In today’s episode, we look at how sound and noise are used as tactics of protest and how practitioners are using environmental soundscapes to protest against racism and police brutality.
Today, I speak with two people involved in sound studies who believe sound is an element of resistance. They explain why — in our hyper-visualized age of Instagram-perfect photos, sound is so compelling and why soundscapes can help to amplify voices of resistance.
Nimalan Yoganathan is a PhD candidate at Concordia University. He studies protest tactics, and he looks at how different sound practitioners have contributed to anti-racist movements. I also spoke with Norman W. Long, a born-and-raised resident of the south side of Chicago. Norman is a sound artist, designer and composer who works to document and record the everyday reality of his community. He has graduate degrees in landscape architecture (from Cornell University) and in Fine Arts (from the San Francisco Art Institute).
Both our guests talk about how important it is to listen to the sounds around us as a way to critically engage with our communities, to help bridge our deep divides and to pay attention to the forces of power in our environment. They say anyone can learn to listen deeply, even children.
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THIS IS AN auto generated, UNEDITED VERSION OF THE TRANSCRIPT
VINITA: From the Conversation, This is Don’t Call Me Resilient …I’m Vinita Srivastava.
PULLQUOTE - NORMAN
I wanted to document what was going on here in my community on the south side because I want to make this community visible. I wanted to make it real for listeners to hear that black and brown communities are complex communities.
VINITA: When you think of a protest, one that fills the streets… do you remember what you saw? Can you close your eyes and remember the sounds that surrounded you?
For me, sound has always resonated— it’s sometimes what I remember, long after the streets are empty and quiet again. Maybe it’s the sound of a chant No Justice No Peace… or I can’t Breathe… at a Black Lives Matter protest. Or a theatre shaking from feet stomping after a speech by a brown queer rights activist. I can still hear that. l also remember the sounds of Toronto police horses clopping on concrete during a 92 police brutality protest.
Everyday sounds are important too. The normal sounds of a Saturday: music from a fruit stall, neighbours yelling hey to each other, the clattering of the Q train in Brooklyn: These sounds can define a neighbourhood. And if we don’t pay attention to them, as life changes, sounds can disappear.
Today, I’m speaking with two people involved in sound studies. They believe sound is an element of resistance. And they explain why - in our hyper-visualized age of Instagram-perfect photos, sound is so compelling…
Today’s is a different kind of episode—instead of our usual interview style, we’re going to let the sound guide us.
These are the sounds of anti-Trump protests from Los Angeles and Louisville, Kentucky in 2017. The tracks are hosted on the Cities and Memory project.
SOUNDS FROM “No KKK No Trump..”
Nimalan we're used to the visually striking images. if you think of news coverage, we often have a newscaster speaking over the sound, there might be protests in the background, but that's not highlighted. The voice of the reporter is what's foregrounded. And then occasionally they might be interviewing protesters. But there's never a focus on what does the environment sound like there.
Nimalan And when we don't listen to that, I feel that we're missing information
**ADD TRACK HERE**
meaning that is very fruitful for starting more discussions about how racism affects communities.
((WTO protest w police sound))
how is racism not simply a visual phenomenon but an acoustic one as well? How are spaces policed not only physically but sonically as well?
((WTO protest w police sound))
VINITA: That was Nimalan Yoganathan, a PhD candidate at Concordia University… AND IN THE BACKGROUND A TRACK BY CHRISTOPHER DELAURENTI FROM A 1999 WTO PROTEST.
He studies protest tactics, and he looks at how sound practitioners have contributed to anti-racist movements. Some of what he explores are the sounds of protest but he’s also fascinated by the idea of witnessing and recording everyday life as a form of resistance.
VINITA: I also spoke with Norman Long, a born-and-raised resident of the south side of Chicago. Norman is a sound artist, designer and composer
who works to document and record the everyday reality of his community. He has graduate degrees in landscape architecture from Cornell University and in Fine Arts from the San Francisco Art Institute.
Norman uses his audio clips and music to create soundscapes. **ID’S The SOUNDSCAPE HERE THIS IS A TRACK BY NORMAN CALLED BLACK SPACE IN WINTER* ..
And he takes people around the south side on sound walks to teach them how to truly listen to the community. He says that documenting the sound around him is a direct action against racism’s erasure of communities of colour.
Norman [00:15:09]You're writing yourself into history. You're taking your position as an artist or as a recorder seriously and putting it in the conversation yourself, not waiting for other institutions or other people to do it for you for instance, a reporter, come to your community and report about it.
