Part I: Gadamer on Play, the Play of Art, and the Reality of the Work in its Presentation

Gadamer, of course, is not the first thinker to highlight play as basic to human experience. Johan Huizinga in his famous work, Homo Ludens, attempts to show how play permeates all aspects of culture: art, politics, religion, and even warfare.[1] Nietzsche, Hegel, and Heidegger also have much to say about play, art, and the significant of both to human life. Like Huizinga, Gadamer too understands play as fundamental to human experience and believes that a phenomenological examination of its structure will yield important insights into the nature of art as such and will thus likewise provide a way to better understand contemporary art and its relation to classical art. One key aspect of play is the back and forth of repeated movement. We observe this movement frequently in children’s games, such as when two children toss or bounce a ball back and forth. Here the movement to and fro is not coordinated for some further aim or goal. In contrast, the movement of my arm up and down when hammering a nail has the particular goal of bringing forth a bookshelf.Kasimir Malevich "Composition with the Mona Lisa"

In addition, the movement involves a certain flexibility and freedom, which Gadamer links to Aristotle’s discussion of self-movement. That is, for Aristotle self-movement is an essential characteristic of living beings. Extending Aristotle’s thoughts to the concept of play, Gadamer states that play as form of self-movement “does not pursue any particular end or purpose so much as movement as movement, exhibiting so to speak a phenomenon of excess, of living self-representation.”[2] Our play is a self-manifestation beyond the “necessary” of our aliveness! Of course, we encounter such playful, non-purposive movement in the animal world, whether in the to and fro flight patterns of butterflies or the back and forth playfulness of young puppies. However, in Gadamer’s view, human play involves the distinctively human capacity of reason, “which allows us to set ourselves aims and pursue them consciously, and to outplay this capacity for purposive rationality.”[3] In other words, human play is marked by our ability to create and stipulate rules and order our movements such that they are invested with our self-imposed aims and goals. For example, a child may challenge himself to see how many times in a row he can juggle three balls in a certain pattern before one falls to the ground. When the child beats his own record, he is pleased with himself; when he falls short of his own “top score,” he is disappointed and often repeats the activity until he is satisfied with his performance.

Gadamer further describes and clarifies the notion of nonpurposive rationality in human play as a form of self-representation.

The end pursued is certainly a nonpurposive activity, but this activity is itself intended. It is what the play intends. In this fashion we actually intend something with effort, ambition, and profound commitment. This is one step on the road to human communication; […] The function of the representation of play is ultimately to establish, not just any movement whatsoever, but rather the movement of play determined in a specific way. In the end, play is thus the self-representation of its own movement.[4]

But Gadamer is quick to add that his definition of the movement of play is not simply about self-representation or self-expression; play also involves a “playing along with” and thus a participation in the movement of play on the part of those observing. Whether this takes the form of a mother watching her children toss a ball back and forth or a baseball fan jumping out of his seat to see whether the batter’s hit cleared the outfield wall, there is genuine sense of “playing with” that occurs for those observing the game or playful activity. The audience member, in other words, is not a distanced spectator but an active participant, who takes part in the play of the game.

Of course, the play of art is more complex than the play of games; yet Gadamer sets the stage for connecting the two by highlighting an important common feature of play: “namely, the fact that something is intended as something, even if it is not something conceptual, useful, or purposive, but only the pure autonomous regulation of movement.”[5] Rather than conclude—as many aesthetic theorists and art critics have done—that in modern art what we have is a renunciation of the unity of the work, Gadamer affirms the work’s “hermeneutic identity,” which is an identity that necessarily involves difference and makes it possible for multiple variations of the work to be revealed over time. That is, for Gadamer, the being of a work of art is inseparable from its presentations, as the various presentations allow the identity of the work to come forth; it is part of the work’s being, as Gadamer says, “to be dependent on self-presentation.”[6] Thus, in every presentation of a work—even a distorted presentation—the identity of the work is not destroyed. In the case of a distorted work, we know it as the (malformed) structure of the work in view—even if we judge it a failed or poor presentation. Every presentation has a relation to the work’s structure and must “submit itself to the criterion of correctness that derives from it.”[7] Furthermore, even though the same work is repeated in each new presentation, the presentations are not a mere “copy” or strict reduplication of the so-called “original.” Here we have the phenomenon of repetition in presentation that, like the phenomenon of play, allows for flexibility and freedom that does not negate the work’s unity or identity but is instead an intrinsic feature of the work’s ontology.[8] The work comes to light, in other words, only in its presentations, performances, or interpretations.


[1] See, for example, Robert Anchor, “History and Play: Johan Huizinga and His Critics,” History and Theory 17 (1978): 63­–93.

[2] Gadamer, The Relevance of the Beautiful, 23.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 24.

[6] Gadamer, Truth and Method, 122.

