In this post, OHMA student Elyse Blennerhassett (2017) reflects on Robert Sember’s approach to sound. Born under apartheid South Africa, Sember moved to the United States in the 80s to become a prominent activist in social movements relating to health, sexual, gender, racial, and class inequalities.
Even after a few minutes of listening to Robert Sember, I was taken by his sincerity and his attention to how we listen. From being an AIDS activist, to an instructor at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia, to a member of Ultra-red, Sember’s exploration of the relationship between citizenship, alterity, and sound, resonated deeply with me. While living in the United States, I too have struggled with the reality of living in a country where racial, economic, and social inequality are a daily, historic, and sometimes seemingly intractable reality.
When Sember came to the US, in 1987, he was an outsider. Leaving South Africa, Sember arrived in the US, in the midst a major public health crisis. AIDS was extremely misunderstood and stigmatized under the Reagan administration. It was a time that demonstrated how much “the capacity to hear is foundational to democracy” (Sember). I often consider how the variables that distort our capacity to be speak, to be heard, and to listen today are remnants from this period of public anxiety and fear of the unknown. Such fears can be alleviated through creating opportunities for public trust, for as Sember pointed out by quoting Cornel West, “the condition of truth is to allow suffering to speak”. Sember’s work seeks to foster such conditions for truth through sound.
Before meeting Sember, I did not realize that Ultra-red, a collective of activists and sound artists, was already doing this work. I too, came to be a sound artist due to my interest in human rights and my frustration for what is lost in translation with more visual mediums. “Interested in struggles of migration, anti-racism, participatory community development, and the politics of HIV/AIDS”, Ultra-red uses sound art to address such issues. They do this by mapping and recording the sounds of contested spaces and histories to produce compositions for collective, intentional listening experiences. At first, this approach sounds a bit abstract, but it actually makes a lot of sense when you experience it or read its prose.
Before I met Sember, listening to Ultra-red’s compositions was compelling, but I only came to really appreciate them after Sember shared his personal story. As a white, gay man who grew up in a struggling working-class family, under apartheid, where homosexuality was illegal and conscription was required of white males, Sember was no stranger to struggle. Yet, as a white man, Sember’s skin labeled him as complicit in the very world that sought to destroy him, thus complicating how he processed his own suffering. But, by becoming a member of Ultra-red, Sember came to use sound art to transform his personal grief (which he felt like his identity prevented him from publicly expressing with words), by identifying with a larger, communal struggle. For Sember said,
“I was enrolled in this struggle by virtue of who I am…. And it helped me in a way delay the kind of grieving that I needed to do as an immigrant… And so to ... become completely immersed in another struggle, was a way to place all of that confusion, and that sadness, and that rage.”
When Sember said this, I felt like he knew me. As a white woman living in the Unites States in 2017, I also feel alienated by that same sense of loss, grief, and great discomfort with my identity as a white person—for we living in our own apartheid. Strangely, I also have found oral history and sound art to be mediums to channel the inescapable grief I feel, for they allow me to intimately connect with the communities structural racism segregates me from and to also participate as an ally in a more nuanced way. By collaboratively composing soundscapes from archival material, interviews, and public spaces, I believe I can more easily navigate the spaces that I feel like I can respectfully enter and contribute to, and honor the voices that need to be heard without exacerbating existing inequalities.
His inspiration continues to guide my work.
Elyse Blennerhassett is a sound artist and freelance audio producer for radio, podcasts, film, and space. As an OMHA student, she is researching the impact of the legacy of slavery (from the Great Migration and its reverse) on how communities and individuals experience, create, and share music within highly segregated cities, such as Chicago, and institutionalized environments, such as prisons, within the contemporary American landscape.