Interview with Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo: Music, Technology, and Society

Published March 19, 2020

Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo is a Postdoctoral Fellow in International Humanities with the Department of Music. She earned her Ph.D. in Science & Technology Studies from Cornell University. Her academic work explores the politics of community studios, a term she has developed for fixed and mobile recording studios that prioritize working with artists from “underserved” communities, women, and non-binary artists with the goal of providing these groups with free and low-cost recording services and education. Her creative work as a rapper and producer focuses primarily on black feminist politics and Afrodiasporic identities. She is currently working on her seventh studio album.

What brought you to focus your research on community recording studios? What questions and problems are brought into view by this field of study?

I was initially led to my research on community studios through an interest in digital music production and beat-making. In high school my older brother taught me how to produce original songs on my laptop using a digital audio workstation. But I began to wonder why I could only think of a few women in the music industry who identified as producers and beatmakers.

As an undergraduate taking science and technology studies classes at Cornell University, I learned to think about this question in terms of access. To understand who uses certain technologies and why disparities persist, we must examine how categories of difference like gender and race are socially constructed. I wrote a senior thesis under the guidance of the sociologist Trevor Pinch that examined digital music networks. After returning to Cornell to pursue my PhD in 2011 I began to think about how I could expand my research into a dissertation project.

It was around that time that I learned about a local community recording studio from a fellow musician. Making weekly visits, I became less concerned with examining the space to think specifically about gender and beat-making practices, and more fascinated by the general phenomenon of a space designed to provide marginalized community members with access to particular kinds of music production technology and knowledge. This line of inquiry eventually informed my dissertation, which asked why certain recording spaces have emerged as sites of social repair, how this framing of a studio is reflected at each level of a studio’s operation (from who gets hired to what production decisions the sound engineers make), and how these decisions are complicated by the competing needs of different users.

The ways a studio space is structured, its rules of use, and the engineering philosophies those who operate it strongly define what kinds of artists can enter the studio, what kind of music is produced, and ultimately what kind of community is prioritized.

My research asks community organizers to think critically about how they define terms like “accessibility,” “professional,” and “community” in creating safe spaces for underserved communities to express themselves and learn important technical skills. There is a danger in positing that a community studio is inherently a social good and universally accessible, when in fact the ways a studio space is structured, its rules of use, and the engineering philosophies maintained by those who operate it strongly define what kinds of artists can enter the studio, what kind of music is produced, and ultimately what kind of community is prioritized. Even if it may seem obvious that recording studios would find civic support as sites for producing positive social change, it is worth interrogating the basis of the notion that simply providing access to a studio (and education about how to use its tools) can offer a substantive intervention into the social inequality experienced by the most vulnerable populations of our society.

Community recording studios range broadly from nonprofit to private and even commercial organizations. What practices or approaches make these venues distinct from other recording studios?

I define community studios as fixed or mobile studio sites that provide underserved or “at-risk” communities and new recording artists with access to professional music recording equipment, services, and education. In my research the sites I typically encountered were studios that focused on providing such services to either low-income black and Latinx youth, or women and girls from all socioeconomic levels and racial backgrounds; although I did occasionally find sites like The Hive, an all-ages volunteer-run studio in Boise, Idaho that prioritizes mental health and sobriety as a central part of its mission.

What makes community studios unique is their commitment to upholding particular social justice ideals. The websites, marketing materials, grant proposals, and programming I have observed across community studios tend to focus on keeping kids “productive” and “out of trouble” (particularly in regard to poor black and brown youth), teaching them “entrepreneurial” skills, and addressing the so-called “digital divide.” Community studios introduce cutting edge hardware and software as well as STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) concepts like coding and open source. Women’s Audio Mission, based in San Francisco, seeks to create a pipeline to push women and girls into positions as audio professionals.

