Since its inception at the World Soundscape Project in the 1970s, soundwalking has emerged as a critical method for sound studies research and artistic practice. Although “soundwalking” now describes a diversity of activities and purposes, critical discussions and reading lists still rarely represent or consider the experiences of people of color (POC). As Locatora Radio hosts Diosa and Mala have argued in their 2018 podcast about womxn of color and the sound of sexual harassment in their everyday lives and neighborhoods, sound in public space is weaponized to create “sonic landscapes of unwelcome” for POC.
While we often think of soundwalks as engines of knowledge production, we must also consider that they may simultaneously silence divergent worldviews and perspectives of space and place. In “Black Joy: African Diasporic Religious Expression in Popular Culture,” Vanessa Valdés explored alternate conceptions of space held by practicioners of Regla de Ocha, epistemologies rarely, if ever, addressed via soundwalks. “Within African diasporic religions . . . including Palo Monte, Vodou, Obeah, Macumba, Candomblé – there is respect for the seemingly inexplicable,” Valdés remarks, “there is room for the miraculous, for that which can be found outside the realms of what has been deemed reasonable by systems of European thought. There is room for faith.” Does current soundwalk praxis—either as research method, public intervention, artistic medium, field recording subject, or pop culture phenomenon—impose dominant ideas about space and knowledge production as much as—if not more–they offer access to alternatives? Are there alternate historiographies for soundwalking that predate the 1970s? Can soundwalks provide such openings, disruptions, and opportunities without a radical rethinking? What would a decolonial/decolonizing soundwalk praxis look and sound like?
Soundwalking While POC explores these questions through the work of Allie Martin, Amanda Gutierrez, and Paola Cossermelli Messina. Today, Allie Martin kicks off the series with a powerful reframing of the soundwalk as a black feminist methodology. —JS
In July 2018 I visited Oxford, Mississippi for the first time, to attend a workshop on conducting oral histories. Upon walking with a friend back to our accommodations on the University of Mississippi campus, we heard a voice calling to us from far away, up a hill somewhere. It was a catcalling voice—that much I definitely recognized—but I also felt sure that I heard the word “nigger.” My friend, who is also a black woman, heard the taunting sounds of the voice but not that word specifically. Herein lies one of the difficulties of black womanhood: I was unable to distinguish which of my two most prominent identity markers (blackness and womanhood) the speaker was using to harm me in that moment. I found it ironic that I came to Mississippi to learn best practices for listening to people’s stories, but could not hear my own story, could not say for sure what had happened to me.
In the time since that visit, I have come to embrace the speculative sonic ephemerality of black womanhood and utilize it on my soundwalks. Soundwalks are a popular method for understanding the everyday sonic life of a place. Reminiscent of Michel de Certeau’s “Walking in the City,” soundwalks offer the kind of embodied experience missing from other more static soundscape recordings. I argue here that soundwalks can operate as black feminist method, precisely because they allow me to center the complex, incomplete sonorities of black womanhood, and they are enough in their incompleteness. One of our foremost thinkers on black feminism, Patricia Hill Collins, has argued that black women’s knowledge is subjugated (1990). I understand this to mean that my knowledge is tainted somehow, too specialized or not specialized enough, and not considered fit for application by a broader audience. Soundwalks as method, though, rely on my own subjugated knowledge. What did I hear? Black feminism centers and humanizes black women, and I utilize soundwalks to humanize myself in a soundscape that would otherwise disregard my sonic perceptions in favor of white hearing as the default standard of sound.
I began soundwalking in Washington, DC as a part of my dissertation project, which explores the musical and sonic dimensions of gentrification in the city. Gentrification is often considered in visual terms, meaning that a neighborhood is considered gentrified because new coffeeshops, bike lanes, and dog parks make it “look” different from what was once there. I recognize these new additions as important markers of gentrification, but what do they sound like? And what do these sonic markers reveal about the sonorities of race?
I have taken up the sonic exploration of gentrification, drawing inspiration from Jennifer Stoever’s Sonic Color Line and Regina Bradley’s exploration of the criminalization of black sound. As SO! writer and ethnic studies scholar Marlén Rios Hernandez has noted in her work on racial and spatial shifts in early punk in 1970s Los Angeles, it is crucial to work on “delinking gentrification as exclusively spatial and analyzing it as also a sonic force of expulsion.” Having spent time researching the auralities of gentrification in DC, I understand it to be a process that silences poor and marginalized populations while amplifying the concerns of those privileged enough to have the ear of the DC Council and developers. Gentrification displaces musicians and music genres, while increasing tensions around music and noise in “public” space. More than these changes, though, gentrification changes the soundscape of the city.
