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The Sonic Color Line with Jennifer Stoever

Jennifer Stoever is an author and professor. Her latest book, The Sonic Color Line: Race and the Cultural Politics of Listening, examines the connection between sound studies, politics and race. We caught up with her after her recent talk at Northwestern University.

Q: After getting your BA in English, what shifted your interests to want to focus on issues of race and ethnicity?

A: I was an English major at UC Riverside, and I actually wrote a paper about how African American writers imbued their texts with speaking voices – sounds that novels and autobiographies were never “supposed” to make – so I was actually interested in these issues way back then in undergrad! 

Growing up in Southern California in the early 1990s, I was surrounded and impacted by the consequences and inequities of racism, and I had a desire to know why the uprisings in LA happened, what my role as a white girl was in the racial system and what I could do about it. I spent six years after undergrad teaching in overcrowded and underfunded public schools in the same city and school districts I grew up in. I was seeing inequity up close and personal in an entirely different way.

Those experiences widened my lens and brought me to USC’s American Studies and Ethnicity PhD program, actually founded in the wake of the 1992 uprisings. I wanted to think through issues of race in education, popular music and in urban space, and it was the premier place to do just that.

Q: You’re now an Associate Professor at SUNY Binghamton. How do the courses that you teach reflect an intersection between sound studies and race?

A: I teach courses in three fields: African American Literature, Popular Music Studies and Sound Studies, and all three intersect at some point. In my African American Literature courses, we discuss the emergence of listening as a way of being, surviving, creating culture and being in the world, and we explore how black writers use fiction and memoir as a way to represent and impart this ontology.

In my music classes, we discuss the different ways various voices and instruments are racialized and represented – indeed, heard – differently by white reviewers and gatekeepers, and we analyze the impact that has had on popular culture and everyday life. We also discuss the way performers challenged the racial “boxes” they were put in.

And in my sound studies course, “How We Listen,” I actually work on putting my theories about sound, race and social justice to the test by collaborating with students on an ongoing civic engagement project called the Binghamton Historical Soundwalk Project. I’ve worked with countless community members and almost 200 undergrads on this project, which proposes to use historically inspired, site-based sound installations to confront the conflicts between university students and year-round residents of Binghamton. I’ve recently received a Whiting Foundation grant for this work and have had the project featured by the MIT CoLab. The project is set to debut May 4.

Q: How did the study of sound affect what you were interested in? When did you start thinking about sound in terms of its relationship with race and politics?

A: I’ve been a serious fan of music since I was a kid – music was essential to who I was and how I understood the world. I came to discover music is one of the main ways we actually “talk” about race (without really talking about it); race as an ideology is mediated through music. Quite early on, I was asking questions about Jimi Hendrix – why did he go to England to break his career? Where are the other black rock bands in the 1960s – and thinking about the relationship between Motown and Psychedelia.

When I became involved in the Ska punk music scene in my hometown – a multiracial Southern California inflection of Jamaican Ska, which was influenced by American R&B – we challenged racial boundaries through music making, shows and intimate relationships, but racism was always present, including Nazis showing up at shows, Sieg-Heiling in the pit. Clearly, they were listening to “our” music very differently than we were. These moments caused me to think deeply on the connection between race and listening, and that race doesn’t just impact listening.

Q: When we think about race, a lot of people may immediately think about physical differences that are visibly perceptible. But your book, The Sonic Color Line, argues that ideas of race and maybe more specifically, white supremacy, are just as tied to what we hear. How so? How are voice, volume and music tied to race and politics?

A: With voice, I think of how the sonic color line impacts our perceptions of volume – whose voice is too loud or too soft, and whose is just right. Timbre, the idea that different races have a discernably “different” sounds to their voices that is biological rather than cultural. I think about the cultural assumption that black men must have deep voices – and at the same time think about such a deep voice has become entangled in the extremely toxic and frequently deadly mythology of black hyper-masculinity: the black buck, black rapist, the automatic “threat” American police perceive when they see a black male body.

Music is another cultural arena heavily contoured by the sonic color line in the United States. Perhaps the one we are most familiar with and titillated by is the question, “Is this noise or is this music?” This always seems to crop up in white mainstream discourse about music performed by black and brown people: Noise that “all sounds the same,” like many current descriptions of trap music that both dismiss it and exoticize it at the same time.

Finally, the sonic color line enables racialized assumptions about musical genre to become gospel truth, an indelible aspect of identity rather than culturally shaped taste. And although white artists are allowed and often richly rewarded for cultural competency across the sonic color line – Elvis, Eminem, Iggy Azalea, Post Malone – black and brown artists (and musical listeners) are straight-jacketed by stereotypical assumptions linking skin color and genre. Black listeners have had to create social movements to make the complexity and diversity of their musical tastes audible beginnings.

While the sonic color line’s impact on voice and music connects the sound of race to the visuality of bodies – and attempts to lock in and solidify this link, to deem it permanent, irrefutable, unchangeable evidence of white supremacy and racial hierarchy – the sonic color line also shapes and is shaped by ideas about what’s called the soundscape, or the collection of ambient sounds that make up any given place, the background sounds that are present in a scene or location. 

Think of how we associate the clang and rumble of urban life versus suburban “peace and quiet,” for instance. The sonic color line disciplines American listeners to understand and experience certain spaces and places as essentially (and sometimes naturally) “black,” “white,” “brown,” etc., even in the absence of the visual presence of bodies. The sonic color line locates voice and music in space, determines the sonic protocol in a place and tells us what kinds of sounding and listening are to be enacted there – and often what sensory experiences are to be denied, silenced, suppressed, ridiculed, banished or tuned out.

Q: You recently spoke to students and staff at Northwestern. What was the focus of your talk, and what do you think students studying a wide range of sound disciplines can learn from The Sonic Color Line?

A: It was a great experience! I talked with students in Sound Arts and Industries, Performance Studies, Ethnic Studies, English, Africana, Music, Media Studies and American Studies. It was a great cross-section of the NU sound community and I really enjoyed the conversation there. My talk was called “The Sonic Color Line: Colorblindness and Segregation in American Radio’s So-called ‘Golden Age.’” In this talk, I introduced my book, The Sonic Color Line: Race and the Cultural Politics of Listening, by way of its fifth chapter, showing the culmination of the sonic color line’s rise to significance as a central force of racialization in American life and the increasing entanglement of the listening ear with sound reproduction technologies. 

I talked about how the sonic color line connected U.S. radio’s so-called “Golden Age” to legal segregation, arguing that this relationship enabled the construction of liberal color blindness as a citizenship ideal following World War II. I focused especially on showing the active exclusion of black voices on the radio – and introduced students to many “lost” radio performers from the era such as Wonderful Smith and Maidie Norman – while showing how black performers had to perform white-scripted (and sometimes even white coached) “black dialect” on the national networks during the 1940s.

I think that students studying a wide range of disciplines can gain a lot from my book, in particular how power flows through sound and how racial hierarchies have been strengthened through the social practice of listening. We are dealing with longstanding patterns of race that have gone undetected, by white people in particular, for a very long time, and the sonic color line has long had a deep material impact on our daily lives, our life chances and, for scholars, our research and our archives. We have to learn to listen differently, interrogate the category of “noise,” which is often racialized and associated with the bodies and cultures of people of color, and rethink how our various disciplined have heard the world.