From Browser to Browser

Editor’s Note: Ethnomusicology Review Editor In Chief Alex W. Rodriguez is participating in the roundtable presentation “Ethnomusicological Perspectives on Open Access Publication” at the upcoming Society for Ethnomusicology meeting in Pittsburgh, alongside Darren MuellerGuthrie RamseyJustin SchellWendy Hsu, and James Cowdery. Over the next few weeks, Sounding Board will post a short position paper by each participant. Please join us at 10:45 am on Thursday, Nov. 13, to further discuss these pieces.

As someone who began his scholarly career when the word “browsing” meant literally treasure hunting through aisles of library stacks, I’m as shocked as anyone to think that I now possess something called an “online presence.” I remember being completely mystified about ten years ago when I kept running into the very profoundly unattractive word “blog” and thought it sounded like nothing I’d ever want to do. To be frank, my instinct was that social media—particularly the idea of sharing one’s work with an infinite, invisible, and often, ungracious audience—was the perfect waste of time. Plus the fact that my age, training and orientation as a writer was, for better or worse, purely academic. I didn’t even read blogs faithfully. Unlike the music I wrote as a bandleader, the prose I pushed out was intended for my colleagues and students. If it resonated outside of those parameters I was grateful, and, perhaps, a little surprised.

Much has changed.

I owe it to two individuals for curing my aversion to digital media. When I hired a former student to help me promote my first recording Y the Q?, she insisted that the best way to achieve this was to engage the public in the way her generation did. My sister, a part-time photographer who regularly used social media to advertise her business, also convinced me that there were people who’d love to know more about the scholarly and musical things I’d been doing. I didn’t believe either of them. The biggest challenge was overcoming the socialization I’d undergone in graduate school about which audiences matter, which modes of discourse were “acceptable” for a scholar, and which knowledge bases deserved attention. Once I took my cicerones’ advice, started the blog, and promoted it through my newly acquired Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr accounts, I received my first “likes.” That sealed the deal. I understood now what many others had already known well: there were real people and real issues being joined in social media, and if one wanted to join in the conversation, one had to lose old biases and begin sharing ideas in the digital world.

But there were challenges to my new outlook and interest. I needed to appreciate that the traditional media of print, radio, and television weren’t the only ways to disseminate my work. And that, in fact, the immediacy and control over information were the most powerful aspects of the digital world. Although many people had complimented me on the accessibility of my scholarly writing style, it soon became clear to me that writing for readers beyond the academy would take a lot of practice. Since the bloggers I admired most had been doing it for years, I learned to model their compression and hard-hitting styles. Although I admittedly have not yet acquired the appetite for the continuous cycle of controversies to which other bloggers are motivated to respond, I love introducing historical topics into the digital mix.

As I’ve advanced in my career, one of the joys I’ve experienced is becoming more activist. When I first entered the field there were much fewer people writing about African American music than there are presently, and doing so did seem like a form of activism. With more scholars engaged in this topic now, but in the context of many forms of state-sanctioned atrocities against black Americans (i.e., the prison industrial complex and unequal access to education), to do only scholarship is short-sighted. I believe what we need is a music scholarship that intervenes by not only addressing the contemporary world when it’s appropriate but also circulating these insights in settings beyond the academy. Social media is perfect for this agenda. Without a library card or access to a physical institution people can engage dynamic ideas—with one click of a browser—in ways that would have seemed miraculous just twenty years ago. I’m humbled to be part of this movement. 


Guthrie P. Ramsey, Jr. is the Edmund J. and Louise W. Kahn Term Professor of Music and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of Race Music: Black Cultures from Bebop to Hip-Hop and The Amazing Bud Powell: Black Genius, Jazz History and the Challenge of Bebop. In 2012, his band released The Colored Waiting Room, a recording of original music blending jazz, rhythm and blues, gospel, neo-soul, and classical. Ramsey is the founder of the popular music blog

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