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Teaching whiteness in music class

Posted on May 8, 2018 by Ethan

Update: evidence that racism is an urgent problem.
Further update: the online alt-right has some feelings about this post.

Music education is in a ”crisis of irrelevancy” (Reimer 2009, 398). Enrollment in school music has declined
precipitously for the past few decades. Budget cuts alone can not explain this decline (Kratus, 2007). School music
teaches the competencies of European-descended classical music: performing acoustic instruments in ensembles,
reading notation, and following a conductor. Youth culture, meanwhile, values recorded music descending from
the vernacular traditions of the African diaspora, substantially produced using computers. Hip-hop is the most
popular genre of music in the United States (Nielsen 2018), and by some measures, in the world (Hooton 2015).
Yet it is vanishingly unusual for hip-hop to be addressed in an American music classroom. Even when educators
want to do so, they rarely have the necessary experience or knowledge. Meanwhile, musicians with a hip-hop
background find their skills and knowledge to be of little value to institutional gatekeepers. Kendrick Lamar is a
good enough musician to merit a Pulitzer Prize, but he would not be accepted into most undergraduate music
education programs (Kruse 2018).

Why is it so important that music education embrace hip-hop when students are already immersed in it outside of
school? There are three main reasons. First, if music educators wish to foster students’ own musical creativity,
then students must be free to create in the styles that are meaningful to them. Second, while many young people
enjoy listening to hip-hop, few know how to produce it. Third, and most important, music is a site where social
and political values are contested, symbolically or directly. The Eurocentrism of school music sends a clear
message about whose cultural expression we value. While the white mainstream loves hip-hop, America showers
the people who created it with contempt (Perry 2004, 27), and sometimes violence. By affording Afrodiasporic
musics the respect they deserve, we will teach students to similarly value the creators of those musics.
Some of the changes in our mainstream musical culture have been driven by technology. The computer revolution
has made it possible for any music class to become a thriving producer collective. In order to realize this
possibility, however, music education as a field will have to reorient away from large ensembles and toward small
ad hoc peer groups, from performance to production, from the Western canon to the social dance music of the
present, and from top-down authority to bottom-up collaboration. Much of the resistance to these changes in the
field is driven by resistance to black musical practice, though it is usually couched in terms of concern for musical
“quality” and “excellence.” Too many music educators consider beat-driven electronic music to be less valid than
acoustic instrument performance, and a dispiriting number do not consider hip-hop to be music at all. While few
music teachers harbor racist ideology, the institutions they are part of continue to advance the interests of white
supremacy. Our music education culture will not be able to advance social justice goals until we confront the
atavistic racism concealed in the traditions of the field.
Of all the diverse forms that popular music takes, hip-hop poses the greatest challenge to the Western classical
habitus. Hip-hop is rapped rather than sung; it is cyclical rather than linear; it is produced rather than performed;
it uses samples and other forms of intertextuality rather than valuing the “original” expression of a lone composer;
it is improvisational rather than score-driven; and it originates in marginalized minority communities of low
socioeconomic status rather than among aristocratic or academic elites. In order to adapt to hip-hop musical
practices, music educators must question many of their own musical norms and values. Williams (2011) observes
that our large ensemble model of school music, which was imported to the United States from the European
conservatory tradition in the early twentieth century, has barely changed in the past century. Music educators
teach what they learned, and what they learned is likely to be the musical expression of old-world whiteness.
Throughout this paper, I equate European classical music with whiteness, and hip-hop with blackness. I have
heard ample criticism of this equation. What about all the accomplished black classical musicians and white
rappers? I recognize that exceptions exist, but I stand by the basic identification. Perry (2004) argues that while
hip-hop is a hybrid music, it is nevertheless a fundamentally black one: it is derived from black American and
Caribbean oral culture and musical traditions; it mainly speaks in the language of African-American Vernacular
English; and its political location in society is distinctly ascribed to black people (10). Conversely, Koza (2009)
argues that the musical standards of classically trained university faculty are unsurprisingly oriented toward the
classical tradition, that they are “listening for affirmations of Whiteness” (90).
