A Reflection by Yanira Rodríguez
When I was approached to collaborate on this project, my first question was, "What do folks mean by soundwriting?" I wanted us to consider sound technologies in terms of their political, embodied, and aesthetic implications and potentials. In the introduction and throughout the chapter, we challenge any notion of soundwriting as neutral, since sound technologies and consequently soundwriting pedagogies are implicated in issues of access (and I am thinking of access intersectionally here) and in issues of survival, as these technologies are increasingly weaponized against certain bodies. In this collaboration, we specifically challenge the normalizing of soundwriting technologies as white technologies and aesthetics by teaching with and upholding the disruptive potential of Black and Brown sound technologies.
Disrupting with the goal of dismantling white supremacy is central to my teaching and my scholarship. As a Brown, Latinx woman, teaching in a predominantly white institution (PWI), I understand my body as the first site of disruption. With that in mind, I make it a point to request teaching sessions that would make me the first teacher and the composition course the first introduction new students have to a college classroom. The choice, though seemingly minor, feels significant. For students from the very start to be taught by a woman of color about the connections between composition and sociopolitical issues feels like an important (even if momentary) disruption to the status quo.
I think of my interventions in the classroom and the tools I use (including soundwriting) in similar ways. At a PWI, this approach comes with the risks faced by those of us who push against the sameness of difference models, as discussed by Keith Gilyard (2016) in "Rhetoric of Translingualism," where he argued against the kind of flattening of difference that might ignore that "not all translingual writers are stigmatized in the same manner" (p. 286) and the risks of pushing against multicultural models (see Ben's discussion of Vijay Prashad on multiculturalism) set in place to avoid contending with power, racism, and white supremacy. These universalizing multicultural tendencies manifest in almost every class I have taught at Syracuse University, including when I taught with Kendrick Lamar's (2015) album To Pimp a Butterfly (TPAB) as a multimodal sound text. I believe these tendencies arise in response to the content of my courses but are also a product of how that content is mapped onto my body. When I taught with TPAB, my white students' responses to the content raised questions for me about my own access to teach certain sound material and foregrounded the contradictions of trying to re-center tools and materials used and taught in specialized courses.
These issues were in part what informed this collaboration with Ben, Michael, and Tim. As a woman of color trying to teach about and against racism at a PWI, I wanted a sounding board to unpack the role of identity in our classroom contexts. While how to teach toward a shared sense of justice and liberation are a continual preoccupation, this time I was responding and being accountable to the space created in the academy by the Black Lives Matter (BLM) Movement, through and for which people are risking [their lives] on the streets in very material ways. I wanted to learn from my colleagues how their subjectivities informed their choice of materials and assignments, as well as their framing, goals, and course outcomes. I also wanted to learn about their more informal decisions, what issues, if any, arose, and what adjustments were made on a day to day. What were their students' responses to their pedagogy and the content of their courses? I wanted to learn about what kind of anti-racist pedagogy was possible specifically through soundwriting. But again, wanting to teach with sound was not an abstract decision, but one in direct relation to the BLM movement and how significantly music figures in the organizing as a livening strategy that builds solidarity and upends the status quo.
If music is a livening strategy in movement work, teaching with the album and hip-hop more broadly is about a livening pedagogy—one where as a teacher I can be more of myself in the classroom and create spaces for students' various ways of knowing and composing.
Teaching with Hip-hop
As a Latinx woman born and raised in the Bronx in the 1970s and 1980s—that is, at the same time hip-hop (not just rap) was conceived—hip-hop for me is very much about place, about landscapes replete with boomboxes, with graffiti reclaiming burnt down buildings, landscapes populated by "folk"—in the way that composition, literacy studies, and hip-hop scholar Elaine Richardson (2006) defined folk as "'the people who know,' who have a special knowledge from their vantage point of the world, from their routine social experiences" (p. 57). Hip-hop for me is about inherently multimodal literacies, about belonging, about a life's soundtrack and about a healing resonance—the feel-good sounds that would rise and permeate our apartment.
