“We’re talking about the emergence of a culture which is largely a secret culture, a culture which has developed a linguistic code in which public speech can hide two meanings. If you’re not a part of the culture, you can’t hear. It’s noise.”
— Cedric Robinson (RIP)
I LIKE a good noisy church. Having been born into and brought up in a church — both building and congregation — that made lots of sound, sound is how I came to understand the concept of community and notions of the sacred. The sound was noise. Cold weather’d descend and we’d walk into the building from the harsh air to be greeted by the loud creak of the dark wood door. It was an old edifice with the original fixtures, a former Swedenborgian church. Arriving on a cold night, the shhhhhsh! of steam from the banging, clanging heating system that made sounds like water percolating. The sound was music. There was Sister Morgan’s playing of the Hammond B-3, or my brother Ronald’s playing, or even my own. There was Elder Wilkins’s riffs on the guitar, get down, get out. There were the songs Daddy or Mommy would sing.
On Thursday nights, if we arrived between 8:00 and 8:30 — and we almost always did because my father was the assistant pastor there — saints would be on their knees praying with fervor, with quietude. Faint sounds just above a whisper, barely audible, but there. Such quiet would at times erupt into loud handclaps and speaking in tongues and declarations of Yes! or Have your way! or a myriad of other phrases of praise and adoration. Though not always loud, the noise was continuous and always full of conviction and intensity. Bowed down, knees bent, the sound of the door would announce more and more arrivals. My youthful head, weary because praying for a half hour on your knees is boring to a kid, would look up to see who it was. The Jacksons. Sister Streeter. Aunt Joyce and my cousins. Deacon Waller. The Benjamins. Whomever. Praying would recommence. Those moments, those minutes, electrified my thinking.
Noise produced for me a way to consider worlds.
Only five seconds but it begins with noise. Only five seconds but it’s hard to be sure if it’s the sound of a congregation before service begins or the sound after it ends, or the sound of family and friends at the Fourth of July barbecue or a Thanksgiving gathering. It’s the noise. Before the beat drops, before the music commences, we hear the chatter, the murmur, of conversation. Noise — the often discarded material — is not thought to have thought, is not thought to be thought. At least, not often enough. Yet Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up” is a testament to noise as habit, as life, as love, as hallowed. Throughout its performance, noise remains. The conversation, the Yeahs and Heys, the yelps, the ungatherable mishmash of howls and talk. There remains, throughout “Got to Give It Up,” an imprecision that is written into the performance, an imprecision because sounds heard come to the audience as noise. We do not know who says what. Or why. We do not know why. But this noise, noise that precedes the performance, remains throughout its duration.
Dance, smooth move. Hand, clap. Drum, rimshot. Tambourine, smack. Churchy organ. Bass, slap. Whooooo! Yeah, Yeah! Wait, wait!
Of course it’s not the only song or performance that has noise as its basis. Indeed, total elimination of noise is an impossibility. Noise ain’t nothin’ but vibration and it is there, all around and in and through us, as unending pulse and movement. But this song, this performance, is about the flourishing, the flowering, of noise. It is about the making apparent of the necessity of noise. As such, it is an ethical demand, an ethical statement, about how we might be and think otherwise. Such noise is a sign, a sound, of love. Noise, a refusal of individuation. Gotta give the noise up in order to receive noise, noise as the basis for being with, being together, being social. Music, in its finality, is but one way to organize noise. And black music is all about that noise. Black music lets noise happen, organizes with and in and sometimes against it. Black music is the gathering of the dark matter of noise, gathering and, rather than dispensing with the materiality as inconsequence, using it in the cause of being moved.
Sylvester understood the noise too. Like Gaye, Sylvester’s song attempted liveness through the making apparent the sound of noise throughout the performance of his hit “Over and Over.” The Yeahs and yelps and whooos heard throughout could easily be the foundation for Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up.” It is also the foundation for black sacred sounding, black sacred practice. And isn’t that the point of noise? That it cannot be easily discarded because it can find residence in various formations, it can be integrated because of its imprecision. Noise gathers itself in “Over and Over” as sung conversation between friends, “Find yourself a friend!” they sing over and over again, repetitiously. The noise spreads out, the noise jes grew, and finds itself a friend. The noise is the foundation, the vibration before abstraction, before being formed into sound, into music.
Black flesh is its own kind of noise. Black flesh is a condition, a condition that before abstraction, is the material fact of existence. The flesh is the grounds for existence. What does that mean? It means that before being named by parents, before being gendered by doctors, before birth certificates and social security numbers, before birth rites of Christianity or Islam or other traditions, before being placed, we are flesh. And this is a fact that we should not seek to escape but to love, and love hard. Flesh, like noise, is difficult to capture and individuate, because indeterminacy is written into the way flesh behaves and finds relation in the world. Accepting the flesh, the fact of one’s flesh, is to accept noise as that from which life grows and that to which life returns.
