This Editorial examines the phenomenon of White normativity in academic Music Departments in South Africa from a Black critical (auto)ethnographic perspective. The author argues that recognition for the value of, and struggle to achieve a Black normativity within Higher Music Education, reflects a systemic struggle for transformation that is largely rooted in the dismissal or devaluation of decolonisation and the ‘Black-on-Black’ teaching and learning experience. Using Fanon’s theory of lactification, the author suggests that a deeper probing is necessary to fully understand the Black assimilation or aversion to the normative White dominant and Black insubordinate roles and behaviours within Departments. The author postulates that more scrutiny should be given to the so-called ‘sound-whitening’ or ‘sound-straightening’ practices that are largely embedded in the praxis of Departmental identities and curricula offerings; and that who is reflected in the space as valuable, reinforces the notion that there is a racialised normativity at play within Departments. Finally, the author demonstrates how the vehicle of performative critical ethnography allows Black musicians and scholars a method by which they can begin to write-themselves-into the discourse and voice their criticism against White normativity by saying and doing the ‘unspeakable’ in order to shed light on the pervasive ‘conform but don’t transform’ hegemonic Departmental cultures they find themselves entangled in. The paper draws on the author’s lived experience to illustrate the point that racialisation and intersectionalities of race and belonging within Departments contribute to the tensions around advancing transformation and is intended to catalyse debate and solicit similar shared or opposing views.
This essay uses critical autoethnography as a sociological discourse tool in order to shed light on how the academic music department in South Africa is experienced by Black persons as a place of alienation rather than belonging. There are ten contact learning music departments in South Africa; at least nine out of these ten departments share similar transformation challenges. These are University of Cape Town (UCT), Stellenbosch University (SUN), University of Pretoria (UP), University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), University of Kwazulu-Natal (UKZN), University of the Free State (UFS), North-West University (NWU), Nelson Mandela University (NMU), Rhodes University (Rhodes) and Fort Hare (FH). The one exception is the University of Fort Hare, a much smaller depart-ment located in East London where the majority of students and staff are Black South Africans, and where I don’t believe the experience of Black persons is one of alienation. I will therefore delimit my commentary on transformation to apply to the remaining nine institutions. I also have not included UNISA or Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) who, even though they both employ music lecturers and offer qualifications in music, don’t form part of the ‘traditional’ university music department model as mirrored in the nine institutions referenced above.
These conservatoire-like departments offer a BMus with the focus on instrumental one-on-one teaching and learning, and are located within research-intensive universities. Subjects such as history of music, harmony and counterpoint, music theory coursework, composition and orchestration are generally entrenched in the European canon; the presence of Western symphony orchestras are a common feature, and music libraries are often attached to the department. These departments also have the capacity for postgraduate supervision in the discipline. Critical ethnography is a method used by scholars and social justice advocates in various disciplines as a self- and social-reflective narrative whereby critical theory is creatively put into action via performance/ performative writing, and as a means of demonstrating the pedagogical functions that critical autoethnography might serve in the academy and beyond. Some autoethnographies (Ellis et al. 2011) provide richly detailed descriptions of cultures through the lens of personal experience, whereas critical autoethnographies work to bring attention to the ways cultures are created and compromised through institutional, political, social, and interpersonal relations of power (Holman Jones and Pruyn 2018, 5).
The primary argument of this essay is that the normativity of Whiteness in South African music departments renders Black South African musicians and academics as non-normative, and makes it difficult to achieve transformation that privileges the normativity of Blackness in the department, or drive decolonisation. I write from a position of Blackness, as experienced under apartheid and also in the present, as a Black student during the 2000s and a Black lecturer in three South African music departments. The accounts offered on this page; of several of my own experiences of racialisation, discrimination and exclusion while situated in South African music departments, serve as entry point into investigating broader issues of transformation at South African universities.
Normativity is a philosophical and sociological term that explicitly refers to the performance of normalcy: a state of being usual, normal, or expected. Writing in the Routledge Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, Stephen Darwall (2001, n.p.) suggests something is said to have normativity ‘when it entails that some action, attitude or mental state of some other kind is justified, an action one ought to do, a state one ought to be in’. An example of this phenomenon has been unpacked extensively in gender and queer theory with what has become known as ‘heteronormativity’ (: the normalising of the dominant heterosexual model of social, cultural, political, and economic organisation, including the way it organises identities, experiences, epistemologies, and ideologies of gender and sex (Jeppessen 2016, 493).
Music departments in South Africa are capsules of various kinds of normativity, particularly heteronormativity, homonormativity (the presence and acceptance of a mostly White, homosexual culture within music departments), colonial normativity (practices that are in dialectic opposition with indigenous normativity), and White normativity
(the notion that the White racial group and its racialised practices are the norm by which other racialised groups measure themselves). White people often struggle to recognise White normativity because of their own racial bias and view of the world as a White person (DiAngelo 2018). In this article I posit that the performance practices, syllabi documents, curricular offerings and social codes of engagement at the majority of South African music departments are deeply entrenched in the inter-and intra-personal performance(s) of normativity as a cognitive mechanism for conditioning of ‘self’ and ‘other’.