I grew up in an environment where people, music, performances, language, healing vibrations, and a refashioning via art and clothing existed all together in a material and ideological push and pull with, but mostly against, capitalism. So, when I think of soundwriting in relation to hip-hop, I am thinking beyond mere sound production and more about a full spectrum of embodied modes of composing toward specific ends. Grounded in my lived experience, I think of sound as historically located, if no longer in a fixed place (as hip-hop moves transnationally), then certainly in bodies.
That is, I am interested in the ways racism, ableism, heteropatriarchy, and colonialism intersect and impact certain folks attempting to access and teach with specific sound technologies. Afro-descendant activist and artist Fannie Sosa, whose academic work focuses on embodied anti-colonial strategies of survival, such as twerking, created a sound healing installation titled I Need This in My Life (2017) that challenges the whitened aesthetics, modes of being, and end goals promoted in academic, arts, and digital spaces. She highlights several soundscapes from the womb, to chants, to resonance boxes, to water drums, as interconnected representations of Black technologies, gatherings, and cultures focused on the healing properties of sound. As she argues for a grounded use and end goal of sound technologies as a way to heal, she also reminds us of what is at stake. She states:
Bass can heal as much as hurt. Worldwide riot police are developing sonic weapons that use high frequencies to intimidate and dissolve dissident gatherings in the public space.… The people against whom these sonic weapons are used are largely Black, Brown, and Indigenous folks that manifest against the military industrial complex ecocidal race to the bottom. Scientific and academic spaces cloud sonic research linked to well-being and healing and fund sound technologies used for surveillance, armament, and policing. (Sosa, 2017)
Through a close consideration of Sosa's work, we begin to inch toward specificity. For to write about teaching with hip-hop is too broad. It might be better to ask, "What does it mean to teach with hip-hop through an embodied, hip-hop feminist lens as an anti-colonial healing and liberation project?" for example.
In "The Stage Hip-Hop Feminism Built," Aisha Durham, Brittney Cooper, and Susana M. Morris (2013) answered this question by naming a feminist approach to cultural knowledge that is fluid enough to be relevant outside of the university (p. 722). Quoting Joan Morgan's hip-hop manifesta When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost [title corrected in transcript], they described hip-hop feminism as "a feminism brave enough to fuck with the grays" (p. 723, quoting Morgan). That is, they described that "hip-hop feminists insist on living with contradictions, because failure to do so relegates feminism to an academic project" (p. 723). And as Carmen Kynard (2012) warned, citing Hortense Spillers, the risk is the turning of hip-hop, like feminism, into a "curricular object," which is directly correlated to the abstraction of forms like hip-hop from people, their history, and their participation in resistance movements. As Spillers wrote, "We haven't figured out a way to carry historical memory… the cost of Americanization, of equality, is to forget" (quoted in Kynard, 2012).
In part, it is this conception of the fluidity of feminism toward creating relevance, the living with contradictions, and the challenging of ahistorical curricular objects that I am interested in as it connects to soundwriting and what informed my approach in the classroom. I interpret their argument about living with contradictions as a critique and not a sanctioning of the current neoliberal capitalist project. Here again is the importance of history because hip-hop was conceived as a mode of resistance at the very same time that neoliberalism was sinking in its claws domestically and transnationally (Calvente, 2017). Therefore, dwelling in contradictions is more about meeting people where they are at, attentive to their real material existence because it is only from that real place that resistance is made possible and inevitable.
In predominantly white classrooms, this takes on a different meaning and necessitates context-specific approaches that do not end up re-inscribing white supremacy, neoliberalism, and a multiculturalism in service of power.
What We Did
My students and I worked with rapper Kendrick Lamar's (2015) album To Pimp a Butterfly (TPAB) in the first-year composition classroom in the fall of 2015. For me, teaching with TPAB was about figuring out how hip-hop's elements of resistance, those that exist in dissonance with a white supremacist status quo, open possibility to teach about racism in the classroom. But I struggled with what it means to teach with hip-hop when the Black and Brown bodies behind its creative force are largely absent in the institution where I teach.
