Any teaching of soundwriting with hip-hop music must be rooted in the culture's history of resistance. In a kind of sonic palimpsest, we witness the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement's connection to musical productions such as rapper Kendrick Lamar's (2015) "Alright" and R&B singer Janelle Monáe and her Wondaland Arts Society Collective's (2015) powerful protest song "Hell You Talmbout."1 Both songs are considered anthems of the BLM movement and reveal the creative, disruptive, and transformative potential of people via soundmaking. But to be clear, these songs are historically grounded and were either born of or acquired amplitude and meaning because of their connection to movement work. The movement did not merely open up space for these sonic productions—it demanded them. We find a similar historical example in James Brown's (1969) "Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud" (see Ford, 2007) and its connection to the Black Power Movement.2 Thus, when BLM founder Alicia Garza (2016) told Beyoncé "Welcome to the movement" after the release of Beyoncé's "Formation," we understood that cultural and artistic production is pressed to respond to the will of the people in a kind of creative resonance. But, like Lamar's BET performance atop a police car, Beyoncé's 2016 Super Bowl performance of "Formation" and her subsequent album Lemonade (2016) registered as dissonance to a white consumer base, garnering calls to boycott her music. It is in this sonic dissonance where we find possibility for the composition classroom.
As Black feminist theorist and composition scholar Gwendolyn Pough (2015) predicted, here we have a "future moment" where a meaningful use of wreck or disruption of the dominant sonic discourse can help us as we think through the potential of soundwriting. Pough argued that the rhetorical practices of Black women who participate in hip-hop have created a meaningful and needed disruption to masculine discourses and that through this disruption they continue to "impact or influence the U.S. imaginary, even if that influence is fleeting" (p. 76). As Pough articulated, disruption is historical, gendered, and raced.
Composition and rhetoric scholar Vani Kannan (2016) reminded us that without this dissonance/disruption/wreck, music/songs/sounds can function both seductively and ahistorically. Kannan's discussion of the uptake of kirtan music in secular Western spaces offered a cautionary tale for the uses of soundwriting. As Kannan outlined the history of kirtan's implication in right-wing Hinduism, caste politics, and exclusionary practices, she questioned "whether [kirtan's] circulation in U.S. spaces—framed in rhetorics of multicultural pluralism and secularism—actually serves to obscure these histories and present-day realities."
As a push against this obscuring potential, we contend that racism registers as sound, as white noise. White noise dampens reality: It manufactures a bubble of inauthentic peace and helps those within it to sleep. The ever-present dampening white noise of institutions is something we hope to disrupt in our pedagogies. What are foundational are the latent sounds of resistance that rise and register as dissonance to the status quo.3 Any soundwriting pedagogy, then, should seek to bring wreck to the white noise that masks and normalizes white supremacy. According to Aisha Durham, Brittney C. Cooper, and Susana M. Morris (2013), we can bring wreck through a current of hip-hop feminism concerned with "percussive tensions" (p. 724). This current strikes one body against another, shocks, impacts, and knocks: Hip-hop feminism "is percussive in that it is both disruptive and generative" (p. 724).
What this wreck or disruption reveals for soundwriting is that we cannot act as if this piece of writing is strictly a "how to," at least not before thinking of when to use soundwriting as a pedagogy and if the result should be a soundwritten product. The when speaks to a pedagogy attentive to social and political context (for example, the BLM movement informing a use of sound in the classroom), while the if suggests a pedagogy concerned with the outcome of our teaching beyond the sound product. Asking if helps educators resist what Neil Postman (1998) referred to as the mythic potential of technology to be "perceived as part of the natural order of things" (p. 5). Technology is not inevitable, nor is the advancement of technology synonymous with the advancement of a just society. As Postman pointed out, the spread of technology requires the influence of powerful institutions and people, and that means "the next best thing" will not alone solve our problems.
