“Type in Sada Baby on the computer and let them hear the difference.”
Devante gives me this advice in the midst of an escalating back-and-forth among his peers about the difference between singing and rapping. Eighteen middle schoolers lounge around two picnic tables inside our local community center for this six-week summer program. We’re still in the first week, and each day they’ve name-checked Sada Baby, a charismatic rapper from the eastside of Detroit. I’m too occupied at the moment—trying to keep the conversation from spilling into an argument—to heed Devante’s advice, so he takes matters into his own voice.
“Rapping is like this,” he tells the group while starting to nod his head to an ear-magined beat. “Oh boy, I ain’t playing no games!” Devante raps the first half-bar of “Oh Boy,” Sada Baby’s 2017 track that narrates his street exploits and threatens his rivals — often with violence to the women they might or might not love. Devante not only raps this opening line but approximates the grain of Sada Baby’s voice, at least as much as he can since his adolescent tone hasn’t yet caught up to his linebacker build. My own ear—from over 20 years as hip-hop DJ, turntablist, and vinyl enthusiast—is more Sadat X than Sada Baby. But Sada’s playful allure is audible even to me, like while bending his cadence into indecipherable sounds over the track’s intro. And he covered “Return of the Mack” into a shirtless gunplay revenge track. So there’s that, too. I can understand the affective draw he has on the young people in the room. And even if couldn’t, this wouldn’t be the last I would hear of him in Yaktown Sounds that summer.
Yaktown Sounds is an emergent space of sound making I curate in and around Pontiac, Michigan. (Pon-ti-Yak = Yaktown, get it?) A postindustrial city halfway between Detroit and Flint, Pontiac is the home of jazz drummer Elvin Jones, hip-hop group Binary Star, and perhaps the most respected battle rapper on the national scene today: JC. Since 2015, I’ve organized an evolving network of artists—usually DJs and beat makers—to make space for youth and community members to play with sound. Of course, play and sound go well together. In Yaktown Sounds, sometimes it’s elementary-age youth at the public library hitting pads and twisting knobs on MIDI controllers until they like what they hear. Other times it’s daddies and daughters scratching a record under the needle to see what comes out. The summer of 2017, I lined up a different musical artist each week from Pontiac and Detroit to visit and share their skills.
My curatory approach to this space takes inspiration from Saving Our Lives Hear Our Truths (SOLHOT), a creative, visionary, performative Black girlhood practice. In part, SOLHOT generates from a particular stance on Black girlhood sound. In Hear Our Truths (2013), SOLHOT visionary Ruth Nicole Brown theorizes Black girlhood sound and the ways it resists and improvises around neoliberal youth programming constraints that are intended to “fix” youth. Riffing off Tricia Rose in Black Noise, Brown theorizes Black girlhood as a sound nobody can organize. It bounces off adult listenings that would compress it into binary identity positions like sass/silence or into white mainstream notions of politeness and civility. What follows from this stance are not constrained, prescribed “learning environments” for youth but open, performative, imaginative spaces not always under adults’ control. This is the type of environment I try to facilitate in Yaktown Sounds.
This stance toward space and environment means vulnerability to reverberations and their affects. Reverberation, of course, is a phenomenon and technique that plays a prominent role in Black diasporic sonic expression. As Michael E. Veal writes, its affect/effect is most pronounced through Jamaican dub music: the collisions among sounds through echo, delay, and reverb. Veal’s engagement with dub and reverberation is also conceptual. In Dub (2013), he considers its echoes and ruptures “a sonic metaphor for the condition of diaspora” (197). In Sound Curriculum (2018), Walter Gershon thinks with sound to make a similar argument for reverberation and other physical, metaphysical, and aural phenomena: “Because sounds are already in motion, they are always reverberating, bouncing off of objects from sinus cavities to walls to coral to brush to air to water to stone” (56). In these instances, Veal and Gershon take up reverberation in both aural and environmental settings. Yet these ideas also apply to the spaces where youth and adults co-create together. What collides, bounces, and stays in motion? What counts as a reverberation?
