I remember sitting in the school cafeteria during my last year at the University of Western Ontario in 2014. As usual, the space was noisy and full. My friends and I stood near the exit so that we could hear each other speak and, like many of our peers, we were talking and laughing — loudly. But unlike them, who were mostly white, we were being watched.
It was as if time slowed down; the people in line for food all turned to stare at us with looks of concern and annoyance. On the other side of the room, several students looked up from their phones and conversations, gazing blankly. “I think people are watching us,” I said to my friends. But we already knew. As black women, being stared at in public for expressing a form of joy — whether in conversation with friends or alone — is so common that, well, it’s surprising when it doesn’t happen. But there was something different about it that time. It was that our presence, a large group of black women, was made to feel unwelcome. I didn’t just feel judged; I sensed fear.
Five months later, in Florida, Michael Dunn was sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole for shooting and killing Jordan Davis, a 17-year-old high schooler, who wouldn’t turn down the Lil’ Reese song playing in his friend’s SUV. In August 2015, a book club of 10 black women (including an 83-year-old grandmother) was kicked off a Napa Valley Train tour after they were deemed to be laughing too loud.
Around the same time, Peter Toh of Toronto’s AfroFest, an annual celebration of Afro-diasporic arts and culture, received an email from the City notifying him that its usual two-day permit would be canceled. The free outdoor festival, which has been running for 27 years and attracts over 100,000 visitors, would be forced to downsize to a single day for reasons involving time limits. But there was also another message buried in the City’s response: AfroFest was too loud.
Over the past two years, I’ve watched as black people have been silenced, arrested, and even killed for the noise they make. Black people aren’t more or less loud than anyone else, and yet the noise we make is feared, scrutinized, and made public. Understanding why there’s such a sensitivity — and fear — of black noise is a complex and intricate question that doesn’t supply a simple answer.
Over the past two years, I’ve watched as black people have been silenced, arrested, and even killed for the noise they make.
In the early 20th century, when jazz musicians like Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk began using harsh, clashing piano chords — dissonance — to express the pain of African-American oppression, critics felt the technique wasn't mainstream or trendy enough. The academic Paul Watkins has described how these artistic attempts at sharing the black experience have, literally, fallen on deaf ears: “The more rupturing or polyphonically disruptive...the more often such productions have historically been interpreted, often by white critics and listeners, as noise.”
In 1968, following the historically significant black uproar of the Civil Rights movement, James Brown released “Say It Loud — I’m Black And I’m Proud.” By the end of the decade, that track was part of the shift that led to people identifying as “black” instead of “Negro.” Being unapologetically loud and black slowly replaced decades of chasing “respectability.”
In the ’80s, rap groups N.W.A. and Public Enemy shouted political and racial messaging based on the black experience, once again drawing criticism from white critics and institutions for being too harsh and aggressive. In her 1994 book Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America, Tricia Rose wrote that the continual struggle hip-hop engages in makes it, “a noisy and powerful element of contemporary American popular culture which continues to draw a great deal of attention to itself.”
The public narrative of this musical history has seeped into policing the actions of regular folk living their lives: when it comes to parties, festivals, or just the everyday movement of black people, there is particular emphasis on noise. Each year, there are noise complaints surrounding the Toronto Caribbean Carnival. In London, residents living near the Notting Hill Carnival have complained about it being too loud and rowdy, which led to
the use of decibel readers by city officials to police volume levels in the past.
For years now, Brooklyn residents have complained about sound volume when artists like Jay Z, Kanye West, and Rihanna perform at the Barclays Center. In 2014, insulated ceiling panels were installed at the venue and a representative for the site’s developer told residents: “This isn’t happening during Barbra Streisand.” The Barclays Center declined to comment for this story. Venues including the Hersheypark Stadium in Pennsylvania and AT&T Park in California have also received similar complaints, but there may be valid reasons why hip-hop is constantly targeted.
