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Exploring Identity with Citizen DJ, a New Project from LC Labs

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This post was written by Carolyn Bennett, the 2018-2019 Library of Congress Teacher in Residence.

Each student lives at an intersection of identities: gender, race, age, hobbies, and more. Art arises from these intersections, inspired by the stories that occur there. Learning to “relate artistic ideas and works with societal, cultural, and historical context,” as the National Core Arts Standards say, is a key aspect of becoming someone who can deeply analyze, appreciate, and enjoy the arts. Moreover, once students understand the relationship of identity to artistic creation, they are empowered to celebrate their own identities through art.

Citizen DJ, a new project of LC Labs, enables explorers to discover and analyze hundreds of samples within several digital collections: Edison clips from the earliest days of recorded entertainment; acoustic performances by 21st-century women; diverse American English dialects. Each sample represents a unique intersection of culture, context, instruments, and intent. Each sound invites the explorer to examine its context and history.

For example, students may discover a big band’s ornamented seventh chord. They will discover it was sampled from Noble Sissle’s rendition of “Crazy Blues,” which Mamie Smith very successfully recorded in 1920. Hers was the first commercial hit by a Black vocalist, and her success propelled labels to seek out more African-American voices (and ears), preserving a watershed moment in American music.

One enticingly jazzy chord leads students to question the role of the consumer, commercialism, and equity in American musical traditions.

Original Crazy Blues Recording

Musicians’ identities become evident through the art they create. Often, one is drawn to music when one’s identity resonates with the perspectives of the artist. The perspective of the artist may feel comfortingly familiar, or enticingly novel. A deep analysis of art requires the audience to understand and connect to the perspective of the artist.

Citizen DJ draws students to move beyond analysis to create meaningful new connections to each primary source through mixing. Remixing may occur through the embedded tool, which allows users to manipulate parameters, add drumbeats, and create loops. Alternatively, samples may be freely downloaded to use in any digital audio platform. Students can weave an intertextual tapestry as they are inspired to highlight connections with primary source recordings in their own unique statement. Here’s an example of a remix: Citizen DJ link to a Remixed Crazy Blues.

In my classroom, I asked students to articulate some of their identities: They are daughters and sons, students, athletes, employees, leaders, and volunteers. Their experiences are shaped by their race, orientation, religion, socioeconomic status, and political beliefs. We discussed: How are these identities experienced? How might these identities be represented through sound?

Then, my students explored Citizen DJ. As they researched and analyzed, they discovered connections and considered how these historic samples can help them express their own story. Then, they created an original loop. Students shared their musical creations, describing how their identity resonated with the historic samples. Citizen DJ allowed my students to learn about the rich story of American music, but also more about their classmates. Edison’s samples became a new vocabulary to tell their own story.

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