March is a journal of art & strategy.

Conversations on Sound and Power: Allie Martin

Sonic Insurgency Research Group

May 2022

Allie Martin’s incredible body of work and research is fundamentally about listening to Black people. One shape of this listening is her extensive research on how gentrification impacts and impedes on Black sonic life. We had the distinct honor of sitting down with Allie to discuss her work, which includes thinking expansively about Black Sound Studies, as well as field recordings, writing, and the newly formed Black Sound Lab, a research environment dedicated to the intersections of Black sonic life and digital work.

Allie Martin is a Mellon Faculty Fellow at Dartmouth College in the Music Department and the Cluster for Digital Humanities and Social Engagement. Her work explores the relationships between race, sound, and gentrification in Washington, DC. Using a combination of ethnographic fieldwork and digital humanities methodologies, Allie considers how African American people in the city experience gentrification as a sonic, racialized process. Her work has been supported by the Ford Foundation, Smithsonian Institution, Society for American Music, and the American Musicological Society. She is currently working on her first book, tentatively entitled Intersectional Listening: Gentrification and Black Sonic Life in Washington, DC.

Black Sound Lab logo created by Asha Santee.

Sonic Insurgency Research Group: We thought we’d begin by asking you just to introduce yourself and your work, its themes and methodologies.

Allie Martin: I’m trained as an ethnomusicologist, but my work, broadly speaking, is about listening to Black people in whatever way that may be. The majority of my work focuses on gentrification and sound, thinking about what gentrification sounds like to Black people, specifically in DC, where I’m from. But that has sort of morphed and evolved into thinking about what Black Sound Studies is, what it can be, and thinking about how digital humanities can help us listen to Black people.

SIRG: Can you say more about how sonic life, especially for communities of color, is affected by gentrification and the displacement that comes about in relation to that?

AM: It depends on who it is, where it is, and what it is. Some things get louder. Neighborhoods that have typically been residential turn into nightlife spaces, and folks don’t necessarily care about the quiet of residential life when they’re out and about. Parking is a huge thing. People park on side streets and they’re loud when they’re going back to their car. They disturb people. So some things get louder but some things get softer. Some folks who move in are expecting a particular residential experience and have the legislative grammar to make that happen, in the language of noise complaints and 3-1-1 [US and Canadian phone number for non-emergency municipal services]. I’ve done work on the Amplified Noise Act of 2018, which was almost passed in DC, which states that if you are plainly audible at seventy-five feet, you could be put in jail for ten days, fined three hundred dollars, or have your equipment impounded by the Metropolitan Police Department. So some things are actively quieted in gentrification and then some things are intangible. I’ve had people tell me that while the neighborhood sounds like smooth jazz, the city sounds like a Whole Foods now. It sounds like static. People come up with all kinds of really interesting metaphors to talk about the way their sonic worlds have changed.

SIRG: So you’re talking about the Amplified Noise Act, and that’s a way of silencing and also interrupting the material practices of buskers and other people, but this term that you used is fascinating, “legislative grammar.” Is there any more you’d be willing to add regarding that?

AM: I have administrative bad luck. If there is something to do with the IRS or student loan paperwork, I’m going to have to do it twice. I just got my second stimulus check yesterday because it got held up; they had to do a trace on it to make sure I’m not lying. But I have enough time on my hands because I have a flexible schedule and I have enough experience doing paperwork that I can sit on the phone with the IRS and ask them to do a trace on my check. I have the time and the knowledge to do that. I talked about this with my mom all the time. People get drowned in paperwork, whether it’s filling out stuff for EBT [Electronic Benefits Transfer] or for your FAFSA [Free Application for Federal Student Aid]. It’s very strategic to drown folks in paperwork and knowledge that they just don’t have. So, in terms of legislative complaints, there are folks that know how to do that. They have learned how to do that, and are not afraid to do it, and are not criminalized for doing it. That’s the kind of grammar that gets you things like the Amplified Noise Act, where you have a hearing at two o’clock in the afternoon and seventy people show up to support this act because they can. But a lot of people cannot do that.