My soundwalks focus on the Shaw neighborhood in the Northwest quadrant of DC, part of the fastest gentrifying zip code in the country. Before the explosion of development, Shaw was a cultural hub of black DC, only blocks away from the U Street Corridor, formerly known as Black Broadway. From Pearl Bailey to James Brown, prominent black entertainers frequented the neighborhood because they were unable to perform in or have accommodations in other areas of the city. As the neighborhood shifts and transforms, the soundscapes grow louder with new nightclubs and quieter due to increased reporting of noise violations. The neighborhood diversifies in terms of languages, increases in siren whoops, and new sounds appear, such as the beep of a dockless scooter. Shaw has seen a concomitant increase in property values, community gardens, and bars; a Whole Foods is set to open in the neighborhood by 2020.
[The recording here is of a soundscape at 7th street and Florida Avenue NW, a busy intersection at the north edge of Shaw. Recorded on a mid-September afternoon, you can hear go-go music (DC’s indigenous subgenre of funk), engines idling, and the whoop of a siren. In the past two months, this intersection has become a battleground for cultural erasure, as artists, activists, and councilmembers attempt to legitimize the go-go music that has been playing in the area since 1995.]
During the day, Shaw oscillates between a quiet neighborhood and a busy city space. Traffic, horns, and sirens are frequent, yet so are the sounds of children at recess and old men chatting outside on their stoops or outside of corner stores.
Conducting soundwalks as a black woman in this gentrifying neighborhood is a curious space to tarry in. I am in some ways an outsider as a non-resident, mindful of who and what I record at any given moment because part of what makes gentrification such a tense and terrifying process is the lack of control that residents (particularly renters) have regarding their futures, and often their presence too. I am also an insider, a black woman in this space where being a black woman is not (yet) anything out of the ordinary. In fact, as the months went on, more of my recordings feature me speaking to people on the street, some I had come to know and some still strangers to me.
One of my favorite interactions on a soundwalk came early on, in late February of 2018. I was running late for an interview, listening intently to what was going around me, when I walked past a black man, seemingly in his 30s, on a narrow sidewalk. The exchange went something like this:
Man: Whoa, whoa, why you running up on people?
Me: My bad, my bad!
Man: It’s okay. Hey sis, you know how to make grits?
Me: [laughing], Nah, I don’t know how to make grits.
Man: What about pancakes?
Me: Yeah, I can make some pancakes.
Man: Ayyyee, I’m tryna get some breakfast!!
Me: I don’t know about all that!
The exchange, not quite a catcall but not quite comfortable either, consistently faded in volume, because during the entire time we spoke, I continued to walk away from him. I was in a position of wanting to speak, because I know the politics of being an outsider in a gentrifying neighborhood and not greeting folks as you walk by. However, I also know the dangers of being a black woman walking alone, and so I negotiated a lighthearted exchange while making my way to my destination. My soundwalks, then, act as a sonic record of gentrifying space as well as my attempts to keep myself safe.
These moments also inform the contours of my dissertation project on hearing gentrification in DC. The larger project involves passive acoustic recording in the same neighborhood, a methodology that entails creating a large amount of short soundscape recordings over a long period of time. Understanding both my soundwalks and passive acoustic recording as black feminist method allows for the consideration of multiple sonic perspectives of the neighborhood, rather than one record. When once describing passive acoustic recording to a colleague at a digital humanities workshop, they celebrated the idea that I would be able to “objectively” hear what was occurring in the neighborhood, instead of relying only on pieced together accounts from community members.
However, just as black feminist thought amplifies my “tainted” knowledge, it also mutes the authoritative “objective” knowledge of a rooftop recorder. The sounds of the stationary recorder placed on a rooftop at 7th and Florida are as partial and positioned as the recordings of my footsteps as I move around the neighborhood. As I continue to walk, be it through the unfamiliarity of Mississippi or my hometown DC, I do so with the reassurance that what I hear is enough.
Featured Image: Shaw From Above, by author.
Allie Martin is a PhD Candidate at Indiana University in the Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology. Her dissertation project explores the musical and sonic dimensions of gentrification in Washington, DC, using a combination of ethnographic fieldwork, archival research, and soundscape recordings. Originally from the Washington, DC, metropolitan area, she received her BAs in music performance and audio production from American University.
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Radio Preservation Task Force Conference Information
Friday: Library of Congress, Washington, DC 9-5pm
Saturday: University of Maryland- College Park, 9-5pm
Schedule at: www.radiopreservation.org,
RPTF Federal Page (associate list linked at the left tab): https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-recording-preservation-plan/about-this-program/radio-preservation-task-force/
This conference is free and open to those in the academic/archival/curatorial/preservation community who would like to attend.
