Dr Hannah Marie Robbins discusses how the teaching of music can be white-washed, and how teachers and researchers can disrupt the all too familiar narratives
I was raised in North-West London in the 1990s, not so far from Wembley Stadium and minutes from the Notting Hill Carnival, which meant that “music” was part of the currency of our local community. Both my parents had music lessons when they were young and they tried to find ways of giving me the choice to learn and perform music where things were free or heavily subsidised. There was always a stereo or radio playing.
I could never imagine living in a space where music was not part of my ambient environment. My parents’ tastes, stereotypically eclectic, exposed me to Handel oratorios, most albums released by Island Records, and ‘80s power ballads without asking me to discriminate between them or perceive them as forms of cultural capital.
My primary school was functionally diverse. There were classrooms of children with Bangladeshi, British, Cameroonian, Ghanaian, Grenadian, Jamaican, Japanese, Irish and Portuguese backgrounds, recently arrived refugees, and an unending list of mixed heritages (like mine) as is to be expected in one of the most racially diverse areas of London. The staff body was similarly complex and the “normal” gender and ethnic barriers were not apparent to us as there were many men and women of colour in all staff groups including senior management.
“It was only at secondary school that I began to recognise the potent Whiteness of conventional British education. Images of Henry VIII, Jane Austen, and the “Dig for Victory” propaganda replaced posters of Martin Luther King, Malorie Blackman, Gandhi, and Benjamin Zephaniah”
At the time, the school was poor but there was a perpetual effort to allow us to explore and experience “culture” within the remits of what was possible. This meant that we studied the faiths of teachers we had and investigated histories of the countries reflected in the classroom.
I remember vividly the 2000 Africa Cup of Nations being screened on a TV in the corridor of each floor, with the scores being circulated around the school. This environment saturated the school’s music-making. We gave performances of musicals like Oliver! and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. We also had professional tabla players at the Easter service and learned to sing songs in languages and tonal systems outside of what I now understand to be the norm in a British primary school.
It was only at secondary school that I began to recognise the potent Whiteness of conventional British education. Images of Henry VIII, Jane Austen, and the “Dig for Victory” propaganda replaced posters of Martin Luther King, Malorie Blackman, Gandhi, and Benjamin Zephaniah.
The compulsory music syllabus for all students was almost exclusively Western classical music. I remember the discomfort with which one music teacher introduced Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry” to the classroom in stark contrast to our spontaneous bawling of “I Shot the Sheriff” during a supposedly silent GCSE listening exam.
Bob Marley – I Shot The Sheriff
In this altered environment, my friends and I worked together, performing, conducting, and composing. We made strides in student-led performance at the school and found new ways to go beyond the institution to meet other teenagers keen to make a noise. Together, we worked on productions about the abolition of slavery, South African apartheid, and wrote an arrangement of 50 Cent’s “Candy Shop” in a modern retelling of Henry V that focused my interest on performance as a key facet of how we access and value music.
Although the stories we worked with included “Black suffering” narratives, we (all of mixed White-British, African and Caribbean backgrounds) were able to take ownership of the music both critically and creatively. Together, and individually, we made the most of our privileges going to a popular and well-funded comprehensive school in the heart of London. Yet we were also aware that the music in the classroom was limited and exclusionary.
The landscape in schools has evolved a little in the last decade. Campaigns like the 2015 student petition to improve the representation of female composers in the A-Level syllabus do exist. Now, the exam board Edexcel features set works by saxophonist Courtney Pine, composer and sitar player Anoushka Shankar, and the Cuban Son group La Familia Varela Miranda as part of their AS and A-Level curriculum. However, these examples exist under the headings of “jazz” and “fusion” music.
To take one example, the copy for Pine’s first study track “Lady Day and (John Coltrane)” is very limited. It merely describes legendary blues singer Billie Holiday (known as “Lady Day”) as “a singer in the big band swing jazz era”. The text then makes a passing but very specific note that Miles Davis sampled Michael Jackson songs. It does not name the tracks (“Human Nature” and “Time After Time”) for teachers to cite. It does not explain that these are only two examples at the very, very end of Davis’ prolific career as one of the most important musicians of the 20th Century.
Perhaps more problematically, the text skirts the diasporic nature of Pine’s music when explaining that his “parents are from the Caribbean island of Jamaica and that country’s reggae music has had a profound influence on his work.” It is semantic. The sentences implicitly distance Jamaica from this island and distinguish Pine’s consumption of reggae as something external.
In contrast, children of Jamaican and other Black backgrounds like mine have been consuming reggae as part of their musical life without rooting it as separate from post-colonial Britain, the Windrush legacy, or Black-British music-making. Where we rely on teachers to go beyond these materials and, frequently, their own social and musical experience, these information packs need to be more carefully constructed to avoid implicit othering.
