In response to the ongoing events on campus that have sparked academic debates worldwide, the College of Fine and Applied Arts organized a forum earlier this week on the “Future of Academic Freedom and the Arts,” to address how “[c]ontroversial, marginalized, or unpopular creative work has historically thrived in academic settings under the auspices of academic freedom. That includes our own campus, where during the mid-twentieth century many experimental artists found their only chance to exhibit and sell work through Illinois’ annual Festival of Contemporary Arts.” In this multi-part series on reflections from the event, Gabriel Solis, Associate Professor of Music, African American Studies, and Anthropology considers what – in the context of the changing landscape of higher education – the future of academic freedom as a catalyst, refuge, and force of collaboration for the arts may be. – ac
The University has been valorized, particularly since mid-century as a place where there is room for critical, difficult, highly charged art and critical articulation, and as a site whose protections of academic freedom have been used to develop those expressions that would be shut down elsewhere. I suggest that while this certainly represents our ideals, it has not always been our practice. The academy’s relationship to music that expresses anger in the face of real injustice is illustrative of the ways we exclude voices that have been described by a host of terms describing a lack or failure, all of which intersect with “incivility”: impropriety, impoliteness, and the quality of being uncouth.
Let me make a contention:
African American popular music, from blues and jazz to soul/funk/and hip hop has been one of the central, if not the single most important registers for social and critique in the 20th century—a register that has been influential not only within the U.S., but truly throughout the world. It has provided the sound of liberation, it has provided the style of resistance, it has provided many of the terms of opposition.
And let me make a related one:
Universities, our own included, have been slow at best to incorporate makers of these kinds of music into our faculty and the music they make into our curricula—English departments have been better at harboring hip hop than have music departments.
To get at why a “civility” test not only contributes to this, but makes it very hard to avoid, let me give two examples. The first is a clip from Nina Simone’s 1965 performance of the song “Mississippi Goddam” in Antibes.
The piece is, I submit, a masterful work in any number of ways. It’s a brilliant use of musical irony, a productive mismatch between sound and sentiment, with its cheerful, upbeat, showtune-esque beginning and its unflinching insistence on naming the problem of racism. It is compelling in formal respects, particularly its beautifully managed intensity. But perhaps most interesting, it is a brilliant use of the word “goddam.” This doesn’t seem like such strong language now (I can play it for a class without worrying too much about offending the students’ sensibilities, and I can say it in a talk or online without fear of drawing the attention of my administration or board of trustees). In 1965, particularly for a black woman on stage, however, it was dangerous. Part of the problem is that, unlike so-called “dirty” blues, it wasn’t titillating. It was genuinely hostile.
Now consider a photo that has become one of the iconic images of the Ferguson protests, one which was featured on CNN’s coverage. I ask you to look away from the center of the image if you can, to the post box at the right. The phrase there, “Fuck the Police,” is not just any slogan, it is a lyric, from the NWA song of that title, followed by “comin’ straight from the underground / got it bad ‘cause I’m brown / and not the other color so the police think / they’ve got the authority to kill a minority.”
There has been a recent surge in calls for “civility” in discourse not only here, but at many universities, including UC Berkeley, The Ohio State University, and Pennsylvania State University. The PSU statement is particularly grotesque, inasmuch as it urges civility in discussions of the university’s complicity with Jerry Sandusky’s child sex abuse. Moreover, there have been similar calls outside the walls of academia, as in Ferguson, where authorities repeatedly blasted protestors (literally as well as figuratively) for failing to remain “civil.” This raises significant questions to me.
I censored my presentation of Ice Cube’s lyrics here, for the record, in large measure because of the particulars of this venue, and because of my specific ideas about what is offensive or not. I do teach work of this sort that is upsetting, but I note that universities have, by-and-large, not hired makers of this work. Would we have a place for Nina Simone? For Ice Cube, or Dr. Dre, or Chuck D? The desire to care for our students and our community, to nurture feelings of safety and wellbeing is clearly important, and not to be dispensed with lightly. But I would also emphasize that routinely, the politics of propriety silence the voices that would speak against oppression: black and latino voices, Jewish and Muslim voices, women’s voices, queer voices, voices of the abused, voices of the economically marginalized, voices of minority opinion, voices of the colonized, Indigenous voices;,voices the university needs if it is to aspire to universality.
Gabriel Solis is a scholar of African American music and of Indigenous musics of the Southwestern Pacific. He has done ethnographic and historical research with jazz musicians in the United States and with musicians in Australia and Papua New Guinea. Drawing on work in African American studies, anthropology, and history, he addresses the ways people engage the past, performing history and memory through music.