On Feb. 26 and 27, the Radio Preservation Task Force (RPTF) of the National Recording Preservation Board (NRPB) will hold the first national digital humanities media history conference at the Library of Congress on Friday and the University of Maryland on Saturday. The schedule can be found here. Eminent sound historian Michele Hilmes (Wisconsin) directs the conference program with Christopher Sterling (GWU), Chair of the National Recording Preservation Board. Distinguished historian of British broadcasting Paddy Scannell (Michigan) commences the conference as academic keynote. I write this update as national research director for the project.
The RPTF is tasked with preserving local, noncommercial, and otherwise unprocessed recordings stored at local radio stations, libraries, archives, and garages, and identifying strategies to process and facilitate engagement with these materials. Scholars, curators, sound preservationists, and archivists from more than 100 universities, museums and libraries will converge on Capitol Hill to discuss steps toward preserving radio’s aural history, including the many historical events captured by nontheatrical broadcasts such as news, town hall meetings, public forums, sporting events, and community outreach programs.
The conference is a culmination of roughly 18 months of initial work (largely built out of service labor by academic media historians), and contributes a new dimension to the emergent discipline of sound studies with its focus on the history of mass media storytelling, sound art, and for the first time, the nontheatrical sounds of radio history. Participants have been confirmed from NPR, the Smithsonian, Pacifica, the Library of Congress, and multiple academic research groups. National presses, blogs, and magazines will also be present to cover the RPTF. Our conference Twitter hashtag is #RPTF. Presenters will discuss the common goal of how to best assess, protect, preserve, and implement current and future findings, with reference to conventional history work, museum curation, classroom pedagogy, and material preservation actions. Tours for scholars and archivists began yesterday at NPR and the Library of Congress’s Packard Campus.
— Jennifer Waits (@SpinningIndie) February 25, 2016
The RPTF was formed thanks to a mandate by sound preservation pioneer and former NRPB Chair Sam Brylawski, practitioner keynote for the conference. The mandate was issued to identify what, where, and how many recordings might still be extant from radio history. Our early findings have been both compelling and disappointing. Over the RPTF’s first two aggregation cycles, the consortium turned up 350,000 recordings spread over roughly 350 participating archives. We expect that number to reach well over one million after our next search cycle, and for our affiliate archive list to increase to over 1000 with the inclusion of radio stations. Enormous numbers to be sure.
— nprchives (@nprchives) February 26, 2016
However, if one conducts a thought experiment about how many recordings might have aired between the mid-1920s and the mid-1980s, the number seems meager at best. I’m terrible at math, but if one begins with a low-ball assumption (very low for some markets) that there have been 25 stations per median market, producing daily content between 1925 and 1985, it’s not hyperbole to speculate that our findings, while not total or comprehensive, reveal that only a fraction of content has survived. Most materials have been incinerated or trashed thanks to “consolidation” of the media market after the Telecommunications Act of 1996. As stations changed hands, moved sites, and reorganized spaces, station archives were the first to go. Protecting and storing records, DATs, reel-to-reels, and internal documents, simply haven’t made sense for bottom lines. It’s safe to anecdotally contend that we’ve certainly already lost over 75% of radio history, and perhaps as high as 90%.
— NPR RAD (@npr_rad) February 25, 2016
Why is this important? The short answer is that radio has held a unique and important position in U.S. cultural history. Radio has been a media industry that developed a mature art form through storytelling and entertainment, while acting as a communications technology that has been utilized for community building and public discourse. After print media, the history of radio provides an unmatched reflection of the historical development, experience, and reception of cultural and political events. And as I’ve written previously at FlowTV, radio sometimes contains the only remaining historical expression of specific moments and social movements.
— Jennifer Waits (@SpinningIndie) February 25, 2016
As the task force has progressed since late 2014, it’s become conspicuously apparent to our consortium that a core goal of cultural research – increasing the visibility of marginalized histories – is well served by exhuming and studying the artifacts of radio history. By increasing the nontheatrical radio archive in particular, we increase and build continuity lines for histories that simply haven’t been told due to lack of primary sources. It’s very much a nuts and bolts, trial and error process. A lot of the project will culminate around a sprawling big data interface in 2017 – a collaboration between the RPTF, ARSC, and Indiana University. This potentially makes the RPTF the largest digital humanities project in Film and Media. And we plan for the interface to feature syllabi, lesson plans for all educational ages, and recordings that fall under the domain of “fair use.”
To make invisible histories audible turns out to consist of quite a few steps, and a careful study of the conditions necessary to conduct preservation work, which requires an understanding of the regulatory, historical, and organizational precedents and restrictions by which materials can be shared. In this way, the RPTF also represents an emergent research path for media and sound studies – dedication to the study and implementation of logistics for social recognition. Actively studying the contemporary political economy of how hidden information might come to be circulated, and devising strategies to protect and circulate voices for the first time, makes a strong contribution to social justice work.