Rather than using the overly simplistic words “black music” and “white music”, I will instead adopt Lewis’ (1996)
terms ”Afrological” and ”Eurological.” They describe musical systems that evolved in and are historically
characteristic of black and white cultural environments. Lewis stresses that Afrological and Eurological musics
are “historically emergent rather than ethnically essential” (93). Therefore, he considers bebop to be Afrological,
even though there have been many white bebop musicians and fans. Hip-hop is even more Afrological than jazz,
eschewing harmony and orchestral instruments entirely. While it is an American music, its African influences are
reflected in its musical values, its form and syntax; and its performance practices (Wilson 2001).
Music teachers are more likely than their students to be white, and to come from suburban, low-poverty areas
(Doyle 2014). Participants in elective music classes and ensembles have a similar demographic profile—
privileged groups are overrepresented, in terms of race, socioeconomic status, English fluency, and parents’
education level (Elpus & Abril 2011). This is true even in schools that supply free instruments, suggesting that
wealth disparities alone can not explain the lopsidedly white and privileged face of school ensembles. As
America’s overall student population and popular culture both become less white, our Eurological music
education culture is evidently becoming steadily less appealing. Nevertheless, the profession has shown
remarkable resistance to change. Three stories from my own life illustrate this resistance.
When we toured Brooklyn public schools for my son, we saw how gentrification has led to more parental money
supporting art and science programming. Our zoned neighborhood school is especially proud of a program where
musicians from the New York Philharmonic come and teach classes, and I had a chance to observe one. A young
white woman was teaching a Finnish folk song to a roomful of primarily black and Latinx children. The song was
a simple waltz with an oom-pah-pah beat, a rhythm that had its peak cultural salience 150 years ago. The students
in the room listened politely but blankly. I wondered whether this woman had any idea what kind of music they
were hearing at home, in church, or on the street. Had she seen their playground games? Did she have any idea
how much more sophisticated they probably were in their knowledge of rhythm than she was?
I had two white music teachers from a mostly black school visit my music technology class at Montclair State
University. My lesson that day was on drum programming. In a semi-joking tone, I warned the class that I was
going to make a racist generalization, that Europeans like music that is harmonically interesting and rhythmically
boring, while Africans like music that’s rhythmically interesting and harmonically boring. After class, the older
of the two visiting teachers wanted to talk to me about that comment. He leads his school’s chorus, and they sing
Christmas carols around the school every year. While they were singing “Angels We Have Heard On High,” the
girls in the chorus kept trying to add a beat by stomping and clapping. I was about to say what a great idea that
was, when he said, “Of course I made them stop. I mean, “Angels We Have Heard On High” with a dubstep beat?”
He meant to commiserate with me about how rhythm-obsessed black students are, and how hard it is to get them
to focus on making music the “right” way.
At a music education conference, I was browsing the publishers’ tables, and came across a prominent display
of The Complete Musician by Steven Laitz (2015), a widely used college-level theory text. (I used a similar book
of Laitz’s to fulfill my own graduate music theory requirement.) The title suggests an all-encompassing scope,
but the book only addresses Western classical harmony and counterpoint. It gives other elements of music like
rhythm or timbre cursory treatment at most, and it gives no examples beyond the classical canon, nor indeed any
mention of non-Euroclassical musics at all. In this case, the hidden curriculum (Anyon 1980) is barely even
hidden. It is impossible to imagine a book called “The Complete Musician” that only talked about bebop or
bluegrass or rap finding a publisher, much less a prestigious academic one.
I have never met Steven Laitz, but I am told that he is a nice person. The choir director who visited my class is
certainly a nice person. The woman from the New York Philharmonic seemed perfectly nice. All the traditionally-
minded music teachers I know are nice. It is this very niceness that makes the implicit racial ideology of music
education so insidious.
A nice person is not someone who creates a lot of disturbance, conflict, controversy, or discomfort. Nice people
avoid potentially uncomfortable or upsetting experiences, knowledge, and interactions. We do not point out
failures or shortcomings in others but rather emphasize the good, the promise, and the improvement we see.
Niceness compels us to reframe potentially disruptive or uncomfortable things in ways that are more soothing,
pleasant, and comfortable. This avoidance and reframing are done with the best intentions, and having good
intentions is a critical component of niceness. In fact, as long as one means well, the actual impact of one’s
behavior, discourse, or action is often meaningless (Castagno 2014, 9).
It is not enough to search for racist individuals. Music educators enact the dispositions making up their habitus
automatically, whether or not there is strategic intention behind them. In Bourdieu’s (1977) apt metaphor, their
behavior is collectively orchestrated without a conductor (72). Eurocentric music education is the product of
racism without racists (Bonilla-Silva 2013). Rather than scrutinizing individual attitudes, then, we need to
interrogate the culture of power (Delpit 1988) in the music classroom. That power remains almost entirely in the
hands of the Western “art” music tradition.
