Empowering the Collective. Describing Music Cultures in Black Sound and Cultural Studies

Music cultures open up new spaces of experience, but how can these be understood? Since the 1990s, there is an increasing interest in describing and explaining black music cultures. This has brought forth many different approaches that have come to be known as Black Sound Studies. In the context of the Birmingham Cultural Studies, since the 1970s, there had already been a profound interest in music cultures; primarily focusing on Rock ’n’ Roll within the youth subcultures of the British working class.

Cultural and Black Sound Studies are characterized by an impetus to develop new forms for describing the music cultures of marginalized groups. This dissertation project aims to analyze the tensions that are generated in these descriptions when the marginalized group’s space of experience, along with its possibilities, becomes the subject of scientific analysis. On the one hand, the music cultures need to be put in relation to the violently marginalizing “societal logic(s),” since their importance can only be understood before the background of the social conflicts by which they are shaped. On the other hand, black and proletarian music cultures are to be made visible as a concrete space which is endowed with specific meaning by its participants. To what extent may specific practices and experiences be understood as a response, a reaction to social conditions? Here, it is important to address the difference between exterior and interior perspectives: how can the exterior perspective and its concepts (such as resistance, criticism, etc.) grounded in social theory be set into relation to the interior perspective of experience and its vocabulary of aesthetic and sensual categories?

Thus, the dissertation project explores the ways in which Cultural and Black Sound Studies develop new methods of description for a question that is crucial from a theoretical perspective: how can the content, the meaning of one specific (music-cultural) experience be situated within the framework of a theory of society? Here, it is important, in addition to the integration of music cultures into social contexts, to consider the ways in which Cultural and Black Sound Studies pursue yet another objective: the description of an inherent logic of a music culture which becomes “distinct” because it unfolds its specific effect and meaning for those who participate in it. To what extent can these descriptions of a physical and collectively performed interaction with music be understood as a theory of these cultures? Can this empowerment towards a different kind of sociality, towards a “collective,” be understood as a social, intersubjective process? How is this process put into relation to paradigms of collective reflexivity, (class) consciousness, or formations of identity? And what role does the nature of the representation play which locates the music culture’s intersubjective social element within the social structure?


Fig. above: Bodies in motion at a dance workshop in Frankfurt am Main, © Christin Picard

Associate Researcher(s): Noah Grossmann


Noah Grossmann