I further argue that
the majority of these same music departments – historically racist and having practiced racial segregation under apartheid – continue to operate and function with embedded racialised psychologies that are directly linked to the colonial and apartheid privileging of Whiteness and music that is considered as Western.
Furthermore there is a disturbing disciplinary lack-of-interest in, under-development of, and failure to recognise as valuable, forms of musical knowledge or experience that fall outside the remit of Western – and White – music.This is especially the case with indigenous and African knowledge systems and commercial electronic or digital audio work that does not result in the production of a publishable musical score.
As an individual working in South African music departments for several years, I have experienced first-hand what I interpret as a privileging of the epistemologies of the ‘classical conservatoire’ and the portrayal of White musicianship and academic prowess as a type of excellence reserved for only a certain few (see for example Ballantine 1984; Brukman et al 2016). As a result, I believe Black visibilities of authority – understood as Black students’ perceptions of Black people in positions of authority, and Black perceptions of the nature of authority – are limited. Perhaps even more concerning is that Black bodies with authority themselves sometimes perpetuate the status quo of departments as classical conservatoires. Music departments easily become environments conducive to the manifestation of racialised discrimination and unconscious bias that negatively affect the young Black music scholar who does not present themselves as, nor desire to be, a traditional conservatoire-type student.
I have grappled with specific questions regarding curriculum content and degree outcomes against the background of the White normativity so common in South African music departments, and these questions have been the driving force behind the development of this article. For example: Why are certain subjects classified as ‘compulsory’ and others as ‘elective’ in the undergraduate curricula, and why are the compulsory subjects so often those that strongly connect to elements of Western music only? Why is Black gospel not a core subject, but Western art music harmony and counterpoint is? Why does the curriculum rarely prioritise philosophies of Blackness and creative outputs from Blacks? Why is the domain of South African Music composition or so-called ‘New Music’ composition heavily dominated by Western art music and an overwhelming majority of White males, and why is there so little acknowledgement of the achievements of young Black South Africans who work in the popular music sphere? What does one make of the continued perpetuation of the use of Associated Board of the Royal Schools or Trinity College of London examining bodies by some practical and theory instructors, why is it assumed that a system inherited from colonial powers should automatically be applicable in Africa in postcolonial times?
I argue that the above descriptions result from the perpetuation of White normativity, sometimes even White supremacy, and Eurocentric institutionalised knowledges in Higher Music Education. I write from my position as Black musician and scholar within the academy, with immersion in at least three South African music departments, either as student or staff member; and with international experience as teacher and student at an American institution.I studied and worked at the University of Pennsylvania from 2007 to 2017. I have been part of various academic music communities over the past eighteen years and have noticed that my own racially charged experiences and cognitive coercion to conform as ‘normative’ at these institutions are resoundingly similar to experiences shared with me by Black peers and students, and they all point to one very troubling phenomenon:
I have experienced first-hand that to be Black in a South African music department means that you carry the burden of having to prove that you belong there, and that you can survive there.
One has to battle intersectional epistemic and social injustices frequently. This is a burden born of race, it is harmful towards Black people, and it must end. I believe identifying these epistemic and social injustices to be an essential first step towards transformation.
Domination, Subordination, Racialisation
White academics and musicians in almost all South African music departments belong to the normative racialised hegemony that is dominant at many South African universities. These include universities that were never designed to accommodate Black persons as active members or managers. Certainly, in South Africa, the legacies of the Bantu education system and unfortunate binary created as a result of classifying certain institutions as being historically White and historically Black, reinforces the urgent need for transformation (Sennet et al 2003; Booi et al 2017). Black members of Departments operate from the position of subordination within this social matrix or habitus.Habitus is defined as ‘internalized, embodied social structures’ that reflect objective divisions in the class structure, such as age groups, genders, race relations and social classes (Bourdieu 1989,18). Dominant groups are authoritative. They set the parameters within which the subordinates operate. Domination and subordination are expressions of power relations between two or more groups or categories of persons relying on a relative level of obedience in order for the status quo to thrive. When domination and subordination is tied to race, critical race theorists refer to this phenomenon as a racialised psychology at play in society and institutions. Beverly Tatum, a Black woman and university president emeritus who has studied the formation of Black racial identity and power dynamics also states that:
The dominant group assigns roles to the subordinate that reflect the latter’s devalued status, reserving the most highly valued roles in the society for themselves. Subordinates are usually said to be innately incapable of performing the preferred roles. To the extent that those in the target group internalize the images that the dominant group reflects back to them, they may find it difficult to believe in their own ability. When a subordinate ‘demonstrates positive qualities believed to be more characteristic of dominants, the individual is defined by dominants as an anomaly. (Tatum 2000, 3)
Consider the following autoethnographic example. A White male professor at a predominantly White Afrikaans university once said to me: `the problem with you Black academics is that you’re having delusions of grandeur. You think once you’ve got a foot inside, you own the place’. I replied, ‘What’s so wrong with that? It seems to have worked for your generation and race’. These remarks by the White professor, which display a clear conscious bias towards Blacks, were intended to remind me that I am not part of the dominant group, and attempted cognitively to condition me through verbal re-enforcement, that my Black presence was, and still is, an anomaly. This is but one example of racialised aggression, something which I have found to be ubiquitous in South African music departments. This racialised psychology of using the collective racialised hegemony as an abstract concept through which the self finds value by ‘othering’, is explicitly linked to our racialised identities that we both recognise as being fragile, vulnerable, able to be elevated or demoted with the so-called transformation political agenda.