Suppressing Afrological music in school does not just harm students of color. It also harms the large and growing
majority of white students whose musical identities are shaped by Afrological musics. Steven Feld wrote in 1988
that “American popular music” is “a term which, in large measure, is just a euphemism for Afro-American popular
musics” (31). This has only become more true in the decades since. But is the popularity of popular music a
sufficient reason to bring it into the curriculum? The American music education community is deeply divided on
this point. Discourse around the idea of popular music pedagogy is a debate about its validity, with opponents
voicing concerns about the “quality” of popular music. This is a stark contrast to European music educators, for
whom the validity of popular music pedagogy is a settled issue–their discourse deals more with the practicalities
of implementation (Mantie 2013).
There is a long history of white Europeans coming to appreciate black American musics before white Americans
do, as shown by the histories of blues, jazz, and rock. It is ironic that Europeans embrace America’s musical
present while Americans cling so tenaciously to Europe’s musical past. Kratus (2015) points out that American
college-level music education has retained not only the roots of the European conservatory, but also its “stems,
branches, leaves, flowers, seeds, and pollen” (340). In their study of undergraduate pre-service music teachers at
a large university, Wang and Humphries (2009) found that 92.83% of course time was devoted to the Western art
music tradition, 6.94% to Western “non-art” traditions (jazz and musical theater), 0.54% to popular music, and
0.23% to non-Western musics. These ratios vary from one institution to another, but they are broadly
representative. If music educators are ignorant about musics outside of the canon, they can hardly be expected to
teach them.
Any would-be music educator who brings popular music expertise to a university will have a challenging time
getting accepted. Koza (2009) describes the way that audition requirements of her university’s music education
program only permit Eurological music. “Stringent and restrictive notions of what constitutes musical
competence, together with narrow definitions of legitimate musical knowledge, shut out potential teachers from
already underrepresented culture groups and are tying the hands of teacher educators at a time when greater
diversity, both perspectival and corporeal, is needed in the music teaching pool” (85). Some popular musicians,
including me, find their way into higher music education via sideways routes like music technology, where our
skill sets are valued and needed. Others are musically “bilingual,” with a mastery of multiple musical codes. Those
people are admirable, but it is unreasonable and unrealistic to expect all music educators to be proficient in both
Eurological and Afrological idioms.
Institutional inertia might explain some of the field’s resistance to change. The canon is “relatively constant and
can be kept ‘as it is’ to be repeated year after year because it is historically severed from the social base of its
genesis and growth, such severance protecting it from the need to change in response to any ongoing social,
political or technological processes” (Tagg and Clarida 2003, 31). This disconnect is intentional and desired. It is
a core value of Western art music that it should strive to be “absolute,” that it should transcend social and cultural
Music is heard as though breathed into the ear of the listener from another and higher sphere: it is not the here and
now, the world of mere contingency that speaks to us through music, but another world, whose order is only dimly
reflected in the empirical realm. Music fulfils itself as an art by reaching into this realm of pure abstraction and
reconstituting there the movements of the human soul (Scruton 1999, 489).

As an outsider to classical music culture, I have found its sense of itself as the holder of universally valid and
transcendent truths to be off-puttingly arrogant. Classical musicians in the academy remind me of the waitress at
Bob’s Country Bunker, a fictional music venue in The Blues Brothers (1980). When asked what kind of music
they usually have, she cheerfully replies, “Oh, we got both kinds, country andwestern!”
Scruton notwithstanding, art is no more culturally autonomous in Europe or the United States than in any
“primitive” culture (Geertz 1976).
Western classical music is an ethnic music, just like any other type of music. The implicit challenge embedded in
this idea is the question: Why does one ethnic music enjoy the privilege of so-called universality? Western
classical music fancies itself to be universal because a wider context of colonial violence facilitated its ascendency
and epistemic violence facilitates the naturalization of its primacy (Stanton 2018, 10).
Racial ideology consists of “the racially based frameworks used by actors to explain and justify (dominant race)
or challenge (subordinate race or races) the racial status quo” (Bonilla-Silva 2013, 7). Western classical hegemony
is such an ideology.
