In a country concerned with its standard of living, we might also consider a standard of listening. Having listened to music from locations and time periods near and far, I’ve tried to keep my ears open to the parameters and definitions of musical expression. I rarely meet anyone with no opinion whatsoever regarding the potential of art—and, in particular, music—to influence a moment, or even an era.
But one of the most controversial points of philosophical divergence emerges from a phrase that frequently circulates in conversations about the musical culture of the past three decades. It is the ubiquitous and deceptive phrase, “hip-hop music.”
I urge all readers to ruminate upon this possibility: There is no such thing as “hip-hop music.” This label is not only a misnomer but also often an insult to the art of music making.
Musical styles like Latin, rhythm and blues, funk, soul, pop and rock have held their own in popular music just fine, thank you, without the assistance of rappers and DJs. But somehow, the marketers brainwash uninformed listeners into believing that there is a common practice in music identifiable as “hip-hop.”
That label helps to sell records—and a false narrative—to uninformed listeners. But to any ear that cares about the richness of music, the practice of talking over repeated, four-second samples of compositions written by other people does not a style make.
My admiration of the art of poetry is boundless. It’s a sensible companion to music, but it is still a distinct art form.
Consider this: Talking, while Charles Strouse’s music plays in the background, makes Jay-Z no more of a musician than Steven Spielberg creating movies, during John Williams’ supportive music, will allow us to call Spielberg a symphonic composer. Both are using music to accompany their arts, but they are not necessarily musicians. (To be fair, Jay-Z occasionally creates original background tracks, so he’s further along the continuum toward true musicianship than Spielberg.)
Furthermore, some of the older citizens of our culture (and I comfortably embrace my membership in that grouping) remember a time when “songs” were, well... “sung.” Talking is not a melody.
Take it from a man who has dedicated many hours of his life to work on this very issue: Melody, particularly in Western music, is one of the noblest offerings a musician can ever give to humanity. It is the precious, lasting currency of any musical culture that has ever explored the world of linear melodic art. All worldly possessions were taken away from African slaves, yet they brought some of their melodies and rhythmic ideas with them to America, relying on these musical treasures to cope with the concomitant horrors of their circumstances.
Due to the nature of melody, the responsibility of designing and issuing forth a fine melody is often so daunting that lesser artists frequently abdicate that practice, relying on shortcuts. Melodic creation is the test that weeds out many who wish they could be musicians. Here in the West, melodic creation and presentation are the ultimate acts of sonic bravery.
A musical culture dominated by rappers is virtually bankrupt. It is reassuring that even a pop venue like “American Idol” recognizes the singer for vocally managing actual pitch, rhythm and a relationship to harmony—not the rapper, who creates a vocal art devoid of pitch specificity, unless assisted by the ludicrous crutch known as Auto-Tune. Rap requires no precise tonal specificity from the consumer/listener. It is a different world from the musical standards set through the end of the 1970s. The golden era of Motown, loaded with rich vocal lines, challenges the listener to respect the art of melody, and subsequently, the art of music. An amateur listener can walk the same aesthetic tightrope as the creators and performers of those recordings. A wrong note will be heard as such, so people must bring their musical A game just to sing along!
The title of this column points to a subtle difference between the sung melody and spoken language. The question mark after “melody” is an opening to tonal inflections and curvy spaces that a melody can inhabit. The period after “Word” demonstrates a less organic closure. (And yes, I realize that “spoken word poetry” is a convincing art form, as well. But the comparison between melodic and spoken disciplines allows a hierarchy of skill tipped toward melodic production, and I invite anyone who disagrees with me to sing their response back to me, in 16th-notes, synchronized with a keyboard playing in thirds below.)
Esperanza Spaulding’s recent Grammy Award for best new artist was quite encouraging because she explores the best elements of musicianship in inviting, sophisticated and subtle ways.
If we continue to receive cultural codes that are depleted of their richest treasures, we will lose out. So, young generation of music listeners, I charge you with these actions: Mix down the rap for a while, and pick up some Duke Ellington, Rufus Wainwright, Alicia Keys, Usher, Katy Perry or Motown’s Brenda Holloway and sing along. When you make music, take the high road and create a new melody that the world can enjoy.
The way we listen is a reflection of the way we live. With our ears and imagination, we have a tremendous capacity to understand the strengths and limitations of the human condition.
Anthony M. Kelley, Trinity ‘87, is an associate professor of the practice in the Department of Music. He is also the faculty member in resident at Brown Dormitory on East Campus.