Re/Sounding the Black Music Archive

I am gearing up for my fall semester in Providence Rhode Island where I will be a John Nicholas Brown Center Public Humanities Fellow from September through December. The JNBC helps connect academic communities and the broader public through history, art, and culture. This is my jam. You can check out their website here. The fellowships “encourage thoughtful reflection on issues of concern to the public humanities and to connect cultural organizations and the public.” I am so excited. I get an office, unlimited access to the research library, and lots of time and quiet to think and write about issues related to things I love and care about. My project is called Re/Sounding the Black Music Archive and I’ve pasted excerpts of my proposal below.

It will be part research project, part subjective homage to a city that I deeply respect as an incubator and champion of black creativity, part policy paper. This project will be unlike anything I have ever tried before and its development will be documented on this site. I hope it grows collaboratively–beginning with any thoughts you may have to offer about my initial proposal:

Re/Sounding the Black Music Archive

Especially in light of the digital revolution and the so-called crises in the humanities and higher education generally, calls to re/animate and or re/activate the archive have recently come forth from scholars and theorists working in the digital humanities, archive theory, and other areas. These calls have at their core issues of key importance to the public humanities. The networked environment in particular has given new energy to not-so-new questions about the very nature of the archive/s, including who can access them, how are they used, and what kinds of knowledge production, creative expression, and even political action might they enable. While the calls to re/animate and re/activate the archive communicate a sense of urgency and transformative possibility, few deeply engage or explore what it might actually mean and how it might be accomplished.

I would like to propose a project that comes out of my4 ½ year experience as executive director of the Center for Black Music Research that would explore realities and specificities involved with the re/animation and re/activation of a culturally specific music archive. [1] For example, in “The Digital Archive Experience” media researcher and curator Morten Søndergaard identifies two key challenges facing art museum archives in the future: solving the conundrum of having a (perceived) “unexciting” archive practice and reactivating the archives for visitors. Given these challenges, he asks, how should the archive “enter our experience economy?” “Should we institutionalize culture-as-identity into collected “canons,” or should we institute innovative practices in the form of new structures and relations?” And later: “can cultural institutions play both sides of the dialectic—institutionalizing normative representational patterns as well as instituting new paradigms—without losing the meaning of the archive?”[2] While Søndergaard has identified important issues, his questions are configured in a way that reflects mainstream concerns and priorities. Culturally specific institutions must constantly engage the complete dialectic because of their always/already marginalized status within a larger field. Among other things, this project will explore how his conception needs to be refigured to address the needs, approaches, and priorities of culturally specific institutions and archives.

Re/Sounding the Black Music Archive will explore three necessarily overlapping and interacting areas of inquiry: the city (as archive), the archive, and the “archival elisions,” or layers of re/activation in between. Following Brandon Labelle’s assertion that  “a place is generated by the temporality of the auditory,” I am interested in Chicago as an archive of African-American expressive sound.[3] Sound generates place but its ephemerality also confuses the parameters of representation. How might the possibilities created by such facts shift or expand the nature of the archive—its official boundaries and how we encounter it?

Archive discourse encourages as a part of its critical project the examination of the specificities of archive formation. Antoinette Burton notes that “all archives come into being in and as history as a result of specific political, cultural, and socioeconomic pressures—pressures which leave traces and which render archives themselves artifacts of history.”[4] How might differently situated publics, constituencies, and communities acknowledge, promote, and steward the counter-histories in and of the culturally-specific archive while simultaneously amplifying and innovating around the archive’s connection to contemporary (political and creative) conversations?

Søndergaard suggests that cultural production incorporates and, I would add, that the archive embodies “many layers of experience (as well as perception and reception).”[5] This project is interested in archival experiences and pathways that re/activate, re/animate, or perhaps re/sound those layers. How might we make audible associative layers that explore the continua between sound and music; between the informal, everyday, and ephemeral and the formal, instituted, permanent; and between the political necessities of a black music archive historically and in a “post-racial” present?

Local sound, auditory memories, and formal music making and preservation all contribute to the creation of shared but contested “spaces.” I’d like to use my time as a JNBC Public Humanities fellow engaged in a project that creates a relational sound geography (albeit, certainly, one that is subjective, incomplete, fluid and contentious) that stimulates critical dialogue between archived historical and contemporary sound expression. End products will include a multi-media/multi-modal “essay” and the creation of an online “archive.” This archive will at first, simply be a home for the self-curated building materials of my own ongoing project—oral histories, archival source material, ethnographic “field notes,” sound maps and recordings, music examples, and other materials. Ideally it will grow into a fully public and interactive archive to which others can contribute and draw from for their own work.



[1] The mission of the Center for Black Music Research at Columbia College Chicago involves the creation, preservation, and dissemination of information about the black musical experience worldwide. Through its programming, research initiatives, and publications—including the flagship Black Music Research Journal—the CBMR has played a leadership role in fostering interdisciplinary scholarship about diasporic African musical traditions. The Center’s Library and Archives, at the heart of the proposed project, contains books, periodicals, sound recordings in several formats, printed music, photographs and videotapes, manuscripts and archival materials, and a comprehensive collection of theses and dissertations on black music. Its 88 archival collections together create one of the great collections of primary sources related to African diasporic musics. When it was founded by Dr. Samuel Floyd in 1983, the field of black music research (and particularly the study of African-American music) was greatly marginalized in the academy, a casualty of a long history of racial segregation and racist determination of those materials and subjects deemed “important” enough for study. The CBMR’s influence and growth over a nearly 30 year history stand as strong testament to the vitality and importance of its mission and to the ongoing need and viability of ethnically-specific cultural organizations, institutions, and repositories.

[2] Morten Søndergaard, “The Digital Archive Experience,” Re_Action: The Digital Archive Experience, ed. Morten Søndergaard (Editor-in-Chief) and Mogens Jacobsen (Denmark: Aalborg University Press, 2009), 28-29.

[3] Brandon LaBelle, Acoustic Territories: Sound Culture and Everyday Life, (New York and London: Continuum, 2011), xvii.

[4] Antoinette Burton, “Introduction: Archive Fever, Archive Stories,” Archive Stories: Facts, Fictions, and the Writing of History, ed. Antoinette Burton (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2005), 6.

[5] Søndergaard, 29.

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