Racialisation is convincingly explained by Tatum (2019, 89) as ‘a process of “becoming” – a process of understanding one’s own position (and being understood by others) in a racial hierarchy as the result of repeated social interactions not only by one’s physical attributes … but by other characteristics such as gender expression, socio-economic status, sexual orientation, religion, language, age, or ability’. These relational processes of identity formation have been captured by the term ‘intersectionality’ (Harris and Paton 2019). In other words, race is not the only trigger for experiencing difference in a discriminatory environment, but racialisation is a process which is intersectional and relational. It is constructed through social interactions, and simultaneously through institutions, policies, and governance structures (Hurtado 2019, 76).
Taking this approach to racialisation, and by using critical autoethnography, I am attempting to make a connection for readers between my specific, individual experiences and insights with broader systemic procedures and practices in our discipline that I believe either hinder or enhance transformation. By creating accounts of intersectionality, a term first coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw (1991), I wish to draw attention to how oppressive institutions, attitudes, and actions or customs are intrinsically linked to ‘the complexities of intersecting power relations that produce multiple identities and distinctive perspectives on social phenomena’ (Hill Collins 2016, 135; quoted in Holman Jones and Pruyn 2018, 5). The social phenomena under scrutiny in this essay are the struggle to achieve meaningful transformation, and Black normativity, which in my experience is often interpreted as an anomaly within music departments.
Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, Why Aren’t My People Reflected At All?
Critical ethnography asks us to attend to the role of the body and embodiment in the creation of selves and cultures (Holman Jones and Pruyn 2018, 8). The value, or de-valuing, of the Black body in South African music departments is the context of intersectionality or identity formation I wish to draw attention to in this next series of autoethnographic vignettes. I begin with a story that unfolded at Nelson Mandela University music department where there is a predominantly Black student body, and the majority of full-time staff are White.
Up until the beginning of 2020, artworks exhibited in the music building on the main campus in Summerstrand consisted mainly of Western, White musicians and historical figures and included very few representations of people of colour. In March of 2019, posters of well-known Black South African musicians were secretly pasted onto the walls and notice boards throughout the building. The posters were photocopied A4 portraits of South African and African American musicians who enjoyed popular acclaim, including the likes of Brenda Fassi, a young Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba, Jonas Gwanga, Nina Simone, Miles Davis, and many others. It was a form of protest action initiated by students. The protest was a silent and peaceful one. The students were exercising their constitutional right to protest, and business continued as normal in the department for a few days after the posters first appeared, although there was an air of tension – a new Black visibility was present and had unsettled some of my White colleagues. There were informal whispers and corridor conversations among students and staff about who might have done it.
Images by Tšepo Ntsukunyane from photos by Aryan Kaganof
This was a ‘silent’ but clearly audible act of speaking back to power: A statement was being made that Black faces mattered, that they also had a right to be exhibited. Putting up portraits of Black musicians was thus an ‘acting-out’, although the pictures were hung secretly (presumably when the building was empty at night or early morning), a deliberate act of protest. It was a demonstration that Blacks need to be included here, a visible reminder that Black bodies also played essential roles in music history. The insertion of representations of Black presence was a response to the inherited curated aesthetic of the music department and its wall art, so heavily balanced towards Western and White musics. The posters were a visible symbol of a desire for a notion of Black normativity in a predominantly White space, and for such normativity to emanate from a place where Black musical lives matter, and Black sounds and bodies could take up as prominent a position as White.
However, the posters were soon removed after departmental management determined the posters to be ‘racist’ and potentially inciting violence. Subsequently, whoever had masterminded the relatively simple but powerful installation, decided to be even more daring. Again, mysteriously throughout the building, one morning there appeared a poster with a strong political statement, opening with: ‘The old UPE is alive and well in these walls’. This was a direct reference to the history of the music department, which was under apartheid almost exclusively reserved for Whites; it is also a statement that little transformation has in fact taken place, that the old University of Port Elizabeth (or UPE) and its racialised psychologies are still predominant. By the next day all the posters were removed.
It is worth considering the two sides of this scenario. The Black student(s) who inserted representations of Black bodies into a White normative space did so in response to trauma — the trauma of existing in spaces where Black bodies and Black musical lives are not seen as being of equal importance to White musical lives. Those who insisted on removing the posters possibly do so in response to what they perceive as some form of accusation — that they are at fault, that they are still beholden to apartheid ideologies, that their Whiteness should not be a focal point in the daily management of a music department. The question I wish to pose here in light of telling this story is: Whose trauma is more significant? The Black protesting students who wished to see a curated space where Black bodies and musical lives are positioned as being of equal importance to White musical lives? Or the trauma to White normativity of an unsettled and tense atmosphere with overt racist and political overtones, and the wound inflicted of digging up the past in order to be critical of the present? These are, of course, rhetorical questions. What transpired, was that pressure from departmental management led to the protest being silenced, with a resounding message having been sent and received by both parties.
