Ekene Ijeoma's 'A Counting' Lets Us Hear Which Voices Count In The 2020 Census Nigerian American artist Ekene Ijeoma is an MIT professor who draws on sound and data to explore representations of social justice. He's working on a "voice portrait" of the census called A Counting.
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This Audio Portrait Of The 2020 Census Asks: Whose Voices Really Count?

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This Audio Portrait Of The 2020 Census Asks: Whose Voices Really Count?

This Audio Portrait Of The 2020 Census Asks: Whose Voices Really Count?

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The Nigerian American artist Ekene Ijeoma tackles issues of social justice in his work. His mediums - sound and data. NPR's Neda Ulaby has more.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: When Ekene Ijeoma decided to deconstruct a monument, he picked the song that most symbolizes America.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

EKENE IJEOMA: One, two.

(SOUNDBITE OF PERFORMANCE OF EKENE IJEOMA'S "DECONSTRUCTED ANTHEMS")

ULABY: You can hear missing notes in this performance of the piece Deconstructed Anthems played at a Houston Texas Arts Festival in 2017. Two years later, Ijeoma told an audience in Washington, D.C., the piece is about mass incarceration.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

IJEOMA: The removing of notes from "The Star-Spangled Banner" represents every Black person who was systematically removed from their families and communities that year.

ULABY: Ijeoma is not the type of artist who works at an easel with a paint brush. He's a data nerd and a professor at MIT. For this piece, Ijeoma built an algorithm that removes a percentage of notes that stand in for the percentage of African Americans removed from society in a given year. It ends abruptly.

IJEOMA: Yeah, I've always been trying to bridge the gap between facts and feelings.

ULABY: Ekene Ijeoma, who's 36 years old, has an audio portrait up now on the Internet called A Counting.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: One.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Two.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Three.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Five.

ULABY: It's a portrait of our country, the United States. Any American is invited to call a number Ijeoma set up and count in the languages they grew up speaking.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: (Non-English language spoken).

ULABY: English, Igbo, Arabic, Scottish Gaelic, Japanese and dozens more. Ekene Ijeoma has tailored some versions of the piece to specific U.S. cities where the first number is always spoken by a member of an Indigenous tribe, like the Lenape in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: (Non-English language spoken).

ULABY: Ekene Ijeoma says this audio portrait is also about the census whose voices literally count. Recent news about the census deadline changing is a concern, he says, for communities historically left out and left behind. Data paints a picture, Ijeoma says. He makes that picture art.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF TEEBS' "WIND LOOP")

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