Writing about World Music

Davidson College, Spring 2016

Author: jalenmadden

“Eeeeeeeeeeeeeep” v. “1906”

Imagine two hundred women squealing out the highest possible pitch all at the same time. This was my reality when I stumbled upon a Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, Incorporated conference.

My fraternity brothers asked us to attend a performance at the Great Wolf Lodge in Concord, but we didn’t expect to be welcomed by some many Sigma Gamma Rho sorority sisters. However, I was able to experience for the first time a “call off.”

Each historically black fraternity and sorority has a set of distinct calls. This allows for brothers and sisters nation wide to audibly detect who is from which organization. All the sororities have eardrum-rupturing calls, while the fraternities utilize ground-shaking bass in theirs. A “call off” has a similar structure of rap battle. One organization starts off a call and another organization responds with one of their own.

The constant back and forth between the two hundred Rhos and the fifteen Alphas eventually lead to a concoction of noise. The roar of the room could be heard from across the whole campus. High-pitched calls were ringing my ears, but our call still made the air shake. It ended with both organizations holding their ground until the MC of the night abruptly stopped it. Partaking in something like this was amazing because it showed the unity amongst the each Greek lettered organization. Even though the Rhos and Alphas were from all over we still where able to unify with our calls.

Why Hip Hop will die


“Who gave you some how to be black starter kit…I mean they white-wash Black history, so it’s only right that I black out and watch this white boy to re-author it.”

The video I linked to this post is one of a rap battle–or maybe rap slaughter?–between a white man and a black man. The video is 4-minutes of the black rapper calling out the white boy’s ironic position on the stage. My girlfriend sent me this video earlier this week and it forced me to think about the reactionary aspects of hip hop.
There exists a pattern of call-out culture in hip hop, stemming from the black community, for decades. Black people have never set aside the right to criticize anyone, whether it’s political criticism (consider politically conscious rap i.e. Talib Kweli, KRS-One, Public Enemy, etc.) or intra-hiop hop criticism (i.e. most recently Kanye-Wiz Khalifa, Drake-Meek Mill or even Easy E-Ice Cube). Yet the reality of cultural appropriation has forced many rappers to defend hip hops blackness.
It is impossible to take race out of the genre, it is impossible to take social inequity out of the genre. Prison is, indubitably, one of the most popular subjects in hip hop. So when this white boy rapped about prison in the rap battle…how can an audience member not think about the school-prison pipelines that funnel black students into prison throughout the country, police brutality/violence, or other forms of mass incarceration? What does this white “rapper” know about the racial profiling that incarcerates his black counterparts exponentially more often than his people? What does this “rapper” know about breaking the law to make ends meet because racism inhibits his/her opportunities to get a job or decent education? What does this “rapper” actually know about hip hop? Can he call himself a rapper if he doesn’t know anything about lived Black experiences? Yeah…like the black rapper in the video said: “who gave you some how to be black starter kit?”

Cultural appropriation will be the only reason hip hop dies.

A Union of Souls

Every time I’m in my car with my girlfriend, we fight over the aux cord. It’s usually a playful argument where she intentionally tries to annoy me with her slow, rhythm and blues or alternative music and I just try to share my latest Soundcloud hip-hop findings. Her throwbacks to SWV, Boyz II Men, or even Sade are the counter- and sometimes anti-parts to my Brother, Slick Rick and Andre 3000. Yet occasionally we come across mutual gems, the songs that fill the silence as she holds my right hand and we digest lyrics and absorb beats: the Erykah Badu’s, Lauryn Hills and Chance the Rappers.
These moments are what got us over the idea of awkward silence. In reality, it just doesn’t exist. If both of us can exist in the car with music on, both of us can exist without music. The presence of sound helped us realize the absence is valuable and not “awkward.” The realization came only through the spiritual connection initiated by the music. The music facilitates the joining of two separate minds in one common ground: two people who ponder and experience the same words and melodies at once. We separately connect the music to our lives, and consequently, common experiences. This place is where we internalize the gospel of Kanye West after an Easter Sunday service, where we experience in Sunday Candy Chance’s grandma right after meeting each others families, where we experience relaxation and joy in the union of music, lived experience and filled silence. The place filled by words and harmonies of music connects our souls.

