Illustration of Black man listening to music on headphones
Illustration: Irene Rinaldi

Think back to the music you listened to in your teens. Maybe your parents didn’t like it. Perhaps they called it “noise.” But to you it was love—power—the future.

Sometimes it’s a generational thing—parents just don’t understand. But sometimes new musical genres, just like new literature, can represent a threat to the power structure. Yanie Fecu, a professor of English who specializes in comparative race and ethnicity studies, says that the dimension of language and the classification of sound offer fertile ground for creating and cementing a racial hierarchy.

“Music is a form of organized sound,” says Fecu. “But the real difference between music and noise is determined by the people who have power.”

While Black culture may have birthed the most popular musical genres in America—from ragtime to reggae, from jazz to blues, from rock ‘n’roll to hip-hop—each genre emerged to initial suspicion and derision from mainstream (read: white) culture.

In her popular course Empire of the Senses, Fecu asks students to focus on their hearing (among other senses) to investigate representations of racialized experience in global Black literature and music.

“I think it’s vital that we help students understand that racism is not something that is only perpetuated through the visual register,” she says. “The way we spread racial ideas is by also perpetuating ideas about how people sound, how they smell, how they speak, the words they use.”

The class focuses on a mix of literature, music and film. For example, students deconstruct a song by Rihanna (a Black artist from Barbados). The lyrics of her 2016 song “Work” draw on Jamaican patois.

‘“Whether or not music critics liked the song, the reviews tended to refer to Rihanna’s use of ‘nonsense’ and ‘gibberish,’” says Fecu. “But part of what Rihanna’s doing is making some listeners aware that they are not the only listeners. Their language, their interest is not her priority in this song. She is prioritizing a Caribbean audience.”

As artists become more famous, Fecu points out, they are sometimes seen as somehow “less Black.” The comedy show Saturday Night Live skewered this trope in a skit called “The Day Beyoncé Turned Black.” When white audiences feel that the music is speaking to them in some way, Fecu says, it “somehow de-racializes the musician.”

Students analyze short stories, novels and poetry alongside song lyrics, music videos, and documentaries by American and Caribbean artists. The seminar is intended to help students engage critically with ideas that present Black diasporic culture as rich and varied and always changing.

“‘Black people are not a monolith’ is something a lot of well-meaning white people will say, but they don’t necessarily know what that means,” says Fecu. “Taking a course like this exposes what that means. You see these artists—Caribbean, Afro Latina, African American—having these conversations amongst themselves: What will best allow our people to progress?”

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