When I started teaching this class, I had been engaged in extensive campus organizing around LGBTQ rights, justice for people with disabilities, and racial, economic, and environmental justice.
In connection to the campus organizing that responded to the broader intersectional movement, teaching with TPAB also allowed for a response and connection to Adam Banks's (2006) call for what he termed "transformative access" to technology. According to Banks, transformative access is "genuine inclusion in technologies and the networks of power that help determine what they become, but never merely for the sake of inclusion" (p. 45). Some of the issues that came up in the classroom made me consider transformative access as it relates to some educators' access to teach specific content. When content challenging racism and white supremacy continually figures as marginal (meaning it is not taught at all, or when taught it is subsumed by multiculturalism), then it becomes important to think of specific educators' risks and access to use such content in relation to transformative access.
The course was framed around multiliteracies and multimodal composition, and each student was tasked with identifying their home and various community literacies. We moved from textual to visual and finally to audio analysis. The aim was to decenter both English and written language as dominant in composition and explore various modes of knowing and composing.
While we moved through the units, I deliberately had them merge with each other. I began the class where we would end, that is, with sound. As students made their way into the classroom on the first day, The Coup's (2012) "Strange Arithmetic" was playing. After introductions, I announced the first recurrent assignment. Each week, different students would contribute a song dealing with sociopolitical issues. While we worked primarily with alphabetic texts during the first part of the course, the texts were multi-genre compositions, dealing specifically with the intersections of language, place, identity, and class. In order to disrupt a strict divide between the units, students were listening to songs while engaging in alphabetic textual analysis, and one assignment was to translate sociopolitical issues discussed in the text into the genre of a protest poster. The visual text unit also included sound and led us more directly to issues of racism. Given the predominately white composition of the classroom, the multicultural responses to earlier texts, and some of the resistance that arose as we discussed racism, I deliberately chose Tim Wise's White Like Me (Morris, 2013) and Dave Zirin's Not Just a Game (Earp, 2010) to screen in class because from previous experiences I have found that white students have been more receptive and persuaded by white people discussing anti-racism, and this approach removes the burden placed on students of color. Interestingly, this wasn't necessarily the case.
As I mentioned, all along students were volunteering song examples for analysis. Besides The Coup, I contributed songs from Invincible, Lauryn Hill, Janelle Monáe, and others. Students contributed songs from artists such as Immortal Technique and Rage Against the Machine. Throughout the class we were continuously mapping the connections between the units in terms of both content and modality. The first unit was well received as students were both surprised and excited about exploring their literacies beyond standard English and modes beyond the academic essay. Part of the comfortability for my white students may have been the sense that the literacies each student shared did not exist in fraught relationship to one another—that is, they may have appeared without power dynamics. Once Wise and Zirin—as white men—critiqued white complicity and challenged honored U.S. traditions like football and the military, cutting into the center of white America's cultural imaginary, the message received more resistance. But even though many white students were resistant to the content, they remained engaged. Yet, when I introduced Lamar's (2015) album as text, some students over-performed disengagement and tried to render the content speculative. Another impulse was to align with the arguments being presented but as something happening at a distance from themselves. In contrast, students of color seemed to open up more, although at times they tempered their commentary.
The final unit was an analysis of the entire TPAB album. I assigned several reviews of the album, including "Rough Theses on To Pimp a Butterfly" from Red Wedge (Billet, 2015). Along with the album we continued to watch videos and news clips, including Lamar's seemingly controversial performance at the BET awards atop of a police car, conservative critiques of the performance, and an interview with Lamar where he responded to critiques. We also watched a clip of BLM activists singing Lamar's "Alright" (Harris, 2015) as they defended a child from being arrested by police. As discussions touched on respectability politics, the role and uses of anger, the faulty rhetorics of Black-on-Black crime, and presumed police innocence, we watched Lamar's symphony performance of the song "Alright" and Nina Simone's performance of "Mississippi Goddam" in front of an all-white audience to challenge notions of "I agree with your message but not your methods." That is, when students felt Lamar's message performed on top of the police car was too much, I played his symphony performance of the song and encouraged my students to think critically whether the message had changed and what made them feel uncomfortable about Lamar on top of the police car versus at the symphony.