Yet not everyone is pleased with noise, with the noise of flesh. Noise has the capacity to antagonize and exposes us to the vibration, the movement, the sound, that the Western theological and philosophical traditions seek to still. This theological and philosophical tradition has racialized and gendered and sexed and classed ideas about what is, who is and can be, normal. This normality is often produced in courtrooms and legal proceedings — proceedings that determine not only what normal looks like, but also how normal sounds.
For example, the law and noise come together through the noise ordinance violations, legal measures used to control the sounding out, the vibrational agitation, of blackness. Gastón Espinosa writes,
In June 1906, the Los Angeles Ministerial Association attempted to silence [William] Seymour and the [Azusa Street] revival. It filed a complaint with the Los Angeles Police Department against the “negro revival” (thus injecting race into the complaint) on the grounds that it was disturbing the peace. The police investigated the charges and decided against their request because it was located in an industrial, not residential, section of the city.
The police were hailed to control the noise of blackness. This spiritual sound of black communities, this agitational sound of blackness, was considered, and still is today, a public nuisance, a sound and vibration that needed to be remedied.
The Ministerial Association sought to control the noise of “Blackpentecostals,” an interracial, interclass group gathered at a makeshift church on Azusa Street in Los Angeles. This group was known for their interruptive noise. These “holy rollers” were first announced with a Los Angeles Daily Times article titled “Weird Babel of Tongues,” (April 18, 1906). Such an announcement was the calling of attention to the sounds, the noises, the strange utterances, these people were making. Religious Historian David Daniels states, “The early Pentecostal syntax of sound disrupted the Protestant soundscape. Volume, a lot of it, was valued. Particular religious noise became acceptable as part of the early Pentecostal sound within the Pentecostal syntax.”
Within mainstream Protestantism, to be a proper spiritual subject was to be closed and quieted consistently, to be deeply reflective and meditative in opposition to noisy. Noise was imagined to be the antithesis of reflection and meditation. But here are the Blackpentecostals, making noise in the service of deep reflection and meditation. Here are the Blackpentecostals, refusing to cease in the practice of noise, but rather practiced the enunciation, elevation, and celebration of noise. Here are the Blackpentecostals, using noise as a way of life, as spiritual tradition.
But the violation of noise ordinances was in no way exclusive to the Blackpentecostals. Even church bells had a history of agitation. “[I]n urban centers [beginning at the close of the 19th century], it became increasingly common for neighbors to complain bitterly about the sound of nearby chimes,” says Isaac Weiner. He continues, “Even more surprising, many of them turned to the law for protection and achieved some degree of success. In several cases, bell ringing became subject to careful regulation by the state.” Yet there is a difference between what Weiner records and the noise I’m after. Unlike the noise of church bells, what I’m after are the noises produced by the flesh itself; the shouts, the foot shuffles, the clapping hands, the murmurs, the exhortations.
Hear, for example, the “friendly advice” given to Methodists that were purportedly in “error” because of worship — noisy worship — with non-whites. Of black noise, John Fanning Watson, in 1819 stated, “At the black Bethel church in Philadelphia, it has been common to check the immoderate noise of the people” and of the performance of enthusiastic public worship generally, “It began in Virginia, and as I have heard, among the blacks.” The noise was nuisance, the noise was racialized; the noise was in and of and from blackness. Watson described the emotions that produced this noise as “extravagant.”
The quality of the noise that troubled both Watson and Los Angeles’s Ministerial Alliance, 90 years later, was not just its volume but also its intensity of affect and emotion, and the capacity for such intensity to be transitive, to travel, to affect others unsuspectedly, and perhaps to engulf and to change. The black noise was an event horizon, like a gravitational field, and Watson wrote of the “error” of being seduced by and participating in black noisemaking to warn white Methodists of the possibilities of being engulfed, taken over, by the noise. It would be approaching something like a sonic becoming black through spiritual practice. In order to remain a quiet and reflective Protestant — and to maintain whiteness — one should be wary of the noise, of the funk, of blackness. What is it about noise that unmoors and destabilizes the project of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy? What is it about noise that forestalls the project of settler colonial and antiblackness? It seems to me to be the case that the possibility of being moved is what so worries, what so threatens to abolish the coherence of being a subject of settler colonialism and antiblackness; a subject that is unbothered by the conditions of violence and displacement as a structuring logic of the world.
