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).
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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Music to Grieve and Music to Celebrate: A Dirge for Muñoz— Johannes Brandis
*Dedicated to the love we hear in our mothers’ accents. This post is co-authored by Sara V. Hinojos and Dolores Inés Casillas
The Cinco de Mayo season showcases troubling instances of Spanish being mocked. Corporate ‘merica profits from Drinko de Mayo when menus advertise “el happy hour”; words like “fiesta” and “amigo” are overused; and Spanish hyperanglicized for laughs (one of the worst: “COM-PREN-DAY”). These acts of linguistic privilege, according to Jane Hill, elevate whiteness in public spaces. What is heard as playful for the dominant ear is simply an acoustic representation of the racist appropriation of mustaches, sombreros, and sarapes.
CinKO de Mayo(naise)
Fiesta like there’s no mañana
Said no Juan ever
That said, bilennials have struck back.
Last year, the Latino digital platform, we are mitú, published a list that resonated with its young, bicultural readers, those long accustomed to hearing Spanish Accented English (SAE) as part of their everyday speech: 17 Popular Brand Logos If They Looked The Way Your Parents Pronounce Them. This humorous phonetic play in the face of complaints about foreign accents being unintelligible or moral indignation over immigrants who do not learn English with native-like proficiency re-directs our attention to digital, engaged Spanish-English bilingual communities. Like Chicana/o listening practices, these digital memes, gifs, and lists embrace how these accents invoke sounds of survival, solidarity and place making.
Con Fleis (Corn Flakes)
The witty Buzzfeed-ish list re-spelled English-language global logos in Mexican, immigrant styled phonetics to reflect how said stores, brands, and social media sites are heard within Spanish-dominant or bilingual speaking communities. The absence of letters (Cosco) and/or the substitution of letters (Gualmar) induce an “accented” non-English dominant speech, dislodging standard rules about English-language spelling and pronunciation. Readers chuckled at seeing immigrant, ESL (English as a Second Language), phonetic speech in print – a tactic Sara V. Hinojos refers to in her media writings as a visual accent, or a visual vocabulary based on sound.
In order to “get” the humor behind the wave of memes and gifs that use Spanish Accented English (SAE), Chicana/o readers rely much more on their listening ears than their eyes to understand how these accents are voiced in print. Here, listening to accents operates as a popular form of literacy, one that registers the audible, racialized experiences of Spanish-speaking immigrants. Of course, the use of creative, rasquache forms of humor have long been a hallmark aspect of Chicana/o humor. Yet listening to these digital literacies, especially within the contemporary “build the wall yet eat the taco” era, help make these accents legible.
Certainly, some vocal accents are audibly more patent to select ears than others. Accents work to socially and geographically locate speakers; for instance, often racially indexing Spanish Accented English speakers as Mexican (regardless of nationality), immigrant (regardless of citizenship), and/or poor (regardless of occupation). Sociocultural linguists remind us that accents, word choice, vocal tone and other sound qualities of language are a part of a larger Bourdieu-ian rubric of linguistic capital. Social psychologists consistently demonstrate that listeners make “moral, intellectual, and aesthetic judgments of others based on language use and accent alone.” For scholars of race and sound, accents comprise part of a sonic color line; a socially constructed aural boundary that aligns accented English speech as non-white and non-accented (or Midwestern) English as white. Vocal neutrality, like whiteness itself, operates invisibly as privilege usually does.
Effectively “reading” a visual accent does not privilege a bilingual speaker but rather an accented listener, one raised or surrounded by immigrant speakers. The humorous phonetic play of a visual accent symbolically challenges the capitalist logic that a “neutral accent” or non-accent in English holds immense Western value. For those of us with accented speakers in our families and communities, accents function as emotional markers; vocal or vernacular archives that trace an individual or family’s migration, travels and/or histories. As Denice Forham shares poetically about her Puerto Rican mother’s accent, “even when her lips can barely stress themselves around English, her accent is a stubborn compass, always pointing her towards home.” For our families, accents evince the affective labor entailed in retraining tongues, in learning new idioms, and general struggles to converse in Inglish.
(when your grandmother wants to motivate you)
Using the name of a popular Mexican sweet bread (conchas) as a substitute for “conscious” upsets Western, phonetic understandings of “scious” in favor of a phonetic, Mexican stand-in. Concha, a sea shelled shaped sweet bread, associated with female genitalia and used in digital Latino communities has become a symbol for body positive inclusion; an insistence to not feel “self conchas” when eating (see Nalgona Positivity and SOMAR ATX). These memes privilege an accented listener, a feminist sensibility, as well as a panadería connoisseur.
The mega-for-profit-English-teaching-colonial organization, known as Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL), explains that the lack of distinction in the Spanish language between a short and long vowel – for instance ship/sheep – causes miscomprehension for assumed-yet-never-named native English listeners. Those learning English as a Second Language are encouraged to first reorient their own ears to listen to the subtlety between pull/pool before grasping the complexities of yacht/jot. The communicative burden lies on the accented speaker rather than the non-accented listener. The visual accent places the onus on the English-dominant listener, effectively excluding them.
Trico Tri, Japi Jalogüín!
(Trick or Treat, Happy Halloween!)
Despite the fact that the United States represents the second largest Spanish-speaking country in the world, Spanish maintains a racialized, classed and “second-tiered” status within the United States imaginary (see Bonnie Urciuoli; Jane Hill; Jonathan Rosa; and D. Inés Casillas). These disparaging attitudes are evident when Spanish is prohibited in work places; when bilingual education and English Language Learner (ELL) programs are eliminated at ballot boxes; or when public school teachers are removed from posts based on their “heavy accents.” Institutional efforts to tame bilingual, accented tongues are less about speech and much more about accommodating the dominant, white listening ear.
According to Jennifer Stoever, the listening ear refers to dominant listening practices. Listening, she argues, is an embodied cultural practice that influences one’s position to power. “As the dominant ‘listening ear’ is disciplined to process white male ways of sounding as default—natural, normal, and desirable—alternate ways of listening and sounding are deemed aberrant and, depending upon the historical context, as excessively sensitive, strikingly deficient, or impossibly both.” Therefore the dominant listening ear not only tunes out “other” sounds but also treats them as illegitimate because they deviate from what sounds “normal” (read: white).
Cálmate Carnal, Tey Quirisi
(Relax Friend, Take it easy)
Gail Shuck found that white, native English-speaking college students construct an ideological distinction between Us and Them; gesturing to a sonic color line. Compellingly, she reported how American tourists in Mexico would describe native Spanish speakers as “heavily accented.” Yes. The communicative proficiency of Spanish by Mexicans in Mexico continued to be scrutinized by native English-language listeners.
Cinco de Mayo has versed us too well on the visual markers of racism like oversized sombreros, felt mustaches, and cheap beer pursuits, all a part of the commercial exploitation of Mexican communities in the U.S. But then phrases such as “Grassy Ass” or “No Problem-o” are heard bitterly as recurrent reminders that our language and accents are policed with the same fervor as our bodies. The inventive use of the visual accent archives how we listen, privileging the accented ear. The loving jest that enwraps these digital literacies reminds us to never lose our accents.