Tag Archive | City

What Are You Listening to When youarelistening.to/losangeles ?

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:His_Master%27s_Voice.jpgEarlier last week I came across this post by GOOD regarding a new site called youarelisteningtolosangeles.com. Eric Eberhardt’s (http://twitter.com/url2la) web creation uses an LAPD radio feed and plays Creative Commons-licensed music in the background. (According to Olsen Bright at NBC Los Angeles, the URL was registered only last week, but since it went live it has gone viral. As of this post, it has links for New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Montreal). The site that has gotten more news coverage has been, by far, the Los Angeles site. Nicola Twilley from GOOD calls it “hypnotic, beautiful, and utterly compelling.” When I first tuned in, I couldn’t stop listening. It is certainly haunting and leaves behind a feeling of uncanniness: the disembodied voices of police dispatchers far away mesh with the soothing sounds of ambiance music.

What caught my eye about the article was Twilley’s description of what it was like to listen to LAPD’s radiofeed:

“To listen to it is to be plugged into the pulse of the city; lost in fragments of someone else’s story. Urgency alternates with frustration and low-level routine; some incidents are reported while others are resolved; and jaywalking tickets are issued in the same breath as lives are lost.”

I like her idea that the site allows you to tune into “the pulse of the city.” The feed is a sonic representation of what is happening on LA’s streets. I had the feeling that I was listening to some subversive channel of LA life, narrated by a police dispatcher. However, there are two things that come to mind: a) the sounds of urban life are being filtered through the police department, and b) what are the sounds we hear on the feed telling us about the sonic dimensions of cities?

This online radio station of sorts mashes up city sounds with background music, but once you pause the music what we get are conversations between police officers. The result is that those sounds (voices, codes, numbers, addresses) filter the soundtrack of the city. When we click on youarelisteningtolos angeles.com we are actually listening to the keepers of peace and order on the city streets. The city has already been distilled for us through a radio dispatcher and officers.

The sounds are haunting. Interestingly, what attracts some listeners is the fact that they can eavesdrop on the police feeds, like we’re tuning into what our neighbors are doing. Others point out how soothing the sounds meshed with the dispatcher feed can be. However, the site serves as an example of how city sounds are filtered to us. We don’t hear the actual people who the dispatchers talk about, but the stories of their actions. In that sense, what we hear about them is really a narrative of order, chaos, authority, and traffic violations. Who is stepping outside of the lines?

But…can we ever really listen to The City? This is why audio projects such as soundwalks are important, because they make that aural experience multisonoral. The same way we must reject single stories (like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie pointed out in her TED talk) we must also bring to light different soundtracks of the city around us, lest the radio feed of a police dispatcher become the one that stands out.

This brings me to my second concern: what are we actually listening to? What was initially problematic for me was that we don’t actually hear urban sounds. We hear voices talking about citizen activity on the streets. Once you mute the music, what you get are voices narrating what is happening on the street level. But then I realized that I was be limiting what sounds are classified as city sounds. In that sense, youarelistening.to is opening up what it means to listen to cities. The citizens also make sounds; their voices are part of the soundscape of the city.

I’d love to hear from our readers from these different cities, see what their reaction to listening to the transmission is.

By the way: can we get a youarelistening.to/kansascity?

Bonus tracks:

Here is Soul Coughing’s “Screenwriter’s Blues,” whose line “You are listening to Los Angeles” provided inspiration for the title. (via laist.com)

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When I Think of Home*

*title comes from a line in the song “Home” from the film The Wiz

This month I want to share with Sounding Out’s readers part of an essay that is very dear to me: an essay on home and African American urban identity in hip hop. In my longer essay I look closely at several hip hop songs and discuss the representations of urban space present in them. It is very dear to me because it is my first venture into what would eventually become my dissertation topic (dissertation in the works). As I am revising the essay for publication, I am eager to hear from our readers what they think about this excerpt and suggestions for expansion.

***

Home: it is a small word, but it opens up such a big world full of meanings. When people ask me, “where’s home for you?” I cannot help but feel confused. What home do they mean? Do they mean my home town in Puerto Rico, where my parents live? Do they mean Kansas City, where I live now, where I move around and do my grocery shopping? Or do they mean New York City, which started out as home? For me, home can be a household, a town, a family, a community; this would explain the confusion on my face when they ask me that question.

