Writing about World Music

Davidson College, Fall 2015

Straight Outta Compton

After watching the movie, Straight Outta Compton (2015), last night, my mind was really opened to the world of “old school rap.” The movie, based on a true story, is set in the city of Compton, California in the year 1987, an area ridden with gang violence, drug dealers, and police brutality. It follows the rise of the famous rap group, N.W.A., comprised of rappers Ice Cube, Eazy-E, Arabian prince, and Dr. Dre. The group was one of the original “gangsta rap” groups and received both love and criticism for its explicit songs about women, drugs, violence, and speaking out against the police. The group’s biggest hits are “Straight Outta Compton,” “F*** the Police,” and “Express Yourself,” all with various messages depicting life in Compton as African-Americans and their continuous struggle dealing with gang violence and oppression from the police. Their first album, “Straight Outta Compton,” went double-platinum in the United States, and once split up, the rappers continued to see success pursuing their individual music careers.

I had heard many N.W.A songs prior to watching the movie; however, I never truly appreciated the meaning of these songs until I was able to visualize what life was like for these rappers. I had previously believed their songs to simply be about demeaning women, drug abuse, and violence, just like much of today’s rap music; however, the movie really opened my eyes to the more substantive message their music really attempts to portray. Seeing the intense and very real police brutality the movie portrays, such as the abuse of taxi driver Rodney King, their music seems far more justified in its harsh and explicit criticism against police brutality. Here is an example of a scene from the movie depicting the police’s unfair treatment of the young rappers (Video contains NSFW language):

In addtion, every day in Compton for these rappers could be their last, as violence and gang activity was constantly present, so their music that makes repeated references to drugs, guns, and violence is not simply to sound like tough thugs, but rather accurately depicts the harsh lifestyle they were born and raised in.

Overall, I thought the movie was a great success in its attempt to open people’s eyes to the true meaning of N.W.A’s music, and I would certainly recommend watching Straight Outta Compton, whether you want to learn more about the culture of Compton in the 80’s and 90’s, or simply just need an entertaining movie to kill some time.

The Year in Music

As the year closes, among the large variety of Christmas playlists are Top Songs of the Year playlists. Here is a link to the top 20 in the year by harpersbazaar: http://www.harpersbazaar.com/culture/art-books-music/a13255/best-songs-of-2015/ Most of the songs are about love or sex. But more than that, a lot of the songs are classified as RnB or hiphop which I found interesting. Last year I remember the trend being more Indie and Electronic and now this change. I speculate that it’s most likely to do with the movements that have taken place this year about Black visibility. However, only one song on that list, King Kunta by Kendrick Lamar, speaks to anything related to it.

With this in mind, I think that it’s fair to say that people don’t care so much about music with strong messages, they listen to it for fun and to get away from the tough realities in mind. The singing Grandmas group posted about earlier aren’t of interest to most people, I would say, because of this face. These songs wouldn’t be the same if people listen to music through a more socially conscience lens, which is somewhat upsetting. I do like many of the songs, and don’t wish to undermine their success, but it would be nice to see songs with good messages up at the top of these lists sometimes.

Music and Math

I find an educated video online about the relationship between music and math. Beethoven was able to convey emotion and creativity using the certainty of mathematics. The simple pattern of triplets actually follows a sophisticated mathematical rule. It is surprising that there is rational mathematical reason for why we are moved by the Moonlight Sonata by Beethoven. To relate to what we learned in class, this evidence also proves music is universal since all music are constituted by existed keys on the scale and combinations of different chords. By combining different chords together and putting them into different tempo, we have different styles of music. However, all music is made of the same elements and follows the similar rules.

 

Musical Geniuses: Are They Really That?

