What Does D.C. Sound Like? Listen To Kokayi’s Washington Soundscape

By Ally Schweitzer

A new audio project depicts the sounds of a changing D.C.
A new audio project depicts the sounds of a changing D.C. Ryan McKnight

Take a walk through NoMa, the Southwest Waterfront or parts of Shaw, and you’ll hear a city in transition: the groan of cranes, shouts of men in hard hats, trucks beeping as they reverse out of construction sites.

Sounds like these capture a “changing of the guard” in Washington, says D.C. producer Kokayi — and he stitches them together with other locally sourced audio in a new project called The Sounds of the City.

In March, organizers of the annual Funk Parade put out a call for recordings captured in the District. “What sounds make you think of D.C.?” asked parade co-founder Justin Rood. “What is the song this city makes?” Recordings from the public, organizers said, would be turned over to Kokayi to sample, splice and loop into a “song for D.C.”

But Kokayi got more sounds than he expected — more than 30, all told.

“I got so much great stuff that I was like, ‘Ooh, I could do way more songs than just one,'” the artist says. So he decided to make four tracks — one for each city quadrant.

The result is a four-part audio soundscape that tells a story about urban change and the sharp contrasts that define many Washington neighborhoods.

Track No. 4, “Dreams Deterred,” portrays two sides of life in the neighborhood Kokayi calls home. “The recent crimes at Deanwood Metro starkly contrast the peace of nature that exists in Deanwood,” he says. To get at both sides, he combined a trap beat with sounds of Deanwood nature and rhythms heard at the Malcolm X Park drum circle.

The project’s third track, “Gentry & the Ebon Road,” sounds scattered and confused. That’s on purpose, Kokayi points out.

“The song begins with the sound from the corner of 7th and U and slowly distorts as a representation of the reconstruction and gentrification of U Street,” he says. He builds the track using sounds of go-go beats, a downtown D.C. violin performance, a walk through Shaw and a house flip in progress.

Kokayi dedicates “SoawesomE” to Southeast. Constructed from audio of a helicopter, birds and a band practice, the track aims to “illustrate how Southeast has always received negative media coverage without people actually knowing the tony estates of Hillcrest,” he says. Meanwhile, Southwest tune “SolidGold Waterfront” uses recordings of demolition, a motorcycle and a city bus to depict development in the city’s smallest quadrant.

The project took two and a half weeks to complete, Kokayi says. His main goal? The element of surprise. “I wanted to come up with different rhythms that wouldn’t be expected,” he says.

He hopes his work inspires more locals to create their own D.C. soundscapes.

“[Residents] should spend some time actually going out and taping their neighborhoods,” Kokayi says, “so you can hear some of the wild stuff that happens.”

Listen to “Sounds of the City,” also called “Hecho in D.C.,” below. The Funk Parade takes place May 7 in the U Street neighborhood.

Photo by Flickr user Ryan McKnight used under a Creative Commons license.