“Personal-is-political”: Decolonial Praxis and the Future (or How I Learnt to Stop Worrying and Tried to Love Neoliberalism)

The word “decolonization” brings to mind histories of empire and domination.[1] It simultaneously raises the need to challenge narratives that have emerged from these hierarchies imposed on sections of humanity, segments of geographies, and forms and ways of knowledge and knowing. In the term is both exhortation and appeal for empowerment and activism in forms such as social responsibility, the recognition of human rights, and cultural equity, pointing towards the inclusion of discourses that have been marginalized, neglected, or ignored.

In 1982, Charles Keil called for “an insistence on putting music into play wherever people are resisting oppression” (407) as a means by which we conceive of decolonization. Movements in applied ethnomusicology share similar concerns with those of decolonization, that is, an opposition to colonialism, orientalism, and forms of Western hegemonies (Titon 2015). In many ways and for many people, the struggle against inequity continues, albeit in different milieus and circumstances. So, where Fanon spoke of the need for “literatures of combat” in the context of colonialism (1967:93; see also Mackinlay 2015), rapper Ice-T identifies rap as “Hi-Tech Combat Literature” in the context of institutionalized racism and violence (Spady, Lee, and Alim 1999:114).

Recent scholarly deliberations, particularly in the context of indigeneity, include conceiving of decolonization as a repossession of knowledges, values, and systems striving towards a continuity and endurance denied by colonial pasts (McLaughlin, Ah Sam, and Whatman 2006); it is a means to reclaim, rename, and rewrite particular histories (Smith 1999). Returning to Fanon, that which is colonized is the “Other” (1963), conceived as such through a form of violence enacted in an arbitration between forms of understanding and knowledge, all negotiated through disparity. In all of this is the recognition that formulations and constructions of knowledge have originated from spaces of power and privilege for a few. Decolonization articulates the need for confrontation, rejecting submission and docility, in calculated resistance to subjugation and exploitation.

In her work on Indigenous peoples in Australia, Elizabeth Mackinlay, to whom I owe the title of this article, introduces her paper as a “personal-is-political story and a narrative that speaks to the philosophical, theoretical, and methodological past and present” in recognition of colonial violence (2015:334). Decolonization, here, is the specific confrontation of this violence. In this sense, the site of decolonial praxis is that juncture where the political becomes personal. It is a space of awareness, focusing on agency and activity, widening our own identifications and considerations of our roles as ethnomusicologists and individuals in the world at large.

Critically analyzing this “personal-is-political” space and stance, through my own subjectivity, helped in determining my own spaces of responsibility as a researcher. Theory, method, and practice begin with that which is political, in recognition of ontological and epistemological interfaces and contestations. Confrontations such as these determine stances of representation, both my own and of those I study. What is political becomes personal—in the interrogation of my own roles, responsibilities, and representations both inside and outside the academy. As scholars, this calls for plurality in our practical uses of knowledge, scholarship, and understanding. In the field, I have often found myself in my own spaces of arbitration, negotiating my discomfort with the privilege I might have as an academic and the responsibilities of representation in my work with musicians, and then again, with my own ignorance of forms of knowing and being.

In this sense, Paulo Freire’s work on praxis (1972), focused through “conscientization” in particular, continues to have practical use. This is a process of developing a consciousness that can provoke social change, in the understanding of reality/ies, exercised through critical uses of theory, application, evaluation, and reflection. The backdrop of social change is important because it is an unavoidable reality one encounters, by chance or design, just by being in the world. Here, Giroux’s assertion that “every educational act is political and that every political act is pedagogical” (2011:176) makes decolonization an ongoing project for scholars. As both a theoretical resource and a productive practice, decolonization draws into focus the interrogation and resistance of power as dominance. In doing so, it points towards a “vocabulary in which it becomes possible to imagine power working in the interests of justice, equality and freedom” (ibid.:5) through formation and articulation. This occurs in both the social and political spaces where we conduct our fieldwork and in the scholarship we present.

The discipline of ethnomusicology continues in its endeavors—its subjects, approaches, and models—to engage with issues of subjugation and marginalization through research and scholarship shaped by concerns such as advocacy, education, and intervention. Ethnomusicology is fortunate in its ability to encompass pluralities of peoples and musics, often challenging traditional boundaries of the discipline—a form of knowledge decolonization in itself. As academics, all of this allows us to challenge our own knowledges and understandings; tools such as pedagogical strategies and research methodologies allow us to question that which we deem as such in the first place. The decolonization project, then, is one that ideally allows us to “actively transform knowledge rather than consume it” (Giroux 2011:7). As ethnomusicologists, our responsibility is a constant critique of privilege and positionality in the academy. Decolonizing knowledge is the incorporation of theory and praxis, combining creativity and analysis, and imagination and knowledge, in what is inherently political research.

At this time, it is also useful to consider that cultures of knowledge—encompassing research, teaching, and learning, where education has its own place and utilitarian value—interact with competitive markets inside and outside faculties, institutions, and sectors. Quantitative structures such as admission, governance, and financing have their role in defining course and curriculum; discussions on gauging and mapping quality engage with those on processes and impact, raising issues of commercialism in education. These deliberations indicate a sort of academic consumerism, pointing to an unavoidable neoliberalism in academic systems and a subsequent narrowing of space for research less favored by market forces. From this, one could argue that the future of the academy holds the possibility of a creeping colonization by the market. The question remains how best to integrate research cultures such as those that consider communities and individuals in dilemmas of economic, political, and social marginalization and subjugation, past and present, with that of the market and its criteria. Decolonial praxis, as we understand it today, may well have to develop a new vocabulary, narrative, and plan for the neoliberal future.



Fanon, Frantz. 1963. Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Press

Freire, Paulo. 1972. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin.

Giroux, Henry A. 2011. On Critical Pedagogy. New York: Bloomsbury.

Keil, Charles. 1982. “Applied Ethnomusicology and a Rebirth of Music from the Spirit of Tragedy.” Ethnomusicology 26(3):407–11.

Mackinlay, Elizabeth. 2015. “Decolonization and Applied Ethnomusicology.” In The Oxford Handbook of Applied Ethnomusicology, edited by Svanibor Pettan and Jeff Todd Titon, 379-97. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

McLaughlin, Juliana, Maureen Ah Sam, and Susan Whatman. 2006. “Our Ways of Being in the Cultural Knowledge Interface: Reflections Upon the World Indigenous Peoples Conference in Education WIPCE 2005.” Paper presented at the Oodgeroo Conference: Contesting Indigenous Knowledge and Indigenous Studies. Gold Coast Marriott Hotel, Surfers Paradise, QLD, June 28–30.

Smith, Linda Tuhiwai. 2005. “On Tricky Ground: Researching the Native in the Age of Uncertainty.” In Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research, edited by Norman K. Denzin and Yvonna S. Lincoln (3rd ed), 85-107. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Spady, James G., Charles G. Lee, and H. Samy Alim. 1999. Street Conscious Rap. Philadelphia, PA: Black History Museum Umum/Loh Pub.

Titon, Jeff Todd. 2015. “Section 1. Applied Ethnomusicology: A Descriptive and Historical Account.” In The Oxford Handbook of Applied Ethnomusicology, edited by Svanibor Pettan and Jeff Todd Titon, 4-29. Oxford: Oxford University Press.



[1] This contribution is a cross-publication from SEM Student News.


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