Norman I wanted to. document what was going on here in my community on the south side. Because I want to make the sound visible or I want to make this community visible. I wanted to make it real and I wanted to dive in deep for listeners to hear that that black and brown communities are complex communities.
These soundscapes, just like landscapes, are a complex network of services, of relationships, of ecologies. And to make it just similar as and as complex as other non-Black communities as well, because here on Chicago, still pretty much a segregated city. And a lot of people were taught like white folks and non blacks where they were saying: well, don't go to the south side. It's dangerous. There’s nothing over there [56.4s]
((Bring up Norman’s sound here for a few seconds))
Nimalan I was studying people like Mbanna Kantako out of Springfield, Illinois, in the eighties, ((MBANA KANTACO’S SOUND IN HERE)) He started recording soundscapes of his neighbourhood in the John Hay Project Housing complex. And so he would he would gather field recordings, whether it be sounds of the police, police interventions, testimonies from neighbours talking about police brutality.
((SOUND FROM KANTACO,))
And then he would incorporate all that into his radio shows.
he would often do these remixes Which I kind of, listen to it as a form of soundscape composition, where he's incorporating these field recordings and conveying the message right. And often in a very subversive way. So he would like mix roots reggae music with interviews with people and make these political statements.
Nimalan It's important to think about how listening can be a radical act,
just his mere presence as a witness to the soundscapes around him and, and he's legally blind as well. So I think that's an a good example of how his listening is very subversive. Because, while the police are using visual surveillance, he's creating his own kind of aural counter to the counter surveillance. And broadcasting this live.
Vinita: That was sound of Mbanna Kantako from NPR…(and from YouTube)
((Fit the Descriptioin by Chris DeLaurenti here))
Vinita: Right now you’re listening to a soundscape called ‘Fit the Description.’ produced by Christopher DeLaurenti a white composer, and lecturer at John Hopkins University. It was made from recordings of the protests in Ferguson, Missouri after police murdered a young Black man, Michael Brown, in 2014.
((Fit the Descriptioin by Chris DeLaurenti here))
The piece was commissioned by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Chris collected sounds from social media to try and disrupt the mainstream version of news for his primarily white audiences.
He calls it a protest symphony.
((Fit the Descriptioin by Chris DeLaurenti here))
VInita: You can read more about Chris work and the ethics of sound gathering and curation in our show notes.
(SOUND FROM CHRIS FROM FERGUSON, PART FROM FUNERAL?))
((Fit the Descriptioin by Chris DeLaurenti here))
Everyday life: EARWITNESS /why is this important?
VINITA: Many people wrote about the quiet of life during the pandemic. But Norman has a different story to tell. He serves as an earwitness in his community and he has spent a lot of time during the pandemic recording the changes in sound in his environment.
**THIS IS A TRACK HE RECORDED DURING LOCKDOWN TO SHARE INFORMATION ABOUT HIS COMMUNITY.**
Norman over the last three years with tracking for me, it was tracking recording, like, okay, what is this pandemic on the Southeast side sound like?
Well, they're still factories. the supply chain still running.we have a rail yard. So a rail traffic is still going., there's an arterial street going by. So people are still going to work. There is a police station, so police are still policing. we still have this noise. There's still this hum. So there's not so much of a hush. There's a hum that goes on here that, would not be the same in for instance, a, center of the city, like downtown, where there will be quietness.
BRING SOUND UP AND LET IT BREATHE
Norman so when we were talking about how communities change. From,, particularly unfair, housing, and real estate practices to issues like the pollution. Or disinvestment, where there is no money coming in There's no different people coming in there's people leaving and there's businesses leaving And citizens leaving. So how does that affect the soundscape?
Norman and when you think about it, beyond for instance, the capitalistic view on, community development. But if you think about it and just replace that with an awareness of just really diving deep into, what your community is, and just think about it as more of like, think about listening and walking and recording as caring. And, archiving and, mapping in that sense that it's not in service of, some developer somewhere. So not in service of even the larger city or the municipality or anything that, it's sourced from the community themselves.
((Black Space in Winter: Norman’s sound up, then fade down when Nimalan starts speaking))
NIMALAN I've written about the Palestinian electronic musician Muqata’a, who often field records. He gathers recordings around Ramallah in the West Bank. And, whether it be markets or the sounds of checkpoints or just daily life under occupation.
