For the woke, every silver cloud has a dark lining. Take the recent interview of music historian Jonathan Ward by Ari Shapiro on NPR’s All Things Considered.
Ward came to the interview prepared to talk about his latest work, Excavated Shellac: An Alternate History of the World’s Music, a compilation of 100 old songs from around the world, dating back to the 1920s. It is not just a marvelous compilation of rare music but also a cultural service to mankind. Since the masters for these recordings were destroyed, Ward has literally saved the music for posterity.
NPR’s Shapiro might have asked Ward any number of questions to sate his listeners’ curiosity. Exactly how were those old records made? How did Ward find them, save them, re-rerecord them? We never learn these things because Shapiro does not ask. In a news feature ostensibly devoted to restoration, the NPR stalwart shows only perfunctory interest in the actual work of restoration or the engineering marvels behind it. Instead, he drills down on identity politics.
Ward is white. Much of the music he has rescued from oblivion comes from Africa, Asia, and Central and South America. The musicians had black and brown skin and sang in foreign languages. Shapiro pigeonholes them as “non-white, non-Global-North performers,” while challenging Ward to clear himself of the charge of “exoticizing.” If exoticization is lurking, can cultural appropriation be far behind?
“There is a long, unhelpful history of white people presenting, quote-unquote, ethnic music or world music to Western audiences,” Shapiro intones. “How do you think about your role in presenting music from other cultures from other parts of the world?”
Clearly, recording someone else’s music and selling it for profit without permission, or without fairly sharing the proceeds, would be immoral, but this is not the crime Shapiro is circling around. Still, he seems sure there must be something distressing about Ward’s work, though he is unable to articulate a particular wrong. “Does the project risk falling into these same familiar colonialist tropes?” he asks. But Shapiro has described no actual tropes, so it’s impossible to know what abuses he has in mind.
Finally, Shapiro cites the record’s “miscellaneous” quality, its combination of songs from various countries (“world” music, you know). This is an intriguing if vague charge coming from Shapiro, the cohost of a news program that is, by its very name, focused on miscellany.
Ward might have offered various comebacks to Shaprio’s insinuations: “I have not condescended. Quite the opposite, I have treated these artifacts with care and the musicians with respect. I have put a great deal of effort into research and translation. I have made my work public on a website and Facebook page. I disadvantaged no one by bringing these songs to public attention and creating a permanent record of them. I hope I have brought pleasure to people and made the world a bit smaller, in a good way. In short, I celebrate this music and the musicians who made it.”
A ruder man might have added, “as any damn fool can see.”
Yet Ward says nothing of the kind, instead agreeing with Shapiro that a “miscellany” must indeed avoid becoming exoticized—a process still not defined. In short, he allows his labor of love to become fodder for an NPR exercise in identity politics.
Exoticization, cultural appropriation, artistic disenfranchisement—such terms have made the jump from academia to the broader culture without benefit of clear-cut definitions. This vagueness is a source of their power.
As is usually the case, such grandstanding also implies a threat. Ward may have gotten away with his interest in other cultures this time, but he had better continue to be careful—oh so careful—in his expressions of it, for similar interrogations surely await.
As Theodore Dalrymple has warned, “cant spreads rapidly once it takes hold in a society, and it becomes difficult to challenge, let alone eradicate.” Shapiro’s hunt for impurity and Ward’s acquiescing response thus become the central feature of what ought to have been glad news. Readers who would like to learn about Excavated Shellac but who can’t face the prospect of yet another episode of NPR sin-seeking can listen to a sampling from the collection online at the BBC, whose interviewer allows Ward to be the knowledgeable curator that he actually is.