Andre Middleton is Executive Director of Friends of Noise, a nonprofit seeking to foster healing and growth for the creative youth in our community via the arts. They do so by creating opportunities for young people not just to perform, but also to learn the technical and business side of music, with a focus on creating a safe space for BIPOC youth. Andre talks about Friends of Noise and how the pandemic and protests in Portland have changed how that organization is approaching its work.
About Andre Middleton
Andre Middleton is a native New Yorker that moved to Portland to attend college. He has many ties to the arts and music scene via friendships that stretch back for at least 2 decades. He is the Executive Director of Friends of Noise. Andre is a community activist on issues of inclusion and equity and a community connector within the arts. He produces Friends of Noise Presents: a weekly hour of radio curated by youth DJs Monday’s 2-3 on XRAY.fm. He’s on the Board of Directors for the Portland Institute of Contemporary Art, where he hopes to have a profound impact on their efforts to connect and share current and challenging art within a broad cross section of our fair city. André also serves on the Portland Parks and Recreation Budget Advisory Board as well as on Literary Arts Youth Advisory Committee.
Douglas Detrick: Andre, welcome to more devotedly. Glad to have you on here and looking forward to this conversation. I thought it would be great for you to kind of introduce yourself and friends of noise and what you’re working on.
Andre Middleton: Thanks Douglas, I really appreciate your invitation. My name is Andre Middleton. I’m one of the founding members and current executive director of a nonprofit here in Portland, Oregon called Friends of Noise.
Our mission is to facilitate healthy growth for creative youth through performance, through professional development workshops and by hopefully finding them paid gigs, even though they’re minors.
Douglas Detrick: Why was it young people, especially, that you wanted to work with in this way?
Andre Middleton: Well, back in 2015, I was working at the regional arts and culture council and I was in charge of producing a community engagement event called the happening, which was a state of the state for the music industry. While RACC provides a lot of resources to a variety of artists, independent musicians were just under the radar.
You know what I mean? They provided general operating support to like, to the symphony, but if you were just, you know, like guitars playing at a honky-tonk or, you know, a hip hop artist playing in a basement, there wasn’t much access to RACC’s resources, so yeah.
When I produced this, event, I have a big background in live music in the context of being a fan. I was going to clubs when I was 16 and 17 back in New York. When I moved out here, I enjoyed going to places like, you know, pine street and Sityracon and La Luna. So. You know, having a vibrant and thriving, independent music scene was important to me.
And at the time I had a 13 year old young girl and I realized I can’t go see shows that I’d like to see with her. You know, the venues that were accessible that were pretty much all ages at the time. We’re you know, large things happening at like the motor center or Memorial Coliseum, you know, it was much harder to have, you know, her join me at a small venue in town because of OCC regulations. So, that was kind of the Genesis. So yeah. I, since I was running this event, I got to pick the topics and I got to pick them. Yeah. The, the speakers. So I kind of, you know, slid this in say, Hey, let’s talk about, the lack of all-ages spaces here in Portland. Because about six months prior, there was a very popular all-ages spot called backspace, right.
Downtown, small, easy to get to and they had closed down. And I don’t want to say through no fault of their own is gotta know all the details, but I think a large part. Yeah, that was, the fire Marshall had instituted some new policy regarding sprinkler systems and that actually had a detrimental impact on a variety of clubs, not just this one in particular.
Douglas Detrick: Right. And there’s also been the, unreinforced masonry. Regulation that’s been happening lately that, music, Portland has been talking a lot about.
Andre Middleton: In a big part of that in all fairness is, is that, you know, like many cities across the country, the arts entertainment infrastructure is usually in the heart of downtown, you know, and that’s where their buildings are. You know, the buildings closer to the river, you know, the ability, the buildings closer to commerce.
I look forward to a day where there’s more arts infrastructure in the surrounding communities. Portland is an example where there’s Hillsboro, where there’s Montavilla, where that’s North Portland, where there’s Kerns. and I think, you know, that you’re right, that’s going to be expensive and retrofitting or building new buildings.
And I think that’s something, unfortunately, as a nation we’re wrestling with, how do we, how do we support, infrastructure building, whether it’s, you know, bridges, roads, you know, and the like.
