‘Black Lives Matter’ Conference Talks Race, Music Studies

Hundreds of attendees from across the United States gathered in Paine Concert Hall Friday and Saturday for “Black Lives Matter: Music, Race, and Justice,” a conference examining the intersection between black culture and race relations.

The conference, hosted by the Harvard Graduate Music Forum, featured a faculty panel, discussions of academic papers, and a musical performance. Ian R. Copeland and Laurie Lee, two Harvard graduate students who study music, said they organized the conference to highlight a lack of academic attention paid to black music. Copeland added that music often plays a large role in American race relations and discrimination against black people.

“We were inspired by and also troubled by... police shootings throughout the United States, but also what seemed to be increasing hostility to the Black Lives Matter movement in the political sphere,” Copeland said.

Copeland added that music is often a powerful tool in dealing with painful events.

“Music is a big resource for people dealing with trauma and finding expression,” he said. “Popular music in particular can be a way to bring people together and to call people to action.”


On Friday, the conference’s first “paper session” examined three academic papers which centered on inclusion of black people in music, academia, and music education.

The next event discussed the role academics can play in political activism around race. The panel featured four speakers from New York University, Dartmouth College, the Ohio State University, and a local Black Lives Matter chapter in Cambridge, Mass.

Treva Lindsey, a professor of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at Ohio State University and a current Harvard W.E.B. DuBois fellow, described her response as a professor to Michael Brown’s shooting on Aug. 9, 2014. Lindsey said many black people reacted to Brown's death at the hands of a police officer with an “exasperation that was built for hundreds of years." She said she saw her role after the shooting as a caregiver to students in distress.

“What is my responsibility in this moment? To speak to my students in this moment, to care for my students in this moment, to show up for my students in this moment, to speak directly to my students on campus in this moment,” Lindsey said.

Regarding the current role of music studies in race relations, NYU professor Matthew D. Morrison said he believes that music studies needed to “benefit from” the activism and passion of Black Lives Matter.

Morrison stated that academics have the responsibility “to realize that because we have a position as writers, as cultural thinkers, as all of these things, to be active in making sure that things that we feel like are important to the larger community and society” are reflected in music studies. If they are not, Morrison said, organizing outside of academic institutions is necessary.

“There are various ways of organizing, various ways of dealing with history, various ways of finding ways to deconstruct the institution in the cause that you can learn from,” Morrison said.

Saturday’s events featured three paper sessions: “Black Religion, Black Space, and Black Speech,” “Improvisation, Struggle, and Liberation,” and “Vernacular Culture and the Power of Celebrity.” The conference concluded with a piano performance from Karen Walwyn, an Associate Professor of Music at Howard University, and a keynote lecture from Morrison.

In the weekend’s last paper session, Kimberlee D. Sanders, a Harvard graduate student in the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilization, presented her paper: “Sorry/I Ain’t Sorry: Beyoncé’s 'Lemonade,' Southern Gothic Temporality, and Reclaiming the Angry Black Woman.” Sanders proposed that the role of anger in "Lemonade" fostered a sense of community and empowered women of color, asserting that it “reclaims a space for black female anger.”

Sanders discussed the underrepresentation of black female contributions in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

“Their marginalization becomes this vortex that generates a righteous anger of saying ‘look at the trauma that I’ve endured. Look at the things I have done. Look at me. Let me occupy space,’” Sanders said in an interview.

—Staff writer Alice S. Cheng can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @alicescheng.

—Staff writer Kristine E. Guillaume can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @krisguillaume.


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