"Kids' Informal Learning with Digital Media: An Ethnographic Investigation of Innovative Knowledge Cultures" is a three-year collaborative project funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Carried out by researchers at the University of Southern California and University of California, Berkeley, the digital youth project explores how kids use digital media in their everyday lives. Read more
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For youth in general listening to music is a significant practice, yet its immanent meaning is rarely explored. What brings music listening to the foreground in this case is my ethnographic study of amateur and novice Hip Hop music making. I came upon music listening as an active part of music making experiences while spending time at an after school music and technology program in the Mission district of San Francisco. The music program in the Mission introduces youth to Hip Hop music production. The program consists of teaching teens and young adults lyric writing, rap music composition, beat making, rapping, and Hip Hop performance as well as basic promotion and marketing. By the end of the program students collaboratively produce a professional album containing ten to twenty songs.
Music as art is a specific kind of interpretation of our world that defies the logic of reason and objective analysis. Therefore we can say that there can be a musical knowledge of our world that is not the musical knowledge of the musicologist or even ethnomusicologist whose knowledge conforms to objective rational representational knowledge seen in genre, meter, time signatures, notation, social structures etc... This normative knowing is what counts as legitimate. What's more, this normative knowing based upon the primacy of vision overall other human perceptual capacities condemns music listening to an illegitimate way of knowing our world1. The visualism of the West has had violent consequences for listening to Hip Hop and black music in general in America. The racial visualism of America has condemned Hip Hop music to a visual music2 where á priori, sound is overrun with visual representations of race. There is, we can say, an overdetermination of vision in the general production and consumption of Hip Hop music. I came to understand that the overthrow of the hegemony of vision in Hip Hop was both an implicit and explicit aspect of some these young artists I spent time with and other underground Hip Hop artists. One rapper's lyrics say “the more you listen the more you gonna hear the truth”3 What truth does music listening reveal?
What I want to describe here are some aspects of the phenomena of listening to music. Listening, I observed is a fundamental aspect of music making. Listening, more accurately, is primordial to the process of producing. In fact one must first learn to listen in order to create music. Listening for these young artists was a skill fundamental to their craft. Listening is understood not simply as passively receiving sonic sense vibrations on the surface of the ear drum transferred to the inner ear as lifeless sense datum which is then processed as information by the brain as this or that sound but something far more meaningful for us. This physiological description, an empiricist view, is an account of hearing not necessarily the experience of listening. Everyday listening is also not only the attentive reflective procedure of a conscious deliberating subject who can theoretically and scientifically pull apart the structures of a musical composition and represent them as notations and time signatures as does the musicologist. Physiologically we are always hearing while conscious but existentially we are always listening. What I had come to observe with these budding young rappers and music makers was that they listened with a skill far greater than mine. More importantly by observing these artists I found that listening as a constitutive existential practice appeared to be an active bodily engagement with the world rather than passive receptivity of empirical sense data. The sounding of a note, an instrument, a bar of music, or a piece of music is heard as a whole and already has rich meaning. The gestalt experience of sound and the unity of music present to us an already rich meaning that is neither a subjective representation nor a collection of atomistic sounds compile together by our brains but rather a sonic presentation of mood, feeling, and anticipation without the requirement of an efficacious, reflective, and self conscious subject. To be sure there are more than likely an inexhaustible amount of ways of listening and I will not pretend to describe systematically the fundamental ones here but I will describe some meaningful ones that these young artists showed and told me about.
The phenomena of music listening like any common everyday thing we do is seemingly obvious yet the everyday things we do occur for us in unreflective and unnoticed ways. The ease of passing over the most basic existential stuff of life therefore makes something as ordinary as music listening the most difficult to describe. Music listening is, like much of our perception of the world, magical because it has inexhaustible meaning yet analytic reason cannot penetrate its significance, because music as art follows none of the explanative logic of science in speech or language. A trumpet's sound is just that, sound as heard and does not refer to anything else as sign to signified. The trumpet's meaning to the listener is manifest in what is heard4. On one afternoon at the music program I spent some time observing one of the students a rapper named Mistreat. Mistreat was extremely dedicated to her craft of rapping and was one of the most developed rappers in the program. When she spit on the mic the other students listened because of her unique style and undeniable skill at rapping. On this day Mistreat was working on the IMAC workstation making instrumental beats and experimenting with the beat making software called Reason. The beat making software's interface is a metaphorical one replicating in a two dimensional representation the mixing board of a studio with a dizzying array of sliders, switches, and oscillators. The software assumes prior experience and expertise with studio equipment. Students are taught the basics to get up and running and those interested move at their own pace with assistance from instructors. Making a complete sixteen bar beat is a requirement for graduation. Most workstations are outfitted with two sets of headphones so students can work collaboratively and also make up for the small amount of computers in general.