And so for him, um, you know, once again, just walking around and listening and recording, uh, is very important. He talks about recording especially and incorporating classic Arabic music, he talks about the music that his grandparents listened to and how when their when their house was was seized from them, they lost all their records. And so he uses music and sampling sound as an archiving practise, it's a way to keep the Palestinian culture alive.
((MUQATA SOUND UP HERE AGAIN))
QUIET/NON-VOICE SOUNDS OF PROTEST
- Refusal + Resistance
VINITA: Another musician closer to home who has been dealing with massive changes in his community is Mustafa the Poet.
Mustafa was on the Juno Awards the night before our recording.
accepting an award for best alternative album.
At the awards show, Mustafa stood on stage wearing a cream caftan and over that a bullet proof vest with the word POET in capital letters across his chest. It’s a comment about the death and violence from guns around him.
The 25 year old singer/songwriter is the first Black artist to win this award. He’s from Toronto’s Regent Park, the first public housing project in Canada—which has been aggressively bulldozed and gentrified over the last decade.
THERE WAS REGENT PARK BLOG TO SOUND HERE
Here’s his acceptance speech as recorded by CBC:
((SPEECH SOUND IN HERE from CBC))
MUSTAFA: “I wrote a record on loss of friends in regent park and I had to do it, because as the were breaking down my community the only people who were going to be able to document the loss of my friends, were the people that knew them.”
Vinita: During his performance, black and white photos of his lost community flashed on the stage behind him as he sang ‘Stay Alive’— a beautiful song about the friends he’d lost to violence in Regent Park. Mustafa invited some of his friends to join him on stage and they sang the song together.
((SOUND: ‘Stay Alive’, Junos version))
Nimalan Resistance can be loud and quiet, right? And sometimes both simultaneously.
Nimalan If we think about silence, when we think about, for instance, the civil rights movement in the sixties, we have this notion of, yes, very civil, very quiet, very respectful, following a certain degree of decorum.but there's a whole mythology around that. And while, yes, it might appear to be more silent than, say, more recent Black Lives Matter protests, there was a lot of kind of radical forms of of sounding taking place. we can think about the radical silence, there's a there's an author, Tina Campt in her book Listening, listening to images. She talks about the mug shots of Freedom Riders, Who protested at lunch counters and buses In the Jim Crow South. And she has this idea of, llistening to these pictures, listening to the lower frequencies in these pictures, like the hums and the politics of refusal that these people engage with, in, for instance, mug shots, just by subtly grinning in the in the mug shot, like in defiance. And it's refusing this negation and silencing imposed on them by the state, by the police. And so just these quiet acts are very radical.
((Norman’s track plays here))
Norman [01:01:21]I was just thinking about my own particular experiences, particularly with going to grad school and doing sound work and and having these negative experiences . So it was like people were completely confused because a lot of the work I was doing at, the time specifically, was these sort of like glitchy sounds that are silent sounds.
((Norman’s SOUND HERE))
And I think there was an expectation that I was supposed to be more vocal or more entertaining or more whatever it was as a person of colour, doing sound work that I should be doing something that's louder. So I think that it's extremely important that the range of protests, the range of frequency, the range of amplitude that people of colour have in protests or any expression is very important. And I was just thinking about the soundscape more like being a silent protest, being in like a Woolworth's in 1955 or something like that. A counter that was probably was very loud. It was the loudness of everybody else around them, I imagine, and in still certain ways. the same way, certain people of color go into white spaces and they can be silent. and all of a sudden there's all this noise going around them.
Nimalan I've written about moving beyond everyday gestures. There is also, the NFL players Marshawn Lynch and then Malcolm Jenkins later on, who built on the practise of Marshawn Lynch. But he for a couple of years, engaged in this like refusal to speak to the media. And he did this kind of performative, silent silence where he refused to answer questions and he would sit in press briefings.And just sit quietly or make these comments like these vague responses that confused reporters. And so what's interesting about that is that people often assumed that he was just being kind of ridiculous and it wasn't a serious form of protest. But, some people have written about how this was actually very intentional. he's essentially like a performance artist, right, where he was using his intentional unvoicing. So this is a way where he can control his narrative by refusing to speak, refusing to even engage.
((MARSHAWN LYNCH AUDIO from ESPN))
So we often havea lot of talk about, amplifying voices and giving a voice to people, which is, important, but also by people intentionally removing their voice from the discourse, it can be powerful as well. And so that's an example of refusal and silence, which I find can be, as powerful as loud, noisy agitation.
