An Interview with Jacqueline Cogdell DjeDje, Professor Emeritus of Ethnomusicology at UCLA

ISS Annual Meeting 2016 – Program
July 9, 2016
First Annual Meeting
July 9, 2016
ISS Annual Meeting 2016 – Program
July 9, 2016
First Annual Meeting
July 9, 2016

An Interview with Jacqueline Cogdell DjeDje, Professor Emeritus of Ethnomusicology at UCLA

Jacqueline Cogdell DjeDje, chair, Department of Ethnomusicology, the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music, photo by Patricia Williams

Jacqueline Cogdell DjeDje, chair, Department of Ethnomusicology, the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music, photo by Patricia Williams

Jacqueline Cogdell DjeDje, chair, Department of Ethnomusicology, the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music, photo by Patricia Williams

Jacqueline Cogdell DjeDje is Professor Emeritus, former Chair of the UCLA Department of Ethnomusicology, and former Director of the UCLA Ethnomusicology Archive. Professor DjeDje is author, editor, and compiler of several books, collections of essays, and recordings, a few of which include Fiddling in West Africa: Touching the Spirit in Fulbe, Hausa, and Dagbamba Cultures (2008); Fiddling in West Africa (1950s-1990s): The Recording (2007); Turn Up the Volume! A Celebration of African Music (1999); California Soul: Music of African Americans in the West (co-edited with Eddie S. Meadows, 1998). She has conducted field work in West Africa (Ghana, Nigeria, Cote d’Ivoire, The Gambia, Senegal), Southern Africa (South Africa and Zambia), and Northeast Africa (Ethiopia and Egypt); the Caribbean (Jamaica); and the western and southern United States, including California, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. She has also served as President and Vice President of the Southern California Chapter of the Society for Ethnomusicology as well as Second Vice-President of the Society for Ethnomusicology. In addition, she has been a board member on a number of professional music organizations and has received grants and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). For her publication on Fiddling in West Africa, she was awarded the 2009 Alan Merriam Prize from the Society for Ethnomusicology for the best book, and the 2010 Kwabena Nketia Book Prize (the inaugural award) from the Society for Ethnomusicology African Music Section for the most distinguished book published on African music.

by C. Travis Webb

Q: Your most recent work deals with the cultural (mis)representations of the fiddle. It’s a fascinating instrument, because as you mention in your work, it is already the site of contested representations within traditional Euro-American culture. The fiddle is most commonly associated with a folksy, tap your foot and dosey doe, down home southern good time, while the violin is associated with a buttoned up, respectable, classical Victorian parlor, even though they are, essentially, the same instrument. As you point out, though, this popular history—fraught as it is with class tensions—entirely white-washes the much longer history of the instrument, which reaches back across the Atlantic to the 11th century African savannah. It seems that the history of the fiddle in America, like the banjo, is yet another example of how white cultural appropriation tends to presage historical erasure. In this instance, the collective amnesia that this was an instrument used by certain African cultures as long as it had been used by European cultures, or perhaps longer—depending on whether you want to count the Byzantine lyra as “European”? How did you come to this history? Did your earlier work on African-American regional music prepare you for your current research on the fiddle, or was it perhaps something more intimate? Affection for The Mississippi Sheiks, familiarity with the instrument itself? I’d like to understand some of what brought you to the topic, before we head into the theoretical thicket, as it were.

A: Actually, I became interested in African fiddling during my first year as a graduate student at UCLA. J. H. Kwabena Nketia, the instructor of the “Music of Africa” course who later became my mentor, played a musical example in class to demonstrate a point he was making. I don’t remember the point, but I was blown away by the sound. It was East African music performed on the orutu (fiddle) by a Luo male singer from Kenya [1] (and here is another example of a performance of the orutu in the 21st century). As a result of listening to that example, I wrote a term paper on Luo fiddle music for the class. Nketia must have been impressed with my findings because he encouraged me (a year later, in fall 1972) to use the West African fiddle as the focus of my dissertation.[2] I should add that when I began my graduate training in the early 1970s, ethnomusicologists rarely talked about the “history” of traditional music because many researchers did not believe such a history could be documented. Since traditional music had generally been passed down or transmitted orally, the usual print sources that one would find in Western cultures were not always available; so this validated their point. Therefore, in African music, we often focused on performance or music making and sometimes the musician with little discussion of when or how it all began. But these narrow views have changed in modern times.

What’s interesting about this area of research is that while fiddling is widespread in many parts of the African continent (e.g., North, East, West, and even Central and Southern Africa), little is known about the instrument. Nketia probably thought that since much research had been conducted on drumming, this was an opportunity to bring attention to indigenous African fiddling, an important but often-ignored tradition. Although most African fiddles are constructed with one string, the ensemble organization in each culture tends to be distinct and the role and meaning of the tradition in each society also vary. For example, listen to “Barrahaza” by Haruna Yaron Goge, a Hausa fiddler from northern Nigeria,[3] and “Nyun Taa Jilma” by Salisu Mahama, a Dagbamba fiddler from northern Ghana.[4]

When I began my graduate studies at UCLA, I did not associate string or melodic instruments with Africa. I had been raised in a small town in southeast Georgia. And knowledge of Africa was shaped by what I saw or heard in the media, primarily Tarzan movies. Also, during the fifties and sixties, there was no black radio where I grew up. The music we heard on the radio was white country music by musicians like Eddy Arnold and Patti Page, and my mother loved it! She woke up every weekday morning listening to country music as she prepared breakfast and got ready for work. Of course, she also loved the music of black musicians such as Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Cab Calloway. But we only listened to black music on weekends — on Sundays in church or on special occasions (e.g., birthday parties) when she and my dad invited friends and family to our house. At those times, they took time to set up the Victrola record player and pull out their precious 78rpm disc recordings and listen to music late into the evenings.

