter conversation with me, the philosopher Robin James made the canny point that whiteness, masquerading as lack of bias, can operate to guarantee the coherence and legibility of a field in formation. James’s trenchant insight reminds me of cultural theorist Kandice Chuh’s recent work on “aboutness” in “It’s Not About Anything,” from Social Text (Winter 2014) and knowledge formation in the contemporary academy. Focus on what the object of analysis in a field is, on what work in a field is about, Chuh argues, is “often conducted as a way of avoiding engagement with ‘difference,’ and especially with racialized difference.”

I would like us to explore alternatives to the assumption that we have to figure out how to talk about sound before we can talk about how race is indelibly shaping how we think about sound; I want more avenues opened, by the most powerful voices in the field, for work acknowledging that our understanding of sound is always conducted, and has always been conducted, from within history, as lived through categories like race.

The cultivation of such openings also requires that we acknowledge the overwhelming whiteness of scholars in the field, especially outside of work on music. If you’re concerned by this situation, and have the opportunity to do editorial work, one way to work to change it is by making a broader range of work in the field more inviting to people who make the stakes of racial politics critical to their scholarship and careers. As I’ve noted, there are people out there doing such work; indeed, Sounding Out! has continually cultivated and hosted it, with far more editorial care and advisement than one generally encounters in blogs (at least in my experience), over the course of its five years. But if the field remains fixated on sound as a category that exists in itself, outside of its perception by specifically marked subjects and bodies within history, no such change is likely to occur. Perhaps we will simply resign ourselves to having two (or more) isolated tracks of sound studies, or perhaps some of us will have to reevaluate whether we’re able to teach what we think is important to teach while working under its rubric.

Thanks to Robin James, Julie Beth Napolin, Jennifer Stoever, and David Suisman for their ideas and feedback.

Gustavus Stadler teaches English and American Studies at Haverford College. He is the author of Troubling Minds: The Cultural Politics of Genius in the U. S.1840-1890 (U of Minn Press, 2006).  His 2010 edited special issue of Social Text on “The Politics of Recorded Sound” was named a finalist for a prize in the category of “General History” by the Association of Recorded Sound Collections. He is the recipient of the 10th Annual Woody Guthrie fellowship! This fellowship will support research for his book-in-progress, Woody Guthrie and the Intimate Life of the Left.


tape reelREWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:

Reading the Politics of Recorded Sound — Jennifer Stoever

Hearing the Tenor of the Vendler/Dove Conversation: Race, Listening, and the “Noise” of Texts — Christina Sharpe

Listening to the Border: “‘2487’: Giving Voice in Diaspora” and the Sound Art of Luz María Sánchez — Dolores Inés Casillas

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