From where we teach in two different predominantly white institutions (PWIs), we take it as our responsibility to work with our students to build rhetorical educational spaces where Black lives matter, Black thought matters, and Black freedom becomes the responsibility of everyone—especially anyone who's had access to rhetorical education in institutions. If, as Arthur Walzer asserted in "Octalog III," our study of rhetorical traditions ought to "focus on how instruction in rhetoric has created historically appropriate subjectivities," we take that historical wisdom as a call to contemporary responsibility (Agnew et al., 2011, p. 124). But, one person's so-called "historically appropriate subjectivity" may be another's historically oppressive subjectivity, so we have to think about this as taking a side for racial justice. We take what responsibility we can in the 15 weeks of a classroom for students who will answer a call decades from now: "Which side were you on?"
This responsibility for racial justice is especially important as we listen to Carmen Kynard (2013) describe in Vernacular Insurrections the ways our field has persistently policed the subjectivities of both students and teachers of color (especially hip-hoppers) even as it appropriates and celebrates concepts like the remix. We follow Kynard (2012) in contending that our field needs a lot less pearl-clutching and a lot more Roxanne Shante as it thinks about writing and teaching with sound. As scholars who recognize the historical connections between the BLM movement, the unrests concerning racism we are witnessing in universities throughout the U.S., and Adam Banks's recent resignation as chair of the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC) over the racist hiring practices he witnessed in the National Council of Teachers of English, we ask ourselves how rhetorical education in the field is helping to shape the subjectivities of teachers committed to an antiracist pedagogy, or not? How is our pedagogy guiding students toward, as bell hooks (2000) put it, "loving justice" (p. 71) or not? How is our pedagogy giving students the tools to, as Paulo Freire (2005) suggested, accurately name the world so that they can more effectively change the world, or not? How might we harness the theory-making and resistance in Black musical forms like hip-hop to simultaneously decenter whiteness in our classrooms while helping our students to imagine and craft antiracist subjectivities?
We strongly believe that this moment calls on us to facilitate conversations around racism and resistance in the United States, and we co-authors all used music in our writing and rhetoric courses to introduce and deepen conversations around racism, whiteness, and resistance. That is, we taught with and had students—to varying degrees—write with sound, but we didn't see that pedagogical choice as an end in itself. Borrowing from Adam Banks (2015), we "acknowledge the rise and promotion of many other activities around which writing and communication can be organized" beyond the academic essay (p. 273), and we know that the choice of modality for an assignment or a course text, just like any other pedagogical decision, is not neutral.
Especially given our concern with addressing Black resistance to oppression through Black musical forms, we must also acknowledge the relationships between the struggle and cultural production to the always already politicized activities around the literacy practices of Black Americans. Recalling this conjoined history offered by Kynard (2013), 1970s hip-hop culture emerged out of New York at the same time that CCCC adopted "Students' Right to Their Own Language" (1975) and contestations emerged around open admissions policies at the City University of New York. And these entanglements of hip-hop, language policy, and gate-keeping in the 1970s are extended from longer trajectories in various forms of denying African-descended peoples' access to literacy. Curiously enough, the very practices of remix that Black and Brown youth in New York City pioneered—those very practices that marked them as other from the university—are the same practices often lauded in composition classrooms today as teachers employ jargon like "the remix." To teach hip-hop music and to engage in composing pedagogies that owe much of their relevance to hip-hop's influence require all of us to be mindful of the ways that Black innovation is too often welcome in the academy that does not welcome the Black bodies responsible for such innovation.
