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T-Kay Sangwand: UCLA IS Alumna Spins the Flip Side of Archival Practice

By Joanie Harmon

Librarian for digital collection development at UCLA Library and global hip hop DJ reaches across borders to share musical and cultural connections.

As the Librarian for Digital Collection Development at UCLA Library, T-Kay Sangwand (’08, MLIS; ’08, MA, Latin American Studies) works to develop and maintain partnerships between the University and cultural heritage collections locally and around the world. Serving as the project manager and principal liaison for UCLA’s International Digital Ephemera Project in Cuba, she manages a wide range of partnerships with cultural heritage institutions such as the Biblioteca Nacional de Cuba José Martí, Instituto de Historia de Cuba, Cinemateca de Cuba, Oficina del Historiador de la Ciudad de La Habana, Casa de Artes y Tradiciones Chinas, and the Archivo de Hip Hop Cubano.

Before returning to UCLA in 2016, Sangwand worked at the University of Texas at Austin as the librarian for Brazilian studies for the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection and the archivist for the Human Rights Documentation Initiative. She achieved her bachelor’s degree in gender and women’s studies and in Latin American studies at Scripps College, where she also hosted a radio show and became General Manager of the college radio station, KSPC 88.7 FM thus beginning her 21 year love affair of working in radio.

Sangwand's MLIS project, “Revolutionizing the Archival Record Through Rap,” examined Cuban hip hop as an archival document. In 2017, she was named a Fulbright Specialist and from 2018-19, she was a Fulbright Scholar in Mexico City. Under the auspices of the Secretaría de Cultura and the Instituto Nacional de Pueblos Indígenas, she worked on the community-led project entitled “La fiesta de los Muertos en Xochimilco” that documented Day of the Dead practices in Xochimilco, a southern borough of Mexico City.

The Latest had a conversation with Sangwand on how her interest in global music dovetails with her research specialty in Latin American history and culture, and how cultural riches like music can bring all people together in spaces they may not have previously considered.

What are some of the digital collections that you work with at UCLA Special Collections?

As a librarian in a digital library program, I do a lot of project management. I’m currently working with the Center for Oral History Research on their website migration. Since arriving at UCLA, my principal responsibility since has been coordinating our cultural heritage collaborations in Cuba.

That entails building new relationships and maintaining the relationships with our current partners there, working together to establish project goals, and making sure that we have the right expertise at UCLA involved in the projects. In our Cuba collaborations, we deal with a significant amount of print and audiovisual materials and so I work closely with preservation and digitization experts to ensure that we have the right equipment and are able to troubleshoot any preservation or digitization issues. Before the pandemic, we traveled to Cuba several times a year to work on these cultural heritage preservation projects.

How hard is it to get access to these materials in Cuba? Are there governmental restrictions or any kind of censorship?

Honestly, we face more restrictions - in terms of travel and equipment transport - from the U.S. embargo on Cuba than from the Cuban government. Many of the materials that we've collaborated with Cuban institutions to digitize would not be available unless you travel to Cuba. Even if you do travel to Cuba, you may not be able to access some of the physical copies due to their fragility. To give you an example, we worked with the Instituto de Historia de Cuba (National Institute of Cuban History) to digitize radio recordings from the 1940s to the 1960s. These programs were recorded on transcription discs which are these large and fragile 16-inch lacquer discs that were used by radio stations to record their broadcasts.

In order to play back that material, you need a special device which can't be found on the consumer market – it needs to be custom-made. In addition to sourcing the playback machine, the head of audiovisual preservation at UCLA had to source the specialized styli used for playback from a vendor that is a small family operation in rural England. The Library’s AV specialists have conducted extensive research how to digitize these rare materials because these fragile 16-inch discs require very specialized knowledge and and handling. My role is to coordinate the logistics of how we transport the equipment with the necessary documentation for both the US and Cuban governments as well as organizing and interpreting the training with our partners [in Cuba] in order to make their materials accessible online. During our trips to Cuba, we bring down digitization equipment, UCLA Library specialists conduct the training, and then our partners carry out the digitization, send us digital copies, and the Library makes the materials available online. 

What started your interest in music and wanting to become a DJ?

Back in high school, I constantly listened to music on the radio and during my junior year I was scrolling through the radio dial and came across KSPC, the college radio station out of the Claremont Colleges. I ended up befriending some of the KSPC DJs, which was the main impetus for my applying to and ultimately attending the Claremont Colleges. Working at KSPC was a big part of my college experience. I ended up becoming the general manager there and I held a music show for four years.

After I graduated, I really missed doing radio, so that's when I reached out to dublab and asked if they needed any volunteers. That was back in 2006 and I've been there ever since. Even when I moved to Texas for seven years to work at the University of Texas at Austin on human rights projects, I also had a hip hop radio show on their community radio station KOOP 91.7 FM, which was outside of work. So, [radio is] something that is always parallel to my professional work is in libraries and archives. Sometimes I find ways for it to overlap and other times, it's just nice to have something separate.

How did your education at UCLA IS is prepare you for what you're doing and how did it enhance your passion for both your work as a DJ and your career on campus?

One of the most valuable aspects of the program is the professors encouraging and cultivating critical thinking skills, as opposed to just a technical education, for working in libraries and archives. The UCLA program is renowned for the social justice oriented work that professors like Anne Gilliland, Safiya Noble, Michelle Caswell and Ramesh Srinivasan are doing. I was seeking this social justice framework in my education and having a strong foundation of critical thinking really informed [my] work, particularly as a human rights archivist. Many of the challenges that we deal with, particularly working in international partnerships, are not just technical ones, but political and social ones as well. I think having a balance of both technical and analytical thinking is really important for this sort of work. 

