Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Announcing Music and Social Justice, a New Series from University of Michigan Press

By William Cheng and Andrew Dell’Antonio

From Plato to Public Enemy, people have debated the relationship between music and justice, rarely arriving at much consensus over the art form’s ethics and aesthetics, uses and abuses, virtues and vices. So what roles can music and musicians play in agendas of justice? And what should musicians and music scholars do if—during moments of upheaval, complacency, ennui—music ends up seemingly drained of its beauty, power, and even relevance?

We are proud to announce Music and Social Justice, a new series from University of Michigan Press. As the series coeditors, we welcome projects that shine new light on familiar subjects such as protest songs, humanitarian artists, war and peace, community formation, cultural diplomacy, globalization, and political resistance. Simultaneously, the series invites authors to critique and expand on what qualifies as justice—or, for that matter, music—in the first place. Music and Social Justice lends a platform for writers who wish to submit traditional scholarly monographs. But we’re equally enthusiastic to work with authors and artists who prefer to unsettle the discursive norms of conventional academic prose in the name of rhetorical experimentalism, anti-capitalism, neurodiversity, alt-textuality, and radical collaboration. We urge people within and beyond academic institutions to build inclusive dialogues about how and why music matters.

An evolving word cloud of potential (by no means comprehensive) themes for the series.
So many issues of justice might seem especially pressing these days—DACA, fascism, nativism, black lives, gun violence, climate change, nuclear apocalypse, schisms everywhere. But for various oppressed groups, justice has always been fiercely urgent: no luxury of postponing the fight because the fights come to them.

[top row, left to right] Cheng, Dell’Antonio, André, Cusick, Hisama
[bottom row, left to right] Madrid, Katz, McDaniels, Oja, Redmond
We’ve assembled an Advisory Board of eight terrific colleagues who are active and activist leaders in their fields: Naomi André, Suzanne G. Cusick, Ellie M. Hisama, Mark Katz, Alejandro L. Madrid, Darryl “D.M.C.” McDaniels, Carol J. Oja, and Shana L. Redmond. Board members have already begun working closely with us to seek out prospective authors, open lines of communication, and review submissions.

We recently spoke with these board members about music and justice. Here are their takes on issues such as Black Lives Matter, the endangerment of DACA, foster care advocacy, composer John Zorn, contralto Marian Anderson, musical nuns of early modern Florence, a South African opera about Winnie Mandela, and the son jarocho songs performed by activists on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.

EDITORS (Cheng and Dell'Antonio): Please introduce yourselves—who you are, what you teach, and what you research.

OJA: Living through an era of political, racial, and economic instability, I feel an increasing drive to read and produce scholarship that connects with the turbulent world around us. The question is how to do so. My current response to that question involves a project exploring institutional racism and racial segregation in the history of classical-music performance, with the career of the famed African American singer Marian Anderson as a centerpiece.

CUSICK: [I study] music's relationships to gender, sexuality, and other categories of politicized embodiment [in] early modern Italy, contemporary North America, and the global archipelago of prisons operated by the United States’ security services during the “global war on terror.” My most recent research focuses on the economic and erotic interests that informed the figure of the musical nun in early modern Florence—an era (resonant with our own) that was characterized by the mass incarceration of one kind of politicized body (women) for the unjust economic benefit of other bodies.

REDMOND: I am a thinker, a creator, and an accomplice. I study the musical and political worlds that are imagined and made by people of African descent. I teach that history, present, and future through text, sound, and practice. My work centers the ideas and musics of the forgotten, the vulnerable, and the rebels. As such, it works against neat typologies and prevailing wisdom, highlighting how people imagine and create freedom throughout the twentieth century and beyond.

EDITORS: Why launch a series on music and social justice? Why now?

MADRID: The current political climate in the United States has forced disciplinary fields in the humanities to become more aware of their social relevance. At a moment when decades of social gains in areas like gender, race, and immigration are being continually threatened while white supremacy is systematically normalized in media and politics, it is urgent that music studies engage questions of social justice and take a stance against intolerance, bigotry, and anti-democratic practices. It is time for musicologists not only to focus on deconstructing how musical discourse and practice may have performatively helped in the reproduction of oppressive social structures and behaviors, but also to consider how musical activism may challenge these systems and the ideologies that keep them in place.

