Music Matters | Moosiko

How music educators can rid a generation of prejudice

“Music today is garbage”. How many times have you heard your parents say that? Ask anyone older than 25 what they think of the modern hits and they’ll have a similar sentiment. The older they are, the more negative the views. Why is it that the music we listen to as teenagers stick with us our entire lives?  This is true for Baby Boomers (The Beatles), Millennials (Backstreet Boys), and Gen Z (Justin Bieber). Why does everyone have this musical bias? 

Beatlemania vs. Beliebers

There are a few key reasons: 

  • Neural Development: Between the ages of 12 and 20, our brains go through rapid neural development. The music we listen to during this time seems to imprint itself permanently as our brains form.
  • Emotional Development: The teenage years are when children become adults. The body and mind are transforming sexually, emotionally, and intellectually. Music that we listen to has a heightened sense of importance because it gets paired with these strong emotional changes.
  • Identity and Social Groups: Teenagers are discovering music for the first time with friends independent of their parents. As social groups form during middle and high school years, music plays a critical role in defining one’s identity, an identity that becomes the foundation for a lifetime. 
  • Role Models: The most common teenage role models are in music or sports. The prevalence of social media allows musicians and athletes to be closer to their fans than ever before. As teens experience the twists and turns of growing up, they look to role models as a source for inspiration and guidance.

It is not just our musical preferences that gets shaped during our teenage years, it is our identity itself. And maybe more importantly, how we perceive that identity in relation to others. It is right here where biases, prejudice, and implicit inequality are born, usually planted so deep that they stick with us our entire lives. 

The Power of Music

All educators and teachers have the power to influence young adults, but because music is so closely tied to emotion and social connections, its impact is orders of magnitude greater than a blackboard, textbook, or class discussion. George Floyd’s murderer surely learned about slavery in history class, but awareness does not change behavior. 

Protests, trials, and legislature do not change behavior either. While these actions are necessary to bring awareness to the magnitude of the problem, the real solution happens on an individual level, deep down at the source of one’s identity. There are few things that can navigate to this depth and influence change. Music is one of them.

Macklemore and Ryan Lewis: Same Love

Exposure

So how do we leverage the power of music to shape our identity for the better? That’s easy because musicians already do this for us, we just need to listen. 

While there are certainly more artists and genres to choose from, here is a list from a racial, sexual, and gender perspective that can be taught in school music classes. Learn to play their songs. Read their lyrics. Discuss this meaning behind the music. 

Racial

Almost all genres of music were either created by or are defined by contributions from black, indigenous, people of color (BIPOC). BIPOC are a crucial part of music history, and should be discussed with every genre. 

A racially diverse study of music can:

  • Help undo years of BIPOC erasure in the music industry
  • Teach students about experiences they may not live themselves
  • Remind BIPOC students that they are not alone, that they are valued, and they are seen and heard
Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Though Sister Rosetta Tharpe was a rock ‘n’ roll superstar, hotels and restaurants were still segregated, and she had to sleep in her tour bus and get food from the back door of restaurants.

Racial diversity is especially crucial when teaching students at such a developmentally important age. Lack of representation and diversity can be detrimental to BIPOC students, and can lead to an inaccurate worldview from white students. 

Some artists that we recommend covering are:

  • Sister Rosetta Tharpe – the mother of Rock ‘n’ Roll. 
  • Kendrick Lamar – regarded as one of the best rappers of his generation, Lamar is part of the contemporary resurgence of conscious rap.
  • Noname – seamlessly blending spoken word and rap, Noname shifts the musical focus of rap.
  • Bruno Mars – one of the kings of 2000’s pop, Mars is part-Filipino.
  • Selena – beloved Mexican-American superstar known for her contributions to Tejano music.

Sexual

Students can know from a very young age that they may not be cisgender or heterosexual. Coming to this realization can be scary at any age, but for younger people, it can be especially isolating. It is no secret that life as a member of the LGBTQ+ community can be difficult and full of turmoil. 

Teaching students about musicians that are part of the LGBTQ+ community can:

  • Show students that there is nothing “wrong” with them, and provide positive role models.
  • Teach students about experiences they may not live themselves or have with their friends and family
  • Work to dismantle harmful stereotypes by showing that there is no LGBTQ+ “look,” or “sound.”

 

Billie Joe Armstrong

“I think I’ve always been bisexual. I mean, it’s something that I’ve always been interested in. I think people are born bisexual, and it’s just that our parents and society kind of veer us off into this feeling of ‘Oh, I can’t.’ They say it’s taboo. It’s ingrained in our heads that it’s bad, when it’s not bad at all. It’s a very beautiful thing.” -Billie Joe Armstrong

Educating students about LGBTQ+ musicians openly can create a safe space for students to explore their own identities in your classroom. Some artists that we recommend covering are:

  • Billie Joe Armstrong – frontman of acclaimed rock band Green Day, Armstrong is out as bisexual.
  • Brandi Carlile – country rock musician and member of The Highwomen, Carlile has been married to her wife, Catherine Shepherd, since 2012.
  • Frank Ocean – known for his alternative sound and strong themes through each of his works, Ocean reimagined RnB both sonically and socially: he is a proud bisexual man.
  • Sir Elton John – musical legend and gay icon.

Gender

Gender diversity extends beyond just having a mix of cisgender men and women. It includes transgender people, non-binary people, and differing gender expressions among cisgender people. 

Diverse study of gender identity and presentation in music can:

  • Help students deconstruct and unlearn patriarchal gender roles
  • Teach students about experiences they may not live themselves or have with their friends and family
  • Open a broader discussion about gender disparity in all industries, not just music.
Laura Jane Grace

In a 2012 Rolling Stone interview about her coming out, Laura Jane Grace says: “It’s not going to be this big reveal. I’m still the same person I’ve always been… I’m sure there will be some people who are repelled by it. But I have faith… However fierce our band was in the past, imagine me, six foot two, in heels… screaming in someone’s face.”

Click here to read Grace’s Rolling Stone interview 

Gender diversity, like racial and sexual diversity, is intersectional. Identity doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and it’s important that our examples of diversity are diverse themselves. Some artists we recommend covering are:

  • Taylor Swift – Beloved by hundreds of millions globally, Taylor Swift writes from personal experience. Her song “The Man” is a prime example of her struggling with gender inequality. 
  • Laura Jane Grace – in 2012, Grace, the frontwoman of Against Me! came out as a transgender woman.
  • King Princess – a genderqueer lesbian, King Princess broke into the pop mainstream with their anthem, “1950.”
  • Beyoncé – Beyoncé has dedicated her music career to uplifting black women with songs like “Formation,” “Feeling Myself,” and “Brown Skin Girl.”

 

Beyoncé

“Brown skin girl, your skin just like pearls, your back against the world, I never trade you for anybody else.” -Beyoncé, “Brown Skin Girl”

Beyoncé and Taylor Swift are prime examples of female pop stars. Pop stars who identify as women, such as Ariana Grande, Camila Cabello, and Halsey, serve as positive influences for young girls, and create spaces for women to own their womanhood, and reclaim it from the patriarchy.

Music Matters

In the words of Bono, “music can change the world because it can change people.” If we truly want change, we need to change each individual person. Since music is such a powerful emotional and social tool, it is even more critical that music educators harness their ability to provide a diverse set of perspectives that might not be available to students in their home or community. 

Inaction is not an option. Inaction perpetuates the stereotypes and prejudices from the previous generation, which perpetuates the same stereotypes and prejudices from the generation before that. Change is needed now. 

That is why music matters.