What is the role of music in bringing about social justice?
Rebecca Ward, the director of the organisation Young Musicians for Social Justice, explores how music can play a part in changing the world.
Rebecca has provided some references at the foot of this blog for further reading.
Many people hold a view that the arts, and specifically music, have no place in tackling social justice. Have you ever wondered why this view exists, or where it comes from? The arts continue to affect and be affected by politics, whether we like it or not. In fact, the idea that the arts can (or should) be separated from social-political discourse is an idea that was populated as a result of a successful political agenda in the 20th Century (1). Ironic, right?
But what if musicians did have a role to play? I suppose we would be able to identify examples of musicians who have changed the course of history. Or we would be able to point out moments in our own lives when music has empowered and encouraged us. We might even be able to refer to examples of music being used to heal and restore communities. (If you haven’t picked up on this already, I am being deliberately facetious here, because this is exactly what we do find.)
What do we mean by social justice, if it is not inherently imaginative (2)? When we strive towards social justice, are we not moving towards a goal which we sense we have not yet reached? Towards a reality that we do not yet see (3)? In this respect, justice is a vocation which could be applied towards a variety of industries (4). It simply requires a heart which is postured towards a better understanding of, and a belief in the equal worth of, the Other - whomever that might be (5).
I recently read ‘A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix’ by Edwin H. Friedman. In the beginning of the book, the author argues that the digital revolution we have experienced in the last 20-30 years is comparable only to the advent of the printing press in the 15th Century in terms of the way it has affected how much information we consume on a daily basis. He goes on to argue a causal relationship between this and the high levels of anxiety that we see either in our own lives or in the popular media outlets that claim to reflect our societies (6). This book was originally published in 2007. If we also take into account the global health pandemic, climate emergency, and polarisation of politics, the world feels like an increasingly unstable and unfair place to be.
We know that we need qualified historians, sociologists and scientists to help us to analyse and navigate the current state of the world with far more detail and insight than this. But I don’t believe we have to fully understand the problem in order to want to do something about it. That’s the thing about justice: it’s not only a destination but also a direction, since we rarely feel we have ‘arrived’ in this sense (7).
So the question then becomes: how do we do this? How do I, an individual, a musician, move towards social justice on a global scale? There are many answers to this question, but I want to suggest that we do this, quite simply: together. In and through community. This pandemic has shown that we are not made to live our lives in a vacuum, independent from others and the outside world.
If justice is the call, music can be the response (8). It can make us feel safe, lift us out of our present circumstances, and help us to experience that elusive and eternal quality of existence that we call hope. Music has always been about community. It is also dialogical in that it requires a bidirectional process of creating (or performing) and listening (9). In the process of creating music in community, we are invited to step into a grey area with others, to see past barriers of difference and instead see our common humanity.
Don’t just take my word for it. There is a vast quantity of scientific and ethnomusicological research which supports this claim. I don’t believe I’m saying anything new. What I’m really doing is responding to what I believe is an urgent call towards justice and inviting other musicians to do the same.
Photo credit: Anthony Delanoix
1. Derrida, J., 1997. The villanova roundtable. In: J. D. Caputo, ed. Desconstruction in a nut-shell: A conversation with Jacques Derrida. New York: Fordham University Press, pp. 1-28.
2. Derrida, J., 2002. Force of law: The "mystical foundation of authority". In: G. Anidjar, ed. Acts of Religion. London: Routledge, pp. 230-298.
3. Dewey, J., 1934. Art as Experience. New York: Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
4. Freire, P. & Ramos, M. B., 2000. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York; London: Continuum.
5. Friedman, E. H., 2017. A Failure of Nerve, Revised Edition: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. New York: Church Publishing.
6. Higgins, L., 2015. Hospitable Music Making: Community Music as a Site for Social Justice . In: C. Benedict, P. Schmidt, G. Spruce & P. Woodford, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Social Justice in Music Education. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 446-455.
7. Jorgensen, E. R., 2015. Intersecting Social Justices and Music Education. In: C. Benedict, P. Schmidt, G. Spruce & P. Woodford, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Social Justice in Music Education. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 7-28.
8. Marsh, K., 2015. Music, Social Justice, and Social Inclusion: The Role of Collaborative Music Activities in Supporting Young Refugees and Newly Arrived Immigrants in Australia. In: C. Benedict, P. Schmidt, G. Spruce & P. Woodford, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Social Justice in Music Education. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 173-189.
9. Matthews, R., 2015. Beyond Toleration - Facing the Other. In: C. Benedict, P. Schmidt, G. Spruce & P. Woodford, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Social Justice in Music Education . New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 238-249.
10. Pablo Casals: A Cry for Peace. 2002. [Film] Directed by Robert Snyder. s.l.: Masters & Masterworks Productions, Inc..
11. Woodford, P., 2015. Introduction - From Pioneers to New Frameworks. In: C. Benedict, P. Schmidt, G. Spruce & P. Woodford, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Social Justice in Music Education. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 3-6.
12. Yale University, n.d. Music and Social Action. [Online]
Available at: https://www.coursera.org/learn/music-and-social-action
[Accessed July 2020].