Tag Archive | Dave Chappelle

“To Unprotect and Subserve”: King Britt Samples the Sonic Archive of Police Violence

Author’s note: In line with the ethics of listening considered below, I’ve chosen not to embed the videos of police violence that I discuss.  But I’ve linked to them when available for readers who’d like to see/hear their content.–Alex Werth

“I’m scared to death of these police.”  Dave Chappelle’s voice—pitched down, but nonetheless recognizable—calls from the speakers, cutting through the darkness of Oakland, CA’s Starline Social Club.  It’s closing night of the 2016 Matatu Festival of Stories, an annual celebration of Black diasporic narratives, technologies, and futures routed through the San Francisco Bay Area.  King Britt—an eclectic electronic pioneer and producer, and former DJ for Digable Planets—has landed with the third version of “To Unprotect and Subserve: A Sonic Response.”  (It was first performed after a march for Mike Brown in Ferguson in 2014.)  I can barely see Britt, his solemn look bathed in the dim glow of electronic consoles and the red-and-blue pulse of police lights.  “First money I got,” Chappelle continues, “I went out and bought me a police scanner.  I just listen to these mothafuckas before I go out, just to make sure everything’s cool.  ‘Cause you hear shit on there: ‘Calling all cars, calling all cars.  Be on the lookout for a Black male between 4’7” and 6’8”.’”  With this double invocation, Britt invites us to listen.  Specifically, à la Chappelle, he invites us to listen back—to attune to the agents of a racialized security state that, from ShotSpotter to CIA surveillance, profile and police the world’s sonic landscapes.

This essay considers the ethical effects/affects in King Britt’s work of sampling what I call the sonic archive of police violence.  From Oakland to Ferguson, the Movement for Black Lives has raised critical questions about the mass surveillance of Black and Brown communities, the undemocratic control of data in cases of police misconduct, and the use of smart phones and other recording devices as means to hold the state accountable.  But the failure to indict or even discipline cops in police killings where audio/video evidence was not only available but overwhelming, from Eric Garner to Tamir Rice, casts doubt upon the emancipatory power of simply recording our race-based system of criminal (in)justice.  And when re-presented ad nauseum on the news and social media, these recordings can retraumatize those most vulnerable to racist state violence.  Indeed, at a discussion among Black artists at Matatu, each panelist admitted to limiting their exposure to what poet Amir Sulaiman called “e-lynching.”

What, then, can we learn from Britt about the praxis and politics of listening back when the circulation of what KRS One dubbed the “sound of da police” is now daily, digital, and ubiquitous?  How can we make sense of audio recording when it’s come to signal repression, resistance, and painful reprisal all at the same time?

Back in the darkness of the club, Chappelle’s voice dissolves into a conversation between Darrin Wilson and a dispatcher from the Ferguson Police, who sends him to find the body of Mike Brown—a “Black male in a white t-shirt,” reportedly “running toward QuikTrip” with a stolen box of Swishers.  The optimistic waves of sound that open the piece resolve into a throbbing pulse of 1/32nd notes that sounds like a helicopter.  Britt begins to loop in other elements: a low bass tone, a syncopated stab.  With kicks and reverb-heavy snares, he builds a slow, head-nodding beat (60 bpm) that coalesces around the vocal sample—swaddling, softening, and ultimately subsuming it with high-pitched legato tones.  The synths are sorrowful.  But the mesmerizing beat embraces listeners in their mourning.

This act of listening to the state differs from the one parodied at the start.  Chappelle attends to the police scanner as a form of precaution, checking whether it’s safe for him to enter a realm where he can be marked as criminal (“Staying in the crib tonight!  Fuck that!” he concludes).  But Britt’s sonic bricolage is more therapeutic than protective.  He uses repetition, reverb, and improvised melody to score a sonic altar—to open space, rather than control time—where we can meditate on the archive of police violence with the intention to heal.  “Sometimes to push through the trauma we need to experience it in a different context,” he tells me over email.  “There is room for healing within the chords and sounds that are carefully curated.”  Britt thus reactivates the pathos buried inside this archive—reclaiming what Susan Sontag, in “On Photography,” recognizes as an “ethical content” of representational form that can fade from careless repetition (21).

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Picture of King Britt courtesy of Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi for the Matatu Festival of Stories.

After removing the loops one-by-one, until the helicopter sound is all that remains, Britt releases a new sample into the mix.  It’s audio from a cell-phone video taken in 2013 by two Black men as they’re harassed by White cops during a stop-and-frisk in Philadelphia (Britt’s hometown).  He scores the somber scene with dissonant organs and an offbeat percussive note that reminds me of stress-induced arrhythmia—a heartbeat out-of-place, aggravated, precarious .  Vibrating with anxiety, the soundscape temporarily snatches listeners from mourning, demanding that we listen in witness, instead.