Douglas Detrick: Sure of course. Do you kind of see that approach maybe of like letting a thousand flowers, bloom as being kind of a more effective way to encourage youth artists and other independent artists.
Andre Middleton: Oh, I do a hundred percent. you know, when we started friends of noise, our immediate aspiration was to get some sort of venue and we couldn’t afford it. So put a pin in that and we became much more of an itinerant operation. So we bought all of our gear to be mobile and we taught our young people how to use it so that they could use it in their community. So we’ve put shows in Portland, all over Portland from St. John’s to be Beaverton to Gresham. And that’s really been a help for us cause we’ve been able to connect with lots of different audiences. A big part of what we do also is teach the young people how to produce their own shows.
Back to your thousand flowers, I think that’s hopefully the future. There’s where by teaching kids, how to run a PA, how to book a band. maybe we can go back to that, you know? 1960s, 70s garage band aesthetic, where people are putting on shows in their neighborhoods and their people are coming to see them.
And maybe we could just expand on that a little bit by, not forcing people to have, to either take public transportation or do with parking, to come all the way downtown to see art and especially art that reflects their community.
Douglas Detrick: Right. You know, it’s interesting that we hear that we’re kind of approaching the subject in this way now, because I was the reason I wanted to talk to you at this moment was because I saw that this petition that you had put out, that was about, trying to direct some of, some of the money that’s been allocated by the state which came from the federal government as coronavirus relief, to earmark some of that money to create a venue.
That’s kind of meant specifically as a home for young BIPOC folks that are, involved in the arts. First I’ll ask you maybe if you’re feeling like there’s any traction there. And then also like maybe let’s skip that step too and let’s say you can wave a magic wand and you instantly have enough money in the bank account to create this venue and you can do whatever you want. I’m curious would you still do that?
Andre Middleton: The answer to the first part of your question, we did, we still have, and we did get some traction out of that effort. Due to my naivete I didn’t realize that the money from the federal government had to be used on and pandemic related shortcomings. And it could not be put in escrow or put into a bucket for future use.
So the money has to be used by venues who, you know, have lost ticket sales and we’re still paying rent and utilities and insurance. And that money has to be used by December, 2020. So we totally understand why that didn’t work out for us, but yeah, what it did do, and I appreciate you bringing it up.
Start a conversation around the lack of diversity in the venues in that are currently here in Portland, that lack of diversity in the employees that they ended up hiring and nurturing and developing, you know, I mean right now to become a booker or a talent buyer at pretty much any club in the country, you’ve got to start somewhere and that first start might be running security.
And then the next start might be becoming a grip and be unloading and doing all that kind of stuff. And then, you know, or it might be because you’re a bartender and you’re in a band and you know, someone goes on tour and there’s an opening.
By and large, BIPOC people are not integrated into that flow. Into, that pipeline of sorts. So, to answer the second question, yes. If I did have, you know, a pot of golden end of the rainbow. Yes. Our goal is to build a venue that is more than a venue, but it really is a community based arts center that realizes the value in developing youth on their path to adulthood in a way that gives them opportunities into a music ecosystem that hasn’t done a very good job of that.
So, when we started Friends of Noise, the grand vision was at the time to become roommates with a variety of other arts musicians, you know, could be dance. It could be theater, it could be poetry. And we had hoped that this space would have a very modular aspect to it. So, you know, we’d have a black box or a white box theater, and any bit of art could be in that space. That’s still the goal that is still asks. But now we’re looking at it. Hmm. You know, if we’re teaching these young people how to run sound, and if we’re teaching them how to book and we’re teaching them how to do graphics and promotion, how are we formalizing their processes? Right. They can take those living skills and they can take those career building skills to other people and say, yes, I’ve been doing sound for friends for the past three years.
I’ve got that experience. Yeah. For a lot of young people, they get that experience at a college. You know, they go off to college and they form, you know, they get on the radio station or they form theater, but there are a lot of kids were going to a college of that, of that with those kind of resources right now, isn’t in the cards for them.
So how are we filling in that gap? how are we creating that opportunity and giving them really hands on experience at the same time and paying them? since we’re a nonprofit, we raise money from grants, from fundraisers and donations, and, it’s a point of pride that we pay all of our musicians and all of our sound engineers.
