In October of this year, a small group of active traditional musicians established a new Facebook group called “Traditional Music Today.” In the few weeks of its existence it has grown very quickly and gotten strong responses from many in the community. Like the public squares of centuries past, these social media spaces are important places for people in the community to connect, share, and discuss issues they care deeply about. Here we speak with A’yen Tran, one of the founders and moderators of Traditional Music Today, to learn more about its story.
Tell me about the new Facebook group you started. What do you see as its purpose? Why did you feel that this group would be a constructive addition to others on Facebook?
In the first week of October, in one conversation on Facebook among music camp instructors and campers, it became crystal clear that hiring in music camps could be more diverse and inclusive. One camp director talked about the dearth of women willing to accept the camp’s employment offers. I know a lot of incredible instructors who are marginalized people, so I figured we should just start making a list to connect these camp directors with talented instructors. I quickly made the Nominate Diverse Music Teachers form. Since then, it has grown into the Women/Black/Indigenous/POC/LGBTQIA+/People w/disabilities Music Instructor Nominee Directory of over 250 nominations. I shared a link to it in a large public online old-time group with over 8,000 members. I was met with great resistance for creating this list. The anger came from people who felt that to collect nominations of diverse music instructors was divisive. They prefer the current state of things, which is not very diverse. A lot of people in the community spent the weekend arguing, and many things written by people of color and women were fought, deleted and in one case a Black woman was banned for bringing up the relevance of the African roots of the banjo. They apologized for that specifically, but afterward they changed their mission statement and chose to ban discussions of old-time history and culture that address the questionable and racist histories of some of the tunes we play. They also deleted the conversation.
After that it was clear that we needed another space where we recognize oppression and have inclusive conversations as a community united by our membership in contemporary ‘traditional’ music culture. So I conferred with my friend Jake Blount to ask if he would help me in this endeavor and started a new group called Traditional Music Today. Since then, the group has spread quickly. I think we found a really unserved need. We needed a place to talk without being attacked for speaking honestly about our experiences. A place to share our musical projects, events, the history and art that inspires us and our struggles. A place to plan and connect. A place to talk not only about the controversial VI major chord, but the incredible music episode of the New York Times 1619 Project entitled The Birth of American Music. It really wasn’t perfect to start; I set it up from my cell phone while I was getting my tires rotated and balanced. We’re a work in progress, but we needed each other and we’re finding each other. We crossed 1,000 members four days into the group, and two weeks into the group we were around 1,500. I’m so grateful to the community, to the organizers and moderators of the group, Matthew Olwell, Jake Blount and Nicole Singer for their hard work. We’re also deeply grateful to Rhiannon Giddens who took time to inspire, participate and cheer us on.
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Here is our purpose: This group attempts to be a safe(r) space to discuss traditional music, culture and our lives as members of it. We live the values that represent Traditional Music Today. We are intersectional anti-racist and feminist. We do not tolerate harassment or denigration of marginalized groups. We are BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, intergenerational and allies, we are inclusive and diverse. We are people who play music and dance and are tired of racist, xenophobic, misogynist and transphobic attitudes getting in the way of our awesome community.
The group has grown very quickly in a short space of time. Congratulations! What do you think this growth says about the needs in the oldtime community for these kinds of spaces?
Thanks! The response has been overwhelming! Not only do we have over 1,500 members as of this writing, there are another 300 people who have been invited by friends. We’re waiting for them to accept the group’s rules before they can join. After my experience in the previous group, I felt like a refuge from debating the basic premise that oppression exists in the world, in our own backyards and festival tents was critical. I set out to make a space that was safer. This summer at Clifftop I experienced something similar. I set up a big canvas tent that was a comfortable place where you could take your shoes off, lay around on the rugs and couches, play tunes. I called it “The Nest of Strident Feminism” and hung a banner outside. I also set up a “subversive crafting” table outside the tent, where people could create and display their own flags. With confederate flags flying unchecked at other festivals, it seemed like making our own flags was a way to express new ideas. I wanted to create a space with a clear anti-oppressive mandate; there’s literally a needlepoint sign inside that says “this is a safe space.” I found that by being very visible and welcoming, we served as a physical respite. We offered a safer space for people with anti-oppressive ethics to hang out and party with each other. We were in turn buoyed by the #gaysweep of Clifftop this year, with LGBTQ+ winners in every category, many of whom were Black/Indigenous/POC. Jake Blount became the first Black person in the banjo finals. There were also camp spaces and events for LGBTQIA+ people, the Rainbow Jam and Black Clifftop. This group feels like a much larger version of these tents in digital space. With such a large group, I find that we are having many transformative and sometimes difficult discussions, people are coming to the table with open minds and a desire to learn from each other. It’s beautiful to watch. The group of moderators is only as hands-on as we need to be to ensure that the rules are being honored, and the group is fairly self-regulating. We’re just in the early days of this group and it feels like people are working through some of the hardest questions we face as musicians trying to be inclusive and ethical in our music practice.
Aside from sheer numbers, can you speak about the range of reactions you’ve gotten to forming Traditional Music Today?
