billb-300x200Bill Banfield is a professor of Africana Studies/ Music and Society and director of the Center for Africana Studies and programs at Berklee. An award-winning composer, jazz guitarist /recording artist, and public radio show host, he has authored five books for Scarecrow Press on music, arts, cultural criticism, and history.


I’ve been concerned about the slip in the quality of mainstream popular music artists and culture. Hip-hop song, style, and imagery, much of black popular music today, has little interest in telling the people who they are, where they are, and who they can become. The music culture has slipped into zombieland on these issues. I’ve watched—with tears in my eyes and blood in my ears—the slow decline of excellence, artistic focus, and commitment in the fields of popular music. For the bleeding hearts and “hip-hop bandwagon heads” again, I’m talking about mainstream, radio (non)friendly, commercial hip-hop—what younger people listen to. The cultural form of hip-hop, underground and politically astute; and “value griot–based,” spoken word and creative progressive music forms, are completely outside of my attack here.

During the lives of black Americans in the 1940s-1990s, the musician community provided swing, gospel, bebop, R&B, free jazz, soul, (Motown, Stax, Philly soul), soul jazz, fusion, reggae, funk, hip-hop, and urban contemporary. Earlier traditional generations passed on and pushed an “aspirational mindset,” to aspire beyond, toward a quality-of-life mode, hard work, accomplishment that buffered against disappointment, failure, and shut doors. The songs were high inspiration, had a redemptive quality, and were prescriptive for living. They were community-value imbued. Song was a part of the social medicine. “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now,” “Keep Your Head to the Sky.”

What happened?

The singular great service music provides our society, is that the songs/culture serve as harbingers of the what is, and will become. Music is not only the soundtrack but also the track our lives, in many ways, rides upon. In current trends in mainstream radio/media industry digitized culture, we don’t see today’s artists being supported, moving in/on their own new directions artistically. There’s not much that’s memorable; everything is pre-made/produced.

Making music has become so easy to do with fancy fast technology and been made a common commoditized product, a public game show sport.

Music always means something, stands for artistry beyond the momentary titillation fanned by false media/commerciality entertainment industry. I wonder if looking back on this we will remember this period of pop artists as the “musical walking dead”?

We have the internet. But I’m actually concerned that we may be cheapening the value of our exchanges and representations there, too. We have lowered the value point on everything in music and ideas, because it’s mostly free, and presumed in too many instances that everybody and everything is all okay. The internet, due to its all-access/all-the-time quality, allows anyone to produce and post whatever they want to say, whatever their dream is, whatever ideas they have. Everybody from 7 to 27 to 70, is talking all the time about everything. What separates them is their experience in real life, not in virtual, push-button digitized spheres, but that doesn’t matter anymore either, thus the problem. Our attention span is fragile and we are oversaturated with so much, many times we miss critical good stuff. But who’s really listening very closely anymore?

We have landed ourselves in a “genie now out of the bottle scenario.” Some of this needs balance, a harness, or we will find that our critical exchanges and creations now have depreciated values, and that will be a costly error indeed. If we are not careful, services, goods, and people will all be deliverable formats made relevant through and by being a product online.

So, what now?

Time to work on a new order, way of thinking, a consideration of a strategy and then doing the consistent work of substance and sustainability. Cultural expressions like music resonate in human-spiritual zones, and are people property, not corporate. Wouldn’t it be something, though, if our churches, synagogues, temples, and communities with support of local radio would bring folks together to create sustainable programs of community-focused news and information, arts, education, and political talks? This could create “community theaters.” The idea, as Guy Ramsey stated, combines and forms “living photographs, rich pools of experiences, and a cultural poetics.” It gives us the sense the “music possesses a power . . . the power to mean something important about the world around me.”

What to do?

1. A re-tune , re-boot, of the system.

Today music programming is governed by marketing sales ploys/plans devised-based solely on business needs, to feed the kiddie market and profit from topical style and fashion surges. Change the agendas.

2. Young musicians need to be able to feel encouraged to make music that makes their soul sing and touch people to give human joy—not to chase constructed toys and plots and ploys.

3. Our focus needs to be shifted to the music not the market, and from consumerism to community care and concern.

The market follows the dictates and demands of the art, not the other way around. There need to be venues—media shows that illustrate what musicians and artists really talk about: their love in making music because of music. This is the information, the story the public needs to see and hear. And the beat and the rest will all follow, and that’s how we move from cultural zombieland to cultural theaters, to working together again to create a better living culture than we have right now.

Lesley Mahoney
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