The Nightmare

Watching Finland’s performance in yesterday’s class might have scarred me. I say this because in my nightmare last night, I had a weird in counter with the lead singer of that band. It was like “hard rock musical” and we both were in a fight seen together. He chased me all over the stage with his “hell stick” singing/yelling, and I was singing/yelling for him to stay away from me (Sorry, I had to share that with some one. It was by far the creepiest dream I’ve had in a while.)

However, I couldn’t get that performance out of my head. I kept pondering about the significance of having such a group representing Finland. When Dr. Weinstein said that this performance not only made Finland more respected in the Eurovision song competition, but also they were the winners that year. How does this song win the Eurovision competition? After last night, it all makes sense. If we were judges, we must think about the impact it had on the crowd. For me, even though I might not consider hard rock in my top 5 favorite genres, it still left an impact on me to the point where I thinking by it all day. The reason why they won and why Finland chose this song to represent its country (in my perspective) is because the song/performance resonates in you. It leaves you thinking about it two days after seeing it, you have dreams about it, and it immediately captures your attention. I believe that having an impact like this is imperative to having powerful music.

Music has the power to possess?

I couldn’t stop thinking about Paul Berliner’s article “The Soul of the Mbira” this week. As an American, I found it unbelievable that an individual could be so captivated by music that he gets possessed by an ancestral spirit. My initial reaction was that all Berliner described was an act played by the possessed. Upon questioning this validity, I wondered if I am I too westernized and closed minded to believe that such a thing could actually happen. Unsure with how music was able to do such a thing, I decided to do a little researching of my own on the power of music on the human mind and body. However, what kept coming up was videos of dance recitals or what seemed as a group of people rehearsing to different genres of music.

It seemed as though the dancing bodies became one with the music. Every alteration of the beat, tone, or combined harmony was intricately expressed through these dancers and their bodies. As I kept watching these videos, I began to notice how the songs were being expressed through there body’s. It seemed like the music affected the mind and body in ways that were reflected in the spirit of the dancers and the performance. Even when I turned the volume off on my laptop, I could still see where the bass dropped or when the melody began to descend. While it was initially unbelievable to my American mind that music could cure physical bodies, but after analyzing the relationship between music to dancers, I see how music is able to possess.

The Step Show!

Nettl mentions in his paper that all music has some form of dance to accompany it, and today I was able to witness creative minds do so in Davidson College’s tenth annual Step Show. In the step show NPHCs (National Pan-Hellenic Council), also know as the “divine nine,” performed on stage to various artists. Each historically black fraternity came up with unique routines that transformed a song to express whom they were and what they stood for as a fraternity or sorority. For example, Phi Beta Sigma utilized songs from the Empire playlist to symbolize the power and self-control of their fraternity. Also, Omega Psi Phi fraternity applied their footsteps as musical instruments to portray the manhood and passion of their fraternity. Every fraternity did different techniques to capture the identity of a song and mold it to accurately represent their Greek organization.

Besides watching the performance, I particularly enjoyed their ability to connect with the crowd through the music. You could see in the crowd who was attached to specific songs by the bobbing of heads. There was a moment when the MC was able to get the oldest sorority member (who crossed in 1974) in the building to dance. It was funny watching this old lady feel the music as she strutted down the aisle, self-consciously showing off her moves. Not too long after, the whole crowd really got into the dance, and started mimicking her “Electric Slide” dance moves. This was an amazing moment to watch a culture intertwine with music in this way.


I have always been captivated by a song’s ability to communicate the feelings of the artist. Whether the music has lyrics or is just an instrumental, I loved feeling the concoction of emotions thrown at me. Music has a special way of talking to us. We use it as a means of comfort, motivation, or possibly as advice. However, I never thought about relating music to a biological level of communication.

Bruno Nettl mentions in his book, “The Study of Ethnomusicology,” how music for animals can be linked to Darwinism. He states that music can be a way to express “power and skill or symbolizing sexual attractiveness.” For example, before humans could articulate love with language, they would use musical tones and rhythms to attract the opposite sex. We see this in other animals today as well. The songbirds mate and defend themselves by their ability to make the most intricate and beautiful songs. Therefore these birds have evolved in order to produce the best songs for survival. Being a Bio-Head, I thought this was interesting way to bring music and biology together.