[7] Ibid., 122.

[8] See also, Donatella Di Cesare, Gadamer: A Philosophical Portrait, Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2013, esp. 59­–60. As Di Cesare explains, “[a]ny new identity that comes to light is an identity that forms itself only in difference. Thus difference becomes indispensable for identity” (60).

Willie James Jennings on Race, Place, Identity, and the Need for a Decolonized Christian Imaginary

Jennings Christian ImaginationIn August I will participate in Syndicate’s online symposium focusing on Willie James Jennings’s landmark study, The Christian Imagination. Theology and the Origins of Race. What follows is a preview of my discussion of key themes in Part III of Jennings’s book. I encourage you to check Syndicate’s website regularly for additional information, updates, and future symposia. Lastly, I hope that you will join us in August for the actual Syndicate forum dedicated to Jennings’s outstanding and timely work.

The central theme of Part III is “intimacy.” In chapter five, “White Space and Literacy,” Jennings discusses the double-sidedness of literacy for the oppressed in a racialized social environment and how literacy serves both emancipatory and colonizing purposes (207). In particular, he highlights how the misuse of Scripture and the imposition of a Christian-colonial imaginary (both with respect to interpreting the bible and the social and material world) helped to warrant, reinforce, and maintain the unjust sociopolitical and economic power relations between oppressor and oppressed. One of the most devastating effects of the Christian-colonial imaginary—and one that continues to impact the church today—is how it naturalizes segregationalist mentalities and practices (208). Such racialized ways of thinking, being, and interpreting the world see segregated schools, churches, and neighborhoods as “natural” and thus negate one of Christianity’s “most basic and powerful imaginative possibilities, the deepest and most comprehensive joining of peoples” (208).

Although Jennings does not devote significant textual space to an analysis of gender and feminist theorizing on these issues (a much needed task), he does point out how white male landowners played a central role in forming and de-forming the social and geographic landscape. As Jennings explains, “[i]n antebellum America, the household stood at the center of the social world of the new republic, and at the center of the household stood the male landowner” (235). Given the entrenched patriarchy at that time—a patriarchy bolstered by sociopolitical, legal, and religious discourses and practices—not only slaves, but also free women (and children) were locked into harmful and degrading dependency relations. Here we find an example that illustrates and supports some of Jennings’s most important and original claims: (1) place and identity are intricately linked, (2) Christianity’s colonizing practices ignored that connection entirely in their treatment of indigenous people and their land, and (3) colonial Christianity is undergirded by a deformed doctrine of creation whose enactment in praxis has serious sociopolitical, ethical, theological, and environmental consequences. That is, just as colonial powers had disregarded completely the constitutive role of place in forming the indigenes’ identity, similarly the white male landowners’ colonizing view of space and the asymmetrical, dominating power relations structuring the household became naturalized and understood as the “proper” and even God-ordained order of things. Moreover, with the implementation of Thomas Jefferson’s Land Survey System, which transformed natural landscapes into grid systems of sellable plots of land, the link between land and identity is not only disrupted and fundamentally altered, but it also ushers in a distinctively modern instrumentalized vision of land qua potential private property for economic benefit. In other words, concern for the intrinsic value and beauty of trees, meadows, mountains, and how place, land, and animals constitute a peoples’ identity is judged a hindrance to modern progress and divine mandate. As Jennings observes,

[t]he grid pattern of sellable squares of land signified the full realization of property ownership. It also displayed the complete remaking of indigenous land. Now, under the grid system, each space of land could be surveyed and designated for purchase by measurement and location. All native peoples, no matter what they claims to land, no matter what designations they had for particular places, no matter their history and identity with specific lands, landscape, and indigenous animals, were now mapped on to the grid system (225–26).

With his Christian-colonial vision of space, the white male landowner can justify his mastering of land (and people) as a God-given right and calling. Remaking the land into private property (not for the common good, but primarily for one’s own self-interest and benefit) was understood as a way to imitate God’s original creative activity. Interestingly, in this deformed doctrine of Christian-colonial creation, a new connection between body (people) and place (both social and physical) is constructed. Not only does the land become an extension of the landowner’s body, but also of his body’s vulnerability. Thus, he must fully possess the land and protect it from threats of any kind. Here property owner’s rights take center stage and become entangled in religious discourses about rights, divine sanctioning, and prosperity for the “elect.”