Interestingly, my music education in high school and Fisk (I was a music major) did not change my narrow and biased perception of African music. In the first course I took on African music (at Fisk University in 1968, which was a rarity for a black college at that time), my professor, Darius Thieme, focused only on percussion whenever we discussed instrumental resources, probably because he had conducted research on music of the Yoruba of Nigeria where drums dominate. Although the Yoruba perform the fiddle, which I learned later when I began my research on fiddling while pursuing my PhD, this was never mentioned during our discussions on African music at Fisk or UCLA.

Fig_1-Record_cover-Black_American_Religious_Music_from_SE_Georgia-1983Personally, the music most intimate to me when I was growing up were hymns, spirituals, and gospel songs that were performed in churches in my hometown and neighboring communities (such as, “Steal Away Jesus,” “Come and Go with Me to My Father’s House,” and “New Born Soul”[5]). Because these songs were not European art (i.e., classical) music,[6] however, I did not think they were worthy of serious study. So when I decided to conduct research on African American religious music, specifically spirituals and gospel, in southeast Georgia for my master’s degree,[7] this also did not prepare me at all for my interest in fiddling. At that time, I also didn’t know that, although slaves often performed the fiddle, most whites and blacks considered the fiddle to be a devil’s instrument. The fact that fiddling accompanied dancing with men and women in close contact was a “no-no” for both white and black Christians during slavery and the early 20th century. So religious music in no way prepared me for my long journey in studying the fiddle, which was most often used to perform secular, not sacred music.

Although studying African fiddling had nothing to do with my private life, my decision to conduct research on the fiddle in African American culture was indeed personal. At the age of five, my daughter began taking violin lessons, which she continued through high school and her first year of college. She even became the concert mistress in the community orchestra that she performed in during her high school days. During that time, especially when she was young and impressionable, some of my friends (and especially her friends) would ask: “Why are you studying violin when your father is from Africa? Why aren’t you learning how to dance or play the drum?” I don’t think she ever responded, because she probably did not know what to say. To her, the violin was an instrument that she chose and loved to play because her teacher (a white male) inspired her (see below for my comments on this issue in one of my publications):

[M]y interest in the African-American fiddle tradition came about because my daughter, who decided to take violin lessons when she was a youngster, had a difficult time adjusting socially to the instrument because she had few role models. Few individuals within her world knew about fiddling in Africa, and even those who knew something about it did not realize that blacks had been the major performers of the violin in the United States during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.[8]

However, the questions that our friends raised caused me to think to myself: “My dissertation and many of my publications concern fiddling in West Africa, but no one (and even I) have extended that discussion to fiddling among Africans in the Americas. Since most people in the United States identify the fiddle with Europeans, why don’t I use my research on West African fiddling to deal with this issue – to set the record straight.” By then, I had learned enough about African American music to know that some blacks performed jazz and blues on the violin. However, because the majority of my previous research had focused on Africa and African American religious music, my knowledge was lacking about the role of the fiddle among blacks and whites who played old time or country music. Also, except for assisting my daughter in learning how to play the violin through the Suzuki method,[9] I knew little about the mechanics of playing a bowed instrument. In my early life, I had been a pianist, and I had taken lessons on the gondze one stringed fiddle when I was conducting research among the Dagbamba people in Ghana. I also knew little about black secular genres, such as blues, jazz, and zydeco that included the fiddle, nor had I heard of the Mississippi Sheiks, a black group that made lots of recordings during the 1930s that included the fiddle. So in the mid-1980s, when my daughter was about seven years old, I began my formal research on the fiddle in African American culture. It has been a long journey, but I believe the wait or delay was necessary or warranted. At this point in time, I “think” that I have matured culturally and intellectually to do justice to the topic. In my earlier life (i.e., 10-15 years ago), I probably would not have used the approach I’m planning to use for my book on this subject.

Q: I was, as you were apparently in 1971, struck by the sound of the orutu in the sample you provided. There is nothing “strange” or unfamiliar about the timbre or the cadence—nothing at all. If you had told me, save the singing, that this was music performed by some Appalachian fiddler, I would have found that entirely plausible. Now, my ear is of course untutored. Undoubtedly you, and others, would be able to explain where the tuning varies, where the Luo’s technique reveals itself, but that’s my point: these are fine degrees of distinction that do not preclude my accessing the music. It was, for example, much easier for me to engage with the Luo player’s fiddle than Eddy Arnold’s “Crying in the Chapel,” a musical genre for which I have much greater context.

