Freak Flag Empire: What is World?


February 28th, 2012


About a month ago, I had the distinct pleasure of becoming a genre director at WMRE. What that means is that I contribute an album for the heavy rotation playlist at the station. All good fun!

And I, in my infinite wisdom, signed up to be the world music genre director.


And right around the time I sat down to pick a world music album, I realized that I didn’t know what world music was.

Sure, I had an abstract idea. “It’s music from some place that’s not the United States, right?”

Herp derp.

So, to Bandcamp. At first, while looking around for something, anything, I was constantly thinking, “This doesn’t sound Filipino!” or “This doesn’t sound Chinese!”

I don’t know what I expected. What do I know about what music from other parts of the world? I dated a Filipina in high school, and I took German for a few years. I’m so cultural.

And it hit me: if I’m looking for music on the Internet, then the odds are stacked that the people making the music are listening to what’s popular on the Internet, too.  And, like that, I uncovered an imprinted assumption, a gross fragment of structural racism.

“Cool,” I think to myself, “I’ve recognized a character flaw. Awesome! But, it’s time to keep looking for music.”

So, is “world music” music not from the United States? That wouldn’t make sense. There are certainly plenty of musicians living in the United States that are making distinctly “non-American” music. Perhaps, then, world music is music that isn’t from an English-speaking country. But what about if an Irish musician records an album sung in Gaelic?

By that token, is only non-English music “world music”? That can’t be the case. Nigeria, for instance, has produced great amounts of English language high-life and afrobeat.

So, maybe the term is a loose one.  An imperfect one. And it can suggest the wicked otherization that White American culture is guilty of far too often. But, engaged in sincerely and with an open mind, an exploration of music from other countries can be an enlightening one.

-By Rhett Henry
contact at crhenr2@emory.edu

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