This story above is not unlike a scenario I also encountered at a former institution I worked at where I also personally problematised the almost exclusive depiction of White South African musicians on the wall art of the department. In this scenario, I was made to feel foolish by White peers for thinking this was something I had any ability to change or influence, and I felt foolish for not understanding why my White peers could not empathise with my discomfort and psychological distress of walking down a tunnel of ‘apartheid’ on display. The fact is that it was the prestige of the alumni on display. This particular institution and department had a history of producing White Afrikaans excellence, but because of our intersectional differences in relation to the wall art and its broader meanings to the normative White community, I, as fairly new Black member of the community, could neither convince my colleagues to transform the aesthetic, nor could they convince me to accept it. Some new wall art was later installed, depicting some Black musicians, but not with any consultation with any Black colleagues.
Meaningful transformation cannot happen when Black bodies are not valued.
In other words, the White normative and dominant group within departments must acknowledge that the presence of Black bodies in historically White spaces deserves more than lip-service and tolerance of presence. Similarly, Black activists must acknowledge that the work of transformation is slow and requires White allies, and they must wrestle with their very own Black fragility and race-based traumatic stressors that falsely position transformation as the only corrective measure without a broader awareness of the socio-cultural race-based intersectionalities we all encounter subjectively, and collectively.
What is disturbing is that so few White academics at South African university music departments seem willing to recognise that there is a dominant White group gaze that permeates these departments. This includes, but also extends beyond, what is being presented on the walls, but also how we, as scholars embedded within a discipline, have walled ourselves in within the broader university as a unique disciplinary entity: a performative anomaly obsessed with the music of the past, rather than our contemporary and complex racialised present and possible non-racialised futures. Who appears within, and on, the walls of our departments matter.
I believe transformation of music departments should ideally begin with a collective acknowledgement that one of the painful experiences of trauma for the Black musician in higher education is the actual curated working space they find themselves in — a curated space of a building that carries with it legacies of White privilege and Black exclusion. The intersectionalities of race-based institutional cultures, with the socio-cultural backgrounds that Black persons carry, can send a traumatic and resounding signal to the Black music student entering the space: ‘Black body, you don’t belong here’.
My focus on specifically the Black music student and academic does not negate the similar sentiments and experiences of marginalisation by women, immigrants, persons with disabilities or White students or academics; but this essay is concerned with Blackness, and the cognitive impact of White normativity or supremacy in South African tertiary music studies on the psyche of Black members of music departments where they are consistently in the minority. Steele’s (1992; 1997) ‘stereotype threat hypothesis’ argues that hostile academic environments, especially to minorities, reinforce the stereotype that the intellectual capacity of certain stigmatised groups is seen as ‘lesser-than’ when judged by the dominant group, resulting in adverse effects such as withdrawal from the community or underperformance because of a lack of identification with the domain as determined by the dominant group and the aggression expressed against the subordinate group. In other words, as Osborne and Walker (2006, 575) put it, ‘for success to occur in an identified minority student population, the perception must exist that academic success is a viable option and does not carry with it the implied notion of preordained failure that is made explicit in stereotype threat’.
Space and place matter. Appearances and positions matter, especially when one contextualises them within a framework of racialisation. South Africa has a long history of the body’s racialised entanglement within hierarchical structures conditioned by biological, social, intellectual and economic contexts. One of the very early catalysts of the #MustFall movement which unfolded in 2015, was the unrelenting demand that a statue of Cecil John Rhodes be removed from the Upper Campus of the University of Cape Town. When protest action turned violent, some nearby elite student dormitories, formerly known as Smuts and Fuller Halls, were stormed and valuable artworks that hung on the walls were destroyed. While I am totally opposed to violence and advocate only for peaceful protest, I fully understand the sentiments expressed by those young Black students who tore down paintings and held vigils around the defaced effigy of Rhodes. I had walked by them many times myself. From that vantage point, with the Cape Flats sprawled out in panoramic view, I would look at the location of my tiny gang-infested so-called ‘coloured’ area to which I would have to travel back by catching four taxi’s. It was a consistent visual representation of just how (re)moved my people were from The Academy, writ large. Racist and racialised symbols such as statues and artworks perpetuate White supremacy, and they were and are cognitively harmful to the psyche of a Black member of the university. In other words, the images on the walls and the sculptures in the spaces become like mirrors to the community who occupy space and place within the walls, and it conditions them cognitively to measure themselves in relation to those who have achieved the stature to appear on the wall or in the space.
I recall my own undergraduate cognitive conditioning that happened at the South African College of Music (SACM) in the early 2000s in relation to artwork on the walls. At that time, there were many framed images of White men in the music building of the SACM: former directors of the College, founders, or distinguished emeritus professors or alumni. One particular portrait held great prominence, placed as it was over the landing of the main staircase in the converted mansion which houses half of the College. There, outfitted in his regalia, stood a White man overlooking all who went to and from their lessons, daily. When I last visited the College in 2017, the portrait of William Pickerill was still prominently displayed.
