Editor's Introduction

By Ramsey, Guthrie P., Jr. | Black Music Research Journal, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Editor's Introduction


Ramsey, Guthrie P., Jr., Black Music Research Journal


This issue of Black Music Research Journal represents an important benchmark in the history of this publication. Since its inaugural issue in 2980, BMRJ has featured articles that treated the philosophy, aesthetics, history, and criticism of black music. Much of the scholarship in the early days of the journal could assume that readers would take the term "black music" at face value, so to speak, and that the qualities defining it could certainly be understood as a "commonsense" notion. Eileen Southern's The Music of Black Americans (2972) had mapped the parameters of the field in the previous decade, and her first-of-its-kind journal The Black Perspective in Music provided the space for chapter-and-verse conversations of intellectual exploration and institution building. When BMRJ appeared, it pushed further into territories of the black musical imagination and moved the field to a higher intellectual plane. In the early days of black music scholarship, there was an often unspoken imperative that the music under consideration was worthy of serious study, a necessity seemingly unfettered by a burden to question the "black" half of the equation. That was then.

Today, as the BMRJ moves toward its third decade of existence, the field is experiencing a seismic wave; the intellectual terrain is shifting along the discipline's fault lines. As a result of an unprecedented interest in black music of all kinds, we are experiencing a burst of scholarly energies from all academic quarters. This surge is not new. When Samuel A. Floyd Jr. initiated the journal--and I would argue, the field of contemporary black music research as we know it today--it was an eclectic project. All manner of interested people worked to build the field: music educators, composers, arts administrators, musicologists, ethnomusicologists, theorists, folklorists, performers, and many others. Since its birth, however, black music research has become more narrowly the province of academics with a practice of cultural criticism born of contemporary theory. The scene has changed.

In his history of American music, Charles Hamm wrote that "the most characteristic and dynamic music to emerge from American culture over the past two centuries invariably resulted from interaction among musicians of several different cultural, racial, national, and ethnic backgrounds" (1983, 655). Indeed, scores of musicians have self-consciously crossed these real and imagined boundaries of lived experience to whet their insatiable thirst for enticing and sometimes forbidden musical materials. The idea of "difference" provides power to many of these acts of homage, inspiration, love, and theft. Beyond its role in the creation of music, it can also impact the interpretation of the musical work. It seems that difference imbues music with signifying qualities, charms that allow it to express something tangible to listeners, especially to those who are keenly aware that some kind of "boundary" has been crossed.

In a brilliant essay, Ruth Solie reminds us that power is central and is precisely what is at stake in debates about difference and the cultural politics of interpretation. She writes: "Whether the issue is gender, sexuality, race, social class, or a complex combination of these and other factors, interpretive controversies swirl around the legitimacy of labeling groups 'different' from one another and, conversely, the legitimacy of claims of 'difference'; those same groups may make for their own purposes--for instance, to assert authority and control over their history or the interpretation of their own texts" (Solie 1993, 2).

Since the nineteenth century, the field of African-American music studies has seen many debates over cultural difference, particularly about the extent to which we should be invested in its claims of cultural authenticity. At the center of this discourse has been the relevance of historical Africa in the creation and interpretation of this music. …

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