SIRG: In reading and listening to your work, we were particularly drawn to the idea and framework of white sonic expectation. We’ve similarly considered how the sonic ruling class determines what is and isn’t acceptable in the audio sphere. We were wondering if you could elaborate on this idea of white sonic expectation and how it manifests and impacts communities of color?

AM: Yeah, I love that language of the “sonic ruling class,” because that’s really what it is. People always ask me, Is gentrification just like a white thing? Can Black people be gentrifiers? Yes. But the idea of the sonic ruling class deals with that. When people move into a neighborhood, especially when people start going to neighborhood association meetings, civic association meetings, and really get themselves involved in the community, they are able to set particular sonic expectations of what is or is not acceptable. Jennifer Lynn Stoever talks about this in The Sonic Color Line (2016), in terms of phone voices and code-switching. I’ve talked a lot about code-switching in my guest lectures because I code-switch less and less. I was a classically trained violinist in undergrad and code-switching was intense, but I’m tired now, so I can’t do it as much. I have made a choice to stop or to lessen it, but I am expected to speak in a certain way when I enter certain spaces. The thing about working on gentrification in cities, but also navigating the academy, is that so many things are the same in terms of what the sonic ruling class is asking for, expecting, and forcing a person to do. Black people, whether in gentrifying cities or in classrooms, are expected to perform a certain level of professionalism because you have this idea of whiteness as professional – and it’s really draining.

SIRG: It ties into the politics of respectability too, which Jillian Hernandez talked about in a previous conversation. What kinds of sounds and accents and enunciations signal respectability or even morality One thing that we often think about is how sound refuses to be contained. You can be in your home and you can still hear what’s happening down the street, or you can still hear the sound system in the park, even if it’s a couple of miles away. This is offensive, right? One shouldn’t be able to breach these private containers. We’re curious to hear your thoughts about how ideas of property and ownership intersect with these expectations or presuppositions about what is acceptable or unacceptable sound.

AM: In terms of property and ownership, I wrote a paper once on the idea of sound and ephemeral justice in gentrifying cities. I don’t remember if this was before or after Don’t Mute DC, but folks in DC were having all these protests in the city around go-go music and gentrification, and people just showed up in droves to have go-gos in the street. I was thinking about ephemeral justice because sound cannot necessarily do what property ownership does. Sound is not like a CBA [Community Benefits Agreement], but for a moment, those spaces are Black spaces. When you have these big protests and you have these big go-gos in the street for a moment, for a day, for an hour, those are Black neighborhoods regardless of who owns the buildings on every corner. I’m definitely thinking about how sound permeates ownership.

I walked past a barbershop that was next to some sort of dining establishment that had outdoor seating, with lights and things. The people sitting on the stoop of the barbershop are making sounds, and the people sitting outside in this contained outdoor area are making sounds. But one is more legible, legal, and moral than the other because they pay to sit outside and make sound, and the guys on the stoop did not pay to sit outside and make sound. They’re right next to each other outside making sound, but they’re in totally different worlds. So, yeah, sound permeates ownership all the time.

Marina Peterson’s recent book Atmospheric Noise: The Indefinite Urbanism of Los Angeles (2021), which is about the history of noise complaints at LAX, delves into how people got air rights over their property. It’s very interesting to think about noise pollution and how it came to exist under the guise of air pollution. In air pollution, air is being polluted, but in noise pollution, noise is the pollutant – so, how do you develop language for sound that you don’t want?