For their time and you know, I re living wage, you know, they’re all, most of them are teenagers, but you know, it’s our aspiration that, you know, if they’re earning, you know, 50, 60, maybe a hundred bucks a show from us, that when they are in their mid to late twenties and, you know, playing a cafe or coffee shop, they say, no, you have to pay me because I’ve been getting paid for friends of noise since I was 16.
Douglas Detrick: How has your work changed during this time? You know, with the pandemic, then of course also, as the black lives matter movement has come to the forefront again. And, and I’m curious, like how has that changed the world, both kind of for you and the folks you’re working with. And then also, you know, the young people that you’re working with as well.
Andre Middleton: At the beginning of the pandemic, it was, there was a lot of panic going around. you know, the last show that we did, it was on March 4th. and we called it March sadness, you know, who are prophetic, that would be, and that was produced by, you know, three youth bands. You just said “Andre we need, we want to put on a show” and we did it.
And you know, who, who knew that would be the last one done in awhile? a side project of what we do is that we actually produce events for other people. And we are actually contracted by the trailblazers and by mercy Corps to provide sound and artists to perform at some events of theirs.
So that was money. In fact, one of the checks was already mailed and we turned, turn that back. So we lost from revenue and exposure for our young people. For the first, you know, March and April, I didn’t do a whole lot. we have a radio show on x-ray FM whenever our local radio stations. And I was still doing that show.
And that show is actually programmed by teenagers themselves where they’re the DJs. So that was something that we were still doing. And I thought about how do I expand on this? You know, how do I figure out a way of, making this bigger? So we started actually, Co-hosting with teenagers via zoom, where they would submit a playlist.
And I would interview them as we listened to their songs in between their songs. So that was kind of an expansion. So, that was a work around because x-ray FM has some very specific training that they want their DJs to go through. I E you know, FCC and, you know, working their board and stuff like that.
And since we couldn’t get into the studio because of the pandemic, I ended up being technically the producer and the youth was my guest. So that was something we started doing. And that was a lot of fun. last year we worked with another local nonprofit called city repair, and, we were looking for a way of activating young people creatively and, issue oriented activism. And, we were actually going and a couple of grants to do a almost like a teen Ted talk event that we had from mid June, where we were going to, you know, take over a space, most likely a, you know, a school auditorium or something and have young people speak and talk about what their issues.
And they didn’t have poetry and live music that had to go online. So we actually a website that is a hub for people to submit, you know, their poems, their music, their videos, talking about issues that are important to them. We ended up doing several youth curated Zoom panels where we had, you know, four or five young people talking about issues.
Douglas Detrick: Yeah.
Andre Middleton: and then I expanded our radio show again, where we would invite some of those youth speakers to be on the radio, where it was a much more pointed and focused conversation, not just about the music.
Douglas Detrick: Oh, I see. Yeah.
Andre Middleton: So that was a lot of fun.
Douglas Detrick: I think back to myself as a, as a young person and, I can, I can remember being certainly having frustrations with, with what I saw, you know, like maybe my parent’s generation about how, how they were run were running the world, basically.
And, and, but I also don’t remember, Really, I still, I mean, honestly I do this podcast, but I still struggle with like, talking about this stuff and, and, and putting that into words. Cause I have, you know, I have frustrations, but like, and I have issues that I care about, but it’s still really hard, you know, even though I have tried to do better and to learn to talk about these issues more.
So I guess I’m wondering, you know, the reason I say that is because I’m, I’m just curious about what you’ve seen with these young folks talking about these issues that are important to them. And then how, how does that affect their thinking and how does it impact their lives?
Andre Middleton: It’s a tough question I, take an invisible hand approach to work with the people that I work with. you know, my aspiration goal is really just to amplify their voices. And so there’s very little consensus building there’s very little, compliant, demand of compliance or editorial from me.
I pretty much give them equipment and say, Hey, this is yours. Run with it, do what you want with it. So, what I have observed and that’s, you know, from that vantage point is them taking ownership of their narratives in ways, like you said, that that has we, I don’t think we’ve seen to the degree that we have it now, you know, granted, you know, we’re old enough to have seen the advent of the internet.
