The Art of Blackness: Sound Design for the Culture

by Porsche McGovern
Derek Graham. Photo credit: Isdell Photography.
Derek Graham. Photo credit: Isdell Photography.
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I met Derek Graham when he was the resident sound designer/engineer at PlayMakers Repertory Company on Skeleton Crew, for which I designed lights. Derek Graham is a sound designer, composer, and audio engineer based in North Carolina. A native of Queens, NY, Derek holds a MFA in Sound Design from Ohio University. His sound design and composition works include: Redwood (Portland Center Stage at the Armory), Your Healing is Killing Me and Bewilderness (PlayMakers Repertory Company: PRCSeries); The Passion of Teresa Rae KingA Raisin in the Sunand Beautiful Star (Triad Stage); Believe in Cleveland (Karamu House); and Wakey Wakey, An Octoroon (Dobama Theatre). Derek has recently co-founded a multi-media design company with his wife, Jessica called Life by Design Media & Productions, recently launching the first episode of the new podcast series What’s the Law? Ask John Eluwa

How has your race/ethnicity influenced your career journey?
In my personal life, I had to understand what it meant to be a person of color and an African-American male. Eventually I had to learn what that meant to be a person of color and an African-American male in America. Now in my career, I know that when people engage in conversation with you, you can tell a lot about a person. How to deal with other people and how they deal with you. There’s a level of caution that comes along with this journey. The biggest influence race has had on my journey, as a sound designer and a musician, is that I’ve had to be cautious. I have to make sure people are aware that I am who, and what I am. I couldn’t walk in my life and say I didn’t care about my values.

How has being as a person of color harmed and/or helped your career?
I like to see it as a gift and a curse, which can sometimes feel like a burden. It’s a gift to be born with a trait that you can share with a unique group of people. As people of color, we tell stories together that we would not be able to tell with anyone else. The funny stories, the inappropriate stories that we dare not share. It’s such a rich thing to have a community that’s open to you. I grew up with a lot of social awkwardness and shyness. It was such a great gift to find and immerse myself in the community.

Now the curse is interesting because there are certain conversations that happen around you that are about you rather than for you. When it’s about you, it can go either way. When it’s for you, you know it. That weird vibe can exist in the universe around you. All the microaggressive ways people deal with you as a person of color that happen in theatres.  

What would you like people of color considering or in the early stages of a theatre career to know?  Is there any advice you wish you'd be given?
Know who you are and “whose” you are. The biggest asset you can have in your respective profession as a person of color is to be secure in who you are and the fact of what you are. It is our responsibility to uphold that part of our humanity. I can’t change the fact that I’m a Black male in America, and that comes with a lot of scrutiny and stereotyping. In these current times of adversity and cruel injustices, it’s important to be vigilant when you have to, but to also be unapologetically BOLD, reminding people that you exist and your voice is strong; you matter. Know your strengths and your weaknesses. No one will know them better than you; otherwise, you risk being exploited. If you got the right home training and the proper mentorship, you will know what your strengths and weaknesses are. Last, but not least, stay educated. I refuse to believe that I have nothing left to learn, ever.

Who was a role model of yours in your respective field? 
It takes a village. I don’t think I could be where and who I am if it hadn’t been for key people in my life. My parents. I love my mother. She always did things with determination and commitment to establish where she is; she’ll never know this, but I do admire that about her. My father, rest his soul, never had anything phase him too badly; never had a bad day in his life. My father passed away from cancer and even when getting into hospice care, he was all smiles. I hope I can live out my life like that. Things can get bad, but they don’t have to be so bad. If a man like my father can show me that in his last days on earth, that’s what I aspire to. He was the best listener I’ve ever known. He always made people feel welcomed and at home. As theatre people, we start with welcoming people in, not only to our creation, but to our inspiration to create. 

Who was it that helped formulate who you are as a person of color trying to express your art in a white-dominated field?
I had people of color as mentors in high school, college, and grad school. They were all essential to me because they all taught me something different. My first mentor, Candace Jennings, taught me about having a voice, that it was okay to have thoughts to write down and then share. I didn’t want to share my thoughts because when I did, no one understood me. I would be more insecureShe told me that my use of words makes me unique, and that validated that my voice can have power and be meaningful. From there, I decided to go to college for music.

I was a music major at Elizabeth City State University, which is a historically black college & university. My college didn’t have a theatre major, just a minor, and only one professor for the whole department. Billicia Hines was the lifeblood. She told me that I had a voice and music, and helped me figure out how to use all of that in theatre. I saw sound design in my intro to theatre textbook, and I was like they have a name for this stuff? I feel like I couldn’t have stumbled across sound design as a path if it wasn’t for her. She allowed me to experiment with the possibilities of using music as a storytelling device and that gave me a great amount of perspective. Dr. Walter R. Swan is another mentor of mine (and an incredible vocalist) who showed me that music is a powerful form of communication and I should always strengthen my instrument. I didn’t know how to read music going into college, but once I did, everything became so clear. The moment I understood music theory, the power of listening to the function of chromatic harmonies and leitmotifs, I knew I was no longer the kid that only made beats anymore. Dr. Swan and Billicia both showed me that I can be so much more, and I had to dare to be, especially when the rest of the world doesn’t think so. I took composition classes after that; I did anything that was going to help me get better.

Grad school was a very difficult time for me; I lost my father midway through. I had one mentor, John Butler. He had lots of experience in television and film, and I got to try using my theatrical experience with films. All of these people made me appreciate the art in a deep way. I don’t think there’s a white person in the world who can tell you how it’s going to be for a person of color in the industry you’re in.       

What do you like best about sound design?
Initially, it was a safe space for me to do something with music. My emotions transfer easily into music. When I started in sound design, I began with children’s shows. I would start with trying to be like a children’s TV show, with a theme song and themes. There were more challenges later, given the different shows. Trying to rise to the challenge of finding the thing that will bring us into the world of the play. I love the creative journey that blossoms from taking on something new.

On this last show, Redwood at Portland Center Stage,I was the composer and worked with the sound designer Phil Johnson. It was a show I loved to do because there was so much Blackness in it. A contemporary show, a world premiere about lineage and genealogy, something that adds to the conversation. I melded African instruments into hip hop music. It was cool to make something based off African diaspora, infuse that into hip hop, and making this atmosphere for the culture. I got to be who I am on this production, celebrating my culture, and working with an amazing mixed bag of artists!

Click on the link below or the image to listen to music composed by Derek Graham for Redwood at Portland Center Stage.  https://soundcloud.com/derekgrahamsound/sets/redwoodmusic

Click here to listen to music composed by Derek Graham for Redwood at Portland Center Stage.

Further information from Derek Graham's Life by Design Media & Productions: https://lifebydesignmediapro.com/