KATZ: For centuries, musicians have used their art to call for justice and call out injustice. Music has the power to amplify these messages, to spread them, and to embed them in our memories and psyches. This series, in turn, will amplify the voices of those who study the intersection of music and justice. Given the role of music in recent social justice movements, whether Occupy Wall Street or Black Lives Matter, now would seem to be the right moment to launch this series. History, however, offers centuries worth of precedent, so this series may also be seen as long overdue. Either way, it will serve as an essential vehicle for understanding a crucial and underexamined facet of music in human life.

EDITORS: Can you describe how your own work has dealt with matters of social justice, even—especially—if the words social justice don’t always come up?

MCDANIELS: I work with a lot with foster kids in the foster care system here in the United States. While there are many great stories of success with youth who have been through the system, there are too many horrible situations that repeat themselves year after year! It’s always about 500,000 youth continually rotating through the system and when they are deprived of opportunities and privileges, these are the young individuals who fill our prisons and cemeteries. I don’t call them underprivileged children. I call them children of powerful potential! So my music and graphic novels are created to inspire, motivate, and educate. That’s why we created Hip Hop in the first place.

HISAMA: My 1993 article “Postcolonialism on the Make: The Music of John Mellencamp, David Bowie, and John Zorn,” published in the academic journal Popular Music, spurred responses from Asian American activists (including the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence) to John Zorn’s representations of East Asian women. My article “John Zorn and the Postmodern Condition,” published in the volume Locating East Asia in Western Art Music, chronicles the responses from artists, musicians, and writers from the Bay Area and New York to Zorn’s work, and in the Polish journal Avant, I comment upon artists’ social responsibility in relation to Zorn’s more recent statements about his work.

ANDRÉ: I have published about teaching opera in a women’s prison that appeared in the book The Intersectional Approach: Transforming the Academy through Race, Class, & Gender. I also edited a cluster of articles in the journal African Studies about the first full-length opera by a black South African composer: Winnie—The Opera by Bongani Ndodana-Breen (premiered at the State Theatre in Pretoria, South Africa in 2011). With both of these projects—opera in prison and the South African opera on Winnie Madikizela Mandela—my first thoughts for publishing them was outside of musicology, given the lack of musicological venues for publishing on music and social justice. I have been very encouraged by the musicologists who have found these articles, and have contacted me to let me know that they have found them helpful for their own teaching and research.

EDITORS: Can you give us an example of how music or sound might embody social justice? Are there specific topics and projects you’d love to see from authors?

REDMOND: My work on the anthems of the African diaspora displays how Black activists and thinkers reinvented and performed citizenship—a citizenship that fit who they were and wanted to be rather than that which was defined for them. In that sense, the contemporary resistance to the U.S. national anthem (Kaepernick, et al.) is part of a long genealogy of Black refusal to a one-size-fits-all relationship to the nation and an important example of a social justice issue that is animated by and through music. I’d like to see work that is experimental in its approaches and that is deeply informed by community thought and practice. Collaborative projects are also welcome.

MADRID: Sound is central to protest rallies and civil disobedience. It is by conceiving and projecting a literal and metaphorical voice that individuals and communities make their anxieties and concerns known. The son jarocho songs that music activists on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border sing at the annual Fandango Fronterizo speak of the trans-border solidarity that such an event foments as well as the hurdles their communities have to overcome on an everyday basis. [I would like to see] work about music and sound in deportation centers, [and] transnational takes on sound and music in anti-globalization protests.

Rounding out the board members’ responses, Mary Francis observed: “I hope the series will include challenges to the idea that music is always and only one sort of social message-bearer. Music can and does play many roles in society, and while it often unites, sustains, and gives hope, it can also be used to signal or enact division. I hope there will be work in the series that explores just how complex music’s place truly is.”