I sat down on the gray metal folding chair next to Mistreat and listened in on her music making and experimentation with different digital instruments. After “stacking” the instruments together to make a few bars for the instrumental composition she played back the 4 or 5 bars and looped it to hear it continually as a whole piece. She listened intently and removed some instruments and adding others. The process was iterative and experimental. Mistreat had a general style of what worked for her without a specific goal. Her beat was dominated by several trumpets sounding in rhythmic and dynamic unison. I told her that I really liked how she organized the trumpets throughout the piece and I repeated how distinct the trumpets sounded. Mistreat smiled as she held the headphone to one ear and told me with a excited voice “I like the trumpets too, it [the beat] sounds like victory”. It was exactly what I was feeling and she articulated it beautifully. What does it mean for a piece of music to sound like Victory or to be the sound of Victory? In the case of Mistreat the sound of victory is not a referent to victory, meaning that victory stands in for the music as a representation of it or the sound we associate with victory. We cannot say that the music was objectively 'victory' meaning that a certain number horns played with these specific notes, this tempo and melody would amount to victory. The musical piece that Mistreat created was the sonic embodiment of victory. The music's feeling and mood welled up with the the experience of victory. To experience the music as victory is to actively draw on the sedimentation of past experiences of something victorious yet these past experiences are not called forth through explicit mental actions like a recollection or representable images. When we listen to a piece of music as victorious we experience it as such because for us the the music embodies in victory what an objective, causal, and linguistic reduction of victory cannot which is its essence. What is significant about the meaning of victory is that this phenomena presents to us a radically different kind of knowledge not just about listening and making music but knowledge that emanates from our bodily perceptual presence in the world, one that does not privilege mind and reason as such.
The problem with listening in the sociological sense is its banality and an assumed passivity of listening especially when youth are concerned. Meaning that young people are understood to be passive listeners and consumers of music without agency and go about listening uncritically and unreflectively. The general sense is that music listening by young people is understood by adults as a sort of escapism and a denial of the real issues in one's life. In this way music listening exists outside what is considered productive and certainly not learning in the normative sense. Music listening is invariably understood as a non-critical leisure activity which is void of any sense of purposive rationality. Though music listening and making that I observed in the after school program is a distinct practice I want to point to the relation of music listening in general, that most all of us do, to that of music making projects that I observed in my field research. Meaning that though many of us listen to music only and we are not artists, we are in a sense engaged in a significant part of music making as we understand it as a circumscribed practice. I would argue that music listening as an essential practice for young people is critically important for the interpretation of their everyday the world rather than an digression from reality or antithetically, a violent confrontation with it.
The caricatures of young people and their love of music is one generally of a closed off private experience such as listening to a CD player through headphones or by oneself shut off in a bedroom, both as a disconnection from the world. The other extreme of listening is uncontrolled orgiastic dancing at a club or party. The proliferation of personal media devices certainly affords and structures a private type of listening experience. Even concert listening such as Jazz or classical music structures us to listen in a private way. In an interview with one of the student beat makers, Johnny Quest, he described a junior high school field trip to the prestigious San Francisco Symphony for an evening of Beethoven. This was Johnny Quest's first experience at any professional symphony performance but he had already developed a taste for classical European music and in particular Beethoven. On reflecting on this experience Johnny Quest remarked that the he found it strange that audience members sat intently but quietly through out the performance. Johnny Quest on the other hand felt like “bopping his head to Beethoven” but felt that he would be out of place if he did so. He found it perplexing that folks would not “get into the music” the way he wanted to, through dance, gesture and expression of feeling. To simply not express ones feelings with music seemed foreign to him, who was fifteen at the time and grew up listening to Hip Hop, R&B, and Soul music. There was for Johnny Quest what we can describe as a trans-cultural musical experience, a disjuncture of listening. What was a normative style of listening for Johnny Quest, the unification of music and dance expressed by both audience and performing musicians marked by what ethnomusicologists refer to as call and response, a reciprocal interactive relation between audience and musicians. The practice of call and response is crucial to Hip Hop as a vocal centered music and to almost all African diasporic music.
