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Public housing and the sound of music

Thu, Jan 3, 2013

Public housing experiences are often accompanied by stereotypes of limitations. Stigmas of low performance, crime, laziness, and violence are just a few of the expectations placed on residents of public housing communities. In an effort to refute these stereotypes, Keith L. Magee, executive officer of the National Public Housing Museum, and his creative team, designed The Sound, The Soul, The Syncopation, an interactive exhibit highlighting famous musicians who grew up in public housing communities around the world.

Magee, a social historian and theologian by training, gathered inspiration for the exhibit from his study of the impact that public housing has made on people who lived in, or who currently reside in, public housing. “I’ve talked about [public housing’s] incredible history and how it spans across race, class, and ethnicity, and I wanted to share that in a way that it would connect with everyone, so I thought of music,” he says. “I thought about how Barbara Streisand, Jay-Z, Kenny Rogers, Diana Ross & the Supremes, and Justin Bieber all have a message that is expanded and shared through their music. Why not look at those subjects who are actually people who’ve lived in public housing, and bring to life the music of public housing?” Magee adds.

The National Public Housing Museum has partnered with Groovebug, whose iPad application is featured in the interactive exhibit. CEO & Co-Founder Jeremiah Seraphine donated the use of the Groovebug application to Magee and his creative team. “We’re letting the National Public Housing Museum use our original Groovebug product, but we gave them the ability to create features that are specific to the exhibit and add content specific to the exhibit.”

In its interactive portion, The Sound, The Soul, The Syncopation includes 10 iPads with two-in-one headphones that allow visitors to look up music history according to artist, genre, or song lyrics, while suggesting songs the user might enjoy based on his/her iTunes playlist. “We are really all about telling the story behind music, giving context to the music so that people who already know a lot about it can really get immersed, and people who don’t know that much about it can learn more,” Seraphine says.

Exhibit curator, Todd Palmer, who worked with independent and staff researchers for 10 months in preparation for the exhibit’s November 15 opening, laid out the three-part exhibit to portray its diversity. Gradually progressing from visual and text appeal, to music ambience exploring the North, West, and South Sides of Chicago through real life recorded stories, to the interactive music feature through Groovebug, The Sound, The Soul, The Syncopation is a diverse artistic combination of unexpected revelations about messages surrounding, and experiences in, public housing. “Part of narrowing down our selection [to 40-50] artists was going beyond people’s expectations that this would be an [exhibit] about hip-hop,” says Palmer. “And while we certainly didn’t edit out hip-hop and there is a lot about hip-hop in the show, we wanted to make sure we expressed music coming from pop stars from Canada like Justin Bieber to country musicians like Kenny Rogers,” Palmer says.
Diversity was one of Magee’s main goals for the exhibit. His goal is that “the exhibit will be used as a resource for the city and the nation surrounding the universal theme of the lived experience.” Magee says, “It is my hope that through the exhibit and the programs that we have, that students of music, entertainers, radio personalities, and residents will all have an opportunity to reflect and understand the influence of music on society.”

Through their partnership, Magee, Palmer, and Seraphine agree that common stigmas will be refuted as a result of the depth covered in the living experience as explored through the featured artists. “[The exhibit] is a nice way to get people thinking about social questions and issues of poverty, and issues of the routes that we have for success and/or failures in society, but in a fun way through music,” Palmer notes. Magee adds, “It looks like a diversity of people, of style, of interpretation, of song. I hope it changes our conscious thought as to who the people are that live in, or have lived in, public housing, and what that represents to us as individuals.”

The Sound, The Soul, The Syncopation features 40-50 artists and activists from around the world who have had experiences in public housing. The exhibit is showcased at Expo 72 (72 E. Randolph St.) and runs through March 15, 2013.

Written by Erica Lindsay,
StreetWise Editorial Intern

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