In the past, it was common for music scholars to simply argue that the European classical tradition was better than
other musics because European culture was better than other cultures. The influential music theorist Heinrich
Schenker was well within the intellectual mainstream when he used his system of harmonic analysis to empirically
“prove” the superiority of German culture to all other European cultures, the superiority of European cultures to
American culture, and the superiority of Western culture generally to Asian and African cultures (Botstein 2002).
Schenker saw no point in looking to “inferior” races and nations for alternative musical ideas or systems, because
there were no valid ones to be found there. While he found charm in Arabic, Japanese and Turkish music, he
compared it to the charm of a young child’s babbling (Cook 2007, 82). No reputable scholar would make such
statements now, but it is significant that Schenker’s music theoretical approach is still widely taught in
universities, including progressive institutions like NYU.
The dominant culture creates tradition–the “significant past” (Apple 1979, 5)–by a process of selection, choosing
to emphasize some meanings and practices and neglect or exclude others. While it is unusual to see a present-day
music scholar belittle Afrological musics explicitly, tacit or passive neglect is quite common. For
example, Electric sound : the past and promise of electronic music by Joel Chadabe (1997), the textbook used in
the required composition seminar I took as an NYU masters student, mentions precisely two black musicians
(Herbie Hancock and Billy Cobham) in precisely one sentence (155). Discovering Music, a prominent music
appreciation textbook by R. Larry Todd (2016), presents African-American music among its coverage of “non-
Western” traditions. This pattern of seeing black musics as not quite fully of our civilization extends to the
mainstream press.
The coverage of hip-hop in the United States… replays in many ways those reports by colonial officials in the
nineteenth century on the primitive customs of unruly natives. The U.S. mainstream media’s grasp of the genre
known as “rap” is as distant from the source and often as hostile as much of the imperial travel narratives from
earlier centuries viewing events within their own country with the confusion and distaste usually reserved for
reporting on antique lands (Brennan 2001, 51).
While overt racism is no longer socially acceptable, the institutional structures and vocabulary terms created
during a racist era survive intact into the present. For example, the terms “highbrow” and “lowbrow” date to the
phrenology-obsessed nineteenth century, comparing the high foreheads of Anglo-Saxons to the low, sloping
foreheads of immigrants (Peterson and Kern 1996). White music educators of the present day do not need to be
racist in order to benefit from the centering of their culture in the curriculum. “Whiteness maintains power and
privilege by perpetuating and legitimating the status quo while simultaneously maintaining a veneer of neutrality,
equality, and compassion” (Castagno 2014, 5). To preserve white privilege, it is not necessary to be hateful;
passivity and conflict aversion are sufficient.
While there are few incentives to change within the music education field, there is growing pressure from outside,
as multiculturalism grows in political importance. It is illuminating, then, to examine the arguments of classical
music partisans in the face of such pressure. Whale (2015) gives a wonderful example of post-racial discourse in
his argument for why Beethoven should still be at the center of the music curriculum. He is aware that centering
such a canonical composer is out of step with the political climate, and acknowledges the problems with it.
I will argue that Beethoven’s music is universal, but not because, deep down, we can all associate with the
Bourgeois-Misogynist-Imperial-German-quasi-Euro-American worldview encoded in its sounds. Rather, because
when we step into an encounter with Beethoven’s music, a meeting in which the associations we have with his
music become secondary to the simple act and activity of encountering it, we discover in the silence of this
encounter the music’s concern for its own musical materials, a concern that encourages us to be concerned for
ourselves (Whale 2015, 29).
One could have such encounters with any kind of music. So what makes Beethoven special? Whale discounts the
importance of connecting with students’ cultural identities, while also brushing aside the fact that Beethoven
validates his own cultural identity. Instead, he argues that since Beethoven is outside students’ culture, studying
Beethoven actually advances the goals of multiculturalism. We therefore do not need to change our curricula at
Johnson (2002) is not as apologetic in his assertion that European classical music is more valid and substantive
than other forms. He presents classical music as a form of cultural resistance against the dumbing-down of culture
he sees accompanying the rise of democracy.
[W]hereas the nineteenth-century middle classes aspired to an upward cultural mobility by taking part in activities
formally reserved for the aristocracy (like classical music recitals), the tendency of the much larger middle class
toward the end of the twentieth century was to a downward cultural mobility. In the politics of contemporary
cultural style, classical music has an increasingly negative status. It’s not just “uncool,” but comes to be politically
suspect, associated not only with a parental generation but with the tastes of an elitist social group (well-off and
well-educated) whose patronage of classical music is perceived as a gesture of class distinction—in short,
snobbery (Johnson 2002, 21-22).
