The conqueror writes history, they came, they conquered, and they write. You don’t expect the people who came to invade us to tell the truth about us (Miriam Makeba)
Music is a powerful tool for decolonising geography. It inspires a creative engagement with a place, beyond numbers and words, in the realm of rhythm and bodily encounter. Yet we do not often think about the relationship between music and geography. In the Summer Term of 2020, following calls to teach colonialism in the school curriculum, I used Miriam Makeba’s song ‘A Piece of Ground’ in a Year 8 Geography lesson on colonialism in South Africa.
Her beautiful, strong voice filled the room with a powerful description of and response to the dispossession of Black people and the painful feelings of injustice. The song introduced key terms in the lesson such as possession, reserve territory and labour. The students annotated the lyrics with their thoughts and feelings. They learned:
When the white man first came here from over the sea he looked and he said this is God's own country
we've kept you a nice piece of reserve territory, but how can a life for so many be found on a miserable thirteen per cent of the ground?
black man was called 'cos his labour was cheap, with drill and with shovel he toiled underground. Fourpence a day for ten tons of ground.
(Miriam Makeba, 'A Piece of Ground')
Music can inspire empathy and compassion, as well as a sense of collective power. This combined with the poetry of the lyrics allowed us to explore feelings as well as the facts conveyed by the words. The students had a passionate discussion about why Black South Africans would not have wanted to live on reserve territory. The students’ lively and empathic rage was made possible by the energetic stimulations of the music. Here was an experience of what Resmaa Menakem would call ‘somatic abolitionism’, a resourcing of energies in the individual body, the collective body and the world harnessed for anti-racist practice. Additional comprehension activity on colonisation and resources here.
Africa is not a country
Music is an effective way of showing that Africa is a vast and diverse continent in which there are many ethnic groups, countries, musical styles, traditions and fusions of genres. Josh Middleton, musician and artist, created a teaching resource contrasting 4 musical styles and cultures (West African Griot Music, South African Pop, Soukos, and Ethio-Jazz).
Griot music is found in West Africa (Mali, Senegal and Guinea). It is part of the oral tradition to keep histories and lineages pre-dating the Malian Empire in the 14th Century. The musicians are a hereditary class which you must be born in to play the music. Much of it is low-tempo and relaxed, reflecting the story-telling tradition. The 1960s/70s/80s Pop Music of South Africa is a fusion of traditional music and influences from American Jazz which were brought by radio and Christian Missionaries in South Africa. Many of these musician were active in the Anti-Apartheid movement, namely Miriam Makeba. Soukos music in Central Africa grew out of the Congolese rumba movement in the 1960s. Congo reached out to Cuba as a fellow communist country following independence which led to trade and cultural exchange between these countries. Soukos has had a huge influence on modern music across Africa. Finally Ethiopian music is very diverse and much of it has very distinctive sound, due to the unique modes (scales) used, and gained international appeal with the advent of ‘Ethio-jazz’ by Mulatu Astatke.
These genres of music open up discussion about Africa’s diverse cultures, histories and connections to other places in the world. I used Josh Middleton's teaching sheet to create a lesson for Year 7 during the period of remote learning in January. The students thoroughly enjoyed it. The emotional and rhythmic landscapes of the music created a shared experience for the students. We discussed our favourite piece of music at the end of the lesson which developed a connection between the students as they shared responses.
How to use music to decolonise
There are lots of exciting ideas for ways to use music in our teaching. Here are a few from the Decolonising Geography Educators group to inspire us:
Catherine Owen uses Bobi Wine’s music show ‘Freedom’ to teach about Uganda. It opens up discussion around politics, democracy, freedom and identity. Why is Bobi Wine singing in a boat? Watch the show to find out!
Louise Holyoak uses music to show connections between distant places, for example this Bollywood Movie 'Housefull 3' is filmed at Durdle Door in Dorset. It also led to an awkward mistranslation!
Dan Whittall uses Lord Kitchener's 'London is the place for me' to introduce the excitement and anticipation of the Windrush generation of migrants (Kitchener actually travelled aboard the Windrush). The British Library has a great resource for introducing the historic importance of calypso to black music in Britain. Linton Kwesi Johnson’s ‘Inglan is a Bitch’ is a really good contrast to show how things had changed a couple of decades later for the Black British youth who were the children of those Caribbean migrants.
Introducing Nigeria as a GCSE case study, Rachael Robinson explains how Fela Kuti has influenced music globally as Afro-Beat spread across the world influencing R&B and Hip Hop. His son Femi Kuti speaks out about corruption and the significance of Afro-Beat in giving African people voice and representation to the world. See this great article.
Christopher Bennet uses Harry Belafonte's 'Island in the Sun' as a prompt for Year 7 to share their pre-existing knowledge and understanding of the Caribbean. He is using the lessons from the Windrush Foundation to plan this unit.
Rouna Ali plays musical geo-guesser with her Year 7s; she plays a music video and the students have to guess which country the video was filmed in by looking at the human and physical geography in the background.Justin Bieber ‘I’ll show you’ filmed in South Iceland. Nico and Vinz ‘Am I wrong’ filmed in Botswana
And Kit Rackley uses Will.I.Am to inspire students to engage in GIS!
The importance of music in Geography
We do not often think about the relationship between music and geography. Geography is vulnerable to developing single story narratives when we focus too much on measuring the world. The determination of geography to define itself as a science has led to a greater focus on quantifiable measures of spatial patterns and rigorous methodology. Yet the spatial relationships of music are evident. Music can introduce us to cultural, political and economic landscapes (Altaweel 2020). The use of music in geography education welcomes the messiness of the world, as well as it’s multiplicity and unpredictability. We can hear the distinctness of musical traditions, as well as how they blend and influence each other. Music has the ability to show the complexity of the earth system and challenge misconceptions about people and places.