The Door, Not the House
I started my career as a drummer playing the music that I grew up with, i.e. Rock and Alternative. I was lucky though to have a teacher who pushed me to try new things and explore other styles. By the time I was getting ready for college, I was set on a degree in hand drumming focusing on the music of Brazil and Cuba. Music became a way for me to learn about other people and cultures and even myself in ways that words were never articulate enough to convey.
When I first went to Cuba to study percussion I was faced with the stark reality of life in the “two-thirds world,” where most of our human family lives. Looking out the window on that short bus ride from the airport to the music school shifted the way I understood how the world works. Music had been the door that welcomed me into the house of another culture. When I stepped in though, I learned that the house was much, much more than just a doorway.
I was eighteen at the time and I knew that there was poverty in the world, but I had never seen it on a scale like this. I learned a lot about rhythm in Cuba. I learned a great four- drum part for Conga de Comparsa and how to take a quinto solo in the Matanzas Guaguanco style. Much more than that though, I learned that music is not above the context of politics or economics. It is certainly not above the context of race.
My experience of Cuba was shaped dramatically by my background as a middle-class American citizen. My love for the local music was not enough to overcome the barriers of race and class that shaped many of my relationships.
Misappropriation vs. Assimilation
The story of my family in the United States is a story of assimilation. When my Irish ancestors came to this country, they were not white. They didn’t have access to the same jobs, land and resources as “White” folks. But over time, they were able to work with other Irish folks to convince the people in charge that they were white enough to eventually gain that access.
Similarly, my grandparents on the other side of my family worshipped in a German- speaking church until World War II, when speaking German quickly made you an outsider. In order to avoid isolation and humiliation in the United States, they assimilated and left their language, as well as other traditions, behind.
This is the story of the creation of “whiteness” in America. It has little to do with skin color and everything to do with access to power and resources. Access means becoming ‘normal’- leaving your cultural differences behind and taking on the traditions of those in charge. Assimilating.
Misappropriation is the opposite. Misappropriation is what happens when a dominant culture takes something from a marginalized group and uses it for their own purposes or to consolidate their power.
Here are some examples:
The MBTA, the folks in charge of the Boston public transit system recently renamed our subway pass the “Charlie Card” in honor of the popular song “Charlie on the MTA”. The song however, was originally a song of protest against fare hikes on the train. Charlie was stuck on the train because he didn’t have the money to get off. The MBTA though, recently adopted Charlie as their marketing slogan while simultaneously raising rates again, despite communities of color all over the city speaking out against it. The MBTA ignored the original context of the song and manipulated its meaning for their own benefit. That’s misappropriation.
Here’s another favorite:
Yankee Doodle Dandee was originally sung by the British to mock the American revolutionaries. But the Americans began a tradition of singing it back to the British at surrender ceremonies. As the tide of the war turned, it was a way of kicking imprisoned soldiers when they were down. The American’s may have been the ‘good guys’ in this story, but they were nonetheless using music as a means of consolidating power and silencing vulnerable people.
Here’s a more complicated one:
I’ve participated in and benefited from numerous institutions that had money invested in South Africa during apartheid. But I came of age in a church that loved to sing “Siyahamba”, a South African freedom song. Singing a South African freedom song in the midst of Protestant liturgy without additional context ignores the role that my people played in pushing down the people that wrote it. When I do that, I sometimes feel like the MBTA, pretending that I was on the right side struggle, when I actually benefited from the oppression more than I tried to stop it.
Folk Process vs. Colonialism
Music and culture grow and change over time. I don’t play djembe the same way as Powerful (the man who made my drum). Powerful doesn’t play it the way his grandfather did.
Pete Seeger is one of the heroes of the folk process. He has written songs that have been redone by other musicians and he’s rewritten songs by other musicians who came before him. Pete loves world music. In the 1940’s, Pete heard a song by South African guitarist Solomon Linda called “Mbube.” Pete rerecorded it with an error in the translation and for the next sixty years, western musicians have been earning royalties for “Wimoweh.” How much have non-South African musicians and recording companies made on the song? Somewhere around $15 million. When Solomon Linda died though, his wife did not have enough money for his headstone.
When we don’t tell the stories of music form other traditions, we allow ourselves to flow passively along the currents of racism and inequality.
Pete Seeger though, has begun to look at what authentic multiculturalism means and has since begun taking all the royalties he has made from world music over the years and starting sending it all back to the families and communities that created them.
As I picture the Folk Process in American music, I am awed by the spirit of creativity and community involved in colleagues working and sharing together.
America has another significant tradition however, which is called colonialism. Some of our ancestors and some of us around today have taken land, water, crops, and even creative ideas to use for our profit. If I take a Native American melody and write an arrangement for SATB choir. I get all the royalties for writing the arrangement and the folks who wrote the melody and lyrics get nothing. Well-meaning white folk repurposing and profiting from indigenous music is colonization, not folk process.
Unitarian Universalists have a begun a journey toward becoming a multi-cultural denomination. A vision of a multicultural future must be balanced with the tradition that we have inherited. We have inherited a protestant liturgy with certain music very specific to that context.
Welcoming the diversity of people in our congregations means making our differences visible, in addition to our commonalities. Setting the context of our music acknowledges the past inequalities that have shaped our cultures as well as the current inequalities that so often act as barriers to authentic relationship.
Because of my citizenship and skin color, I get paid more to play Cuban music than the actual Cubans who taught me about their culture.
The doumbek, shakers, congas, and Middle-Eastern tar that I own were made by white- owned companies that pay no royalties to the communities that developed the technology and design of those instruments.
Authentic multiculturalism has nothing to do with feeling guilty about the action of white ancestors. It has everything to do with recognizing that role that unearned privileges that I inherited still play in perpetuating inequalities between races, cultures and nations.
It feels inauthentic for me to lead civil rights songs in worship without giving the song context, when my family and I continue to get better health care, better education, cheaper loans, and live in less polluted neighborhoods than many of the people of color in congregations in other parts of the city. That is an integral part of the context of the music that continues today.
It feels inauthentic for me to lead “No More Auction Block for Me.” When my family’s position on the auction block so long ago was more likely to be the person doing the selling, than the person being sold. I’m dedicated to not getting back up on that block in either position, which gives that song a new meaning for me. My struggle to overcome the history addressed in that spiritual is very different from my those who have descended from enslaved people. If I don’t share that difference in interpretation, I risk falsifying my relationship with that song and the people who authored it.
The position I’m in which allows me to practice and perform in the places that I do, also came out of my background growing up in a middle-class family. As a teenager, my parents had enough money that I could spend my free time practicing instead of working. As I got older, I was also able to go to College, study abroad, and network with a class of people that could pay for live music. Every step of the way, the invisible hand of class privilege pushed me forward.
My first trip to Cuba showed me the importance of context. It showed me that authentic relationship requires that we look at the whole person. That as worship leaders, we acknowledge the history and culture that shaped the music we use, as well as the history and the context that shapes our own identity.
Unitarian Universalism has a chance to expand our music and worship experience to reflect the diversity and promise of liberal religion. Let’s work together toward a real multicultural movement that makes everyone visible and heard.