Freedom's Mixtape: DJing Contemporary African American Rhetorics

As I began to get into the history of the music, I found that this was impossible without, at the same time, getting deeper into the history of the people…The music was the score, the actually expressed creative orchestration, reflection, of Afro American life…an orchestrated, vocalized, hummed, chanted, blown, beaten, scatted, corollary confirmation of the history…explaining the history as the history was explaining the music. And that both were expressions of and reflections of the people.

- LeRoi Jones, Blues People (1963)

Rap’s Black sonic forces are very much an outgrowth of Black cultural traditions, the postindustrial transformation of urban life, and the contemporary technological terrain…This advanced technology has not always been straightforwardly adopted; it has been significantly revised in ways that are in keeping with long-standing Black cultural priorities, particularly regarding approaches to sound organization…These hybrids between Black music, Black oral forms, and technology that are at the core of rap’s sonic and oral power are an architectural blueprint for the redirection of seemingly intractable social ideas, technologies and ways of organizing sounds along a course that affirms the histories and communal narratives of Afro-diasporic people.

-Tricia Rose, Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America (1994)

Course Description

This summer, Jay Z’s Tidal playlist “Songs for Survival” and his song “Spiritual” highlighted ways that HipHop has inspired freedom movements worldwide and transformed American music and culture. But the same impulses and influences hold throughout Black history and the wide range Black music: Funk Gospel Blues GoGo Field Hollers Spirituals Jazz House Techno—Black music in all its genres, styles and eras has always been about freedom and transformation. About both Black people and the whole society. About the US Black experience, the African continent and the diaspora.

These musical forms and the social movements they reflect and help shape are therefore central to the study of African American rhetoric. From overtly translating the ideas of social movements for mass audiences, to capturing the mood of a moment or move, to reflecting and influencing the aesthetics and styles that attend public discourse, to simply being a space where debates get worked out in community, music in Black traditions are as important a space of engagement as political speeches, sermons, websites, or even #BlackTwitter. This course will use Black music and its relationship to both social movements and everyday dialogue and debate to introduce African American Rhetoric as a field of study.

Participants in the class will examine a wide range of genres and styles of music as spaces of rhetorical engagement within Black communities and between Black communities and the broader society. Members of the course will also be introduced to the strategies and arguments attending several Black social movements in the US, from #BlackLivesMatter to the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements to movements for class based transformation and for sexual and gender justice.

Course Assignments

Assignments for the course will include a course blog that will serve as a home for reading responses and students’ personal archive of materials related to the course; a rhetorical analysis of an album; a “movement soundtrack” playlist to link music to other movements throughout African American history; and a PechaKucha slideshow built from course readings.