In class last week, we briefly touched on the career of the famous classical composer, Ludwig van Beethoven.  We discussed on his widely celebrated musical genius and how he is recognized as possibly the greatest musical mind of all time.  We also discussed the possibility that his widely praised career was only the result of his social connections as opposed to sheer possession of musical talent.  We find his compositions to be heavenly in terms of music and almost untouchable.  But are they really?  I personally am not sure.  I am most impressed by the fact that he create music while nearly to completely deaf.  The problem is we have no viable evidence that his music was so popular even during his lifetime.

I personally began to think about this later.  What if his music was actually just carried on because of his association with social elites?  The world would be turned totally upside down if this fact was found true.  I began to think about who possibly could be thought of as one during our time.  Some would argue Justin Bieber, Drake, etc.  I couldn’t logically agree because none of their music can be viewed as original.  All modern artists seem to copy each others’ music in some way and if not, then they have unknowingly taken from an older musician/ artist.  I think a musician/ artist’s ability to be a musical genius involves not only impressive musical control but also originality and creativity, which I don’t see in modern artists unfortunately.  They too are also boosted musically by fan bases and not strictly musical talent.

The Rise of A Cappella

In spending time with and writing about the on campus a cappella group, the Nuances, I have certainly gained a greater appreciation for a cappella music. As I dove into research about the a cappella culture of today’s world, I was surprised with how little media that even the most popular a cappella groups receive. Obviously the hit TV show Glee and the Pitch Perfect movies have put a cappella on the map a bit more; however, there is still a distinct lack of media coverage on a cappella groups in the music world of today. One group that I did find who is quite popular is the five-person a cappella group, Pentatonix, who creates an incredible, and almost unreal a cappella sound. Here is an example of one of their more popular cover songs:

As you can hear, it sounds as if there is no chance the music was created solely by vocals and sounds created by mouth; however, it truly is 100% a cappella. Using a bass singer as well as a beatboxer, the group creates a pop/electronic sound that draws listeners in in utter disbelief. This form of a cappella has certainly come a long way since the original barbershop quartets, and I believe with this new sound and added publicity from Hollywood, a cappella could certainly make a huge splash in national media and mainstream music in coming years.

Free Music Streamers = The Future

As we delve deeper into the 21st century, one might consider: is the era of purchasing music over?

We’ve come to the point as a generation where purchasing music has become obsolete or reserved for artist we hold close to heart. Spotify and Soundcloud were both game changing in the sense that they gave artists a chance to showcase their music for free through advertisements, or of course with monthly $10 or so premium subscription. Which is for sure a steal for someone who listens to as much music as I do. I have been an avid user of the media streaming websites for some time now and can’t remember the last time I purchased an album or simply felt the urge to. All I have to is flip a switch that would download it onto my phone and let me listen to it endlessly and once an album has run its course, simply erase and replace.

It has gotten to a point where iTunes, considerably the largest music vendor, has even added its own rendition of music streaming through Apple Music. Further showing that the shift is inevitable.

The only question I have is: How do we measure success once the switch is completely made?

I’d assume that becoming ‘Platinum’ will be near impossible and the number of listens on a track will determine popularity. The Billboard would have to adopt a new formula, and artists won’t make as much money as they used to.

Only God knows what will happen to CD’s.

 

Rap Music: A Political Act

Recalling the article by Bohemian that we discussed a week ago in class, “Musicology as a Political Act”, it really got me thinking about rap music as a genre.  As I read the introduction, I nodded in approval as it seemed to coincide directly with the topic of my ethnomusical final paper.  Through a Davidson student and rap artist, I plan to disprove the stasis that rap music is intended to just please the ear and not to inform or have purpose.  At its beginning, rap was not socially accepted because of its explicit content and obnoxious, violent and sexual influences.  Yet still, its message was clearly intended to inform (ex. N.W.A., Mos Def, Nas, etc.).  Modernly, rap is viewed as ignorant, harmful, and intolerable.

