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Introducing ‘Rhythm of Change: African Music and African Politics’

Posted by on Monday, January 22, 2018 in News, Rhythm of Change: African Music and African Politics.

Co-Written by Professor of Musicology Gregory Barz and Assistant Professor of Political Science Keith Weghorst

“Them steal all the money
Them kill many students
Them burn many houses
Them burn my house too
Them kill my mama” –Fela Kuti

Professor of Musicology Gregory Barz

Professor of Musicology Gregory Barz

These words were penned by Fela Anikulapo Kuti in 1980. One of Nigeria’s most famous musicians and composers and an outspoken critic of the military dictatorship of Olusegun Obasanjo, Fela composed “Coffin for Head of State” in response to the Nigerian government’s ransacking of the artist’s home and studio in 1977. During the raid, Fela’s compound was burned, many were beaten and his mother was thrown from second-story window and eventually died. The song drew on an adaptation of a traditional Yoruba musical structure and oral historiography musical sensibilities such as call and response, while decrying what was wrong with the current state of Nigeria—lasting legacies of colonialism, repressive military rule and widespread corruption. The music employs patterns of repetition much like a march. In 1980, Fela led a procession through the streets of Lagos and to the military’s Dodon Barracks, carrying the coffin of his mother to leave at the gate of the military base.

Music and politics are inextricably linked and in places where histories are transmitted orally, the role of music is central to how a society defines itself and how it governs. This intersection—the coextensive moment between music and politics in Africa—is the focus of our University Course “Rhythm of Change: African Music and African Politics.” With our expertise in African music and ethnomusicology (Prof. Barz) and African politics (Prof. Weghorst), we will delve into what happens when music and politics align in key moments and events in Africa and their power to transform each other. Fela’s “Coffin for Head of State” is how we started the course, and our focus for the semester will be on four subject areas: identity and nationalism; democracy and elections; civil war and violent conflict; and globalization. Students will immerse themselves in the music surrounding these topics as our course traverses the continent, featuring music from places such as Nigeria, Ethiopia, Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania, Mali, Somalia, South Africa and more.

weghorst-keith

Assistant Professor of Political Science Keith Weghorst

Our course will transform our classroom into a living environment—with films, activists and musicians. We will host guests who write and produce music and musician activists, including Sams’K Le Jah. A reggae musician from the West African country of Burkina Faso, Sams’K co-founded Le Balai Citoyen (“The Citizen’s Broom”), a political movement that forced standing dictator Blaise Comporaré to resign in 2014. Additionally, students will wrestle with the complicated history of Paul Simon’s Grammy Award-winning album, Graceland—which brought attention to African musical styles, but was partly recorded in South Africa while the United Nations observed the brutal apartheid regime—through the screening of the recent documentary Under African Skies.

Near the end of the course, our class will produce a meaningful, tangible product—a piece of music that occupies the space between music and politics. During the semester, through interviews with guests like Sams’K Le Jah, students will hone their research skills to draw the pulse of politics and how it translates into music. Then, engaging with African diasporic communities Nashville, students will identify important political issues that tie Nashville to the African continent. Using those themes, our class will work with musicians to craft a piece of music that lives in the transformative intersection of music and politics.

We invite you to leave questions or comments in the space provided below, and encourage you to return to this blog page often throughout the semester to read entries written by our students.


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