My teaching, research, and creative work is undergirded by an abiding commitment to racial justice, and to naming and challenging systems of violence such as racism, patriarchy, classism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and xenophobia. I have spent many years participating in social justice movements in a range of capacities from community organizing to developing projects aimed at building grassroots infrastructure for community-based responses to harm. After participating in the 6-month Anne Braden anti-racist political education program in San Francisco, I spent six years as a trainer with Dismantling Racism Works here in Durham, North Carolina, leading workshops on racial justice in institutional and community settings.
Over the years I found that, given my particular skills and interests, I could best apply myself towards these social justice commitments through my work in music and education. A couple of touchstone experiences in artistic collaboration are central to my story as an artist and educator. In 2003, I helped found the radical marching band, Cakalak Thunder, which brought loud and mobile music to events ranging from national protests in major cities on the East Coast to hundreds of small demonstrations and community events across North Carolina. This project was a training ground for me in principles of popular education, consensus decision making, shared leadership, and reflecting outward principles within organizational practice (prefigurative politics). Cakalak Thunder was formative to my thinking about how music can contribute to movements for justice. Helping to develop the group’s internal process over the course of a decade also offered me lessons for the classroom by instilling in me a foundational commitment to fostering democratic and participatory educational spaces.
As a musician, I have provided leadership in a range of music projects underpinned by a commitment to justice, particularly in the context of the US South. Over the past 10 years, I have worked with the Senegalese griot and kora player, Diali Cissokho, in our band Diali Cissokho & Kaira Ba. We began working together after Diali immigrated to the small town of Pittsboro, North Carolina. Our musical collaboration relied on finding ways of synthesizing the band members’ various modes of understanding music. Performing as a multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-religious band in the US and in Senegal has been an opportunity to learn through firsthand experience how essentializing notions of difference play out in the music industry. Traveling with Diali to Senegal on several occasions to conduct ethnographic fieldwork, make recordings and perform as a band, has offered me deep lessons in the possibilities (and limits) of cross-cultural encounter through the arts.
As a teacher, I draw on my experience as a white musician who practices Black music traditions (jazz, Mande music from West Africa, Afro-Brazilian and Afro-Cuban music) to invite students to think reflexively about how we might imagine and facilitate ethical encounters across cultural divides through music. Exploring issues of cultural appropriation, exploitation and recontextualization requires a continually reflexive engagement with a complex field of ethical questions. By identifying and sitting with these ethical questions, rather than ignoring or rationalizing them away, students develop practices of self-reflection that are historically and socially informed. Indeed, my experience as a white cis man fundamentally shapes my experience of cross-cultural musical collaboration at every turn. Instead of turning away from the complex politics bound up in these dynamics, I have found that they offer a generative avenue for engaging in an ongoing (and never complete) praxis of awareness.
In the classroom, I create an inclusive learning environment by providing multiple avenues for successful engagement, helping students both understand and develop their individual strengths, and identify and address their particular needs. My teaching prioritizes musical cultures often underrepresented within secondary and post-secondary music education. By focusing on Black popular music (throughout the African diaspora, including in the US), I invite students to consider the music they consume in their daily lives as a way of approaching issues of race, representation, and social justice.
At the heart of my teaching (and my practice of research-creation as an artist) is a commitment to cultivating the capacity to listen across lines of difference. Learning how to listen in a close and informed manner to musical cultures outside one’s usual worldview is a humanistic project that hones practices of compassion and appreciation, one that builds trust. In a moment when we strain to listen across cultural and political boundaries, even within our own national context, cultivating the capacity to hear another’s humanity through sound is a skill that takes on renewed urgency. By exposing students to a broad range of musical expressions from across the world, my teaching aims to help students develop self-awareness and an appreciation for the multiplicity of human brilliance through developing a practice of careful and creative listening.