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Ohio State professor William McDaniel discusses historical black culture, music at lecture


As an everyday phenomenon, music often has a deep meaning and was also used to promote social change throughout black history. 

William McDaniel, professor of African-American and jazz studies, highlighted the history of black music Tuesday at the William Oxley Thompson Memorial Library in his lecture, “Understanding Black History through Black Music: From Protests to Celebration.”

“Black history has played a central role in shaping our lives and music has helped to tell that story,” McDaniel said. “It’s virtually impossible for me to talk about black history without talking about black culture and I can’t talk about black culture without talking about black music.”

McDaniel traced through different historical genres of music and the important messages that music tries to portray. 

“Music is intoxicating and we can be lulled into a kind of romanticism where we miss the primary point and it’s important for us to know what the primary point is,” he said.

Many times, McDaniel said, the primary point of music is to promote social change and encourage a change in society.

“Social change takes into account the challenges,” McDaniel said. “(It) is greater than awareness. It takes the next step to how you deal with it.” 

He also said the underlying message in music has changed throughout time and began with spirituals, which slaves sang during work.

“These songs derived directly from the black experience in America,” McDaniel said. “It would be easy to be lulled because of those really beautiful lines and if you have a really terrific singer, that can take you further away from the point here.”

Although these songs might seem as though they’re about religious devotion, McDaniel said that’s not always the case.

“Spirituals often draw on Biblical stories and may seem like worship songs but the point of the songs is to chronicle the lives of slaves, the hardships endured and the opportunity for freedom,” McDaniel said.

But spirituals aren’t the only songs that have a deeper meaning promoting social change. The blues, which McDaniel cites as the genre that most widely influenced 20th century music, also tell a personal story.

“You can really empathize – you hear what she’s going through,” McDaniel said about Bessie Smith’s version of “In The House Blues.”

In the 1960s and beyond, the Civil Rights Movement motivated artists such as James Brown and Aretha Franklin. Some of the songs were too political to be played on radio.

The era of rap has also ushered in an opportunity to promote social change through music.

“Rap is important because it provided a place for youth to say things in their own way,” McDaniel said.

Through time, music will continue to promote change and present deep messages.

“We fall in love with the music, but we have to go beyond and consider that there’s a message in the music,” McDaniel said.

The lecture was presented as part of Ohio State’s United Black World Month.

The event took place at the library to encourage a variety of students to come to the event, said Fern Cheek, research librarian and associate professor.

“We thought music is a different way to reach people,” Cheek said. “Hopefully people are more aware of the music (after the event).”

Nyiala Harris, a first-year in exploration, said she enjoyed the event.

“I’ll pay attention to the music I listen to and the message behind everything,” Harris said after the lecture.

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