One example of the different meanings that home can have is seen in Dave Chappelle’s Block Party. The film takes the viewer to Bedford-Stuyvesant, a neighborhood in Brooklyn NY, where the comedian congregates friends, neighbors, and fans for a day of hip-hop music, food, and comedic skits. Interestingly enough, Dave Chappelle is not from Brooklyn, but from Washington DC—unlike Mos Def and Talib Kweli, both born and raised in Brooklyn, who pepper their performances with shout-outs to the borough. Dave and director Michel Gondry (according to the DVD extra for the film, titled “September in Brooklyn: The Making of Block Party“) chose Bed-Stuy for the block party because of the borough’s legacy as the birthplace of hip-hop. Their hip-hop coordinates are slightly off, since hip-hop’s roots are found in the South Bronx—even though many of hip-hop’s stars have come from Brooklyn.

However, a young man from Ohio’s Central State University’s marching band sheds some light on the question of location: “It’s wonderful, it’s great, being out here in New York for my first time. I feel kind of like I’m at home. Seeing all these people out here with locks, it’s comfortable. It’s nice though.” The young man from Ohio has never set foot in New York City before, but he claims to feel a sense of comfort from being surrounded by people who look like him. This can be read as just another iteration of the perceived sense of freedom and openness associated with urban locations, but it could also be read as a comment on the racial/ethnic composition of the city and his sense of comfort because of this. Dave Chappelle mentions earlier in the film, “5000 black people chillin’ in the rain, 19 white people peppered in the crowd…hard to find a Mexican.” New York–and Brooklyn in particular–represent a kind of home for the band member because of the historic presence of blacks in the city and its hip-hop legacy. However, the urban African American experience, at least as it is seen in the documentary, seems to equate an experience that African Americans across the country can relate to.

Of course, there is no such thing as a single contemporary African American experience; there are as varied experiences as there are towns, as there are shades of brown. However, both the marginality and community that African Americans in urban locations have historically felt resonates with many across the United States, no matter if they live in the South or the Midwest or the Northeast. Urban places have proven to be a key source of inspiration for African American musical artists, like Stevie Wonder (“Living for the City”) and Marvin Gaye (“Inner City Blues [Make Me Wanna Holler]“). But it has gained more visibility in hip-hop music, from songs like “Heart of the City” by Jay-Z to “L.A.” by Murs. Different representations of urban space abound in black cultural production, but the one that stands out for me is that of the city as home.

Even though some hip-hop artists depict the city as a center of crime and danger, there are others who talk about it as home and describe it as a locus for community, for cultural memory, and for emotional nourishment. The hip-hop artists I look at in my longer piece (Kanye West, Common, Lauryn Hill, and Mos Def) do not locate this home in a household but rather in urban locales. The representation of cities as locations for home is a way to reclaim urban space, and this act of claiming is crucial for the development of a contemporary African American urban identity. In this excerpt, I present Mos Def as an example of that reclaiming.

Mos Def’s “Habitat” was issued on his album Black on Both Sides (1999). Mos, like Common and Kanye West, uses the city as inspiration for many of his songs. (Examples of this are Common’s “Southside” and West’s aptly titled “Homecoming.”) In fact, on Black on Both Sides he not only has “Habitat” but also “Brooklyn,” in which he pays homage to his borough and to the day-to-day occurrences on the street. “Brooklyn” starts out with a few lines taken from the song “Under the Bridge” by The Red Hot Chili Peppers, but in reference to his neighborhood. The sentiments conveyed in those first few lines resonate with the theme of “Habitat”: “Sometimes I feel like I don’t have a partner, sometimes I feel like my only friend, is the city I live in, it’s beautiful Brooklyn.” This emphasizes a cross-genre trend of calling out one’s hometown (city).

