A post by Keryl McCord of Alternate Roots has gone viral after the National Endowment for the Arts hosted a meeting focused on addressing “diversity, inclusion, and equity in the arts,” and the National Association for Music Education, Michael Butera made some comments that gave the rest of the forward thinking arts educators in the room pause. Her account electrified the music education community:
"Mr. Butera told us that his board was all white and that he couldn’t diversify his board because they aren’t appointed but, rather, they are elected by the membership. Further, his membership isn’t diverse because, “Blacks and Latinos lack the keyboard skills needed for this field.” He also intimated that music theory is too difficult for them as an area of study. It seems that music education is on an order of magnitude of difficulty akin to medicine or law. Yet there are thousands and thousands of black and Latino doctors and lawyers.
He faulted our public schools as the cause of the problem, having all but abandoned the arts in their curriculum."
It’s no secret that the arts have had a tough time finding their place in schools in recent memory. They haven’t had a tough time infiltrating the daily lives of students across demographics and locations, but they’ve had a tough time being viewed as worthy uses of time during the school day. In music education, many cuts in programming have been a result of low enrollment numbers in music programs. Yet young people still relish in music, whether they pursue professional music, or just find themselves singing along with Beyonce in their free time.
Music has played an integral role in humanity for millennia; while the origins of music remain unclear, it has been over 40 years since John Blacking introduced “the idea that music is an inherent and universal human quality” in How Musical Is Man? If educators were to poll the young people in their school, they’d likely find that music fills their worlds, but that their world exists in a realm far away from what their music teacher identifies as music worth studying during the school day. This is something that I commonly see in exchanges with music educator colleagues, and this disconnect leads me to frequently reexamine what it was about music that drew me to this work anyway. What did I hope for? What did I experience that I hope to share with others? Why music education?
In his book The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind, and Body, Steven Mithen makes the intuitive connection between music and emotion while exploring the reason for music’s existence in human life from an evolutionary perspective. It is from this space that I approach my response to the mismatch between school music programs and youth musical experience.
These alleged comments by Butera allude to a subconscious understanding of these humans as inherently inferior, which many, including McCord, find reprehensible. But this understanding echoes the guiding sentiments that served as foundation for the United States; Black folks were kept as the property of white folks for the four hundreds years of this nation’s existence. A group of white people from Britain created a nation that worked for them, while black people were made into their slaves. This ugly history is one that often goes untold in this context. The hero’s journey of Christopher Columbus told alongside the hero’s journey of Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, as though one didn’t position the other to occur. As though the United States’ foundational structures as a country weren’t reliant on the existence of slavery, and on the active devaluation of some lives as worth less.
How can the great-grandchildren of this atrocity heal in a school system that was built with the understanding that they are not full humans?
With my understanding of music’s evolutionary function of “expressing and inducing emotion,” I imagine arts education being an incredible conduit to transcendence. But then I see a lack of supportive space for young people to do this on their own terms; rather, they’re only afforded opportunity to engage with the music in a way that is clearly not reaching them. I question the integrity of paradigm that feeds the creative modalities of an oppressing group to their oppressed, and I question the social consciousness of those constituents genuinely wondering why they’re not here for it.
Music holds a tremendous amount of power for human beings. It creates avenues for processing the world in a way that expresses one’s own unique experience of it. But with limiting and alienating notions of what music is valid, or worth making or honoring, we squander any potential for music to serve as the powerful healer it can be in our most marginalized communities. We’ve told them we’re not listening before we even ask them their names, with the centering of white musical traditions and ignorance of cultural context that brought about some of our most celebrated music, created by people of color about their experiences of violence* in the United States. The correlation of race, poverty, and underrepresentation is not an accident or coincidence; it is a direct and lasting effect of violent actions. As Coretta Scott King said during a 1969 PBS special on music and political action,
“Poverty can produce a most deadly kind of violence. In this society violence against poor people and minority groups is routine. I remind you that starving a child is violence; suppressing a culture is violence*; neglecting schoolchildren is violence; discrimination against a working man is violence; ghetto house is violence; ignoring medical needs is violence; contempt for equality is violence; even a lack of will power to help humanity is a sick and sinister form of violence.”
So as we consider the purpose and impact of music education, where are the people affected by the choices of educators in the decision making process? And who are they? Do we relate to them as kin? Do we intentionally see them as full humans, and allow ourselves to openly heal and dialogue around the violence we’ve experienced?
This is the work. This is the role of music in our worlds and in our lives. And hopefully, someday, in our schools.
Jamie Ehrenfeld is a community and school music educator based in New York City. She is the Fresh Education Coordinator at Urban Arts Partnership and interfaces with NYU’s Music Experience Design Lab around the design and application of emerging technologies for music engagement. She collaborates with Fresh Education to integrate culturally responsive music education into ELA and Social Studies classrooms across New York City, and she teaches vocal music at Eagle Academy for Young Men at Ocean Hill/Brownsville. She also manages and co-facilitates MusEDLab’s Ed Sullivan Fellowship, an emerging collective building toward equitable career pathways in the music industry.