“Bass travels an incredibly long distance and goes through walls and buildings, unlike treble sounds,” said Marshall Chasin, director of research and chief audiologist of the Musicians’ Clinics of Canada. “And hip-hop has a lot of bass, like reggae music. It’s difficult to stop some of the bass sounds from getting through.” Chasin also said that because hip-hop doesn’t have one consistent beat throughout a song, the “on/off” of the bass can be agitating to some.
But, in terms of decibels, Chasin said that other genres are just as culpable. “I wouldn’t say that hip-hop is louder than classical — and you can have classical music that is as loud as rock.” He also noted that rock concerts peak at 115 to 120 dB, which is considered “extremely loud,” considering ear pain begins at 125 dB. If anything, rock concerts should also stand to breach noise bylaws, but even if they do, they rarely make headlines (an exception: a recent Auckland AC/DC concert that was so loud sound vibrations were picked up by seismographs — the same instrument that measures earthquakes.)
Chasin also pointed out another important factor to consider when it comes to volume complaints: personal preference. “If somebody just doesn’t like hip-hop, they’re going to be more aggravated with it than the music they like.”
It was social media noise that helped AfroFest find its footing again: Twitter and Facebook helped Toh gather thousands of signatories on a petition. Then following protests by Black Lives Matter Toronto, (routinely described in the media as "loud but peaceful"), AfroFest’s two-day permit was reinstated this March. But maybe it should never have been restricted in the first place: the festival, which takes place in a 37-acre public lakeside park, received just eight noise complaints last year. According to James Dann, manager of waterfront parks for the City of Toronto, several more complaints were made to other agencies. He said there’s no standard about how many complaints it takes to restrict an event. “If it’s one or two complaints, it’s not going to be an issue,” he said. “If we start getting multiple complaints through multiple agencies then we definitely follow-up.” Ultimately, there’s still no evidence that AfroFest breached decibel levels.
Black noise can easily be dismissed as antagonistic, abrasive, and futile, but it is survival. It forces people to acknowledge black experiences and oppression, and it’s loud even when no one wants to hear it.
And what about the policing of "noise" outside of a music context? Danielle Phillips-Cunningham, an associate professor at Texas Women's University, said the Napa Valley train incident is representative of how black women are viewed in public. “There’s always been this idea that women who are loud aren’t ‘ladylike,’ that black women are not the typical, white, pure, respectable woman,” she said. But how can a group of jovial women pose a safety threat?
Lisa Johnson, one of the 11 women kicked off the train, told me that since the incident she monitors her behavior in public. “We find ourselves constantly checking like, ‘Are we being too loud?’” she said. “And it’s a shame that it’s come to that because laughter is about joy and feeling good.”
“There’s always an association with us and anger, and that informs the perception that we’re loud and disruptive,” Phillips-Cunningham said, adding that the stereotype of the angry black woman often puts us at a disadvantage. But it’s more than that: it’s readily believed, and cost two women in the book club to lose their jobs. People, and organizations, pathologize the mistreatment of black women because of a public perception that black people — women in particular — are inherently obnoxious, confrontational, verbally abusive, and loud.
These fears mainly dwell in white spaces: public areas that reflect white, middle-class identity and values often to the exclusion of people of color. For me it was a university cafeteria, but it can be a gas station, a publicly-permitted festival, or a wine tour.
Gentrification of black and brown neighborhoods can exacerbate the policing of noise and people, creating a sensitivity to who is out of place and who "belongs." Last fall, the East Bay Express reported that new white residents of East Oakland, California, were using an app called Nextdoor to organize police complaints about black residents making noise in neighborhood parks. Around the same time, a local gospel choir in the area received a $3,500 nuisance fee because their choir practice was too loud. If white neighbors will call the police on black people singing bible hymns, there’s probably not much else we can do in Oakland besides breathe.
If the perception of black noise — in music, in protest, or in celebration — is somehow threatening, then there must be an interrogation of what makes people fearful. Perhaps it’s fear of what will be revealed when you listen to what we’re actually saying. Black noise can easily be dismissed as antagonistic, abrasive, and futile, but it is survival. It forces people to acknowledge black experiences and oppression, and it’s loud even when no one wants to hear it. But the thing with noise is that even if you try, you can’t block it out. Eventually you have to listen.