March 1, 2010

Rap music moves scholar's work

Matthew Miller

While most music enthusiasts merely listen to their favorite genres, Matthew Miller ’92C-’09PhD devotes his scholarship to understanding where popular music comes from. In the process, he has molded himself into something of a rap music scholar.
"I think of it as trying to understand rap music as a phenomenon in terms of its own logic and perspective," says Miller, adjunct professor in the Graduate Institute of Liberal Arts. "And that includes looking at more than what's being said in the lyrics. It's really important to maintain an awareness of rap as music and not just as a vehicle for the text."
In such peer-reviewed publications as the Emory-supported Southern Spaces, Miller has examined the grassroots of regional hip-hop in cities such as Miami and Atlanta. While often neglected in popular music studies, these local pockets of fresh musicality continue to influence the larger world of hip-hop.
Miller studied New Orleans's regional hip-hop culture at length for his Ph.D. dissertation as an Emory graduate student. He addressed the broader subject of regional Southern hip-hop (including Atlanta's own rap scene) in his 2008 Southern Spaces article "Dirty Decade: Rap Music and the U.S. South, 1997-2007. " He also contributed at chapter on Miami's rap scene for 2010's "Hip-Hop in America: A Regional Guide."
Miller labored extensively in New Orleans to understand its musical culture, conducting interviews with artists and experiencing the local hip-hop scene firsthand. In this, he says, he was able to appreciate a subgenre often panned by critics and ignored by popular music scholars for a perceived lack of sophistication. 
"It's music that's made to be danced to. You don't sit down in an armchair and listen to it,” Miller says. “This is music you enjoy collectively, so you have to think about the local context in which it's produced and consumed, and how that shapes the way the music sounds."
A self-described "pathologic music collector and explorer," Miller's tastes encompass far more than rap. After graduating from Emory with a bachelor of arts in Spanish, he initially applied to ILA with a proposal to compile oral histories of Atlanta's early soul, funk and rock scene. At the suggestion of his adviser, Associate Professor of American Studies Allen E. Tullos, Miller turned to the city's rap scene.
"[Tullos] definitely encouraged me to work on more contemporary material, because he thought that was more exciting and had more potential to break new ground in scholarship," Miller says. "I wanted to do a project on the effect of integration, the climate of segregation and the changes in the Atlanta music industry, so I ended up writing a paper about the ideas of space, place and culture as the beginning point for analysis."
The results were published in the Journal of Popular Music Studies in 2004. At the same time, Miller was workinh on a documentary of New Orleans' rap culture with co-director Stephen Thomas. Titled "Ya Heard Me?", the film debuted at the 2008 San Diego Black Film Festival.
Miller also collaborated with Tullos to produce videos for Southern Spaces' Poets in Place series. The more than 30 videos captured Southern poets reading and discussing their poems in locations central to their works.
For his next documentary film project, Miller hopes to explore the musical culture of Northeast Brazil's carnival traditions. During a visit to Recife in Northern Brazil, he was surprised to find a rich and diverse carnival culture more like New Orleans' Mardi Gras than the gaudy ostrich feather costumes and Vegas-like stylings of Rio de Janeiro's carnival.
In addition to filming the tentatively titled "Carnaval, Recife," Miller hopes to study further the roots of popular music in Atlanta by interviewing individuals involved in the city's 1970s R&B, soul and funk scene.
"I'm always amazed at how many stories there are out there," Miller says, "and I'm trying to do my part to get some of the musical history down."
Miller, who has helmed introductory American studies classes, says the experience has been proven both challenging and transformative.
"Generally, I've tried to use the ideas and perspectives developed in my research and life experience to challenge students’ assumptions about the relationship between popular music and other areas of life," Miller says. "Conversely, my own understanding of contemporary popular music and culture have been enriched through discussion and exploration with my undergraduate students."

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