Johnson’s book mentions race only briefly, in order to dismiss its significance to his argument. When he argues
that rejecting classical music is a rejection of aristocratic values, and that the embrace of pop is nothing the
glorification of adolescence, he conflates aristocracy with whiteness and youth music with black music. By
denying the significance of race, Johnson can reclaim the word “discrimination” as a virtue, a sign of aesthetic
sophistication rather than oppression of minorities (26).
Classical music partisans are unsurprisingly antagonistic toward rap. Rather than demean black people directly,
though, they prefer to attack the music on its lack of “musical” merits, a symptom of broader cultural malaise.
Magnet (2018) argues that the pathologies of black culture are to blame for black Americans’ problems.
What is keeping down American blacks today is not racism, oppression, or lack of opportunity. That’s over. Black
Americans are now free. What holds them back is the ideology of “authentic blackness”—a black identity rooted
in the urban underclass culture of hatred of authority (especially of the police, the teacher, and the boss),
indifference to learning, misogyny, sex stripped of love or commitment, hustling, resentment, drug trafficking and
using, tolerance of lawbreaking, and rage, rage, rage, the hallmark of keeping it real. That’s the message rap
hammers home constantly with its mind-numbing rhythm (n.p.).
Scruton echoes this argument when he claims that “the life-affirming melodies of jazz have declined into the
tuneless aggression of rap” (2014, n.p.). By praising jazz, Scruton preempts accusations of racism—he likes black
music fine, just not the current forms of it.
Few music educators of my acquaintance are as outspokenly culturally conservative as Scruton. But they feel
bound by their own training or their mandated curriculum standards to uphold the status quo. The problem is that
these standards suppress or neglect students’ preferred musics, and therefore undermine their creative self-
efficacy. “The absence of [personal] relevance in music is perceived by students as implicit affirmation that they
lack musical talent… Unsuccessful students assume the problem is theirs, and they may begin a lifetime of music
education avoidance” (Myers 2008, 4). I am part of the majority of Americans who did not elect school music
when it was available to me. It was unpleasant enough to have my selfhood invalidated in the music classroom,
and I had the privilege of belonging to my school’s racial, ethnic and class majorities. For students of color, music
class is likely to be just one instance of “humiliation and alienation” (Valenzuela 1999, 99) that they face in school.
We can not advance democracy in the music classroom if we systematically marginalize Afrological musics. It is
not simply a matter of boring or alienating students of color, but of attacking their sense of belonging to the school
community at all. “It is counterproductive to our notion of critical literacy and multiculturalism to have students
believe that any aspect of their language or culture is inferior and unintelligent” (McCrary 2005, 89-90). The
seemingly neutral act of teaching music the way it was taught in the past therefore enacts symbolic violence
against students of color. “Music teachers, simply in attempting to teach the district curriculum and affirm the
truth of ‘good music,’ challenge the legitimacy of their students’ deeply felt musical experiences and therefore—
whether they intend to or not—begin from the position of a threat” (Cavicchi 2009, 100). Delpit (2013) describes
“stereotype threat” as “the experience of anxiety or concern in a situation where a person has the potential to
confirm a negative stereotype about the social group to which they belong” (17). In the face of a school culture
that does not value their musicality, it is only too understandable that so many young people come to believe that
they are simply unmusical.
When students reject school music culture, they may do so overtly via classroom disruption or other misbehavior.
But most students who find school music unappealing simply zone out during required classes and then opt not
to enroll for electives. Resistance theorists urge us to see such nonparticipation as a form of political opposition
rather than mere apathy or disinterest. This would certainly describe my own experience–I was passionately
interested in music as a teenager, but quit school music as soon as I could.
The concept of resistance… depicts a mode of discourse that rejects traditional explanations of school failure and
oppositional behavior and shifts the analysis of oppositional behavior from the theoretical terrains of functionalism
and mainstream educational psychology to those of political science and sociology. Resistance in this case
redefines the causes and meaning of oppositional behavior by arguing that it has little to do with deviance and
learned helplessness, but a great deal to do with moral and political indignation (Giroux 1983, 289).
It is a truism of music education advocacy that playing an instrument builds a child’s self-confidence (e.g. NAfME
2014). But bad music education experiences can undermine confidence by making students feel incompetent and
unmusical (Ruddock & Leong 2005).
