Tag Archives: africa

Musical Authenticity

Billie Holiday vs. Bing Crosby

Hank Williams vs. Garth Brooks

James Brown vs. Prince

I’ve been spending a lot of time in the last few months thinking about musical authenticity (mostly in order to pass one of the classes in my master’s program). This topic has come up here at the Roadhouse before (1|2|3), but this is the first time I’ve done any real heavy lifting on the topic. So here, in very un-academicy format, are some of my thoughts on musical authenticity.

1 – Romanticism
Most people use the “Authentic” as a stand-in for the romantic notion that art should be unfiltered and un-crafted. Sophistication is the antithesis of authenticity. Niel Young is authentic because he gets falling-down drunk and then records songs on the first take without rehearsing the band. Never mind that the result sucks, it’s authentic. The idea of muse, inspiration, artist-as-bystander, these are the notions that get bound up in the term “authentic”.

2 – Historicity
Authentic is also a function of historical proximity to the musical nexus, when something changed into something new. When field songs became the blues, the first generation of artists were “authentic” by virtue of being close to the source. The Sex Pistols are more authentic than Green Day because they were part of the pivot. In some sense, anyone who tries to stand in an existing stream of music suffers comparison to how it was done by the first ones who did it, and even the flaws and cracks in how the first generation did it become codified as essential to the “authentic” sound.

3 – Pills and Powders
If you have liver damage, you are more authentic.

4 – Africa
This is a particularly American phenomenon, but authenticity in American music is often used as a way of quantifying the amount of “Africanism” in the music. American music emerged out of European and African streams – it’s not African, it’s not European, it’s American, something uniquely new emerging out of the tension and crossing influences of the two. In spite of this historical reality,  the controlling narrative of musical criticism is that White music stole and corrupted Black music. Against this backdrop, “authenticity” is a code phrase for music that is less “corrupted” by white influence, something that is “true to it’s African roots”. This narrative was already in full effect by the time John Lomax made his famous field recordings of the early blues, seeking out music he believed to be “untainted” by white influence (ignoring the fact that anything with a dominant 7th chord is already hopelessly entwined with European harmony). The commercial success of Lead Belly and other earth blues artists with white audiences was specifically because of this perceived authentic preservation of Africanism in their music. This controlling narrative emerged again and again, in the social commentary on Jazz, Be Bop, Motown, Funk, Hip-Hop …

It’s impossible to escape the blatant racism in this assumption, especially in light of point 1. The subtext of Africanism-as-authenticity is the appeal to lack of sophistication, the romantic notion that music emerges unfiltered and un-crafted. Clearly James Brown couldn’t have thought through the complex intricacies of how to form a funk groove – “those people” just have natural rhythm!

So, I’m interested in what you fine folk have to say. Here are a few questions:

  1. Is it possible to be authentic as a 2nd generation artist in a genre?
  2. How important is impact (who it influences, how long it endures) on authenticity?
  3. Does authenticity matter? I know we all get skittish about words like “better” or “important” when we talk about music, but let’s acknowledge for a minute that our experience grants us some expertise, and make a judgment call. When it comes time to load up humanity’s cultural artifacts in the space-ark, will authenticity be part of the criteria for preservation?
  4. Race. Not really a question, but go for it anyway.

I promise, you are not being drafted into my thesis paper homework. I just think this is a discussion worth having.

Obama on Africa

My cousin in Kenya can’t get a job without paying a bribe, and that’s not the fault of the G8. And when companies can’t operate without paying, in some parts of Africa, without paying the 25 percent fee off the top in bribes, that’s not colonialism.”

Obama talk about Africa’s endemic problem with corrupt leadership. We just spent a week with Gretchen’s brother, who lives and teaches in Tanzania, and after hearing his stories, this speech comes like a breath of fresh air.

What Africa Needs Now

An atheist ex-pat from Malawi writes about how important Evangelical missionaries are to the future of Africa. Not just the work they do, but what they believe. I read it from a position of ignorance, but I hope that he is right. Looking forward to discussing this with my brother-in-law Scott, a missionary in Tanzania.

Now a confirmed atheist, I’ve become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts. These alone will not do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa Christianity changes people’s hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.

used to avoid this truth by applauding – as you can – the practical work of mission churches in Africa. It’s a pity, I would say, that salvation is part of the package, but Christians black and white, working in Africa, do heal the sick, do teach people to read and write; and only the severest kind of secularist could see a mission hospital or school and say the world would be better without it. I would allow that if faith was needed to motivate missionaries to help, then, fine: but what counted was the help, not the faith.

But this doesn’t fit the facts. Faith does more than support the missionary; it is also transferred to his flock. This is the effect that matters so immensely, and which I cannot help observing.

Read the rest of the article here.

I know some the folks who hang out here have some unique insight into this issue, and I’d love to hear it.