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Sound Clash: Race and American Popular Music

Josh Kun
University of California, Riverside
Hiphop Inclusive
Before 2005

This course approaches the history of U.S. race and ethnicity as a history of popular sound—a dissonant conglomeration of noises, songs, mixes, beats, rhymes, verses, and collages that tell revealing stories about the way identities are formed and de-formed and nations are imagined and transgressed. We will focus primarily on the sounds of the twentieth century U.S.—from blackface minstrelsy, white Negroes, Elvis and Eminem to blues, bebop, hip hop, Chicano punk, and border corridos—and will concentrate on (but will not be limited to) cultural exchanges, appropriations, and sound clashes between African-Americans, Latinos/as, Native Americans, and Jewish-Americans. We will pay particular attention to the question of appropriation and borrowing: is the history of pop music the history of cultural theft? The course is NOT designed to offer a linear and comprehensive history of American music, nor is it meant to be an introduction to the technical, formalist study of music. The course will involve weekly readings and throughout the quarter students will be asked to exercise their skills as critical reader- listeners. Among those we will consider: A1 Jolson, Robert Johnson, Nina Simone, Los Lobos, NWA, Bessie Smith, Backstreet Boys, Lir Kim, John Trudell, Invisible Scratch Picklz, Wu-Tang, Sherman Alexie’s Reservation Blues, Mingus’ Beneath the Underdog, Americo Paredes’ With His Pistol in His Hand, Leroi Jones’ Blues People, and the films The Jazz Singer, Wild Style, and Chulas Fronteras.

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