Tag Archive | Brooklyn

Living with Noise

Image by Flickr User Bill Selak

Image by Flickr User Bill Selak

[O]ne of the chief values of living with music lies in its power to give us an orientation to time.– Ralph Ellison, “Living with Music” (1955)

Early this past fall, my wife and I moved back to Brooklyn after three years in central New York State. We spent two of those years on a back street in a mostly rural area of Cortland, NY, where are there are more dogs than people and more cows than dogs. Those dogs were probably the most intrusive neighborhood sound—a barker would get going and that’d set off a chain reaction from yard to yard, like a real life version of the “Twlight Barking” from 101 Dalmations. Still, I could get used to it, ignore it, zone out. The only other sounds that penetrated our home were the nearby freight trains, but their sounds are almost soothingthe rhythm of the clacking rails like Paul Simon singing “Everybody loves the sound of a train in the distance. . .” or a relaxation tape.

Now back in New York City, I am very aware of the different degree, frequency and quality of sounds I am subjected to while in my living space. Reconsidering living with noise put me in the mind of Ralph Ellison’s 1955 essay “Living With Music” from High Fidelity magazine. Like the living situation Ellison describes, our new place is a rear-facing apartment and we get the sound of echoing voices, car horns or yowling cats (fighting and/or making more cats) bouncing off the back wall of a garage on the next street. However, as most city-dwellers know, it is our neighbors that provide the most persistent and profound sonic disturbances. Ellison himself was disturbed at an upstairs neighbor’s overzealous singing, vocalizing “[f]rom morning until night.” In our case, another four-family apartment house abuts ours and through the two brick walls sandwiched by two layers of plaster, we can frequently hear the shrill cries of teenage anguish. The violent screaming between teenaged siblings or between one or more of them and their parents can shake the walls. It is difficult to ignore.

Manhattan-MiniThe noise of children in New York City apartments was a topic of a New York Times feature a couple of years ago, but in that article the age of the children makes it easy to sympathize with the parents and to cast the complainers as insensitive villains. Little children cannot be expected to regulate their own crying or the seemingly ceaseless energy that is so easily transformed into cries of glee or the galloping of those baby shoes. In the case of my neighbors, it harder to sympathize when the sound is from near-adult children screaming about how life isn’t fair, or getting forced into frequent violent disagreements with a similarly aged sibling with which they must share a tiny part of an already tiny spacea New York City apartment.

It is easy to get angry when they get going. A teenager is not a chorus of barking dogs, a small crying child, or even some jerk honking his horn a block away who doesn’t realize how far the sound can travel, but ostensibly someone developing into a functional adult. The things they are screaming about can often seem beyond ridiculous to older people, and thus their need to scream about them is particularly offensive when I am simply trying to enjoy a evening of catching up on Mad Men or (more importantly) an afternoon writing my dissertation. As my wife often asks, “Why don’t their parents regulate?” But I try to remind her, it is the attempt to regulate their behavior that often starts the screaming matches. Like a 2-year old testing the range of her voice, these teens are exploring their own boundaries. Furthermore, unlike the class entitlement permeating the NYT Real Estate section feature, the economic reality of living in row houses in Bensonhurst changes expectations regarding the living experience.

The sonic disturbances often come when I am trying to get some writing done, so it is not hard to think about Ellison’s essay, since writing was also what he endeavored to do when bedeviled by his neighbor’s practice of “bel canto style.” The way noise can carry in these apartments creates a form of anonymous intimacy. Think of Duke Ellington’s “Harlem Airshaft,” a musical representation of just that urban intimacy.

As he said of the apartment airshaft that inspired that piece,

You hear fights, you smell dinner, you hear people making love. You hear intimate gossip floating down. You hear the radio. An air shaft is one great loudspeaker, you hear people praying, fighting and snoring.

While I don’t know my neighbors better than a polite nod of hello when I pass them sitting on the stoop, I am ear-witness to their dramas, and more than that I am sometimes drawn into them, finding myself banging the wall with a forearm and calling through the wall “enough already!” Or spending time discussing the family’s private affairs with my wife, speculating about the arguments. Similarly, Ellison’s trepidations about trying to silence his neighbor come from how her practice makes him intimately aware of her aspirations, even as that same intimacy drives him to build a stereo to blast at her in an attempt to conquer their shared sonic space.

Urban sonic intimacy is tightly tied to Ellison’s assertion regarding music and our orientation to time. However, Ellison’s observations can be expanded beyond music, because remember one person’s music is another person’s noise, as Scott Poulson-Bryant discussed in his Sounding Out! post on music and New York City apartment life in “The Noise You Make Should Be Your Own” (August 2010). A noise can likewise orient me in time: the sound of freight trains will bring me back to my time in Cortland, and more profoundly, that teenaged screaming brings me back to my own volatile adolescence, asking me to reconcile that version of me with the one I am now.

Ellison - Living with musicIn Ellison’s essay, he arrives at two conclusions regarding music. The first is the above-mentioned orientation to time and the second is deep sympathy that arises from that realization, as he associates his upstairs neighbor’s intrusive singing practice with his own childhood attempts to master the trumpet. The orientation to time he discusses is not only a matter of looking back and making associations with a younger self’s relationship to music, but also comes from an adult understanding that there were those “who were willing to pay in present pain for future pride. For who knows what skinny kid. . .might become the next [Louie] Armstrong?” The anonymous intimacy of city-living has made me reflective regarding these screaming matches and I have begun to develop a sympathy that lets me tolerate the disturbance, to understand it in a context of living and growing. For how do I know that those volatile teenaged emotions might not develop into the sensitive and thoughtful adult attitude I try to have in my own life? There is no need to imagine that these kids will grow into anyone special (though the world could certainly use a couple more Louis Armstrongs or Ralph Ellisons), but their noise is a signal for the need for empathy, to remember our own ability to make noise not only through simply living but in trying to grow, to become. . .

Ellison may have thought that “the enjoyment of music is always suffused with past experience,” but I think enjoyment is just the tip of an iceberg of sonic experience, because it also holds out the possibility for an affective relationship with sound that can shift from annoyance to understanding without actually having to enjoy. It is not just music, but noise that “gives significance to all those indefinable aspects of experience, which. . .help to make us what we are.” Noise transforms in the cramped urban setting from a residue of life into a connective tissue that signals a challenge to boundaries, requiring greater empathy and patience. The very noise that endangers our peace is also a reminder of how close and alike we really are. It is only time that separates me from the screaming of a teenager and it is only time that stands between me and a screaming teen of my own.

Osvaldo Oyola is a regular contributor to Sounding Out! and ABD in English at Binghamton University.

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

Summer Soundscapes, East Coast Style–Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman

The Noise You Make Should Be Your Own–Scott Poulson-Bryant

Sound-politics in São Paulo, Brazil–Leonardo Cardoso

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”]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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