In short, in slave-holding America black biblical literacy in white space signified cultural and social fragmentation, as the slave was either forced to read the Scriptures through the master’s racialized (and gendered) hermeneutic or s/he had to acquire literacy in stealth, via subversive maneuverings and often alone and isolated rather than in an ecclesial community. Thus, given the wider racialized and commodity-driven social context, we see the “impotence of Scripture to enact a community at a historical moment” (210). Yet, as Jennings argues, this failure of biblical literacy to unite diverse populations is intricately linked to the Christian-colonial vision of space, place, land, and identity formation vis-à-vis these “spatial dynamics.” By denying this connection between a “landscape and its realities—water, trees, seasons, animals” and replacing it with a view of the land as “identified with its white male owner,” Scripture’s capacity “to help people reimagine the world was severely limited” (240). Moreover, the Bible’s confinement within a “hierarchical literary space” must be understand against the backdrop of the confinement of geographic space, which signals a distorted doctrine of creation. As Jennings observes,

[w]hat connected these spaces was the racial imagination that permeated both the creating and shaping of perception and helped to vivify both spaces. The result was fragmentation, not simply one affecting the Bible but also one effected by the performance of Scripture itself in these mangled spaces (241).

If Christianity is willing to acknowledge its failures and complicity in these colonizing and racialized practices, it can begin to re-ground, articulate, and live a doctrine of creation that respects the identity-facilitating connection between land and people—one that promotes a genuine and deep joining with others. “A Christian doctrine of creation is first a doctrine of place and people, of divine love and divine touch, of human presence and embrace, and of divine and human interaction. It is first a way of seeing place in its fullest sense. Christianity is in need of place to be fully Christian” (248).

Foucault and Rethinking Episteme Change via Musical Metaphors in ROTPP Vol. 2.1

Musical MetaphorsThe latest issue of Radical Orthodoxy: Theology, Philosophy, Politics (Vol. 2, No. 1) has been published and contains my article, Foucault’s Polyphonic Genealogies and Rethinking Episteme Change via Musical Metaphors. For those interested, here’s the abstract.


In this essay I highlight the complexity of Foucault’s thought through an examination of the diverse philosophical traditions—from Kant, to Nietzsche, to Foucault’s phenomenological lineage via Cavaillès and Canguilhem—that influence his own distinctive project. In addition, I identify key Foucauldian concepts worthy of continued reflection and offer, as my own contribution to the dialogue, various musical analogies as hermeneutical and analytical “tools” that (1) illuminate and clarify Foucault’s ideas and (2) provide a coherent way to understand episteme change.

The New Thing and Mixin’ it Up: Social, Economic, and Musical “Transgressions”

Max Roach Freedom Now 1960Free jazz, the New Thing, or the New Black Music as it was variously called exploded on the scene in the latter part of the twentieth century.[1] As is widely known, several prominent musicians such as Max Roach, Abbey Lincoln, and Archie Shepp were influenced by the philosophy and teachings of the Black Power movement, which departed in important ways from earlier civil rights groups. As John D. Baskerville observes, the rallying cry of the black nationalists was not King’s “We Shall Overcome,” but “Black Power.” This new generation of black activists boldly proclaimed black pride and were outspoken advocates for the political and economic empowerment of black people. For example, black nationalists argued that America’s capitalistic (and racist) system “was a colonial system in which the colonized people are the Blacks.” Given this unjust social context, they urged African Americans to “gain control of the economic institutions in their community to build a Black economic power base.”[2] Through establishing black leadership and economic power, African Americans could better determine their futures and resist white exploitative practices.

Jazz musicians attuned to the message of Black Power devised innovative strategies to subvert and transgress white-imposed barriers. Having experienced for some time their own “colonized status” in America’s white-owned music industry, they developed what is often referred to as the “loft movement.” White club owners had little interest or patience with the New Black Music, as it was ill suited for their chief goal, namely, to turn the highest profit possible. For example, a single free jazz composition might last an hour or more depending upon the length of each improvised solo. Such extended forms and prolonged solos allowed the performers to develop and expand their musical ideas “in real time.” However, the club owners preferred shorter, “prepackaged” sets, as they “made their money by requiring a minimum number of drinks per set per customer. The more sets a group played, the more drinks could be sold.”[3] Additionally, quite often the drinks were highly priced, making it difficult for political activists, students, less affluent African Americans, artists, and others interested in the New Thing to support the musicians’ efforts. Not only were the profits funneled to the club owners, but the musicians also had little control over the direction of their art and over the audiences they wished to reach. Consequently, the loft movement was born as a way around the white dominated club scene. In short, musicians opened up their lofts (large apartments) as performance sites and charged their audiences modest fees. Thus, they were able to create a space where artistic expression (rather than profit) was foremost and to establish their own leadership and economic priority. Moreover, since by and large the lofts were located in black communities, the musicians had more say in determining their audience.

