Music, Yoga, and Racism

May 28, 2020 • Posted By Veronica

“I don’t care what you listen to as long as it isn’t any of that ‘C-rap’ music,” my dad used to tell me.

I was a young child in the early 90s and my interest in music (like most people’s) was heavily influenced by what my parents listened to. I grew up listening to a lot of classic rock, 50s and 60s pop, and country music. My dad is a fan of bluegrass and though he never took formal lessons he would break out his fiddle on occasional summer evenings. When I was eleven I started playing the viola in my school orchestra. I spent 8 th – 12 th grade attending a public school dedicated to arts education. I attended a music conservatory program in college.

After college, I became a yoga teacher and learned about the 5 kleṣas of yoga philosophy. The word, kleṣas, I’ve seen translated as ‘afflictions’ or ‘poisons’ and, in my understanding of the philosophy, the 5 kleṣas are essentially the root of human suffering. The five are avidya— not perceiving reality accurately, raga – “preference” or “attachment,” dveṣa – “aversion” or “dislike,” asmitā – the narrative of ego, and abiniveśa – fear of letting go.

While I’ll focus more on raga and dveṣa momentarily, it’s helpful to understand how these concepts work together. In theory, an event happens (it could be any kind of event) and our experience of the event may or may not include all the relevant information about what just happened—this is avidya. Our perceived experience of the event may or may not trigger an unconscious habit or pattern of response (these are called saṁskarās, and while they contribute to the cycle of suffering, a saṁskarā is not one of the kleṣas). We instantaneously, and mostly unconsciously, decide that we like or dislike what’s happening or just happened (raga and dveṣa). The moment that a preference or aversion is acknowledged, it’s quickly followed by making it mean something about us individually (asmitā). By making it mean something about us personally, we then create abiniveśa—we fear losing that part of our identity. This becomes an ever-progressing cycle drawing us deeper into our preferences or aversions, clinging to what we think identifies us, and afraid of losing that identity.

Essentially, we hear a song and hearing that song reminds us of other times we’ve heard songs similar or different to what we’re hearing. In an instant we choose if we like the song or not based on previous experiences of listening to music we think is the same. In choosing the kind of music we like and don’t like, we define ourselves as individuals by identifying with a particular music genre, and we’re afraid of who we might be without those classifications to identify us so we perpetuate the cycle of only listening to music we like and avoiding music we don’t.

“What kind of music do you like?” has become a loaded question that I hesitate to answer in everyday conversations.

In centuries past, there were no genres to distinguish. The only music that counted as music was what followed the rules of Western music theory and notation. Now, entire sub-cultures emerge and embrace conflict (sometimes quite violently) over something as small as genre classification of their favorite music.

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I grew up listening to music that was mostly created and performed by white people. I’ve spent a significant portion of my life studying/performing a system and style of music invented by white people. I didn’t listen to rap, hip-hop, or R&B, and it wasn’t until almost the end of my conservatory training that I even developed a genuine appreciation for jazz—because as a white girl, I was taught (directly and indirectly) that those styles of music either weren’t meant to be enjoyed by me or weren’t worth listening to and appreciating because they were mostly created and performed by black people. These weren’t conscious decisions on my part. I never chose to not listen to music created by BIPOC because I’m white. I remember a time in fifth grade, in the privacy of my bedroom, tuning my radio to the local rap station (just for a few minutes) and feeling guilty and ashamed that I did kind of like it. I simply didn’t make a habit of seeking out those styles of music because of how inappropriate it felt and because I didn’t want to have to defend my music choices to my family, which there definitely would have been contention over. I had a brief interaction with a young man last year who made the statement that, “Eminem invented rap music.” I can’t remember if I laughed in disbelief or sat in shock for a moment, and only when a third party weighed in on the conversation was it agreed that Eminem did not invent rap, however, he did make it ok for white people to enjoy rap music.

As Robin Diangelo explains in chapter 2 of White Fragility, “All humans have prejudice; we cannot avoid it . . . people who claim not to be prejudiced are demonstrating a profound lack of self-awareness.” We cannot avoid liking or disliking altogether (it’s impossible). The bigger problem Diangelo lays out is that we’ve all been taught to understand that prejudice is bad, and therefore only bad people are prejudiced. If we can step back from our fear of being labeled as prejudiced or racist (and therefore a bad person) and recognize that we all have preferences and aversions, we can start to question them. When we mindfully, intentionally inquire what our preferences/aversions are and why, then we can start to dismantle our unconscious biases.

In her article Undoing Authenticity as a Discursive Construct, ethnomusicologist Simone Krüger argues that, “genre is never “fixed”: genre divisions are highly fluid, and genre texts may fit under more than one classification, or shift between and across different categories during their existence.” She goes on to explain that by adopting a cultural studies perspective, she shows students that genres are the products of commerce—constructed and maintained by audiences. It is our own preferences and fears that keep us purchasing the same music from the same artists and how we use that music to define ourselves is how the music becomes defined.

I think it has become paramount that we all learn to objectively identify our unconscious patterns of preference and aversion, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant. It’s the unconscious, seemingly insignificant habits of seeking out things we like and avoiding things we don’t and refusing to examine the underlying reasons behind those habits that create the Amy Coopers of the world. It’s why I’m going to intentionally start listening to more music created by BIPOC.

What kind of music do you like? More importantly, what kinds of music do you not like—and why?

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