Behind the Music: Africana Studies

Lesley Mahoney
September 21, 2007
Bill Banfield is the director of Berklee's Africana Studies/Music and Society curriculum initiative.
Cornel West speaks at last year's Black Music Matters event, which marked the inauguration of Africana Studies/Music and Society.
Gabrielle Goodman teaches two courses that fit in with the Africana Studies initiative.
Bill Banfield interacts with students.
Photo by Bill Gallery
Photo Photo by Bill O'Connell
Photo by Phil Farnsworth
Photo by Bill Gallery

Whether you're performing a jazz standard or singing the blues, the notes and lyrics alone simply aren't enough. The genesis of that music and the context within which it was created complete the picture, according to professor William Banfield.

"You look at the soul movement and it's just not about Aretha Franklin singing. It's about Aretha Franklin singing 'Respect,'" says Banfield, director of Berklee's newly launched Africana Studies/Music and Society curriculum initiative. "And it's about James Brown singing 'Say it Loud.' Why? 'Because I'm black' and what else? 'I'm proud.' That has a particular social, cultural critique that students may not be thinking about, or be aware of."

Historical and cultural context, Banfield says, adds an essential layer, helping to give shape and meaning to the art.

"That is the context that the music grew out of," notes Banfield. "It really does define the way in which the music sounds, the way in which it breathes and the reason why it came into existence. The spirituals came out of slave hollers. 'Help me. Lord, help me. I want to get out of here.' That's how the spirituals started. Today, an institution would be very wise to be sensitive to what music means."

Through Africana Studies, Berklee is giving birth to a new way of studying music in its cultural contexts.

Launched in 2006, the initiative comprises four foundation courses: two sections of Africana Studies: The Sociology of Black Music in American Culture and one section each of The Theology of American Popular Music and Black Biographies: Meanings, Music Lives. These themes are carried out in tandem with pre-existing performance classes and labs already in the Berklee curriculum.

"So, when they're singing, they understand the history of the foundations of the music that they're studying," Banfield says.

Lawrence Simpson, senior vice president of academic affairs, agrees. The initiative, he says, "provides students with a context for understanding much of the music they study here at Berklee so that they don't approach the music in an abstract way, but in a contextual way that helps them better understand the music, where it comes from, how it developed, and what the experiences were for those who created it."

Although classes already existed that addressed the cultural roots of music, Simpson notes, "I would suggest that it hasn't been systematically taught, and that's why the initiative was established."

"These classes are a bridge between the liberal arts, the music core, the music industry, and music pedagogy at the college. They count toward elective and core requirements for graduation," Banfield says of the foundation courses. "These classes are constructed for the sole purpose of bringing those worlds together. I think that's very significant."

The Africana Studies initiative was formally inaugurated at a Black Music Matters event last February, which featured Princeton University professor Cornel West and a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock.

"Tonight is a symbolic inception point of working toward a deeper understanding of the music we love and giving our students—through courses in Africana Studies—a window of understanding into the historical and cultural forces that so powerfully shaped the music of the Americas," Berklee president Roger H. Brown said at the event.

In conjunction with the new initiative, the college also modified its mission statement, adding the phrase: "Founded on jazz and popular music rooted in the African cultural diaspora, our comprehensive curriculum is distinctly contemporary in its content and approach, and embraces the principal musical movements of our time."

Evolution of an Initiative

The momentum for the Africana Studies/Music and Society curriculum initiative had been building through the Association of Faculty of African Descent. This evolved into conversations between Brown; Lawrence McClellan, former dean of the Professional Education Division; and Charles Combs, former chair of the Liberal Arts Department, and ultimately led to Banfield's hiring. When he came on board in the fall of 2005, he spent the first several months "galvanizing," getting people excited about the initiative, and developing an action plan to implement the initiative.

"My job was to spend a year bringing all those courses under the rubric of a cohesive thread called Africana Studies/Music and Society," Banfield says.

With the college undergoing a curriculum review initiative, the timing of Africana Studies and Banfield's hiring was key, according to McClellan. "I believe that Bill has come here under the Africana Studies banner at the right time," he says. "He is on the Curriculum Review Steering Committee. I think as we move the curriculum review initiative forward, and Africana Studies is in the mix, I think what comes out of that will be interesting."

So far, close to 130 students are enrolled in the foundation courses. And, in addition to the foundation courses, there are 14 faculty members who teach more than 25 courses—such as the Music and Life of Bob Marley; West African Drum and Dance Ensemble; and a History of Music in Black America—that have been brought under the umbrella of Africana Studies.

Gabrielle Goodman, associate professor of voice, teaches two courses that fall under this umbrella: Vocal R&B Styles Lab and Beginning Improvisation for Singers. While she already infuses some historical context into her teaching, she says the curriculum initiative allows more time for these sorts of discussions.

"It's opening up the dialogue about different artists, about the history of black music and the African diaspora," she says. "I think it will make the learning experience richer at Berklee and make the performing artists that come out of Berklee richer."

Meanwhile, Africana Studies embodies the "larger diasporic connections, in addition to black music in the states," Banfield points out. "This draws attention to music of the Caribbean, South America, and back to African music as well."

Toward this, Joe Galeota, associate professor of percussion, already includes cultural discussions in his courses along with performance work. "Now, it just fits in with the Africana curriculum they're creating now," says Galeota, whose courses include West African Drum and Dance Ensemble; the Music of Ghana; Drumming Styles of Ghana; the Music of Guinea; and Drumming Styles of Guinea, which fit under the Africana Studies initiative. "I think it will give some credibility to people who are working hard to promote black studies. It unifies us and gives validity to the courses that are taught here," he says of the initiative.

Meanwhile, through Black Music Programming—featuring events such Cornel West's visit—the initiative connects curriculum development and creative programming. "They have to be done in tandem, together, so that they're inextricably bound," Banfield says. "Africana Studies is the curriculum development side. Black Music Programming is the artistic programming side, bringing in clinics, artists, and performances in a concert kind of format so that these two kinds of things are connected all year round."

Preparing Students for Careers, Life

Ultimately, the goal is for Africana Studies/Music and Society to become an official curriculum, Banfield says. "I think everyone is on board with that." Students are responding positively to the foundation courses. Rajdulari Barnes has taken two of Banfield's courses—Black Biographies: Meanings, Music Lives and Africana Studies: The Sociology of Black Music in American Culture.

"I wanted to take the classes to study more about the history of the people who make the music," she says. Barnes noted that as an African American, the history of black music is a bit closer to her, but that the foundation classes have added a new dimension to her understanding.

"When I go to sing gospel, country, or blues, for example, I understand how it came about, what was happening in that time period. I can interpret it in a better way and perform it more authentically," she says. "It opened up a whole other world for me."

Barnes, a performance major in her third semester, says the classes have also generated valuable conversations among students of different backgrounds.

Beyond giving students a cohesive education, linking their performance and studies of myriad genres—including blues, gospel, hip-hop, jazz, ragtime, R&B, rock, social protest music, soul, and traditional West African music—to the historical roots of the music, Banfield hopes that Africana Studies will also better prepare students for life after Berklee.

"That's what Africana Studies/Music and Society is all about, not just the history of the music. But it's how to actually train new students and musicians to be successful participants in the society that we're sending them out in," he says, noting that Berklee already "has a fabulous, fabulous record of sending out some of the best musicians in the world."

Banfield adds, "When students learn those essential values about music and culture, they're going to make a deeper, better music. And it's not going to be any less funky. If you look at the soul period, for example, that music was funky and it had something to say. People listened and danced."