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“Music Can Take Us There”: Cultural Insights from an Ethnomusicologist

A visit with Stephanie Shonekan, Assistant Professor, Ethnomusicology, Black Studies

By Spencer Melgren
Published: - Topics: music culture identity black studies Africa

Born in Equatorial Guinea, Dr. Stephanie Shonekan is an ethnomusicologist who grew up during the height of funk music and television shows like Soul Train and the Beverly Hillbillies. Living in Nigeria during times of dramatic change, Dr. Shonekan learned about the world through music. As a young girl she heard many types of music on the radio and developed a deep interest in music and the cultures that create it, including Afrobeat, American country and black soul among others. Now an Assistant Professor of Ethnomusicology and Black Studies, Dr. Shonekan has built a career in academia that combines her interest in culture with her love of music, studying identity and what can be learned through experiencing music and learning about the lives that create it. Today, her office is decorated with iconic black musicians including Paul Robeson, Louis Armstrong, and Bob Marley – voices that echo across time, space and genre. While it can be difficult to come to an understanding of “the heart” of a culture, “music,” Dr. Shonekan says, “can take us there.”

Dr. Shonekan’s academic path to ethnomusicology began during her undergraduate years, when inspired by cultural intersections in her own family she began to examine relationships between different peoples of African descent. A Trinidadian mother and Nigerian father inclined Dr. Shonekan to examine cross-Atlantic connections among the African Diaspora. This interest informed her studies at the University of Jos, where she completed her undergraduate thesis relating the literature of the Caribbean to the literature of West Africa, as well as her master’s thesis at the University of Ibadan, where she studied connections between African American poetry and jazz music. After five years away from academia while working in Nigeria, Dr. Shonekan began looking into PhD programs that would allow her to continue her studies of music and culture. A suggestion from one of her professors from the University of Ibadan directed Dr. Shonekan towards the field of ethnomusicology. “I started to do my research and found out that ethnomusicology was a field made for me,” Dr. Shonekan tells us. The field, she says, was a perfect fit for her interests: “[Ethnomusicology] is about music and culture, and that’s what I had been intrigued by all this time.”

After being accepted to Indiana University’s Ethnomusicology and Folklore program, Dr. Shonekan and her husband moved to the United States. During her graduate years Dr. Shonekan held an assistantship with—and later served as Assistant Director of—Indiana University’s Archives of African American Music and Culture. She became interested in life stories, and began to develop a subject for her dissertation: “I thought, what I want to do is bring my love of literature, love of the oral narrative, the personal narrative, with my love of music,” she tells us. This goal eventually led Dr. Shonekan to collaborate with the African American opera singer Camilla Williams. When she first encountered Williams—who in 1946 broke ground with the lead role in Madam Butterfly as the first African American to sign a contract with the New York City Opera—Dr. Shonekan recognized the rich intersection between life, music, and culture in the singer. “I thought, wow, she’s got a story, I know she has a story,” Dr. Shonekan recalls. After becoming acquainted, the two worked at combining their voices into a unified narrative. This work became the basis for Dr. Shonekan’s dissertation, which examined “issues of voice and identity that emerge when the personalities of two black women from opposite sides of the Atlantic unite in the presentation of a collaborative autobiography.” “Camilla’s life is about culture,” Dr. Shonekan tells us, and “many aspects of American history intersect with her rise and her career.” “My role was to figure out how I could write [Camilla’s] story in a way that still had her voice, but had my value as an ethnomusicologist, as a writer, to frame that story.”

After finishing her dissertation, Dr. Shonekan’s next project was to make a short film about Nigerian women’s activist Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti. In the mid 1900s Ransome-Kuti fought for women’s suffrage and successfully organized opposition to unfair taxation by Nigeria’s British colonial administration. Inspired by her story, Dr. Shonekan produced The Lioness of Lisabi based on major events from Ransome-Kuti’s life and activism. “All Americans see of Africa is The Lion King, maybe. Madagascar. All animals, no people,” Dr. Shonekan points out. “And when we do see people, they are in war torn situations like Black Hawk Down, or Hotel Rwanda. Those are the kind of images of Africa that we get.” “This film was to show that Africans have been driving their own change,” Dr. Shonekan tells us. “It is my little contribution to the African experience—showing it to the world."

In her current research, Dr. Shonekan examines the impact of American hip hop on African cultures and identities. “Some of my work has been on how it is that African youth have taken this really vibrant musical culture from the United States, through MTV and so on, and created hybrids.” Examining the music that comes from this union reveals a great deal about African cultures, Dr. Shonekan explains: “they’re rhyming about what’s going on there, and this to me is refreshing and exciting.” While American music can inspire new and unique African music, Dr. Shonekan is concerned that American pop culture has become prevalent enough to “encroach on local creativity” as young artists emulate rather than appropriate. Dr. Shonekan believes that a major factor driving the emulation is that young Africans only have access to carefully formulated mainstream music. Some of Dr. Shonekan’s latest work examines this trend and focuses on how the hegemonic structure of the music industry produces hip hop that acts as a “new colonial force” and causes local music to “lose its rich hybridity.”

Sharing her knowledge and experience Dr. Shonekan currently teaches a number of unique and popular classes. “The great thing about being in academia, at least for me, is that I get to teach what I am passionate about,” she says. “My research then feeds off of the teaching, and the teaching feeds off of the research.” One of her main interests, identity in soul and country music in the US, supplies the content for the course Introduction to Soul and Country. Dr. Shonekan, who grew up listening to both, comments that when examining race and identity in the US “the lens of soul and country music can really get you far.” “I feel like sometimes I work as an insider, and sometimes I work as an outsider, and both of those platforms are valuable,” she adds. “As an outsider, I think I bring an objectivity to studying country and soul music…and then I’m an insider when I get to talk about African music, and African culture, and world music.”