You mentioned that you feel as if you’ve “matured” enough “culturally and intellectual to do justice” to the (mis)representations of the fiddle in African American culture, and I’m very interested to hear what insights you needed to have prior to tackling the topic. One of the things that stood out for me in your compelling personal history, in your relationship with this topic, and music in general, is the way in which music is used to reinforce and shape social self-representation. You were trained to believe that in order to be a “serious” musician (surely a euphemism for a real musician), you needed to engage with European art music. And your daughter had to explain why she wasn’t playing an “African” instrument (i.e. a percussion instrument), or learning to dance, two artistic forms officially sanctioned as “black” in the popular imagination. And your mother, she would listen to “white” country music at home, but would turn to “black” music during social gatherings. And the fiddle was a “secular” instrument that induced bodies to sin. Indeed, in your examples, and of course in reality, music is so charged with political potency that it’s difficult to imagine a more freighted short hand for “proper” group identification—well, other than scriptures, perhaps. How have you begun to unpack these kind of (mis)representations of the fiddle in your latest project?

A: If I am interpreting your comments correctly, there are two statements or questions that you’ve asked me to address. See below for the questions and my response.

Question 1: You mentioned that you feel as if you’ve “matured” enough “culturally and intellectually to do justice” to the (mis)representations of the fiddle in African American culture, and I’m very interested to hear what insights you needed to have prior to tackling the topic.

Question 2: Indeed, in your examples, and of course in reality, music is so charged with political potency that it’s difficult to imagine a more freighted short hand for “proper” group identification—well, other than scriptures, perhaps. How have you begun to unpack these kind of (mis)representations of the fiddle in your latest project?

Response to Question 1: Culturally, my attitude and understanding of African American musicking[10] have matured over the years because of my increased knowledge of both African and African American history and culture. Scholars who conduct research on African or African-derived traditions may have intimate knowledge of one or the other, but rarely both. Also, for many African Americans, we know about Africa through secondary sources (books, article, films, etc.) and what others have told us. So our knowledge has been filtered through the experiences and perspectives of others. However, I believe that my knowledge base now is deeper and not as superficial as it was in the past because of my interaction with peoples in both parts of the world. In addition to living in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire for several years, I have traveled to countries in Northeast Africa, Southern Africa, and other parts of West Africa. It is impossible to know everything about a music culture (even ones own). So I don’t claim to know everything about African and African American musicking. Rather, I just feel that I know more now than I did in earlier years, and all of this has affected me culturally.

Intellectually, I don’t have the same biases about what is African- or European-derived as I did in the past. I now recognize that a lot of sharing, synergy, and appropriation have taken place among various ethnic and racial groups in the United States, which has resulted in commonalities. Therefore, when examining and analyzing music cultures, one must take into consideration the musical characteristics identified or associated with all groups (Africa, Europe, Native America, etc.) before and after culture contact before making conclusions.

For example, when people in the United States listen to some of the violin music composed by William Grant Still (1895-1978), one of the greatest and most prolific composers in the United States who happens to be an African American (listen to Still, for example, perform, “Mother and Child,” “Here’s One,” and “The Blues”), I wonder if they associate it with blackness or whiteness and why.

When people listen to the music of the Jim Booker (1872-1940), a Kentucky black fiddler who was the featured artist in the recording of Taylor’s Kentucky Boys, a predominantly white string band ensemble (see, for example, “Grey Eagle” ), do they consider Booker’s music to be black or white? Would the fact that this is the type of music Booker performed for both blacks and whites in his community throughout much of life affect their opinion? Also, why do you think the record company, when designing the record cover for the recording, decided to use the picture of a white person playing the fiddle instead of including a photo of Jim Booker, the black person who actually performed on the recording? While some researchers state that it was because Booker was not around or could not be found when the photo was taken, others indicate that this is evidence of misrepresentation. Since it was the intention of the record company to market the recording to whites, record executives took the necessary steps (placing a photo of a white fiddler on the cover) to ensure that white consumers purchased the recording. Marketing to blacks was also part of the record company’s strategy to gain income. In the case of blacks, recordings were sold as part of the company’s race music series that included blues, jazz, etc. – musicking that was not marketed to whites. When Jim Booker recorded with members of his family (as in “Salty Dog”), did the sound of the music change? If yes, in what way was it changed — is the sound an example of blackness or whiteness? To what extent did the record company executives influence what the Booker Orchestra (an all black group) actually record?

Several African American performers who perform old-time music have become well known among some whites in the United States during the early 21st century. Some of the more well known include fiddler Joe Thompson (1918-2012); fiddler Leonard Bowles (1919-2004); and the Carolina Chocolate Drops, a group formed in 2005 by several thirty-year olds (also performing here).[11] In addition, there is Howard Armstrong (1909-2003), a black fiddler who played a variety of styles, including old time, blues, and different types of novelty songs. Interestingly, few individuals in today’s black community know these artists. And when blacks listen to their music, small numbers are interested because the musicking, in their opinion, is not “black.” The association with whiteness may also be the reason why there is little interest. When I’ve attended performances by some of these artists, the audience has been overwhelmingly white. So when and why did African Americans’ attitudes about this music begin to change – especially when we compare attitudes of the early 20th century (i.e., Jim Booker) with that of the 21st century? Although this is a side note and not the focus of my research, one might ask the question — what is happening to the performance of blues and jazz in the black community in the 21st century? At what point did the support of this music by blacks begin to falter? Has interest in this music reached the point that it is no longer a representation of African American culture or the roots of those (i.e., blacks) who were the primary creators? To what extent are the changes that are now occurring with blues and jazz similar or different from what happened with old time and art (i.e., classical) music performed by African Americans?