I distinctly remember that as a young student entering a space so infused with images of White men positioned as important, worthy of recognition and reverence, and with no similar representations of Black excellence, my position as ‘other’, as ‘lesser’, was consistently reinforced. The implication, it seemed to me, was that I should strive towards ‘imitating and desiring’ this type of dominance. But I also had a contrasting and polarising desire to reject and resist it. My own trajectory in my expansion of consciousness, studies, and career has seen the manifestation of both affects, and I have consistently had to negotiate them. I believe this is true for many Black students, even these many years later, who still have to negotiate the unbalanced representation of Whiteness more than Blackness in their spaces of learning. The portrait, acting through a warped racialised psychology, made me feel as if the pinnacle of music studies was reflected in the White man in the scarlet robe, and therefore I should desire to achieve similar stature. Then, through the experience of a reactionary phenomenon to my ‘lactified’ consciousness (referring to Fanon’s use of the term, as explained below) after a decolonising of my consciousness as activated by African American teachers and scholars during my time in the United States, I realised that I should desire to achieve it, not to be like it, but in order to change it.
Decolonisation is Real, Can be Life-Altering for Some, and is Part of Transformation
‘Lactification’ was a social scientific and cognitive theory put forth by Franz Fanon in his seminal text, Black skin White masks ( 1986). The ‘whitening’ of consciousness to assimilate to, or to satisfy, the coloniser or oppressor, is where positive-self-identification presents itself as a reaction to the reality that one is otherwise not recognised as valuable without imitating other valuable persons and their ways of being or doing. Fanon puts forth an example of this phenomenon in arguing that history demonstrates that a Negro reacts against Negros because of negrophobia, or that a Jew reacts against Jews because of anti-Semitism (Fanon 1886, 87). He calls this ‘whitening’ of consciousness ‘lactification’. Derek Hook points out that for people of colour, examples of lactification include practices of hair-straightening, skin-lightening, attempting to marry a white spouse, and enthusiastically adopting the accent and language associated with Whites. Hook argues that, for Fanon, all of these are examples of inauthenticity (Hook 2007, 127). What Fanon and Hook are suggesting is that the coercion to reject one’s (Black) self, and to assimilate to or perform the norms of the dominant White culture, defines individuals and groups as having essentialised qualities of identity.
The majority of our South African music departments have inherited a broader form of systemic racism from the apartheid era, and particular identities redolent of the higher education institutions wherein they are located. I argue that some South African music departments face an ethical dilemma: they are complicit in the cognitive white-washing of Black minds and Black bodies, and this phenomenon explains why White normativity and domination has remained unchallenged for such a long time, and why departments continue to struggle with transformation.
Consider for a moment an analogy. The music conservatoire functions as a cognitive ‘dip’ or incubator for some Black musicians, perhaps even for some White musicians who experience Fanon’s reactionary phenomenon described above. These are the clients of the music department who wish to ‘lactify’ their consciousness and craft. Just as some in society use skin-bleaching products, or hair-straightening products, or use dress to signal respectability or stature, some musicians have been turning to music departments consciously to have their musical personalities, their ‘sounding selves’ whitened or lactified.
In this type of member of the department, there is an intersectionality with the individual musical identity, the socio-cultural identity conditioned by the ‘they-self’ from which one is born into, and the newer specialised community to which one now belongs in the academy. Cognitive conditioning happens through the intrapersonal relations of the self to the hegemony, and the willingness, or cognitive malleability, of the self to being taught how to assimilate to the other which one fetishises. The result is that the lactification process manifests itself successfully, and the newly developed identity or ‘altered self’ develops a sense of belonging in relation to the hegemony of the academy.
A Black male student once asked me as his piano teacher: ‘How is it that you can play Bach or Debussy, you can improvise in the Baroque style or like Chopin, but you can’t play Blues or Jazz or Reggae?’ The student reflected a cognitive mirror back at me. He was genuinely curious to know how a Black man came to be so lactified in his musicianship, so much better schooled in performance of White musics than in Black musics like jazz or reggae, even though he phrased it differently. Why was my musical identity so very ‘white’, and was I trying to make my student proficient in these Western, White musics as well? Was the lactification of my musicianship being admired or rejected by the student? These are questions I have had to wrestle with, and continue to wrestle with almost daily. These are the autoethnographic moments of transformation the theories can only allude to. What are our intersectionalities with the music, our various identities, and the reasons for how we come to be who we are as musicians and as teachers?
I once used to fetishise Whiteness. I developed my very own racialised psychology or cognitive pathology because I grew up in a racist nation state where White normativity was dominant and Black ways-of-being were regarded as insubordinate. In my family, and many other Black families in South Africa, we developed a reactionary phenomenon to our very own Blackness. The presence of a piano or stereo system in the home, Readers Digest music compilations or books; these became ways of performing social mobility or aspirations of middle-class status. In communities of colour, there was also an innate awareness that there were ‘serious’ musicians in society, and ‘amateur’ musicians who could only play what they could play. The literate musician was also highly valued in the community, especially for their ability to teach the so-called ‘amateurs’.
