Written by Ireashia Monét
At home at the CBMR….
When I first stepped into the Center for Black Music Research, I knew I was in the right place. It was the library I had been searching for my whole adolescence. Here, I saw brown- and black-skinned colored people whose artistic expression was celebrated and uplifted, instead of demonized and shunned. I read through texts and academic articles on music indigenous to Black people with an insatiable appetite for knowledge. There were so many resources at my fingertips, it was slightly overwhelming.
At the CBMR, I learned this insatiable appetite to trace and research the cultural and historical roots of different Black musical genres had a name. “Ethnomusicology” was a foreign word, a vague concept, before the CBMR. In my mind, I had merely labeled myself a “music geek.” To know that there were people just as hungry and inspired by music, who felt the same deep, spiritual connection to it, really empowered and encouraged me.
I spent all of my free time at the CBMR during my last year at Columbia College Chicago. It was my safe space where all my troubles and worries were left at the coat rack. I had time to delve into dusty books and read about Afro-Cuban music, gather information from academic journals, and listen to Max Roach’s We Insist! jazz album from 1960.
A “left-field” idea becomes real
In January of 2015, I had an idea. It came from way left-field, but I had an inkling. I wanted to do research on Jamaican dancehall music. I saw similarities with hip hop and wanted to go beyond comparison. I needed to understand dancehall in its own right. My first resource was the CBMR. I read about dancehall in texts by Donna P. Hope, Sonjah Stanley Niaah, and Carolyn Cooper. These were Black Jamaican women who had taken the intellectual constructs offered by ethnomusicology to defend and interrogate dancehall, a music indigenous to their country of Jamaica. As I recognized the power in that intellectual process, an ambition stirred in me and caused me to investigate ways in which I could travel to Jamaica and document dancehall music myself.
Melanie Zeck, a friend, impeccable researcher and librarian, helped guide me through finding resources to promote my learning and possibly fund my field research in Jamaica. With her help, I found a study away program with Missouri State University. Luckily for me, the deadline was extended. Within two weeks, I had consistent correspondence with the two program coordinators, discussing my original project. This was a chance for me to understand Jamaican culture before diving into dancehall. Within four weeks after sending my application, I was accepted into the program.
The rest is history.
I graduated from Columbia College in May and a week after my graduation, I was in Kingston, Jamaica, meeting fellow students who were interested in Jamaican history and culture. We stayed in Bluefields, a small fishing town in Westmoreland where we learned about the marine conservation programs and environmental culture there.
I worked out a plan to spend one week with the program and, after it was over, I stayed on the University of West Indies, Mona, campus to find professors to talk with me about dancehall. The experience was not perfect, but it was a necessary and knowledge-rich lesson learned.
At the end of my trip, I was amazed and so proud of myself. Something that started as a mere idea blossomed into an enriching experience. It began at the Center for Black Music Research, reading about dancehall, and it ended in Kingston, seeing, hearing, and feeling dancehall first-hand.
To be continued…
As of now, I am still in the process of developing my dancehall project further. I plan to make another trip to Jamaica to find more sources and dancehall folks to discuss the nuances of the culture.