Hip-hop teaches confidence lessons

I’m working on a paper about music education and hip-hop, and I’m going to use this post to work out some thoughts.

My wife and I spent our rare date night going to see Black Panther at BAM. It was uplifting. Many (most?) black audience members came dressed in full Afrofuturistic splendor. A group of women in our section were especially decked out:

Black Panther audience members at BAM

I was admiring their outfits and talking about how I wasn’t expecting such an emotional response to the movie. One of the women said it was as big a deal for them as the election of Barack Obama in 2008. I know representation is important, but this seems like it’s more than just seeing black faces on the movie screen. Black Twitter is talking about how this movie is different because it isn’t about overcoming historical pain or present-day hardship; it’s about showing black people as powerful, rich, technologically advanced, and above all, serenely confident.

Black Panther is heavily overdetermined, like all superhero movies. But I’m especially interested in the way we could read it as a metaphor for music, with the Wakandans as representing African musical traditions and Eric Killmonger as representing the global rise of hip-hop. I see Killmonger this way not only because he’s American, but because so many of his qualities and mannerisms remind me of the role of hip-hop in the public imagination. He’s stylish, effortlessly charismatic, and seemingly indifferent to anyone else’s approval. He’s funny, too, not in the warm and good-natured way that Shuri is, but in a more aggressive and sarcastic way. He’s both arrogant and vulnerable, using implacable cool to conceal deep hurt. And he wants to remake the world by fomenting black revolution, by any means necessary. The Wakandans, meanwhile, are uncomplicatedly strong, self-possessed, and at ease with their own power. But they are also withdrawn from the world, fearing that getting involving in other people’s struggles will destroy what makes their culture so unique and beautiful.

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Junto trios

In the past three weeks, thanks to the magic of the Disquiet Junto, I’ve participated in the creation of three musical trios with six strangers from the internet. Here’s a family tree of the nine tracks we all did:

Junto trios

Artist names are in black, “part one” tracks are in blue, “part two” tracks are in red, and “part three” tracks are in green. We followed Marc Weidenbaum’s prompts for part one, part two, and part three. Hear all the music we all made below.

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Critiquing creative work with a growth mindset

I’m in the process of doing some large-scale writing about the way I teach music technology. To that end, I thought I would talk some about how I evaluate students’ creative work, both for grading purposes and during in-class critiques.

Thumbs up

The main thing I have students do in music tech class is make original music and lots of it. So the question immediately becomes, how do I even begin to objectively assess that stuff?  Continue reading

The happiest chord progression ever

If you’re interested in learning more about chords and emotions, take my online course.

See also the saddest chord progression ever.

We think of descending melodies and chord progressions as being sad. But the happiest song of all time also has a descending progression: “I Want You Back” by the Jackson 5.

This recording was made just after Michael’s eleventh birthday. I do not approve of child labor, and making a prepubescent boy sing all these songs about romantic love ended up having some grim long-term psychological consequences. But god, what a performance.

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Gender in science

Final paper in History of Science and Technology with Myles Jackson – see also the presentation version

When we ask what the field of gender studies has contributed to understanding the relationship between science and society, we must separate two classes of feminist critique: discussions of equity, and discussions of content. The equity critique is straightforward: women are underrepresented in the sciences, in terms of employment and academic admissions, public recognition, and prestige. The remedies are equally straightforward, at least in theory: enforce anti-discrimination rules, actively recruit female candidates, and work to create more equitable workplace and school environments. The execution of these remedies is challenging, but there is little controversy about whether or not we should pursue them.

How It Works

If we examine gender theorists’ critiques of the content of science, the issues become more complex and contentious. Such content critiques include: what if science is excluding not just women, but femininity? Beyond the harm to women who wish to be scientists, does this exclusion also harm science itself? Why should gender bear on the gathering of objective facts about nature? If we argue that science is socially constructed, do we then have to let go of the idea that there can be any truly objective facts? If there are objective facts independent of the observer’s social context, is there a value to a ”feminist science” that is distinct from just doing better science?  Continue reading

Duke Ellington, Percy Grainger, and the status of jazz in the academy

Final paper for The History of the African-American Freedom Struggle with Thomas Sugrue

On October 25, 1932, Percy Grainger invited Duke Ellington and his orchestra to perform “Creole Love Call” as part of a music lecture at New York University. It was the first time any university had invited a jazz musician to perform in an academic context. I will argue that the meeting of Grainger and Ellington is a prism refracting the broader story of the music academy’s slow and reluctant embrace of jazz. This story, in turn, is a cultural reflection of the broader African-American freedom struggle.

Percy Grainger and Duke Ellington, 1935

Ellington has come to embody the cultural prestige now enjoyed by jazz. He appears on Washington DC’s state quarter, and his statue overlooks a corner of Central Park in New York City. In 1932, however, Ellington was known to official music culture as the leader of a popular dance band and the writer of a few catchy tunes. While he was already a celebrity, few white people outside of jazz fandom considered him to be a serious artist. That year, Ellington received his first favorable review from a classical critic, followed by endorsements from Grainger and a few other figures from the music establishment. However, for the most part, authorities of the time held jazz in low regard, relegating it to much the same position occupied by hip-hop in the present: undeniably popular, vibrant perhaps, but deficient in musical quality, and even, according to some critics, a threat to the nation’s morals.

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In praise of the Reflex Re-Edit

The Reflex is a London-based French DJ and producer named Nicolas Laugier. He specializes in a particular kind of remix, the re-edit, in which you rework a song using only sounds found within the song itself, ideally using the multitrack stems. Some re-edits keep the original more or less intact, but with a punchier mix and a new breakdown section or whatever. Others (the ones I find more interesting) radically transform their source material by moving pieces around in unexpected ways. Read this Greg Wilson interview to learn more about Laugier’s process.

The Reflex

I really love Laugier’s tracks, on several levels. First, he has a fine ear for mixing, and his edits always have spectacular clarity and depth, often sounding better than the originals. There’s intellectual pleasure, too: it’s fun to hear a fresh take on these deeply familiar recordings, and the music educator in me adores the idea of using music itself as a medium for music criticism. Laugier implicitly critiques the music he edits, saying, “This song is cool, but wouldn’t it be cooler if the drums were more prominent, and we heard this keyboard part in isolation, and there was a longer groove in the intro?” I always prefer music analysis that I can dance to.  Continue reading

The fake and the real in Chance the Rapper’s “All We Got”

Every semester in Intro to Music Tech, we have Kanye West Day, when we listen analytically to some of Ye’s most sonically adventurous tracks (there are many to choose from.) The past few semesters, Kanye West Day has centered on “Ultralight Beam,” especially Chance The Rapper’s devastating verse. That has naturally led to a look at Chance’s “All We Got.”

All the themes of the class are here: the creative process in the studio, “fake” versus “real” sounds, structure versus improvisation, predictability versus surprise, and the way that soundscape and groove do much more expressive work than melody or harmony.

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