My white-washing or lactification of consciousness thus began within my family home already. But it happened at the schools I attended, and in my musical development, when I started my first piano and theory examinations with Trinity College of Music at age seven. The White examiner from England was the social archetype I became accustomed to measuring myself against, this dominant archetypal figure continuing to assess me throughout my early development. It was not until I enrolled at the SACM at age eighteen that I met a Black male professor of music. My encounters with this man forever changed my life in that I desired to be like him, and found a resonance with the multiple identities I was carrying and developing, and which he also already possessed. Instead of now being assessed, taught or guided only by the archetypal White figure, the profound thing was the presence of the Black body alongside all the other White examiners. It changed my relationship to the department and to my own musicianship: I could recognise my own skin colour, my Blackness, in an authority figure, a person of substance, a teacher. I could aspire to become like someone who shared my skin colour, and my aspirations no longer had to be ‘lactified’. There was value in being like him, and in this process of assimilation which I was undergoing within the department and in my aspirations for a professional life.
I saw this man as a version of my future self. My life and scholarly trajectory have mirrored his own, despite the fact that we have not spoken since I left his tutelage over thirteen years ago. I do not mean to suggest that our relationship was uncomplicated; the professor in fact exhibited many aspects that one could describe as a ‘lactified’ consciousness and throughout his career he probably influenced other Black students to also assimilate into ‘lactified’ forms of consciousness. However, the lactified consciousness was not his only form of consciousness, and I believe we share this complexity: We both have Black skins, but make careers from performing ‘White’ musics. Many other Black persons deal with similar complexities.
In other words, many South African university music departments are exemplars of habitus where profound life-changing experiences occur for some students because of the intersectionalities they have in common with their peers or teachers. However, what is perhaps absent from the discourse is a deeper probing of how music departments have thrived on the pseudo-commercial enterprise of cognitive conditioning rooted in White normativity or the fetishisation of Whiteness. The music department thus contributes positively to the development of a reactionary musical identity to one’s contemporary present ‘they-self’ or social community, of which the ‘mine-self’ is a member. In the Black subject, the positive reinforcement of successful development in the framework of White normativity manifests itself as an essentialised musical identity.
A Black musician who plays Mozart fluently but not the music embedded in forms of Black habitus, no longer finds a place of belonging amongst the ‘they-self’ from which the ‘mine-self’ comes, but must learn to maintain the new-found home or belonging in relation to the specialised community. To put it simply, while the sound may be White, the body is still Black, and this cognitive and corporeal dissonance is coupled with the realisation that one can never fully be White, nor embraced by White normativity because one is rendered non-normative via the Black body. This realisation and experience has the capacity to result in a form of race-based traumatic stress for the individual; one largely rooted in feelings of non-acceptance or alienation. Thema Bryant-Davis defines race-based traumatic stress as:
(a) an emotional injury that is motivated by hate or fear of a person or group of people as a result of their race; (b) a racially motivated stressor that overwhelms a person’s capacity to cope; (c) a racially motivated, interpersonal severe stressor that causes bodily harm or threatens one’s life integrity; or (d) a severe interpersonal or institutional stressor motivated by racism that causes fear, helplessness, or horror. (Bryant-Davis 2007, 135-6)
I have encountered this in my own life, and have come to understand my reactions to White normativity as intertwined in the trauma of the Black subject who might have at first fetishised White forms of musicianship and musical identities.
The decolonising of my consciousness was a process, starting with exposure to African Americans during my time in the United States as a student. It was by reading W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folks (1989), Born to Rebel (1971) by Benjamin E. Mays, Race Matters (1993) by Cornel West, and many other Black intellectual writings. It is a moment of self-development and self-awareness of the beauty and struggle of being Black to which White peers are not privy, and which limits their ability to drive transformation from the vantage point of what has to shift in consciousness to allow the Black mind to be in alignment with the Black body. The profound recognition that ‘I have been brain-washed to see Whiteness as better than Blackness’, and ‘Blackness is feared by, and deliberately altered by, or desired to be controlled by, Whiteness’; these recognitions and forms of psychic processing can be life-altering.
Similarly, the Black subject who enters a music department, and who already carries a strong Black consciousness, whether inherited from their families or communities, or by reading Biko or Mbembe, may seek to develop their unique cultural and individual ‘Black sounds’, which they already recognise as innate and valuable. In doing so, they may be eager to work with peers and teachers who share their intersectionalities embedded within their racialised identities as Black, and their common intersectionality with their musical craft through their Blackness. Such decolonised Black subjects in music departments will have no fetish for Whiteness, but will still encounter a cognitive dissonance with White normativity. Lactification in higher musical education is thus rejected by the Black consciousness in the incubation period within the department, or navigated with much struggle only to obtain the certification believed necessary for the Black subject’s future social mobility in a White-normative world. Race-based traumatic stress is also inevitable for this type of member of the department. Transformation seeks to address the race-based traumatic stress for Black persons.