Sometimes the violation of noise ordinance was because the worship noise took place late into the night. Some critiqued the noise by hinting that the congregants could be effective during the workday. Unlike the noise of church bells, there was no regularity nor synchronicity to the noise of the flesh. Unlike the noise of church bells, one could not set a clock to such flesh noise; one would not know when it would erupt, interrupt, disrupt in the cause and practice of worship. Unlike the noise of church bells, the noise of this movement was not given to sequence and order but a flouting of it, an antagonistic threat against it. And thus, also against the political economy that demanded such regularity of time and space. The noise was itself the announcement of a shifting, and a critique, of Newtonian time and space, and the labor this logic necessitated. The noise of the flesh is not the announcement of, but a disordering and breaking with, modern time and space.
Noise, according to this logic, is racialized. Mark Smith notes,
If colonial elites agreed on what produced sound, they also agreed on who produced noise. Native Americans, African Americans (slave and free), and the laboring classes generally were among the greatest noise-makers in colonial America […] African Americans, like Native Americans and other nonliterate groups, “defied the surveillance of writing” and made sounds that threatened to fracture the acoustic world of English settlers.
Noise, then, obstructed subjectivity as colonial elites sought to imagine it, and normalize it; noise obstructed the process of becoming man in his fullness. To remove the noise, on the other hand, is to remove the excess, the solution to the problem of settler colonial dispossession and antiblack racism — it is to remove the funk. And while Smith writes about the colonial era in particular, what he notices has purchase on how noise works — what it makes, and why some fear it and others desire it — today.
Those of us rendered “Other” are the noise, carry the noise; flesh as noise. Such flesh — through manifest destinies, invisible hands of economies, through rational man against the bestial backward black, brown, indigene, impoverished — has to be discarded, removed from land and forced to labor for the production of peace and quiet. Such stilling of noise, such stilling of vibration, is purportedly for peace, for clear thinking, for rest. It is a curious impossibility, noise abatement, curious but no less desired as a means to create normalcy.
And because Protestantism does not just belong to the Christians but is fundamental to the way Americanness is performed, (is what Max Weber describes as an ethic) this opposition of noise to normal subjectivity is generalized. And we find a strain of the opposition to blackness, to black noise, through practices of land displacement and resource reallocation. The remediation of noise would then be considered to be an achievement of urban development, of mixed use planning, of the modern city. There is a silence, a removal of a certain black noise, and that silence is evidence of the colonial logics ongoing in our time.
Saint John Coltrane African Orthodox Church, in San Francisco, has the love. The love of flesh, the love of noise. It is a church founded to spread the “sound baptism” that would then lead to a way to love all, to do justice in the world and strive against inequity. The sounds heard, the vibrations felt, by the congregants and those walking past its doors is the noise, of the ethics, of blackness, of love. “The church ends every Sunday mass with a meditation on Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, and provides food and clothing to the needy.” Such a deep inwardness is an outpouring, a movement toward others, an ecstasy communal. Yet like lots of churches in urban epicenters the noise constitutes a nuisance, a nuisance to new inhabitants that again produces a confrontation between the law and the noise. And the church is being displaced.
The church was recently in the midst of a campaign because of the astronomical raising of rent from $1,600 to $4,000 a month. This is because land in the Bay Area is at a premium and noisy, which is to say, black spaces like the Coltrane Church are an obstruction for the development of the land for the purpose of profit. But it is more than just a displacement from a building. The newly landed gentrifying citizenry’s desired church’s displacement would mean the shuttering of the sound, of the noise, of blackness, of the sound and noise of black social life as worship, meditation, deep inward reflection. To get rid of the noise is to uproot a way of life, to radically alter the vibratory pattern of sound, noise, music.
What, when white supremacist capitalist patriarchy shows up as the renunciation of the flesh, renunciation of the noise? Gentrification, which is imprecise shorthand to talk about the processes of displacement of communities through the making private of public goods, services and land, is a racialized, gendered, classed process. The movements and flows of gentrification are against noise, the pulse of black, brown, and indigenous flesh. Under the guise of desiring a space for all, the noise of black flesh worshipping has become a problem, an obstruction, for land development and revitalization. The law is called upon to account for and control black flesh in story after story after story after story after story.
Yet there is an example produced by blackness, the process and practice of liberation of which the resonance of black music is but one example: find your noise, let it flower, flourish; be free. Such noise queers us, makes us otherwise, allows us the space of non-normativity. And isn’t the point of the work many of us self-proclaimed queer political actors do is to queer desire itself? Should that not be in operation for the ways we think of our flesh and worship spaces? Shouldn’t this give way to noise? Shouldn’t noise be celebrated as the beyond, beyond the edge of horizon? But when we lose our noise, what happens? When we not only do not desire its varied intensities of vibrant signs of life at various frequencies, but seek its fundamental undoing, a noiselessness — an impossible achievement, though a desire nonetheless — what is the trajectory of the loss?