My second example of how jazz musicians transgress boundaries is more explicitly musical in nature. Here I focus on John Coltrane’s transformation of the popular Broadway tune, “My Favorite Things.” In order to grasp the cultural and sociopolitical dimensions of Coltrane’s version of the tune, we must consider some of the racialized musical discourses at play at the time. White control of the music industry meant that highly talented black jazz musicians were underpaid and were often denied prestigious performance venues. Moreover, it was frequently the case that black musicians’ talent exceeded their white counterparts, as is displayed by the fact that white musicians openly sought to imitate and internalize African American musicians’ melodic lines, rhythmic phrasings and patterns, and literally memorized improvised solos by jazz greats such as Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, and McCoy Tyner.[4] Given this background, when Coltrane’s version with its sophisticated structural, harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic modifications musically surpassed the original and culturally popular tune, the ramifications went beyond the aesthetic sphere and likewise impacted the sociopolitical realm.

Musically speaking, for example, the multilayered, polyrhythmic “feel” created by the drums, piano, and bass resulted in a complete alteration of the tune’s character. In Coltrane’s version, the construction and placement of rhythmic motifs in the vamp section superimposes a six metric feel rather than emphasizing the tune’s original ¾ time signature. In addition, the vamp section’s six feel contrasts with a different rhythmic pattern in the A section, which both supports the melody and returns the groove to a strong ¾ emphasis.[5] Such rhythmic complexity is completely absent from the original tune whose form and overall rhythmic quality come across as pedestrian. Rather than bind themselves to the original tune’s formal limitations, Coltrane and his group take the composition’s oversimplified and constricting structures as their point of departure and then bend, explode, and re-create them, producing something far more interesting musically than the original. The fact that African American jazz musicians of the Civil Rights Era actively transformed mainstream European-American compositions—not to mention artistically upstaged their white counterparts—carries with it social, political, and cultural significance. Such actions are, as Henry Louis Gates Jr. would say,  “signifyin(g)” acts.  In brief, Gates’s idea of musical signification is that the music itself has the capacity to “speak” ironically and strategically to social, political, and economic concerns and thus to function as musical expressions of “black double-voicedness” and repetition with a “signal difference.”[6] Lastly and building on Gates’s notion of signifying, Monson highlights how Coltrane’s version of “My Favorite Things” employs European American musical standards for its own strategic aims. In other words, Coltrane’s transformed piece with its extended harmonies and polyrhythmic textures—both of which are musical qualities esteemed by modern and contemporary Western classical composers—not only outshines the original when evaluated by jazz aesthetical standards but also illustrates how jazz musicians can “invoke selectively some of the hegemonic standards of Western classical music in their favor.”[7]

My final example of a musical transgressive act with sociopolitical overtones is found in the freedom of improvised jazz solos—a freedom that promotes both individual expression and that enables one to alter structures. For example, turning again to Coltrane’s version of “My Favorite Things,” the musicians’ extended solos allow for high levels of individual creative expression, yet the solos themselves are both constituted in conversation with the other performances (rhythm section, pianist, etc.) and have the ability to modify the structural parameters of the tune. After all, an improvised jazz solo can continue (at least in theory) as long as the improviser (and the group) desire. Moreover, a solo can take a tune in completely unexpected and “unwritten” directions via melodic superimpositions and rhythmic motifs introduced extemporaneously and taken up by the group as a whole. Not only does the kind of improvisation associated with jazz make each performance of the same tune unique, but it also highlights the capacity of jazz to create a flexible rather than rigidly static and restrictive form. Here we have a musical act of freedom analogous to and expressive of African Americans’ desire for social, political, and economic emancipation from the white-imposed, constraining structures that daily dominated their existence.


[1] See also, Robin D. G. Kelley, “Dig They Freedom: Meditations on History and the Black Avant-Garde.”

[2] Baskerville, “Free Jazz: A Reflection of Black Power Ideology,” p. 487.

[3] Baskerville, “Free Jazz: A Reflection of Black Power Ideology,” p. 488.

[4] I do not mean to suggest that imitation in itself automatically translates into the superiority of the imitated over the imitator. Rather, the idea in this context is that African Americans were the both the key leaders and innovators of jazz and that their musical contributions fundamentally shaped a musical aesthetic that was (and still is) sought by their white counterparts. For a detailed discussion of the “blackening” of American mainstream music and the dominance of African American aesthetics in jazz, see Monson, Freedom Sounds.

[5] Monson, “Doubleness and Jazz Improvisation,” pp. 296–97.

[6] Gates, The Signifying Monkey, p. 51. See also, chapter 2 of the same work.

[7] Monson, Saying Something, p. 120.