— Monica De La Torre (@digitalxicanafm) February 26, 2016
There’s still much to learn about these processes, and that’s the purpose of the conference. We’re putting together experts in multiple spheres for the first time to begin a conversation about how a national infrastructure might be organized to address the mechanics that comprise the ethics we associate with the study of sound history. Participants will present historical research, while panels and workshops discuss everything from material sound preservation methods, to educational approaches to teaching sound in film and media classrooms, to contemporary curatorial methods regarding presentation of media art.
[Ed note: SO! Ed. in Chief J. Stoever will be speaking in as part of a Radio Pedagogy Workshop this afternoon at 1:30 (along with Special Ed. Neil Verma and SO! writers Amanda Keeler and Kathy Battles; other SO! fam in the house include Inés Casillas, Monica de la Torre, Alex Russo, Shawn VanCour, Suzanne Smith, Alejandra Bronfman, Christine Ehrick, Bill Kirkpatrick, Josh Sheppherd and Andrew Bottomley. It’s an SO! fam reunion over here!]
Among projects commencing immediately after the conference, the RPTF will be applying for preservation and curation grants with our partners at multiple universities, as well as with Pacifica Radio Archives, considered by many to be the great collection of postwar local and community radio history in the U.S. Since there are so many recordings to process, the RPTF has organized eight content-based caucuses in which faculty experts will be working with archivists to unite split collections, and determine which recordings are most in need of research and circulation. Caucuses will meet for the first time at the conference, as horizontally organized research units that will act as grant-writing bodies. The results of their preservation actions will be linked or shared at the RPTF big data site. Here is a list of the caucus chairs and their themes:
- Kathleen Battles, Oakland University – LGBT Radio
- Mary Beth Haralovich, University of Arizona – Gender and Feminist Radio
- Laura Schnitker, University of Maryland and Jennifer Waits, Radio Survivor – College, Community, and Educational Radio
- Sonja Williams, Howard University – African American and Civil Rights Radio
- Jon Nathan Anderson, CUNY-Brooklyn – Labor Radio
- Michael Stamm, Michigan State – Radio Journalism
- Inés Casillas, UC-Santa Barbara – Spanish Language and Bilingual Radio
- David Jenemann, University of Vermont – Sports Radio
In collaboration with the National Recording Preservation Foundation, the RPTF has already distributed its first grant: to the Lily Library at Indiana University to digitally process, preserve, and distribute the complete Orson Welles radio broadcasts. This will be the first time these recordings — which are all now in the public domain — have been made available in completion. We expect to build a special website with these materials sometime in 2017.
— Jane Gilvin (@jg88354) February 26, 2016
Josh Shepperd is Assistant Professor of Media Studies at Catholic University in Washington D.C. He teaches courses related to critical, conceptual, and methodological approaches to media studies. He is also actively involved in digital humanities media preservation, and currently serve as the National Research Director of the Radio Preservation Task Force for theNational Recording Preservation Board of the Library of Congress.
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The New Wave: On Radio Arts in the UK–Magz Hall
Tuning Into the “Happy Am I” Preacher: Researching the Radio Career of Elder Lightfoot Solomon Michaux
Welcome to the second installment of our Thursday series spotlighting endangered radio archives across the United States, promoting the work of the Radio Preservation Task Force (RPTF), which is part of the National Recording Reservation Plan of the Library of Congress. Our series kicked off two weeks ago with this post by Josh Garrett-Davis exploring both the history of Native American radio and new ways of thinking about it, and the series will conclude with a piece next week by the University of Michigan’s Derek Vaillant about radio recordings in immediate need of preservation in Detroit.
Between possible archives and endangered ones, we have an article about an archive that has begun to speak after long years of silence. Below, Professor Suzanne Smith of George Mason University gives us a preview of her research into a radio evangelist who was among the most prominent African Americans of his day, yet has been largely forgotten. Smith’s fascinating work not only revisits Elder Michaux as a historical figure, but also gives us a clear sense of how a project in radio reservation relies not only on institutional resources, but also on personal outreach. As many of us who are part of the preservation project are learning, media history lives on in storage units, basements and lockers, preserved by collectors, churches and communities that only individual connections can truly reach.
— Special Editor Neil Verma
In October 1934, the Washington Post published a feature about Elder Lightfoot Solomon Michaux in which it boldly declared that the “radio evangelist extraordinary, is the best known colored man in the United States today.” At the time, Elder Michaux, known as the “Happy Am I” Preacher, had a national radio show on the CBS network that broadcast his ministry of happiness and holiness to over twenty-five million listeners each week.