On one field trip I went on with students from the after school program we attended a CD/Album release party of a partner Hip Hop music program across the Bay from the Mission in Oakland, CA. Both the sound system and amplification equipment were buggy since the time we arrived and would cut in and out at points. Finally in the middle of a much anticipated performance of a local fifteen year old rapper named Panama, the sound system completely went down leaving the young mc and his hype-man with only their un-amplified voices and no music. However there was not even a moment of awkward silence; the audience which was full of teenagers clapped and chanted the hook or chorus providing the beat and melody for Panama who was undaunted by the equipment failure. The show went on with out pause and with a more energetic mood because the audience slipped fully into the crucial role of making music with the young rapper.
Such a response to technological failure is more than likely not on the listening horizon of San Francisco Symphony audience members not simply because middle class white audience members cannot conceive of a such an experience but because the style of classical music listening that we have come to know prefigures subjective private individual experience that places a rigid line between audience and musicians. It would be inappropriate for classical symphony audience members to express their feelings about Beethoven through bodily expression and dance not because Beethoven's music contains no possibility of this (remembering that Johnny Quest felt like moving his body to the music) but because the culture of appropriate classical listening and spatial configuration inhibits such an expression. While this subjective private listening is normative for classical music audiences it is not normative for Hip Hop music audiences. However the the structure and dispostion of a symphony hall audience is uncannily similar to that of institutional learning environments such as the traditional classroom where both produce well behaved middle class subjects. Weeks later after our interview Johnny Quest let me listen in on a new instrumental that he had been working on. He sampled Beethoven's Piano Concerto #4 for a Hip Hop beat that he was making for another rapper in the program, he proceeded to bop his head in a mellow meditative fashion as we both listened. I was humbled.
The ways of listening to music are clearly many and most all of us do it, yet its significance for us seems difficult to grasp. What I was hearing from these young music makers at this after school program was that if we listen to the sounds themselves we can discover another way of knowing our world, the already promised gift of our bodily existence. The next theme or question to add to this research would be to ask what is specific about the modern technological nature of music listening and creation? Because almost everything technological about music making for these young artists is digital but does it matter at all?
1. Aristotle wrote in Metaphysics “Above all we value sight......because sight is the principle source of knowledge and reveals many differences betweeen one object and another” (trans John Warrington, London: J.M. Dent and Sons p 51.)
2. ‘Racialized seeing’ condemns Hip Hop music to a visual listening. This of course seems counter intuitive but what I mean here is that black music and in particular Hip Hop, rap, and R&B are given over to a racialized listening and this listening coincides with a certain blackness. The visual representations of blackness dominate commercialized genres of Hip Hop for example, West Coast Gangsta rap. The visual listening of Hip Hop was no doubt assisted by music videos and the repetition of a cast of caricatures of young black men and women, such as the “nigga, ho, pimp, and bitch”. However the overdetermination of vision in black music was at least seen as early as 1843 with Blackface minstrelsy and the later in the 1920's with “race records” segregated distribution labels. The mere mention of Hip Hop to some often conjures up these representations, condemning the music to an experience of debauchery. I've titled this essay “Ways of Listening” not so much as a derivation of John Berger's text “Ways of Seeing” but to show that some desire to dethrone “seeing” as the primary mode of valid knowledge in the West. It may come as no surprise that for many of the young artists that I was so privileged to spend time with between 2005 to 2007 most were young men and women of color from the San Francisco Bay Area. It may also come as no surprise that much of their lives are “overdetermined from without” by this regime of vision. To be young, poor, black or Latino or Asian has its difficulties and existentially being seen is one of them. This means that where ever one may go, once seen or captured by the sight they are already as understood as such and such a way whether as already given to being a thug, illiterate, promiscuous, aggressive or in some cases good at math.
3. Sess 4-5 Nuthin But Fire, New Orleans based rapper and community activist.
4. Merleau-Ponty writes similarly in Phenomenology of Perception about the embodied experience of color and its 'significance' writing “before becoming an objective spectacle, quality is revealed by a type of behaviour which is directed towards it in its essence, and this is why my body has no sooner adopted the attitude of blue than I am vouchsafed a quasi-presence of blue. We must therefore stop wondering how and why red signifies effort or violence, green restfulness and peace; we must rediscover how to live these colours in as our body does , that is, as peace or violence in concrete form” (p 245).