Making and Teaching Music in Times of Racism

In 2014, the Southern Poverty Law Center went into the collection of music sold on iTunes, and flagged 54 bands that were either affiliated with hate groups or directly advocating hatred of and violence against non-white people. Protest and pressure lead to a change in policy that made these songs less available – but the fact they exist at all forces us to ask some uncomfortable questions about the effect music has on society.


I will not link to any of the groups or songs in question directly but many of them have

  1.  Lyrics that graphically describe, make light of, and encourage violence against African-Americans, immigrants, and other people of color AND
  2.  Hard-core punk or metal drumming (with repetition, polyrhythms, and backbeat-forward syncopated beats) and blues-derived guitar technique – both of which are deeply influenced by the musics of Africa.


It is an act of profound willful ignorance and cognitive dissonance for someone to be inspired by rock music yet disdainful of anyone who is not white.   Still, music expressing racist messages exists. All our high-minded rhetoric of music changing the world, bringing peace, or helping humans live with each other has to face the hard truth that music can also separate, divide, and intensify feelings of hatred.


Yet, there are moments when music does destroy walls and create understanding. Whether it was immigrants from the West Indies and white British punks making alliances through a mutual love of ska, Jewish and Arab musicians come together in Israel/Palestine, or musical exchanges between the U.S. and Cuba – there are countless ways music can bring people together and make “enemies” appreciate and understand each other.  At this time in history, when divisions between people seem as strong as ever, harnessing this power and using it responsibly may be one of the most important responsibilities of a musician or music educator.


Truly Creative People Connect with Each Other


A truly creative artist is searching for inspiration wherever he or she finds it. While everyone is capable of coming up with unique and beautiful ideas by themselves, sometimes the creative parts of our brains can get an invaluable jump start by learning from someone else. Other musicians can give you new ideas, if you listen carefully to what they do well.


This is true for individual musicians within the same time and place, but the benefit can be even greater when cultural barriers are crossed.  We’re all socially conditioned to make unexamined assumptions about what sounds “good” or “bad” based on how we were raised, what our teachers told us, how our peers react, and how mass media influences us.  Another artist who may not share those assumptions can thus inspire us to try something we otherwise wouldn’t have considered.


This is “Ida Red,” a traditional old-time American fiddle tune with roots going back to at least the 1860s:



Fiddle player Bob Wills is known as the innovator of “Western Swing.” This new musical style combined Texas’ unique take on the old-time fiddle tradition with jazz rhythms, improvised solos, and other conventions of the swing music that was popular in his day. In 1938, he recorded his own version of this same song, that would spend decades as a favorite among listeners of country music:



Almost 20 years later, blues guitar player Chuck Berry took the tune and created his own new version with different words. By giving a blues and soul approach to the up-tempo country tune he learned how to be a huge hit in the south’s illegal “salt and pepper clubs,” where white and black music fans could interact with each other. Chuck Berry was already fusing musical worlds together by necessity, learning another culture’s songs to appeal to a mixed audience. Famed Chicago-based record producer Leonard Chess was deeply excited by Berry’s experiments in music fusion, remarking that “a hillbilly song sung by a black man” was something new and exciting, and could have enormous potential to appeal to people from many different ethnic and social groups.  “Maybelline” was the result:



Out of this fusion of “white” country and “black” gospel and blues, a new musical style called “rock n roll” would take over the world.  At the time, white supremacist organizations and leaders were arguing “race mixing” would lead to the denegation of white culture. They believed segregation was necessary to “protect” people from The Other they were conditioned to be afraid of.  It took just a few thrilling blasts from Chuck Berry’s guitar to expose this racist myth as false. On the contrary, it was clear to everyone with ears to hear that diversity, and the opportunity for different cultural groups to influence each other could produce music of immense power, catchiness, creativity, and beauty.


Appreciation Without Action is Worthless


However, plenty of white people can become fans of Chuck Berry, Duke Ellington or Ice Cube without it carrying over into respecting the “everyday” black people in their lives, let alone working to dismantle structures of segregation and injustice.  It is relativity easy to “enjoy” or be entertained by the music, art, or storytelling of a different culture.  Learning to actually care about the people and community that created that art and taking on their struggles in solidarity is far more taxing.


In a widely viewed video, actress and singer Amanda Stenberg pointed out how far-reaching this trend is – that even well-known white artists primary influenced by African-Americans too often fail to use their renown to speak up against issues affecting the black community. She closes it with a provocative and damning question: “What would America be like if we loved black people as much as we loved black culture?”   Enjoying the artifacts of a culture is not the same thing as truly having compassion for culture creators.


The Responsibility of Musicians and Teachers


Loving music is not hard. A driving beat, a soaring melody, or a moving poem complemented with the perfect tune can grab almost anyone and lift them up to a state of transcendence.  However, deep listening is another thing entirely.  Motifs from Beethoven’s symphonies (such as the intro to the 5th or the choral section of the 9th) are ubiquitous enough to be a cliché, but a true appreciation of the composer’s genius has called for focused study that has filled entire libraries. In a similar way, learning to “have fun” with a person from a different cultural background is only the first step to harder conversations that make you learn to see the world from their perspective, and come to terms with historic injustices against them.


The job of the music educator is to push students to move from being entertained to true appreciation – and then from appreciation to deep understanding of the artist and their community.  Whether we are examining the work of Charles Ives, South African kwela groups, or Emilie Autumn, we must constantly challenge ourselves and our students to go deeper – to ask ourselves what’s really going on to make the musicians make the decisions they do – what message, experiences, or story he or she is trying to communicate.


Human beings naturally want to connect with others and live peacefully in community. Problems arise when there is misunderstanding, or when love of the people in our own “tribe” excludes the people we decide don’t belong. The survival of our planet depends on people growing in their ability to listen to other people and their needs and struggles.  And appreciation and performing music, is first and foremost, all about learning how to listen.


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