Like many popular evangelists of his era, Elder Michaux promoted his image as one of God’s prophets, presciently envisioning that radio could revolutionize the purview of modern evangelicalism. Michaux first used portable radio equipment to broadcast his holiness revivals in the mid to late 1920s in his hometown of Newport News and these religious programs were among the first of their kind in the United States. By 1929, Michaux moved to Washington, D.C. in the hopes of expanding his mission.
As an African American, Michaux initially had difficulty convincing local D.C. radio outlets to put him on the air. Eventually, he persuaded James S. Vance, local owner of WJSV, to broadcast his weekly revivals. When the CBS network bought WJSV in 1932, the budding evangelist achieved a national audience in the millions.
The key to Michaux’s success was his ability to combine his preaching with snappy, upbeat gospel songs that reminded listeners that a holy life leads to a happy life, a message that resonated with Americans navigating the economic trials of the Great Depression. By the late 1930s, the BBC invited Michaux to broadcast his program on its network and listeners around the globe soon began to tune into his WJSV broadcasts in via shortwave hookup. These opportunities allowed the charismatic preacher to reach a vast international radio audience that extended from Europe to Africa, South America, and the Caribbean. That Michaux’s broadcasts, like his story, have disappeared from radio history has impoverished our sense of the role of race in the soundscape of the era.
My current book project examines Michaux’s extraordinary life and career as a radio evangelist. For this post, I want to explain both Michaux’s significance to the history of religious radio as well as African American history; and how my research has led me to join the Radio Preservation Task Force in an effort to preserve the surviving recordings this important figure, but understudied, figure.
In spite of his many accomplishments, Elder Michaux has been largely overlooked in the histories of religious radio and African American religion. Scholarship on religious radio from the 1920s and 1930s tends to focus on figures such as Father Charles Coughlin and Aimee Semple McPherson with only passing mention of African American preachers such as Michaux. In the history of African American religion in the 1930s, Michaux tends to be overshadowed by scholarship on other major figures such as Father Divine and his Peace Mission Movement and Sweet Daddy Grace and his United House of Prayer. Although Michaux’s ministry was often categorized as a religious cult in the popular press of the time, his Gospel Spreading Radio Church of God was firmly a part of the black Holiness movement and continues to have ten active congregations today.
Throughout his career, which began in the late 1920s and extended until his death in 1968, Elder Michaux defied the odds and challenged boundaries of race, theology and politics to become one of the most successful religious leaders and media celebrities of his time. As early as 1926, Michaux, whose Holiness ministry openly welcomed all races, was arrested for baptizing whites and blacks together. Once established in Washington, D.C., Michaux led annual mass baptisms in the Potomac River and later at Griffith Stadium that drew tens of thousands of followers. At the height of his fame, from the 1930s through the 1950s, Michaux was regularly invited to the White House to consult with Presidents Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower about the racial issues of the day. By the early 1960s, Michaux engaged in public debates with both Martin Luther King Jr. and Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam, about the direction of the civil rights struggle.
My book argues that Elder Lightfoot Solomon Michaux is critical to our understanding of how religious leaders used the mass medium of radio to literally “sell” evangelical faith movements in modern America. Elder Michaux was the first to fully develop the concept of a “Radio Church,” which offered official membership to followers and created one of the first, if not the first, virtual religious communities in modern America. A true evangelist, Michaux sought to reach believers and potential converts wherever they were and knew that the radio could facilitate his mission in revolutionary ways. In an interview in 1938, Michaux explained, “I wanted to give people religion over the air so they might have it at home. Then they couldn’t have an excuse for not going to church. They couldn’t say that they were tired or didn’t have the right clothes. They could get God and his teachings right in their own parlor.” Most significantly, Michaux’s entrepreneurial skill at marketing his Gospel Spreading Church of God through the radio was simultaneously in service to his race and racially transgressive in ways that complicate our understanding of how modern religious movements navigated Jim Crow segregation.
So how can we actually give an account of Michaux’s contributions? Researching radio programming from the 1920s and 1930s presents a number of challenges for any historian because recordings of broadcasts from this period are rare. Fortunately, Elder Michaux began his career on WJSV, one of the most powerful stations in Washington in the 1930s (which became WTOP, the most popular local news radio station in Washington, D.C. today). The first director of WJSV under CBS ownership was Harry Butcher, who had the foresight in September 1939 to record an entire day of programming, which is remarkable considering this was accomplished without the use of magnetic recording tape. Although this collection does not include Elder Michaux’s program, it is a valuable audio snapshot of the radio era in which he thrived.
