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A music professor wants to represent what Black care sounds like, 'as infinite, as vast'

Two musicians perform in a sunny room. One stands playing a keyboard, next to a computer. The other sings sitting down. They're in front of a screen showing a swirling purple image of space.
Ayanna Long
BOOMscat performing at Dartmouth College in the spring. Professor Allie Martin worked with the musicians to create recordings that embody the sound of Black care.

In the early throes of the pandemic, Allie Martin wanted to make data about race and COVID accessible through sound.

Thinking about how people experience the world through music and sound is a huge part of her life. She’s a professor in the music department at Dartmouth College. Technically, she’s an ethnomusicologist. But that’s not how she usually introduces herself.

“Sometimes when people ask me what I do, I just say 'I listen to Black people,'" she told me. "Because that feels more in tune with my work than necessarily ethnomusicology as a discipline.”

Martin kept reading about how Black people in the U.S. were more likely to get sick and wind up in the hospital with COVID, especially early on. But focusing on these disparities in her work didn’t feel right.

“I started to think about what would I need to hear, or what would folks around me need to hear, rather than increased death rates or comorbidities, or limited vaccine supply,” she said. “That was when we started to think about listening to stories of care.”

Two Black women stand next to each other, with their arms around each other's soldiers for a photo. They're each wearing a shirt with "Black Sound Lab" written on it. They're outside in front of a railing with green trees in the background.
Ayanna Long
Allie Martin (right) organized a performance in May to celebrate the Black COVID care project. She almost canceled the event because it came just over a week after the mass shooting in Buffalo targeting Black people, and the day after the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas.

Over the past few months, Martin and a team of researchers have collected hundreds of stories of what has kept Black people well during the pandemic. They’ve come from academic articles, Twitter, talking to friends and family — from anywhere.

There’s a collection of Black grandmothers who started sharing family recipes and teaching young people how to cook, organized by the Oregon-based Black Food Sovereignty Coalition.

There’s a group of academics who were calling for public health departments to track and release race-based data related to COVID in April of 2020.

And there are viral Tiktok videos from Black creators encouraging people to rest, in keeping with a long oral tradition in the Black church.

“I started to think about what would I need to hear, or what would folks around me need to hear, rather than increased death rates or comorbidities, or limited vaccine supply. That was when we started to think about listening to stories of care.”
Allie Martin

But Martin has had to be careful about how these stories are documented. At first, she thought about mapping Black churches holding vaccine clinics all over the country. That’s after she spoke with her grandmother, who stood in line to get her first vaccine at Reid Temple in Maryland.

“I stopped almost as soon as I started, because it's unsafe — it's unsafe to gather those resources and publicize them,” she said. “This is as much documentation as I'm willing to do. And I question that some days.”

What she has done is collected these stories on a website that will launch later this year. Each is represented by a star, set in space. The idea is to show Black care as infinite and vast.

Every story is organized into categories, like food, art, health, religion or some combination thereof. And they're paired with a sound. You don’t hear the voices of people directly involved with these projects. Instead, there’s music — a different sound for every theme.

The sound of stories related to food
The sound of stories about health
The sound of stories related to art

The recordings come from Asha Santee and Jennifer Patience Rowe, artists based in Washington D.C. who perform as BOOMscat.

For Martin, music was always going to be part of this project.

“Sound is how I get where I'm trying to go," she said. "If I'm trying to hear the infinite galaxies of Black care, sound is how I'm gonna get there.”

A Black woman with short orange hair and red lips closes her eyes and sings into a microphone.
Ayanna Long
Jennifer Patience Rowe is a vocalist and songwriter, and Asha Santee is a keyboardist, drummer and producer.

Another piece of this project is about Black care outside the pandemic. Martin wanted to highlight those stories too.

Like a free breakfast program that was organized by the Black Panthers across dozens of cities in California in the late 1960s.

And contemporary Black artists working to diversify illustrations in medical textbooks.

And the Negro Motorist Green Book — a guide created during the Great Depression to help Black travelers navigate road trips safely.

For the stories that capture the legacy of Black care before COVID, Martin layered recordings on top of one another.

Black care that predates the pandemic

Putting these stories in one place is bigger than just keeping a record. It’s an answer to a question Martin says she gets all the time.

“Especially since 2020 and the murder or George Floyd, people always ask, 'Well, what are we supposed to do?’” she said. “I just wanted to give this galaxy, like, ‘Here's what's been done.’”

Lexi Krupp is a corps member for Report for America, a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and regions.

If you have questions, comments or tips, send us a message or get in touch with reporter Lexi Krupp:


Lexi covers science and health stories for Vermont Public.
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