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 But they are also withdrawn from the world, fearing that getting involving in other people’s struggles will destroy what makes their culture so unique and beautiful.

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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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Ngoma aesthetics after apartheid

Writing assignment for Ethnomusicology: History and Theory with David Samuels

Louise Meintjes (2017) Dust of the Zulu: Ngoma Aesthetics After Apartheid. Durham: Duke University Press.

Brian Larkin (2008) Signal and Noise: Media, Infrastructure, and Urban Culture in Nigeria. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Dust of the Zulu

The image of Zulu men dancing, singing and drumming carries heavy symbolic weight. For black South Africans and white outsiders alike, this image represents “real” African culture, evoking a glorious warrior culture. Cultural brokers (entrepreneurs, musicians, and politicians) “wager on the warrior” (Meintjes 2017, 241) to evoke this romantic past. However, colonizers have appropriated this same image to justify the dehumanization and exploitation of African bodies for labor. Ngoma dancers themselves use the “long past” to relieve the painful burden of the immediate past, and to reach for an “undetermined future” (255), in the face of the risk of playing into colonizers’ fetishistic stereotypes. This risk is magnified when ngoma moves onto the world stage, losing its context.

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Four bars of Mozart explains everything humans like in music

I’m not arguing here that everyone loves Mozart, or that I’m about to explain what all humans enjoy all the time. But I can say with confidence that this little bit of Mozart goes a long way toward explaining what most humans enjoy most of the time. The four bars I’m talking about are these, from “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.”

What these four bars of music demonstrate is that humans like:

  1. Repetition
  2. Breaks in the repetition
  3. Repetition of the breaks in the repetition
  4. Breaks in the repetition of the breaks in the repetition
  5. Recursive layers of patterns of breaks and repetitions

In order to prove this to you, I’m going to talk you through these eighteen notes one at a time.

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White nationalist music in Sweden

Writing assignment for Ethnomusicology: History and Theory with David Samuels

Benjamin Teitelbaum’s study of Nordic nationalist music could not be any more timely.

Lions of the North

Gramsci diverged from classic Marxism when he argued that shifts in the cultural sphere create the conditions for political or economic change, rather than the other way around. Since Swedish nationalists do not have enough majority appeal for electoral politics, they see better prospects in the social diffusion of ideas and cultural values, i.e. “metapolitics.”

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What is culture?

Writing assignment for Ethnomusicology: History and Theory with David Samuels

All of my social science professors have asked the class to define “culture” and no one is ever able to give a concise or satisfying answer. If a culture is discretely bounded and object-like, how do we understand the culture of people in borderlands, or migrants, or residents of big complicated places like New York City? Calling anthropology as “the study of culture” is not so much a description of what anthropologists do so much as it describes “the politics of inclusion whereby an author seeks to find a common underlying theme for a plethora of disciplinary projects” (Borofsky et al, 2001).

Culture Club

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Ethnomusicology and the voice

Writing assignment for Ethnomusicology: History and Theory with David Samuels

Kane (2014) critiques Schaeffer’s notion of “reduced listening,” which ignores a sound’s referential properties and considers it independently of its causes or its meaning. Bracketing the question of whether this is even possible, is it desirable to restrict musical discourse so much by neglecting sound’s signifying properties? Kane’s critique is especially apposite when we consider the voice.

Pink Trombone

Is it possible to hear a human voice (or an instrument that sounds like one) without imagining the body that produced it? Kate Heidemann argues that when we listen to singers, we imagine ourselves having the bodily experience of producing their voice. Thus the pleasure of Aretha Franklin is the opportunity she gives us to imagine being relaxed while still producing a loud and authoritative voice.

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The Vocoder, Auto-Tune, Pitch Standardization and Vocal Virtuosity

Writing assignment for History of Science and Technology class with Myles Jackson. See a more informal introduction to the vocoder here.

Casual music listeners know the vocoder best as the robotic voice effect popular in disco and early hip-hop. Anyone who has heard pop music of the last two decades has heard Auto-Tune. The two effects are frequently mistaken for one another, and for good reason—they share the same mathematical and technological basis. Auto-Tune has become ubiquitous in recording studios, in two very different incarnations. There is its intended use, as an expedient way to correct out-of-tune notes, replacing various tedious and labor-intensive manual methods. Pop, hip-hop and electronic dance music producers have also found an unintended use for Auto-Tune, as a special effect that quantizes pitches to a conspicuously excessive degree, giving the voice a synthetic, otherworldly quality. In this paper, I discuss the history of the vocoder and Auto-Tune, in the context of broader efforts to use science and technology to mathematically analyze and standardize music. I also explore how such technologies problematize our ideas of virtuosity.

Ableton vocoder

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Ethnomusicology and the body

Writing assignment for Ethnomusicology: History and Theory with David Samuels

It is such a strange artifact of Cartesian dualism that we have to specify experiences as being “bodily,” as if there were some other kind. It’s like specifying that a place is in the universe.

René Descartes

Blacking (1977) observes that we can understand the convention of the mind/body dichotomy as a cultural construct, a reflection of the way that capitalism divides manual and mental labor, and puts pressure on us to use our bodies in a lopsided way (see, for example, my being hunched over my computer right now.) Furthermore, the mind-body split symbolizes the left brain/right brain split. The arts require both sides of the brain, and this may be their biological function in humans: to activate both brain hemispheres and let us attain a more complete and unified consciousness.

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