Personally, I associate all of these musical traditions with African Americans because they all grew out of the black experience. Instead of rejecting or ostracizing a tradition, I am interested in knowing about the factors and circumstances that caused the composer/performer to create a type of music. Culturally and intellectually, I now know and accept the fact that blacks in different parts of the United States have different histories and cultural patterns that all need to be taken into consideration. I now look at the facts and creations as they are and try to interpret them as best I can with the sources available to me.

Response to Question 2: To unpack or understand some of the reasons for the creation and performance of fiddling among blacks, I plan to address questions that I have not always considered in some of my earlier work. In addition to discussing the tradition (e.g., history, performers, performance practices), I’m also interested in why researchers like myself, the media, and the U.S. general public, especially blacks in the United States, have ignored or neglected the study of black fiddling. Why are we not interested? Is the neglect intentional or unintentional? What have been the repercussions of the neglect? How has the neglect affected our understanding of not only black fiddling but what we regard as black and white music in the United States? Should we even be using racial categories when discussing musicking?

Furthermore, I don’t believe that what has happened to African American fiddling is distinct from what has taken place in West Africa. The position that I present in my book, Fiddling in West Africa: Touching the Spirit in Fulbe, Hausa, and Dagbamba Cultures (2008), also applies to African Americans:

After examining the three groups [Fulbe, Hausa, and Dagbamba] collectively, I came to view fiddling not as a discrete unit in several West African locations, but as a whole with interconnected parts. In addition, four issues emerged as important to the tradition: place (the geographical and sociocultural environment); ethnicity (the ethnic identity of the people and their relationship with those around them); religion (the belief system and its role in society); and status (the social standing of performers it relation to others in the society) (DjeDje 2008:8).

Because representation, one of the primary issues affecting the development of musical and cultural traditions in the United States, was not a major factor in my analysis of fiddling in West Africa, it is not discussed at all in 2008 book. So, to do justice to the topic of black fiddling in the United States, the issue of representation will receive much attention. The primary questions are: why is representation important, and what can be gained from misrepresentation? In an article I’ve written, entitled “The (Mis)Representation of African American Music: The Role of the Fiddle,” that will soon be published, I raise several questions: (1) what is the role of the fiddle in African American culture? (2) why do we know so little about fiddling in African American culture? (3) is our lack of knowledge about the tradition intentional or unintentional? (4) what are the repercussions of not knowing about black fiddling? My responses to these questions, which I don’t want to discuss at length here because of lack of space, reveal much about our attitudes regarding race relations in the United States. Just as the fiddle has multiple identities in West Africa that shift due to differences in geography and ideology, the same has occurred among blacks in the United States. To learn about the multiple identities, I plan to include a discussion of regional distinctions and urbanism along with the personal histories of select fiddlers. It’s interesting to see how a topic that has been marginalized or ignored can be used to investigate broader issues relevant to other aspects of culture.

Q: It’s a well-worn cliché to trumpet about the power of music to “bring people together,” and while that cliché is undoubtedly true (national anthems, folk songs, “Happy birthday” tunes), one of the things that seems apparent in the discussion of your work and your lived experience is that it is also quite often used to set us apart. Black music v. White music, Fulbe v. Dagbamba, fiddle v. violin, classical v. folk, all of these distinctions speak to the construction of difference. It reminds me of the African-American sports writer and humorist Ralph Wiley’s famous rejoinder to Saul Bellow’s possibly misattributed, “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans?”: “Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus, unless you find profit in fencing off universal properties of mankind into exclusive tribal ownership.” In other words, claiming exclusive cultural ownership of ubiquitous human ingenuities (the fiddle for example) does profit some. The question is to whom does it pay dividends, which seems to be a question you’re pursuing in your latest work. Though for obvious reasons you’re reluctant to fully expand on your work, I wonder if you might briefly discuss what role the fiddle has had in the construction of African-American culture?

A: Your assessments are right on target. It is not unusual for societies to use aspects of culture, such as music, to represent or signify something otherworldly. Many times the intent is to positively enhance or educate society for the better good. Other times the intent is questionable. And since you insist, I will briefly discuss some of these issues as they relate to my research. In an article that I’ve written, entitled “The (Mis)Representation of African American Music: The Role of the Fiddle,” that will be published in the winter 2016 issue of the Journal of the Society for American Music, I demonstrate how the misrepresentation of black fiddling (on the part of researchers, the media, and regular folk, like you and me) has greatly impacted our understanding of both black and white musicking in the United States.

