Music Moving Forward: A Conversation with Prof. Benjamin Harbert

This Tuesday afternoon I had the opportunity to sit down with Professor Benjamin Harbert, Ph.D. of ethnomusicology from the University of California, to discuss recent political events and how music may react to our country’s changing political situation. While trends in music are nearly impossible to predict, there certainly is something to be said for music’s influential role in political discourse, and both Professor Harbert and I agreed that music will play some role – big or small – in conveying the increasingly complex and inexpressible feelings of the masses. Below are some highlights from our conversation.

Any opening remarks?

Well first I’ll say, if anyone thinks they can predict musical change, they’re wrong. It’s such a volatile industry, but the other aspect of it is that music is so ambiguous. It’s hard to know how people are going to receive something. I mean, there are focus groups and stuff like that, but it’s really hard to write something and say “oh, people are going to read it this way.”

We’ve talked before about how, especially during the Vietnam era, music didn’t directly address the politics of the day but rather fit in with the movements of the day. Do we have something similar today?

Right, but that was a certain moment where there was a counter culture in San Francisco, young people, a huge migration of people. But they were split between political radicals and cultural radicals. And you have similar things, like at Standing Rock there were people complaining that others were trying to come in and turn it into Burning Man. So I think there’s still that split. But I think you have to consider a few things: where the music is listened to. In the 60’s, you had freeform FM radio, which is still kind of a broadcast model, you turn the knob to a station and you get that station. Whereas with the internet you have to actually search and dig around for stuff. You’re sort of assaulted by information. I don’t think the internet is a good space for subversive music. It’s good for finding something and having communities around taste. The one movement that has had the most media presence has been Black Lives Matter because of the gruesome videos of police shootings. And that cuts through because of the horror of it and the immediacy of it and the authenticity of it. And so it ends up on Facebook feeds and ends up being all over the place. Like how can music compete with that? And does it need to compete with that? How are people using songs in protests? You saw the use of the Kendrick Lamar piece, you can chant that over and over. Repetition and something that is easy to sing works very well as protest music, bringing people together.

Are there ways we can look at the election of Trump musically, especially with the strong role of the white rural voter in the election and the growing issues surrounding race?

There’s a way of looking at ourselves in the world from a cultural standpoint that isn’t a neat little box. Or that doesn’t create some sort of hierarchy, and I don’t think that idea is new. It’s pragmatic to seeing things from other cultural standpoints. If you don’t understand something from someone else’s viewpoint… you’re not going to do well in an international market.

Hasn’t there been a move away from this transculturation in the past few months with the whole plan to build a wall between Mexico and the U.S., cutting our ties with China, and the inflammatory statements against Islam? It seems as if this movement is attempting to shut out these cultures out of the country rather than bringing them in. In a sense, trying to make the United States ‘American’ again.

I think country music already does that. I mean, isn’t Donald Trump kind of the country music star? There’s an appeal to rural, local, stable values despite the hypocrisy and the trappings of money and wealth. We can listen to Garth Brooks sing about stable rural values, but we ignore the fact that he’s an international megastar. I think that already exists. I think rock has always worked by upsetting those views. Although there are some cases in which rock has played into ‘whiteness’ in interesting ways. Like progressive rock, which signaled more the European musical culture than it did the African culture. Are people going to go back and listen to prog rock? I don’t think that will happen. You don’t really know what will happen. I think a way of looking at it is not that something is going to repeat itself. It’s that there’s a certain feeling out there that we can’t articulate but we can examine in art and music and I think that feeling is among most of the people who are rock musicians. Its a feeling addressing in horror the violence of white nationalism that Trump is bringing in. Its addressing the horror of a muslim woman being shoved down the stairs at a subway, addressing the horror of a Georgetown student getting spat on because he looks Asian… that’s the type of thing I think rock ‘n roll has stepped up towards more than adopting a tribal perspective.

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