In higher education, we need to do better to engage with contemporary debates about what British and “Western” music is. While examples like the A-Level curriculum noted above provide curated information for teachers to draw upon, it is all too easy to limit access to music and scholarship from outside of Europe (and, perhaps, America), or by a woman, or by a person of colour at university.
A brief survey of Russell group Music departments indicates that, while composer-centric courses are less in-fashion at degree level than they once were, music by composers, performers, or producers of colour sit largely within ethnomusicology – often framed as “music of the world” – or hidden behind the label “jazz”. In the UK, scholars of colour are conspicuously absent across all research fields and many courses exist “about” and not “through” the cultures they relate to. Similarly, a lack of diversity in less ethnographically framed teaching is less apparent when not confronted on a daily basis with the erasure of people who look, sound, and listen like you.
“If my mother had not actively sought out recordings and performances given by singers of colour, I would have racialised opera as a White art form. To the best of my memory, I never saw images or examples using Jessye Norman, Kiri Te Kanawa, Danielle de Niese or Willard White in the seminar room”
Shockingly, it remains possible and, according to considerable anecdotal evidence, normal to deliver introductions to Popular Music without covering any work by creatives of colour. Here we depend on the agency of possibility rather than a culture of visibility to vindicate our teaching habits. As such, many colleagues have commented to me that most undergraduate and MA modules have elective coursework components in the current pedagogical frameworks we use.
This means that students can self-select what topics, individuals, and works they explore. This freedom is meaningful. It allowed me to write about the Specials’ cult single Ghost Town, Wagner’s opera house in Bayreuth and Stephen Sondheim’s musical Company as I pleased, embracing the access to critical rather than factual tuition through my undergraduate degree. However, this model also allows teaching staff to use examples and case studies that speak entirely to their personal interests and to ignore the vital need to decolonise much of our music tuition.
As an academic that identifies with several communities that are marginalised and/or fetishised within the academy, I constantly engage with topics that intersect personal identity matters and I am also tuned into the “white-washing” of examples, images and reading lists that we use in our teaching. If my mother had not actively sought out recordings and performances given by singers of colour, I would have racialised opera as a White art form. To the best of my memory, I never saw images or examples using Jessye Norman, Kiri Te Kanawa, Danielle de Niese or Willard White in the seminar room. I knew of these performers (and others) through my mother’s militant campaign to expose me to music, art, and theatre created by a spectrum of people from different backgrounds.
The Specials – Ghost Town
I acknowledge that, as teachers and researchers, we need to strike a balance between visibility and tokenism but the total lack of acknowledgement of people of colour in our curricula as well as our personal projects is alienating to many that do not identify as White and/or Western. Personally, I try to self-evaluate my output and think about the images, language and voices that I share.
I cannot invent scholars of colour to set on my reading lists about specific musicals but I can introduce related critical perspectives such as Asian-American writing on Orientalism when discussing Flower Drum Song or Miss Saigon. I can show clips of Whitney Houston talking about Lena Horne and the significance of her performance of “Stormy Weather”. I can introduce questions about the commodification of “race” in marketing and hold discussions about the potential limitations of differentiating between a “Black” or a “White” working class when examining contemporary culture.
A large part of this battle is about making sure that your voice is not the only one leading the discussion of the topics and works you set. I have never had a better feeling than watching a student group critique my analysis of The Scottsboro Boys because they felt I had overlooked part of the rationale in staging the story using a minstrel show.
Whitney Houston talks about Lena Horne
It still feels pertinent to remind the academy that “Black” music is not a genre or form and it certainly does not begin with colonialism. African-American and Black-British pop music scenes are related but they have developed through radically different trajectories. These are rooted in different experiences, geographic locations, and, importantly, in varied social and cultural capital. Bob Marley is not the only reggae artist ever to make it off Jamaica. K-Pop could easily be part of a general popular music teaching. Where courses are topic-led, manufactured bands and reality TV stars transcend “Western” TV shows and have noticeably striking cultural roles in countries across the world.
It is possible to include people of colour in your musical examples so that there is diverse visibility within nearly every module. This is not an “either or” conversation. It is about making space for your students to disrupt racist narratives that mean only White academics and creatives dominate music education. In a conversation between philosopher Cornell West and filmmaker Steve McQueen about legendary African-American baritone Paul Robeson, they debate the differences in political influence between Beyoncé and Aretha Franklin, shining light on the weight of activism in how we continue to perceive artists of colour.
This could be a fascinating provocation for a discussion about art and power. Only this month, Paul Gilroy, Professor of American and English Literature at King’s College, London curated a playlist for The Wire, preceding an event Windrush: A Celebration at the Barbican Centre. Look for and signpost these resources and invest the time to go outside of your safe spaces. Our academic field is troubled by the current financial climate. Our prolonged disinclination to see music as more than Great Masters and exotic curiosities is going to accelerate our decline through the disengagement of students, readers and other researchers.
Dr Hannah Marie Robbins is Frederick Loewe Research Associate at the University of Sheffield