Nimalan if we look at noise first, we often think about, the loud sounds of protest, of course. But one idea I'm interested in is this idea of moving away from the centrality of the voice, yes, the voice is very important and these testimonies are critical. But what about the ambient sound? What about the sonic gestures that are happening around the voice, around the the demands that are being vocalised? how are these soundscapes interrupted?
((BRING UP SOUND OF IDLE NO MORE PROTESTS))
Nimalan one one good example would be the Idle No More Round dances that occupied shopping centres around Canada and the United States, in 2012 - 2013 over Christmastime. And so, we can imagine what the Christmas time soundscape sounds like? And in shopping centres. And so when these indigenous protesters, they took overthe central meeting place of malls and engaged with these massive round dances with drumming and singing that echoed throughout the building. And, in many cases, literally shook the building and interrupted the architecture. It sends a strong statement, a kind of interruption, of capitalism, of the flow of commercial goods, interrupting, making a statement about the stolen land that these commercial centres are built on. And so it was a very powerful message, sent sonically and not only visually.
((BRING UP SOUND OF IDLE NO MORE PROTESTS))
Vinita: That was sound from a 2012 Idle No More Protest gathered by Paula Kirman.
Deep Listening + Take a breath
Norman and Nimalan talk about how important it is to listen to the sounds around us…
as a way to critically engage with our communities.
It’s a one method we can use to pay attention to the forces of power in our environment. And they say anyone can learn to listen deeply, even children.
((NORMAN SOUND, QUIETER, SOUND WALK. Washington Park))
Nimalan something that I feel hopeful about is that,, when I first started studying electroacoustic music as an undergrad, I remember that's when I first discovered Sound Walking. And I remember helping the late Andra McCartney who was a very important Canadian soundscape scholar. And,, I would help her lead sound walks with, especially elementary school students, And I remember the curiosity, but also the attention of children, and their engagement with the soundscape that many adults have trouble doing. in these sound walks, we would often, have discussions and ask kids about, what they heard, what they didn't hear, what was being masked, what was more prominent sounds. And that often leads to, you know, not overtly political conversations, but it starts developing this critical thinking about what is happening in your environment. even if it's a very basic level, like, why are there more cars? Sometimes I'll take sound walks with my seven year old son and we both have these discussions about like, why are there more of these sounds and less of these sounds and how are they changing? what is pleasant, what is unpleasant? And so it it helps you engage. I don't think someone has to be active organiser or protester to better engage with their environment and engage with racism, engage with gentrification, engage with the soundscapes of police brutality or just everyday policing,, I think it's just another very important tool that,, is not difficult to do, we all walk, you know, people take walks outside but we often forget to listen, right? I think it is it has a lot of potential.
Vinita: This track we’ve been listening to is called Washington Park Mix 2016 and it’s something Norman created to document Black and brown life on Chicago’s south side where he invites both insiders and outsiders to follow him on guided soundwalks.
Norman I think It puts them in a mindset of like you're not being a voyeur or some sort of explorer or something like that? What I'm trying to do for everybody in the group is to grab people where they are in this place. So to have that mindset of, okay, you're not just here to like, Ooh, look at this cool place. I've never been here before. And, you know, look at that. my intention is not for people to have that experience. It's not there to guide people through a collection of sounds, and then they go back and forget about it. I give them a briefing on what the community is they're going. that they're walking in and why this particular space is important. I've done this many times at Washington Park, which is, in the middle of a black community at a huge, huge park that was designed by Frederick Olmsted. and it’s completely interesting the fact that it's named Washington Park. that's not how it was named when it first started. And we get into this idea of these parks being named after presidents, military leaders from the Union or Confederate Army. we go through that. It was originally called South Park. Had nothing to do with any president at all. understanding where and how the community changed because it was a rich white area then became all black. listen to how it sounds and how it's made, and then you'll see how the park is accommodates different cultures and different changes that had gone on. It’s surrounded by a community, surrounded by black communities, also surrounded by the University of Chicago as well. It's also a place where Socialist members of the Nation of Islam and even Sun Ra had their own speaking platforms there. So it was a place for different kinds of black thinking.