My quest to locate recordings of Elder Michaux’s broadcast has led me to destinations as far away as the BBC archives in London, which houses two recordings of Michaux’s first British broadcasts; and as close as the main branch of the current Gospel Spreading Church of God here in Washington.
In the past two years, I have also developed meaningful relationships with congregants of the church, who have begun to be willing to share their private archive of recordings. During one oral history interview, one church member, who is 92-years old, gave me a reel-to-reel tape from Elder Michaux’s funeral service, which was broadcast in October 1968. Another elder member from Newport News sent me recordings of Michaux preaching at Lorton Prison in Lorton, Virginia in the 1950s. Most significantly, I recently met the current sound engineer at the church, who has been a member since the 1940s and has a large archive of reel-to-reel tapes of Michaux’s radio broadcasts from the 1950s and 1960s. At the height of his fame in the early 1930s, Elder Michaux broadcast his religious services daily and never missed a week of broadcasting until his death in 1968. The church has only kept a fraction of these broadcasts. Nevertheless, a significant number of them exist and are housed in the church’s private storage. I am currently trying to assess the scope of the church’s collection, which has involved reaching out to church members in Philadelphia, New York City, and Newport News, Virginia. I am also trying to investigate grants that might support my efforts to digitize the tapes as soon as possible since they are at risk of deterioration in the church storage facilities.
My research on Elder Lightfoot Solomon Michaux’s career has convinced me that more work needs to be done to pursue the preservation of African American religious radio broadcasts in general. The work of the Radio Preservation Task Force can support this mission, but it will also involve grassroots outreach to established African American churches. Many of these churches regularly broadcast their services and may have their own private archives of recordings that can offer us an invaluable glimpse at the aural history of African American religious practices in the twentieth century.
Moreover, through my ongoing relationships with the congregants of Elder Michaux’s Gospel Spreading Church of God, I have developed a deeper appreciation for the importance of personal outreach to African American religious communities in the service of preserving the history of religious radio. The efforts of the Radio Preservation Task Force are critically important in terms of identifying existing institutional archives, but only through individual connections with these vital, but often overlooked minority communities, will we be able to discover and preserve these treasures of our radio past.
Suzanne E. Smith is Professor of History in the Department of History and Art History at George Mason University. She is the author of Dancing in the Street: Motown and the Cultural Politics of Detroit (Harvard University Press, 1999) and To Serve the Living: Funeral Directors and the African American Way of Death (Belknap Press, 2010). She is currently working on her third book, tentatively titled The ‘Happy Am I’ Preacher: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Elder Lightfoot Solomon Michaux.
All images courtesy of the author.
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Pentecostal Song, Sound, and Authentic Voices — Ashon Crawley
Sounding Out! Podcast Episode #5: Sound and Spirit on the Highway — David B. Greenberg
Editor’s Note: Here’s installment #3 of Sounding Out!‘s blog forum on gender and voice! Last week I talked about what it meant to have people call me, a woman of color, “loud.” The week before that we hosted Christine Ehrick‘s selections from her forthcoming book; she introduced us to the idea of the gendered soundscape, which she uses in her analysis on women’s radio speech from the 1930s to the 1950s. In the next few weeks we’ll have A.O. Roberts with synthesized voices and gender, Art Blake with his reflections on how his experience shifting his voice from feminine to masculine as a transgender man intersects with his work on John Cage, and lastly Robin James with an analysis of how ideas of what women should sound like have roots in Greek philosophy.
This week regular writer Regina Bradley puts the soundtrack of Scandal in conversation with the agency of the show’s protagonist, a black woman in manages crises for a living. So, lean in and close your eyes, but keep your ears open for any spies creeping in. –Liana M. Silva, Managing Editor
9:00 pm (Eastern). The quick shutter of an invisible camera calls the attention of the viewers to Scandal. The clicking re-emphasizes the show’s title, bringing to mind paparazzi and their capturing of scandalous behavior. The shuttering also signifies the literal and sonic fast paced timing of Shonda Rhimes’ most popular ABC prime time show: quickened plots, fast talks, and blink-and-you’ll-miss-something-important visual details. Scandal’s central character, Washington D.C. crisis manager Olivia Pope (portrayed by Kerry Washington), is known mostly for her sharp professional outfits and no-nonsense approach to work. In Olivia, Rhimes has created a black female character that is perfectly flawed, a symbol of both the potential power and victimization of black women. Olivia Pope is neither just the savior nor is she solely a victim.
