Hit Me With Music

Can music be the true equalizer?

Posted Aug 24, 2010

"No matter what culture we're from, everyone loves music" - Billy Joel

To listen to and understand a cultures music is to understand the soul of a culture. There is little argument that music is a source of comfort, joy and inspiration in most people's lives. It is rare to come across anyone that HATES music. While there may be a huge debate about what constitutes ‘good' music, the truth is that music is unique in its universality.

Every morning for an entire year I was awakened by the sound of music blasting from my neighbors booming sound system. It was always 7:45am and it was always the exact same playlist. Bob Marley, followed by Britney Spears, and rounded out with the latest track being played at the clubs. For those living in a tight urban community such as New York or Philadelphia, this may not seem out of the ordinary. What was out of the ordinary was the fact that I was hearing this playlist halfway around the world in a tiny rural African community. No one had running water, but everyone had some sort of system for listening to music.

Music has the ability to transcend barriers such as distance, race, socioeconomic status, age and religion. Darcy Ataman, Canadian music producer and CEO of Song for Africa, a not for profit that uses the power of music to promote understanding and change in both Africa and Canada describes the power of music; "The best music, in my opinion, serves as a divining rod to truth and equality. Once a song becomes a metaphor in one's life, all notions of social class or strata from which it was derived disappear."

The power of music is not a new concept, think back not so long ago to Woodstock, songs of protest united an entire nation of young people. Similarly in South Africa those fighting against Apartheid often united in the streets and the chants and dances of the Toyi Toyi quickly followed. Even those in power have recognized the influence that music can have over people, in 1985 Tipper Gore went head to head against musicians Dee Snider of Twisted Sister, Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys, John Denver, Joey Ramone and Frank Zappa. Tipper wanted warning labels attached to these albums, as a signal to parents that the music contained within them was inappropriate for their children; she ultimately lost to the musicians who argued that what she was doing was a form of censorship. Most recently the government of Zimbabwe has been widely criticized for its promotion of only pro-government music, and the banning of any and all music critical of leader Robert Mugabe.

Music seems to be uniquely positioned to build a bridge into worlds largely unknown. If Bob Marley and Britney Spears can infiltrate the tiny African village where I spent a year, why can the opposite not be true? The term ‘world' music often makes people cringe, they seem to associate ‘world' music with ‘traditional' music, and many, particularly young people, turn their headphones up and drown out the offending sounds with that of Eminem or Justin Beiber. To be honest I don't blame them. Few people these days choose to sit and listen to 18th century baroque music before heading out for the night on the town, why should they want to listen to the equivalent just because it comes from a different culture?

There are great musicians coming out of the continent of Africa; Gang of Instrumentals an R&B group from South Africa has the makings of the next Fugees, over in Rwanda Rafiki is dropping lyrics faster than Jay-Z. Yet they have not been able to break into the music scene outside of their own country. Similar stories can be found all across the world. The dominance of music from the USA and European countries including Germany, the UK and the Netherlands are at the core of music trade around the world. A study on the flow of music around the world shows that countries with a higher economic status and greater development are net exporters of music, while countries that are underdeveloped are net importers of music (Moon, Barnett & Lim, 2010).

If music can act as a ‘divining rod' than perhaps it can act as a bridge between cultures. It is difficult to see someone as completely different to oneself while you both are head bopping and hip swinging to the same music. If we can open our trade borders to the modern music coming out of less developed countries perhaps we can begin to understand them a little bit more. Maybe those neighbors in New York City and Philadelphia can be awakened to the newest music coming out of Rwanda. Maybe music can be the first step towards breaking the illusion of ‘us' and ‘them'.


Moon, S., Barnett, G. A., Lim, Y.S. (2010). The structure of international music flows using
network analysis. New Media & Society. 12(3). 379-399.

About the Author

Jaime Cundy

Jaime Cundy is a writer and a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania's Masters of Applied Positive Psychology program.

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