It took me years of self-guided practice to disabuse myself of the notion that I was unmusical. I have had many
conversations with non-classical musicians, amateur and professional, about how they similarly do not regard
themselves as “real” or “legitimate” musicians, no matter how accomplished or proficient they may
be. Fortunately, school music is not the only vector for music education. Most popular musicians learn informally
from peers or on their own. Bell (2016) makes clear that as a “high school music dropout,” he ”quit school music,
not music” (243, emphasis in original). Still, the stigma of “failure” is a heavy psychological burden to overcome.
McDermott and Varenne (1995) describe three models of disability: deprivation, difference, and culture as
disability. The deprivation model describes “learning disability” as the inability to perform the tasks of schooling
due to personal traits. Michael Butera, the former CEO of the National Association for Music Education, was
forced to resign after saying that his organization lacked racial diversity in part because “blacks and Latinos lack
the keyboard skills needed for this field” (Cooper 2016). The difference model describes disability as a bad fit
between the arbitrary and artificial tasks imposed by school and the abilities of students. According to this model,
a “disabled” student might function perfectly well in a different set of circumstances. For example, a musician
who can not read notation would be disabled in school music settings, but would function perfectly well in rock
or hip-hop settings. By contrast, a successful school musician would be “disabled” in a rock or hip-hop session
by their inability to improvise or play by ear. In this model, we should think of “disabilities” not as qualities of
individuals, but of “institutional contexts that make these differences stand out” (Abu El-Haj 2006, 15).
Finally, the culture as disability model describes learning disabilities as categories invented by society for political
purposes. The music educational field holds the pursuit of excellence as a core value, and excellence can only
exist in contrast to mediocrity or failure. Many school music bands, choirs and orchestras have the competitive
structure of varsity sports teams, complete with intramural competitions that culminate in regional and national
championships. Music educators’ ”systematic reliance on high-stakes competition” (Regelski 2016, 28) aligns
them with schools’ broader fixation with testing. “If social structuring processes in America must be fed by
repeated identifications of failure in school and school-like institutions, then American education will continue
acquiring people for its positions of failure” (McDermott & Varenne 1995, 344). When music education
participates in testing culture, it becomes another risk factor for “academic death”, Ladson-Billings’ (2014 term
for “disengagement, academic failure, dropout, suspension, and expulsion that have become an all too familiar
part of schooling in urban schools” (77).
Deficit narratives are all too common in discourses of music. We have seen how classical music partisans dismiss
hip-hop for its supposed musical impoverishment. But hip-hop fans are also prone to seeing the music in terms of
deficit narratives. For example, one conventional story of rap’s origins tells how young people in the Bronx began
using turntables and samplers because they were too deprived to be able to play “real” instruments. This narrative
does not withstand scrutiny. The producer Prince Paul argues that the use of samplers and turntables was a
deliberate aesthetic choice, not an act of desperation.

You know, everybody went to a school that had a band. You could take an instrument if you wanted to. Courtesy
of your public school system, if you wanted to. But, man, you playing the clarinet isn’t gonna be like, BAM!
KAH! Ba-BOOM-BOOM KAH! (quoted in Schloss 2013, 28-29)

Similarly, the producer DJ Kool Akiem refutes the equation of rap production techniques with poverty:
“Producing takes more money than playin’ a instrument” (quoted in Schloss 2013, 29). We will only accord hip-
hop the respect it is due when we understand it as a form of cultural wealth rather than merely an expression of
cultural (and financial) poverty.

Ladson-Billings (1995) identifies “culturally relevant” educators who are highly effective at teaching black
students as recognizing that black students must negotiate the demands both of schooling and of their social and
cultural lives. “Thus, culturally relevant pedagogy must provide a way for students to maintain their cultural
integrity while succeeding academically” (476). Music is a cornerstone of cultural integrity, a vital “technology
of the self” (DeNora 1999). Music builds individual and group identity and a sense of belonging. This is
particularly critical in adolescence, when music’s ability to release or control difficult emotions may be literally
lifesaving (Campbell, Connell & Beegle, 2007). Viega (2013) demonstrates that hip-hop has enormous value in
its role as “a creative outlet for subjugated voices in the community” (18). He describes the adolescent participants
of his therapeutic hip-hop songwriting program as hoping to be “discovered,” not in the sense of becoming famous,
but rather in the sense of finding “positive resources already within themselves” (16). Such emotional support can
have broader academic benefits. “When we attempt to improve achievement in African American students, we
must take into consideration not just academic issues but issues of psychological trauma caused by living in a
society in which black people have been stigmatized” (Delpit 2013, 20).