We’re old enough to have seen the creation of social media. but we are, they’re slowly starting to see, you know, what are the, you know, secondary, third, fourth layers and tertiary, you know, outcomes of these new ways of communicating and sharing information. I’ll admit that, you know, when we started Friends of Noise, a big goal was it was how do we get kids off their screens and into physical space where they’re bouncing off each other and they’re sharing ideas and they’re seeing each other, not just through a little screen. And it was a bit depressing that suddenly everybody’s doing live streaming and everybody’s doing zoom calls and we were unable to maintain that connection.
But in a weird way, I think that it’s allowed young people to maybe hear themselves a little outside of the din of social media, you know, at least what we’ve been doing, you know? So, for example, you know, one of our first, Speak up, Sing out. And that was the series of young people where we would interview them. we had a 15, 17 and a 19 year old.
And, it was so wonderful to see these three different ages in three different places of their academic careers. So to speak, you know, one person in the middle of high school, one person is a senior and one person who had graduated and was just had just finished their first year of college.
And it was great to see them vibe together, you know, you know, there, it was a multiethnic. they, you know, had some different issues, but it was great to hear, you know, the 18 year old talk about, you know, economics and radical protesting. And then to hear the, the, you know, the younger one, talk about how music was so important to her as she was finding her voice.
So I love that. What we’ve been able to do is start to make connections between young people and, you know, having them get real affirmation, that’s different than a, like, You know, it’s different than, you know, a button that’s pressed, but to see the affirmation come from being able to look someone in the eye and to hear their voice and to see that smile and to see that kind of aha moment.
So I’m really happy their friends there’s going to have been able to on a smaller scale now because of the pandemic continue to make those connections between the people we work with.
Douglas Detrick: This kind of group of episodes that I’m working on now, is about Portland. Portland has been in the news lately. you know, I, I’ve been talking to some of my friends who, you know, who live in Chicago, who live in New York, live in LA. you mentioned that you were from New York. And so I was just curious, like how long have you been in Portland? Kind of briefly. And what brought you here?
Andre Middleton: I was a latchkey kid growing up and my mom would send me to summer camps every summer to get me out of the city. And that developed a love of greenery. I love nature. I love the, for the environment. I have A brother and sister, aunt and uncle, who lived in Oregon when I was in my teens. So I would come out here and spend summers with them as well, and just fell in love with Oregon.
I remember going to the country fair at 14 years old and no idea what I was walking into, but, you know, I was open to it. You know, I’m a pretty free, willing, open person. And, when I, it was time for me to go to college. I said, I want to go to Oregon, you know, Well, I didn’t want to stay in the East coast.
I felt like I wanted to go somewhere that it was far enough away that. I wasn’t going to have the capacity or the abilities to run home, just to do laundry. And I’d seen a lot of people in my cohort when things got a little tough, you know, there were a bus trip home or Amtrak ride home. So I wanted that separation.
And, so yeah, so I moved out here. I lived with my uncle for about maybe a six months to a year. Then I moved downtown, went to Portland state, you know, Bopped around between different jobs, you know, not having a real clear plan, just learning from life and, you know, trying to make, do as best I could.
And then I discovered Marylhurst university and I found a super eight film camera, and that led into the arts and I’ve been fully ensconced in the arts ever since. And, For a spell there. I got my advanced degree in becoming a teacher. So I became a teacher for the visually impaired. And that brought in working with young people that brought in working with people with disabilities and understanding how, you know, we all have something to contribute.
We just need, you know, accommodation. Yeah, no, just right now I wear something right now wear glasses because my vision has gone bad. it doesn’t make me disabled, but by certain measures, Neither are they. So how do we create accommodation? And that’s why, you know, I think friends of noise has been a perfect landing spot for me because it has allowed me to draw upon the many different facets that brought me to Portland.
And it’s allowing me to thrive in working with young people and making accomodations for them. I’m working towards a artistic ecosystem that includes them and values them. so that’s a little of my backstory.
Douglas Detrick: Yeah, absolutely. It’s a beautiful story. Helping build that up for, for other young people so they can have access to some of that. And I think that’s really great.
Andre Middleton: I think it’s also powerful that I’m a black man and that I, am demonstrating and modeling for them. No matter their race, no matter their gender, no matter their orientation that, you know, We’re not a boogeyman. We’re not what pop culture has deemed us to be.
