Outside Looking In: Race and Identity in American Music Culture

By Stephanie Shonekan, Contributing Editor, Art, Music & Pop Culture

In her book, Soul, Country, and the USA: Race and Identity in American Music Culture, author Stephanie Shonekan explores perceptions and resistance to dominant cultural narratives, national identities, and understanding of the “American Dream” in soul and country music. Here is an excerpt from Shonekan’s provocative new book.

In his 1903 seminal work, The Souls of Black Folk, African American scholar W. E. B. DuBois boldly predicted that the problem of the twentieth century would be “the problem of the color line”. This pronouncement was made as he was perched on that shaky threshold between the morally tragic nineteenth century and the tentatively hopeful twentieth century. As hope gave way to helplessness in the early twentieth century, in spite of valiant waves of resistance to the most violent racism and bigotry, DuBois’s statement seemed eerily prophetic as the problematic matter of race in America continued to dig its jagged roots into the receptive sociocultural soil of the United States. Once imagined as a contained field of contamination in the Deep South, historical evidence has shown that these divisive roots had spread from sea to shining sea. Discourses that revolve in complicated circles around media representations of American culture, the educational and criminal justice systems, and campaign rhetoric during voting season in the United States reveal the fruit of those racial roots, further reminding observers that DuBois’s statement may be an apt measuring stick for investigating the twenty-first century.

Halfway through DuBois’s century, writer Susan Sontag reflected on the status of race and racism in the United States: “This is a passionately racist country; it will continue to be so in the foreseeable future” (“White Woman Black Vision,” 50). During this intense period in American history, artists and intellectuals of the Black Arts Movement—Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, and Larry Neal—reiterated this verdict. At the dawn of a new century, this work seeks to examine the enduring implications of this assertion. While DuBois presented sociological evidence that explored religion, labor, leadership, and education, this work rests its theoretical basis on the cultural pillars of soul and country music as the gateway into the question of race, identity, and relationship in twenty-first-century United States. These musical genres serve as cultural markers, similar to the two ends of a dial on a compass that leads a traveler on a journey along the historically sensitive and complex road that is layered with troubled race relations and restless identity formation in the United States.

As I have embarked on this intriguing road, I am often asked: What does a scholar with African and Caribbean roots have to do with American music and culture? This is a recurring question especially as I pose questions and begin my line of inquiry with music fans and citizens of the United States. The raised eyebrows, the disbelieving half-smiles, the gasps of laughter, all point to the incredulous bemusement that welcomes my announcement of a research interest in these two iconic American musical genres. I suspect the raised brows are more about the country music than the soul. The thought is that scholars with a heritage like mine may not possess the cultural credibility to interrogate country music. There seems to be an unwritten law that states that non-Americans are not supposed to seriously consider and comment on the other side of American history, culture, and identity. That honor is reserved for Americans. So, what do I have to say about soul and country music? What could I possibly have to add to the already great scholarship on these two genres?

Besides the fact that these two genres are rarely linked, this work attempts to do something that has been done many times, but in the reverse direction. Westerners have often focused their investigative lens on the African continent. From the first European explorers to the early Western anthropologists and literary scholars to the more recent American scholars of postcolonial studies, various cultural and historical aspects of Africa have been carefully examined, scrutinized and sampled, tested and tasted by outsiders. These endeavors have produced definitive studies such as David Livingstone’s Narrative of an Expedition to the Zambezi (1865) and novels like Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1903). Others have focused more specifically on cultural aspects of African life, for instance, John Middleton on East African traditional religion, Polly Hill on rural capitalism in Ghana, G. I. Jones on the political life of Western Nigeria, and O. F. Raum on childhood and education in an East African “tribe.”

From these texts, conclusions have been made about Africa, her people, and her traditions. Early accounts from the outside have exposed and portrayed Africans as anything from simple, childlike creatures to being primitive, savage, and unmanageable. According to Livingstone, “Our experience tends to prove that the European constitution has a power of endurance, even in the tropics, greater than that of the hardiest of the meat-eating Africans.” In another section of that book, he says “The natives . . . are said to be expert thieves” and “Can thick lips ever have been thought beautiful?” he asks as he describes the women of the Maruru tribe. These types of conclusions have had enduring effects on how Africans and people of African descent are perceived centuries later.

Other books, such as those by Martin Meredith (2011), Barbara Kingsolver (2005), David Locke (1985), and Bernth Lindfors (2000), have been more careful, presenting thoughtful analyses that inspire deeper thought and more nuanced understandings of the history, politics, religion, music, and literature. Regardless of their motivation and/or the quality of their work, these Westerners, driven by curiosity, brought an objective (and inevitably shaded) lens to their inquiry about Africa and Africans.

With this book, I get the opportunity to deploy the same impetus that has driven Western inquisition into non-Western cultures. Instead of David Livingstone and his quest to define “the African,” you have an African who is searching for an understanding of the “American” and the meaning of the legendary “American Dream.” An ethnomusicologist and longtime connoisseur of American popular music, I am intrigued by how soul and country music serve as a springboard to view American life and culture. Globally, friends and foes of the United States are fascinated and attracted to an ideal that seems to explain America’s position as arguably the most powerful nation on earth. Throughout the twentieth century and certainly since the end of the Cold War, countries in the developing world have tried to imitate and appropriate America’s model of democracy and structures of capitalism, with varying and questionable degrees of success. There is an attraction to this way of life and mode of government that is embodied in the statement that American children pledge in classrooms every day: “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Implicit in that statement are ideals of American life that outsiders covet and to which they feverishly aspire. Diversity and unity are emphasized in the reference to “one nation” that is “indivisible”; freedom is indicated through concepts of “liberty” and “justice”; faith is clear in the reference to God; and loyalty is signified in the very notion and act of pledging allegiance. And yet, “allegiance” is tightly anchored to a contestable foundation where perspectives and points of view shift and shake, creating an ambiguous gray area that belies a unified understanding of US identity and nationalism. The pledge seems to rest on a certain romanticization of an American ideal that is challenged by the reality of the distinct cultural worldviews that comprise the very notion of “one nation.”

Like so many people around the world, I have always been fascinated with the concept of a “United States”—a place where states, with their various immigrant populations, are drawn together by their common understanding of unity in diversity. How is it that this variously populous nation appears to have a unified allegiance that allows it to continue as a unified and prospering entity? I am inspired to find new ways of exploring how the United States and her citizens live up to this pledge. Through the vista of popular music, I am on a quest to explore the different identities that comprise the diversity and the ways in which these subgroups intersect with the intricate matrix that either connects or separates at least two cultural groups in the United States—the rural white Southern culture and urban black culture. This matrix consists of aspects of socially constructed identity and gender; the approach to and the concept of God; the sense of what democracy means; and at the center of it all, understandings of race and class.