As we’ve established earlier in our conversation, the fiddle or the violin in U.S culture is most often identified with whiteness. But the fiddle has been used for all types of black musicking since Africans were brought to the Americas in the 17th century. Not only was it integral for recreation during slavery (with blacks performing at events for both blacks and whites), but it has also been used to perform blues, jazz, and various types of popular and art music. In spite of this prominence, rarely do people in the United States associate the instrument with blackness. In my paper, not only do I suggest reasons why misrepresentation has occurred, I indicate some of the repercussions. Giving special attention to the pre-twentieth and the early twentieth centuries, I argue that neglecting to acknowledge fiddling as a tradition identified with blackness, but primarily a product of whiteness, has led to dramatic consequences.

Because it is impossible to deal with all of the repercussions, I limit my comments in the article to three areas — how misrepresentation (1) affected the musical preferences and tastes of black musicians, (2) promoted the notion of difference to such a degree that shared features were dismissed or ignored, and (3) contributed to misconceptions that continue to exist in many writings about what we now call U.S. (or American) music.

Just as minstrelsy (an entertainment form developed in the early nineteenth century by whites that popularized negative portrayals and stereotyped performances of African Americans) misrepresented black music and performers by creating an “imagined” tradition based on distortions and negative stereotypes, the same occurred with recorded sound. The result is that when blacks did not hear themselves playing the fiddle in the media, many turned to other instruments (i.e., guitar) and musical genres (blues and jazz instead of old time and country). Furthermore, the use of certain types of ads and marketing strategies (i.e., “race” and “hillbilly” recordings) influenced who purchased different products.

Representing the fiddle as a black tradition comparable to that created by whites would have challenged and undermined the notion of difference, which had become commonplace in various parts of the Americas. In other words, placing emphasis on sharing, interaction, or synergy would have led to a more inclusive discussion about black and white contributions to musicking in the United States. Those who controlled the media or had access to its resources did not desire to change the status quo because misrepresentation and perpetuating stereotypes made too much profit.

Most significant to me, as a music researcher, is the fact that the history of both black and white musicking in the United States contains errors and omissions due to misrepresentation. U.S. fiddling tends to be identified with rural, southern culture, which both blacks and whites do not associate with African Americans. The consequence is that what we now know about African American musicking is limited to developments in urban black America, which is a misrepresentation of both black people and black culture.

The latter point has led to my working on a more extended project (i.e., a book) on African American fiddling. In addition to issues discussed in my article, one of objectives of the book is to provide data that will help us to understand more fully the history of African American music. Right now, we have a fairly good picture of what happened among urban blacks, which heretofore has been represented as the musical creativity of all blacks. But the U.S. black population did not become predominantly urban until the late 1940s. So what do we know about the music of blacks who did not migrate, such as my family members in southeast Georgia? Did they maintain the traditions of their ancestors? Did they create new genres or performance styles? To what extent were they influenced by activities in the city? What role did they play in the development of what is now called “African American music”? Also, while we know much about the musical styles that developed in cities like New York, Chicago, New Orleans, and to some extent Los Angeles, the musicking of blacks who settled in cities like Atlanta, Memphis, Knoxville, Nashville, or even Louisville has been marginalized and ignored. Also, how did the music and culture of blacks living in the mountain and piedmont regions of the United States differ from that of blacks who lived on coastal areas such as the Gulf and Atlantic. And what impact did all of this have on black musicking? Hopefully, my examination of black fiddling will not only bring attention to the diversity of the black experience in the Americas, but it will also stimulate a more in-depth discussion about what is “black” music and provide another example of how context and culture can affect meaning, identity, and musicking. Again, you never know what may arise from analyzing a seemingly “boring,” esoteric topic that appears to have little significance to what is happening in the world today. Racial profiling, institutional racism, and exploitation by big business–issues that are ever present on the minds of many people in the United States in the 21st century–are just some of the topics evident in my study of African American fiddling.

Hell You TalmboutQ: You’ve made a very compelling case for the contemporary relevance of your research on African American fiddling, so I’m wondering if we could switch gears to something else of contemporary import: the Black Lives Matter movement. I’d like to ask you to riff for a moment on a recent musical performance by Janelle Monáe that responds to the recent upheavals surrounding the policing of black bodies (specifically, I’m talking about the recorded murder of Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Eric Garner, and the unrecorded murder of countless other “urban” blacks). We know from evolutionary biology and the history of military training that most homo sapiens resist the instigation to violence. The object, typically, must be dehumanized. I’m wondering what you might have to say about this performance as a scholar, a musician, and a woman of color.

A: Travis, you really are making me stretch–musically, culturally, and intellectually–because I do not consider myself an authority on present-day (secular and sacred) music and culture. Similar to other researchers and scholars who might be a little dated in terms of the object or subject of their investigations (for example, most of my research focuses on musical traditions from the late 20th century and earlier), I don’t always feel comfortable discussing today’s trends. When I introduced present-day musicking in my classes at UCLA, I always allowed my students to become the authority on traditions from their personal experience. Using the methods of analysis that I had taught them and new ones they had learned and developed, their interpretations were interesting and unique. When I analyzed some of the same objects or musical traditions using the lens of my life experiences, what I brought to the table was oftentimes distinct from that of my students. As we have already established, different interpretations always exist. So, as you’ve requested, this is my riff on the performance by Janelle Monáe and Wondaland.