“Habitat” starts with the chorus stating, “We’ve all got to have a place where we come from, this place that we come from is called home.” (I should point out that before the chorus comes in, we can hear Mos Def singing the line, “When I think of home, I think of a place,” which comes from the song “Home,” cited earlier in this post. The musical was an adaption of L.Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz with an all-black cast. The film version of The Wiz was set in New York City.) Over the chorus we can hear Mos Def defining the word “home,” very much like you would find in a dictionary, although with a twist:

Home: a place where someone lives; a residence; the physical structure within which one lives, such as a house; a dwelling place with the social unit that occupies it; a household; an environment offering security and happiness; a valued place; a native habitat; a place where something is discovered, founded, developed, or promoted; a source; a headquarters; a home-base; of or relating to a team’s place of origin; on or into the point at which something is directed to the center of the heart.

After the definition, the speaker talks about their childhood in the city: sometimes nice, sometimes dangerous, sometimes sad. In juxtaposition to this is the fact that one of the motifs of the song is the motif of travel. Images of travel and mention of different cities pepper the bridge of the song; the protagonist seems to connect its neighborhood with other cities. The speaker talks from another location, he/she is not right now at home. However, the speaker repeats throughout the song, as if to insist, “it ain’t where you from, it’s where you at.”

By starting the song with a definition, the speaker seeks to identify what home is for him/her. Habitat, which connotes dwelling instead of a homespace, is put in juxtaposition with home. The song sets place against space, and the speaker correctly tries to take home outside of its stable, fixed location. Even though the subject begins by privileging place in the definition, he/she points out the emotional ties that people may have with the house—ultimately these ties are what make a house a home, like the saying goes. By displacing those ties form the household to urban space, the speaker is moving from place to space. The definition resonates with the OED entry for “home”: The Oxford English Dictionary (online) states that home is a physical residence, a place where someone lives, as well as the region from which one comes. However it also asserts that home is a “place of one’s…nurturing, with the conditions, circumstances, and feelings which naturally and properly attach to it, and are associated with it…a place, region, or state to which one properly belongs, in which one’s affections centre, or where one finds refuge, rest or satisfaction.” Here, the home embodies community, nurturing, and the cultural memory of the street.

Another reason why the subject of the song privileges place in this definition is because the rest of his song presents the listener the mean streets of the home: “I came up in the streets ‘round some real wild brothers…Got more than one enemy and more than one gun.” The violence and crime we see in the first section of the song constructs the city as a dangerous place. Later on the speaker claims them when he says, “Regardless where home is, son, home is mine.” The fact that the protagonist of the song knows his/her way around this dangerous place points to his/her dominance of this urban space, a dominance that holds cultural significance for the African American urban community.

Even though the environment the subject presents here is not a healthy or secure one, there is a sense of attachment to it because of having grown up there. In the next verse the protagonist goes over childhood memories: “When I think of home, my remembrance of my beginning, Laundromat helping ma fold the bed linen, chillin’ in front of my building with my brother.” The personal development on the streets is juxtaposed with the development within the actual household, but neither one nor the other is given predominance. The circumstances the speaker has faced and the racial politics witnessed at work in this neighborhood (“funeral homes packed with only dark bodies”) have influenced his/her outlook on life. Murray Forman, in The Hood Comes First: Race, Space, and Place in Rap and Hip-Hop argues, “members of the hip-hop culture articulate notions of subjective and collective identities, urban experience, racial consciousness, and spatially structured patterns of power” (xviii). Home is not only an empty location that one inhabits; rather, where one lives is the intersection of so many other spaces and identities, but from this location the speaker has learned how to navigate the urban space.

The protagonist of “Habitat” does not romanticize the pain and struggle taking place on the streets of Bushwick, like other hip-hop artists do. Regarding the ghetto Michael Eric Dyson argues in an interview with Meta Du Ewa Jones, “A lot of people in the ghetto are trying to get the hell up out of there. They don’t want to romanticize it. So it’s not the ghetto that’s being romanticized—its physical geography—so much as the intellectual attachment and intimacy that it breeds, a bond established with those who are fellow sufferers and fellow strugglers who long for an exit from its horrible limits” (Callaloo 29.3, 2006; 794). The speaker shows the social relationships that intersect on the city streets, and the connections that arise from those interactions. Those connections become significant, for when the protagonist travels around the world, they keep him/her grounded as seen in the last verses of the song: “we’ve traveled this big earth as we roam….it ain’t where you from, it’s were you at, it’s where you hang your hat.” No matter where the speaker may be located, home can be retrieved for comfort and solace (embodied in the phrase “it’s where you hang your hat.”)

