Afrosonic Innovation Lab: Artists and scholars explore music of the African diaspora

Based at U of T Scarborough, the lab studies – and experiments with – Black music and sonic cultures

Assistant Professor Mark V. Campbell leads the Afrosonic Innovation Lab at U of T Scarborough (supplied image)

A growing academic space at the University of Toronto Scarborough is offering students a meaningful outlet to engage with music from the African diaspora. 

Led by Assistant Professor Mark V. Campbell, the Afrosonic Innovation Lab explores – and experiments with – Black music and sonic cultures from across the African diaspora. 

“The mission around the lab is to be open and experimental around creating music, and working with soundscapes and sound in ways that can connect theory to practice,” says Campbell of the department of arts, culture and media.

“We also illuminate the very rich and multifold ways that sound and music have been critical to the sustenance, the survival and the thriving of populations of Africans forcibly displaced from the continent.”

Launched in 2021, the lab encourages students to not only create music but conduct research to gain and mobilize knowledge about the role of music in the African diaspora. It also fosters a collaborative environment where researchers can think beyond their individual disciplines. 

It hosts a variety of events and programming throughout the academic year, including a speaker series and an artist residency. The idea behind last year’s programming was to bring new voices to Toronto through the musical world of the Spanish-speaking Caribbean. Events were held in both Scarborough and downtown Toronto. 

Guests from last year’s speaker series included Grammy-nominated artists Yosvany Terry and percussionist Magdelys Savigne – who are both from Cuba – as well as Welmo Romero Joseph, an Afro-Puerto Rican poet and rap artist. This year’s guests include hip-hop scholar Shanté Paradigm Smalls and poet M. NourbeSe Philip.

A 10-month artist residency program gives creatives an opportunity to experiment and challenge themselves by building a project that uses academic research and creation – which can range from performance to new music or archival research. The lab also takes up artist residencies to advance creative projects based on sound, music or performance in both local and international contexts.

For Campbell, creating a space for music and academic research through the Afrosonic Innovation Lab connects his two career paths. 

Campbell’s career started as a DJ – and later community radio host and curator – in the early 1990s. He is the co-founder of Northside Hip Hop – a growing digital archive that works to preserve Canadian hip-hop history. 

Meanwhile, in addition to teaching several graduate-level courses at U of T Scarborough, Campbell is the principal investigator for a research project about hip-hop and knowledge production that received support from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. 

“I needed a space where I could continue to be who I was before entering the academy, but also remix that experience with research creation methodologies with some of the discourses that I find in places like cultural studies and musicology,” Campbell says. 

Looking forward to the next academic year, the lab is working on forging international partnerships with other universities. It will continue to support its graduate students and amplify the work of local artists. 

In November, the Afrosonic Innovation Lab will also host an international conference that coincides with the launch of Campbell’s forthcoming co-edited book, Hip Hop Archives: The Politics and Poetics of Knowledge Production and the 50th celebrations of hip-hop culture. The event will bring several archivists, curators, hip-hop enthusiasts and scholars to campus from the U.K., Brazil, U.S. and South Africa.      

“We are thinking critically about what the lab’s work looks like across the planet – the kinds of innovations that have had long-lasting reverberations globally in the music scene, in the technological and digital space and in DJ cultures.”

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