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 But they are also withdrawn from the world, fearing that getting involving in other people’s struggles will destroy what makes their culture so unique and beautiful.

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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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A participant ethnography of the Ed Sullivan Fellows program

Note: I refer to mentors by their real names, and to participants by pseudonyms

Ed Sullivan Fellows (ESF) is a mentorship and artist development program run by the NYU Steinhardt Music Experience Design Lab. It came about by a combination of happenstances. I had a private music production student named Rob Precht, who had found my blog via a Google search. He and I usually held our lessons in the lab’s office space. Over the course of a few months, Rob met people from the lab and heard about our projects. He found us sufficiently inspiring that he approached us with an idea. He wanted to give us a grant to start a program that would help young people from under-resourced communities get a start in the music industry. He asked us to name it after his grandfather, Ed Sullivan, whose show had been crucial to launching the careers of Elvis, the Beatles, and the Jackson 5. While Rob’s initial idea had been to work with refugees who had relocated to New York, we agreed to shift the focus to native New York City residents, since our connections and competencies were stronger there.

Ed Sullivan Fellows

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American Apartheid

Denton, N. A., & Massey, D. (1993). American apartheid: Segregation and the making of the underclass.

American Apartheid

The question endlessly debated by sociologists: is the black underclass the result of a) racism b) a culture of poverty c) welfare d) structural economic change or e) residential segregation? Denton and Massey say it’s choice e). “Residential segregation is the institutional apparatus that supports other racially discriminatory processes and binds them together into a coherent and uniquely effective system of racial subordination” (8). Without residential segregation, structural economic changes wouldn’t have been so devastating. Middle-class migration out of black neighborhoods contributed, but wasn’t the main factor.

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Marked

Note-taking for Principles of Empirical Research with Catherine Voulgarides

Pager, Devah. (2007). MARKED: Race, Crime, and Finding Work in an Era of Mass Incarceration. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Page 21 of Pager’s book includes this chart, showing annual prison admissions for drugs by race in the United States. In the 1980s, we imprisoned roughly the same numbers of black and white people for drugs. There are about six times as many white people as black people in the population generally, so unless you believe that black people do drugs at six times the rate white people do, there would appear to have been some racism at work.

Pager 2007 p 21

Then in the late 80s, there was an incredible jump in the number of black prisoners, leading to the present situation, where there are between two and three times as many black people in prison for drugs as white people. While America has become less racist in some respects, this statistic tells us that we are not making as much progress as we like to imagine. These facts also have implications for the history of hip-hop. You can see the rise of both gangsta and overtly socially conscious rap in large part as a response to the devastating effect of this sentencing disparity.

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Ain’t No Makin’ It

Assignment for Approaches to Qualitative Inquiry with Colleen Larson

If you’re looking for a gripping and highly readable (though depressing) sociological study, I strongly recommend this one.

Ain't No Makin' It

The purpose of MacLeod’s study is to understand how class inequality reproduces itself, using the example of two groups of young men living in a housing project. He asks how these young people reconcile America’s dominant ideology of individual achievement, where success is based on merit, and economic inequality is due to differences in ambition and ability, with the reality of the participants’ own limited choices and opportunities. In particular, MacLeod addresses the question of whether education ensures equality of opportunity as it is purported to do.

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