((Washington Park sound w people/drumming up here))
Norman I would like for them to remain quiet just as as a way to take in more things. But the last one I did at Washington Park, they weren't too quiet,
Norman One is a very functional thing to prepare them to listen. To be more patient and to slowdown, their mind is slow down their breathing. There's not so much walking with a sense of all where I'm on this walk and I have to get to this one place. And this one place. it's more about. Just step by step, breath by breath. And so it's really just slow down. So it's half like self-care, it’s half about preparing people to listen.
VS: SUGGEST ADDING SUN RA/ WP SOUND HERE
I also do listening exercises where I'm asking people to at first listen to the closest sound they can hear. And then listen to the furthest sounds. So you're calibrating your ears to the soundscape so that you are walking through the soundscape and being more aware of the sounds that are going on. Within your particular range, but also being able to understand the differences between these spaces, which might seem all the same visually, but there are different things going on. But your visual is saying, well, no, this seems all the same, but it may not be. What Jennifer Lynn Stover calls decolonising listening. I felt like one of the tenets was was listening out into and for each other. And this is difficult because okay, we're individuals, but we're also listening out for each other. Some of the practises that she was referring to were particular practises within black communities, and a lot of this was black communities. Enslaved communities and also going through reconstruction and going through Jim Crow.some of the listening or listening culture was about listening out for each other. So in a way of protecting listening out for.
Vinita: For Norman, once you pay attention to the sounds you can’t unhear them: for him, it’s a one way top help bridge our divides.
Norman and also listening to each other and istening to each other in a way that when we get to these sound walks where, it's open, you know, there's black folks, white folks and, different different people in different communities. How do we listen to each other? And when I do these walks, you're listening to things that like, for instance, not just about bird sounds. oh,, what should we be listening to?We're opening up that discussion or like saying, Oh, well, this is just noise. I don't hear anything. Of course you hear a lot of things.
ADD SOUND Norman
Norman I think deep listening can and has affected people within their communities to be more open to understanding people who are not like them and to really just in a certain way get rid of that trance of us and them of separation being separated from your neighbours or your ecology. Listening, deep listening. is to get rid of that sense of separation. So there are these political lines, but there's also these racial lines. It helps to get rid of that trance, at least for a while. And I think that when we do listening, we could also do this in our own communities. So it's just not people of colour lecturing or white people needing us to teach them anything. Everybody has that mindset of connexion and that we can connect on our own and then we can connect together as well.
((NORMAN SOUND UP))
That’s it for this episode of Don’t Call Me Resilient.
Norman and Nimalan, thank you so much for sharing your wealth of knowledge on sound as resistance with us.
Let us know what you’re thinking after that conversation. You email us the old school way or find us online. I’m on Twitter at @writevinita. That’s AT w-r-i-t-e-v-i-n-i-t-a …
And don’t forget to tag our producers @conversationCA. Use the hashtag #dontcallmeresilient.
And if you’d like to read more about sounds of protest and resistance, go to the conversation.com. We have all kinds of information in our show notes with links to stories and research.
Finally, if you like what you heard today, please help spread the love! Tell a friend about us. Or leave us a review on whatever podcast app you’re using.
1 These are the sounds you heard on today’s episode. You can find links to all of them in our show notes.
2 Washington Park Mix 2016 by Norman Long
3 Idle No More - Round Dance Flash Mob at WEM in Edmonton recorded by Paula Kirman (from YouTube)
4 Live at the WTO Protest November 30, 1999 by Christopher DeLaurenti
5 Black Space in Winter by Norman Long
6 Stay Alive by Mustafa
7 Mustafa’s Juno’s acceptance speech from the CBC
8 Ali by Mustafa
9 Taqamus Muqawim by Muqata’a
8 Thakira Jama'iya by Muqata’a
9 Fit the Description by Christopher DeLaurenti
10 Tape of Mbana Kantako from NPR and YouTube
11 Sound from the Cities and Memory Project, from Louisville and Los Angeles.
12. Marshawn Lynch clip from ESPN
Don’t Call Me Resilient is a production of The Conversation Canada.
This podcast was produced with a grant for Journalism Innovation from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.
The series is produced and hosted by me, Vinita Srivastava.
14 My co-producer on this episode is sound editor Lygia Navarro. Our other series producer is: Haley Lewis and Vaishnavi Dandekar is an assistant producer.
Jennifer Moroz is a consulting producer.
Lisa Varano is our audience development editor.
Scott White is the CEO of The Conversation Canada.
And if you’re wondering who wrote and performed the music we use on the pod, that’s the amazing Zaki Ibrahim. The track is called Something in the Water.