The ethical question is if we are able to recognise that music departments invest primarily in a discipline that sells packaged forms of Whiteness, in an environment where White normativity dominates not only physically, but also psychically and sonically? And following on from this, the ethical questions proliferate: If we are aware of the neglect in fostering Black normativity, why do we not have conversations with our Black students to hear how we can perform meaningful transformation, and ethically question the ‘sound-whitening’ or ‘sound-straightening’ that so often constitutes the status quo? Is such complacency socially just, and are we wrestling with recognising our own, and departmental, complicity? Should we transform what we can identify as lactification processes and modalities? Can we recognise the value of the Black presence, and does the endowed Black presence seek to transform self and environment, or perpetuate or assimilate to, and conform to, White normativity?
Is the Black presence enough, or do we desire to foster Black normativity and decolonisation to what in the future will be a majority Black student and staff body?
As I’ve attempted to make clear throughout this article, this narrative privileges the Black voice and the Black experience, a Black subordinate and oppressed positionality in relation to the racialised hegemony of music studies. No doubt there are music teachers, lecturers, and mentors who will say: ‘I’m not Black and I’ve given so much to Black students, not because they’re Black but because they’re my student’. I have a deep admiration for colleagues who are anti-racist, who see beyond skin colour or socio-economic background. But drawing on my own experience, I also know that there is an ineffable awareness of race, even in the sub-conscious, and that often it finds expression in the anomalous status of the Black person as ‘worthy’ of investment, a gift-giving to one who is non-threatening. As a Black queer male, I liken this to a parent who says they love their child even though they may be gay. It affirms that the child needs the love, but even more so, a transfigured love, because in a society where being gay is rendered as ‘non-normative’ or subaltern, the parent recognises their child is positioned as belonging to an oppressed people, indoctrinated with rhetoric that they are deviant, marginalised, even hated by some. Analogously, I therefore do not subscribe to the ‘colour-blind’ phenomenon when a colleague says that they do not see race. There is an ineffable awareness of who is oppressed, who is dominant and subordinate, and who is doing, receiving or counteracting any type of (anti)racialised psychology in the teaching and learning exchange.
What we do have as Black members of music departments, is an extraordinary and overwhelmingly supportive body of White allies. These are the White peers and teachers who do the nurturing and mentoring alluded to above. I would not have any position in academia today without the impression made on my awareness by White teachers and White philanthropies, that a career in music was feasible for me. The mentoring I received, and still do, from White allies has been overflowing with a genuine love, a pouring of themselves into me, the opening-up of a network of professionals, even career facilitation. Like many Black students, I am indebted. We are who we are, in part because of what we hold in our cognition, in our technique, in our writing, in our success, which we have gained from White teachers and peers. But we also exist outside of our engagements with White persons, and benefit tremendously from Black-on-Black exchanges, and have been given an unimaginable wealth of Black knowledge and wisdom in these intimacies. Black role-models are needed for Black people.
What White allies, or opponents, of the quest for transformation and a Black normativity can never experience first-hand, is an affinity for a common sense of operating from the position of the oppressed.
There is a shared desire to master the racialisations and tropes and pitfalls that confound the success of the Black musician in music departments in South Africa. There is a magic as mysterious as music itself that happens between a Black teacher and a Black student. Ultimately, it would seem that many South Africans are losing out on this profound and life-altering experience that has the potential to manifest itself within music departments, and with which many White musicians are familiar. One cannot have real transformation, nor equity, until ‘Black-on-Black’ nurturing is at the core of the higher music education project in South Africa. There simply are not nearly enough Black academics in music departments in South Africa.
Over the past three years, the Chair for Critical Studies in Higher Education Transformation (CriSHET) at Nelson Mandela University has actively promoted scholarly inquiry an.d provocative discourse about transformative practices (or the lack thereof) in music studies in South Africa. The first engagement organised and funded by his office occurred in August 2018. This was a half-day colloquium that took the format of two co-chaired panels comprised primarily of music specialists from the Eastern Cape region, followed by a lengthy student-led open discussion where numerous grievances and concerns were publicly aired. In November 2019, a two-day colloquium was held in the form of an academic conference with numerous scholars and practitioners from across the country interrogating various transformative practices in tertiary music studies.
At both colloquia we were able to hear from students about the issues that bothered them. These included feelings of marginalisation, neglect, isolation, the trauma encountered in curricula and practical lessons where Black persons felt the need to prove themselves fluent in knowledge systems that many of them did not have an appreciation for, or that they felt was conditioning them to be like their White peers. Students argued that if the tables were turned, and White lecturers were assessed by their command of Black ethnic or cultural musical idioms and knowledge systems, the former would fail. The issue of who teaches what was also problematised, particularly the idea that some White academics teach Black music or indigenous knowledge systems that they do not understand by the students’ criteria, misunderstand African terminologies, and struggle with the pronunciation of names. Students felt they were getting a watered-down version of contemporary or popular music, and posited a hierarchy of subject matter as being imposed on them: the Eurocentric curriculum positioned as core or compulsory modules, jazz studies accepted but still seen as a ‘secondary’ specialisation, and indigenous or Black music-making practices or knowledge systems packaged as ‘other’ – an easy way out for Blacks, or a necessary and forced element of the curriculum to indicate that diversity and transformation was taken seriously in the department.