Bebop as a Hybrid Inflection of Strategic Afro-Modernism

Miles Davis My Funny ValentineAlthough it shares several features and impetuses with so-called classical modernism—for example, formal innovations and reaching new heights of expressivity—Afro-modernism of the 1940s manifests distinctive characteristics arising from and related to the particular socio-political and economic struggles of African Americans. Guthrie P. Ramsey highlights one aspect of Afro-modernism as the process of African Americans grappling with their place in the modern world and working out their thoughts, attitudes, feelings, and stances artistically (Ramsey, 2003, p. 97). Whether we find Afro-modernist overtones expressed via bebop’s structural expansions, exceedingly complex harmonies, extended and virtuosic improvised solos, or hybrid African, African American, and Afro-Cuban musical styles, one must also take into account the tension-ridden, racially conflicted socio-political and economic context from which the music emerged.[1] Following Ramsey, I agree that it is a mistake or at least an incomplete characterization to describe bebop as chiefly concerned with the (abstract, ahistorical) principle of artistic autonomy. Granting this claim and considering the racialzed context in which it operated, bebop artists and advocates strategically employed a modernist narrative of autonomy in order to challenge and subvert stereotypical depictions of black musicians as mere entertainers (for whites). In the process of deconstructing white-imposed socioeconomic narratives of what a black musician is or ought to be, bebop artists self-consciously appropriated modernist tropes and discourses to construct their own personal and collective Afro-modernist stories. Yet, as Ramsey explains, not only do the new black-scripted modernist narratives proclaim that bebop was neither “dance music” nor “conceived for mass consumption,” it also asserted that bebop was “not designed for traditional ‘high brow’ concert audiences” (Ramsey, 2003, p. 106).

Although it drew upon past sources—from both the Afro and Euro traditions—and was thus clearly hybrid in nature, bebop as an Afro-modernist art form was something new. Having broken down the traditional rigid barriers and antagonisms between so-called “high” art music and “folk” music, as well as discourses claiming that art music has no political import, bebop opened up a new musical horizon whose artistic excellence carried socio-political substance. As Henry Louis Gates Jr. might put it, bebop musicians’ (re)harmonizations and transformations of musical “texts,” traditions, and discourses were signifin(g) acts. That is, not only the discourses about bebop but the musical pieces themselves are instances of “black double-voicedness” and repetition with a “signal difference” intentionally and strategically enacted to speak to social, political, and economic issues (Gates, 1988, p. 51; see also, chapter 2). In short, bebop’s harmonic, rhythmic, and structural complexity coupled with its blinding, virtuosic improvised solos and distinctive grooves combine to create an expression of black art music or strategic Afro-modern jazz, whose innovations and contributions, given the racialized context in which they emerge, carry with them multi-layered socio-political significations. To imagine that African American bebop musicians were simply performing and creating works for art’s sake in line with the Western art music tradition’s discourses on artistic autonomy is to ignore the harsh, racialized reality and lived experience of African Americans in U. S. history and to conceive of music as an ahistorical artifact untouched by its particular socio-political and cultural context.

 Although, as mentioned earlier, bebop artists were, on the one hand, decidedly not creating music for mass consumption nor for traditional “high brow” audiences; yet, like other highly skilled professionals they desired and rightfully expected a living wage. However, the complex of American racism and modern capitalism created a particularly constricting and slanted framework—a framework whose laws, discourses, and practices privileged (white) copyright owners while diminishing music-makers, especially black improvising music-makers. Before concluding, let me illustrate how bebop as an inflection of strategic Afro-modernism worked within and against these slanted structures and discourses in order to resist and transform the commodifying practices of capitalism—and of course simultaneously struggling against racist (il)logic.[2]While from a musico-theoretical perspective one could make a strong argument that composition and improvisation are emphases on a single continuum and thus differences between the two are more matters of degree; however, in the socio-economic sphere the difference between the socially prestigious label, “composer,” and the socially stereotyped label, “improviser,” is stark.[3] The traditional Western notion privileging the composer over the jazz improviser or the “mere” performer per se views the composer as the sole or primary originator and author of the musical piece. This understanding of what a composer is and does is intimately tied to the development of musical notation. A musical score takes the live, dynamic performed music and reduces it to signs on a page. From one perspective, such technologies are completely understandable, legitimate, and even helpful to the process of preserving and transmitting music to subsequent generations. From another perspective, these fixed (silent) signs make it easy to ascribe ownership and thus creative primacy and economic privileges to specific individuals. Within the framework of modern capitalism and its drive to commodify, ownership and copyright laws go hand in hand. Since the improviser is viewed as a mere performer, a conduit or tool, his or her significant contribution—or better co-creation—that transforms the silent signs on a page into (actual) music is diminished and this diminishment is made manifest in the economic realm.[4] As DeVeaux observes, even as the artistic talent of a jazz legend such as Charlie Parker is publicly recognized by musicians, critics, and jazz fans across the ethnic spectrum, nonetheless “in a music industry designed to funnel profits to the owners of copyrights, improvisers have found themselves in an anomalous and frustrating position. The history of jazz can be read, in part, as an attempt by determined musicians to close the gap between artistic ambition and economic reward” (DeVeaux, 1997, p. 9).