Culturally responsive pedagogy has social justice benefits, not just because it benefits minority students, but
because it gives necessary perspective to white students as well: “In our attempt to ensure that those who have
been previously disadvantaged by schooling receive quality education, we also want those in the mainstream to
develop the kinds of skills that will allow them to critique the very basis of their privilege and advantage” (Ladson-
Billings 2014, 83). Music educators can support the growth of ”culturally flexible” students (Carter 2010)who
possess multiple cultural and are able to relate to people different from themselves. For students of color, that
means understanding both their culture of origin and the dominant culture. For white students, it means becoming
fluent in at least one other culture, and also recognizing that “their culture is just that—a culture, not the universal
way, or the “right” way of doing things” (Ladson-Billings 2015, 415). “Whiteness” describes not just a group of
people, but a social location, a symbolic resource “providing all those who [possess] it with the benefit of assumed
knowledge and ability” (Lewis 2003, 126). It is crucial that we help students of all races to develop a critical
awareness of how whiteness functions.
Decisions about curricular inclusion and exclusion are moments of reproduction and contestation (Lareau &
Horvat 1999). By excluding Afrological musics, the academy guarantees that it will not need to seriously contest
its own practices. There is no neutrality in perpetuating the Eurocentric status quo—perpetuation strategies are
legitimation strategies (Bourdieu 1997, 92). Music teacher education can not control broader educational priorities
or social inequality, but it can equip music teachers to take advantage of whatever opportunities may exist to meet
social justice goals (Abril 2014). The most difficult task facing educators is not delivery of content, or enforcing
behavior standards, it is “making democrats in undemocratic spaces” (Ladson-Billings 2015, 417). Culturally
relevant music educators can embrace hip-hop not just as a music, but as a value system as well. Kruse (2016)
urges us to ”keep it real” (be authentic), ”flip the script” (do the unexpected and deviate from the norm), “make
some noise” (have students produce music actively, rather than just passively consuming it), and ”stay fresh”
(continually evolve in the face of change).
I do not believe that bringing hip-hop into the music classroom means that we need to stop teaching or studying
Western classical music, or to disband all of our ensembles. At her 2018 performance at Coachella, Beyoncé
Knowles created an utterly contemporary and politically urgent sound using a marching band and a violin section.
The traditions of music education are not intrinsically oppressive. However, we do need to radically
recontextualize the canon. We might begin by approaching it the way sampling producers do, as raw material for
new expression. One of the most iconic sounds in early rap is the orchestra hit punctuating “Planet Rock” by
Afrika Bambaataa and the Soulsonic Force (1982), a sample of Stravinsky’s “The Firebird” (1910). In his
discussion of this sound, Fink (2005) suggests a way forward for hip-hop-centric musicians and educators to
approach the canon:
A key aspect of the Afro-futurist imagination lies in a complex identification with the science-fiction Other, with
alienness, on the part of an Afro-diasporic culture still dominated by the dark legacy of subjugation to more
technologically advanced colonialism… [I]n the sound-world of electro-funk, it is European art music that is cast,
consciously or not, in the role of ancient, alien power source (13-14).
It is a trope of science fiction that ancient alien power sources can be repurposed for new ends. However, white
music educators can only do so if we are willing to step outside of our comfort zone.
Any attempt to reform schools implicitly seeks to advance some goals at the expense of others. Attaining a
particular goal is a technical problem, but setting and prioritizing goals is a political one (Labaree 1997). Perhaps
Eurological school music is not failing at all, but is instead succeeding at the unstated goal of dissuading young
people from making music that threatens social order. American schools seemingly operate more from a desire to
reform mass tastes than to follow them (Humphries 2004). We will not advance social justice by expanding the
school music canon to include a greater diversity of musics unless we challenge the reason for the canon’s
existence in the first place (Madrid 2017). If we “use the tools of a racist patriarchy to examine the fruits of that
same patriarchy,” then “only the most narrow parameters of change are possible and allowable” (Lorde 1984,
110). Rather than making incremental curriculum changes, we must ask how we can re-orient the mission, values
and goals of music education away from the preservation of whiteness.