And Shana Redmond offered these closing words on DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), under threat of repeal by the Trump administration and by Congress: “Living a life of integrity—with resources and free from fear and violence—is a human right. Policy is not the end of the struggle but is an important step into better futures. Defend DACA. Defend your communities.”

Please visit the website for Music and Social Justice for more details. We look forward to your submissions!

William Cheng (@willxcheng) is Assistant Professor of Music at Dartmouth College. He is author of Just Vibrations: The Purpose of Sounding Good, Sound Play: Video Games and the Musical Imagination, and (forthcoming from Oxford UP) Why Listening to Beethoven Makes Me Feel So Respectable (and Other Vices of Musical Judgment). His writings have appeared in Critical Inquiry, Cambridge Opera Journal, Ethnomusicology, 19th-Century Music, Journal of the American Musicological Society, Washington Post, Slate, TIME, and Huffington Post. He serves on the boards of Journal of the Society for American Music, Music & the Moving Image, Women & Music, Ethnomusicology Review, Sensate, and Sound Studies.

Andrew Dell’Antonio (@dellantonio) is Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Musicology/Ethnomusicology Division of the Butler School of Music and Associate Dean of Undergraduate Studies in the College of Fine Arts at the University of Texas at Austin, USA. He is a former Mellon Fellow at the Harvard-Villa I Tatti Center for Renaissance Studies in Florence, Italy. His research explores how different modes of listening—from the 1500s to the present—influence the social uses and cultural meanings of music. His publications include the edited collection Beyond Structural Listening? Postmodern Modes of Hearing and the monograph Listening as Spiritual Practice in Early Modern Italy. He blogs at The Avid Listener and is co-author of the textbook The Enjoyment of Music.


  1. If the Musicology Now website reflects the field, then musicology is dead. It has been replaced by identity politics with a veneer of musicality devoid of any interest in aesthetics. Any mention of music here at Musicology Now seems to be merely a device, an entré into politics.

    Consider the “word cloud” graphic for this article: there is not one musical term in it. It shows an obsession with power, with social and political institutions and categories, with group identities…but nothing about music, aesthetics, or art. The real agenda behind this article is to politicize musicians, explicitly stated via the question “what roles can music and musicians play in agendas of justice?”

    In the introduction to the publishing project, the only type of music mentioned is “protest songs,” which no doubt will be of value not for their music but rather for their text in service of a political agenda. Later, in the self-descriptions of the editors for the project, we find one whose focus is not so much on music but rather the IMAGERY packaging the recorded music of John Zorn, criticized not as gory and inhumane but rather as sexist and racist, as if depicting different human victims would not be a problem. By chance I have a John Zorn CD (“Naked City”), given to me decades ago by a brother-in-law who didn’t like it. Neither did I, and I only played it a few times, never all the way through. It was noise, terrible music. The gory pictures on the CD liner are revolting, but I must note that, contrary to Ms. Hiama’s portrayal of Zorn’s pathology as being focused exclusively on Asian women, the dead man shot on the sidewalk seems to be a white male —though to me it matters not a whit the color or gender of the victim. To me, the pictures are revolting because they are inhumane, not because of whatever group identity I might read into the victim.

    Any mention of classical music by the editors is also only as an entré to politics: opera as a way to talk about women in prison, opera interesting because it is about a hero of the anti-apartheid movement; or classical music performance as an example of the racial segregation that was everywhere at the time (not just symphony halls). Nowhere in any of the discussion is there an interest in music as music, as an aesthetic object that has an emotional and spiritual effect on us, that by contemplating the inherent beauty of melody and harmony and rhythm can bring relief and escape from whatever problems might be in our daily circumstances —yet for many of us, that is exactly why music transports us in much of our listening.