Scandal evokes intense debate about race and power because of its visual politics, but rarely is Scandal’s scoring prominent in those discussions. The soundtrack acts as an indicator of contemporary black women’s agency in popular culture. As both Rhimes and Scandal music director Alexandra Patsavas reveal, Scandal’s ‘vintage’ soundtrack is an opportunity to buoy the plot and add a unique alternative perspective to the action taking place on the show. The soundtrack’s nods to yesteryear artists – including Stevie Wonder, The Ohio Players, The O’Jays, Sam Cooke, Earth, Wind, and Fire, and Nina Simone sonically narrate additional layers of agency and identity on the show. Are these tracks giving Olivia a voice? What does Scandal’s scoring suggest about race, place, and power scripts for black women in contemporary popular culture?
Scandal takes place in Washington D.C., a location full of physical and sonic significance in national lore and the black popular imagination. In a national narrative D.C. is the epicenter of political agency, power, and the visibility of whiteness as a form of power. It is America’s city. Yet D.C. in the black imagination is the Chocolate City, a space that serves as a living archive of black folks’ attempts to intervene into a national narrative that would rather overlook the contributions of black bodies and culture. Washington, D.C. is the home of the Moorland-Springarn Research Center and multiple black cultural archives, Howard University and its place as the black mecca of Black Greek Letter Organizations, GoGo Music, and (embattled) social-political policies and endeavors for black people. It is a site of black identity that goes much farther than the place where everyone saw how a certain somebody had an American Dream. On the other hand, the increasing gentrification of the city raises questions of whether or not the nickname “Chocolate City” is applicable.Thus, Washington, D.C. exists at the crux of the romanticization of Americanness as a form of worldly power and the reality that (white) Americanness does not include all Americans.
Yet Washington D.C. as a site of complex and rich black experiences does not alone buoy Scandal’s use of Washington, D.C. as a site where a black woman “handles” the hustle and bustle of American power and its upheaval. This type of work takes place in the scoring, particularly because the show is not culturally recognizable as a “black show.” Its inherent blackness is sonic, using black music to revisit tropes of power and racial politics.
One possible and albeit slightly heavy handed approach for thinking through Scandal’s leaning on funk and soul music is to point out how the show uses black cultural forms to invoke power. For example, soul songs like Otis Redding’s “Mr. Pitiful,” Edwin Starr’s “War,” and Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everyday People” are not only used to accentuate the action in a scene but the possibility of Olivia as a power figure. The use of black men’s voices as they yell, scream, and moan sonically allude to power as a masculine concept. Yet Olivia’s connection to these songs signifies her potential to wield power in unorthodox ways not associated with black women. For example, the crescendo of music before Olivia delivers a demand to her team sets up her agency as a political figure. Her blackness is amplified and earmarked by the music. This pairing amplifies the question of race and power in a useful way. The dominantly black musical script offers the critique and engagement with Olivia Pope’s blackness that many viewers and critics complain are lacking. (See the brilliant synopsis presented by Dr. Jessica Marie Johnson about Shonda Rhimes’ portrayal of black women and popular culture that took place at Duke University last month.)
Scandal serves vintage musical scoring as a double entendre: the sound of black music from previous eras evokes ‘vintage’ scripts of race, gender, and power from that era that seep into this present moment. Scandal’s use of soul, funk, and disco sonically allude to larger questions lingering from the Civil Rights Movement: integration as an equalizer of power and privilege, the hypermasculinity of the Civil Rights Era, its cultural producers, and the immediate aftermath of these scripts on (black) American society in the late 1960s and 1970s. We frequently annotate black agency through the men creating (singing?) the music. This is equally true for the black cultural productions of the era, as they aesthetically supplemented the understanding that black folks mattering connected to the uplift and healthy presence of black men. Even with soul and funk music, which stand as antithetical responses to the problematic expectations of classist respectability politics, black women’s agency was associated with the sexual, emotional, or physical agency of black men.
The blackness and “maleness” of the funk and soul used in Scandal’s score subverts the power that Olivia Pope exerts in her dealings with her clients, her lovers, and team. For example, in season two Olivia and President Fitz’s sex tape is threatened to be leaked to the public. It is important to note that the tape is an audio tape, suggestively alluding the absence of physical and visual rhetoric to address the interracial relationship. As Olivia gives the word to leak the sex tape, The Ohio Players’ track “Love Rollercoaster” begins to play. It sonically stabilizes Olivia’s decision to “leak” her sexuality as a power move while also leaving room to question the deeper implications of how the viewer navigates her blackness and womanhood using physical, aural, and cultural markers of sexuality. Using male funk and soul artists allows Pope to ‘codeswitch’ between cultural scripts of power as masculine and womanhood as opposite power. It amplifies her authority and agency while signifying that her physical appearance and voice may not have the ability to confer her worth to the audience.