In that summer of Yaktown Sounds, I understand Sada Baby’s aural presence as a kind of reverberation. He stayed in motion, colliding with youth judgments about what counted as rap, how a rapper’s voice should sound, and even my own aspirations for the space. These collisions were most apparent while preparing each week for our visiting artist.
Before a visit from Mahogany Jones, we watched the video for her song “Blue Collar Logic.” Landon was the first to respond while leaning back against the table, feet kicked out in front of him, and retwisting his short bronze locks:
“Can we see another one? That one wasn’t good. I didn’t think it was good. Not as good as I thought it would be. It was too much of that, uh, old time. I just think she didn’t rap enough.”
For Landon, the standard for rapping enough and not sounding “old time” was—you guessed it—Sada Baby. “He actually raps,” Landon noted while explaining. If we consider music and song not only as art but as different organizations of sound (another point from Gershon), Landon has a point. To get specific, some of Sada Baby’s songs are continuous bars of rapping — no hooks, no chorus, no rest. In “Oh Boy,” Sada Baby raps for two minutes and 20 seconds of the song, and guest artist FMB DZ raps a 40 second verse. Straight bars over a trap beat. By comparison, “Blue Collar Logic” is also roughly 3-minutes long but has a fuller song structure. Mahogany Jones raps for 1 minute and 20 seconds across two verses. In the golden era template of DJ Premier, cuts from DJ Los make up the 30-second intro, the two choruses, and the instrumental outro that lasts approximately one minute. If we do the math, Sada Baby’s track has more than double the rapping compared to Mahogany’s.
My point here isn’t to judge which organization of sound is better; there is no wrong way to organize sound. Rather, these details illustrate two very different organizations and how Sada Baby’s made up the basis for Landon’s judgment.
If Landon’s directness that “she didn’t rap enough” rings a bit harsh to our polite adult listenings, then hear Kareem slice through the group conversation after listening to hometown artist Kodac aka M80, who had just returned from a European tour:
“He don’t know how to rap.”
Kareem’s judgment was based upon what he heard as singing and rapping happening in the same song, an organization of sound he classified as “old.” When I asked Kareem what Kodac needed to do to be a better rapper — “in your opinion,” the recommendation was equally direct: “Be more like Sada Baby.”
These responses from Landon and Kareem show us something else about the movement of reverberations through this space. Sada Baby’s aural presence not only collided with youth preferences and claims about rap. As a reverberation, he was used to berate other artists whose sounds and configurations of sound were heard as “old” through youths’ generationally tuned ears.
Despite the youth-centric stance I take on spaces like Yaktown Sounds, I’m not gonna lie: the strikes and blows of these reverberations hit me too because of the relational ties I hold with these artists. They are part of my own creative community. I’ve DJed on stage for Kodac. I go to all of Mahogany’s shows. As a result, I remain vulnerable to the force of these reverberations. Owning up to that point, I am reminded of what Shakira Holt teaches us about adults and how we listen, particularly in education settings: sometimes we are not as open-eared to youth as we imagine ourselves to be — especially given the ways we have been socialized to censor and silence Black youth, even ones who live through our own cities, schools, and community centers. Though I’m two years removed from this particular iteration of Yaktown Sounds, Sada Baby continues to reverberate with/against me. He stays in motion even now, echoing through my writing as I toggle over to his Soundcloud page, press play on his songs, and wonder if I will hear something that makes me tune in differently to the young people around me.
Featured image: Screenshot from “Sada Baby–On Gang”
Emery Marc Petchauer makes beats and DJs with kids in and around Pontiac, MI. A former high school English teacher, he works as an associate professor of English and Teacher Education at Michigan State University. His scholarship has addressed the aesthetic practices of hip-hop culture and their connections to teaching, learning, and living. He also studies the high stakes test educators must pass to become certified teachers. He is online at empetch.com and on Twitter at @emerypetchauer.
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This week we are glad to share a podcast on intimacy and public feeling. Our host, Ana Pais looks at several performances which premiered in Portugal between 2017 and 2019: Happy Show, by Miguel Pereira; Tristeza in English from Spanish, by Sónia Baptista; Cinderella, by Lígia Soares; and Every Brilliant Thing, by Ivo Canelas. Pais examines the social, cultural and political dimensions of public feeling (or public affect) as well as how they influence our everyday experience using the format of a radio broadcast.