Following Banks (2015) and Kynard (2013), we entered our classrooms hoping that the critical, reflective use of sound as a modality could disrupt the circulating rhetorics of multiculturalism and other safe, schooled responses to racism. One way to figure this disruption is through challenging the mode the discipline of composition studies has most often relied on: the essay. While in and of itself, the essay offers certain affordances for teaching and learning, Banks (2015) suggested that "we have gotten too comfortable relying on those affordances as our writing and communication universe goes through not only intense change, but an ever-increasing tempo of change" (p. 273). Of course, we agree with Banks that those affordances—"connection to the scholarly community; the ability to value other voices, including those with whom we disagree; the ability to develop compelling support for an idea; experimentation with different rhythms and organizing strategies in our prose"—are not indelible to the form (p. 273). The very fact of this collection addresses the call Banks issued for "more work in sound studies and oral composing" (p. 275) to extend our concern from a focus on academic literacy to a wider frame of communicative practice.
In Banks's (2015) call, he asked, "How will we respond when the dramatic changes in the pace of change exacerbate racial and gender divides that are already staggering?" (p. 274). When Banks quoted George Clinton stating "In the beginning there was the funk" (p. 270), we get a sense that sound is foundational, that it has been part of composing practices all along. Banks intended for us to resurrect it, and one way is through soundwriting technological practices. Thus, we want to demonstrate that we are not thinking about sound as abstracted from the social, political, and historical. For some readers and listeners, our discussion and our syllabi may appear to focus around social contexts—namely structural racism—more than something like "sonic literacy" or "soundwriting pedagogy." But we hope to demonstrate that the modes of discourse and rhetoric can't be ethically removed from lived and material contexts. Likewise, we cannot be seduced into thinking of new mediums of composition pedagogy as fancy things that do the work of critical education on their own. As Banks has cautioned against relying on "the next new technological hotness that will heal everything that ails us" (p. 275), we explore the possibilities of sound in developing an anti-racist, critical, color-conscious pedagogy, but we do so attentive to the seductions of tech that move so many away from the funky, messy intellectual and political work necessary in our time. In this respect, our work is about sound and soundwriting, but also about balancing that focus with the broader goals we share as educators.
In the rest of this chapter, we share course materials that make critical use of sound. We also share reflections on our assignments, including our own particular inspirations and choices. We add depth to these reflections in conversation with each other through several audio tracks, describing the challenges and possibilities we have experienced while planning and teaching our courses. We made choices not just in modality but also in songs and albums as texts to engage and deepen conversations on the critical social and political issues taken up in our courses. These choices relate to our various subject positions, the subject positions and the assumed and revealed political stances of students, and our own assessments of what this moment demands of us as educators. As we discuss our assignments and their impact, then, we also situate them politically.
Our inspirations were many as we came up with these assignments, but we came together when Yanira expressed interest to Ben in teaching with Lamar's (2015) To Pimp A Butterfly. Tim and Michael had also been thinking about teaching with To Pimp A Butterfly, and they were looking at a course syllabus composed by Duke professor Marc Anthony Neal and producer Patrick Douthit (9th Wonder) centered on the 25th anniversary of the foundational work of resistance, Public Enemy's Fear of a Black Planet. Students in that course interpreted Fear of a Black Planet into the contemporary moment of racism and resistance by using archival materials to collaboratively compose a remixed music video (Neal & Dothit, 2015). Inspired by this example and other scholars who use hip-hop in their classrooms (Pough, 2015; Banks, 2006, 2015; Kynard, 2013), we originally considered teaching a common syllabus. While teaching the same classes didn't pan out, we did teach with similar goals and values, about similar social contexts, and with a similar set of texts. Our contributions here are the result of collective experiences and reflections.
1 In Pedagogies of Crossing, M. Jacqui Alexander (2005) wrote about palimpsistic time and argued that ideologies (and events) cannot be examined in isolation but are informed by contexts that move across time and space.
2 These insights arose in a conversation with worker justice activist Nikeeta Slade while discussing bell hooks's (2016) critiques of Beyoncé's (2016) Lemonade. While Ben and Yanira were discussing the impact of the movement as opening a space during this conversation, Slade pointed out that, more than an opening, movements also make demands on artists. She described how, in the case of James Brown's Black power anthem, the demand was direct: H. Rap Brown, of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, confronted James Brown in the street and demanded that he do more for the movement.