Turning Point

In November I was invited to talk at the Annual Meeting of the Society of Ethnomusicology (SEM 2018) in Albuquerque, New Mexico. A friend there told me that the first SEM can be overwhelming. I presumed he was referring to the conference’s mammoth-size and its intensive format, from 7am to 10pm, not to mention more than six parallel sessions at a time.

My panel was on music and prisons seen through a global perspective. The keynotes were remarkable people conducting important prison work in Africa (Alexander McLean, African Prisons Project) and the UK (Alison Frater, National Criminal Justice Arts Alliance, UK), putting music to good use, attempting to change people’s lives as well as the institutions. My contribution aimed at nuancing positive perceptions of music with darker historical examples, where music was used to ‘break’ prisoners often under the guise of ‘rehabilitation’ and ‘re-education’, thus raising such issues as voluntary participation, choice of repertory, structure, and reproduction of power relations. Our panel was by no means an exception. On the contrary, there was a multitude of panels dealing rigorously and directly with political issues, raising theoretical and ethical questions, underlining the need for the researcher and the research to be engaged.

Indeed SEM 2018 was overwhelming, though not for the reasons I initially anticipated. Not for its scale, but for the intensity of thoughts shared, for the deep preoccupation and engagement with politics, marginalized communities, and bleak current affairs. Instead of being rendered mute or paralyzed, American scholarship was invigorated, even radicalized. A turning point, I thought. In that, SEM was truly an event: singular, thought provoking, invigorating and, at times, very moving. A reminder of the urgent need for a community of peers who embrace their role as public commentators and don’t hide behind the armour of academia.

The issue of the ethnomusicologists as public commentators was sharply raised with inspiring presentations by Bonnie Gordon, Anne Rasmussen, Justin Patch, Sarah Hankins, Benjamin Teitelbaum and Jeff Titon. The ethical stakes and challenges of conducting research on political causes (be they ones we sympathize or are staunchly against) were extensively discussed. As was the responsibility of intellectuals (and tenured members of staff in particular) to defend individuals and institutions amidst changes precipitated through this avalanche of alarming political developments and shift to the far right. The issue of white supremacy and the deep racism embedded in US society, more openly legitimized recently, was a hot topic. Maureen Mahon’s talk about racism through her own personal experience growing up in a white middle-class society, the only black girl of her class, was moving. The finding of solace in a song by Nina Simone, a daily singing routine with her dad after school, was a reminder of how music can sublimate difficult experiences such as this one. Far from Simone’s hit songs, ‘Turning Point’ (Silk and Soul album), is a soft, child-like song about segregation in desegregated schools through the eyes of a white girl perplexed about racism, only to be turned at the end by her mother (‘Oh I see’); the unrelenting harmony suggesting that she would presumably go on to embrace normalizing perceptions of race.

America’s long-standing problem of race was central to a field trip I did in Los Angeles to see the exhibition on the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II at the Japanese American National Museum. Numerous images and objects attest to the devastated communities and lives of US nationals of Japanese ancestry (mostly from the West Coast), forcibly relocated to and detained in camps shortly after Pearl Harbor. A bleak moment in US history, for which the US Government apologized in 1988 and offered monetary reparations. It was, however, the early parts of the exhibition Common Ground: The Heart of the Community, chronicling 130 years of Japanese American history, that felt most contemporary: the cartoon ‘Every Dog (No Distinction of Color) Has His Day’ (1879), showing a series of Others (such as, American Indians, Irish, African Americans, Japanese) being discriminated, a non-ending circle of exclusion; and another one, equally old, about the Alien Law portrayed as a wall intended to keep Others out. Taken out of context these cartoons could be seen as contemporary expressions of a rapidly contagious racism encountered globally. As we find ourselves at a turning point where far-right racism and violence against a wide range of Others are beginning to spiral out of control, SEM’s model of politically engaged communities of peers is now more urgent than ever.

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