Formulated by Lauren Berlant (2011), the concept public feeling defines public spheres as collectively generated and negotiated words of affect. The private sphere where we experience our emotions and feelings most intimately is conditioned and shaped by economic, political and cultural forces. They fuel desires and fantasies that circulate in cultural narratives. This podcast questions why the Portuguese artists listed above chose to pick happiness, sadness, depression and romantic love as topics for development in the current Portuguese political and social situation? How do these affects reflect, reinforce and subvert a post-Troika context with a Left Wing coalition government and a President of the Republic called–even before he took office–the “president of affection”?
Featured image is of Miguel Pereira’s Happy Show. It is used with permission by the author.
Ana Pais is a dramatuge, curator, and FCT Postdoctoral Fellow at CET – Centro de Estudos de Teatro at the School of Arts and Humanities of the University of Lisbon. She is currently undertaking the research project “Practices of Feeling” in which she approaches the affective dimensions of performance through embodied knowledge and sound knowledge. She is the author of Discourse of Complicité: Contemporary Dramaturgies (Colibri 2004), Affective Rhythms in the Performing Arts (Colibri 2018), and the editor of Performance na Esfera Pública (2017, Orfeu Negro) and its online version in English available at www.performativa.pt. From 2005 to 2010, she was an Assistant Professor at Escola Superior de Teatro e Cinema (Lisbon). As a dramaturge, she has worked with theatre and dance professionals in Portugal (João Brites, Tiago Rodrigues, Rui Horta and Miguel Pereira). She curated, coordinated and produced various discursive practice events, such as: Indirecções Generativas – baldio (co-curation; Espaço do Tempo, 2013), Conversas Domésticas (Temps d’Images festival, 2013 and 2014), O Poder dos Afectos Lecture Series (Culturgest, February 2015), Dirty Ear Forum artistic residency (co-curated with Brandon LaBelle, Lisbon, 30thSeptember – 5th October), and Projecto P! Performance na Esfera Pública (Lisbon, 10-14th April 2017).
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For many, the audiobook is a source of pleasure and distraction, a way to get through the To Read Pile while washing dishes or commuting. Audiobooks have a stealthy way of rendering invisible the labor of creating this aural experience: the writer, the narrator, the producer, the technology…here at Sounding Out! we want to render that labor visible and, moreover, think of the sound as a focus of analysis in itself.
Over the next few weeks, we will host several authors who will make all of us think differently about the audiobook selections on our phone, in our car, and in our radios. Last week we listened to a book that listens to Dublin, in a post by Shantam Goyal. Today we have seven narrators telling us the story of an assassination attempt on Bob Marley. What will the audiobook whisper to us that the book cannot speak?
—Managing Editor Liana Silva
Reviews of A Brief History of Seven Killings, Marlon James’ 686-page rendering of the echoes of an assassination attempt on Bob Marley, almost invariably invoke the concept of polyphony to name its adroit use of multiple narrators. In The New York Times, Zachary Lazar maintained that the “polyphony and scope” of the 2014 novel made it much more than a saga of drug and gang violence stretching from 1970s Kingston to 1990s New York. And the Booker Prize, which James was the first Jamaican to win, similarly praised it as a “rich, polyphonic study,” with chief judge Michael Wood calling attention to the impressive “range of voices and registers, running from the patois of the street posse to The Book of Revelation.” It was thus not only the sheer number of voices in a preliminary three-page “Cast of Characters” that critics so unanimously admired but also the variety and nuance evident within them. Norwegian publisher Mime Books even took these polyphonic features a step further by hiring not one but twelve translators in a casting process that auditioned prominent novelists, playwrights, and performers.