So for me, that’s an important part of this also, you know, it’s great to not just provide, you know, the technical issues and the, and you know, this is an XLR cable versus this is this cable, but for them to see me represent as well, this is a caring, human being who is really here just to serve and just to support. I think that’s something that too many young people don’t get to see. So I’m really proud about that as well.
Douglas Detrick: Yeah. I mean, I, I grew up in a mostly white suburb type community around here in Portland and, for me seeing black men in, enroll as like the one that you’re in. I found that a bit through the arts, you know, I found that a bit in the jazz community.
You know, not a lot, but, but I think it was definitely important for me as a young person and, you know, to see that, you know, just because kind of my immediate surroundings, were all folks that looked like me. You know, that was, it’s very comfortable, obviously, but then also to go out into a wider world, you know, into, you know, for me as a young person, it was with jazz music, and kind of some of the educational things, like some jazz camps and other things where I, you know, got to see that bigger representation. So that was, that was a big thing for me too.
And I think, you know, sometimes we, we talk about how. You know, a more diverse representation in the arts or in any other field is, is great for people of color. And that’s true. It’s also great for me, you know, as, as a white person, as a young person growing up, I think it’s good for everybody. So, you know, I think that’s, that’s a really important part and I’m glad you added that.
Well, I wanted to ask you one more question, to kind of, you know, bring this conversation to a close and that, is, About Portland itself. you know, like if you’re thinking about somebody who, is not here in the city with us, What would you tell them about Portland, about what makes it, what it is and, and, you know, maybe what needs to change about it in order for it to come, you know, become that better version of itself that a lot of people are hoping to see here.
Andre Middleton: Interesting. if I had known, Oregon’s history in the context of race of how there were sundown law as an and other laws that allowed the beating of black people, until they left the state. I don’t know if I would have moved here if I had known that when I was a younger person, you know, if I had known that, you know, the city council here was dominated by, you know, white men almost clearly into the mid eighties.
If not nineties, I don’t know if I would have moved here. you know, coming from a place like New York where, you know, Jews and Gentiles and Asian Americans and immigrants were everywhere. Portland is a very homogenized city and I attribute that to its youth. You know, Portland is a very young town in relative to the other cities.
And I don’t mean young being that, you know, it wasn’t made or wasn’t incorporated until much later, but it wasn’t pressed to evolve because of their laws that prevented diversity. And at diversity, like you said earlier, spurs different ideas is a catalyst for different thoughts and of growth.
So. I think in contrast right now, Portland is going through some of those growing pains is growing pains and necessary, and there’s growing pains may mean more crime. The growing pains may mean, you know, a redistribution of wealth and resources. Those growing pains are going to mean louder voices, but those things have to happen.
You know, like I said, I grew up in a city where Stonewall was a riot. It was a right. And because of that riot, men and women and people of all genders are getting closer and closer and closer to equality. you know, tenement laws and labor laws, were a byproduct of people fighting and people being in unions in big cities who are, you know, fighting for the rights of their children, not to have to work in sweat shops.
Those things happen in big cities. And, Portland is. Getting there in having to deal with these issues in a way that hasn’t dealt before, because they were able to, you know, use things like the urban growth boundary, you know, and they were able to use, you know, certain, you know, redlining laws and able to use, you know, how they provided education resources in ways.
That definitely kept a lot of people out of those conversations. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t love this city, you know? I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think that I had something to contribute and I’ll be honest, I don’t know if I could have started friends of noise anywhere else. You know, I mean, big cities have entrenched interests.
You know, they have, you know, community, you are very protective and can be very insular and, you know, very racist in their own ways. You know, I grew up not far from Howard beach where, you know, black people were killed and, you know, no one heard about it until, you know, it was too late, you know, or, you know,
so having said that, while Portland is far from perfect, I think that it’s youthfulness gives it the opportunity to grow. Does that make sense? So it’s almost like, you know, it’s like, there’s a lot of room to grow, you know, it is not so ensconced, it is not, you know, the infrastructure is not so baked in that there isn’t room to grow. And, I feel honored and blessed to be a part of that growth.
I mean, look at someone like, you know, Cameron Whitten or Rokaya Adams. There are so many black and Brown people in Portland who are making a difference on their own terms and they are not perpetually looking at a white gaze for support or for advocacy, but they’re saying, Hey, how do we do this?