When I listen to the music and look at the video, I immediately think of protest. This is protest music. The artists are protesting police brutality and the many social injustices that African Americans, especially black males, experience on a daily basis. But before going too far in my analysis, I think it is important to establish who is performing and what is being performed.

From my brief research, this is a video performance of a song, “Hell You Talmbout” (i.e., “What the Hell You Talking About?”) composed by Janelle Monáe that she and members of her Wonderland Arts Society collective presented in a concert in Philadelphia on August 12, 2015. Interestingly, a song with the same title, “Hell You Talmbout,” was published in September 2013 as a bonus track on Monáe’s album, The Electric Lady (lyrics and audio and lyrics). Although the 2013 lyrics relate to some of the same issues, they are not as direct, touching, or poignant as the lyrics included in Monáe’s August 2015 performance.

On August 14, 2015, music journalists reported that Monáe had just released the version of “Hell You Talmbout” she had performed live in Philadelphia and New York City earlier that week, and dedicated it to the Black Lives Matter movement.[12] In an Instagram message accompanying the song’s release, Monáe writes: “This song is a vessel. It carries the unbearable anguish of millions. We recorded it to channel the pain, fear, and trauma caused by the ongoing slaughter of our brothers and sisters.”

Musically, “Hell You Talmbout” includes features (e.g., form, sound aesthetics, and performance practices) that are unquestionably African-derived. It is a group performance of 18-20 persons (equally divided between females and males) singing and performing a variety of instruments. To the lyrics, “Hell You Talmbout,” a simple melody is repeated throughout the song. Interspersed between the lyrics and in a call-and-response form, members of the group shout out loudly the names of young African American men and women who had been unjustly killed over the past few months. After calling out several names, the group returns to singing the lyrics until they start shouting the names of other black men and women. A percussive soundscape drives the performance not only through the singing and the use of rhythmic sound sources (snare drums, tambourine, handclapping, trap drum set with cymbals), but also by the percussive manner in which the electric bass and keyboard are performed. Most significant is the physically active involvement of the artists on stage; while singing, all performers move side to side and sometimes clap and wave their hands high in the air. Much of this is done to engage the interracial audience who are also actively participating in the performance through movement and singing along with the artists. The involvement of everyone (artists and audience) suggests that as a group, we (or they) are more powerful than one (the single individual). Furthermore, this can be interpreted to mean that everyone in various communities throughout the United States needs to be concerned about changing the status quo—the unwarranted killing of black men must stop.

Because of the prejudice and many injustices that African Americans have experienced in the United States, black musicking has often been used not only to express anger, frustration, and disillusionment, but also to demand respect, action, and positive change from those in positions of power. In this case, the song is a message to leaders who can make change. In my opinion, the song is saying, “Too many young black males have died and you’ve done nothing about it. The same thing continues to happen again and again. As your constituents, you are being watched; many people in the United States, if not all, are holding you accountable. Black lives matter.” The message of the song is very clear and direct. In fact, when Democratic candidate for the United States Hillary Clinton attempted to make a presentation on November 2, 2015, in South Carolina/Georgia, members of the #BlackLivesMatter movement interrupted her by singing their anthem, “Hell You Talmbout.” By simply performing this song, they relayed their message.

Stono Rebellion as depicted in Authentic and Impartial Narrative of the Tragical Scene Which Was Witnessed in Southampton County. 1831.

Stono Rebellion as depicted in Authentic and Impartial Narrative of the Tragical Scene Which Was Witnessed in Southampton County. 1831.

The video also makes me think of past history and all of the ways musicking has been used to empower and motivate people to take action. When about 20 enslaved Africans from Angola gathered near the Stono River, located about 20 miles from Charles Town, South Carolina, on September 9, 1739, and began playing drums, singing, and marching with colored banners toward Spanish Florida where other slaves who had escaped were granted their freedom, it was music that encouraged Africans in neighboring plantations to join them. In his report to the British Crown after the revolt (now known as the Stono Rebellion), the governor of colonial Georgia writes, “They increased every minute by new Negroes coming to them, so that they were above Sixty, some say a hundred, on which they halted in a field, and set to Dancing, Singing, and beating Drums, to draw more Negroes to them. . . .”[13] When white colonialists saw how musicking (especially the drum) could be used for resistance and to incite the enslaved to take action, they immediately passed laws throughout the colonies banning the playing of drums and other loud instruments. Therefore, to see so many drums and percussion instruments in the performance by Monáe makes me think of how times have (and have not) changed.

“Hell You Talmbout” also reminds me of another historical moment in U.S. music history. When James Brown and his bandleader, Alfred “Pee Wee” Ellis, created the hit song, “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud,” in 1968, it became an anthem for the Black Power movement. When I’ve spoken, over the past few days, to African American family and friends who were young adults during the sixties about the significance of Brown’s 1968 hit, their responses varied (see below):

  • The song means “we are somebody.”
  • It is a good thing to be black.
  • We are not stupid or shiftless.
  • I’m black and I’m proud.
  • The word, “good,” in the United States is symbolized with blackness, not just with whiteness.
  • We have creative and productive attributes that should be celebrated.
  • It is a message to black people to lift up their heads.
  • I don’t care what whites and others say about me.
  • We will define who we are.
  • Your representation of us is null and void.
  • We looked to Africa with pride.
  • It caused us to admire and validate our African heritage.
  • It freed us from using whiteness to represent who we are.
  • You’re freed from someone’s image of you.
  • I will decide who I can become.
  • I have a rich history.
  • Molefi Asante – Afrocentricity
  • Africa is the center of our thought processes.