James recalls realizing early on that this novel would be one “driven only by voice” (687), which might make such enthusiastic responses to its plurality of perspectives seem unsurprising. But what happens when such polyphony leaves the page behind and actual material voices drive its delivery? If the audiobook is a format of the novel (and here I follow Jonathan Sterne’s definition of format in MP3: The Meaning of a Format as “a whole range of decisions that affect the look, feel, experience, and workings of a medium” ), what lessons can listeners learn that print cannot provide? As I argue, the 26-hour-long audiobook version of A Brief History, which Highbridge Audio produced with seven actors (Robertson Dean, Cherise Boothe, Dwight Bacquie, Ryan Anderson, Johnathan McClain, Robert Younis, Thom Rivera), allows us to engage with multivocality rather than polyphony, which is to say the multiple vocal performances of a single individual rather than the presence of many narrators within a print work. And just as this novel’s polyphonic structure destabilizes any attempt at a definitive account of the events it portrays, the multifaceted performances of its audio format work to untrain ears that have been conditioned to hear necessary ties between voices and bodies.
Of course, this effect is not one that most listeners consciously seek, as reviews of the audiobook articulating various reasons for turning to this format as well as diverging responses to it readily attest. Gayle, on Audible, began with the print version: “but as soon as I got to the first chapter that was written in Jamaican patois I knew that I was not able to do that in my head and I was going to miss a lot.” Sound here conveys sense more swiftly than the page, the ear apparently better suited than the eye to encounter difference. (Woodsy, another reviewer, even felt emboldened to ventriloquize in text that sonically distinctive speech: “I found that listening to the Audible version was helpful. Now all me need do is stop thinking in Jamaican.”) Yet it was Andre who offered by far the most memorable characterization of the audiobook and its affordances. As he explained, in James’ novel “the language is a thick, tropical forest of words. Audiobook is the machete that slices through this forest of words so I can enjoy the treasures inside.” The violence of this metaphor matches that of the novel’s most disturbing scenes, yet what is most striking is the way it reiterates once more how reviewers found it easier to access the work aurally rather than visually.
These reviews, and other similarly favorable appraisals, rarely consider the audiobook on its own terms, insisting instead on comparisons with the text. Negative ones, however, often note distinctively sonic features, with some reviewers echoing one of the Booker judges—who reportedly consulted a Jamaican poet about the accuracy of James’ ear for dialogue—by questioning the veracity of the Jamaican accents in a novel that also features American, Colombian, and Cuban ones. Tending to readily identify themselves as Jamaican, these writers and listeners rarely acknowledge that at least some of the actors were born on the island when asserting that the accents are off. In any case, such efforts to link sound and authenticity, as Liana Silva has argued with respect to the audiobook, wrongly suggest that those who belong to a group must conform to a single sound. James, too, distrusts discourses of the authentic, as characters repeatedly cast suspicion and scorn on anyone uttering the phrase “real Jamaica.”
If the polyphony in James’ novel prevents any one perspective from becoming either representative or definitive, the audiobook pushes this process even further by demonstrating how a single performer’s voice can possess such range that it seems to contain multiple ones. Each performer is responsible for all the voices within the sections narrated by their primary characters, which means that the same character can occasionally be voiced by different actors. In one section, a performer does the voices of a tough-talking Chicago-born hitman and the jittery Colombians he speaks with in Miami; in others, that same performer is both a white Rolling Stone journalist from Minnesota who’s attuned to racial difference and the black Jamaicans he converses with in Kingston. Continuity or strict one-to-one correspondences between performer and character ultimately matter less than the displays of vocal difference that allow the audiobook to contest essentialized notions of voice.
As a result, the audiobook articulates just how constructed vocal divisions based on race, gender, and class are by having its performers constantly cross them. It amplifies the very arbitrariness of such divisions and thereby reveals how, if the page is the space of polyphony, then what the audiobook stages is multivocality. Although they might seem like synonyms, these two terms can actually help us appreciate crucial differences and, in doing so, highlight the specificity of the audio format. On the one hand, –phony or phōnē, as Shane Butler reminds us in The Ancient Phonograph, ambiguously refers to both voice and the human capacity for speech (36), whereas –vocality centers the voice. On the other, the shift from the Greek poly- to the Latin multi- signals a contrast in what gets counted: while polyphony names the quantity of perspectives contributing to a narrative (when introducing it in Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, Mikhail Bakhtin emphasized that polyphony consisted of “a plurality of independent and unmerged voices and consciousnesses” ), multivocality instead specifies how the number of voices can exceed the number of performers. In this way, the concept of multivocality outlined here with respect to the audiobook resonates with its use in another context by Katherine Meizel, who mobilizes it with reference to singing and the borders of identity. In both cases, voice names a multiplicity of practices rather than an immutable or inevitable expression, which in turn aligns with Nina Sun Eidsheim’s argument in The Race of Sound about the voice being not singular but collective and not innate but cultural (9).