SIRG: We are also thinking a lot about your methodologies for recording and about how certain sonic technologies are now being used to police through sonic surveillance. For example, in Chicago, a big issue right now is ShotSpotter, which is a privately-owned audio surveillance company that contracts with nearly every major city in America and listens for the sound of gunshots. The way it operates is really troubling, in terms of both its inaccuracy and the private company’s opacity and unwillingness to disclose how they’re analyzing the sound. They use both A.I. technology and subjective humans who are listening and then make the police aware and certain conflicts emerge out of an already totally charged scenario. The police are then dispatched, sometimes over sixty times a day in Chicago, 88.7% of which are not calls that actually had a real gunshot. There is a presupposition of a threat entering a community – all, of course, Black and brown communities, predominantly where these exist. Given your work and your theorizing about white sonic expectation, do you have any reflections on what we’ve been calling the weaponization of lessening, which is almost the opposite way you are listening to a neighborhood?

AM: I hate it, you know. I did not start out in explicit, intentional opposition to things like ShotSpotter. That came over time because I was learning that this is so far from anything that I ever want to be doing. Not to be reactionary, but I’ve talked and written about people asking me if I can isolate gunshots, and I’m like, yes, but I won’t, and here’s why. Writing out the refusal has been important, but it’s been important because people have asked about it. Unfortunately, some of the work that I’ve done has been to develop methods and practices that are very intentionally and clearly trying to be a caring space for Black people, because it’s so horrible. DC has ShotSpotter, and it’s the worst. I explicitly do not make certain data sets because I never want to be asked for them; there are certain things that I won’t make or keep. I don’t have one of these big public digital humanities corpuses like the Colored Conventions Project because of potential identifiers. Any time I do anything for an exhibition or splice anything together, I sit with it and make sure there are no potential identifiers. It’s very much like Simone Browne writes in Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness (2015): surveillance is a fact of Blackness. I was giving a guest lecture and somebody asked me, “In your data ethics classes did you learn this or that?” And I was like “data ethics classes?” I’ve never taken data ethics classes. But, you know, data ethics is Black Studies. One of my Black Studies professors at Indiana (Valerie Grim) would say, Black Studies is not just for Black people. It’s useful. It’s rigorous. It teaches you how to engage with the world in a way that’s not violent.

SIRG: Could you talk a bit about the process of how you approach field recording and how you approach data and the digital humanities?

AM: All of my methods, especially me falling into the digital humanities, have really been about just trying to get closer to hearing Black people. That’s always what I’m trying to do, whether I’m making a particular visualization or doing something with data. It’s just because I’m trying to get somewhere that straight-up text won’t necessarily take me. For my dissertation, this involved passive acoustic recording, which is typically done in environments coded as natural, like forests. I had a colleague that was doing work in the cloud forest in Ecuador because you can hear climate change over time if you listen to bird calls changing – or frog calls or bats or things. I was like, Can I do this in the middle of DC? So, I did. I put recorders on top of buildings and listened for about nine months. And I have a ton of data from a particular intersection in DC, and have spent time thinking about what’s the best way to use that data.

What can that data tell us from the granular second-by-second level or thinking about the span of a day, a month, or nine months? Those are questions I’m still asking as I write the book. That has been such an informative process to think about. I’m no longer interested in a sort of standard longitudinal study of something like how a street sounds different as it gentrifies. I don’t have enough data for that; it’s nine months. I’m more interested in storytelling and moments in Black people’s lives that are informed by the data and that the data helps me get to.

In terms of walking, soundwalking is important because throughout I really needed a framework and a methodology that heard me and heard my own knowledges. Soundwalking became this way I could listen to myself walk around the neighborhood and listen back and think about what was happening in those moments. Soundwalking became a way to lean into the fact that you’re never a fly on the wall.

SIRG: How do you think soundwalking informed your ideas about public space or the power dynamics of public space, sound, and noise?