In fact, as many scholars have point out, the original Copyright Act of 1909 itself presupposes that only musical expressions that correlate to a written composition or score qualify as copyrightable material; thus, the composer, rather than the performer is given artistic preference or priority, which, in a capitalistic system, translates into economic privilege. Prior to the 1970s amendments to copyright laws, recorded versions or improvised performances based on but exceeding and often transforming written scores were not granted a legal copyright-protection status.[5] Consequently, songwriters (composers) and publishers receive the bulk of royalty payments, whereas performers (improvisers) are typically paid a one-time fee and their share of the royalties is significantly less (Monson, 2007, p. 336). Monson provides an excellent example of how such laws favored the composer/songwriter economically and continued to reinforce the idea that the composer/songwriter is the sole musical creator, whereas the improviser/performer is simply a conduit giving expression to the composer’s musical intentions. Take, for instance, Miles Davis’ 1956 recording of “My Funny Valentine” by Rogers and Hart. Here we have an improvised performance that includes significant harmonic and rhythmic additions, as well as masterful improvised solos creating a new form that many deem superior to the original version. However, as Monson notes, “Davis’s unique version of the tune was not copyrightable.” Moreover, not only did the songwriters and publisher receive the mechanical royalties, but when Davis’s version “was heard on radio or TV, additional broadcast royalties were earned by the songwriters and publisher and collected by the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) (Monson, 2007, p. 30). Such a system clearly exhibits an unfair economic benefit for (mainly white) composers, publishers, and those controlling the radio and television broadcasting industry.


  1. Ramsey discusses several mid-twentieth century “processes and their contradictions and paradoxes” including: mass migration, the (mis)use of black bodies, an emerging black defiance that helped to fuel effective political strategies and collective actions, and lastly, the multiple and “conflicting discourses on art’s role in social change” (2003, p. 98, see also, chapter 5, “We Called Ourselves Modern,” esp. pp. 98–105).
  2. For a discussion of the resistance elements of bebop within the marketplace, see DeVeaux, 1997, esp. pp. 20–27.
  3. For a theoretical analysis deconstructing the assumed rigid dichotomy between composition and improvisation, see Nielsen, 2009.
  4. DeVeaux sums up this process nicely: “Notation imposes upon music the idea of a permanent text to which authorship can safely be ascribed and ownership securely established. Such fixity is a necessary precursor to commodification” (1997, p.10).
  5. The federal copyright laws were amended in the 70s to cover recordings. See, Monson, 2007, p. 336, n.2. See also, DeVeaux, 1997, esp. pp. 11–12. As DeVeaux explains, the growing ascendancy of recordings over sheet music did not change the economic privileges and power structures. “[E]conomic power remained stubbornly in the grip of music publishers, who insisted (with the help of copyright law) that all financial benefits to creativity must flow to officially recognized composers. Since royalties for performance per se were relatively rare (contracts typically dictated a modest one-time fee), ‘mere’ performers saw very little of this money, unless they somehow managed to claim the role of composer” (12).


Works Cited

DeVeaux, S. (1997). The birth of bebop. A social and musical history. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Gates Jr., H. L. (1988). The signifying monkey. A theory of African American Literary Criticism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Monson, I. (2007). Freedom sounds. Civil rights call out to jazz and Africa. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Nielsen, C. (2009). What has coltrane to do with mozart:  The dynamism and built-in flexibility of music. Expositions, 3, pp. 57–71.

Ramsey, Jr. G. (2003). Race music: black music from bebop to hip-hop. Berkeley: University of California Press.


Black Swan Records and Early Attempts to De-racialize Musical Categories and Aesthetic Standards

Black Swan AdvertisementBlack Swan Records was a small, black-owned record company created in the early 1900s under the direction and leadership of Harry H. Pace, a former student of W. E. B. Du Bois.[1] Although Black Swan’s lifespan was brief, an examination of its history and activities provides a glimpse into the complex, racialized music and recording industry in the early twentieth century. Discrimination in the world of music was just as prevalent as discrimination in other spheres of society, making it difficult for African American musicians to earn a stable, living wage. Moreover, white ownership of clubs, hotels, concert halls, and record companies created a power differential, which when operative within a racialized society, meant that white musicians often received the best performing venues—both economically and with respect to cultural capital. In contrast, blacks were given less prestigious performance sites and regularly received inadequate and incommensurate pay for their artistic contributions and musical performances. Given these conditions, Pace and his colleagues decided to create a black-owned record company that would promote and support African American musicians, treating them with respect and paying them commensurate with their talents. In addition, Black Swan Records had a lofty mission that included a desire to reshape negative racialized conceptions of black music, as well as to develop strategies for greater “access to, and control of, material resources” that would “support and encourage African American business development and economic self-sufficiency.”[2]

