I grew up in apartheid South Africa, in Kwa Zulu Natal. In my early primary school years, we emigrated to Sydney, but then we went back to South Africa in the early 1990s during my formative teenage years. During this time, I witnessed first-hand the crumble of apartheid. This left a lasting impression on me, and has driven so much of the work that I’ve done in my professional musical life.
Growing up during this turbulent time in South Africa, I experienced how music was used as a vehicle for protest and self-determination, a way of subversively spreading an anti-colonial agenda, and a way of healing the past but also reimaging a different future. Music was everywhere in townships and all gatherings and rallies, and created a channel for people to express the struggle. It was the soundtrack to my life growing up. Each night I was lulled to sleep by the drumming and songs coming from the compounds of workers who’d left their homelands and come to the cities to find work. It was everywhere around me. Even the government’s fierce censorship of the media couldn’t suppress it.
If I’m honest with you, this is complex for me to understand and reconcile – the music that moves me most, that takes me to my childhood and makes me feel like me, is the very music that was used to sing against the oppressive regime, which I, as a young White girl, benefitted from. This knowledge challenges, haunts, but also inspires me in the musical work that I do today. My inspiration comes from the fact that music was a very powerful tool for cultural reconciliation, but also a major force for social change.
I believe music can indeed change the world. For a start, no human culture on earth has ever lived without it. It is an ever-present and all pervasive part of our lives. While many kinds of music have come and gone, been buried under the earth and then resurrected and made anew, and while there have been massive shifts and changes to how it has been created, shared and consumed, supported, understood and theorized, the one thing that has remained constant is its presence. Throughout time it has always been in flux, changing in response to the world and in turn changing the world.
Music is a bodily thing. It is something you can experience in your bones and organs. I learnt this by singing to my premature babies who were hooked up to intensive care monitors for 2.5months – I learnt how my singing could slow their heartbeats and stabilise their oxygen saturation levels. When you sing your body releases oxytocin as well as endorphins, the brain’s “feel good” chemicals. For a person suffering from something like chronic pain, this provides a shot of natural morphine.
Beyond the individual, music creates empathy, builds connection and gives hope. It crosses cultural divides and provides a strengths-based space to meet through shared passions and interests. For every major social movement, social change, social upheaval throughout history music has been present, sometimes driving change, other times resisting change, other times documenting and commenting on that change. The music of the civil rights movement immediately comes to mind. Likewise, and closer to home, in Australia, calls for change and reconciliation have come through songs. Music has also brought about global awareness of major social and political causes or health crises around the world. In these and millions of cases throughout history music has been a catalyst for positive change.
Over the past 20 years we have seen a proliferation of music organisations explicitly working to change the world, and addressing some of the most critical issues of our time. Take for instance, Musicians without Borders, Musicians for Human Rights, Barenboim and Said’s East-Western Divan Orchestra and others. All these organisations have very clear missions of social change. In many of these organisations, and initiatives from around the world, education is a key thread that runs through all of them. The renowned work of Ahmad Sarmast and his Afghanistan National Institute of Music is a great case in point.
Universities like Griffith, where I’m the Director of the Queensland Conservatorium Research Centre, foreground the importance of doing work that has a “social dividend” in their vision and strategic documents. That commitment to social engagement and change is one of the hallmarks of our research centre at the Con in Brisbane and some of the major music research projects we’ve been working on that address pressing issues of our time, such as health equity, desistance from crime, climate change, cultural sustainability and social justice, to mention a few. (www.griffith.edu.au/music/queensland-conservatorium-research-centre).
The case for why, as musicians, we might decide to engage in attempts to change the world is enticing. Indeed, I think it’s something musicians are, and should be thinking about as global and artistic citizens of the 21st century. However, I believe playing in this space of social change comes with some very hard, and uncomfortable, questions that as musicians, music researchers and music educators we need to ask of ourselves. I think these questions are equally applicable to policy makers, funders, philanthropists, arts administrators, festival organisers, and those who play a role in establishing and encouraging these sorts of change projects. We need to constantly question how we can be sure we’re actually making a change, and who is driving the change agenda, and for what purpose?
Despite these challenging questions, I believe this work is worth doing! My sense is that music has to be a player in addressing the most pressing issues of our time. As I have seen time and time again in the research projects we’ve run, its capacity to bring about change is indisputable and by asking the hard questions we can leverage our work to even greater effect in addressing some of the most pressing issues of our time.
To view a public lecture I recently gave on this topic, visit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WNH-1W2V_wc&feature=youtu.be