We can therefore say that where print-based polyphony works on the eye by placing various perspectives on a page without necessarily challenging visual perceptions of difference, multivocality in the audiobook can retrain an ear’s culturally ingrained ideas about voice. James himself has experience with these seemingly inescapable meanings assigned to vocal sounds. In a moving essay for The New York Times Magazine, he recounts how, even at the age of 28, “I was so convinced that my voice outed me as a fag that I had stopped speaking to people I didn’t know.” That was already long after high school, when, as he remembered in a New Yorker profile, he had begun “tape-recording his efforts to sound masculine, repeating words like ‘bredren’ and ‘boss.’” He was well aware of the links that listeners created between voice and identity and that could, as he suggests, prove risky in a place with overt homophobia like Jamaica. Writing, however, offered him a space to take on any voice and, at the same time, not be concerned with the sound of his own.
Yet if the page allowed James to effortlessly shift among narrative voices, the audiobook format exhibits voices that ostensibly shift without any effort. Perhaps the most compelling example emerges in the work of Cherise Boothe, whose performance of the novel’s sole female primary character presents the voices of other figures as well. Toward the end of the novel, this character, Dorcas Palmer, is a caretaker for a much older and wealthier white man with amnesia in New York. Boothe not only captures the changes as Palmer often eliminates her Jamaican accent and occasionally lets it loose but also registers the man’s moments of lucidity and confusion. Even if, as listeners, we understand that Boothe is the voice behind both of these characters, the two vocal performances are so distinct that they effectively erode the basis for any beliefs about how a certain body should sound.
Adopting different voices is certainly not unique to the audiobook, but it does provide one of the few forms of extended exposure to this practice. Yet it is worth noting that A Brief History markedly differs from the model of a more extensive cast like the one comprised of 166 voices that recorded George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo. By assigning a performer to every character, such productions ultimately emphasize vocal uniqueness in roughly the same way that Adriana Cavarero conceives it, namely as an index of individuality. But there the voice remains something singular or somehow essential, for there is no opportunity to perform the plurality that appears across A Brief History. At the same time, the use of seven actors also offers a contrast with the opposite extreme: a single performer responsible for all the roles, which demonstrates multivocality but does so on such a small scale that it feels exceptional instead of ordinary. The middle ground, which is to say the model found in A Brief History, allows us to hear multiple instances of how the voice is entrained rather than essential, possibility rather than inevitability.
When briefly addressing audiobooks in an interview, James remarked that this format possesses a distinct advantage: “even something that is not necessarily plain can be translated because of tone and symbol and voice.” In other words, a voice can register its changing surroundings; conveying these subtle transformations on the page, however, is often far more difficult. This shortcoming is one that Edward Kamau Brathwaithe once memorably described when explaining why he insisted on using a tape recorder in a lecture on language in the Caribbean: “I want you to get the sound of it, rather than the sight of it.” The idiomatic familiarity of the first half, which clashes so sharply with the awkwardness of the second, suggests that the multivocality of an audiobook can open ears by accentuating how the voice is not fixed but in constant formation.
Featured Image: “Audiobook” by Flickr user ActuaLitte, CC-BY-SA-2.0
Sam Carter is a PhD Candidate in Romance Studies at Cornell University. His work on literature and sound in the Southern Cone has appeared in Latin American Textualities: History, Materiality, and Digital Media and is forthcoming in the Revista Hispánica Moderna.
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SO! Reads: Jonathan Sterne’s MP3: The Meaning of a Format–Aaron Trammell
“Scenes of Subjection: Women’s Voices Narrating Black Death“–Julie Beth Napolin