Early on when record companies finally agreed to allow African American artists to record their music, the industry only permitted styles that conformed to white stereotypes and negative valuations of black music. Thus, so-called comic “coon songs” and minstrelsy—the only styles endorsed by the industry for recording purposes—were established as qualitative standards for African American musical contributions.[3] In other words, the industry’s own racially biased judgments of African American music, combined with its selective, gatekeeping practices played a key role in constructing and perpetuating racialized conceptions and evaluations of black music as non-serious and subpar in comparison with European high art music. Within this rather hostile context, Pace, an entrepreneur eager to enact his own variation of Du Bois’s notion of racial uplift and socio-economic equality, established the first black-owned record company, Black Swan Records. Well aware of the racial prejudice, stereotypes, and negative estimations of African Americans and the alleged limits of their musical contributions, Pace devised a plan to record a variety of music performed by black artists. Among the wide spectrum of styles to be recorded were the following: blues, spirituals, opera, and concert music.[4] Racial uplift, economic independence, proper artistic esteem of African American music (as well as a simultaneous challenge to and subversion of white stereotypes and negative appraisals of black music) were all key components of Pace’s visionary project.

Although African American music quickly became a major force in American popular music culture, black artists and performers “exercised little control over the terms of their employment or the kinds of music they could produce professionally, and by the late 1910s they were even being displaced as the primary interpreters of the musical styles they had originated.”[5] Finally after constant pressure from the African American community as well as key court decisions and patent expirations that allowed new record companies to compete in the market, African American singer, Mamie Smith, was allowed to record with Okeh Records. Smith’s two records were released in February and August of 1920 and were instant hits, selling extremely well among African Americans.[6]

Even though Smith’s success opened up possibilities to record for other, up-and-coming African American artists, the white-owned music industry continued its race-based discriminatory practices. For example, Pace and W. C. Handy, the well-known blues musician, wrote several songs together and formed their own publishing company, the Pace & Handy Publishing Company (hereafter, Pace & Handy).[7] Although their firm was doing relatively well and had now relocated to New York, it continued to encounter racial barriers. On one occasion, a white-owned record company would not allow white singers to perform a blues piece penned by Pace & Handy. On another occasion, a white recording manager “refused to issue records of songs published by Pace & Handy because he did not want the black publishers to earn royalties from the phonograph company’s records.”[8] Pace also approached record companies about the possibility of recording African American artists performing music other than the blues—for example, opera and other “high art” and classical styles. Here again Pace encountered widespread racialized views of blacks and their musical abilities. In fact, the white managers were quite frank, informing Pace that “white prejudice made it commercially impossible” for their company to record black artists who performed music outside blues and other so-called “low art” forms. Classical music was associated with a civilized, cultured white society and “high art,” whereas blues music was alleged to be more suited to the “raw” vocal styles and less cultivated music of African Americans.

Eventually, Pace parted ways with Handy in order to establish Black Swan Records—a company dedicated to his vision of racial uplift, the achievement of social equality, and black economic independence and self-determination. Central to the realization of this vision was the promotion of African American musical talent. On the one hand, gifted black artists producing excellent music encouraged and strengthened the black community, fostering pride in African American artistic achievements. On the other hand, black musical achievement challenged white society’s negative valuations and confining, racially biased stereotypes regarding African Americans and the status and range of their musical abilities and aesthetic contributions. Thus, Pace’s plan was to record talented black musicians in order to actively shape and re-shape public opinion regarding African Americans. Du Bois likewise believed that music could be, and indeed must be given the circumstances, deployed for social and political purposes. For example, in his essay, “Criteria of Negro Art,” Du Bois writes, “until the art of black folk compels recognition they will not be rated as human.”[9]

Although Black Swan Records issued a wide range of music performed by black artists—everything from the “serious” music of concert vocalists Revella Hughes and Carroll Clark to the more popular styles of blues, ragtime, and jazz—the company’s financial stability depended largely upon its production of popular music. In fact, the enormous success of blues singer Ethel Waters’s first record in the early 1920s among both black and white audiences not only kept the company afloat but also enabled it to turn a small profit.[10] Waters’s musical ability and her wide-reaching success was such that it helped to reshape and to challenge the notion of blues as a lower and disreputable form of music—a notion held by many in both black and white populations. Even so and in spite of the commercial success of its increasingly popular blues records, Black Swan “remained committed to middle-class ideas of refinement and self-control.”[11] In short, tensions between Pace’s musical mission to foster “a taste for high musical culture,” his ambivalent position on popular music and his strategic use of popular music to further his more lofty musical mission ultimately proved incompatible and unresolvable.