This unit was meant to lead to the creation of a podcast, but ultimately, I assigned a multimodal music review. Some students were showing resistance to the album as text with one student explaining that he did not do many of the take-home assignments because as he stated, "I'm more into country music." I found myself needing to emphasize that the album was the reading for the unit and consequently the assignments were not optional. My generous read of this moment is students might not recognize a musical genre as text and there is more work that needs to be done to have students consider music as a form worth analysis. My less generous read is that when he put country music in opposition to hip-hop, that there was something else at stake—that it is not necessarily music that the student is resisting as text but hip-hop and everything that this cultural form embodies, and more specifically music that has a strong racial justice lens. This less generous read does not come from a generalized assumption about white students' subjectivities, but rather from specific comments and identity positions many of the students expressed during the class.
How would we move on to podcasting if students were not first taking Kendrick Lamar's work, and the political and social contexts it raises, seriously? What does this mean in a classroom concerned with fostering critical thinking, rhetorical analysis, and multimodal writing skills? Ultimately, I found resistance to the album generative rather than a failure, for the end goal was not to make students like the album—but we needed to spend more time discussing the album for these tensions to crack open and surface. I could have had my students produce a neat podcast but not understand an important text. I wanted to avoid technology as a site for students to hide from the challenges of these discussions. Following Banks (2015), I decided that the class was not about "the next… technological hotness" (p. 275). Instead of producing a soundwriting product, my students sat with the disruption of sound. But what is it that gets disrupted?
Disrupting White Noise
"… at the end of the day, none of us can take the easy way out."
— Gwendolyn Pough (2007, p. ix) on hip-hop feminism
In the introduction to this chapter we discuss white noise as a powerful metaphor for how racism and white supremacy function at institutions of higher learning. In On Being Included, feminist scholar Sara Ahmed (2012) theorized about the status quo of whiteness in institutional spaces where whiteness is inhabitable and turns into a habit. Ahmed also argued that moving to a space not inhabited by whiteness can both energize and make a person conscious of what they have inhabited (pp. 35–36). This raises questions about our tools, methods, and methodologies, and in the context of this collection, about both the productive and disruptive potential of soundwriting. The danger I identified in the classroom was that if we did not work with disruptive sounds, then soundwriting as a pedagogical tool had the potential to uphold and mask a specific white supremacist rationale/logic.
In a disruption to this white supremacist rationale/logic, Banks's 2015 Conference on College Composition and Communication Chair's Address forwarded an afrofuturistic soundscape for the field where technoculture met science fiction and funk. This is also how I understand Pough's (2015) reference to that "future moment" where hip-hop feminism can be of use to us in disrupting the U.S. imaginary (p. 76). Both these scholars theorized the future in a way that is far from a transcendence above material realities and more of a transcendence through, as Banks (2015) stated, the funky, messy, and ratchet of everyday lived experience. While the transcendence that Banks spoke of sounds not of this world, he was asking us to imagine what is possible if we deal with concrete concerns.
Dealing with lived experience challenges an easy wrap up for our soundwriting pedagogies. Understanding how sound technologies are implicated in the surveillance, policing, and murder of specific bodies challenges a disposition toward fascination with sound technologies. What I learned from teaching a class with hip-hop was to ask when to teach with sound and if the focus should be a sound product. The social movement work and its connection to sound made soundwriting relevant for the times and this relevance extended as I considered the idea of transformative access in relation to content. In trying to determine if soundwriting should be produced, I followed Banks's (2006) recommendations of incorporating technology only if it helps fulfill the goals of the classroom (pp. 139–140).