The educational component of these spaces often takes the form of tutorials, skillshares, or classes about specific technical skills like beat-making and mixing, but it is also sometimes infused with teachings about the histories of different musical forms of expression, as was the case with the community studio I first visited in my hometown of Ithaca, NY. The engineers who work in these kinds of studios often provide mixing and mastering services to their communities at reduced rates while serving as instructors, program coordinators, and in some cases caretakers for young children, if the space requires it. One site that I visited in Pittsburgh offered free childcare services to studio-users through a local collective to ensure that artists at any stage of life could access the space.

How does your training in Science and Technology Studies enrich the study and sociology of music?

Technologies are both material artifacts and forms of human activity. A meaningful cultural exploration of technological artifacts and apparatuses should therefore operate largely at the level of practice. My training in science and technology studies (STS) has enabled me to think about “musicking”—the activity of making music—in terms of how social and technical practices are intertwined in what we hear as our soundscape. It is virtually impossible to understand modern musicking without deeply engaging the technology that renders it audible and reproducible. My research is primarily concerned with the ways in which community-studio actors write, record, and produce music—their artistic and technical practices—as well as how they share knowledge and ideas about these practices. Thinking about how technology reflects and produces social norms has enabled me to tell a rich story about community-studio life by building connections between the particular technical interventions used by community-studio sound engineers, the mixing styles requested by the artists and broader shifts in the content and sound of contemporary music, and the ways these shifts reflect changes and continuities in our understandings of race and gender (among other categories of difference).

There is also a close association between STS and sound studies, an interdisciplinary field that considers the material and cultural histories of sonic concepts like sound, music, listening, hearing, noise, and silence. While sound studies has benefited greatly from the foundational work of musicology and ethnomusicology, I have been able to draw on some of the conceptual frames offered by STS scholars in sound studies like Thomas Porcello and Owen Marshall who examine music making through the boundaries that emerge between different forms of knowledge in a studio, like the lines between the technical and the aesthetic, the expert and the amateur, the material and the theoretical. In turn, my work has focused largely on similar kinds of boundaries in spaces like community studios, which often sit uncomfortably at the intersections of white-collar informed commercial studio work, and the anti-establishment ideals central to community organizing.

You also work as a producer and rapper under the stage name of Sammus. Are these different personas? How does your work as an artist inform your research and teaching in the humanities?

The only space in which I have deliberately tried to keep my personas separate is in regard to how I label my professional output. I present my academic writing as Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo and I release and perform music as Sammus. That said, my recent foray into the music department at Brown has put this separation into question. Much of my music engages with social theory, but it was not until entering a music department that I began to consider my creative work also as a form of public scholarship.

In the most practical sense my persona as Sammus has played an integral role in my academic work by affording me access to the sites of my dissertation research. Since I began releasing music in 2010 and touring nationally in 2014 I have cultivated a network of artists, community organizers, studio owners, scenesters, and sound engineers, many of whom have become good friends and worked with me in some professional capacity to organize shows, record a song or an album, or collaborate on a piece of music. This network became invaluable as I set about pursuing my research. I learned about each of my primary research sites through friends and fellow musicians whom I met at shows. For example, I was given access to a community studio in Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo in exchange for leading a beat-making workshop at their annual arts festival.

My identity as Sammus also informs my teaching. My first semester at Brown I taught a hip-hop songwriting class, which required me to develop a pedagogy around my creative practice for the first time. This semester I am teaching a feminist sound studies course, in which we have read and listened to feminist artists, sound engineers, and thinkers, many of whom I have learned about while on tour and from friends I’ve met through my work as an artist. Creating a pedagogy around my music has made me reconsider how I ask students to demonstrate their knowledge. Allowing my students to reflect their understandings of complex social issues through original music and podcast episodes has been an important step for me in moving beyond the constraints of written papers. Additionally, my work as an artist who moves within feminist DIY spaces has made me prioritize remaining community-oriented and accessible in my approach. I hope to continue doing research that directly engages the communities I care most about and presenting my findings in accessibly written formats.

Photo credits: Kenneth Bachor and José Ginarte.