the decolonization of music post no. 1

“We must decolonize our minds and re-name and re-define ourselves..in all respects: culturally, politically, socially. We must re-define ourselves and our lives, on our own terms.”

-Max Roach, jazz drummer

As quoted on Folukuke’s African Skies

The decolonization of music is a new series I am starting based on many conversations, brainstorms, and ideas that have been percolating as I have been working on a book about this subject for years. This is a topic that sits at the intersection of social justice, music theory, music history, and cultural studies.

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. (Another definition of “decolonization,” as it relates to music, is the imperative to “decolonize” the means of distribution–as in, prevent some stakeholders, like big tech or traditional labels, from having excessive control over music streaming and distribution. That is a completely valid topic that is of interest to most musicians, but that is not the way that I use “decolonization” here.)

While some groups have been more negatively affected by colonization than others, overly rigid Eurocentric ideas about music are limiting, if not damaging, for music as a whole, and all the musicians in it.

The easiest way to think about the colonization of music is to view it as a cultural phenomenon that runs parallel to the political colonization and globalization of European powers over the past several hundred years. As Western global powers conquered non-European territories (in a militaristic, political, religious, and economic sense), along with that colonization came 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.

The colonization of music is one aspect of the infiltration and cultural “takeover” that happens when one culture dominates another. Cultural colonization is often a subtle process of gradual absorption, a shift from one cultural value system to another. In shifting to Western cultural values and practices, along with that shift comes the implied or overtly stated rejection and denigration of indigenous, African, Asian, or non-Western cultural practices.

A practical example of Western musical colonization is when a piano shows up in an African village. As musicians begin to incorporate the piano into their singing and playing, the scales and intonation of how people sing adapts from traditional African scales to the scales that fit the tempered tuning of the piano[1].

A more current example is jazz. As a music tradition that was deeply influenced by complex African rhythms and scales (“blue” notes), jazz was initially rejected by the American music academy in the mid-20th century as not being “real” music worthy of study—in much the same way that hip hop was not thought of as “real” music only a few short decades ago. Considering the enormous influence of all kinds of black music on American culture, the resistance to acknowledging African American contributions to music culture is in many ways akin to the significant role unpaid black labor played in building America’s economy, a contribution which continues to go uncompensated. These two forms of economic oppression and cultural colonization are intertwined in ways I probably cannot speak to as a white musician, but I’m not the only white musician who knows they owe a lot to black music and would like to see African American musical geniuses repositioned in the canon alongside all the “dead white guys” we all are trained to know and revere.

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.

Decolonization in the arts is the democratization of culture and the upturning of older value systems that denigrated some for the benefit and exaltation of others.

Part of undoing the practice of one cultural dominating another is also the undoing of the manner in which domination occurs; as Audre Lorde famously said, “The master’s tool cannot undo the master’s house[10].” So, while colonization happened by force, decolonization sees the culture shifting not by forceful top-down changes, but in the redirecting and reassessment of value and meaning in multiple currents running alongside 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.)

To expound on point 3 which might seem to contradict point 2: 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] Hip hop sales numbers are also more in the 100-200 million units area; as is routinely the case, tremendous cultural influence does not necessarily equate with sales.

Ultimately, the digitalization of the music industry and the evolution of so many taste-driven smaller genres today makes it so 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 major contributing factors to the decolonization of music that relate to larger cultural influences, like the Black Lives Matter movement and indigenous rights awareness. While people might assume those movements and their significance are only relevant to people of color, white people have an equal role in dismantling any system of oppression which we benefit from. While we may be limited in our perspective and understanding by our socialization with “the master’s tools,” at the same time we are often in positions of power and have influence in cultural value systems (agencies, educational institutions, etc.). Thus, part of our role is questioning and unhooking the places where white supremacy has long had a hold and perpetuates itself.

It is relevant for musicians of any race or ethnic background to look at how white supremacy has shaped our musical values and how we value music and musicians (and ourselves), and to question and undo those inherited cultural presumptions that are harmful or outdated. This is also a topic that strongly relates to the centuries-old invisibility of women in music, as colonization and Eurocentricism go hand in hand with the patriarchal denigration of women.