Other factors likewise contributed to the company’s downfall—the advent of radio, an ill-timed business decision, and the increasing popularity of blues and jazz.[12] Regarding the rising popularity of blues and jazz, Suisman highlights a certain irony in that the success of Black Swan’s recordings of blues artists encouraged other white-owned record companies to sign and promote African American blues artists. In other words, because of the company’s selectivity regarding signing contracts with certain more respectable blues musicians, once the “‘hotter,’ rougher-edged artists” grew in popularity, it became “more difficult for Black Swan to promote its program of musical uplift and increased the economic power of Black Swan’s rivals.”[13] Thus, its commercial success with the blues and other popular music artists it chose to promote made it impossible, economically speaking, for Black Swan to fulfill key aesthetic components of its broader vision (that is, musical uplift). Moreover, Black Swan simply could not compete with the larger budgets of white-owned record companies; consequently, many of their singers choose to sign contracts elsewhere.

The emergence of radio in the music industry also negatively impacted Black Swan’s momentous yet brief existence. As millions of dollars were invested to fund radio broadcasting, the entire phonograph industry witnessed a sharp decline in sales.[14] Under economic duress and facing the possibility of losing his company, Pace made a decision that contradicted his musical and social mission to promote exclusively black artists and their musical endeavors.[15] Although it was originally conceived as a desperate, temporary measure, Pace began issuing records of white artists under pseudonyms creating the impression that they were black artists.  Undoubtedly, Pace’s decision involved deception and was less than optimal; yet, from an analytical perspective, it presents us with an interesting historical case that challenges the cogency of racialized musical categories or labels. That is, a key aspect of Pace’s project was to confront and critically question various racialized views of music, in particular, those views claiming that African Americans were incapable of producing and performing music exhibiting the seriousness, complexity, and aesthetic value of their European counterparts. In addition, as musical styles such as blues and jazz became increasingly popular with both black and white audiences, these styles became associated with African American artists.  Such an association is not completed unwarranted, since at the time the leading innovators in these genres were by and large African American. However, if issued as essentialist claims regarding black music, such assertions are problematized and rendered incoherent by the examples of Black Swan’s white artists who, as it were, “passed” as black artists. That is, when audiences heard the white performers’ music, the alleged racial difference was not perceived. Ironically, as Suisman observes, “the deception demonstrated the contingent, extrinsic character of racial categories in music, which [in fact] had been one of Black Swan’s basic goals. […] Racial difference was not audible; rather, it was artificially and arbitrarily assigned.”[16]

Despite its short career, Black Swan Records under Pace’s leadership accomplished much for African American artists and the black community as a whole, especially when one takes into account the structural injustices and discriminatory practices firmly entrenched in American society during that period. By promoting black musicians and showcasing the wide range of styles and musical capabilities of African American artists, Pace challenged many common racial stereotypes and negative appraisals of blacks’ abilities to make significant aesthetic and cultural contributions. However, one could argue that Pace himself employed and furthered a racially biased aesthetic standard. That is, through his adoption of musical categories and descriptors such as  “high” and “low” musical art and his urging of potential African American customers to purchase “higher class” concert and other “serious” music performed by blacks, Pace casts a shadow on the artistry and cultural contributions of blues and jazz. In short, his statements imply that European, classical traditions are the standards by which one must judge musical excellence.


[1] For a detailed historical study of Black Swan Records, see David Suisman, “Co-workers in the Kingdom of Culture: Black Swan Records and the Political Economy of African American Music,” The Journal of American History 90 (2004): 1295–1324. The present section on Black Swan Records draws heavily from Suisman’s article.

[2] Suisman, “Black Swan Records and the Political Economy of African American Music,” 1295.

[3] Ibid., 1296.

[4] Ibid., 1297. As Suisman explains, “blues” in this context refers to “vaudeville blues,” which typically consisted of a female singer accompanied by piano or a small band (ibid., 1307).

[5] Ibid., 1299.

[6] Ibid., 1300.

[7] Ibid., 1301.

[8] Ibid., 1302.

[9] W. E. B. Du Bois, “The Criteria of Negro Art,” in The New Negro Renaissance: An Anthology, ed. Arthur P. Davis and Michael W. Peplow (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1975), 496. On Du Bois’ complex “elitism” and his anti-dualistic notion of art as an “aesthetic politics” that weds Beauty, Truth, and Freedom, see Ross Posnock, “The Distinction of Du Bois: Aesthetics, Pragmatism, Politics,” American Literary History 7 (1995): 500–524.

[10] Suisman, “Black Swan Records and the Political Economy of African American Music,” 1307–8.

[11] Ibid., 1310.

[12] Ibid., 1316. I focus on two of the three factors listed here. For a detailed account of the ill-timed business expansion, see Suisman, “Black Swan Records and the Politial Economy of African American Music,” 1316–17.

[13] Ibid., 1318.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., 1319–20.

[16] Ibid., 1320.