[With] the type of education that I received in the iSchool, in addition to my own interests, my specialization in the field is pretty unique. My work has focused primarily on building international archival partnerships and collaborations, which is not something that a lot of universities do because it can be so resource intensive. So, UCLA with its strong focus on international education and having a globally focused worldview has been a really great place to put some of those skills into practice.

Who has had the greatest impact on your experience at UCLA IS?

Dr. (Anne) Gilliland was my advisor and taking her introduction to archives course set me down the path of pursuing archives as my specialization. I entered the program thinking that I would become a more traditional subject specialist in Latin American studies. Taking Dr. Gilliland’s class really showed how archives could be a tool for social justice and community empowerment. That really resonated with me because my undergrad had been focused on gender [and] women's studies as well as Latin American studies. I primarily focused on social justice movements, both in Latin America, and here in the U.S., so working with archives seemed like the perfect opportunity to combine technical skills with this larger commitment and passion that I had.

The most valuable aspect of being in the [IS] program was the cohort experience. I’m still in touch with many of the people with whom I attended grad school. We’ve all gone on to work at different places though there are a few of us who stayed at UCLA. But now having friends who work all over from NYU to UC Irvine, it’s really awesome to have that wide network and be able to call on them and ask things like, “Hey, we’re recruiting for this position, do you know someone?” or, “I’m applying to this fellowship – would you mind looking this over?”  Having someone who really understands the field and also your work in it is a gift and it’s just beautiful to have those relationships be sustained after graduation.

As a human rights archivist, how do you see music as a way to break down complex issues and build better understanding for all?  

This may not answer your question directly, but I think it’s related. There are many people who are unfamiliar with the significance of library and archives work, outside of being able to check books out. I’ve been really invested in bringing music into library spaces as a means of outreach and to attract people who might not feel welcome in the library or might not otherwise think of going to the library. And once they are there, it’s an opportunity to share more about the work that we do and the collections that we steward. For instance, at UT Austin, I worked at the Benson Latin American Collection, which is the largest collection of Latin American materials besides the Library of Congress. It’s based in Texas, which obviously has a huge Latinx population there, but many people from the community or outside the university wouldn't necessarily come to the library. 

One of the ways I tried to flip that was by by holding concerts in the library. One of the groups that I brought in was called Ocote Soul Sounds. They were based in Austin, and the founders Martin Perna and Adrian Quesada are also musicians in well-known groups such as Antibalas and Black Pumas, respectively. I also brought in Las Cafeteras from Los Angeles, who happen to be good friends of mine, and invited them to play in the library. We also did a whole exhibition related to one of the famous tracks that they cover, “La Bamba.” These concerts, with their dance parties in the middle of the reading room, would attract a large audience from both within and outside the university and hopefully conveyed that this was a welcoming space for all members of the surrounding community. 

And then here at UCLA, I’ve had the opportunity to work with a hip hop group in Cuba that have been around for over 20 years. Magia, one of the women in the group, was the former director of the Agencia Cubana de Rap (Cuban Rap Agency), which is actually a government agency. I organized a brief artist residency program, for lack of a better term, where we invited Obsesion to UCLA, and they talked in various ethnomusicology and Chicano Studies classes about their experience being Afrocuban and making hip hop music with a message. We also did a film screening on Cuban hip hop and UCLA professor Bryonn Bain arranged for Obsesion to record a track with himself and hip hop artist Maya Jupiter.

We then closed out the residency with Obsesion doing a public conversation moderated by Dr. Aisha Finch, a professor of African American studies at UCLA, and a mini-performance in the Powell Library East Rotunda, which has historically mostly only hosted chamber music. After the event an undergraduate student commented, “I enjoyed the performance and occupying/using library space in an anticolonial way.” I really appreciated this statement because it speaks to my overall philosophy of working in libraries and archives – how can we enact decolonizing practices in libraries and archives so they can be sites were historically marginalized bodies and stories are valued and welcomed?

Here’s one last anecdote I enjoy sharing on how music can be a powerful bridge and point of connection. At UT Austin, one of the first projects that I worked on as human rights archivist was with the Genocide Archive of Rwanda based in Kigali, Rwanda. This museum and documentation center is staffed primarily by survivors of the genocide. Many of them were children during the genocide, and then in their 20s and 30s they built up this documentation center. 

When we would go [to Rwanda], our work focused on how to digitize collections and how to make them more accessible both in the U.S. and across Rwanda. The materials held in the Genocide Archive of Rwanda documented these very heavy, sad, tragic, terrible stories. Music was a way to break the ice and break up some of that heaviness that can come with working on the project.

One day we were in the car with Yves, the head of the documentation center, listening to the radio and this hip hop song in Kinyarwanda came on. I asked him, “Who is this artist? I really like this song - I have a hip hop radio show in Austin and I want to play it on the show.” 

He responded, “Oh, that’s cool – I didn’t know you did radio. One of the digitalization operators at the [Kigali Genocide Memorial] also works in radio, you guys should talk.” So, he connected me with Murenzi, the digitization operator who did a hip hop show on the Kigali radio station Contact FM. Murenzi invited me to on his show and we shared what kind of hip hop music we were into – he was really into U.S. hip hop, I was into African hip hop, and it was kind of funny to have that conversation and to see how culture travels in all directions. I think a lot of people expect that U.S. culture is going to arrive at places outside the U.S., so I think that people are also surprised when their own cultures travel to the U.S. 

I really valued this opportunity to connect with colleagues on just a human level, outside the work that we were doing together and apart from their identity as a survivor. It’s really a privilege and a blessing to be able to connect with others and share stories while working together to preserve the historical record. 

Above: Artform Studio