AM: It’s never as simple as insider/outsider; that’s not the right language. I was a Black woman walking around a Black neighborhood that I’m not totally from, but I’m from the area. Some days, I’m walking around and I feel like this is my spot, this is where I’m at. But some days, I feel very much like a researcher imposing on things. Public space is strange, and being a Black woman in public space is also strange. I don’t know if I recorded the conversation or not, but in one piece I wrote about dudes talking to me as I’m walking by. I know people have done work on catcalling and things like that. I lived a whole life before New Hampshire. Being a woman and going into these spaces and taking notes, but also existing in nightlife spaces that are predominantly male, was interesting. So soundwalks around the neighborhood just helped me navigate all of that because it helped me focus on where I was. It’s like, yes, you are here. You cover all of these spans of different categories of identification, but you can still hear your footsteps and the swish of your coat as you go.

SIRG: You mentioned earlier that you trained as an ethnomusicologist. Can you talk a little about the fraught anthropological roots of ethnomusicology, autoethnography, and the way you’re doing your research through the rehabilitation of those disciplines? If they have been rehabilitated?

AM: They are a hot mess and a half. It’s interesting because I trained as an ethnomusicologist, but I’m trained as a Black ethnomusicologist and Black music research is a very particular, rigorous group of folks. We don’t exist outside of ethnomusicology and the sort of colonial imperialist constraints of the discipline. But I entered this field with Mellonee V. Burnim and Portia K. Maultsby, two of the giants in ethnomusicology, and then I was trained by Alisha Lola Jones and others. That’s the reason I went to Indiana, because they had such a legacy of Black music research and I got introduced to that community, which I’m very grateful for. So you’re still within the sort of extractive constraints of research as you’re trained as an ethnographer, but you’re also sort of speaking to a larger mission of Black music research that I’m really grateful that I was grounded in. I think it’s harder now that I’m out because I have students who come to me and want to go to grad school for ethnomusicology and I’m like, Do you? I don’t think I’m supposed to do that – because research is extractive, and I can’t tell you that it’s not.

In terms of the autoethnographic, people used to talk to me about how much I talked about myself in my work and I was like, You don’t? I don’t know if it’s because my family is from the area or because I lived in my mother’s house for most of my fieldwork and commuted in, but it never occurred to me not to talk through how my work sat in my family’s history and my history. I started thinking about gentrification because I was driving across the city every day from my mother’s house to American University, so it never occurred to me not to be autoethnographic. I just didn’t know there was a word for it until later on.

SIRG: What’s interesting about your work is that it’s both/and. It’s about the story of the place but also about listening to the place itself. The way that you are returning to this refrain around listening to Black people is a kind of ethics, which is related to questions we have been ruminating on around the idea of a sonic commons. Maybe a sonic commons would necessitate an ethics of relations. If the answer isn’t about calling the police because you don’t like the noise down the street, what else could take that place? What else would have to be there in order for you to solve that conflict without a carceral extension? Do you find moments where there is a kind of sonic commons that emerges?

AM: I’m thinking of a couple of interviews where people have talked about this tension. Particularly, older Black people have talked about this tension where they don’t necessarily like what some people are doing, but they’re not going to call the cops on them. I’m thinking about a couple of instances where people have talked about how if somebody has their radio going on the stoop, you have to listen to their music because that’s what they’ve decided, and not in a way that’s like, I really hate this and I need to call the police right now. But just in a way that this is how the neighborhood used to be. This is what a noise complaint used to be. They had their stuff on and you had to listen to it. I talk a lot about the MetroPCS store that plays go-go music. A business owner across the street from that store talks about not necessarily liking it, but in the same interview talked about not raising the rent of the florist in the intersection for like twenty-five years because it’s a Black florist. And he never sold that prime real estate to Starbucks or any of the other chains that wanted to come through. And he said something like, These are my people and if my people are doing well, why would I want to mess that up? So there’s this tension where it’s like, They are too loud over there, but I’m never going to do anything that would put these people out. I think that language is everywhere in how Black people have navigated Black neighborhoods because Black people don’t necessarily get along.

SIRG: Can give us a sense of what you’re working on now?

