A New Groove: Black Culture and Technology Development

By Weheliye, Alexander G. | Diverse Issues in Higher Education, December 1, 2005 | Go to article overview

A New Groove: Black Culture and Technology Development


Weheliye, Alexander G., Diverse Issues in Higher Education


Black culture and technology are not often used in the same sentence, unless one wants to note their incompatibility. When talk turns to the "digital divide," Black populations in the United States and abroad frequently appear as the losers in the game of technological development. This is a direct legacy of 19th-century colonialist ideas concerning the supposed innate backwardness of Africa and its people, ideas that are now being replayed in the digital domain. Also, in the debates about the "digital divide," only computers and the Internet appear as valid technologies.

While one should not neglect the structural imbalances inherent in the unequal access to computer technology, I would like to turn to stories about Black culture and technology that might enable a fresher view. If we consult the history of popular music, for instance, a somewhat different narrative emerges, in which Black culture often takes the lead in technological innovations. This has been the case since the beginning of sound recording at the end of the 19th century and still holds true in our current globalized era.

Let me give you three examples: Motown Records pioneered the creative use of four- and eight-track recording to isolate and then either accentuate or downplay various aspects of the overall recording sound, turning the recording studio into a creative instrument. Dub reggae, which created altered versions of reggae hits, pushed Motown's studio experimentation further by removing certain parts of the original recording, especially the vocals, and highlighting others, such as the drums and the bass by treating them with echo and delay. Dub reggae thus provided the basis for much of the remixing so prevalent in popular music today. Finally, disc jockeys developed mixing techniques that turned the record player into an instrument. Their creativity gave birth to such genres as disco, hip-hop and house/techno, and now saturates almost every other kind of music. These innovations not only radically changed their immediate cultural and social contexts, but also served as templates for a variety of other musical practices around the world, so much so that contemporary popular music would be unthinkable without them.

Yet, these important advances rarely appear in histories of technological development. The dismissal of Afro-diasporic contributions to the history of technology allows the story about Black culture's lack of technological capabilities to be rehashed without having to be rethought. …

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