The video reveals that the police tear the two men apart, pinning them to the cruiser.  But the violence of the encounter is verbal as much as physical.  The cops’ language and tone become increasingly abusive as the men contest their treatment in a sounding of agency that Regina Bradley, writing about Black women, calls “sonic disrespectability.”   Philip Nace, the more audible of the officers, embodies a double bind built into what Jennifer Lynn Stoever calls the “sonic color line.”  He threatens one of the men when he speaks out (“You’re gonna be in violation if you keep running your mouth when I split your wig open.”).  But he turns around and ridicules him when, instead, the man refuses to speak (“You don’t know what we know…Right?  Right?!  What, you don’t hear now?”).  As Stoever notes, the demand that African Americans speak when spoken to, but in a way that sounds their submission to Whites, is a feature of anti-Black oppression stemming from the “racial etiquette” of slavery (30-32).

Britt’s manipulation of vocals speaks to the centrality of sampling in hip-hop.  According to Tricia Rose, hip-hop artists have long prioritized the sample as a way to recognize and renovate a communal repertoire of songs and sounds (79).  And given the realities of anti-Black oppression in the U.S., this repertoire has often entailed the “sound(s) of da police.”  From sirens to skits to verses, rappers and producers have remixed the sounds of the state to characterize, caricature, and critique the country’s criminal justice system.  But Britt’s trespass on the state’s sonic sovereignty differs from classics like “Fuck tha Police,” in which N.W.A. conducts a mock trial of “the system.”  Whereas N.W.A. reappropriates the rituals of legal testimony and judgment to condemn the police (“The jury has found you guilty of being a redneck, white-bread, chicken-shit mothafucka.”), Britt’s musical re-mediation of police violence favors grief over moralizing, dirge over indictment.

In this vein, the musical/ethical demand to witness waxes but then wanes.  The soundscape becomes more and more dissonant until the vocals are consumed by a thunderous sound.  Suddenly, the storm clears.  Britt hits a pre-loaded drum track (136 bpm) with driving double-time congas and chimes over a steady sway of half-time kicks. He starts to improvise on the synth in an angelic register, revealing the impact of his early encounters with Sun Ra on his aesthetic.  The catharsis of the scene is accentuated by the sporadic sound of exhalation. This sense of freedom dissolves when the beat runs out of gas…or is pulled over.  In its stead, Britt introduces audio from the dashboard camera of Brian Encinia, the Texas State Trooper who arrested Sandra Bland.  Encinia and Bland’s voices are pitched down and filtered through an echo delay, lending an intense sense of dread to his enraged orders (“Get out of the car!  I will light you up!”).

Here, I sense the affective resonance of dub.  Like the musicians on rotation in Michael Veal’s Dub, Britt manipulates the timbre and texture of voices in a way that demands a different sort of attention from listeners who, like me, may be desensitized to the sonic violence of the racialized security state as it’s vocalized and circulated in and between Ferguson, Philly, and Prairie View.  Britt reworks the character and context of the vocals into a looping soundscape, and that soundscape sends me into a meditative space—one in which the vibes of humiliation and malice “speak” to me more than Encinia’s individual utterances as an agent of the state.  According to Veal, the pioneers of dub developed a sound that, while reverberating with the severity of the Jamaican postcolony, “transport[ed] their listeners to dancefloor nirvana” and “the far reaches of the cultural and political imagination” (13).  Now, conducting our Matatu, Britt is both an engineer and a medicine man.  Rather than simply diagnose the state of anti-Black police violence in the American (post)colony, he summons a space where we can reconnect with the voices (and lives) lost to the archives of police violence amid what Veal refers to as dub’s Afro-sonic repertoire of “reverb, remembrance, and reverie”  (198).

What Sontag once wrote about war photography no doubt holds for viral videos (and the less-recognized soundscapes that animate them).  Namely, when used carelessly or even for gain, the documentary-style reproduction of the sonic archive of police violence can work to inure or even injure listeners.  But in Britt’s care-full bricolage, sampling serves to literally re-mediate the violence of racialized policing and its reverberations throughout our everyday landscapes of listening.  It’s not the fact of repetition, then, but the modality, that matters.  And Britt draws upon deep traditions of scoring, hip-hop, and dub to sonically construct what he calls a “space to breathe.”

Featured image of King Britt’s performance courtesy of Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi for the Matatu Festival of Stories.

Alex Werth is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Geography at UC Berkeley.  His research looks at the routine regulation of expressive culture, especially music and dance, within the apparatuses of public nuisance and safety as a driver of cultural foreclosure in Oakland, CA.  It also considers how some of those same cultural practices enable forms of coordination and collectivity that run counter to the notions of “the public” written into law, plan, and property.  In 2016, he was a member of the curatorial cohort for the Matatu Festival of Stories and is currently a Public Imagination Fellow at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco.  He lives in Oakland, where he dances samba and DJs as Wild Man.

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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”]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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