People have reached out to me to say that it’s their favorite place on the internet, that they are so grateful for its existence, and that they have never before in their lives been able to openly share experiences of discrimination facing their families. Music and dance organizers across the country have joined to brainstorm how to make their events and spaces more welcoming for marginalized people and more intergenerationally friendly. People seem thrilled to have found each other. As of today, people are starting a book group to read and discuss works in the spirit of the group.
We have experienced occasional very-off-topic posts, which we try to steer back to music, or in rare cases take down and ask for them to be reposted with greater context. One theme that matched the tenor of many responses in the other group is a co-optation of MLK Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. In essence, the argument presumes that to acknowledge the existence of race is to be a racist. Therefore, the perception of one’s own experience of racism, and sharing it, makes the victim of that oppression themselves racist. It’s ludicrous. However, these moves to silence oppressed people are used far and wide. They are a secondary wound on top of the initial harm. People like to shout that they don’t see race, that they just want to play THE MUSIC, while they are not the ones experiencing harm. They don’t realize that oppressed people don’t want to be harmed either and don’t want to be discriminated against on the basis of things they can’t change about themselves. They will go to the mat to challenge the fact of your own experience. We had to make a space that actively rejects that kind of toxic behavior. We developed a rule about this, after these kinds of arguments started cropping up again:
The rule is “Don’t deny that marginalization exists. Do not use this as a forum to debate, minimize, or undermine Women / Black / Indigenous / POC / LGBTQIA / people w/disabilities’ structurally entrenched marginalization. There will be 1 warning.”
Many are generally skeptical about Facebook groups (and other kinds of social media platforms) as places to have constructive, nuanced discussions. There are worries about forming “echo chambers” or about tendencies in comment sections to use exaggerated language or about the lack of interpersonal context, among others. What do you see as the virtues and vices of Facebook as a platform to address pressing, if often controversial, topics in the oldtime community?
There are certainly benefits and challenges. Online discussion can be challenging without verbal and physical cues to help guide your interactions. It also can lead people to be more open than they might be in person. It offers a way to connect outside of the few times some of us may get together each year. We have explicit rules, introductory questions, active moderation and a clear mandate to create a safer space for these discussions. This contributes to the tone of the conversation feeling healthier and less toxic than more anonymous spaces. Many of us know one another in person, so we have personal relationships helping to steer the civility of the discussion. Also, because Facebook is a forum that encourages the use of real names, there’s more accountability than you might find in an anonymous comment board or news comments section. Setting expectations for healthy conversation and guardrails for what constitutes it helps a lot. I think it’s helpful to establish spaces where we can talk about our experiences without being attacked, just as it is critical to interact with people unlike yourself.
Moderating groups such as Traditional Music Today is a very serious and difficult undertaking, as I’m sure you know. If you could ask the community to assist in making the group stronger and more constructive, what requests would you make?
I strongly encourage those of our friends who are interested in helping to be allies by supporting your friends who regularly experience discrimination. A lot of what is needed is patiently trying to “call-in” (as opposed to “call out” or hold publicly accountable). It takes great effort and patience to work with people exhibiting oppressive behavior to try to transform it into something less toxic. I have seen people move from a place of defending harmful behavior to being super inspiring, trying to create intergenerational solidarity and rejecting racism. I’ve had to take some deep breaths, swallow my pride and reach out after disagreements or misunderstandings and believe the other person has good intentions. I’ve learned a lot that way. As a moderator I have been trying to place the humanity of the person I’m speaking with over what they say and how they say it. I try hard to assume best intentions. I’ve found that when things get ugly in online space, it can help to have a phone call or a private conversation where I first connect with the person individually. That can also be a recipe for totally draining conversations where abusive language can go unchecked. This is another place where allies can help – if you see someone expressing frustration at an oppressed person and minimizing the importance of their experience, reach out and try to help. I find this scary and exhausting sometimes, but also evidence of transformation. I encourage everyone to think about how their words will make others feel before they post. Pause and make sure it feels necessary to say it. So much can be learned by observing other people’s conversations.
In the current description of the group you write, “We are people who play music and dance and are tired of racist, xenophobic, misogynist and transphobic attitudes getting in the way of our awesome community.” If the intention is for online discourse to feed directly into action, what do you see as the most promising opportunities for the oldtime community to address these attitudes?
Great question!! I hope that camps and festivals hire more marginalized music instructors, and that students ask for diversity in their instructors. I hope we continue to identify instructors in the nominee form Nominate Diverse Music Teachers and share the directory Women/Black/Indigenous/POC/LGBTQIA+/People w/disabilities Music Instructor Nominee Directory out with people who hire music instructors. I hope those people do their due diligence in researching and interviewing the instructors, and then begin to incorporate more diverse teaching excellence into their staffs. I believe that we are experiencing a cultural shift that’s on par with many communities and institutions toward greater inclusion, diversity and equity, and this creative community is part of that. I hope we find healthy and safe ways to engage with one another and across generations. I hope to see movements for festivals to ban confederate flags. I hope to see anti-oppressive community agreements and codes of conduct being widely adopted in the spaces we inhabit. I hope we all take our newfound perspectives and apply what we’ve learned to all our interactions to make them more inclusive and welcoming for oppressed people.