Wait...Music Can Be Racist?

Reflections on aiming to be an anti-racist music professional.

Posted Jul 22, 2020

When I started the “Your Musical Self” blog in 2010, my primary aim was to share information to help people see how they can use music to learn, heal, and live. My lens was primarily focused on the individual, which reflects how I practice as a music therapist—many (though not all) of us center our practice on individualized health and educational goals. We may approach this through a systems, intersectional, or other such lens, but ultimately we focus on the care of the individual.

I’d like to take a moment, though, to expand this approach. My thinking here is due in large part to following the threads and online conversations stemming from the current Black Lives Matter movement, as well as reading and educating myself on the history of racial inequality and White supremacy in the United States.

One such article I read recently provided a history of certain songs included on many music therapists’ “must-know” repertoire lists…that have a racist history. This article was eye-opening to me, as I recognize I have unintentionally perpetuated a system of oppression. (“I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” in particular is one I’ve used consistently over the years). But I aim to be more aware and conscientious moving forward in my musical choices.

This also got me thinking—music has such a strong influence over our health and wellness as individuals. Can it do the same on a larger scale? I mean we know (and research supports) that engaging in group music-making and music listening facilitates group cohesion, a sense of togetherness, and emotional connectedness. But how about on a more macro level—how can we use music to care for each other, and through that strive to learn, heal, and live as a society that embraces diverse persons, cultures, and lifestyles?

This line of inquiry is outside my area of expertise and I certainly do not have all the answers. But here are some ideas to get started, suggestions aimed to promote awareness and deepen understanding, with the hope that it helps us actively raise our consciousness about implicit bias and structural racism, and that this change continues, one person at a time.

  1. Take time to learn the history of songs and other musical works, their composers, and the artists known for performing those songs. This will provide you with historical context  (and may help keep you from unintentionally contributing to perpetuating racism and collective trauma).
  2. If you choose to use or sing a racist song (or other musical piece with a dark or contentious history), do so intentionally and in a way that promotes anti-racism. For example, use the song to stimulate a conversation about race (or whatever the difficult/uncomfortable topic is that’s appropriate to the song).
  3. Seek out and learn songs that do not have a racist history, those that are composed and performed by African Americans and other oppressed and marginalized groups.
  4. Support and elevate Black artists and others who are using their musical (or non-musical) voices to speak their truth and lived experiences.

Readers—I am open to constructive discussion, suggestions, and feedback. You are welcome to leave a comment below.