the decolonization of music post no. 1

From Foluke’s African Skies, jazz drummer Max Roach

Welcome, to the decolonization of music, Music Nerds!

To be honest, you don’t need to be a Nerd to read this post; I only assumed that the only people who might be drawn to it would likely be Nerds. The decolonization of music is a new blog and podcast series I am starting based on many conversations, brainstorms, articles, and ideas I’ve been percolating for many years. This series will consist of posts, guest posts, and podcast conversations with various other music brains who have great ideas on this subject.

For starters, let’s get some definitions under our belt. What is the decolonization of music? Further, when was music ever “colonized” in the first place, and why should it need to be decolonized?

Simply put, the decolonization of music is the broadening of what is considered “music,” beyond the ethnocentric ideas and values of a Western lens and value system.

Music was “colonized” in several ways, but the primary way to understand the colonization of music is to view it as a cultural phenomenon that has run parallel to political colonization and globalization throughout the past several hundred years; as Western global powers conquered non-European territories in a militaristic, political, religious, and economic sense, along came the spreading of Western musical values, Western instruments, tunings, and scales, and the exaltation of Western musicians and musical forms above others in many parts of the globe, including in American music culture.

The colonization of music is one aspect of the infiltration and cultural “takeover” that happens when one culture dominates another. It sounds rather violent, but it is actually a very subtle process of gradual cultural absorption, a shift from one cultural value system to another–an absorption that often carries with it the implied or overtly stated rejection and denigration of indigenous or non-Western cultural practices.

A practical example of Western musical colonization is when a piano shows up in an African village, and the way people sing adapts from traditional African scales to the scales that fit the tempered tuning of the piano[1]. (There will be a whole separate post in this series about tempered tuning).

Another example of Western musical colonization is the widespread appropriation of Eastern European and Asian folk cultures by Western classical composers; while the patronized and well-funded class of European musicians often looked down on traditional folk forms as merely the songs of the fields and the taverns, whenever an exalted European composer, say, a Bartôk or a Brahms, came along and adapted the “exotic” melodies and rhythms into sonatas and suites, they would enjoy renown for their musical ingenuity and cleverness. 

A more current example is the manner in which jazz, a music deeply influenced by complex African rhythms and “blue” notes, was initially rejected by the American music academy in the mid-20th century as not being “real” music worthy of study in the academy—in much the same way that hip hop was not thought of as “real” music only a few short decades ago.

The good news, however, is that due to a variety of factors, music is now decolonizing.

Notice I don’t say music is “being decolonized.” Decolonization is not an act that one institution or person or group can enforce onto others; it is the movement of culture in new directions and the evolution of a greater respect and awareness of different systems of value. It is the democratization of culture and the upturning of older value systems that denigrated some for the benefit of others. And it is important to note that part of undoing the practice of one cultural dominating another is also the undoing of the manner in which domination occurs; so, the culture shifts not by force, but by changes in multiple directional currents running parallel to one another.

The decolonization of music is part of a “natural” cultural evolution, if you will, whereby values are broadened to reflect the diverse and varied expressions that are valuable to a larger populace with evolving value systems.

The factors contributing to this decolonizing shift are many:

Due to a decline in audiences, Western classical music is far less of a cultural hegemony than in previous generations[2].

Hip-hop has single-handedly saved the modern popular music industry[3].

The democratization of music-making equipment (DAW’s, affordable yet powerful gear, etc.) and distribution channels, including social media, has splintered music into so many genres, sub-genres, and tiny niches that there is no one dominant type of music. (See Every Noise‘s wonderful genre map to illustrate just how many genres there really are.)

Even the biggest pop singers today enjoy a far smaller audience and level of renown than in the record industry’s hey-day; even K-pop phenom BTS’s 20 million physical albums[4] or Taylor Swift’s 28 million,[5] which sounds like a lot, pales compared to Michael Jackson’s 750 million[6], Madonna’s 330 million[7] or Whitney Houston’s 200 million[8]. Sure, these numbers are the 80’s-90’s pop acts’ total career-spanning totals, while the younger acts are still mid-career. (Beyoncé’s mid-career total around 200 million, counting her time in Destiny’s Child, and Rihanna’s mid-career 250 million, are notable, however.)[9]

But the overarching reality is that, since the advent of streaming as the industry’s marker of success rather than album units (because physical albums are harder to sell), the digitalization of the music industry, and the evolution of so many taste-driven smaller genres, a given act’s audience exposure is significantly less than it used to be. There is no one dominant superstar, no single performer known all over the globe like Michael Jackson–and no real infrastructure to make someone like M.J. happen again.

There are other contributing factors to the decolonization of music that relate to larger cultural influences, like the Black Lives Matter movement, but those listed above are a few of the top most influential from within the field of music itself.

So, again, welcome to the conversation, which is not about saying “Here is the problem and here’s what should be done about it.” This new series is simply a place for noticing how we are moving away from colonized value systems, and looking at what we are moving into. It is the asking of questions about what we can learn about ourselves, and the culture around us, by stepping back and looking at these larger patterns.

The decolonization of music is about evolving with music, as it evolves with us.


[1] Johanson, Bryan. Direct quote. Portland State University. Lecture, 2010.

[2] Midgette, Anne. New York Times. June 6th, 2005. https://www.nytimes.com/2005/06/25/arts/music/decline-in-listeners-worries-orchestras.html

[3] Wang, Amy X. Rolling Stone. July 6, 2018. “Rap is Leading the Music Industry’s Resurgence.” https://www.rollingstone.com/pro/news/rap-is-leading-the-music-industrys-resurgence-696511/

[4] BTS Albums, Discography. Wikipedia. Last edited November 12, 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BTS_albums_discography#:~:text=As%20of%20April%202020%2C%20BTS,with%20an%20extended%20play%2C%20O!

[5]Caulfield, Keith. Hollywood Reporter. October 25, 2020.  https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/taylor-swifts-folklore-becomes-first-million-selling-album-of-2020-in-u-s#:~:text=Here’s%20a%20look%20at%20all,million)%2C%20Reputation%20(2017%2C

[6] Ditzian, Eric. MTV.com. June 26, 2009. http://www.mtv.com/news/1614815/michael-jacksons-groundbreaking-career-by-the-numbers/#:~:text=Jackson%20sold%20more%20than%20750,crack%20the%20Billboard%20Hot%20100.

[7] Baker, Riley. “Madonna’s Career in 10 Records as Queen of Pop Turns 60.” Guinness World Records. August 16, 2018. https://www.guinnessworldrecords.com/news/2018/8/madonnas-career-in-10-records-as-queen-of-pop-turns-60-536857

[8] Wikipedia. Whitney Houston Albums, Discography. Last updated October 28, 2020.

[9] Tsadwa, Zander. “Rihanna Has Sold 150 million more albums Than Beyoné (As of 2019).” Across the culture. September 26, 2016; updated 2019. https://www.acrosstheculture.com/media/music/rihanna-sold-100-million-records-beyonce/