To me, this conversation is not so much about saying “Here is the problem and here’s what should be done about it.” The decolonization of music is perhaps a natural co-evolution with the larger movement of culture towards greater liberation for everyone. But at the same time, it is a process we can help facilitate and deepen by participating in it actively, questioning our presumptions, attitudes, mores, and values from within colonized value systems, and actively reshaping them towards the more democratized places we are moving into.

Decolonization in music culture is the asking of questions about what we can learn, and unlearn, within ourselves, and reshaping the culture from a more democratic value system that better aligns with how and who we are already anyway.

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/

[10] Lorde, Audre. “The Masters Tools Will Never Dismantle the Masters House.” 1984.

[11] Roach, Max. Leader image quote. Folukuke’s African Skies. Accessed 2020.

DEAR JONI

It is an understatement to say that I am a lifelong fan of Joni Mitchell. More like devotee, reverent student. At twelve years old, I discovered “Blue” and “Song to a Seagull” in my mom’s box of old records, and ever since Joni Mitchell has been like a family member to me, the High Priestess presiding over my dawning musicianship from the very beginning. I even had a dream once where Joni, my mom, and my grandmother and I were all sitting in a circle talking, and Joni turned and looked at me, like, “What are you up to in your life?”; though I’ve never even been in a room with her, she is family to me, connected through that silver cord of sound that can link the heart and thoughts of one person to another across time and space. 

I still remember when I first heard “A Case of You.” I had started learning guitar earlier that year, but when I tried learning a few of Joni’s songs, it turned out the “Blue” songbook in our piano bench was only reductions with oversimplified chord progressions, and it didn’t sound right. I went to the music store and left with the Joni Mitchell Anthology, which for the most part had the real tunings she used for each song. I never looked back. 

Learning Joni’s songs was like following a treasure map to all these sonorities that were completely outside the music on pop radio. On her use of sus chords, which she called chords of inquiry, she expressed the open-ended questions in her life (see Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words). This openness to the grey and in-between is what she has also called “the poetic stance.”

Though she was often critiqued for veering towards jazz later in her career, she actually grew up on jazz (see Herbie Hancock’s book Possibilities for a great story on their collaborations, or check out her collaboration with Charles Mingus: Mingus). Though Joni was drawn to folk music to showcase her lyrics, deep down, she was always a jazzer in her harmonic sensibility and her forms.

Of course I had no idea about any of this as an angstful preteen writing bad poetry; I just knew I heard something in her music that felt true to me, and I had to follow it. That feeling propelled me down musty thrift store aisles, pawing through bins of old records trying to find all her other albums Clouds, For the Roses, Court & Spark, and Miles of Aisles: each album an entire world to get lost within. In addition to the distinct musical sound, there was also the visceral and visual spectacle of her lyrics: her frank account of multiple love affairs, her independence, her politics, her commentary on the various pop culture movements and the cultural revolutions of the times. None of this is often represented with much accuracy or intelligence in much of popular culture, whether in the 70’s or today.

Of course, I didn’t understand all of it as a preteen, and today when I hear any of it, but when I hear any of those songs–“Michael From Mountains,” “Cactus Tree,” “Both Sides Now,” “For the Roses,” “Blue, “A Case of You,” (it’s too long a list)–I can’t hear any of them without crying at some point. The video of that brilliant “Clouds” performance from her 2000 tribute concert is for some reason not playing from YouTube, but you can watch it on her website: https://www.jonimitchell.com/library/video.cfm?id=7; if you’re built like me, it’ll be waterworks within about four seconds as she walks onstage, before she even starts singing. 

This is music that stays with you and grows with you over a lifetime, and it points us to the whole point of music in the first place: connecting with something beyond the mundane, materialistic, ego-driven goals of the everyday world (and, definitely, beyond the falsified world of social media stats, most of which are just another form of advertising these days as they’re all paid and have long since stopped representing anything “organic” or “authentic” about people’s relationship to their audience, anyway). Music is about plugging into our souls, and for any generation who wants to listen, Joni has the cord and the outlet.  

