Colloquium: Clifton Boyd (NYU): "The Racialized Logics of Barbershop Harmony"

Friday, April 14, 2023 - 3:00pm

Friday, April 14th at 3pm in Dodge 622

Talk Title: The Racialized Logics of Barbershop Harmony

In this talk, I explore how in the early twentieth century Black Americans went from being recognized as an essential influence on barbershop harmony to being viewed as fundamentally—culturally, even biologically—incompatible with the style. Drawing upon archival documents housed at the Barbershop Harmony Society, I interrogate the logics attempting to limit Black expression: for example, the so-called “positive” stereotype that “the Negro alone has [the spiritual] in his blood” invokes the language of race pseudoscience, and consequently is used to justify the negative stereotype that Black Americans “lack some little touch that [white barbershoppers] have.” Indeed, some white barbershoppers proclaimed that Black bodies could not produce the sounds of barbershop, or at least their white ears would not accept it as such. These beliefs, rooted in white supremacist ideologies, not only justified efforts to keep barbershop spaces racially segregated but also informed music-theoretical approaches to preserving this whitewashed barbershop style: barbershop arranging manuals dictated that any efforts to propagate the style had to be “natural events,” guided by barbershop’s past history and traditions, lest the style become “diluted” or a “crossbreed.” Barbershop’s history speaks to issues of deep-seated racial bias that musicologists are still grappling with today. As we continue to unearth instances of biological racism informing musical thought, this case study demonstrates the fraught relationship between musical styles and the racialized bodies allowed to perform them.

Speaker Bio: Clifton Boyd is Visiting Assistant Professor of Music at New York University, where he will transition into his role as Assistant Professor in 2024. His research explores themes of (racial) identity, politics, and social justice in American popular music. His current book project, Keep It Barbershop: Stylistic Preservation and Whiteness in the Barbershop Harmony Society, demonstrates how nostalgia-fueled efforts toward musical and cultural preservation can perpetuate racial injustice. Combining critical race studies and music theory, this work furnishes new understandings of whiteness, barbershop as a racialized musical practice, and vernacular music theory. His essays and articles appear or are forthcoming in Music Theory and Analysis, Music Theory Spectrum, Theory and Practice, and Inside Higher Ed, as well as the edited collections The Oxford Handbook for Public Music Theory and Being #BlackintheIvory: Contending with Racism in the American University. His research has been supported by fellowships from the American Musicological Society, the Society for American Music, and the American Council of Learned Societies. Boyd is also active in anti-racism and social-justice efforts in music studies: in 2017, he founded Project Spectrum, a graduate student–led coalition committed to increasing diversity, equity, and inclusion in music academia.