How do we create this new system that is going to serve our community? Because the old systems haven’t been doing it very well for, for years. So I feel honored to be a part of that development of a, how can we do it better and how can we, you know, make a difference in how can we pass on a legacy that.
Is not colorblind, but is a more inclusive the other way. So let me put it this way in other way. I think that the current black lives matter movement. Has an opportunity to share the power and privilege that they have right now. And I understand that they haven’t had this power and privilege in the past, asked and at times, you know, whenever we do get power and privilege, you want to hold onto it.
And because we don’t know what’s going to dissipate, you don’t know when the attention is going to turn another direction, but there are issues that black people, minorities, you know, people of color have been the Canary in the coal mines to some degree. I think that if we can harness this energy harnish its power harness this, you know, moment, I think we can advocate for things that’ll benefit our brethren, no matter their race, no matter their creed, no matter their color. And whether that’s talking about universal health care, whether it’s talking about, you know, living wages, whether it’s talking about demilitarizing or defunding the police, those are going to have impacts across the board.
And. I’m thrilled that a lot of black people have them Mike now, and I’m not saying they need to relinquish to Mike. They don’t, I’m not saying I need to give up. I love that space, but I am hoping that there is a way that, that they can, you know, harken back to where Martin Luther King was before he was killed with looking at it as what’s the people’s movement.
And how did we share that power of acknowledging the injustice, acknowledging the oppression, but realizing that we’re not the only ones who are being oppressed. We’re not the only ones who were being subject to injustice. And if we can have some real structural change, it’s going to benefit a lot of people and it could be real transformational.
Douglas Detrick: Hmm. Yeah, I agree with all of that mean. I think that, I think that one of the things, that I’ve learned is that as we, you know, and, and here’s like a really tiny example of just like, when we make a arts event, more accessible, you know, for folks maybe who will have disabilities, like it becomes more accessible for everybody.
Right. And I think I’ve, I’ve seen that happen. Like when we, you know, when I’ve done that with my organization and I’ve seen other organizations do some of that work and make some of those improvements to what they’re doing it’s like, it’s better for everybody. It’s like, why, why aren’t we doing this before?
You know, and I think that as we talk about racial justice and we talk about, inclusion and how power is kind of wielded and what it accomplishes here in Portland. I mean, I think that’s, that’s a super important part of it that, you know, that, openness and that inclusion is going to be good for everybody.
and so I, yeah, I completely agree with that. And. And it’s, it’s great to see you doing that you know, with friends of noise, kind of at that, that really early level with, with, young, with young people, young artists and people that are interested in like the, you know, the technical side of, of music and the arts.
So, so keep doing it and, and, and best of luck. And where can people learn more about the organization and how can they, how can they contact you and get involved?
Andre Middleton: I appreciate that. Well, we have a website www friends of noise.org. it’s actually in the process of being rebuilt right now. So the current one is little underloved because I’ve been so focusing on the redesign, all of our core information is there. we’re on Facebook, we’re on Twitter. We’re on, Instagram and it’s always just friends of noise, usually one word, we’re on the radio xray FM every Monday from two to three.
You can hear youth DJs talking and playing music if they want to share with people. also, right now we’re doing a concert series at some local parks that are socially distanced and people to wear masks. And we’ve got some PPEs and cleaning supplies. that’s every Sunday from three to five. And you can usually find information about that weekly on our Instagram and on our Facebook page.
Douglas Detrick: Andre, thank you so much. I really appreciate talking with you. It’s been, it’s been fun and best of luck with all of the things that you’re doing.
Andre Middleton: Douglas, thank you so much for having me. It was really great conversation.
Douglas Detrick: Thanks so much, Andre. Be sure to visit Friends of Noise’s brand new website. It’s looking really nice and gives you all the information about this great nonprofit organization, including how to get involved and how to donate.
If you appreciate the conversations you’re hearing on More Devotedly, please subscribe, give it a five star rating on your podcast app, and tell a friend about it. You can also head over to moredevotedly.com to learn more Andre and all of my guests and join the More Devotedly email list. We’re also on instagram, twitter and facebook.
I produced this episode and composed and performed the music right here in Portland, Oregon.
What you’re doing is beautiful. Can you do it more devotedly?