In terms of performance style, the songs by Brown and Monáe are similar in that they are both African-derived. During his appearance on the Soul Train TV program, active participation in the performance is widespread. Brown is constant energy, moving and singing while the all-black audience does the same. Members of the horn section also move side to side as they play their instruments. Musically, similar characteristics are heard in both songs; the form (repetition), the use of rhythmic instruments (drums, tambourine, and cymbals), the shouting and percussive sound aesthetic in the singing, as well as the manner in which melodic instruments (horns, electric guitar, and bass) are played all reflect influences from the Africa. The group performance as well as the interaction and call-and-response with the audience and the all-male band members signify community and collectiveness.

Whereas Monáe and the Africans participating in the Stono Rebellion were overt and direct in their protest, the primary message in Brown’s hit is empowerment that indirectly relates to protest. Differences exist because of history and the circumstances. The sixties and seventies were a period when Blacks needed to affirm and believe in themselves and their African heritage. At that time, identifying with blackness was a form of resistance that counteracted the pervasive propaganda in the United States that overtly supported and hailed white supremacy.

The video performance reminds me of the fact that much of the musicking created by blacks in the United States has been used for protest or created for the purpose of protest. When Nat Turner created the song “Steal Away to Jesus” (see above music example) to inform other slaves that it was time to escape on the Underground Railroad, the intent was not to let whites know what was happening. Rather, the resistance occurred through camouflage – the lyrics had dual meanings that inferred something different to both races: for blacks (escape to the North), for whites and some blacks (going to heaven to be with Jesus). Likewise, when enslaved Africans performed the fiddle in the United States, it was a form of resistance in that they were performing an instrument that slave owners did not know was African-derived. The fact that the enslaved had knowledge that was unknown to the oppressor was a form of protest and resistance.

What is unfortunate is that many non-blacks (and some blacks) regard these acts of protest as entertainment. Therefore, there are some blacks (and non-blacks) who are interested in exploiting the situation. For example, I’m amazed that the movie, Straight Out of Compton that was released in summer 2015, has become the highest grossing biopic in history. When these songs (or acts) of protest were created by the young black men of Compton during the 1980s, who could have imagined what would happen to their creations 30 years later. For many of the creators, the musicking had deeper meanings. The manipulation of protest by blacks (regardless of the object) into various forms of entertainment is something that needs to be explored.

By the same token, why do so many groups around the world use black creations to protest their plights? In another publication, I address this issue. Although the discussion relates to African music, the issue is relevant to all black musicking:

The central question is: What gives African music its power? It is impossible to give a single answer to this question, and in fact it generates a plethora of others. Do individuals find African and African-derived musics appealing because they permit and encourage freedom of expression, experimentation and individual interpretation? Is it because African music reflects the spirit of a people who have survived in spite of oppression and suffering? To what extent has African and African-derived music become a mouthpiece for protest? When the Berlin Wall came tumbling down, why did Europeans sing “We Shall Overcome” [an anthem of the Black Civil Rights movement]? To what extent have the media influenced the popularity and power of the music?[14]

Sorry, I’ve gone so far afield from your original question. As you can see, the element of protest raises many issues and concerns. The performance by Monáe is one form of protest among many that have preceded hers. I applaud her actions. Hopefully, there will be others from all walks of life who will take a stand and fight against police brutality, prejudice, and other injustices facing people of color and marginalized groups globally.

Q: I would suggest that your ability to relate Janelle Monáe’s “Hell You Talmbout” to the music of the 1739 Stono Rebellion is precisely what makes you a compelling voice. Along those lines, it is an important point you make that black protest music has been so often appropriated by other—even if only—symbolically disenfranchised movements, while the conditions that gave rise to that music have been glossed—or worse commodified—by popular culture. To borrow from Stewart Hall, whom you mentioned early in our correspondence, black protest music seems to function as a kind “floating signification” of suffering, which allows the appropriators to claim, simultaneously, a disenfranchised social status and the liberation from that status (i.e. #alllivesmatter). All the while, the underlying causes which inspire black protest music—police brutality, economic disenfranchisement, cultural subordination—remain unchanged. Under these conditions, blackness becomes pure representation—suffering as the human predicament, per se—and nearly invisible are the actual black bodies who produce this suffering. It seems to me that the misfortune of the historical transparency of black subjects is precisely why your work on the recovery of the non-white history of the fiddle matters. Any work that summons individual agency, unique value, and peculiar worth works against the generalizations which subrogate black subjectivity. That is, in other words, a very long winded way for me to say that contrary to your protestations, I think your work is imminently relevant to the contemporary situation. Along those lines, rather than asking you a particular question, I’d like to give you the opportunity to hold forth on whatever you like. Is there any aspect of your work you would have preferred to discuss? Is there something you feel our discussion missed? Thanks very much, in advance, for bringing so much to the table.

