Popular Music as Resistance. Jazz, Rap and Punk Rock

Essay 2015 10 Pages

Sociology - Media, Art, Music


Essay Title:

Critically analyse the ways in which popular music can serve as a means of resistance.

Considering the integral role that popular music plays within contemporary culture, its capacity for cultural commentary and even change must not be underestimated. In this essay I will critically analyse the extent to which popular music can serve as an instigator and catalyst for social critique, and more importantly, resistance. As a result, I intend to propose that popular music only serves as an effective means of resistance when it involves interplay between both dominant and subordinate cultural groups in order to retain or change social order. To do so effectively, I will be incorporating case studies from three distinct musical genres and eras, whilst complimenting these with theoretical and academic literature regarding resistance, and inevitably, notions of power. The three musical categories I wish to integrate into this discussion are jazz, rap, and punk rock, and the central pieces of academic literature that will be explored alongside these include Scott’s (1990) theory of “hidden transcripts”, and Foucault’s (1980) concepts of power. General insights into popular music and culture will also be interwoven throughout, including the works of Cihordariu (2011) and Fabian (1998).

Behind the face of jazz music lies a bleak and complex history of political and social unrest, reflecting the fundamental struggle for racial equality in America and beyond. The era of blackface minstrelsy is perhaps the most appropriate place to begin this discussion as it provides important context into the later development of jazz, as well as giving a rich account of the dynamics of resistance at the time. Blackface minstrelsy, which began to gain popularity in the 19th Century, was a form of comedic entertainment, with a strong musical focus, in which performers would colour their faces to imitate, and mock, black people and to fuel the stereotypes they had attached to them. However, as Ostendorf (1979) suggests, despite its intentional nature of ridicule, it did begin to open up the door to black music, and black cultural expression. As minstrelsy subsequently developed and changed, the role of resistance within it is intriguing. With this in mind, Foucault’s understanding of power provides a useful framework through which this may be interpreted. As the Encyclopedia of Social and Cultural Anthropology (1996) explains, “Foucault saw power as being produced and reproduced through constant social interaction, from many different directions” (1996:447). With the case of blackface minstrelsy, I see this as particularly relevant.

Although black people at the time were the subordinate group, and at the receiving end of oppression and ridicule, Ostendorf indicates that to some extent, blackface minstrelsy was an attempt by white people to assert their dominance primarily out of fear of black ascendancy. Essentially, they exercised pre-emptive dominant resistance, born from the fear of subordinate resistance. As Ostendorf suggests, “By presenting them as children, animals or fools their cultural pretensions were ridiculed, the legitimacy of their political and social demands was questioned and the symbolic dominance of whites was reaffirmed” (1979:581). Interestingly, this consequently gave rise to further complexities in the situation, because this affirmation of white dominance was then countered again by black minstrels who managed to favourably adapt the show by reducing the dehumanizing aspects and emphasising their “artistic and human potential” (ibid). This, in turn, propelled black culture and began laying the foundations upon which the future of jazz was built. In this case, Foucault’s multi- directional understanding of power, which is intimately connected to notions of resistance, appears integral to blackface minstrelsy’s part in, and reflection of, the serious cultural resistance of that time. Ostendorf clearly suggests that resistance was not one-sided, and thus challenges certain assumptions about use of music as a form of resistance - it can be used not only to resist the authority of dominant groups, but also to retain it.

Numerous examples of resistance within jazz were also apparent throughout the early to mid-20th century, in many cases directly involving some of the most prominent figures within the jazz scene. The particular case I wish to focus on, however, is that of Duke Ellington and his impact on the “cultural politics of race”, as studied by Gaines (2000). Throughout Ellington’s life, there were several factors which Gaines suggests “encouraged in him a healthy disregard for musical categories mediated by racial assumptions” (2000:587). These include the formative years he spent in the black musical community of Washington DC, and his involvement with the New Negro movement in Harlem during the 1920s, both of which led to his political motivations of resistance and liberty. Within Ellington’s music, he frequently used his compositions as a means of expressing African-American’s cultural sensibilities and their constant battle for freedom. The way in which he did this, as was the case with many other jazz artists around the time of the civil rights movement, involved using symbolism and musical virtuosity. However, the deeper meaning and explanation behind this as a form of resistance, I believe, lies within a theory proposed by Scott (1990) involving what he calls “hidden transcripts”.

Although the definition of what hidden transcripts are can be remarkably broad, it fundamentally refers to practices enacted by members of subordinate groups to, in some way, surreptitiously undermine or resist the authority of dominant groups. To expand on the connection between this theory and Ellington’s music, there appears to be several identifiable cases of such concealed resistance within his arrangements. One particularly poetic example is the song Daybreak Express (1934), in which Ellington uses complex orchestral artistry to mimic the noise of a train moving, and accelerating. For the naïve listener this would perhaps demonstrate nothing more than advanced musical competency, however, for Ellington the train evokes socio-historic significance as it symbolised mobility and opportunity in African-American life. This is what Scott might identify to be a hidden transcript, as he states in Domination and the Arts of Resistance (1990), “the realities of power for subordinate groups means that much of their political action requires interpretation precisely because it is intended to be cryptic and opaque” (1992:137). The broad and varied application of the theory of hidden transcripts is a recurring theme within this analysis of popular music as a means of resistance.

The next popular music category I wish to focus on is hip-hop, or more specifically, rap. Perhaps in a more overt form than jazz, rap has developed into a vehicle for cultural critique, as Rose explains, “Rap music brings together a tangle of some of the most complex, cultural, and political issues in contemporary American society” (1994:2). Like jazz, rap music generally speaks from the perspective of the underprivileged African-American, or at least from there it is rooted. In discussing the cultural foundation of rap music, Martinez (1997) suggests that people, specifically those belonging to subordinate groups, “draw on their own cultures to resist oppression under dominant ideologies and, in turn, influence the dominant culture” (1997:366). Although in this case Martinez is specifically referring to rap music, certain insights by Fabian (1998) suggest that perhaps this subordinate response to dominant authority could actually be reflective of popular culture as a whole. He proposes that, “In its acknowledged capacity to organize resistance to abusive (or intrusive) power, popular culture draws on or invents various genres of representation and performance” (1998:41). Martinez asserts that in doing so, an “oppositional culture” (1994:265) is formed, within which certain practices, beliefs and principles are reiterated in order to become distinguished from the dominant culture. The point she makes is that this oppositional culture is the perspective from which rappers operate. The medium of music allows them to rebuke those in power while speaking almost as representatives of the oppressed, and in doing so they foster what Martinez refers to as “communal resistance” (1994:100). The significance that music can have on group unity is echoed by Cihodariu (2011); she says “Sharing the music employed by their common purpose bonds the group and brings a note of psychological relief” (2011:190).



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Queen's University Belfast – School of History and Anthropology
popular music resistance jazz punk rock




Title: Popular Music as Resistance. Jazz, Rap and Punk Rock