Saint John Coltrane African Orthodox Church performs Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” every Sunday as a meditation. They allow for anyone that plays an instrument, anyone that has flesh, to participate through sound, through choreography. Some tap dance, as a meditation. Some play horns or drums or chimes, as a meditation. This is all a noisy enterprise. To listen to the noise, to hear into it — feel the weight and texture of its vibration — is an ethical demand, a plea to recalibrate our ethics. The Coltrane church, like the Blackpentecostal church of my youth, offers a liberation praxis of noise, a liberation theology that has a preferential option for the noise, for the flesh. Noise — like the flesh, like blackness — is not a possession, it cannot be owned. Noise can only be performed, can only be practiced as a way of life. Noise, then, can be repressed, silenced, only through violence, through violation. Noise cannot be possessed but can be felt — its vibration — and experienced, by all.
So we have to think about the raising of the rent from $1,600 to $4,000 as part of a colonialist tradition of violent unsettlement, uprooting, displacement. We have to think about the displacement of the church as part of a long, ongoing project attempting to remove the noise of blackness from communities. And we have to think about the noisy flesh of homeless persons living in San Francisco, roundly criticized as “riff raff,” and how their noise does not register as a suffering that needs to be alleviated. We cannot think, in other words, these various desires for remediation apart from each other, they are part of the same historical and contemporary settler colonial, antiblack political economic project.
You will lose your noise, you will lose your church, you will lose your flesh.
I like a good noisy church. And sometimes, that church is a nightclub. A space of gathering, a space of intellectual practice, against the imposition of normative ways to be human. A place of movement and restive refuge, restive refuge against the imposition of a violent world. Some religionists tell us we queer and trans* identified people are sinful, are shameful. (This would be true, this projection of sinfulness: it would be true of even the Swedenborgian church where I discovered the love and necessity of noise.) So we find other places, other sanctuaries. So we gather together in the cause of noise, to find our noise against the religious, cultural demand for its being lost. The noise of held hands freely underground, outta the way, off and to the side. The noise of sweat and flesh gyrating and pulsating to the music. The noise of flirtations and hesitancies and desires held, desires felt, desires consummated.
Of course I am thinking of Pulse nightclub in Orlando, the violence that infused the encounter, the violence that produced a demand for the hushed silencing of queer potentiality, queer noise. The violence was a demand not dissimilar to desires for noise remediation, for the settler colonial logic of displacement. Pulse nightclub was a queer refuge, a space of inhabitation, a location wherein the noise of working class, queer of color folks could gather, feel the weight and texture of the sounds of song and move with and in and through such music.
The way I think about black spiritual noise helps me understand other histories of noise, and ways other communities have and make noise as vibration, as a modality for celebrating their flesh. Celebrating flesh against settler colonialism and dispossession. It is important to note that the violence at Pulse took place on Latin Night; that the names of victims present a mosaic of peoples, many who were Puerto Rican. The violence encountered is part of the history of settler colonialism. And the violence of that encounter, June 12, 2016, causes me to think about other sanctuaries that have ceased to exist: Chi Chiz, No Parking, Secret Lounge, Escuelita. Lounges and bars and nightclubs displaced because of rising costs of living, increased police presence because of purported needs for safety from the gay bourgeoisie. Where can the noise be felt, heard, for queers of color? We have to think about the violent encounter at Pulse as part of a trajectory of displacement, a trajectory of violence.
Displacement, like noise late into the night, is also about the political economy, about labor and exploitation:
[T]his urban speculative economy is cleared through the destruction of the very communities, Black and Brown, that have historically known how to resist and survive the violence of capitalism by creating projects for collective survival and self-determination (from the original quilombos, to the underground railroad, to the Black Panthers’ and Young Lords’ survival programs).
What we find, in other words, is that the noisemaking — living into the fact of the noise — is an antidote to the foundations of our modern political economy and its current neoliberal iteration. Noise is meditation, meditation against violation and violence. Noise is an ethics of otherwise possibilities, another modality, otherwise verve and vibration. Noise is the plural event, always more than itself. Noise, the plural event of hidden and secret gathering, the plural event of hidden and secret sociality. A sociality given through sounding out, sounding out while hiding itself.
Ashon Crawley is assistant professor of Ethnic Studies at University of California, Riverside and the author of Blackpentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility (Fordham University Press, 2016).