Once a term that would have been used positively, is it time we rethought how we used the term world music in these modern times?
What is world music? Wikipedia defines world music as a musical category that encompasses different styles of music from around the world.
Through traditional music, quasi-traditional music, and music where more than one cultural tradition is combined, world music is a label or genre of music that reflects the masses. If you were to ask musicians what genre of music they created or played, you will most likely get an abstract response and certainly not ‘world music’ as their defining genre.
As the sounds of jazz continue to revolutionise the music world, a debate continues to surface surrounding jazz and music’s overall long history.
The Origin of World Music
The term world music was said to have derived from the London DJ music scene in 1987. It is said that record producers and music writers developed the label as a marketing term for greater visibility of African bands.
The African music sounds and style were incorporated with the popular mainstream success of Paul Simon’s music project Graceland.
After this polarising success, the genre world music created a home in many record stores internationally.
However, founders along with the music term, developed negative backlash as the genre provided vague justifications for lumping together anything other than European or American traditional sounds.
In 1999, Talking Heads frontman David Byrne (founder of Luaka Bop) announced public hatred for the genre title in a written op-ed in the New York Times. The written piece, I Hate World Music, argued that world music continues to create a distance between ‘us’ and ‘them’ and that it only separates music communities rather than bringing them together in a proper way.
He further indicates the grouping of many different culture’s musical sounds can be seen as ignorant. Additionally, the marketing rubric solidified through world music has not shown to be a successful genre or tactic.
In 2018, the world music category accounted for 0.8% of album sales in the U.S.A and 1.6% of total international streams. So, how and why has the genre of music continued to be used to describe musicians and their music?
The debate of the genre has continued to be argued today. Strut Records manager, Quinton Scott believes that although the term is outdated however may be a strong use for it. Scott further explains that musicians have cross-pollinated musical styles over the years and that artists can’t escape or avoid the over-generalisation of music.
Founder of the independent music label On the Corner, Pete Buckenham, would heavily disagree.
Buckenham believes that the category is the antithesis of art. He further indicates that the term is flawed and ideologically problematic.
The various musicians who have found themselves within the world music genre, show powerful agreement. Indian Jazz drummer Sarathy Korwar finds the term lazy and that it “reinforces the narrative that other people’s music is less evolved and important”.
Other artists such as Reunion Island musician Jeremy Labelle, embraced the label at first to appeal to a larger network of music festivals, artists, and events.
Yet, over time the musician understood the label as dangerous, especially for music and musicians that seek to create bridges between aesthetics and cultures.
As many musicians from around the globe agree with the problematic label, what is the optimal solution? Categorisation equals discrimination, many musicians seek to abolish all generic descriptors.
An Artist’s Perspective
For a while, I have used the term world music to describe various musicians with many different backgrounds. I have even used the term in previous articles to define music that was not European or American.
In addition to my use of the term, some universities around the world provide world music courses as a curriculum of study, seeking to globalise music listeners to many different musical styles.
However, after personal research, reflection, and analysis of the term through music streaming sites and social media, I humbly agree with the fight against the term.
World music has been made as a category to define the music that is deemed different or exotic-sounding, but what about the education of music genres instead of generalising music’s universal notion?
This category within the music industry is indeed outdated as today’s music listener is capable and able to listen to the music of different regions, cultural backgrounds, etc. with a click of a button. Music listeners should be using the proper terminology of genres from different walks of life to highlight and uplift cultural genres in a positive manner.
If this category is so easy to promote, as its overall notion is to encompass different styles of music, then where is the fight and urgency for global social change? Can we as music listeners support or label a genre that simply does not reflect the current actions of various countries, climates, and places?
According to Guardian.com, musicians believe that it is a question of ethnicity as much as perceived authenticity and category. The music industry has been able to expand to new lengths through centuries of creativity and artistry.
However, the music industry needs to evolve to a new globalised landscape, not just confined to music streaming sites and record sales. As the advancement of technology and social media continue to rapidly develop, the music world has managed to adapt, meaning it’s a crucial effort to adapt more updated terminology and approaches.
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