AM: That’s such an exciting question because I’m so excited about what I’m working on right now. Am I supposed to be writing this book (Intersectional Listening: Gentrification and Black Sonic Life)? Yes. Am I writing the book? Yes – because we’re being recorded. I am also the founder of the Black Sound Lab at Dartmouth, which is dedicated to decriminalizing Black sound and amplifying Black life through digital practice. It’s my jam; and we are doing this project called Black COVID Care because I wanted to sonify Covid-19 data like everybody’s been doing, but a lot of the sonifications I looked at had nothing to do with race. But then, I don’t want to sonify this data that’s just going to let me hear that Black people are dying at higher rates. So, what do I need to hear? Then I started talking to my family and thinking about how Black people have been caring for each other and keeping each other alive during the pandemic and how that’s very related to these very deep, vast lineages of care. With Black COVID Care, we’re building sonic constellations of Black care throughout space and time – and I’m so excited about it.

SIRG: Can you tell us a bit more about how it will be presented in the world?

AM: It’s going to be a website. I’m obsessed with the stars because I live in the woods so I can see stars. So the site is going to be a backdrop of the galaxy and you’re going to be able to click around and hear and build your own sonic constellations and read about stories of how Black people are caring for each other and how there’s overlap. If you clicked on a star that’s about Black churches doing vaccination clinics and you clicked on a story about a food bank, and you make a constellation out of those two, you might get a story about the Black Panther Party’s free breakfast program or something like that. There’s going to be some overlap from these pandemic stories to things that have happened in the past because this is what I want to hear. People are like, What can we do? What can we do? And I’m like, Can I build you a galaxy of Black care so that you’ll know everything that has been done? Look at all these things that have been done. We do this; we keep each other alive.

SIRG: That project sounds incredible.

AM: Black COVID Care is going to launch in early or mid-June. You heard it here first!

SIRG: Can you conclude by saying a bit about the Black Sound Lab you mentioned? What is it and who’s part of it? What’s the mission?

AM: This is one of the cool things about being in a music department, but also being in digital humanities and social engagement. Jacqueline Wernimont is the Chair of Digital Humanities and Social Engagement (DHSE) and runs the data justice lab. I created the Black Sound Lab because doing the project on gentrification and sound has opened up so many worlds about Black Sound Studies and Black Digital Sound Studies – so this gives me the space to think about those things and to think about how to amplify Black life in whatever way that I can. Black Sound Lab is me and a grad student named Armond Dorsey and a couple of undergraduate assistants that weave in and out. We just received a grant from the Hopkins Center for the Arts up here at Dartmouth to do Black COVID Care. It’s really exciting. We’re working with a band named BOOMscat that’s going to come up and provide sound for our constellations, and we’re working with a Black development firm.

SIRG: This has been amazing; this project sounds amazing. We are just so appreciative of you taking the time. It’s an inspiring and igniting conversation.

AM: Thank you. I appreciate the questions. When you’re just in the middle of writing land, to engage with folks who fuck with your work (excuse my French) is very nice.

Sonic Insurgency Research Group (SIRG) is Josh Rios, Anthony Romero and Matt Joynt. SIRG’s research-based performance and exhibition practice examines normalized associations be­tween criminality and sound, silencing as a form of social control, and voicing as a form of social resistance. SIRG’s group work has been exhibited and featured in M:ST 9 Biennial (Calgary, Canada), Counterpublic 2019 at The Luminary (St. Louis, MO), Acoustic Resonance at Institute of Contemporary Art at MECA (Portland, ME), State of the Art 2020 at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art (Bentonville, AR), Pulitzer Arts Foundation (St. Louis, MO), and Work for the People (Or Forget about Fred Hampton) at Co-Prosperity (Chicago, IL). Upcoming work includes solo and group exhibitions at Locust Projects (Miami) and The Vincent Price Art Museum (Los Angeles). Writing has been featured in ON Journal’s Rules and The Design Studio for Social Intervention’s Spatial Justice.