Through her sound and her words, Joni introduced me to a different universe; it was like getting the keys to explore who I was and come into my own being, something beyond the uncomfortable beginnings of adolescence, the oppressive regime of junior high, the turbulence of my family. I didn’t have language around it at the time to know what to call it, but now I look back and realize this was the beginning of my experience of the interiority of the soul, through poetry and music.

Please also visit Joni’s website and deep dive into the excellent gallery they offer including all the lyrics and artwork that accompany each of these albums: https://www.jonimitchell.com/music/

Aside from my dad, I have always thought of Joni as the only guitar teacher I ever had. As a newbie guitarist, this new allegiance to alternate tunings also put me in a weird place amongst my friends who played guitar, as it was much harder for me to “jam” or pluck out chord progressions in altered tunings. Or, I wasn’t very interested in doing that anyway. Changing the tuning of the strings beyond their normal tension makes the guitar more fragile, and I was always weary of retuning the Ovation electric/acoustic my dad bought me for my 11th birthday back to standard and then back into my slack tunings too often. But the loss of the social communion and the extra instrument maintenance seemed worth it, as I got so much emotional solace and intellectual stimulation through exploring all those different sonorities. This is the offbeat but enriching musical path that Joni pointed to, like the Hermit holding the lamp on the darkened woods: it may not buy you much purchase with the masses, but it takes you to a real place in your own spirit.

Over the years I’ve heard many opinions as to why Joni hasn’t received the place in history she deserves as a musical giant. First, Joni never had the slew of pop tart radio hits of the bigger rock bands — but music aficionados aren’t supposed to be charmed too much by popularity stats, so to me it has always felt like there are other cultural reasons she didn’t get the recognition she deserved. Some people have argued her chords are too complex, so the average musician has a harder time covering her and her songbook thus remains less familiar; she gave up a baby for adoption to pursue an artistic career (a no-no for women, especially back then), which led people to exclude her as a pariah amongst women in some generally sexist way; her jazz and folk affiliations have meant her music is appreciated more by audiences that are African-American and/or female, an audience demographic that doesn’t have much influence on the (mostly white, male) rock critics and their often narrow lens on music culture. 

As writer Linda Grant theorized more recently, Joni also suffers from a more introverted, quietly reverent kind of fanbase, so she didn’t have these legions of fans following her around the country like the Dead or canonizing her every performance and every artistic incarnation like Dylan. Too, like her jazz friend Charles Mingus, Joni has always had a bit more prickle to her personality (which is part of why she’s great). 

Too, though she has serious technical chops, Joni’s music is not about the chops for their own sake, the playing fast and hard and Wow-look-at-me. Hers is a less showy, more intellectual type of musicianship, a different but equal kind of mastery. Though often undersold as an influence on only female singer-songwriters who look the part or sound distantly similar, she is actually in everybody’s musical DNA, her Laurel Canyon male folkie and rocker contemporaries included.

Joni Mitchell NY Magazine February 2015
Joni Mitchell NY Magazine February 2015

Joni has been in the press more recently, starting with a New York magazine article where she discusses how she is trying to fix her legacy after decades of an understandably bitter relationship with the music press. Even though Joni has always maintained she’s not a feminist, (“I’m just looking for equality, not to dominate“) her fight against invisibility and male-defined descriptions of her music is an undeniably feminist one. But either way, with the recent health scare and the resulting social media outpouring of love and appreciation (WeLoveYouJoni), maybe now she is finally getting a taste of the recognition she has long deserved.

Regardless of the attention she receives on a mass culture level or not, Joni is a matriarch of the spirit, a goddess of the intellect and the soul, a preserver of the independent self in a culture that worships profitable carbon copies. Though there is an entire generation of musicians today who have never heard of her, amidst the glut of navel-gazing self-promotion, obsession with metrics, and surface-level swim on offer in today’s music world, Joni represents everything that we need right now: heart, mind, musical chops, poetry, an I-don’t-give-a-fuck-what’s-popular mindset, and most importantly, something to say.