Who Hears Here? On Black Music, Pasts and Present. by Guthrie Ramsey, with Tammy Kernodle (foreword) and Shana L. Redmond (afterword). Berkeley: University of California Press, 2022
Published online: 19 October 2023
Who Hears Here? On Black Music, Pasts and Present. Guthrie Ramsey, with Tammy Kernodle (foreword) and Shana L. Redmond (afterword). Berkeley: University of California Press, 2022. 310 pp. ISBN: 9780520281837. $85.00.
Who Hears Here? On Black Music, Pasts and Present, offers a profound glimpse into Guthrie Ramsey’s career as a scholar and practitioner of Black music. Through a collection of essays spanning his academic journey, Ramsey celebrates the resilience and dignity of Black Americans who have overcome countless challenges. His primary goal is to reveal authentic stories and truths about Black music, dispelling misconceptions and inaccuracies. Ramsey critically examines the portrayal of Black music in academic and mainstream cultures, emphasizing its significance and dismissing stereotypes. This book is a testament to his commitment to sharing the rich legacy and enduring impact of Black music.
In the introduction, Ramsey contemplates the politics of academic discourse, inspired by Marlon Riggs's questioning of marginalized groups adopting "dominant discourses" to validate their intellectualism (2). Riggs pondered whether this participation meant individuals were "singing someone else's tune to be heard" (Riggs 1992, 101-103). Ramsey expands on this inquiry, examining the use of academic language and expressing concerns about the potential suppression of marginalized voices (2). He argues that academics should not be the sole authorities in narrating Black history, emphasizing the importance of oral tradition and aural storytelling outside the confines of the Eurocentric academy (10).
Ramsey highlights the importance of teaching Black American history with sensitivity and respect. This history encompasses a painful legacy of violence, racism, and injustice, one that he posits is influential in preventing Black American scholars from thriving in their work professionally (25). He encourages Black intellectuals to share their unique perspectives while acknowledging the potential contribution of non-Black scholars who approach the subject with care (44). Teaching the story of Black American music goes beyond music education: it is an opportunity to tell a broader narrative of resilience and survival, honoring the humanity of Black Americans and advocating for justice in their experiences.
Ramsey's work provides a profound exploration of the intricacies involved in studying and teaching Black music in academia. His insights into the challenges, opportunities, and implications of identity politics within this field of study are both compelling and nuanced. He asserts the necessity for scholars to embrace collective self-reflexivity, offering a fresh perspective and a valuable challenge. Additionally, his call for increased ethnic diversity among Black scholars studying Black music highlights the potential to enhance discourse and analysis with lived experiences, as exemplified in this collection.
However, the book does have certain limitations. Ramsey’s approach, advocating for the involvement of both Black and non-Black scholars in the study of Black music, aims to strike a balance between perspectives of ethnically diverse scholars. However, it may not fully satisfy readers who hold exclusive views of Black-only scholarship or those with universally inclusive perspectives encompassing Black music scholars of all backgrounds. The latter may critique his stance as implying that one's race determines their understanding and interpretation of Black music. This perspective risks undervaluing the contributions of non-Black scholars.
Ramsey emphasizes the need for balancing scholarship and advocacy (48), yet the practical means of implementing this balance remain somewhat ambiguous. He is adamant about the need for an increase in Black Ph.D. students involved in scholarly projects centered on Black Studies (45). At the same time, he acknowledges the historical marginalization of Black scholars and recognizes the potential risks that strict identity politics can entail (46). Ramsey affirms that scholars of all racial backgrounds have the capacity to contribute significantly to African American studies, provided they possess the required training and dedication to the discipline (22).
Who Hears Here? presents a crucial exploration of the intricate relationships between Black music, culture, and society. Ramsey draws inspiration from Amiri Baraka's influential 1963 work, Blues People, to delve into contemporary Black music and its critical analysis. Additionally, Ramsey’s volume resonates with Shana L. Redmond's 2013 book, Anthem: Social Movements and the Sound of Solidarity in the African Diaspora. Redmond's book examines the roots music of African Americans and its evolution into contemporary Blues derivatives, shedding light on their role in resistance and rebellion. All three authors—Baraka, Redmond, and Ramsey—analyze the significance of Black music and its enduring impact on Black and non-Black communities. Ramsey explores various genres, including jazz, soul, gospel, and Hip Hop, while Redmond provides insights on the influence of songs from multiple genres. Together, all three of these works offer profound insights into the multifaceted nature of Black music and its transformative influence on culture and identity.
In her afterword to Who Hears Here?, entitled "Onward," Redmond discusses the challenges encountered by Black scholars in academia. Drawing from her own experiences of exclusion and marginalization, she emphasizes the transformative role of Black music in her life, enabling self-discovery and understanding. Redmond critiques the mechanization and insignificance of academic practices within the university's racial dynamics (246). She advocates for the recognition of Black scholars' unique talents and “ways of knowing,” raising questions about achieving meaningful difference while still centering Blackness in the study of Black music from within academic walls (246). Despite the risks and barriers, Redmond affirms her commitment to the work and its ongoing response. Her afterword sheds light on the essential need for change and inclusivity within academia, providing a perfect final note to Ramsey's collection of essays.
In Who Hears Here? every chapter represents a unique essay, skillfully dedicated to celebrating the diverse derivative idioms of Black American music, while also shedding light on significant moments in the rich history of Black music. Through its exploration of hidden narratives, cultural identity, race, and Black music, the book provides a comprehensive examination of diverse aspects on Black music, history, culture, and critical analysis. It interconnects themes such as the intersections of music with other art forms, the exploration of specific genres and artists, and the evolution of music in contemporary contexts. Ramsey's adept exploration of these themes deepens our understanding and appreciation of the power, legacy, and ongoing relevance of Black music. With its multidimensional and captivating examination, the book will appeal to music scholars, enthusiasts, and anyone interested in the profound impact and significance of Black music in our society.
Baraka, Amiri. 2002. Blues People: Negro Music in White America. New York. Perennial.
Redmond, Shana L. 2013. Anthem: Social Movements and the Sound of Solidarity in the African Diaspora. New York: New York University Press.
Riggs, Marlon T. 1992. “Unleash the Queen,” in Black Popular Culture, ed. Gina Dent and Michelle Wallace. Seattle: Bay Press, 101-105.
Melvin Earl Villaver, Jr. is a Hip Hop artist and scholar who teaches on Blues Epistemology and music production. Presently, he is a Ph.D. candidate at Purdue and will be Assistant Professor of Music and Global Black Studies at Clemson University in Fall 2023. Listen to his music here: https://li.sten.to/Melvinearlmusic.