My work on music and race originally began with a simple question: “What is black music?” In my many years of teaching survey courses in the History of Jazz, African American Music, and the Music of the Harlem Renaissance, I always begin with two questions of my students. First, is there such a thing as black music? Second, what is black music? There is almost always agreement to the first question. My students readily affirm that black music exists, though few of them know why they answer so easily. The response to the second question is a bit more complicated, for myself as well as for my students. Although we share an intuition that black music exists, the question of what black music is (or isn’t) yields answers as varied as the number of students in the class.
Our answers seem only to lead to more questions. Is black music determined by style and form, or is its existence determined by the people who create it? Is it jazz and blues, but not the operas of Anthony Davis or William Grant Still? Do you have to be black to create black music, or is it an acknowledgment of something experiential—that is coming out of the “black experience.” And by the way, what is the black experience? Is the music of Dave Brubeck or Lee Konitz good jazz, but not “real” black music? How do we interpret Eminem or Justin Bieber? Do all blacks experience the same “black experience” or are we really describing the unfortunate but often shared experience of racism in our society? What do we mean by “black?” Who are black people? What constitutes “blackness?” Who defines such terms and their meanings?
Given our present understanding of both biology and genetics, why do we cling so tenaciously to ideas about race, especially the opposition of black and white?
These questions resonate powerfully with a rather remarkable comment made by Princeton professor Anthony Appiah in an essay titled “The Uncompleted Argument: Du Bois and the Illusion of Race,” (Race: Writing and Difference, ed. Henry Louis Gates, Chicago UP, 1986):
Race, we all assume, is like all other concepts, constructed by metaphor and metonymy; it stands in metonymically, for the Other; it bears the weight, metaphorically, of other kinds of difference.
Yet, in our social lives away from the text-world of the academy, we take reference for granted too easily. Even if the concept of race is a structure of oppositions—white opposed to black (but also to yellow), Jew opposed to Gentile (but also to Arab)—it is a structure whose realization is, at best, problematic and, at worst, impossible. If we can hope to understand the concept embodied in this system of oppositions, we are nowhere near finding referents for it. The truth is that there are no races: there is nothing in the world that can do all we ask “race” to do for us. The evil that is done is done by the concept and by easy—yet impossible—assumptions as to its application. What we miss through our obsession with the structure of relations of concepts is simply, reality.
Appiah’s concept of “biologizing” culture and ideology rings in my ears when I explore those questions that come up with my students. And we can raise a few more questions: Is the sound of black music quantifiable? What does it sound like? Should we know it when we hear it? Is there a rhythmic, melodic, or textural essence that binds black music into a single sonic unity? Is the underlying unity of black music an aesthetic matter rather than a sonic one? Does it matter who controls the production and dissemination of the music? Do the issues of control and dissemination affect our understanding about the integrity of the musical expression itself? Are terms like integrity and authenticity even useful? All of these questions may be placed in an equally complicated web of ideas about the relationship between racial expectation and black music/cultural production. Just as important are the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, economics, and technology.
In my work and research on the intersection between race and music, I am particularly interested in the ways our thinking about music is racialized and the ends that are served by such racial thinking. I use the phrase “thinking about music” intentionally here because my sense is that there is no absolute or essentialist method of “hearing” music. We may replace or impose “race” in place of culture (or other frameworks) for specific purposes, but those purposes are secondary to the way music sounds or what music means in a given culture. This is what Appiah describes by “biologizing” culture or ideology.
This type of research, by its very nature, involves a variety of scientific, philosophical, political, musicological, theoretical, and especially experiential perspectives. My formal training as a musician and music theorist provides me with powerful analytic tools and methods for music within the Western canon. Yet I well understand the limitations of such methods to my present subject. In order to expect a meaningful research result here I must acknowledge that the very idea of music and music making might require re-formation. The very questions I might ask of one cultural (not racial) tradition might be meaningless in another. For example, a person who sings the blues because of an internalized understanding of what the blues is might have little interest in the definition of a “blue note” or other abstractions of blues performance practice. Thus the researcher must be open to considering that the very idea of music may have more that one meaning.
This research literally requires a public scholarship platform in order to address the questions of how the idea of race continues to shape our understanding of music and those who create it.
To that end, I have created a more focused public scholarship project, titled Black Music: Race and Representation in Popular Music Culture. This project seeks to understand the relationship between popular music culture and prevailing understandings about race, sexuality, and power. It begins with the tacit assumptions that most people understand black music only in terms of popular culture and that pop culture is culture in America today. The project suggests that popular culture, rather than being a vehicle for social change and new understandings, often times serves to maintain the social status quo.
Through a series of multi-media presentations with guest scholars and artists from outside the Emory University community, I plan to offer a provocative conversation on music, race, and commerce; one that probes the musical and racial assumptions that often receive little attention within or outside of the academy. Special attention will be given to historical continuities and contradictions. For example, we will consider nineteenth-century portrayals of African Americans in popular cultural expressions such as minstrelsy and sheet music. We will also compare and contrast contemporary images of African Americans in expressions such as hip-hop culture and its many manifestations. This project seeks to engage and involve the very community that is at once the object, subject, and the consumer of these popular culture formations.
These presentations will take place throughout the Atlanta community—on campus, in libraries, in churches, and in community centers. The hope is to create a rigorous and disciplined conversation about music that will reveal a deeper understanding of both the music and ourselves. The intent of this work is to uncover the limitations and particular expectations of our racial imagination when applied to the vast world of music in general, and popular music in particular.