, via Wikimedia Commons”]

By Scottie [CC-BY-2.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

Mos Def is positing here the home and the city streets as an urban “[site] of significance.”(Forman xix). Through his experiences on the streets in Brooklyn he has constructed a new site of knowledge of oneself and one’s community for those who live in that area. He has taken the ghetto, commonly conceived as a site of extreme poverty and crime, and elevated in the song to a much more noble location: home. At the same time he has complicated the idea of home; to what point can a person hold a neighborhood in high esteem when you are not sleeping “cause the nights ain’t peace, it’s more war”? However this attempt to redefine the streets of Brooklyn as home is part of a larger attempt within hip-hop to create identity within urban space.

Part of why I am writing on representations of urban space in hip-hop (particularly representations of urban space as home) is because I believe that our listening practices are part of how we construct our identities. That’s one venue that I’d like to explore further in my paper: listening practices. I also want to talk more about how class comes to play in these representations. From what I can gather Mos Def comes from a working-class family, but Common and Kanye West do not. In fact, Common and Kanye West both had one parent with a PhD and that worked in education.

It’s not “just” music, folks.

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Ill Communication: Hip Hop Studies & Sound Studies @ Show And Prove

“The engaged voice must never be fixed and absolute but always changing, always evolving in dialogue with a world beyond itself” –bell hooks, quoted by d. Sabela Grimes at Show and Prove, 9.18.10

This past Saturday, I got up before dawn and bussed it into New York City to attend Show and Prove , a conference on “the tensions, contradictions, and possibilities of hip hop studies in practice,” organized by my friend and colleague, Imani Kai Johnson. The conference was excellent—intense, earnest, and busting at the seams with ideas—and was one of the few in recent memory that left me energized and ready to put pen to paper ASAP. In fact, I scratched out the rough draft of these lines in my notebook on the bus ride home, all Eminem 8 Mile-style. So embedded somewhere in my words will inevitably be the thick chug of the engine, the squeaky bounce-bounce of the shocks, the ocean-like roar of (the)17, and the steady tsk-tsk-tsk-tsk of hip hop pumping from my fellow commuter’s earbuds. Across the bus aisle, this secondhand beat called to me and challenged me to think about ways that sound studies can reach across the (inter)disciplinary aisle to hip hop (and vice versa). So that’s where my head’s at right now: what does sound studies bring to hip hop’s platform? And what does hip hop offer in return?

I should say first off that I don’t necessarily see an intellectual conflict between these two fields—although Norma Coates’ 2008 Cinema Journal piece, “Sound Studies: Missing the (Popular) Music for the Screens?” makes a compelling case for institutional turf wars on the horizon between sound studies, media studies, and popular music study writ large—I actually came to sound studies through hip hop, and obviously haven’t left hip hop behind (and neither has Sounding Out!: peep Liana Silva and Scott Poulson-Bryant’s recent posts). Among the many things that hip hop has done for me and to me—personally, socially, and politically—was to open my ears to all sorts of amazing and important sounds, which eventually translated academically into frustration with the limits of popular music study back in the early 2000s. I found many texts that deconstructed hip hop lyrics and visual imagery, parsed MC’s personas, dropped some socio-historical science, and traced capitalist networks like you wouldn’t believe, but when it came down to the constitutive element of the medium itself, the sonic art through which it devoted itself to moving heads, hearts, and butts simultaneously, there was silence (and not because Doug E. Fresh said so).

Outside of Tricia Rose’s landmark chapter on “flow, layering, and rupture” in 1994’s Black Noise, I found precious few texts that were willing or able to engage with the primary way in which hip hop put in work “if not in the word, in the sound” as Frederick Douglass once put it a long time ago. Hip hop was, true to its word, bringing the noise, and traditional music studies wasn’t making meaning of it in even part of the way that hip hop audiences were. To signify on Shante Smalls’s comment at Show and Prove in reference to trying to teach Murs’s “Dark Skinned White Girl” to an NYU class, hip hop sounded to popular music scholars just like a guy talking over some beats—all flattened out. So I strapped on my headphones night after night, trying to fill this void by listening and writing, writing and listening. You can read my early attempts in a discography of Los Angeles hip hop called “Audible Angels” I published online in 2004, in which I tried to capture the sonic signature of each artist I wrote about, integrating it with their vocal style, lyrical themes and historical and regional context. The fact that one of the artists in the discography sent me a remastered version of their record based on some of my commentary not only suggested that I did a halfway decent job, but also that the artists themselves are clamoring for scholars to take their sound as seriously as they do.

