Music and White Supremacy

Why Ethnomusicology Needs Classical Music, and Vice Versa

When the news broke on Monday that hip hop artist Kendrick Lamar had won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in music for his album DAMN., many music-watchers expected a substantial blowback from the classical music establishment. After all, Kendrick is the first ever recipient of the award who is not a classical composer or jazz musician.

(And let’s be honest, there really aren’t many of the latter among the recipients of the award in its 75 year history. Wynton Marsalis was the first jazz recipient in 1997—for Blood on the Fields, an oratorio—and there have been a couple jazz recipients since. But the Pulitzer has basically been a de facto art music award since its inception. The committee couldn’t even agree to grant the award to Duke Ellington in 1965—a year in which no Pulitzer for music was awarded.)

But the backlash against the Pulitzer decision largely did not materialize. The choice was widely hailed by musicians, critics, and scholars alike—and, in fact, is perceived by many as long overdue for an out-of-touch and out-of-date award-granting institution. Unfortunately, this is how it goes. Surely, in retrospect, we might wish that the Pulitzer had been given to Marvin Gaye for What’s Going On or to Public Enemy for Nation of Millions. But this is where we are, and Kendrick is highly deserving of the honor.

Nonetheless, where the backlash did come, it was about as vile and racist as you would expect. A prominent critic (I will not name him here, nor link to his website, since I’ve already driven up his traffic more than I am comfortable with, but it is trivial to find his work if you so choose) headlined his post negatively: “Pulitzer Jury: No Contemporary Classical Work Was Prizeworthy” (which is a bizarre statement, since two contemporary classical works were finalists and thus, by definition, potentially prizeworthy). He then listed the jury of five with their (impressive) credentials and demanded that they “elucidate their criteria” (a demand that surely would not be made if a classical work had won).

But this critic knows his business. He merely provided the bait for his army of trolls, who variously suggested that it was a “politically-correct decision,” described all hip hop as a “street gang genre,” called the album “moronic, obscene ghetto nonsense,” called Kendrick a “brain-dead thug who belongs in prison,” and declared that they can’t possibly be racists because they supported Nelson Mandela and listened to Louis Armstrong. One troll took issue with the inclusion on the jury of “women of colour.” Nope, not racist at all.

Classical Music among the Rest

I was very glad to see that the racist backlash against Kendrick’s win was minimal and confined to a handful of old-fashioned idiots with their plainly white supremacist agendas. But it also made me reflect on the ways in which white supremacy is embedded in music education as much as in other fields and other areas of life. And this is an issue that is very close to home for me.

I am trained as an ethnomusicologist, a field that traditionally has been dedicated to the study of musics from around the world, and I also grew up studying classical music and playing classical trombone. My research topic centers on classical music—how it is performed and produced in the recording studio—and although I approach classical music from a clearly ethnomusicological perspective (I do participant observation, I conduct interviews, I draw on sociology and anthropology far more than musicology in my writing) this topic still makes me something of an outsider in my field.

Occasionally, other ethnomusicologists have said to me, “You’re not really an ethnomusicologist.” I’ve also had this sentiment implied to me more times and in more forms than I care to remember.

I think that my experience in the field of ethnomusicology points to a broader problem in this subdiscipline and in musicology more generally—the problem of defining the field by topic instead of method or perspective. The view of ethnomusicology that would exclude me must be based on the object of study: Western art music, in this view, cannot be studied ethnomusicologically. Ethnomusicology is only for people who work on musics elsewhere in the world, or on non-normative/hegemonic musics of the West.

To some extent one can grasp why ethnomusicology as a field would want to differentiate itself in this way. Historical musicology—its older, more straight-laced cousin—remains dominant in this area of the academy. Historical musicologists have argued that Western music cannot be understood from an ethnomusicological perspective because it is too different from all the other musics of the world. Ethnography is fine for those “other” musics, but Western classical music needs to be treated differently because it is special (the argument might go). Historical musicology has benevolently ceded “world music” to the ethnomusicologists, so long as they respect the divide. So it’s understandable that ethnomusicology wants to defend its non-Western turf. This way, both areas have a clear understanding of who they are and we don’t need to have turf wars over whose methods can usefully analyze what.

The problem, though, is that by accepting the West-and-rest distinction assumed by historical musicology, ethnomusicology has substantially abandoned one of the things it ought to do best: namely, it has forfeited much of its ability to effectively critique the structures and flows of power that created that West-and-rest mentality in the first place. The field of ethnomusicology has accepted its otherness and its difference. It defines itself as what historical musicology is not. Ideologically, ethnomusicology today is fully implicated in the power structures defined by historical musicology.

Fighting White Supremacy through (Ethno)musicology

As a result of this ingrained West-and-rest musicological divide, scholars such as myself are consigned to the margins. I’m too much an ethnomusicologist for the historical musicology crowd, but not nearly enough of one for the historical musicologists.

Why does this matter? Despite my frustrations in the field of ethnomusiciology, the problematic exclusion of Western classical music is not primarily about me. Rather, my experience represents something bigger in the field, a refusal to look beyond the safe boundaries of non-Western music and engage critically with hegemony at one of its cores. For all the great work that is being done in ethnomusicology today—and there is indeed more superb scholarship than ever before—this is a major blind spot for the discipline, and it is one that I believe undermines much of the field’s other achievements.

I’ll take myself as an example again: I selected my research topic (classical music recording studios) not because I wanted to argue for the obvious greatness of Western classical music, or because I hoped to add to the masses of literature affirming the inherent value of this repertoire. To the contrary, I see the ethnomusicological study of Western classical music as a way to challenge the long-standing assumptions that this music is better than all of its others. In my research I refuse to accept the authority of the composer, or even of musicians, preferring instead to illuminate the much broader networks of individuals that participate in classical music performances. I also try to place these cultural practices in dialogue with popular and world musics, challenging boundaries that remain substantial in both Western musical practice and scholarship. In other words, I want to make Western classical music merely one musical practice alongside the multiplicity of others that ethnomusicology is already so good at analyzing.

I do not mean to be self-congratulatory here. I merely want to highlight a way in which the field of ethnomusicology seems blind to its own embedded hegemonic biases. I am not arguing for any less research in any of the world musics that ethnomusicology engages with so expertly; rather, I am arguing for a more inclusive approach to world musics. The field ought not to exclude Western classical music because it is the historical locus of white supremacy and power within musical practice and scholarship, but should instead address this repertoire and culture head-on, analyzing and critiquing in the ways that ethnomusicology is uniquely equipped to do. 

Ethnomusicology needs to address Western classical music far more substantially if it ever wants to be more than historical musicology’s “other.” But Western classical music also needs ethnomusicology if it ever wants to move past its stuffy past and still-elitist present. There are so many scholars and musicians and listeners out there for whom Western classical music’s superiority is a non-existent question, and yet institutions where this music is practiced continue to keep it separate and continue to preserve its myths and mystique. The field of (ethno)musicology is one of these institutions, and it’s past time to reckon with its biases.

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