Behind The Research: Ethnomusicologist Discusses The Legacy and Commodification of Black Music

February 3, 2011  |  

by Andrea Williams

The rapidly changing state of the music industry has been well documented, and African American music has certainly not been immune to the transformation.  It’s almost hard to imagine how different things were 40 or 50 years ago – without music videos, Auto Tune or mp3 files.  But, with so much discussion about advances in technology that have revolutionized the marketing and distribution processes, there has been very little said about its effect on the true essence of the music, particularly within the Black community.

Dr. Portia Maultsby, Indiana University Professor of Folklore and Ethnomusicology, is exploring some of those issues in her forthcoming book From the Margins to the Mainstream.  She recently spoke with TAP about her work, as well as the history of African American music and how it has altered the pop culture landscape in the U.S. and beyond.

How did you become interested in the field of ethnomusicology?

I was studying musicology as a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, and my advisor was very interested in Black music.  We would engage in discussions about certain artists and performers like Billie Holiday or he would ask me about jazz, and that’s when I realized how open and interactive the faculty was.  A lot of them had interests in Black music and were doing research on the subject.

Around the time that I was working on my thesis, I told my advisor that I was getting bored with studying the same things – Bach, Beethoven, etc. and that I knew there was a lot more to music.  He said that I would probably be interested in ethnomusicology and referred me to another faculty member who was over that department.  When I met with her, and she explained the field in more detail, I said ‘Wow, this is it!’  It was all about the study of world music and culture.  I explained to her that my background had been in an environment with an African-American musical tradition, and that I really wanted to pursue that in my studies.

Let’s talk about the book that you’re working on – From the Margins to the Mainstream.  Can you explain the title?

From the Margins to the Mainstream explores the music as it is created on the margins, meaning outside of the mainstream and within the marginalized African American community.

My theory is that Black popular music exists within two contexts and is created within those contexts.  One being on the margins of society, and the other being within the mainstream of society as a mass disseminated commodity.

Thus, part of my thesis here is that when music is taken out of its original context, it is given a new meaning, a new function and it is assigned a new aesthetic.  So the criticism or the critiques of popular music over the years have been through the lens of the mainstream, or its positioning in the mainstream as a mass disseminated commodity.

Give an example of some of those criticisms.

Ok, take hip-hop, for example.  Hip-hop was never an issue when it remained on the margins.  It only became an issue when it moved into the mainstream and was taken out of its context, put in a new context and used for another purpose without the understanding of its true meaning, how it was used and why it was significant to the African-American community.

And this is what I want to do with this book.  I want to trace the movement of the music; I want to look at how the music evolves on the margins – how it is rolled in Black community life, how it reflects Black culture, traditions and practices.  I want to talk about it as culture, not as this commodity that is negotiated and mediated for mass dissemination and completely changed.

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