Because of the bus, my experience at the conference was shorter than I would have liked, so I can’t remotely claim full coverage (I am especially sorry to have missed Antonio T. Tiongson, Jr.’s talk on Filipino DJs and contemporary U.S. racial formations, which I know would have (re)mixed sound, race, and hip hop, hamster style), so I will have to sample the bits and bytes that I did hear.

In a panel on “Methodology, Pedagogy, and Educational Practice,” M.C. K-Swift talked about the sonic differences between standard English, Black English, and Hip Hop English and what it means to code switch between all three. Johan Söderman discussed similar issues about hip hop in Sweden, especially the way in which hip hop enables marginalized Swedish youth to sound and signify differently in the same language.

In the panel I moderated, “Aesthetic Dimensions of Hip Hop”—in which there were amazing papers by Naomi Bragin on popping in Northern California’s East Bay and Jessica Pabón on the “feminist masculinity” of female graffiti in Brasil, Mexico, and the US—sound was largely a shadow presence, animating limbs, accompanying film, and being punctuated by muscle pops and krylon hisses. Jens Althoff discussed 1970s samples briefly in his talk on the influence of blaxploitation cinema on hip hop but there was really only one paper that explicitly addressed sound, Joshua Bennett ’s “I Love it When You Call Me Big (Poppa).” Bennett used Barthes’ “The Grain of the Voice” to give an evocative and nuanced reading of the “palpable sense of surplus” in Notorious B.I.G’s voice, the way in which his heavy timbre comes together with his “wheezing undertone” to re-present his corporeal body as superabundant rather than substandard.

Finally, in the afternoon, I was fascinated by Nicole Hodges Persley’s exploration of the sound of cross-racial appropriation both in her paper, “People in Me” and in her performance, in which she used both voice and gesture to represent a white suburban teen, a young Asian graffiti writer from Silverlake, and a Senegalese student drawn to the U.S. by hip hop. Persley raised important questions about who has “the right to talk black” while addressing the pleasures and the politics of using the body as a remixing agent and translator of hip hop, accent, culture and immigrant experience.

So of course I came to Show and Prove eager to take in some talk about sound—and I wouldn’t say I was disappointed. Surprised (slightly) and challenged (totally), but not disappointed. Sound wasn’t as center stage as I expected, but it certainly wasn’t marginalized either. Instead, it was ubiquitous; sound in hip hop studies seems to be taken for granted in the same way that vision is just about everywhere else. Although hip hop is understood to be an audio-visual art, its organizing metaphors are sonic: remixing, sampling, scratching, and Dj-ing all describe sonic phenomena as well as aural frameworks for understanding the world. The way in which hip hop studies take sound for granted presents both a lesson and an opportunity for sound studies.

While I had been hoping to hear more papers that brought the conversation back around to the beat, I felt that all the papers spoke through it, even if the topic reached beyond it to bodily movement, visual culture, theatre, and pedagogy. And that is where I think hip hop studies asks sound studies to step up its game—to take seriously sound’s intersection with the other senses, using sound as a jumping off point and not always a final destination. In Jeff Chang ’s Total Chaos: The Art and Aesthetics of Hip Hop, dancer Rennie Harris described bodily movement as “just the last manifestation of sound,” which blew my mind, because even though sound and motion are so fluidly entangled, we usually talk about them as if they are separate entities.

On the flip side, one of the things that distinguishes sound studies from popular music study is its methodology—the way in which sound is treated as an active process, a way of thinking and being, rather than solely an object of study. And this methodology is what I think sound studies can offer hip hop studies—a sustained conversation on listening in a multiplicity of forms. Listening practices are what knits the different elements of hip hop together, what links artist to producer to audience, sometimes in the very same body at the very same time. What happens when we think of hip hop artists as listeners? What if we viewed them not only as producers of tracks but also of listening practices? Is there such a thing as hip hop listening? If so, what are its ethics and aesthetics? How might hip hop listening practices impact and feed into the various modes of hip-hop performance in music and beyond: dance, cinema, theatre, literature, graphic design?

