Visiting Music Professor Strikes a Chord With Activism

Michelle Kisliuk, associate professor of music at the University of Virginia, combined souful beats with environmental awareness here in Claremont. Her event, entitled “Caring for the Planet through Listening and Singing Practices and Why It Matters,” was a part of the Ashé Africa Initiative, a two-year event series supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which brings in speakers, artists and scholars to educate Pomona College students and the Claremont community about Africa.

Kisliuk’s performance was half lecture and half music class. Upon entry into the auditorium, spectators were encouraged to sit on the stage alongside Kisliuk herself. This immediately set the tone for the interactive event. Kisliuk shared her expertise on ethnomusicology and on the cultural and musical practices of the BaAka forest people in the Central African Republic. She invited the audience to learn two BaAka songs in order to better understand the philosophy of community and improvisation behind their musical culture. 

Kisliuk stressed the importance of the BaAka idea of participation in communal discourse. After asking the audience how many of them had ever been told that they could not or should not sing, she explained that this notion did not exist in BaAka culture and that everyone could match pitch through practice.

“It makes you voiceless to a certain extent,” Kisliuk said of the more restrictive Western view of music.

Kisliuk linked this perspective to activism and spoke of taking collective responsibility for countering climate change.

“There’s something vitally important about speaking out about the nitty gritty reality of our planet, even if we’re not scientists,” she said.

She emphasized the opportunity to seek out alternative solutions to climate change and the necessity of respecting what other cultures had developed over many years. For example, she brought up the BaAka belief that ancestral spirits exist in the trees and that singing can be used to wake up the forest.

“I liked how we all kind of got in the zone and actually really got into the music and started improvising,” Jason Garske PZ ’18 said. “I’m really into artists who have things to say in their music, like conscious hip hop, but other than that, I didn’t know much about activist music. I guess what I got from this is that I’m aware that there’s more of a culture for that.”

Kisliuk has spent two years developing this talk at various educational institutions since she premiered the first version at the University of Kentucky.

In an interview with TSL, she said she hopes the discussion gets students “thinking about their own practices and their activism in new ways and in ways that make connections and question the current structures that are handed to them so that they can come up with new ways for what they learn and do to make a difference in the world.”

Both during the event and in our interview, Kisliuk shied away from discussing specific ways in which musical practice could be used to combat climate change. Instead, she focused on acknowledging the mere possibility of such a thing with the aim of getting students to open their minds to new avenues for activism.

“I don’t have the answers necessarily, I have the questions and I’m trying to refine the questions and throw them out there,” Kisliuk said. “I’ve worked with this material for long enough that I really do believe there are some answers in there.”

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