This tug-and-pull of power and agency is most amplified in Olivia Pope’s dealings with her father Rowan Pope, played by Joe Morton (who plays the HELL out of this role, by the way). Rowan Pope is a literal and figurative double agent: He is Elijah Pope, a curator of antiquities at the Smithsonian, and Rowan Pope, head of the top secret and lethal U.S. organization called B613. His fragmented life speaks to the constant negotiation of “safe” black masculinity. He also embodies the anxieties about black men as violent and bloodthirsty. Rowan/Elijah encapsulates all of the swagger and vitriol associated with conceptualizations of black power and black men from the Black Liberation Era. He is cold and calculating, and he complicates the rhetoric of racial uplift and expected from the Civil Rights/Black Power movements. He speaks in hardened, hushed tones with conviction, while snarling his words with spite for white authority. Not to mention, his is the character that brings up race overtly in the show.
This balance between hushed tones and snarled words comes through in Rowan’s early interaction with Olivia during Scandal’s season three premiere. Olivia, on the run because her name is leaked as the President’s mistress, is recovered by her father and told to flee the country. Rowan is not a doting and concerned father in this scene. Rather, he is disappointed by her lack of prowess and failure to aspire to higher forms of power and authority than “first lady.” Rowan recognizes there is no power in being the wife of the President, especially as a black woman, and he criticizes her for not following the first rule of black folks’ survival: “You need to be twice as good to get half of what they have.” “They” is a collective noun for white folks, often spoken behind closed doors as a means to inspire young black folks to do better. Rowan demands she state out loud what they need to be twice of. Olivia’s voice cracks and is breathless as she whispers “twice as good to get half of what they have.” Rowan exaggerates a “yes” and dismisses Olivia as “mediocre.” It is a painful and powerful scene where multiple dichotomies take place: a father scolding his daughter, a black man undermining black women’s agency, and the fear/anxiety about black women’s sexuality as a sign of weakness and lacking privilege. The wavering volume of Olivia’s voice signifies her quickly plummeting ability to voice her power. Olivia’s loss of words amplifies Rowans’ own authority, embodied in his voice when he adamantly declares “I am the hell and the high water!” No soundtrack can save her here.
However, Rowan does have human moments, reaching out to his estranged daughter Olivia with wine and music, specifically Stevie Wonder. Her record collection is filled with Stevie Wonder. It is important that she has a record collection instead of a collection of CDs or playlist. Not only does this detail speak to the trope of “vintage” that runs through the show but also gives credence to how Olivia establishes her power. Her major moments are annotated by Stevie Wonder: when her name is leaked “Higher Ground” plays in the background. When she is kidnapped at the end of the episode for past December’s Winter finale “Don’t You Worry Bout a Thing” takes center stage. Again, the sounds of a man, her father in this instance, are the soundtrack to her work. The choice of music subverts the gender balance of power. Through male artists, the show gives Olivia her authority.
The most prominent sonic signifier is the instrumental accompaniment from the artist The Album Leaf titled “The Light.” Also known as Olivia and President Fitz’s “song,” the track plays each time the two characters interact and share intimacy (physical and otherwise).
Notes from what sounds like an electric piano playing a scale are short and sweet to the ear. The track lends its innocence and vulnerability to Olivia and Fitz’s affair and offers a possibility that their love for each other can be read as star-crossed instead of in bad taste.
Scott Poulson-Bryant offered an intriguing read on his Facebook page on “The Light” as an allusion to the Civil Rights’ theme song “We Shall Overcome.” This reading of “The Light” as the context to Olivia and Fitz’s relationship makes room to complicate how Olivia’s agency as a black woman is historically and politically bound to women before–she alludes to her similarity to Sally Hemmings in one episode. Olivia’s Sally Hemmings reference uses Hemmings as the genesis point for understanding the complexity of Olivia’s sexual encounters as well as how to navigate black women’s sexual agency – and pleasure – in popular spaces. Sally Hemmings’ relationship to President Thomas Jefferson lends historical credence to Olivia and Fitz’s Scandal but also signifies the gray area of historical memory, cultural expectations, and consent as a form of power for African American women. “The Light” instrumental is not only a sonic accompaniment of Olivia as she relates to Fitz but her own struggles to recognize and balance her public and personal agency.
The soundtrack of Scandal gives a voice to not just Olivia’s authority in a place where race and power are intertwined but also a voice on national television to how whiteness and political power operate. Scandal’s controversial protagonist/anti-hero Olivia Pope is often central to recent discussions of race, gender, and popular culture. But the soundtrack to the show asks viewers to not just watch closely but also listen closely. Tune out and you might miss something.
Regina Bradley recently completed her PhD at Florida State University in African American Literature. Her dissertation is titled “Race to Post: White Hegemonic Capitalism and Black Empowerment in 21st Century Black Popular Culture and Literature.” She is a regular writer for Sounding Out!
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