So, while hip hop studies and sound studies have quite a bit to show and prove to each other, I can’t be the only one eager for the collabo.

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The Noise You Make Should Be Your Own

Before I suggested the name VIBE, even before the magazine was being called Volume, it was known as NOISE. I never liked that name. I mean, I knew what they were going for: “Noise” was meant to imply the loud raucousness of youth that defined the increasingly popular urban culture that would fill its pages. But the dominant strand of that youth culture was going to be represented by hip-hop, and I was quite sensitive to mainstream society’s tendency to think of hip-hop—what I liked to think of as the breakbeat concertos of inner city maestros—as not-music, as nothing but noise, something not necessarily from the street but of it, like a garbage truck or a knife fight.

I started to reminisce about the Noise name a coupla weeks ago when I walked into my university-owned apartment building and saw a note with the word “NOISE” poised at the top of it in a huge bold and italicized font, assured of getting everyone’s attention as they entered the elevator vestibule. According to the note taped to the wall, there was a noise problem in the building, and it was getting worse. Would tenants please be considerate of the other members of the apartment community and refrain from playing music loudly after certain proprietary hours?

I thought about it. I never heard music being played loudly. But maybe that was because I live on of the upper floors, away from the blaring speakers of others. The noise I was privy to was the natural noise of the many babies who lived in the building, the children of grad students, probably bored to tears (and tantrums) living in this austere monolith we all call home.

But then I thought about it some more. And I considered the musical noise I heard in this building, compared to the musical noise I’d heard in my building in Manhattan before I re-located to pristine, polite Cambridge, Massachusetts. In New York, I remember the guy on the second floor, the raging theater queen, who blasted cast albums and show tunes at top volume, usually during the day, when the only people in our small West Village building were him (a theater designer), me and the “model” who lived on the third floor—in other words, those of us who lived lives outside the traditional mainstream. The “model” cranked up the volume on her club-kid techno beats, while I was probably playing The Smiths or The Cure or R.E.M. at loud volumes, re-living my college rock days while missing a freelance deadline or two.

I remember, when I lived in New York, thinking that people had no shame when it came to making noise: people had loud conversations about personal business on the subways; vendors shouted to (at?) delivery guys on street corners; sirens blared their way through the streets; boomboxes competed with car speakers for the ears and stares of passersby. But no one complained. If anything it was a competition of soundtracks in, on and around the streets of New York. Do the lipstick lesbians outside the bar across from my apartment mind, relish in the fact perhaps, that the iconic sound of Stevie Nicks growling out of the jukebox codifies them as queer women on the scene? That kid in the business suit and expensive Wall Street shoes on the train, bobbing his head to the rhythms of Jay-Z rapping loudly through his earbuds: does he really want those of us around him to know he was a hip-hopper? The 6’4” theatrical designer from the second floor who struts down 12th Street like a linebacker: does he simply want the world to know that Barbra’s star-making turn as Miss Marmelstein soothed his soul and that the Pippin version of “Corner of the Sky” is what gets him through the day?

And what was my noise telling the world? I was the queer black writer dude upstairs. But if someone had walked by the apartment, not knowing who was inside, and stopped to tap a toe or shed a tear at the mopey, fop-rock of Morrissey that so often cleared my door jamb, would I be what they expected? Perhaps; perhaps not.

But then I think about the times that I just had to hear Martika. And I had to hear her loud. Or I had to hear some 80s-style deep house, especially the tracks defined by the soul-shouting diva-fied orgasmic melismas that not only date me age-wise, but most definitely queer the space that was blasting the Rolling Stones’ Let It Bleed just a half hour before. I used to be self-conscious of those sonic shifts in my noise soundtrack, as if they highlighted a larger, deeper confusion about my own position, culturally-, racially-, and sexually-speaking.

But then I joined the team to start VIBE, a magazine once called NOISE. And my sensitivity over its possible name settled my own personal dilemma: We may want the world to hear our noise, because of its shorthand to who we are. But what we really want them to do is feel our noise, vibe it if you will, and hopefully feel our joy, pain, shame, love and contradictions in the process.

–SPB (Scott Poulson-Bryant)

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