At the latter `Resoundings: Transformative Practices in South African Music Studies’ colloquium, I delivered a performative critical autoethnographic presentation that echoed these sentiments. The presentation was met with mixed reactions, which included a standing ovation and resounding applause from some, while others were deeply unsettled or confronted. I opened the performative presentation by reading a parody poem I constructed, targeting the cognitive attention of the Black audience members. Below, I present the original poem by Useni Eugene Perkins (1975) in the left column of text, with my parody presented in the right column of text.
These poems are designed to speak directly to the consciousness of Black youth, as a literary mechanism for cognitive conditioning, and they are also designed deliberately to exclude White persons from meaningful affect, other than to make them feel ‘othered’. This was a deliberate method used to demonstrate how Black intersectionalities, and the intersectionality of Whiteness with Blackness, relies on the performance of racialised psychologies-in-action.
The performative and politicised papers I often present at conferences, and an example of which is printed in this journal as an article, are rooted in a critical autoethnographic perspective of which the human sciences need more. Putting-into-action the theory or argument under scrutiny, is a valuable intellectual mechanism for the academy, and especially for our discipline as one rooted in the creative and performing arts. My work serves to remind Black and White readers, or observers of my performative method, that Black persons need to be taught about, and reminded of, their agency. They need to practice acting- and sounding-it-out. In the context of the colloquium, the performative reading of the parody poem by a Black teacher to his Black students in the presence of conservative or White peers of the academy, for a brief moment, manifests the potential for Black normativity, Black boldness, Black belonging, and puts into action the argument that one must be radical or audacious as Black academic activist in service of transformation. The unorthodox and non-conforming disruption to the stature of White normativity is a Black African expression of identity, a construction for a brief moment of a Black African place of belonging among other Africans in the academy.
In other words, ‘critical autoethnography is a method that has the power to embody and materialise – on the pages and on the stages, of our written scholarship and our lives, the change we seek in ourselves, our lives and our worlds’ (Holman Jones and Pruyn 2018, 8). Performative mechanisms and critical autoethnography is a mechanism by which we write and bring ourselves and our subordinate communities to life in systems where we say and do the ‘unspeakable’. The critical and performative autoethnography ‘examines systems, discourses and relations of privilege and subjugation, puts theory into action through story-telling and builds new knowledge systems in order to stimulate new ways of being and acting together’ (Holman Jones and Pruyn 2018, 11-12).
In closing, I wish to point out that advocates for decolonisation and transformation are really in search of social justice. Social justice is intrinsically political, and so one must not be surprised when the political becomes personal, especially for Black drivers of transformation, but also for White allies who are often not recognised for their transformation work. However, if White allies or White drivers of transformation are not speaking louder than their Black counterparts about the injustices and oppression of Black lives and Black subject-matter, or the need to elevate the profile of Black musicking, or the need for fostering a Black normativity within music departments, or the ethical questioning and addressing of what I have called the business of lactification, then this article is a plea for such allies to speak louder. Our disciplinary discourse and university departments must acknowledge that transformation is the only solution to the racialised psychologies and epistemic injustices located within them. We need more critical auto-ethnographies from various members of these departments, we need a plurality of voices to speak with, and against each other. We need to find common ground with our musical intersectionalities and social and racialised identities.
I dream of a music department where the DJ studies alongside the pianist, a department where we discuss openly our racialised relations and intersectionalities with music and our work. I believe in the efficacy of a music department where we say ‘all creation of music is valuable’, whether written down as a manuscript or not, whether recorded or not, whether it is listened to by one or by many. I yearn for a music department where we speak of music as a type of magic and marvel at – and work with – its ability for spiritual enlightenment and healing, rich in indigenous epistemologies. I pray for a music department that puts the growth of the student above the need to achieve a grade or standardised benchmark, and understands that the work has been meaningful and tailored towards an individual, inclusive of validation because they are Black.
I want a music department where Blackness is normative, where I feel I belong, and I think many others do as well.
Systemically racialised psychologies are deeply embedded in the praxis and practices of our departments, just as they are in our society. Transformation and decolonisation work is valuable, and does not seek to exclude, but include that which is absent but sorely needed. It is a process of painful transfiguration, of reflection. It is a mirror reflected back at the dominants from those on the margins. It is a yearning for things not yet achieved.
This article was first published in SAMUS Journal #40. Re-published in herri with kind permission of the author. Copyright 2021 by South African Society for Research in Music (SASRIM). Reprinted by permission.
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|This is especially the case with indigenous and African knowledge systems and commercial electronic or digital audio work that does not result in the production of a publishable musical score.
|I studied and worked at the University of Pennsylvania from 2007 to 2017.
|Habitus is defined as ‘internalized, embodied social structures’ that reflect objective divisions in the class structure, such as age groups, genders, race relations and social classes (Bourdieu 1989,18).