    And so, because this article shares all the same assumptions and agenda of virtually every other article at Musicology Now, I conclude that musicology is dead, and that, according to “musicologists,” music is just an epiphenomenal medium for delivering text (and image) that has meaning only as part of some all-encompassing political struggle based on group identities. There is no aesthetics, there is no value in composition or skill in expression, there is only “the fight for justice,” waged either through “traditional scholarly monographs….[or] authors and artists who prefer to unsettle the discursive norms of conventional academic prose in the name of rhetorical experimentalism, anti-capitalism, neurodiversity, alt-textuality, and radical collaboration.”

    1. *Professor, or at the very least, Dr. Hisama.

    2. All I can say is, you are entitled to your opinion; may it and others like it be heaped with scorn and derision for as long as they continue to surface.

    3. I hear you Will. Current Musicology seems to be a "discipline" in search of a purpose. Example: what is the purpose of this article? Answer: to bemoan the state of the world, and make ourselves feel better by pretending to meaningfully address those problems through musicological work. This mainly seems to take the form of hectoring little screeds admonishing the public not to enjoy anything too much, because it is undoubtedly freighted with centuries of evil deeds in the name of "power". I doubt if I have the philosophical chops to debate aesthetic autonomy. But no matter, these folks have decided that it in no way exists. I wonder if these writers have a musical bone in their bodies. I wonder if it's possible for them to(heaven forfend) "enjoy" music in the way that most people, including most musicians, do. If this is musicology then I've decided that I don't care.

    4. Hi Danielle, the article above did not mention that Professor Hisama is a Professor or a Doctor, and neither did the 2 articles by her that I read before I commented. The article above only refers to her as Ellie Hisama or simply as Hisama; I didn't want to assume the false familiarity of first name so I thought adding "Ms." was a way of showing respect through formality. I hope that title hasn't somehow become politically incorrect? I suppose that's quite possible here....
      Anyway, your comment was the first mention of her doctorate and professor position I'd come across....

    5. Will,

      Respectfully, there's one thing about your objection that I think is striking. Clearly you're bothered by a tendency in musicology towards something you call "identity politics." But your concern over a departure from "music as music" seems like a concern with identity in the most literal sense possible.

  2. This series looks fantastic! Thanks so much to Dr. Cheng and Dr. Dell'Antonio and the rest of the editorial board, as well as UMich Press for putting this together. If there's one thing the 20th and 21st century have shown us, it's that music has power---to move us, to galvanize us, or even to affect political and social change, both desirable and undesirable. It is vital that we explore the mechanisms and uses of that power. I hope the series will also investigate how music has been abused for corrupt or totalitarian purposes and the ways music can b used to hinder social justice, along with the ways communities have used music to make the world a better place.

  3. Will Wilkins --

    The problem is that aesthetic autonomy does not exist.... You have to stop trying to make aesthetic autonomy happen.

    1. Hi Lynda, Perhaps I misunderstand the purpose of musicology; I come here to read about music but almost always the main ideas here end up being about politics rather than music. To me it is quite surprising, since the music blogs I read (violinist.com, Strad.com, etc and the books I read on music stay focused on music with nary a word on politics. Same goes for the choirs I sing in, the music school where I take my son, the concert halls I frequent. Apparently musicology is something very different from the study of music?

    2. Hi Will,

      If you are so often disappointed by what you see here, then why do you keep coming back? Perhaps this just isn't the right online community for you.

      Musicologists value discussions of music's place in broader society. The understanding that music is shaped by cultural, social, and political context has been widely accepted in our field for 20+ years. This is no longer up for debate, which is why you find yourself at odds with many of the posters and commenters here.

      I can't speak for everyone, but I think that the music scholars who read and participate in this blog welcome alternate views on the topics of the individual posts. Writing long attacks under someone else's work, however, is not a behavior we generally consider in line with our values. We simply don't do that here.

      If you engaged in productive, positive discussion on the posts that do speak to you, you would get a much better response from this community.

  4. This is such an important development for our discipline. Many of us are already speaking and writing about issues of social justice, but to have a dedicated home at a major press is so significant, especially for junior colleagues whose research reflects the social awareness that is taking hold in musicology, yet who also need to publish their innovative work in order to secure jobs and tenure. I very much look forward to the fruits of this excellent initiative!