I beg to differ.  Modern rap is actually evolving back to its roots.  Many rappers are viewing their roles less as entertainer and more as the voice of the people.  For example, in Kendrick Lamar’s album “To Pimp a Butterfly”, he reveals some of his experiences growing up as an impoverished, African American in one of the most dangerous cities in America.  He blatantly speaks about social and political issues.  Many do not see rap music as a means to do so, but in modern times, rap has become a platform for all Americans and even all humans to voice their opinions and concerns.  I, along with many others, believe this to be rap m

Gender in Ethnomusicology

A reoccurring topic in our posts and in class has been the lack of female musicians in ethnography’s. However, we haven’t focused as much on the lack of female ethnographers. In the recent Society for Ethnomusicology, one of the panels addressed this issue with 4 female ethnographers talking about their experience in the field. My favorite speaker was Ellen Koskoff from the Eastman School of Music. Her talk was called “Plus two and minus two: Being white, heterosexual, Jewish and female in ethnomusicology”.

In her talk, she explained the reason for her title was a speaker came to talk at Eastman School and listed traits of a Dominant Group and a Subordinate Group. Her traits in the Dominant Group were white and heterosexual and in the Subordinate Group were Jewish and Female. The speaker also noted that people with traits in the Dominant Group were normally the ones who committed micro-agressions due to their status.

Ellen Koskoff then traced how the situations she found herself in when in the field, reflected this idea. She researched in two very different parts of the world: Brooklyn, NY with ultra-orthodox Jews and Bali with a small ensemble. What she found was that depending on where she was researching, her “pluses” and “minus’s” were different. For example in Brooklyn, she found that being heterosexual and female were her “minus’s” because men thought she was there to find a husband(even though she definitely was not), which got in the way of her studies. This makes complete sense that “plus’s and minus’s” would change from society to society, yet this is not something that I would recognize right away without having experience like Dr. Koskoff did or hearing about it from someone else. I find this to be very interesting to see what causes these “plus’s and minus’s” and how this could be changed.

 

Lip Sync Battle ft. the crew team

https://www.facebook.com/mattie.engleby/videos/vb.1153394728/10206651856272422/?type=2&theater

For anyone who didn’t see, here’s a video of my group participating in the 1st annual lip sync battle. I think Union Board got the idea from Jimmy Fallon, but it was so much fun. President Quillen was one of the “celebrity judges” along with professor Lozada. It was a really fun idea, and I was surprised at how many people showed up. Basically, the event was divided into three rounds with battles between the 8 participating groups. It was a bracket, so for round two there were 4 groups, and then two in the final round. The directions said to prepare three one-minute excerpts from different songs. We actually didn’t know the structure of the event until we got there, so we thought we would be performing all our songs at once. My group went with a One Direction theme, and we called ourselves Made in the (5:30) A.M. (1D’s new album is called made in the am and crew practices at 5:30). We only made it to the second round, but it was definitely cool to participate in a musical event that brought together so many people (Serena also competed and her group won…no hard feelings though….).

Two kinds of Ethnographic Information

Throughout my ethnographic research I have asked a lot of questions of my research subjects much like everyone else. However, more recently, as I am nearing the end of my research process, the responses to my questions have become increasingly honest. This  honesty most likely stems from my level of comfort with the people I am researching and their level of trust in me. Much like we discussed earlier I am encountering the situation in which I am researching people who have become my friends.

The positive that comes out of this is that I have incredible access to inside information. I can ask personal, difficult questions to reach very specific answers. I can also have faith that the answers I receive will be truthful. In the end, such a close relationship with the people I am researching gives me two kinds of information. The first type is very general and available for use in my writing. The second is too personal or polarizing to use.

At first I concluded that there is only a certain level, and a certain amount of information that is accessible for use in supporting your argument in a paper. Once you reach a certain intimacy the information becomes unusable. But after connecting my observations and interviews together I found something very different. The deepest level of knowledge I had achieved through the depth of my relationships with my research subjects actually shaped my views of the broader level of knowledge. In fact, this seemingly useless crop of information that couldn’t be referenced explicitly in writing actually improved the accuracy of my argument and my thinking on the topic.

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