Brandi Pace is an African-American music educator, now teaching elementary music in Fort Worth, Texas for almost a decade.  She is also an accomplished instrumentalist and singer focusing on jazz, oldtime, and “the Black roots of American music.” Recently, Brandi launched a new project called “Decolonizing the Music Room” which seeks to challenge, “the established dominance of Western European and White American music, narratives, and practices by disrupting the minimization and erasure of racially and ethnically minoritized cultures and identities.” Brandi gracefully agreed to talk with Oldtime Central about this new project and its implications for the oldtime community as well.

Brandi, congratulations on the launch of “Decolonizing the Music Room.” Can you tell me a little more about how the project came about and what you hope to achieve with it? 

Thank you! As you mentioned, I am an elementary music teacher- through that work I have learned a lot about how teachers are trained, how district and classroom content is chosen, and how teachers use curricula they are provided. I also do racial equity work within my district with a focus on the educational system as a whole. What I have learned is that the world of music education mirrors the racial inequities in wider society, and that there are not many collective spaces for teachers in my content area to address that. Over the past couple of years I have engaged in and learned from the old time community, which has greatly informed me of the roots of a lot of the American music that makes its way into the elementary music classroom- both positive and negative roots.

Earlier this year I had some significant interactions with educators that showed me the need to address the lack of thorough historical and cultural context in our resources and teaching practices. It also became clear that there was a desire for a place to go to help. One day I had a discussion with a music educator friend who basically said “It may be time to create a space for these issues.” So, Decolonizing the Music Room was born. Our site has a definition of decolonizing in context of our work, but there is a broader idea. You have to know what colonization did in order to go about the work of undoing it. Colonization wasn’t just about geography and resources; it was about minds, bodies, and ways of living and knowing. I think of the words of Aime Cesaire, Martiniquan author, politician, and poet and the ways he describes it in his “Discourse on Colonization”: “…societies drained of their essence, cultures trampled underfoot… religions smashed..millions of men in whom fear has been cunningly instilles, who have taught to have an inferiority complex, to tremble, kneel, despair…” This is all that we are undoing. In music education we have to do the work to grapple with what has been done and how it affects what we think and do, then find ways to dismantle it. This is what our work aims to contribute to; the dismantling is decolonizing.

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The mission of the site has always been clear, but I have experienced shifts in my understanding of its function and ultimate goals. At this point DTMR is helping to fill a void between theorizing and real world experience, circumventing the avenues that have long been considered necessary to go through in order to do this work, and really impressing upon my professional communities the necessity to keep voices, narratives, and knowledge of racial and ethnically minoritized people at the center of how we treat culture that pertains directly to their lives and histories. I want to help teachers think critically, research thoroughly, and become antiracist in their approach to their work.

One issue, as I understand it, is about addressing the music literature we teach to children. I imagine for many, common children’s songs like “Five Little Monkeys,” “Do Your Ears Hang Low?,” or “Oh! Susanna” are so embedded in American culture at school and at home that they haven’t thought about where they come from and how they shape racial attitudes. For people in that boat, can you explain the harm you see done by teaching and singing these songs? 

Counter narratives, which are stories that go against the mainstream idea of how things are viewed, are important. Black people have lived with marginalization, discrimination, and stereotyping. There are those of us old enough to tell you about being taunted with the racist terms that are present in the original versions of these songs, who have stories of the physical and institutional violence that accompanied this language. They can recount the joy, mockery, or even complete indifference with which much of this was done. For many, the idea of perpetuating this through classroom instruction and activities is unacceptable. For many Black people in my generation, finding out songs our teachers sang with us have racist roots makes them unacceptable.

What do you see as the major steps that music educators of all kinds can take to decolonize their music rooms?

Learn our collective history, fill in the gaps that insufficient representation have left for all of us. Learn how to effectively research history and culture so that you can take responsibility for your own understanding. Too often educators expect Black and brown people to do the work and present them with a neatly packaged solution for their use.  That means we aren’t in a place of collaboration, we are functioning as sources to be mined. 