A: For the purposes of ISS, I think we’ve covered everything. Not only have you allowed me to present information about what I’m researching at the moment, but you’ve also challenged me to address issues and questions I rarely consider. So the interview experience with you has been great. And thanks again for giving me the opportunity to participate in this forum.

[1] The Luo music example is from materials published by the International Library of African Music in South Africa that had been collected by Hugh Tracey, a music researcher who probably made the recording during his travels in East, Central, and Southern Africa in the 1950s and earlier.

[2] See Jacqueline Cogdell DjeDje, “The One String Fiddle in West Africa: A Comparison of Hausa and Dagomba Traditions,” Ph.D. Dissertation, UCLA, 1978. Fiddling in the two music examples is material I collected during my doctoral field research in West Africa during the early 1970s.

[3] “Barrahaza” performed by Haruna Yaron Goge and His Group, 1974, Nigeria. Bori, the name of the indigenous religion of the Maguzawa, the original inhabitants of northern Nigeria, was still practiced by many Hausa during the 20th century. Not only was Bori music performed at naming and marriage ceremonies, but it was also used to praise individuals in the society. This song, which was recorded by Haruna playing the goge (Hausa one stringed fiddle) and his group (singers and calabash beaters) in Kano, is sung in honor of the Bori spirit, Barrahaza, as well as for several of Haruna’s patrons.

[4] “Nyun Taa Jilma” performed by Salisu Mahama and His Group, 1974, Ghana. Salisu Mahama plays the gondze (one stringed fiddle) and sings the lead vocal part, while another individual performs the rattle (gagle) and choral response. Although performed for recreation at festive occasions as well as naming and marriage ceremonies, the song is philosophical in intent in that it concerns the meaning of respect to people in the society.

[5] “Steal Away to Jesus.” Spiritual performed by Kinsey West. Recorded in Gardi, Georgia, September 1971. “Come and Go with Me to My Father’s House.” Gospelized version of a spiritual performed Margo Dan Boone. Recorded in Jesup, Georgia, July 1971. “New Born Soul.” Gospel performed by the Mount Zion A.M.E. Church Junior Choir. Recorded in Waycross, Georgia, July 1971.

[6] Although I played piano for Sunday School and choirs at my church, I had been studying piano formally, primarily focusing on European art (or classical) music, since the age of five. So I had been drawn into the world of elitism, and anything that was not of the European classical tradition was unworthy of serious study.

[7] See Jacqueline Cogdell DjeDje, “An Analytical Study of the Similarities and Differences in the American Black Spiritual and Gospel Song from the Southeast Region of Georgia.” M. A. thesis, UCLA, 1972. The thesis was subsequently published as a book, and the songs I collected during my research from friends and family members in my home area were published on a recording. See DjeDje, American Black Spiritual and Gospel Songs from Southeast Georgia: A Comparative Study (Los Angeles: UCLA Center for Afro-American Studies Monograph Series, No. 7, 1978); Black American Religious Music from Southeast Georgia, Folkways Records FS 34010, 1983; and record cover of the recording that includes material I collected during research for my M.A. thesis.

[8] See Jacqueline Cogdell DjeDje, “Ethnomusicologists at Work: Africa and North America.” In The World’s Music: General Perspectives and Reference Tools. The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music, Vol. 10, edited by Ruth M. Stone (New York and London: Routledge), 142.

[9] “The Suzuki method, also Suzuki movement, is an internationally known method of teaching music conceived and executed by Japanese violinist and pedagogue Shinichi Suzuki (1898–1998) dating from the mid-20th century. The central belief of Suzuki, based on his language acquisition theories, is that all people are capable of learning from their environment. The essential components of his method spring from the desire to create the ‘right environment’ for learning music. He also believed that this positive environment would also help to foster character in students.” Wikipedia. – Accessed October 14, 2015.

[10] Musicking, a term coined by Christopher Small, refers to all activity that affects or takes place during a musical performance; see Small, Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1998), 10.

[11] In 2010, the Carolina Chocolate Drops won a Grammy in the best traditional folk album category for their recording, Genuine Negro Jig, and was number 9 in fRoots magazine’s top 10 albums for that year.

[12] Diana Ozemebhoya Eromosele, “Janelle Monáe Releases ‘Hell You Talmbout’ Song Dedicated to Black Lives Matter,” The Root. Posted August 14, 2015, 1:29 PM. – Accessed November 10, 2015; Katie Presley, “Janelle Monáe Releases Visceral Protest Song, ‘Hell You Talmbout.’” NPR Music. Posted August 18, 2015, 3:20 PM ET. – Accessed November 11, 2015.

[13] Quoted in R. J. Smith, The One: The Life and Music of James Brown. New York: Gotham Books, 2012, 2

[14] See DjeDje, “Introduction,” in Turn Up the Volume! A Celebration of African Music, edited by Jacqueline Cogdell DjeDje (Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, 1999), 12-16.

Leave a Reply