Take a look at basic critical educational writings. Read up on antiracism. Make connections with culture bearers from the music you teach. Connect with professionals in related fields: folklore, ethnomusicology, history. Challenge the assumption that the way things are being done is how they must be done. 

Have humility and understand that we are all learning together, even if we are at different stages in our learning, and know that it’s ok to learn that you have been doing something insensitive or harmful, and to make a change. Be brave- antiracism requires bravery and risk-taking.

Most importantly, listen. I have had so many instances of sharing my knowledge as both an educator/researcher/musician and my lived experience as a Black woman descendant of enslaved Africans, and been completely discounted. The knowledge of minoritized people is valid and relevant to this work. Accept it and turn it inwards to use in your practice.

Can you paint a picture of a music room which is successfully decolonized? What does it look and sound like? 

“Successfully decolonized” doesn’t exist. There isn’t a point you reach at which you can consider yourself done. A classroom that incorporates this work is led by an educator that is always taking a critical look at what is going on, and giving students the agency to do the same. The teacher is engaging in discourse that helps students frame what they’re doing with consideration for history and context. Standards and methods traditionally used to evaluate student success do not take precedent in the classroom, and there is no prominence of White, Western European and American music and figures over those from other traditions. 

My work will be ongoing, and I will always be reflecting on my practice and reshaping what I do.

Of course, I also wonder how this work applies to the old time community. One direct link could be to music and instrument teachers or people who lead workshops. Do you also see these as spaces that need to be decolonized?

I do. It goes back to my point about understanding what colonizing is. If we look back at how far ranging the effects of colonization are, we can see how they have touched old time instructional spaces. It must all be confronted and addressed. There has been significant talk in the community lately about lack of racial and ethnic diversity in teachers and workshop leaders (and a lack of diversity in gender and sexual orientation, but I am focusing on the lense through which I frame my work for the sake of this answer). I have seen musicians say it isn’t diverse because the music isn’t diverse. Well, that’s completely untrue. Or because of a difference in skill. That’s not accurate to explain the lack of diversity either. So we have to look at the big picture and why things are like they are in the community. This stuff is broader than the traditional music world- it’s just that we see a reflection of all of our issues in this world like it exists in all the others. So we have to do some active deconstructing of it in order to build better systemic equity.

Taken a step further, it strikes me that every jam session can also be seen as a “music room” in that part of the old time tradition is learning and teaching tunes and songs in person, whether we think of ourselves as educators or not. How do you think your work applies at this level?

I agree that there are parallels between the teaching and learning in the old time community and the music room. And in the many camps and festivals, we see literal music education teaching spaces, functioning in the way my music room might. The need to learn thorough history and center minoritized voices applies in the old time community. So does the need for critical dialogue. My band mate, Dean Barber, and I recently did a small workshop at the Austin String Band Festival, and we talked a bit about the blackface minstrel roots of many old time tunes. The attendees were not of the mindset that there should be a change in tune choice when something is racist, and drew some parallels and conclusions that didn’t line up with the approach we were talking about. When I am in music ed spaces, I teach about looking at the counter narrative, about examining language and how things are being framed. We were able to do a little of that in the workshop. We didn’t change the whole community that day, but applying the techniques I use in my work helped to give some understanding. 

I want musicians to know that when I go into these traditional music spaces where I may be the only person participating that isn’t white, it is a bad experience to sit down and have the people around me singing Dixie. It’s important to consider experiences like mine and question the necessity of making those choices, considering the wealth of great music we have. The history doesn’t disappear because you don’t sing the song there in the group, but the oppressive use of it does.

Concretely, how can people in the oldtime community help become agents of change? How can they support your work or the goals of the project more generally?

Engage with minoritized people in our community and challenge your peers and camp/event organizers to do the same. Listen to their experiences, take in those experiences without seeking to challenge their validity. Learn what white fragility is, and how it derails this work and silences mintoritized people, placing whiteness in the center (in fact there is a book called “White Fragility” that is a useful read). It can help those who would rush to shut us down to instead take a minute to process why they have the reactions they do to our work toward equity. Take some time to read about past and present racism and antiracism. Learn that we can do this work and also honor the history of this music, that they aren’t at odds with each other.

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